I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing...

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Pass the popcorn...
...because it's time for a film review post! And I'm actually getting somewhat close to catching up to myself in real life, so I can't exactly call these "old reviews" anymore, lol. But regardless, here are today's (minviendha, are you getting this?):

3.5 stars

Here's the problem with Valkyrie: the audience knows going into it exactly how it ends. And it's difficult to enjoy a suspenseful performance when the suspense itself is that inherently hollow. It's like reading the last chapter of a book first, or flipping to the end of the Choose Your Own Adventure without at least trying it the right way. Some people like that kind of thing; I've been known to do it once or twice myself, even. But going into Valkyrie, knowing whatever it was going to do was already doomed to failure, did not encourage optimism in me about possibly enjoying the film.

Fortunately, Valkyrie has two factors working in its favor. The first is that even though most people know (or heard, or were told, before they saw the film) that the plot against Hitler featured in Valkyrie failed, that's ALL most people knew about it. They didn't know the major characters, their motivations, or how their plan was set in motion. They didn't know how close it came to succeeding, or how many minute events and decisions were actually involved in both the plan's implementation and its ultimate failure. And they didn't know how deeply and emotionally involved the major players in the conspiracy were. The movie, wisely, focused on all of these factors, so that in many moments the audience was forced to remind itself that the plan wasn't going to work, just to avoid false hope.

The second thing that Valkyrie had going for it was its cast. I've honestly had it up to here with Tom Cruise, but in this film he gave the performance of his life. As a soldier who has lost his right hand fighting for Germany, then set in motion a plan to assassinate Hitler, the moment where he is commanded to salute and say "Heil Hitler"--and is shown doing so with his handless right arm raised in the foreground of the shot--hits the audience like a slug to the gut. And the supporting cast is even better. For serious, how can a film that features Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Kevin R. McNally, David Bamber and Eddie Izzard be anything less than insanely watchable? I submit that it cannot.

I lied: there's a third thing. Who in the world would imagine a WWII movie where the audience actually wants to root for the Germans? (Okay, only some of them, but even's still very cool.)

So against what seems like all odds, Valkyrie overcame its own predictability. Don't get me wrong, it was not easy to watch--even if the final outcome had been positive, that much would still have been true. But where Valkyrie succeeded was in making the audience forget about the movie's end and focus on how it got there.

4 stars

Fifteen minutes after this movie ended, I found myself still shaking my head and going "damn...that was fucking heavy." It is profoundly unusual that a movie can hit me that hard and still earn my respect and admiration. Philip Seymour Hoffman's character's situation was quite possibly the worst one a man can end up embroiled in. In this day in age, or even fifty years ago when Doubt was set, when a woman wants to ruin a man and takes the sexual deviance/harassment rumor route to doing so, the man literally has no way out. His reputation is toast. Period. End of story. Resistance is futile. The truth of the situation is irrelevant, the woman's real motivation doesn't matter, and anything the man may have to say in his own defense is automatically dismissed without consideration. And as a man living in this day in age, there is almost nothing that scares me more than being put in that situation. So watching a movie about that exact instance, where a man who has done nothing wrong, unethical or illegal is thrown under the sexual deviance bus just because a woman doesn't like the way he does his job, was exceedingly uncomfortable for me. And, I imagine, it was similarly difficult for other male audience members.

That said, one of the things that made Doubt so uncomfortable was how incredible its performances were. The situation described above would not have hit as hard as it did if Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis had not made it absolutely come to life onscreen. I am convinced that Streep is the greatest female actor film has ever seen. In Burn After Reading, not one but five excellent actors played parts that grated on me, and I didn't like any of their performances because of it. In Doubt, Streep played a character I positively hated, and yet I couldn't help but admire her performance itself. I can't think of any other actor, male or female, who could do that. Hoffman and Adams, likewise, were absolutely letter-perfect for their parts, and Davis' few moments onscreen were breathtakingly poignant. John Patrick Shanley's adapted script was a flawless vehicle for those performances, as was his excellent direction.

Like Rendition, American Beauty, The Constant Gardner, Crash, The Mission, Do The Right Thing, Schindler's List, Traffic, No Country For Old Men, Eastern Promises, and others like them, Doubt is frustrating, disturbing, and not at all easy to watch. But in the same way as all those other films, NOT watching it is almost worse, because that would mean closing your eyes to both some amazing performances and, often, a real-life situation you really ought to be aware of. And that would truly be a tragedy.

The Outlander
1.5 stars

There's a way to mix fantasy and sci-fi. This isn't it. Outlander fell right into the same trap that Doomsday did, in trying to blend greatly disparate cultures and genres with no real reason for them to be blended. Moreover, The 13th Warrior did the exact same kind of thing Outlander was trying to do, but it did it: (1) twelve years earlier, (2) without sci-fi CG, and (3) better.

If you want really good blends of futuristic sci-fi and medieval fantasy, don't try to find them in movies. Read the works of Terry Brooks, Terry Pratchett and Simon R. Green instead.

Murder on the Orient Express
3 stars

Let me start by saying two things. First, I don't like old movies very much. *ducks thrown objects from my film buff friends* Second, Albert Finney is no David Suchet. But those two factors notwithstanding, the 1974 version of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express was still a very solid film. It was also a great vehicle for many stars of the day to form one of the better ensemble casts probably ever assembled. Mystery fans and Poirot fans will find it very much up to par, though others may feel it drags, confuses, and/or spends too much time in the final monologue where Poirot pieces the whole crime together. Being firmly set in the former camp, I definitely enjoyed the film (though I still prefer the BBC/A&E Poirots of the early 1990s).

3.5 stars

I used to think that Stephen King novels and short stories always made great movies. Now I know better, but I still feel that when King's works do make good movies, they go far beyond being merely good. King's writing is so visceral, so incisive, and so in tune with the reader's mind that when those qualities translate successfully (the operative word) to the big screen, the result is something simultaneously clever, impactful, frightening and moving. In other words, the King movies that do well are the ones that capture the same mental effects onscreen as they did in book form. The ones that leave you knowing that something could be perfectly normal but absolutely  is not, and is actually much, much worse; that leave you knowing that a frightening event is literally physically impossible, but feeling like it could happen to you tomorrow; the ones that leave you thinking that your imaginary fears could, in fact, come true. Capturing those feelings in a movie has proven difficult, even with such frightening writing as King's to work with, but when it has worked (The Shining, The Mist, It, Misery, even The Green Mile), it has worked REALLY well.

1408 is another such film. It begins with a cynic, a man who disproves haunted houses for a living, a man who has the utmost confidence that nothing exists outside of the physical realm of life and reality, a man who dismisses fear of the unknown because he believes that there is no unknown to be afraid of. And then it puts this man into a haunted hotel room. A really, honestly, we're-not-making-this-up haunted hotel room. The room begins to haunt the man. And the man, not quite surprisingly, gradually starts to go batshit crazy.

The key word in the preceding sentence is "gradually." 1408 is not a tidal wave; 1408 is erosion. Instead of hitting protagonist Mike Enslin with every attack it has, the room gradually begins to unnerve him, then frighten him, then totally freak him out, until he realizes (1) his reality has completely crumbled under him and (2) there is absolutely nothing he can do about it. By the time he realizes his own peril, there is literally no escape. The film's most horrifying moment (spoiler alert) does not involve fire, flood, phantom or flashback, but an instance where Mike, believing he has miraculously escaped room 1408 and found himself in his hometown in another state, watches the local post office be dismantled around him to reveal the hotel room's walls once again.

John Cusack, already a very strong actor in various genres, turns in a tour-de-force performance as basically the movie's only character. While Samuel L. Jackson and a few others fill in around the edges, for the majority of the movie Cusack is alone in the hotel room. And his portrayal of a man enduring what another reviewer called "his own private hell," going from cynical to confused to frustrated to creeped out to terrified to absolutely lost in abject fear, is masterful. I don't know how he did it without giving himself nightmares.

1408 is not the best, or the scariest, horror movie ever made. The Shining and several others probably have it beaten on a few different levels. But 1408 shares with many of its betters the factor of scream-inducing psychological mind-fuckery, and it brings that aspect across with only one actor. That, at the very least, makes it worth watching.

Angels and Demons
3 stars

There's just something about a really good movie soundtrack that grabs me right off the bat. Angels and Demons, say what you will about its book-to-movie translation, its overly grandiose plot-posturing, its farfetched emphasis on the symbology of an organization that may never have really existed, its casting of Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon...say what you will about all those things, A&D's soundtrack absolutely rocked! Hans Zimmer found a way to mix Gregorian chants with a driving 7/8 beat, added virtuoso Joshua Bell on violin, and never looked back. And the drive and mystery of that soundtrack fit perfectly with the air of combined urgency and scholarship that Dan Brown's books have ridden, wavelike, to the top of the bestseller lists.

I actually didn't hate Tom Hanks in this one, either. In The Da Vinci Code he fumbled his way through his role, stammering words as if he really wasn't sure of what Robert Langdon was supposed to be sure of. In Angels and Demons (with no small amount of irony, as A&D actually preceded DVC chronologically), Hanks' Langdon was much more competent. His snap decisions actually snapped, his urgent movements actually moved, and he had the backbone to stand up to those in his way. Well done. I was also very impressed with Ewan McGregor (who has really grown on me recently), Stellan Skarsgaard, Ayelet Zurer and Armin Mueller-Stahl, who comprised a small but strong supporting cast.

Hanks' growing a pair was not the only improvement from DVC. The plot moved much more smoothly in A&D, and while it was still lengthy, it did not seem interminable--which DVC really did. This was largely a function, I think, of Langdon's both having fewer puzzles to solve and being better able to solve them on the fly.

It's not a great movie. The book is (obviously) a better investment of money and time. But it is a good movie, especially for fans of the book.

Thanks for reading!


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Did you think Philip Seymour Hoffman's character was completely innocent? I wanted to. I tried to, both when I read the play and watched the movie...but I have to admit that in the end when Streep's character called his old school I was left with some doubts, which I guess was the point, but it hit me like a ton of bricks.

I LOVE 1408! I'm so glad you did too. I actually got to see it in theaters and I found it probably my favorite experience seeing a horror movie ever. Not maybe the best horror movie but the best horror movie theater experience. Cusack's character is the perfect audience surrogate. He's genre savy, he doesn't believe, he's laughing about it and then when things start to get to him they start to get to you. It's a "this guy is with us" feeling. So well done! I don't know many other people who feel the same way about that movie but I'm glad you do.

Here's the main reason I was able to give 1408 such high praise: I HATE horror movies. The idea of voluntarily or even joyously putting yourself through two hours of film whose only purpose is to scare/startle/disturb/freak you out, just makes me want to run the other way. I hate feeling fear for a good reason, let alone for a fake one, lol. (But I do love reading Stephen King...I think for some reason horror books don't scare or bother me the way horror films do, lol.) So the fact that 1408 was able to hold my attention and make me want to keep watching despite my hatred of horror films makes it a choice flick indeed. I agree with pretty much everything you said about it :)

And I do think PSH's character in Doubt was innocent. I wouldn't be surprised if he had to leave his old school for the exact same reason he had to leave the current one. Or rather, even if he did step out of line somewhere at either school, I felt that (1) he was fundamentally a good person who didn't deserve anything he got, and (2) the harshness of the false accusations leveled against him was so maliciously overblown that it completely overshadowed anything he might have actually done. He was a target, nothing more; a man who wanted to do a good job but who got fucked over because a vindictive woman didn't like the way he wanted to do it. You know how women will vehemently and violently attack (and rightly so!) any insinuation that it was okay for them to have been raped or sexually harassed because something about their being female made it okay? Well, I will vehemently and violently attack any insinuation that the man is always wrong, always guilty, always the bad guy, and always deserving of the harshest punishment regardless of actual guilt or innocence, just because his being a man makes it so and/or a woman thinks so. There is just as much wrong with that idea as there is with the "she was asking for it" rape argument.

Sorry. In case you couldn't tell, the movie and that character's situation hit me kind of close to home. PM me if you want the whole story.

Re:Doubt. One thing I want to say from the get go is that I was definitely on his side, not hers, the whole time. I think the ending is ambiguous. I don't think it would be as good a play if it was just a good guy, a bad woman and a couple of people with varying ideas confused in the middle. I think the fact that it hit so close to your heart was a good terms of art...maybe not for you, but the fact that it could make someone so passionate is a good thing.

My best guess when talking about this with a friend was that he had never molested anyone or done anything to harm a child but may have had "unpure" thoughts that made a past relationship questioned and had him feel that he couldn't fight the inquiry into his past. What's weird is that your explanation makes just as much sense to me...but my friend and I were talking for a half an hour when we came up with this because both of us wanted to believe he was innocent and were upset by the implication that he wasn't and that never even occurred to either of us. Maybe it's a rorshach test ending, I don't know.

If you want to talk about the other stuff, PMing is fine but it's also fine if you don't want to.

Edited at 2010-10-29 05:39 am (UTC)

See below...PMing just became redundant.

Also, you're right about the ambiguity. It is a play/film called "Doubt" after all, and fittingly it never really confirms anything. That's one of the things that makes it a great movie, it allows the audience to think about it for themselves. (Inception, incidentally, does the same thing, though in a much less heart-shattering way.)

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