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
Takashi Miike's remake of Masaki Kobayashi's Hara-kiri is one of those movies where nothing's really wrong, but that by itself isn't enough for the territory. It's a perfectly competent update for a movie that didn't need it, and maybe that's the problem. The original film was not flawed in any significant way, save maybe in the eyes of a modern audience for having the effrontery of not being in color. In fact, Hara-kiri was and remains a masterwork, a product of the samurai cinema of the Sixties that used the form to challenge authority, to question the mystique and pomp of the warrior class that had been used as emotional propaganda for generations.
Much of that confrontatory attitude has drained out of Japan's moviemaking. Almost all of the samurai productions of the last couple of decades have been redolent with sentimentalism. Even Miike himself — normally one of Japan's bad boys of moviemaking (a label he'd have gained for Ichi the Killer alone) — had veered into weepier territory with productions like Sabu. I liked Sabu a great deal, if only because it showed that Miike was not a one-note Nelson. The man could, and has, made movies in just about every genre imaginable, and learned to reign in his excesses when it mattered. If there was someone to make a confrontatory movie in today's climate, it was him. But this somehow isn't that film.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
Dim-witted but sporadically enjoyable attempt at a crossbreed between revisionist caveman stories (Quest for Fire, The Clan of the Cave Bear) and peplum epics (Ben-Hur). Good points: nice sense of epic scope, especially in the last third or so of the film, which hints at a larger mythology than we actually see. Bad points: inane accents, eye-rolling racial stuff (World Saved By White Guy, Again — More At 11), and one of the dumbest kill-a-character-then-bring-them-back-to-life-because-we-said-so story twists. Directed by the guy who blew up the White House.
Would it be awkward to say that the box-office bomb that sucked $250 million out of Disney's pockets and touched off a regime change in its management ranks is ... only pretty good? I say "only" because it's not the disaster some feared (or hoped) it would be, nor is it a game-changer, nor an unrecognized classic. The culprit was the terrible marketing: an incoherent ad campaign that didn't give the flavor of the film; cold-footed focus-grouping (the of Mars was dumped because of this); and some of the blandest and most forgettable promotional art of any movie in recent history.
But hidden inside this tasteless gift wrap was a genuinely good film, if also a bit overstuffed. Confederate soldier Carter mistakenly teleports himself to Mars and is plunged into a multi-front struggle between various factions trying to seize control of it, but his bullheaded stubbornness and a little superhuman ability picked up along the way — along with a four-armed friend voiced by Willem Dafoe — help him save the day and win the hand of a Martian princess. Not that she needs any saving herself, which is fun to watch.
Adapted from a number of Edgar Rice Burroughs's seminal pulp fantasies — themselves an influence on everything from Star Wars to Guin Saga* — JC contains about fifty percent too much plot for its own good, but also doesn't make the mistake of simply lumping everyone into "good" and "evil" camps and letting them take a whack at each other. It's 3 hours of movie in a 2-hour bag, but in the end it plays out better than you might expect — and the way the movie ties itself back into Burroughs's own life mythology is, as a friend of mine used to say, dash clever.
* which, now that I think about it, will never get filmed no thanks to this film stiffing bigtime.