Gosford Park

Where LOTR failed miserably to entertain me, despite (or due to) it’s garish and overblown use of computer effects, Altman’s pic had me riveted throughout its 2 hours and 10 minutes. Truth be told, the film could have ran another 48 minutes (equaling LOTR’s running time) and I would have still be enthusiastic about watching, something I can’t say for Jackson’s effexfest.

“Gosford Park” is a remarkable work, not only for its style, cleverness, nonchalance and characters, but also for the fact that it got made. Hollywood is not a place that allows much character development, but even as Robert Altman fills the screen with over 15 leads, by the end we know something personal about them all, something hidden, something very real. Normally, in the fare vomited up by those ill-advised suits on the Quake Coast, even with three hours of film trolleying through the projector we’d be lucky if we knew more than the lead character’s favorite catch phrase. “Yippeekayay, motherfucker” comes to mind. Can one person who hadn’t read Tolkein’s novel tell me, based on Jackson’s first film installment, what motivated Saruman’s switch to the Dark Side (or whatever they call it)r Other than, of course, expediency of plotr

“Gosford Park” tells the story of a dinner and shooting party held in an old English estate, and the interactions between the rich guests and their innumerable servants. It’s also a whodunit, with a murder occurring virtually in Act 3, bucking Hollywood’s usual penchant for putting it in during the opening credits. But the mystery is very much secondary, almost a second film in itself that is interwoven with such excellence one really feels they got twice as much bang for their box office buck. It’s important to relax while watching “Gosford Park;” the barrage of Altman style crosstalk, thick British and Scottish accents, and jumping scenes from upstairs to downstairs character development can be intimidating at first. Trust Altman, this is his skill; by the end you will know what and who and when, and walk away feeling very much like a guest at the party, having come to know some of your new acquaintances better than others, but with opinions about them all.

Sets are gorgeous, both the ornate “upstairs” rooms of the estate, as well as the dreary “downstairs” cubbies and workspaces of the servants. Costuming is marvelous, lighting realistic but at times expressive. In fact, realism is the key production design element of “Gosford Park,” realism in sets, in characters, even in dialog. The film reveals aspects of servant life that we modern types could never imagine, such as the organizational requirements of planning large dinner parties in an era of firewood-cooked meals. Boringr No, this is the context of the film, the atmosphere the characters move through, as necessary as water to the goldfish.

I could go on, but you get the point. “Gosford Park” is a true film, one that touches the viewer on a very personal, but not intrusive level.

Yeegads, but what does this mean about mer Which is, of course, why you read reviews… to learn about me.

My favorite film of all time is “Il Postino.” I like “The English Patient.” I think Welles’ version of “The Trial” may have surpassed Citizen Kane.

But in my list of favorite films of all time are such genre flicks as “The Road Warrior” and “The Crow.” I’m a “Godzilla” fan, for heaven’s sake. I’ve WRITTEN comic books. So what gives with my reactions to the latest batch of genre releases, such as LOTR or Phantom Menace or Burton’s “Planet of the Apes,” all of which were, in my view, crapr

Well, whereas the fanboy geeks who largely drive the genre picture business have, for reasons I might postulate in a future article, stopped their maturation dead in its tracks, rolling through their twenties, thirties and forties still convinced that Twinkies make one helluva breakfast, Hulk # 145 was a travesty, only real men plan Dungeons & Dragons, a goatee makes you look tough (even if you still tip the scales at 200+) and using Stan Lee-like Shakespeak in normal conversation is the mark of intelligence, some of us moved on.

Some of us recognized that life is more than the immediate thrill, more than the adolescent notion that pleasure is something obvious, that realism can be as engaging as fantasy. Some of us know that good food isn’t always sweet, that the better beverages aren’t the ones with the highest alcohol level, good movies aren’t the ones with the best effects, and the best actors aren’t the oldest guys with the strongest British accents.

Point being, genre films need to raise their standards so they appeal not only to the stunted sensibilities of special effects fans, even if their numbers are growing at a frightening rate.

The oh-so-occasional gem like “Gosford Park” serves a dual purpose: to remind us how good films CAN be made in this age of lowered expectations, and at the same time point out what a sad day it is for Hollywood that these films only come about so infrequently.

Why bother with this whole articler First, it’s a review of “Gosford Park” — really, it is.

Second, it might help to explain my position on films a bit better for those who are still stunned to find out that I think the last few years of genre films largely sucked. Geeks be warned.

Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s simply that I’m turning into a stuffy, opinionated old bastard. Or maybe — just maybe — Hollywood sucks worse than a French whore on a German sub, and simply lacks the creative will to put out good movies that can appeal to both the geek and the intellectual in me.

Thank goodness for the Altmans and Finchers and Mendeses and Nolanses. They are exceptions to the rule.

Rating: A
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Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

On a day like this, I face my darkest hour: I am tempted to quit writing, and worse, I am tempted to quit film. Sometimes suffering can be worse than death, and that’s what I’m doing right now. You see, I have just come back, after months and months of delay, from seeing “The Fellowship of the Ring.” And did I love itr

“With all my heart, no.”

Let me prequalify this editorial with a little bit o’ background. I am a big fan of fantasy, but I am a cold-blooded hatemongering Nazi when it comes to middle-Earth. I hate Tolkien. I hate little creatures like Ewoks and Hobbits and Midgets and Mini-Trolls. I hate muddy settings in the Earth, where Enya belts through invisible speakers and fog enters my sexual openings, where everything is grim and grey and oh-so-in-tune-with-Gaia-and-nature. I’m all for purity of fantasy, a holocaust of fantasticism: I need my gothic-Victorian castles in “Harry Potter,” with flowing robes and gold and mystery, with suits of armor hand-crafted by masters who were just as concerned with the designs of the lions on the breast as they were with the suit’s actual effectiveness. I need a place where there are 15 categories of “wizard” and too many different spells to count, with complex incantations and wonderous visual results. I need a world that’s almost completely removed from the shithole society we live in.

The last fucking thing I need is to see Christopher Lee and Ian McKellan engage in a wizard’s duel that’s basically two old-ass Jedis™ masturbating each other with the Force™ and throwing each other through doors. If you’re a fucking wizard, where’s the fucking fireballr Where are the spells to make the other person insaner Why use force-of-gravityr If you’re a wizard, why do you need a swordr An archer needs no sword. A short-weapons expert needs no sword. Why, oh why, in this film, does Gandalf have a swordr Where are the spellsr Did he spend all his mojo making fireworks for the West Hobbitwood pride machiner

Ahhh, but as cold and cruel as I can be about that stuff, I can also forgive it. I understand that my own personal preference for the fantastical does clash with Tolkien’s world, and I *do* see what other people cherish in it. I can, indeed, embrace a world of elves and Hobbits and mud and Enya. But I cannot embrace the film called “The Fellowship of the Ring.” I just can’t.

Hobbits and Enya aside, the film is visually breathtaking. So is “Blade Runner.” In fact, this film is going to be the next “Blade Runner.” It’s a horrible, horrible attempt to convey a rich, layered, deep-ass story with a few broad strokes. “Blade Runner” sucks my ass after a day and night in a Mexican bar: great vision, bad storytelling. FOTR suffers from many of the same mistakes: poor character development, awkward dialogue, a strange, jarring distorting of space and time, and an overall shallowness to the quest. All this I blame on the script, not the film.

Part of the problem is director Peter Jackson’s doggedness to stick to Tolkien’s story. To this, I can only say that, in film, when changes are necessary, you make them. Kubrick butchered Stephen King, and rightfully so. Anne Rice butchered her own book when she made it into a script. JK Rowling sat over very specific changes in dialogue and circumstance when Kloves hammered out the first Potter script. Sometimes characters or scenes are removed or rewritten; not just to shorten the pace, but to enhance the story. Note that there is a difference between simply editing out the parts that are extraneous, and rewriting out the parts that could be even stronger: Jackson has chosen the former, and he has chosen poorly.

Okay, so let’s do this right now: the film is 3 hours long, and yet, features almost NO character development or background story for the 9 main members of Fellowship. NINEr! WHY NINEr In a book, okay, there’s time, there’s pages… not in film. So, let’s make it SIX or SEVEN. We don’t need FOUR hobbits, TWO will work just fine. Then we might have had an extra 10 fucking minutes to tell us a little bit about each of the characters. Then we might care if they live or they die. As it is, we’re being paid to care, bought off by a giant CGI monster made of shit and fire… stuff like that captures our eye. And then we say “Shit Monster… evil! Shit Monster kill good guy! Nooooooooooo!!” Sorry, I want to know why I should be moved when the shit monster does his thing. Is that too much to askr

Jackson has invented some incredible, jaw-dropping camera angles here, hanging his lens from wires dangling above the trees and filming the action from an overhead that we could never imagine. Sometimes we drop to the ground, and we get involved… limbs fly, people scream, it’s like Braveheart on Vicodin with Enya in the background. It’s too ethereal. It loses the grit. I almost fell asleep during several of the fight sequences… it’s like being stoned and floating above the action, floating, floating away, floating up, I’ve got the munchies… oh cool, Frodo’s having another acid flashback from that evil Ring… munchies. Bad camera choreography, man. It doesn’t film the action right. In fact, a friend pointed out that it feels like a goddamn Oz/Kiwi film… there are about 50 shots too many of surreal backgrounds and ooooh-ahhh-twisty beautiful nature. Yes, I *know* Peter Jackson is from New Zealand, but you know what, fucking Chris Columbus is American, land of the shit film, and “Harry Potter” still feels perfectly balanced.

Sorry, I’m ranting, and I need to summarize for you. I hated this film on it’s own merits. The script was weak and cut meat out in the wrong places. The camera choreography is lacking. The score is lame. The Enya and Lorena McKennitt bullshit going on the background needs to stop. There’s no character development. Technically, some of the effects in the film are fucking AWFUL… I know it was rushed a bit, so the next two films have NO excuse. And for all that bullshit ‘forced-perspective’… call Jim Henson Productions before you do that shit again. I caught so many mistakes with it that it wasn’t funny. Your scales are off and your camera angles are showing it. Some of it was great… Ian McKellan does seem 7-feet tall at times, but not in any shot with Ian Holm.

What works for the filmr The performances, for one. McKellan is sharp, as usual. Elijah Wood and Sean Astin manage not to suck, which is rare. Liv Tyler is limited to 3 minutes of screen time, which is very good. Viggo Mortgage-sohhnnn is kickass as always. Hugo Weaving is still stuck somewhere in between Agent Smith and that fucking drag queen from Priscilla. Ian Holm is usually cool, but here he has a strange awkwardness about him. Cate Blanchett is almost wasted. Billy Bob Thornton is really cool, too. He is! No, he’s not in this movie, but he should be. He can be the Texas retard that saves Frodo and puts the ring on his cock while belting ‘yeee-haws’ and sniffing coke off Angelina Jolie’s floatation breasts. But that’s another rant…

The film has good vision. It has a lot of heart, a lot of ambition. BUT — like a tweaking tour guide in the White House, the film is so intent on hitting every-single-major-point-of-interest so as not to piss off the purists, it forgets to tell a story. It forgets that some of us have NOT read the bloody book and do NOT know the backstory of these characters. You don’t make a film for the people who already know the story, you make it for those who don’t. That’s why “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” and “Indy Jones” all work. That’s why this film has failed.

Or has itr It’s currently in the top three all-time best films list at IMDB.COM, where it’s been since before day one. It’s made almost 300 million domestically. It could very well win Best Picture come Oscar-time. The purists love it. The fans love it. The Academy loves it. The critics love it. The people love it. Kids love it. Old fuckers love it. The “Blade Runner” experiment finally has succeeded: create a film that’s large enough, that’s beloved by enough, that’s loud enough, that’s pretty enough, and stick in plenty of fucking Enya, and it will be truly epic. Hey, it worked for “Titanic.” And they didn’t have to pay Enya’s salary, they hired a cheap knock-off.

So I’m swimming against the tide here. Based on public opinion, maybe I’m alone in my hatred for muddy fantasy and my love for gothic fantasticism (based on public opinion, you’d swear it was the other way around, actually. Notice that religious freaks aren’t spooked by wizards who use The Force™ to open doors, but it’s heretical to make a feather levitate… hmmmm…. hmmmmm….) Maybe I’m wrong to ask a film to tell me a story first and give me eye candy later. Maybe I’m wrong to want to improve upon a classic. Maybe I’m wrong to want a filmmaker to take risks, when all he has to do is “not fuck up”. Maybe I’m the only person who still believes that a film’s score is paramount to its success or failure. Maybe I’m wrong to think that film should be GOOD, not just good for the market niche that’s already read the fucking book. Maybe I’m just wrong.

Or maybe you all got assfucked by the marketing machine again.

Rating: D
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Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (TheFacer)

Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” couldn’t have sucked more if it was a wet/dry shop vac at a bukkake cleanup.

I just came off my second viewing of “Harry Potter,” mind you, so I know a modern almost-three-hour film doesn’t have to be painful. It’s not the length that makes the film so bad, but it certainly makes it agonizing.

Part of the fault lies with the fact the JRR Tolkien source material popularized certain now-staple sword and sorcery themes and visions since its publication in 1954. I say “popularized,” because many of the themes and visions had been done elsewhere and better… Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, par exemple.

What happens, of course, when you put to the screen themes and visions that have been beat to death by every other entertainment media since the 1950’s, including books, pulps, graphic novels (and their antecedents, “comic books”), movies, tv shows, and computer games) you face a daunting task in making them fresh. Such a move requires two approaches: revisiting the original material (always a disaster) or standing firm and somehow marketing the thing as the “original.”

Well, what one finds out after sitting through Peter Jackson’s overlong exercise in Moviola masturbation, is that sticking to the original material isn’t a sure thing either. Especially when you pick out all the expensive (nee “action”) bits of a massive book and skip over the rest of it.

As a result, LOTR is a collection… yes, that’s probably the best word… of different action sequences from the book, not necessarily in order, not necessarily true to the source, but gooey fodder for the SFX team. With LOTR, Peter Jackson firmly places his creative vision beside that of his apparent mentor, Michael Bay. I’d invoke the names of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, but hopefully Hollywood has smartly banished those two hacks to the realms of straight-to-video, and saying their names in a public forum might somehow resuscitate them, like saying “Bloody Mary” three times.

In order to begin what appears will eventually be a nine hour long string of cinema cliches, Jackson starts out with a cliche device: the historical narration. A deep voice intones, John Huston-like, bringing everyone in the audience up to speed on all the parts that Jackson filmed, but cut out at the demand of the film executives who, for once in their lives, did the right thing and told him to keep the first film under three hours. We see huge battles, armies of orcs and elves, and all sorts of other quick-cut crap that ruins any building of suspense regarding the film’s creatures within the first two minutes. A convoluted explanation ensues: here’s all these rings but only one is powerful and who knows what happened to the others but who cares the bad guy made the one ring and then had his finger cut off and blew up and mankind sucks and orcs are ugly and elves …. you get the picture. If this were a sci-fi pic, the backstory would have been printed across the screen with a little anachronistic typing sound.

Ahh, but after the intro film slows down and one thinks — incorrectly, it winds up — that maybe Jackson is onto something. He takes his time in developing the main character of Frodo, and even the culture of the Hobbits. We get to ooh and aah over the realistic hobbit sets, even as we giggle at the inconsistent scale between the short hobbits and the human Gandalf, a problem when your actors are all the same height. But we get to see how they live, what they eat, what their furniture looks like. What they laugh about.

Then, something happens. It becomes evident that a bit TOO much time is being spent in Hobbiton. One wonders: when is this thing going to get goingr What is being sacrificed along the way to put this much development into the hobbitsr Why does this look like a Little House on the Prairie Episode (with Elijah Wood soon starting to physically resemble little Melissa Gilbert.)

Well the answer comes soon enough. Frodo is off on his adventure, carrying the ring that everyone wants so badly, with his band of hobbits. Some wraiths come on horseback and pursue our little heroes, while screaming this really obnoxious high-pitched wail, for what…. tenr Fifteen minutesr The chase goes on and on. Then, when one thinks it’s just about to conclude, there they are again, wailing and screeching again like Jerry Springer transvestites. I got up to go pee and let me tell you something… I MISSED NOTHING. They were screeching and galloping just as hard as when my bladder had been full. In retrospect, I should have marched upstairs and pissed on the projector; I would have simultaneously spared the audience the rest of that crap, while putting myself out of my misery through penile electrocution.

Having lost about an hour to narration, hobbit development and wraith chases, where was Jackson to go with the rest of this bulky novelr Into Bay-ville, of course. What follows for the rest of the film is a series of action sequences punctuated only by occasional pauses, which themselves are condensed little scenes whose sole reason is to keep the source material flowing. Because of the lack of background and development, entire sequences could have been excised without damage to the film (although not without damage to the novel.) Fair to say that any scene with an elf in it could be cut without anyone noticing.

Note to Hollywood: action sequences are supposed to be the punctuation between the story, not vice versa. And… ahh, screw it, no one’s listening anyway.

The non-hobbit characters are introduced with brevity, if at all. In some cases, they merely appear (Gimli the dwarf, for example.) A kiss between Aragorn the human and Arwen the elf comes about so quickly — it’s literally tacked on right after another scene between the two — that if it were any more forced it would qualify as a tokamak reactor.

So, after knowing the creepy-looking Elijah Wood thing inside out — we are left with a slew of other characters that are total blank slates. This includes, the wizard Gandalf, who gets huge screen time but who is so poorly defined as a person, you’d have to add a dimension to bring him up to two. Ian McKellen looks about as thrilled in this role as, well, Richard Harris did in Harry Potter. Maybe those beards itch or something.

The action sequences that ensue, for the rest of the film’s length, are of course nice to look at. Fight scenes still don’t hold up to that of Boorman’s Excalibur or even some of Milius’ Conan, but of course where CGI is used, it’s used spectacularly. The cybersets are beautiful, and the camera work realistic. There are a few shots where the tiny running characters look worse than Tomb Raider the computer game, but those are few and far between.

But you know whatr Good effects don’t score points for the film’s director. They score points for the effects house.

Back to the cliches. Again, this may in part be due to the adherence to an aging source material that has been already recycled elsewhere, but dammit if every frigging scene in this film hasn’t been done before. We see lots of people hiding under trees or bushes as evildoers pass overhead, feet in foreground. We see a dying guy make an important acknowledgement to his friend with his last breath. We see a drowning guy’s hand descend into the water, only to be snatched up by another hand at just the right moment. We see a guy holding onto a ledge with his last strength, only to fall into “shadow” presumably to his death (yeah, right.) We see monsters poking their heads around corners, screaming into the camera.

Where have we seen all this stuff beforer Christ, where do I beginr A lot of it seems lifted from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, of course (as one of LOTR’s leads fights on with three arrows in him, I heard the crowd giggling, everyone thinking of the infamously smart-mouthed Black Knight of Python.) There are scenes from Excalibur, from Jason & The Argonauts, Lawrence of Arabia, Last of the Mohicans, The Ten Commandments, Aliens, Seven Samurai, Halloween, and countless others. Oh, and every Star Wars film made.

But how could it not be clichedr Given that the popularity of Tolkien’s books may have created some of these clichesr

Well, a little more creative filmmaking wouldn’t have hurt. Here’s a trick Jackson uses: have character look toward camera, but frame him slightly to screen right… so we know well in advance that a hand will pop up from behind him, grab his shoulder and scare the shit out of him. Can’t anyone figure out a way to film this from another fucking angler

When you are filming cliches, it might be best not to use cliched filmmaking in the process.

So, is Tolkien to blame for this collection of clichesr Or Jackson for filming it so soullesslyr Suffice to say that’s one for historians and film reviewers with far more ego than I. But, hey! We have six more hours of this tripe to sit through for the next two years, as Jackson releases the next two films of the series! Maybe we can decide then. Well YOU can, I have no intention of sitting through those monstrosities.

In conclusion, let me remind you that this movie sucks. In a fairly full theater of mixed age groups, here’s what I noticed: a lot of watch lights blinking as people checked the time, a guy yawning next to me, and a constant parade of people getting up for the lobby— presumably to go pee so they could at least say SOMETHING worthwhile had happened while they were at the theater that night. Whereas the other mega-anticipated films of the past few years — Phantom Menace and Harry Potter — ended in applause, this one was met with utter silence. People were standing up early in anticipation of the end credits, and then filed out in a grim funereal march, seeking the light of the lobby like moths, where they could gather and analyze what had just happened to the last three hours of their lives.

Peter Jackson did succeed admirably in making his characters come to life. The audience was left as soulless as his Ring Wraiths. Good going, jackass.

Rating: F
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The Majestic

Aunt Cleo: So, I went to see “The Majestic” last Saturday.
Aunt Georgina: Which one is thatr
Aunt Cleo: With Jim Carrey.
Aunt Georgina: Oh, I don’t like him. He’s vulgar.
Aunt Cleo: Not in this movie he isn’t. He’s sweet and handsome and charming. Like in “The Grinch.” That movie was excellent and had a message and “The Majestic” is just the same, but better because it’s newer.
Aunt Georgina: Well, Cleo, after listening to your well-reasoned recommendation and allowing myself a silent moment internal deliberation, I have decided that I too will pay money to see “The Majestic.”

Those MBAs at Warner Bros. go, “Ka-ching!” while you’re tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd and not shove this turkey bone up Aunt Cleo’s ass for diluting the family gene pool. But, as usual, I digress…

I went to see “The Majestic” because it seemed to be another one of those films made specifically for me. It takes place in the 1950’s (a decade that fascinates me more than any other) and it’s about a screenwriter (hey, instant character identification) who refurbishes an old movie palace (I plan on enslaving Theo Kalomirakis someday–and if you don’t know who Theo Kalomirakis is then, um, you’re dumb). Additionally, The Majestic is directed by Frank Darabont who’s made one of the best American studio films ever in Shawshank and it stars my two most favorite modern day actors: Jim Carrey and Bruce Campbell (will someone please cast these two as brothers in an action-comedyr).

I don’t know why I still get emotionally pig-dogged every time a movie doesn’t live up to expectations because I should be used to it by now. Not to say that “The Majestic” is bad. Far from it. Actually, not too far. “The Majestic” is mediocre at best, cold molasses boring at worst. Part of this has to do with the script by Michael Sloane which hammers us over the head with the same points over and over again. How many times do we have to hear someone say…

The town needed you, Jim, because all of our other sons died in the War.

Or…

Listen, Jim, you really don’t want to screw around with those McCarthyites–you could be blacklisted!

Maybe it’s because the film is rated PG, but it speaks to us, the audience, as if we were all 8 years-old. That’s probably one reason why “The Majestic” runs 2 1/2 hours and probably the only reason why the climax is of Jim standing before HUAC–I shit you not–reading aloud from a pocket sized Constitution.

But there is good stuff in the movie. All of the performances are top notch. You’d expect nothing less from Jim. Bruce handles his B-movie one-liners with aplomb. Martin Landau proves again why he actually deserved that Lifetime Achievment Award/Best Supporting Actor Oscar. And seeing Laurie Holden –who must of us know and loathe as the Unablonder from X-Files– is like breaking one of the seven seals…she’s a revelation. Funny, fiery, sexy. You can completely understand why Jim’s character falls in love with her because the audience does, too. Seriously impressive stuff by Laurie. She’s gonna get a lot bigger real soon.

Other good stuff: the scene where they re-open The Majestic theater for the first time made me cry. And I don’t cry often–not at my wedding, not during acting class, not even when God Himself did Irish fans a favor and arranged it for George O’Leary to get fired from Notre Dame. But I cried during “The Majestic.”

Finally, the film has come out at a time when it’s themes will actually make people think about the world around us. Because it’s about American boys going overseas and sacrificing themselves for the Greater Good. Because it’s about what it means to be an American. And because it’s about an understandably scared government prosecuting people on flimsy evidence just because they happen to be a part of the wrong minority group. Not that I don’t think the Justice Department should be investigating suspicious Saudis, Egyptians, etc. They should, but at the same not allowing things to turn into a witchhunt. Wow, look at that. A Jim Carrey movie inspiring politically charged discourse. Who woulda thunkr

I took my grandparents to the movie and they loved it. Really loved it. And since they are roughly the same age as your average Academy Award voter and since every other old fogey in the theater stood up and cheered at film’s end, I think Jim will finally get his official Oscar Acknowledgment (that’s what they’re calling “nominations” these days, isn’t itr Acknowledgmentsr How can you get fucking PC about awards terminologyr Only in this town). So, if you’re old or like easily digestible melodrama-with-a-message or need a Bruce Campbell fix you should be fine with “The Majestic.”

Rating: B+
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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“Harry Potter” (and the whatever stone) is one of the best films I have seen this year, and while this has been a dreadful year, it has also produced “Memento” and “AI.” In the most twisted of ironies, Uberdirector Spielberg chose to honor Kubrick with “AI” instead of cashing in with “Harry Potter,” and it may have been the wisest decision of his career. I feel that Spielberg could have ruined this film; more on this in a bit.

“Harry Potter” is based on a book, a popular book, which many (too many) people have read and bear stringent expectations. Other than pure money, the only reasons to convert such a novel into a film are to 1) broaden the appeal, especially for those who don’t read fiction (translation: men over the age of 16) and 2) show a forced vision to an audience, bringing to life (and sight) images which could only exist in the mind… and in a computer or on a sketch pad.

The key to success is simple: don’t mess it up. A director like Spielberg could have strayed too far from the novel, or more accurately, the borrowed, processed vision that J.K. Rowling has so daringly re-written for today’s generations. “Harry Potter,” as both successful novel and now film, is a wonderous, Velveeta-like smish-smashing of every childhood fantasy, fairy tale, folklore-myth-thing, and dream, creating a world that is both fantastical and gothic, surreal and yet grounded.

Another key to the story’s success is its unwillingness to bend from traditional Euro-myths and legends. The fact that every actor, every set, and every atom of the film is British is not some twisted culturalist facism by Rowling, but rather, an assurance that we will recognize the more fantastical aspects of the tale. To borrow from a close friend and colleage, I dare any of you to name a popular fairy tale, style, or character, that is purely and originally American-born. All of our favorite stories come from countries and cultures older than our own, and films like “The Wizard of Oz” and even “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” tap into the very images that graced many a bedtime story. “Harry Potter” does the same.

Let’s talk technical. Chris Columbus is a Spielberg-clone, and a damn good one… I like his films, and I even liked “Bicentennial Man.” Don’t get me wrong… Columbus is NOT that talented, but he’s solid enough in his vision and technicality to get all the elements on the film reel. And he does his job perfectly; he takes little true risk, and delivers in every place that counts. The score is wonderous, and unmistakably John Williams… while I reserve laud for composers such as Barry, Newton-Howard, and Zimmer for having tremendous range and ability, Williams is the very best at what he does. He is so good at it, in fact, that he has mastered the ability to be subtle (see: “Saving Private Ryan”) and to showboat (see: “Star Wars”). This film’s score is all showboat, all-riffs, all classical epic-movie-music gloating, and it is precisely what’s needed.

I also will toss props to the editor, Richard Francis-Bruce, for the film’s pacing is nearly flawless. The film runs for more than two hours, but you’ll never notice it. In fact, there’s little editing trickery… very few fades, no quick cut-ups, just damn good timing.

Several critics have complained that the film doesn’t last long enough. Unfortunately, it is just not possible to cram an entire book into a two hour movie. Many things are left implied and unspoken, simply because there isn’t enough time for it. When a film contains too much information to show, either details get left out (most films reiterate the same points repeatedly, explaining and justifying absolutely everything. Critics call this ‘strong, planned screenwriting’.) or the film contains a zillion edits and rocks by at 100 MPH, causing nausea, irritation, and possible blindness. Having said that — considering the latter part — I really liked Michael Bay’s “Armageddon,” and I like anime too. For the kids, though, Harry Potter and its creative team have elected the former route.

As a result of that choice, some people and some critics feel the film is disjointed and incoherent. I’m sure the book fills in all the gaps nicely; I have not read it, and don’t intend to. If you are expecting a complete story from this film, with all the ends tied up, you will not get it. For time and monetary considerations, the film does cut corners, and while complete by its own means, feels more like a slice of life on a much larger timeline. A lot of the blanks are left unfilled for good reason.

The performances are outstanding across the board. The three principle characters, all kids, are more than sufficient for this type of film, and young Daniel Radcliffe has that kind of sick Haley Joel intensity and charisma that makes him likeable in all sorts of evil ways. I saw this guy on TRL (sigh, yes, I watch MTV because I like the eye candy) and he was being swamped by horny 16-year-old *N’Sync fans in towels. Poor guy. The supporting cast is a damned celebrity-Jeopardy spotting game of British celebrities, and more accurately, classically-trained actors. Everyone is in this thing, even some of the Pythons. The casual fan will never notice, but the filmgeeks out there are sure to spot those actors whom they cherish, but whose names they know not.

Why is the film so goodr I have no idea. J.K Rowling’s book probably gets the most credit. The casting directors did their job. Cinematography is a long orgasm. Steve Kloves’ script is faithful and doesn’t mess up, just like Columbus’ directing. Instinct tells me that the film is good because everyone knew what they were doing… a quick glance of the technical credits at the end confirms that everyone who’s anyone works on this project (even Henson has their fingerprints all over the place). Maybe I actually witnessed a true team effort for once, rather than one vision trying to overbear everyone elses. Of course, I would never mention this in a public review, but the fact that this film, at $125 million US dollars in budget, did NOT use name actors who cost lots of money, and did NOT use American unions for below-the-line crew… hmmm. That could mean that the people… as in, the labor… actually cost very little, and the great majority of the budget could be spent on effects, pre-production planning, and construction, so they could get it right…. hmmm. Hmmm indeed.

Yeah yeah yeah, so the effects are trippy terrific, the sets are great, the whole look of the film is just sizzlin’ in the best of ways. Look, it all comes down to this: no matter who you are, or what you do, I recommend the film. Big or small, large or tall, old or young, troll or goblin. You’ll dig it. You’ll lose yourself and become enchanted with the film, its characters, and its little nuances. Even its flaws. Will it change mankindr I certainly hope not. But gee, a movie that actually entertained me… it’s been a long time.

PS – I have been remarking to friends that a “hairy potter” is British slang for something quite interesting. Remember, these are the same people that would not release the “Austin Powers” sequel in their country with the word “shag” in the title. I think I’ll write a children’s book called Richard Rash: Private Investigator, and see how that tides over in the states.

Rating: A
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Waking Life

“I want it to sound rich and maybe almost a little wavy, due to being slightly out of tune,” he says. “I think it should be slightly detached.”

The musician hits it on the nail. For the next hour and a half, slightly detached and completely opulent, “Waking Life” rolls our mainstream cinematic perceptions into a tightly packed joint and smokes them, stopping to enjoy every inhalation along the way.

The film follows, literally, the erratic journey of a young man as he stumbles through a dreamlike world, never sure into what state of consciousness he is entering or what level of reality he will submerge from. His initial claustrophobia gives way to a lucid understanding that his grasp of this illogical state is actually empowering him to pursue an acute awareness of deeply complex philosophical and existential polemics that could never come to comprehension in his waking life. Slowly, he begins to realize the physical act of ‘waking’ offers little in terms of intellectual consciousness while the stirring to life in his dream truly wakes him up. As a little girl points out in the first scene, dream is destiny.

As a viewer, the enjoyment is twofold. Aurally, Linklater opens up a spectrum rarely used by filmmakers in this day of popcorn cinema by infusing each spoken word with cyclical significance. Characters don’t merely speak for the purpose of forward communication; they contemplate and analyze a myriad of universal truths and possibilities for the sake of exploring them later. In this way, the script moves forward by not moving at all, at times relishing its eclectic rhythm and broken narrative form. Suddenly, you are aware of sound in a completely new way – each syllable has a color of its own, each word its own shape.

This is the second and perhaps more important outcome of experiencing “Waking Life.” Much like the mystified protagonist of the film, the viewer is forced to re-negotiate how s/he experiences the aesthetic before them, be it life, dream or a moving picture. From its bold use of rotoscopic animation, which perfectly creates that on-the-fence reality (it looks real and fake at the same time), to its insistence on visual inconsistencies (objects change shape and color at will), the universe of “Waking Life” is one you haven’t been to before. This makes it a unique experience at a time when experiencing films has largely depreciated into formulaic crud.

“Waking Life” brings Linklater back to his roots. Since “Slacker,” the Austin auteur has stumbled from pothead piece (“Dazed and Confused”) to mainstream drivel (“Before Sunrise”), but Waking puts all the pieces back together. Free from cinematic constraints, both in sight and sound, “Waking Life” manages to float by slightly detached and completely out of tune, and the result is one hell of a trip.

Before you ask, let me touch briefly on the weed-worthiness of the film. Stoners will find this as compelling a toke-trip as “2001” or “Wizard of Oz” but whereas those films get better with pot, “Waking Life” is simply just as good without it. Don’t get me wrong – once this puppy hits DVD, bring it home, turn out the lights, and puff away, but on the big screen, it might be worth tuning in and staying afloat. Just the same, the concessions should see some line-ups.

Rating: A
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