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Dug up some of my old reviews. 
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Post Dug up some of my old reviews.
I was enjoying them, and they're not online anymore, so I figured I'd post them here.

I'll start with the grading scale I came up with, then the reviews more or less in the order that I wrote them.

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-10-

10 is perfection. 10 is reserved for only the finest of books, comics, movies, music albums, video games, theatrical plays, consumer products, gourmet dishes, celebrity women, and whatever else I choose to favor with my opinions. Don't be disappointed if nothing you do is good enough to merit a 10. It is basically impossible.


-9-

9 is less than perfection, but more than can be hoped for by just about anything. The upside of 9 is that it can be upheld, in theory, as a humanly possible feat. The downside is that it isn't 10, and that's what's going to hang over your head at the end of the day.


-8-

8 is mediocrity. You might observe that the scale steps down from the Platonic ideal of 10 to the exquisite achievement of 9, then, at 8, veers immediately into the realm of irrelevance and vacuousness mined regularly by the most shameless career hacks ever produced by the entertainment industry. And you would be right.


-7-

7 is offensively bad. 7 is bad enough that people might suspect you of being some kind of demented genius, because it takes some kind of extraordinary mind power to produce something this bad. Of course, it's a fine line between genius and monstrous, as demonstrated by all things this category.


-6-

6 is abject failure. Anything you and your collaborators did was done very, very wrong. A 6 represents the rock bottom of talent in any given field. Audiences suspect anything this bad of being some kind of deliberate prank upon humanity, because it boggles the intellect to imagine that anything this awful could have happened accidentally.

Anything less than 6 is an abomination. If you fancy yourself the owner of the tiniest shred of a soul, you might seriously consider paying back everybody who was unfortunate enough to be exposed to whatever it is that you did to the world. Seriously. With interest.

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The Shawshank Redemption
A film review by Ken
4 out of 10

Forget logic, screw evenhanded characterization, and manufacture scene after scene of glorious human triumph. That's the attitude of this overlong bore of a fairy tale, written and directed by Frank Darabont (with sledgehammer precision), photographed in surprising dreariness by Roger Deakins (who ought to know better), and acted somnambulantly by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman (who gamely pretend to take the project seriously). One wonders if anybody bothered to watch the finished movie between cobbling it together in the editing room and shipping it out to theaters.

The plot goes something like this. Andy, the Robbins character, is sent up the river for killing his wife. The movie, in an act of cowardice, refuses to tell us whether or not he actually did it. The viewers would feel guilty about being interested in the exploits of a cold-blooded murderer, but the movie can't definitively state Andy's innocence. That would place too much focus upon the particulars of the perfunctory courtroom sequence, which is introduced and tossed aside in a matter of minutes. Therefore, the film tries to have its cake and eat it too. Is Andy innocent or isn't he? Nobody knows, perhaps not even the filmmakers This sort of refusal to commit to a consistent moral position is a pandering tactic all too common in motion pictures. It damages this movie and many others.

Things only gets worse as Andy ends up in Shawshank, a prison in Maine populated mainly by stereotypes: the sage black man (Freeman), the cruel guard (Clancy Brown), the crooked boss (Robert Gunton), the fast-talking kid, the amoral homosexual inmate, the pathetic old man. Never before has it been more immediately obvious whom we're supposed to root for and whom we're supposed to despise. They might as well have written it on signs on the actors' chests.

Things play out predictably enough. Andy clings to hope, which is good enough to get him through his years in prison, but the movie cynically defies his efforts. It becomes increasingly clear that his hopes will never be validated by the universe, so he resorts to an improbable and hokey scheme that owes as much to editorial fiat as anything else. In one smooth trick shot, Andy thoroughly smites his captors and takes his freedom into his own hands. No, it doesn't correspond with reality, but by this point, the audience should be so numbed by all the gee-willikers fantasy that nobody will notice. I will not describe Andy's escape route, except to say that it functions effectively as a symbol of what it's like to sit through this movie until the credits roll and the exit doors open.

I give this film 4 out of 10. Even given the sordid epoch of cinema that produced it, The Shawshank Redemption sinks to surprising lows during its interminable running length. I feel as though the filmmakers simply didn't care.

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Inception
A film review by Ken
1 out of 10

Inception is not good--not at all--it's not particularly "mind-bending" (popular term these days), and it has the usual technical weaknesses that mar much of director Christopher Nolan's work. It seems that the bigger the movie he works on, the greater his tendency to rest on his laurels is. Inception is the absolute apex of cinematic laurel-resting.

Inception's worst crime, right off, is that it is devoid of imagination. By taking place almost entirely in dreams, it has carte blanche to develop and explore a universe unbound by the laws of reality or commonplace logic. The fundamental appeal of dreams is that there are no limitations; anything thinkable can happen. Unfortunately, it burdens itself with so many badly founded rules that it reduces itself to no more than a non-interactive video game, with "levels" that are no more dreamlike than the banal streets of reality and no more inventive than the sort of stock action/heist flicks that Hollywood churns out by the shovelful on its off weekends. One wonders if Christopher Nolan's dreams actually are this bland.

If a lack of imagination were its only crime, Inception might at least earn points for being a decently crafted entry into the action genre. Alas, in the area of craft, too, Inception flounders.

Perhaps Nolan put a lot of thought into the structure of his screenplay--including the bizarrely and unnecessarily limiting rules of his fantasy universe--but that seems to be at the expense of the storytelling. The vast majority of the dialogue is purely expositional. It serves no purpose other than conveying things to the audience that the filmmakers were either unable or too careless to dramatize. This film, allegedly possessed of incredible sci-fi ideas, has to relate those ideas to us in the least-interesting way possible.

The only explanation that makes any sense is that Nolan took his notes about the movie, broke them up, and inserted them into the script as dialogue. He conveys his ideas by describing them to you, literally and unambiguously. The movie looks and sounds like its own pitch meeting, if pitch meetings had expensive special effects sequences. Whichever character is speaking, is speaking for our benefit. Whichever character is listening, does so purely as an audience surrogate. Nobody in this movie is a real character. They're Chess pieces, moving only because the player is forcing them to move. Occasionally, Inception intercuts its endless dialogue with a montage of the characters gathering supplies, making plans, and doing other cliched heist movie things. I suppose that qualifies as sprucing things up.

In terms of pure production technique, too, Inception commits a variety of sins. Put in your DVD right now, fast forward to any given action sequence, and go through it shot by shot. I defy you to make sense of where each character is and exactly what is happening to him, from the beginning of the scene to the end. There is no suspense if there is no sense of geography, because without geography, there's no sense of where the danger is or what threat it poses to the characters. And there can be no sense of geography without coherent camerawork and editing. Inception's winter shootout scene, for example, could have been generated by running around with the camera aimed at nothing in particular, then slicing the footage into tiny fragments and reassembling them in random order. Mark my words: not even Nolan himself knows what the hell is going on in this scene, other than the obvious "people are shooting at each other in the snow."

Inception's poor craftsmanship isn't only evident in its action scenes, but examining the action in a movie is the easiest way to investigate its style. If the filmmakers are muddying up the geography, crossing the wrong line at the wrong time, or otherwise doing something weird, it might occasionally bug you in a talky scene. But you'll notice it much more immediately when things start to rev up. The point isn't that Inception's style is only bad in the actions scenes, but that the action scenes most readily demonstrate how poorly done Inception is across the board.

Word has it that Nolan was developing this film for an entire decade before he made it. A movie that's planned over such a great length of time shouldn't be slapped together so carelessly at the final stage. I give this film 1 out of 10. That's as much generosity as I can muster for this non-film.

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The temptation is to like what you should like--not what you do like... another temptation is to come up with an interesting reason for liking it that may not actually be the reason you like it.


Tue Oct 09, 2012 5:12 pm
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Post Re: Dug up some of my old reviews.
The Phantom Menace
A film review by Ken
4 out of 10

Cinema isn't just the act of putting stuff on the screen. Sometimes, it's the act of leaving stuff out--of allowing the audience's imagination do some of the heavy lifting. You can't engage people if you do all the work for them. They'll just dimly sit back and let it wash over them like a narcotic.

The Phantom Menace is that kind of movie. To be sure, it's a swirl of nonstop gadgets, creatures, and other graphical delights, but, in the final analysis, we have no role of our own to play. All the room for imagination was taken up by the filmmakers; there was none left by the time the movie reached us. Somewhere in the midst of this obscuring cloud of stuff, there's a story. Somewhere in that story, there are characters. If you squint hard enough, you can make them out.

One of those characters is Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), an elder Jedi Knight with a hippie idealist opinion of his duties. When it suits him, he'll bend the rules if he's convinced he's right, in spite of the objections of his more conventionally minded student, Obi-Wan (Ewan MacGregor). "Idealist" and "conventionally minded" are, of course, applied within the narrow dynamic range permitted by their jobs as guardians of the galaxy. In the dialogue scenes, both men are stoic above all else. In the action scenes, they're Erroll Flynn on steroids, which--I admit--is a lot of fun to watch.

If only the story were as interesting as the swordfights and the larger sense of mythology. Structurally, the plot waxes and wanes dangerously. The Phantom Menace opens with an assassination attempt, a hail of laser fire, and a daring escape, all in a matter of minutes. Then it nearly slow to a fatal halt as we meet the annoying and unnecessary Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), the boring but necessary Anakin SKywalker (Jake Lloyd), and the cool but underused Darth Maul (Ray Park and Peter Serafinowicz). Eventually, there is a futuristic racing scene that brings the energy level back up, but, astonishingly, the filmmakers hold it back until almost an hour in. Between the opening and this point, it's an arduous slog through exposition and perfunctory character introductions.

And then there's everything that happens after that. It superficially resembles adventure and excitement, but the final act of The Phantom Menace is mainly there to stave off the ending for a little bit longer. Ironically, the only particularly interesting thread--Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan in combat with Darth Maul--is literally a matter of the Jedi Knights stalling for time while the other, less interesting characters, run around doing other, less interesting things.

Surely nobody in their right mind cares about how Jar Jar and his nameless, faceless friends fare against an army of identical robots--perhaps the least interesting opponents the filmmakers could have possibly conjured up. Meanwhile, in another plot thread, the young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) takes down the slimy businessmen who have occupied her palace. This seems like it should be relevant, but it sure feels inconsequential. And then there's the dogfight in space, where the good ships are flown by bland, uninteresting pilots and the bad ships are piloted by more enemy robots. The only real character in this scene is Anakin, who blunders in just in time to save the day while the other pilots cheer him on as if anybody cares what they think of it all. Without the swordfight, this entire section of the movie has pathetically little reason for being.

But, I reitirate, the biggest tragedy of this film is that it's a horribly cluttered visual mess, which presents an impenetrable barrier to the imagination. If by nothing else, The Phantom Menace could have been saved by vivid, carefully calculated images, which can be seductive enough to redeem a shaky story. Once upon a time, George Lucas might have pulled this off. However, as a director, his skills, his aesthetic sensibilities, and his sense of restraint have eroded during the 22 years he spent out of the field.

Perhaps he doesn't remember the fundamental strengths of cinema that excited him so much as a young man. Perhaps he's fallen out of touch with the influences that inspired him. Perhaps his filmmaking muscles have atrophied from prolonged disuse. Whatever the case, The Phantom Menace is an uncomfortably dissonant mixture of inspired moments and painful drudgery. As such, it deserves a 4/10--an appropriately mixed rating on the 1 to 10 scale.

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Back To The Future
A film review by Ken
3 out of 10

Let it be known that film, by and large, is a disposable medium. Movies are made to be just acceptable enough for the price of the ticket, then wholly forgettable beyond that. The film medium is beset almost entirely by works made with this goal expressly in mind. This cynical, crassly commercialistic artlessness is endemic in all media designed mainly to sell and resell worn-out, risk-free ideas to kitsch-hungry audiences.

Back To The Future deserves some sort of prize for recognizing this fact and aspiring to be the most disposable, the most cynical, the most crassly commercialistic, the least artful, the most worn-out, the most risk-free, and the most careful balancing act between not good enough and just good enough. In mathematics, they use the term "asymptotic" to refer to such a phenomenon: it achieves infinite closeness to zero without actually arriving there.

Marty, played by Michael J. Fox, is a precocious teenager who whiles away his time assisting Dr. Emmett Brown, an eccentric inventor played by Christopher Lloyd. Doc Brown has built a car capable of traveling through time, given enougn plutonium (!) to achieve a 1.21 gigawatt jolt of electricity. Through a convenient accident--disturbingly contrived as a terrorist shooting that, oddly, goes unnoticed by the rest of the world--Marty is transported from 1985 to 1955, the year his own parents were his age. Marty did not bring any spare plutonium with him, so he's in quite a pickle.

If this begins to sound distressingly like the beginnings to a decent science fiction story, worry not. This is merely the setup for, of all things, a romantic comedy--that old standby of filmmakers for whom the other strictly conventional genres aren't quite conventional enough. Marty finds himself dodging the sexual advantages of his own future mother, which raises interesting psychological questions that are utterly glossed over at every turn. In addition to his titular problem of trying to get back to the future, he must also matchmake his parents to ensure his own existence. Once again, it's potentially an interesting problem, but it's played purely for screwball comedy. It simply doesn't deliver.

More problematic is the way that this movie cycles around from acceptably hokey to completely fatuous with clockwork regularity. In one scene, Marty dresses up in a radiation suit, refers to himself as "Darth Vader" from "the planet Vulcan," and assaults his future father with the sound of futuristic rock guitar. Incredibly, the father, George, really believes that he is being visited by an alien. There is nothing in the movie to indicate that George is an especially stupid or gullible person, or that he might plausibly be fooled by such an obvious ruse for any other reason. Yet, in this one scene, purely for its convenience to the plot, George is reduced to a sub-moronic level of intelligence.

It's as though the filmmakers distributed scenes like this one evenly throughout the script, just to prevent the sleepier members of the audience from dozing off. It is popularly held that if something refuses to let you sleep, then it must be sufficiently entertaining on some level. This logic ignores the dubious entertainment value of crying babies and fire alarms.

I actually want to break it down for a second, because this is something that's been getting on my nerves for years. "Sleep-inducing" is a lame criticism for a movie. It implies that movies that are slow, quiet, and low on showy external conflict are flawed for having those qualities. Worse yet, it further implies that movies that are fast, loud, showy, slam-bang, explodey, and brimming over the top with superficial conflict are inherently better. None of this is true by necessity.

Furthermore, "This movie/director/actor/etc. is overrated" and "That movie/director/actor/etc. does nothing for me" are two more criticisms better left out of the critical conversation from now until eternity. They're no deeper nor more insightful than "It ruled" or "It sucked". A critic who uses any of these one-dimensional phrases is likely covering for the fact that he has nothing to say but feels like talking anyway.

"Overrated" is devalued Internet troll-speak for "I didn't like it, but can only criticize other people who did like it." "It does nothing for me" is an evasive way of saying that you can't be bothered to figure out why you weren't engaged.

And a movie may well bore you, but if it puts you to sleep, that's your problem. Stop blaming the movie and start getting more sleep. If less people took for granted that movies are supposed to have a loud "bang" every 15 minutes just to make sure that the audience isn't dozing off, there would be more opportunities for a wider variety and greater dynamic range of movies to be made.

Where was I? Right.

Back To The Future is impressively ambitious--not in its making, but in the zealousness of its aspiration toward utter ambitiouslessness. I'll give it 3 out of 10 for its efforts in reaching for that peculiar goal.

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The temptation is to like what you should like--not what you do like... another temptation is to come up with an interesting reason for liking it that may not actually be the reason you like it.


Tue Oct 09, 2012 5:13 pm
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Post Re: Dug up some of my old reviews.
Avatar
A film review by Ken
1 out of 10

Much has been made of the visual quality of Avatar. It's a beautiful film, people say, even if they don't particularly enjoy it on any other merit. To hear them tell it, Avatar is a credit to the strides made in the field of synthetic images. Computer graphics have finally reached a point where they're lauded for their beauty rather than accepted despite their limitations.* Avatar is certainly filled with vivid colors and elaborately contrived creatures, but, it seems, anybody familiar with the cover paintings of old science fiction novels has seen it all before. What strikes the uninitiated audience as imaginative strikes the initiated audience as Fantasy Concept Painting 101.

(*Whether or not they've truly overcome those limitations is up for debate. CG may never achieve a genuine sense of physical presence and weight.)

Then there is the much bigger problem of pretty pictures for their own sake. The contents of a cinematic composition are, first and foremost, a matter of function. They're there to deliver something--messages from the heart, transformations of the spirit, meditations on the human condition, whatever. The best composition is not the prettiest composition, but the one that best achieves the effect that the film needs at that moment. If Avatar's images are being appreciated chiefly for how good they look, for how well-imagined they are, odds are they were calculated for just that purpose. On the part of the conceptualists and computer craftsmen responsible, this is masturbation.

We tend not to give a pass to live action films by the likes of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich, which amount to vivid mediocrities. Why would we give a pass to the mediocrity of a live action/cartoon hybrid like Avatar?

But then, Avatar does have its critics. Those who praise its images often condemn its plot in the same breath. But what do they say about it? It's a retread, they say. It recycles plots from other movies. Candidates for Avatar's presumed thievery range wide, from Dances With Wolves to Ferngully. Everybody is sure that Avatar is ripped off from something, though they can't quite agree on what it is. This says more about the universality of basic storytelling than anything about Avatar in particular. The stories that impress us most tend to be stories that recycle just as much as any other, while excelling in other realms that aren't as readily apparent. It may very well be that plot--essentially just the order of events--is far less important than is commonly assumed, and that originality is no guarantee of quality.

People cry out for originality in movies, but have they ever really thought about what they're asking? What is the first thing the viewers do when they start to watch a movie? They compartmentalize it, second-guess it, put it in a box. Very quickly, often within the first 10 minutes, audiences have decided what the movie is about and what it's supposed to do. The audience judges the quality of a movie based on how well it hits all the marks it's supposed to hit. When movies dare to be original, to stray from those marks, they're condemned for not doing what they're supposed to do. The path that Avatar follows has indeed been gouged deeply into the ground by countless previous stories, and viewers give filmmakers no incentive whatsoever to climb out. Avatar is damned for sticking to the formula and would be damned even harder for straying from it. But I digress.

In the organism of the film, plot is just a visible layer of skin beneath which the vital processes occur. Viewers notice a problem with the workings in the film but can't quite elucidate what it is, so they blame the stuff that they see most readily. While the bland, regurgitated plot may well be one of Avatar's crimes, it is far from the only one. Like any organism, a film is a combination of vital organs that serve the whole. Each of the cinematic arts has a function that contributes to the greater entity. Accordingly, when the majority of the film is inadequate, the few elements that work on at least some level will appear strong by contrast. Standout elements do not make a healthy film.

For this reason, when people heap praise upon standout performances or standout special effects, it suggests that a film is weak rather than strong. Perhaps if Avatar had anything of worth to underpin its elaborate images, the images wouldn't have to pull the whole load by themselves. The fact is, the images are all that seem to really impress anybody. This indicates that Avatar's vaunted visual splendor is a smokescreen, covering for a film that is beset with weaknesses so obvious that even the most inattentive of viewers can tell there is something deeply wrong.

I have said elsewhere that carefully calculated images can seduce the viewer into an otherwise flawed film, which makes it necessary to draw a distinction here. While Avatar's images are certainly very dense and very busy, they are not in any sense carefully calculated. They don't serve any purpose and don't have much relevance to anything but themselves. For aptly demonstrating that beauty in film is not always visual, Avatar receives 1/10. I'm loathe to quote Arthur Bremer (famed diary writer and failed assassin), but the opportunity presents itself: this movie is "a piece of dogshit with a plastic flower in it."

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To Kill A Mockingbird
A film review by Ken
5 out of 10

This is a rare breed--a message movie that very nearly overcomes cinema's tendency to oversimplify and dumb down important social issues. To Kill A Mockingbird almost doesn't oversimplify, almost doesn't condescend, and almost achieves authenticity. The goal is to deliver a message naturally, without resorting to tricks or any obvious contrivance. I'll give credit where credit is due: this one almost made it.

This is the story of Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), a white lawyer, and Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man whom Atticus defends against accusations of raping a white girl. (The children's perspective, which was of central importance in the book, is somewhat marginalized by the film.) Being a story of the 1930s, the outcome of the trial is a foregone conclusion, but the moral core of the film is not concerned with that. It concerns ideals. Atticus fights for Tom because Tom's rights are intrinsically worth fighting for, not because it's a battle that can be won. It's an admirable message. One can't blame the filmmakers for trying to get it out there.

The flaw, though, is right there in the synopsis. Tom's basic humanity is under attack, but it's not his story. To Kill A Mockingbird wants to tell us that Tom is a man, entitled to the same rights and respect that are granted to any other man. But, given the choices made in sending that message, To Kill A Mockingbird doesn't practice what it preaches. The real message is that Tom is not a man, but a talisman through which Atticus projects his own virtue as a concerned, non-racist white person. Tom is a cipher at best--a placeholder too unimportant to be filled. As an exercise, take a drink during each scene in which Tom expresses enough emotional dynamics to suggest a three dimensional personality. You will be sober by the end of the film.

To Kill A Mockingbird finds a real, socially relevant problem in life, and seeks to dramatize it onscreen in the cinematically efficient form of the courtroom plot. This is its strength. It is therefore distressingly cynical for it to subscribe to the idea that the victims of real-world human repression are not as worth dramatizing as the non-repressed heroes who fight for them. This is how a film can reach so closely toward quality and still fall into disaster.

Who makes the status quo, and whose interests does the status quo concern? Those in power. Whose importance and influence does the status quo marginalize? The powerless. Perhaps the makers of this film felt it would be too edgy, too unacceptable to make Tom the hero, with Atticus as the supporting character. (Perhaps this would travel somewhat afield of the source material, but that would be the film's right as an adapted work. It certainly showed no compunction about reducing the importance of the children.) To Kill A Mockingbird could have been about the repressed man who resolutely clings to his dignity, with the help of the ostensible agent of the system who crosses racial barriers to be at his side. That's where the real movie is, where things would really get shaken up. Why, then, does the movie make itself more responsible to the status quo--to the powerful, rather than the powerless? It appears that this film is ultimately a well-meaning hypocrisy. It uses its powers to celebrate those who have been plenty celebrated already, at the expense of those who haven't.

I believe the filmmakers are sincere in their intentions, but the problem that they attempt to address wouldn't be so persistent if sincere intentions were all it took. For having their hearts in the right place and for bringing so much craft to bear in this enormous backfire of a movie, I award them 5/10.

_________________
The temptation is to like what you should like--not what you do like... another temptation is to come up with an interesting reason for liking it that may not actually be the reason you like it.


Tue Oct 09, 2012 5:14 pm
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Post Re: Dug up some of my old reviews.
American Beauty
A film review by Ken
2 out of 10

British director Sam Mendes has something to say about America, and it isn't pleasant. The tagline of his movie is "Look closer," which is situated on the poster above a close-up shot of a (presumably) woman's bare midriff, accompanied by a hand clutching a rose. The cropping is such that any clothing is kept suggestively out of frame. The message sent by this advertisement is an effective one: a single fetishized detail, carefully contextualized, can contain more truth, more beauty, more emotional sincerity, than the big picture ever could.

It's a shame that Mendes's marketers deliver this message with far more skill and economy than Mendes himself does with the actual movie. As a Brit, it is unsurprising that he has little more than a tourist's grasp of the American suburban lifestyle that he sees fit to portray to us. The truth he believes he is telling is woefully shallow. His characters speak in embarrassingly canned dialogue; his plot carries them along against their will. Consider one scene in which Lester (Kevin Spacey) meets his young new neighbor, Ricky (Wes Bentley), for the first time. After speaking with him for a few moments, Ricky offers Lester a joint, and Lester accepts. As defined by the story, this is one of several tentative steps that Lester takes into midlife crisis--or, as he sees it, rebellion against his stultifying middle class lifestyle.

That moment rings false; Lester's narration tells us that he's been trapped this way for so long that he doesn't even remember how it happened. Yet, when offered the slightest opportunity to do something completely contrary to the way he's behaved for his entire adult life, in a situational context that gives him every excuse not to, Lester does so without even thinking about it. Here is just one moment in which Mendes showcases a profound ignorance of both American middle class inertia and human nature in general. It's as though the screenplay left this scene blank, save for an arrow connecting the previous scene to the scene of Lester and Ricky smoking the joint. The idea is that even a grown man with a comfortable lifestyle needs some kind of passion in his life, but this scene, like many others, doesn't bother to effectively dramatize it.

Mendes has even more superficial insight on tap, likely gleaned secondhand from older movies that said what he has to say with more passion and authenticity. Each character is given--or, more accurately, defined by--a cliche problem or a signature quirk. Lester's neighbors are a pair of cohabitating gay lovers, who serve no purpose except that their gayness provokes reactions in the other, slightly less one-dimensional characters in the neighborhood. Lester's daughter is saving money for a boob job. While she doesn't like her parents (mind you, she is a teenager), nothing else in the movie indicates that poor body image is in any way related to her angst. She wants a boob job simply so the movie can convey that she is a girl with issues, nondescript though they may be. To reduce self-image to a quick-and-dirty substitute for character development is insulting not only to other storytellers who invest real time and effort into their characters, but to real life women who struggle with problems of self-image.

Lester's wife is a career-driven ice queen. I don't need to describe her any further, because the movie doesn't. The movie suggests that she hasn't always been this way, but doesn't care enough about her to indicate how, why, or when she changed. Lester's neighbor, the father of Ricky, is a severely conservative military man. We eventually find out that he has a fascination with Nazi culture. If the movie ever comes close to acknowledging its own cartoonishness, it is in this moment. And then there's the friend of Lester's daughter: a blond cheerleader, stick-thin and potty-mouthed. Her stereotype is that of the virginal slut. Her purpose, like Ricky's, is to provide a shamelessly artificial entry into the second act of the film, in which Lester has his time of crisis.

The movie's ending is not foreshadowed, so much as given away outright by the heavy-handed narrative clues and Spacey's explain-everything voiceover narration. This is inexcusably lazy storytelling, scarcely worth the 2 out of 10 rating that I'm giving it. "Look closer," indeed. Sam Mendes would do well to heed the advice of his own marketers.

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American History X
A film review by Ken
2 out of 10

Racism is one of the most tenacious, insidious flaws in our society. It has been with America since long before America was anything but a handful of colonial outposts. Everything we have today would not have been possible if not for the extermination of countless Native Americans and the enslavement of countless more Africans and their descendants. This society continues to unfold on the basis of opportunities given to Christian white males at the expense of every other demographic. No matter what great strides we've made over the course of 400+ years, this profound unfairness--this systematic judgment by accident of birth--refuses to be fully shaken.

In American History X, Edward Norton plays a Nazi punk named Derek. He goes to prison after brutally murdering two black men for breaking into his car. In his absence, his young brother Danny (Edward Furlong) is indoctrinated into the neo-Nazi fold by Derek's friends. They all eagerly anticipate Derek's return from prison. The film concerns itself with how Derek's time in the clink forces him to reconsider his worldview, and how he deals with his friends and family when he rejoins society.

This premise is so juicy, so ripe for powerful storytelling, that it is all the more disappointing that the movie absolutely refuses to take the subject matter seriously. Derek's first reality check occurs when he witnesses the prison's Nazi clique making deals with the other racially defined cliques. (I am not being deliberately vague here. This is as specific as the movie gets. I suspect that the filmmakers simply had no idea what to put here and weren't about to trouble themselves with something as unimportant as research into prison culture.) This offends Derek's Nazi sensibilities. When he refuses to play along, the other Nazis turn on him.

It seems that this would logically lead Derek to become further entrenched in his Nazi worldview, being the only "pure" racist in the whole place, but what do I know? He soon encounters a motormouthed black prisoner in the prison laundry who wins him over by chatting him up about professional basketball. Why Derek is so passionate about the sport without expending even a shred of thought upon the predominance of black athletes is undiscussed. One would expect that a film whose central themes are race and racism would find this stuff important, but again, what do I know? Derek's friendship with his fellow laundry worker is introduced by editorial fiat; very little struggle against Derek's years of violent race hatred is evident on the part of either man.

In Derek's journey from angry rhetoric-spewing gang leader to harmless, clear-eyed, well-adjusted member of society, the last piece of the puzzle comes from his former teacher, a wise elderly black man named Mr. Sweeney. He asks Derek, "Has anything you've done made your life better?" It's a rational question. It seems that if Derek could be swayed by rationality, he probably would have never gotten to this point in his life in the first place. But what do I know?

But the film's most egregious insult to logic doesn't happen until Derek is released from prison. (Yes, a man who commits two vicious, racially motivated murders does only a few years' hard time before breathing free air once again. Weird, but what do I... oh, forget it.) He is disturbed to find that Danny has been inducted into the Nazi social circle and succumbed to the racist worldview. Derek, without a single non-Nazi friend and with his young brother accusing him of betrayal, is utterly helpless. This conflict could have been the saving grace of an otherwise very flawed film. Shamefully, though, Danny's years of Nazi indoctrination evaporate in the course of a single evening. That's the film's ultimate position on racism: racists of the most fanatical kind, of the greatest vulnerability and the most black-and-white mindset, are simply in need of a good lecture. This is mind-boggling stupidity.

If only American History X took racism as seriously as it takes itself, it could have been a decent film, if an imperfect one. As it is, it commits flub after flub after flub. Every attempt to make a valid point is soon deflated by a total lack of commitment to that point, right up to the very end. For tackling an ambitious subject, this movie deserves 2/10. For utterly failing that subject, for never pursuing anything to a deeper level than the shallowest of liberal platitudes, for screwing up literally everything that it attempts, it deserves nothing higher.

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Tue Oct 09, 2012 5:14 pm
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Post Re: Dug up some of my old reviews.
Gran Torino
A film review by Ken
2 out of 10

Clint Eastwood is trying to tell us something: that an aging racist must reexamine his hasty assumptions about his ethnically diverse peers. That those very peers must accept the aging racist, who can't help his behaviors that were shaped by the times in which he was raised. That we can be united, in spite of our differences, by mutual opposition to our common enemies. That the younger generations, no matter how toughly they're loved, become progressively less capable and far more ungrateful. He wants to tell us, and he doesn't want to earn our attention so much as seize it by the testicles.

This is, of course, a problem. One of the pleasures of cinema is that it invites us to infer things for ourselves. It allows for our intellectual and emotional participation. The more we're allowed to have our own input into the movie, the more our engagement is encouraged. If these things aren't occurring, there is something wrong. In the case of Gran Torino, it would be easiest to blame the screenplay. After all, that's where it all begins--all the character confrontations that play out as connect-the-dots pop psychology. All the exchanges of dialogue that seem like the writer simply broke up a summary of the scene description and distributed it equally between the characters. The endless buffet of racist cliches that purports to condemn racism while simultaneously prodding us to laugh about it.

But if there is a place where those things should be, the screenplay is it. When the actors and the director come together to work out the scenes, the really obvious scripted stuff can serve not as an immutable document, but as a general indicator of the thematic and emotional content of the scene. The creative team must work out which stuff should go in verbatim and which can be covered through more cinematic means--blocking, suggestive compositions, the expressions of the actors, et cetera. The screenplay, simply put, is not just a text version of the eventual movie. It's the arrow that points the way. It should be treated as such. Gran Torino doesn't do that, which is why the scenes are cluttered with redundant expositional dialogue and on-the-nose character interactions. The stuff that should have been taken out in the midst of the production was allowed to remain. So was the stuff that definitely should have been taken out by the editing stage.

The effect of all this is that the movie bends over backward to tell the audience what to think and feel about everything that happens. And if it doesn't work the first time, each scene throws in multiple chances for the viewers to be told how they're supposed to react at any given time. Every scowl and every time a character uses dialogue as an excuse to describe exactly what's going on is an opportunity for the slowest, most inattentive viewers to catch up. All the events of the movie become compartmentalized into a one-bite-at-a-time storytelling style that's boring and downright insulting to watch. A movie should be more than what meets the eye. Gran Torino is exactly what meets the eye, no more. It is less a film than a slide show lecture that moves and talks.

Regrettably, most children won't be watching this film due to the profanity-laced dialogue. It resides precisely at a child's level of intellect, viewing comprehension, and understanding of right and wrong. The message begins wholesomely enough. The Hmong family melts the icy heart of the crotchety old man, and the crotchety old man's guidance steers the Hmong boy away from the local gang members. (For all who doubt the crotchetiness of the old man, he growls cartoonishly at everything that isn't a dog or a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.) For a while, the film does a competent job of humanizing both the elderly racist and his culturally different neighbors. Unfortunately, once the conflict with the gang assumes central performance, all that work is undone. The movie becomes what it has thus far resisted becoming: a paranoiac's tale, in which everybody is predator, prey, or vigilante. The overblown machismo is in no way deconstructed by the ending, which I will not describe except to say that violence is the solution that the movie decides upon, even if it pretends otherwise.

In spite of the self-parody, the mjolnir subtlety, and numerous other small disasters on hand, I can't help but give this movie a little credit. It wants to do something noble, though it has no idea how and could likely never be fixed without going back to square one. I grudgingly give it 2/10, and that's being nice.

---

Taxi Driver
A film review by Ken

"TRAVIS BICKLE, age twenty-six, lean, hard, the consummate loner. On the surface he appears good-looking, even handsome; he has a quiet steady look and a disarming smile which flashes from nowhere, lighting up his whole face. But behind that smile, around his dark eyes, in his gaunt cheeks, one can see the ominous stains caused by a life of private fear, emptiness, and loneliness. He seems to have wandered in from a land where it is always cold, a country where the inhabitants seldom speak. The head moves, the expression changes, but the eyes remain ever-fixed, unblinking, piercing empty space. Travis is now drifting in and out of New York City night life, a dark shadow among darker shadows. Not noticed, no reason to be noticed, Travis is one with his surroundings."

Martin Scorsese loves movies. He loves watching them and he loves talking about them. Anyone familiar with his public persona knows him as a man who talks fast, as though there isn't enough time in the world for all the things he has to say. Roger Ebert once conducted an onstage interview with him in 1997 at Ohio State University. Rather than format the final draft as a conventional magazine interview, Ebert chose to present the transcript as-is, unedited and without comment. Ebert, for his part, merely posed the questions and turned Scorsese loose. The final transcript covers two hours and contains over 20,000 words.

It is therefore disquieting when, during an interview on the Taxi Driver special edition DVD, Scorsese's usual mile-a-minute patter evaporates for just a moment. The free-associating flow of ideas peters out. Scorsese fixes a stare upon the camera and he says to us, plainly: "It's real. The dream is real. The paranoia is real." He might just as well sum up the entire film, in all its loneliness and hopelessness. Taxi Driver strikes no false notes and, while it is a work of fiction, the facts at its core are drawn straight from life. This isn't an escapist fantasy and it isn't a pastiche of other stories. This is real.

It is so much so, in fact, that I am fairly convinced that a person's life experiences are an enormous factor in the communicative power of this movie. Taxi Driver reflects the pain of loneliness and despair with disturbing accuracy. It doesn't matter if your problems are big or small, extraordinary or mundane. The point isn't to justify the feelings as they compare to the grand scheme of things. If those feelings are there, they're there. They must be dealt with on a personal level. If they're not there, then perhaps this isn't your movie.

(cont...)

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Last edited by Ken on Tue Oct 09, 2012 5:17 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Tue Oct 09, 2012 5:15 pm
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Post Re: Dug up some of my old reviews.
(cont. from last post)

Taxi Driver features a young, disaffected man named Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro). That may be a misleading sentence, because it implies that Taxi Driver is its own entity and happens to contain the character of Travis Bickle. In reality, the movie is Travis in every way that matters. From the moment it begins, we are irrevocably locked into his point of view. We're there with him. We share his feelings. We may not agree with the things he does, but we understand with chilling clarity that they are the engine by which he is driven. It's all we can do to come along helplessly as his directionless anger grows in severity and eventually turns outward in acts of bloody violence.

In an interview of his own, screenwriter Paul Schrader related something he once heard, a quote of Japanese origin. As I remember it: when a Japanese man cracks up, he closes his window and turns his gun on himself. When an American man cracks up, he opens his window and turns his gun on the world outside. This is uncomfortably resonant when one considers cases like Arthur Bremer, John Hinckley, and, most recently, Jared Loughner--all young men shut out of the mainstream of society, all holders of progressively distorted grasps of reality, all successful assassins or would-be assassins. For reasons that likely escape them just as much as us, their pain led them to strike out at external targets. The actions are uncommon, but the pain that drives those actions is a different matter altogether.

There is a point in Taxi Driver when Travis reaches out to one of his colleagues, a charismatic know-it-all named Wizard (Peter Boyle). This, I find, is the pivotal moment in the film. Travis's fate is decided when he tries and fails to elucidate his troubling thoughts, compounded by Wizard's pathetically inadequate response. Wizard has no advice, and does not realize until well into his lecture that Travis is beyond his meager powers. This is when the movie shifts from Act I to Act II. In Act I, Travis's troubles begin. In Act II, they have progressed beyond the point of return. He is locked into his violent destiny.

Very few people who feel such pain are compelled to lash out in the way that Travis or his real life analogs do. Most of the Taxi Driver kids reach their point of crisis and do something--anything--to derail their course. They achieve a precious moment of introspection that seems to elude Travis. They reach the end of their own Act I and avoid Act II by the skin of their fingernails. Just a few of them go further, and commit their lives to the externalization of their pain. Perhaps, like Travis, they're not smart, self-aware, nor introspective enough to understand what's happening in their minds.

For Schrader, the action that enabled him to break his pattern was authoring the screenplay of this movie. Many of the behaviors he gave to Travis were, for a time, his own. The taxi cab is Schrader's visual metaphor of urban loneliness--the man in the cab who is never without company, but is always alone. Schrader, after going for weeks without human contact and developing an alcohol-induced ulcer, exhaled his script as an act of desperation. Art was his safe conduit to externalize the swirl of destructive ideas in his head. He would later describe the process as trying to write the story before the story wrote him.

The transition from the script to the screen is a master class in the adaptive process. Schrader's prose is impeccable. Through dialogue and description, he hews his character vividly in the text. The plentiful inner monologue and outer dialogue describe Travis as a man filled with contradictions and misdirected rage. That stuff was all necessary to help Scorsese and DeNiro see themselves in Schrader's ideas. In filming the story, they were guided so surely by the script that they were able to jettison much of its text. They internalized it. The characters didn't need to talk about contradictions, because DeNiro became the contradictions. He didn't need to talk about the loneliness or the anger, because he exuded those things with every step.

Taxi Driver takes place in the New York of the 1970s--a place beset in many areas by urban decay, the very areas that Travis's route draws him back to again and again. This is by choice, one of his many self-destructive behaviors. He is drawn to the places he hates, to the people he despises. His job, ostensibly a way to keep himself occupied in the long hours of the night, becomes another way to punish himself and sharpen his sense of social rejection. Taxi Driver's New York is a vision of torment, photographed in garish colors, paranoid glances, and slow-motion columns of shadow and steam. This is New York as it appears to Travis, the boatman on the rivers of hell. Bernard Herrmann's score colors the city further, highlighting the romance and the madness that coexist there. The total purpose of Taxi Driver's unrelenting style isn't to be cool or to adhere to any concept of formalism, so much as to ensure that we experience everything as Travis does and are implicated in his thoughts, feelings, and actions.

None of it--not the lifelike screenplay of Schrader or the hellish vision of Scorsese--would get off the ground if not for Robert DeNiro, whose performance is one of the precious few works of unmitigated genius in the field of movie acting. It is difficult to tell where DeNiro ends and Travis begins. That's a worn-out cliche, but it is absolutely true here. There is never a sense of an actor reciting lines and hitting marks. The character is as genuine as any real person, which makes the gravity of the subject matter all the more terrible. DeNiro speaks every word and thinks every thought as if for the first time.

To revisit the conversation with Wizard as an example, there is a moment (pictured at the top of this page) when Travis's mask slips and he very nearly expresses, verbally, what he's feeling. His words are chilling enough, but watch his face. The way his eyes dart around, as though the words are hanging in the air around him if he could only spot them in time, the way his mouth intermittently crinkles into a nervous grin, the way we can see flashes of a number of different facial expressions in his face in the span of the moment--is this not absolutely authentic, utterly uncontrived human behavior? As for the mask, what is his mask? Travis seems to wear several. When he's on a date with Betsy, it's the smooth, slightly sly gentleman. When he's with the government agent, he's like an impish boy, tormenting the teacher at school. When he's with other people, his personality shifts likewise to accommodate the situation.

Most people do this; we are seldom the same way with our parents or grandparents as we are with our significant others or our friends, or ourselves. One of the marks of DeNiro's mastery is that he plays a character who is, in turn, playing various characters depending on whom he's with. It comes across flawlessly. This is what three dimensional acting can accomplish. We are given very little information about Travis, but he is nevertheless one of the most vivid characters in any movie. He's a real person.

(In many movies, background information stands in for characterization. The popular theory seems to be that knowing a character is the same thing as learning expositional details about the character's life. By that reckoning, you could say that you could get to know George Washington better than you know your own drinking buddies. However, boning up on the facts of somebody's life isn't the same as knowing that person. This is as true in cinema and as it is in life.)

The measure of Taxi Driver's authenticity always comes back to the unequivocal realism of Travis and his world--not in terms of resemblance to an external reality, which is both unnecessary and utterly absent in Taxi Driver's paranoia-hued New York. I speak in terms of art as a response to real world problems, and of the emotional reality of the material. By extension, this encompasses DeNiro's performance, Schrader's screenplay, and Scorsese's visual imagination. If these men hadn't lived these feelings and committed them with unflinching honesty and mastery to the screen, this movie would have been an unmitigated failure, a B-level exploitation film at best. Instead, it's a high watermark of the movies and a testament to cinema's ability to express the turmoil of a human soul. It is farcical to try to quantify this movie's quality. Nevertheless, if a rating is obligatory, then nothing less than 10/10 will suffice.

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Tue Oct 09, 2012 5:16 pm
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Post Re: Dug up some of my old reviews.
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Anything less than 6 is an abomination. If you fancy yourself the owner of the tiniest shred of a soul, you might seriously consider paying back everybody who was unfortunate enough to be exposed to whatever it is that you did to the world. Seriously. With interest.


An abomination! I like your writing and would never accuse you of hyperbole. Until now. Let's face it: that's really just one, multi-part review of Taxi Driver.

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Wed Oct 10, 2012 1:17 am
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Post Re: Dug up some of my old reviews.
I agree with you completely on Avatar and Inception, it's like you were reading my thoughts out loud. Though I liked Back To The Future, I can admit you gave good points.

Love Taxi Driver though I wouldn't quite give it a 10.

Disagree on Gran Torino, it is a bit simple minded but I found it to be effective nonetheless.


BTW Ken, just out of curiosity, what would you say is the absolute WORST film you have ever seen?


Wed Oct 10, 2012 2:57 am
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Post Re: Dug up some of my old reviews.
American Beauty was written by an American though. Mendes can't be blamed for that.

And Gran Torino is heavy-handed and sometimes cartoonish, no doubt, but at least it acknowledges that the lines between racist and non-racist aren't as clean as effete liberal intellectuals make out. In fact the whole thing itself is a reasonable nod to the hatred and judgement the old working class communities suffer at the hands of their own elites. Even following the US election from this side of the pond, you see how democrats sneer at some of the old, blue-collar working classes communities for their socially and politically right-leaning tendencies. I like Gran Torino for not pandering to the typical hollywood tropes and shallow stereotypes on racism, instead showing it as more complex and, yes, human than the "he bad because he say racist things" narrative pushed out by nearly every liberal wanker in the western world.

All in all, I'm fairly surprised at the hyperbole this thread contains. If I didn't know better I'd say trolling hyperbole.

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Wed Oct 10, 2012 4:54 am
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Post Re: Dug up some of my old reviews.
Ken -

Quote:
It's a shame that Mendes's marketers deliver this message with far more skill and economy than Mendes himself does with the actual movie. As a Brit, it is unsurprising that he has little more than a tourist's grasp of the American suburban lifestyle that he sees fit to portray to us. The truth he believes he is telling is woefully shallow. His characters speak in embarrassingly canned dialogue; his plot carries them along against their will. Consider one scene in which Lester (Kevin Spacey) meets his young new neighbor, Ricky (Wes Bentley), for the first time. After speaking with him for a few moments, Ricky offers Lester a joint, and Lester accepts. As defined by the story, this is one of several tentative steps that Lester takes into midlife crisis--or, as he sees it, rebellion against his stultifying middle class lifestyle.

That moment rings false; Lester's narration tells us that he's been trapped this way for so long that he doesn't even remember how it happened. Yet, when offered the slightest opportunity to do something completely contrary to the way he's behaved for his entire adult life, in a situational context that gives him every excuse not to, Lester does so without even thinking about it. Here is just one moment in which Mendes showcases a profound ignorance of both American middle class inertia and human nature in general
.


I don't know about you ken, but I go out my way to make decisions that rock the boat in life. And this started after a period of relative depression 4 years ago. It isn't against human nature. it's entirely consistent with it. Painfully so. Your assertion that this against "human nature" doesn't put a dent in the film, it betrays a lack of perspective and humanity on your behalf. When did Travis Bickle suddenly decide to shave a mohawk and start carrying weapons?

I'm guessing you were pretty young when you wrote this.

Quote:
Mendes has even more superficial insight on tap, likely gleaned secondhand from older movies that said what he has to say with more passion and authenticity. Each character is given--or, more accurately, defined by--a cliche problem or a signature quirk. Lester's neighbors are a pair of cohabitating gay lovers, who serve no purpose except that their gayness provokes reactions in the other, slightly less one-dimensional characters in the neighborhood.


You're wrong on this. The point of the gay neighbours is to show that "alternative lifestyles" are often just as boring an conformist as any other. One of them a tax lawyer, the other puts people to sleep.

Quote:
Lester's daughter is saving money for a boob job. While she doesn't like her parents (mind you, she is a teenager), nothing else in the movie indicates that poor body image is in any way related to her angst. She wants a boob job simply so the movie can convey that she is a girl with issues, nondescript though they may be. To reduce self-image to a quick-and-dirty substitute for character development is insulting not only to other storytellers who invest real time and effort into their characters, but to real life women who struggle with problems of self-image.


At the beginning of the film she wants a boob job when she is conforming to her own peer setting. Once she stops caring for the said setting she doesn't mention it again.

Quote:
Lester's wife is a career-driven ice queen. I don't need to describe her any further, because the movie doesn't. The movie suggests that she hasn't always been this way, but doesn't care enough about her to indicate how, why, or when she changed.


Perhaps so. But my goodness, I recognise her exactly in any numbers of shrieking monters I've had the misfortune to meet.

Quote:
Lester's neighbor, the father of Ricky, is a severely conservative military man. We eventually find out that he has a fascination with Nazi culture.


The Nazi plate is a metaphor for how he sees his own hidden homosexuality. A symbol of his self-hatred.
A conflicted, gay homophobe.

Quote:
The movie's ending is not foreshadowed, so much as given away outright by the heavy-handed narrative clues and Spacey's explain-everything voiceover narration. This is inexcusably lazy storytelling, scarcely worth the 2 out of 10 rating that I'm giving it. "Look closer," indeed. Sam Mendes would do well to heed the advice of his own marketers.


By clues do you mean the bit when he says "I'll be dead in a year"?

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Wed Oct 10, 2012 8:03 am
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Post Re: Dug up some of my old reviews.
NotHughGrant wrote:
If I didn't know better I'd say trolling hyperbole.
I prefer the term "satire".

Not to split hairs, but I think trolling is a matter of intent.

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Wed Oct 10, 2012 5:55 pm
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Post Re: Dug up some of my old reviews.
This is satire, British style -

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NesjvRihbEg

The TV personalities think what they are reading is real. They've been duped!

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Thu Oct 11, 2012 4:08 am
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Post Re: Dug up some of my old reviews.
Ken --

The plot goes something like this. Andy, the Robbins character, is sent up the river for killing his wife. The movie, in an act of cowardice, refuses to tell us whether or not he actually did it. The viewers would feel guilty about being interested in the exploits of a cold-blooded murderer, but the movie can't definitively state Andy's innocence. That would place too much focus upon the particulars of the perfunctory courtroom sequence, which is introduced and tossed aside in a matter of minutes. Therefore, the film tries to have its cake and eat it too. Is Andy innocent or isn't he? Nobody knows, perhaps not even the filmmakers This sort of refusal to commit to a consistent moral position is a pandering tactic all too common in motion pictures. It damages this movie and many others.

-----------------------------------------------------------------

So does that mean if it had've opened the way The Fugitive did it may have had the chance of making a 6? :D

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Thu Oct 11, 2012 10:14 am
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Post Re: Dug up some of my old reviews.
Ken,

Have you ever read Mr. Cranky? I ask because your reviewing style reminds me of him.

-Jeremy

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