The biggest problem with Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is not that it's a bad film; it's the wrong film. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel is so simple on the face of it that at least four different film versions, this one included, have come and gone, and they have all made the same mistake: they assume all that you need to do is film what's on the page.
But the book doesn't take place entirely on the page, and that's the problem. It exists in a privileged space somewhere between the page and the reader, and the minute you point a camera there it all turns silly and literal. So much of what happens in the story isn't in the bustle of Jay Gatsby's parties or even in the words spoken by one character to another (much of which can be found here), which is why the more of that you put on the screen in an attempt to "bring the novel to life", the less you end up with.Read more
The Avengers is a triumph not of filmmaking or even entertainment, but logistics. Before the movie was even out, the single most widely bruited thing about it was the mere fact that it was being made — that someone had managed to corral several disparate comic-movie franchises under one roof and give them a single film to play together in. When people refer to a given movie as an “entertainment machine”, The Avengers might well serve as the textbook reference example. It entertains, but only in the sense that they got the bear to dance.
Perhaps they couldn’t risk doing anything more than that, given how much money was at stake. That and the fact that the film is a sequel of sorts to not just one movie but several at once: Iron Mans I and II (of which only the first one was worth any salt); the Incredible Hulk, which didn’t even retain its star; the half-a-great-movie of Thor; and the remarkably inspired Captain America: The First Avenger. There are good movies in that mix, and at least two great ones, but what made any one of them great had little to do with its presence in the continuity of a franchise. Iron Man was a lightning-in-a-bottle experience, where most of the free-floating alchemy of the film was transmuted through Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance. And Captain America, again, made good more on the strength of its central performance than because of the exact story it was telling, a story which was essentially a lead-in to this one.Read more
The rabbi’s cat is a scrawny, grey creature who spends his time slinking around the docks of pre-WWII Algieria, fighting the other toms for fish heads, and dozing off in the lap of his master’s daughter. He’s as insular and selfish as you would expect a cat to be. One day in a fit of pique, when the rabbi’s back is turned, he devours the rabbi’s mouthy pet parakeet. This does more than satiate his hunger: it gives the cat the power of speech, and the very first thing he does is flat-out deny he ate a parakeet. After all, wouldn’t one of the hallmarks of sentience be the ability to lie?
This is a grandly funny scene, and it sets the tone for how The Rabbi’s Cat is not some dumb film where a talking cat is milked for jokes about how idiotic everyone else is. It’s a mix of smart, adult animated productions like Persepolis or The Triplets of Belleville, with the fantasy-mythology undertones of one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories. Then again, those were the same aromas also exuded by Joann Sfar’s graphic novels that were the source of this film — doubly so since Sfar himself storyboarded and oversaw the production. Animation for thinking adults seems to come from two places, Japan and France, but France gets even less attention for such work than Japan does, and given how fresh and original this film is, that’s a shame.Read more
Few things in the movies excite and enthrall me more than a lost masterpiece, found once again. Last year a nearly-complete version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, believed lost to history forever, was located (it was hidden inside the wall of a movie theater, no less!) and restored. For film buffs, it was akin to unearthing the Ark of the Covenant. Gate of Hell might not come trailing the same level of name recognition or film-history pedigree, but having it restored to its original beauty and then some is no less exciting to me. This was not the first Japanese movie I saw, but it lodged so profoundly in my memory — not just for its blazing visuals, but its emotionally turbulent story — that it might as well have been.
As with Ugetsu, another film I saw early on in my self-education in Japanese cinema, I watched Gate of Hell courtesy of a VHS copy rented from the mom-‘n’-pop video store around the corner from my apartment. And as with Ugetsu, both the telecine and the print were in such lamentable shape that I wondered if that was because nothing better existed. I wasn’t far from wrong: Gate of Hell had been photographed via a single-strip Kodak process, Eastmancolor, that faded badly over time. Fortunately the studio, Daiei, had prepared a three-strip separation master — separate black-and-white negatives for each color channel — that preserved well. This process was later used by many others, e.g., MGM for their Metrocolor system (2001: a space odyssey), and when combined with digital technology, one could easily produce a remaster that outstripped the original. It also helped when the film being restored was something that had more than imagery in its favor.Read more
Source Code begins with a great hook for a story, and wisely remembers that a hook is only that: a way in, not the story itself. It opens with a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) on a train headed into Chicago, with no idea how he arrived there. A woman (Michelle Monaghan) he does not know is talking to him in a familiar way, and calling him by a name he’s never heard before. He knows his name is Colter Stevens, U.S. Army — so why is the face in the mirror and the name on his driver’s license all wrong? And then the train explodes from a bomb hidden in it somewhere, and Colter is thrown back into his “real” body, strapped into a seat in a kind of armored pod.
It’s a military project, we learn. The eight minutes Colter spent on the train in the body of another man is a sort of a simulation — a kind of peek into an alternate dimension, one constructed from the remnants of the mind of the man Colter is being projected into. The woman, Christina, is the would-be girlfriend of the dead man. The “source code”, as they call this pocket universe, has been created so that Colter might go into it — as many times as required — and find out who set the bomb. There’s only one problem: Colter has no idea how he got into this situation in the first place, and doesn’t believe for a second that the people giving him orders through the little TV screen over his chair have any legitimacy.Read more
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a guy discovers, or has someone hand to him, a bag full of money. Bad guys come after him. The cops come after him. A pretty girl gets mixed up with him. Chaos ensues. It’s easily the most hoary of noir clichés, and every generation of filmmakers tries to come back to it with new graphics and hardware.
In Time takes the bag-o-bucks and swaps it for a science-fiction concept that, I admit, I adored for its audacity and potential for social commentary. At some unspecified point in our future, money no longer changes hands. Instead, time really has become money. The world is populated with folks who are the product of careful genetic engineering. At the age of twenty-five, they stop aging — and a fluorescent clock on their arm begins counting down from one year. They can work to accumulate time — or gamble, or steal — but as soon as that clock hits zero, they’re dead. It’s Logan’s Run by way of D.O.A., if you want to get your science-fiction chocolate in my noir peanut butter some more.Read more
It’s been said that The Who By Numbers was received very poorly by both fans and critics when it first came out, in big part because it was a good album that suffered from the curse of not being a great one. The most succinct statement I can make about The Dark Knight Rises is along the same lines: it’s a very good movie afflicted with two things: a) it comes in the shadow of an outstanding one, and b) it’s forced to serve as the final statement for a franchise that changed the way people thought about comics and cinema. Small wonder many people wrung their hands or stuck their fingers down their throats.
I wasn’t surprised that people would be so divided over the film, but I was a little amazed at the way that divisiveness shaded over into outright hostility. A number of online critics pointedly left it off their lists of 2012’s best films, if only because there were so many other interesting things going on cinematically that year (Holy Motors, The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild, etc.) that throwing praise at a movie that hardly needed the boosterism probably seemed like wasted breath. It wasn’t as if you needed to champion a film that had already raked in the gross domestic product of a small nation. But what we have here is (as someone else said) the Batman we deserve rather than the Batman we want.Read more
When Dennis Miller got up on stage sometime circa the mid-Nineties and lampooned Al Gore by saying “The man’s favorite movie is TRON, for Christ’s sake,” and got massive laughs doing so, that more or less summed up the man-on-the-street view of both Al Gore and TRON. The former more or less redeemed his eggheadedness with An Inconvenient Truth, which single-handedly brought awareness of the impact of global warming into the public mind; the latter had a harder time rehabilitating itself. Fellow fans who had a positive opinion of the movie kept their mouths shut about it lest they be branded fans of Playskool Cyberpunk.
Eventually, the generation that had not only secretly grooved on the film but actually seen remarkable things in it (nifty premise, groundbreaking visual effects processes, first full-blown use of CGI in a movie, more adult and thoughtful than it seemed on first glance, etc.) was able to come out of the closet. By the time TRON showed up in Kingdom Hearts as a playable level, the stigma was fading fast; by the time a certain hush-hush short film played in Hall H at Comic-Con 2010 to massive audience reactions, the stigma was all but gone. A fan culture that had learned to live with the likes of Edward Cullen looked back over its shoulder and realized Kevin Flynn — The Dude, man! — and his binary buddies had been a lot cooler than they had wanted to believe.Read more
There are two films within Prometheus, one brilliant and the other inane. The brilliant film is preoccupied with questions about man’s place in the universe, and the ghastly indifference of the universe to such questions in the first place — much as Alien itself was before. The inane film is full of people running around like idiots and screaming at each other and getting killed horribly by space monsters. Sorry, folks, but that's the way it is.
It’s not impossible for two such wholly disparate films to coexist inside the same skin. In fact, the one movie that comes most readily to mind is not any of the previous Alien films, but the “Hellraiser-in-space” horror-SF hybrid Event Horizon. Buried within that mess of a film was either a great horror movie or a great SF movie, but the filmmakers tried to have it both ways and the studio a third, and the end result is one of those films that deserves a director’s cut that we’ll most likely never have. Prometheus, on the other hand, was the movie that Ridley Scott and his cohorts wanted to make, so none of them can fall back on the Terry Gilliam Tampering Clause to explain the results.Read more
For some, The Dark Knight was the moment when the “comic book movie” finally became cinema. For others, it was the moment when the bottom fell out, when the “comic book movie” became a self-indulgent and bloated enterprise, a mix of art-film pretentiousness and big-budget spectacle splatter. I take the middle view: this was the moment when the “comic book movie” stopped being a “comic book” — a genre — and started becoming a medium, a receptacle for whatever you could see fit to pour into it.
Small wonder The Dark Knight has been stuck with so many genre labels apart from “comic book”. I’ve seen it variously described as an urban thriller, a heist film, a noir crime drama, an existential revenge picture — anything and everything that would seem to take it that much further from its roots in either the Bob Kane comic, the campy ‘60s TV series, or the Pop Art Deco movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Batman itself has, and comic-book movies generally have, been reinvented to the point where it’s the reinvention that matters far more than the source material.Read more