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A lot of people consider The Usual Suspects to be a great movie.  I don’t even consider it good.  Here’s why:

Imagine you were watching a movie (not hard to imagine), and in the vein of Citizen Kane, there is a question that keeps getting asked over and over and over again (E.g. What is rosebud?  Why Rosebud?).  That one’s a little more difficult.  Better yet, think about it in terms of a mystery–Who is the serial stalker?–and people keep asking “Who did it?” over and over and over again.  You expect that from some movies.  In the case of mystery movies, it really drives the plot, it’s the essential question that motivates why the story movies along and what goal the investigator has.

In a more complicated (not that most mystery movies aren’t complicated), movie like Citizen Kane where you have a guy at the beginning of the movie calling out “Rosebud!  Rosebud!” and people wonder what it is, the essential question works  a little differently.  In Citizen Kane, it was a starter to the almost epic biography of a man, his life, and what he most valued, which it turns out is Rosebud–this isn’t answered until the end of the movie, as a big reveal to explain what he really valued in life even though he couldn’t have it.

The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects

Then there’s The Usual Suspects, which operates like a high class caper film.  It’s like a mystery, a mystery with the driving question: “Who is Kaiser Soze?”  (And, if you’re familiar with the restaurant Moe’s, which I love, then you’ll know the movie was popular enough for them to make a ‘Who is Kaiser Salsa’ salsa flavor after the movie.  That’s some pretty big stuff.  You know a movie has real popular weight when it’s satirized in restaurant food names.)  And, if you know the tricks of mystery capers, the solution will be one of three.

  1. Kaiser Soze will be a character we know, possibly the character we know the best in the film. (E.g. Fight Club)
  2. Kaizer Soze will be a minor character introduced at the beginning of the film with a small motive that is referenced at the end of the film with a big reveal.
  3. Kaiser Soze will be a character we don’t see until the last scene of the movie, a reveal that gives satisfaction to a something like a real life chase. (E.g. Zodiac)

But we know the answer before we start the film because the film was directed by Bryan Singer.  And Bryan Singer is a film nerd.  He’s actually a nerd in many senses (e.g. comic book) but he’s a film nerd.  He probably knows movie history in and out, has seen all the film noirs like Laura, The Big Sleep, and The Maltese Falcon that defined The Usual Suspects.  So he knows which way the pendulum must fall.  The greatest, and most personally pleasing solution for directors like Bryan Singer (please note any movie by M. Night Shayamalan).  The most pleasing solution is to have the answer in front of you the entire time.  He will always choose option one.  No questions asked.

This makes the movie, plotwise, almost boring to watch because we’re only introduced to one main character that plays through the entire movie–Verbal.  So the answer is staring (literally, staring) at us right from the beginning. Also, the plot doesn’t make much sense.  We are told a story from the beginning through Verbal, but I couldn’t not really keep track of the story.  At once we were in California, then New York, and characters saying things that should mean something but meant nothing.  They decided to kill someone.  I knew not who the person was or what their importance was.  I was bored.

Thank goodness Singer is an excellent filmmaker.  Because technically, the movie is quite creative and interesting to watch.  He sets his film shots up very well, does a lot with color, tone, and mood in his scenes, and though unevenly edited, has a good overall flow to his film.  He made a great film noir, in the tradition of The Big Sleep, and for that I can fault him nothing.  The Big Sleep is so twisted with its own plot complications that the movie itself doesn’t actually make sense–this is a pretty well known fact in the film community.

But, let me say this.  I think the movie is pretty good–if only for the knowledge that it does well what a filmi noir is supposed to do.  That being, confuse, confound, confirm the dearth of life, and potentially have an interesting reveal at the end.  But the plot isn’t there, and it should be there.  A movie is in essence a story in pictures first.  And if I like the pictures, but don’t really get the story, why should I care?

At least The Big Sleep flowed.  A movie I consider to be only a step below The Usual Suspects is The Black Dahlia, which is a pretty awful movie in its own right–a film noir like The Usual Suspects, with too much plot for an audience to care.  Usual Suspects is a far cry from the much more carefully laid out, and classier film noir, LA Confidential.   It does not, cannot compete.  So, while The Usual Suspects may have its thousands of die-hard fans, this guy here isn’t, and there’s a reason why: it’s just not interesting enough to be good, let alone great.

You judge for yourself.  6/10.

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Precious Movie Poster I would not expect a movie starring Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, and Mo’nique to be very good.  I would expect it to be a slightly better version of Glitter.  But when I saw the previews for Precious, even the all star cast (with a not so great acting reputation) couldn’t convince me not to see the movie.  It was too relevant to a teacher in an urban area.  It was too exciting not to see, especially seeing the hype surrounding the movie, and a 90% ranking on RottenTomatoes. Watching the preview, I thought it would be a movie I would hate.  It would be a movie that had too much drama.  Too urban.  Too far away.  But it wasn’t, not at all.

The movie is about an overweight teenage girl, who goes by Precious, in New York City.  We first see her in math class in high school.  She likes math class, she likes her math class teacher.  She doesn’t do anything in math class, and her teacher doesn’t seem to notice.  Then she is called to the principal’s office, where we discover the real issue.  This movie is not going to be an inspirational movie about a girl who loves math and eventually goes to Harvard.  This isn’t Dangerous Minds, and it certainly won’t be Freedom Writers.

We find out Precious has a child.  We find out she is pregnant with another one.  And, a few minutes later, we find out her father is the father of both of her children.  And Precious’ mother hates Precious for being “given” more children by her husband than she was.  Precious lets it slide.  She lets a lot of things slide.  She feels a lot of things, and her frustrations with her mother are not the most important.  She is still dealing with rape, incest, being not only a teenage mother, but a teenage mother with two children.  Life for Precious, in other words, ain’t been no crystal stair.

And that’s the point of the movie.  We see her go to a new “alternative school,” where she does a little more work than she did before.  She meets new friends.  Has a nice nurse when she has her baby.  Has a lovely teacher who works for her to try and help her.  But her mother still throws glasses and potted plants at her neck.  She even hurls a TV down the stairs at Precious and her child.  And Precious loses her home (for the better).  Precious finds out her father, the one who raped her, dies, a small victory.  But it is immediately undercut by the news that he had AIDS.

Now Precious has two children, one with Down Syndrome, AIDS, and no home of her own.  And with that same expressionless face she keeps moving through her life, without taking anything for granted.  She revels in her children.  Reveals the truth of her pregnancies, begins to come to terms with it, but in the end, her life still sucks.

It sucked from the beginning, and it sucks at the end.  The film has a sense of uncompromising honesty and dissatisfaction to it that it hurts, in places, to watch it.  It is not an easy film to watch.  Precious is a girl who isn’t great to look at, but she is impossible not to watch.  When she is tripped, and falls flat on her face, it hurt.  The care for her child still in her was already a real concern in my mind.  The movie’s sense of brute force with so little hope attached is what I like most about it.  It makes no promises to its viewers, and I only promise to hope it is good.

It was good.  It was really good.

4/4

5/5

10/10

Your life will never be as bad as this movie.  And you can be happy about that.  Unfortunately, your life will never be as awesome as this movie.  Which sucks, but it’s reality.  Neither do you have the tragedy of living near or having to talk with Larry the Cable Guy.  Nor, on the other hand, can you be as good looking as Bruce Willis or Milla Jovovich while living a life of fantasy in the near non-existent future where aliens exist (and apparently look like armadillos) and Chris Tucker is…Chris Tucker. I’m not sure where I was going with that.  I could have gone a lot of places with that.  None of them would have been good places, though.  Regardless…

Anyways, to get to the point.  I constantly compare my life to the movies I watch.  I lament the fact that my life will never (A) be as interesting or (B) successful as The Lives of Others, and sometimes  wish Danny Kaye would Court Jester his way into my world just once.   Ever since moving to Philadelphia, and probably because I ride my bicycle everywhere (primarily because  I’m too cheap to buy a car, and in no way does my concern for the environment dictate my decision but it is nice that it is a benefit) with my iPod headphones in, I have had the insane hope that one, as I am riding home from work, two rival gangs will bust out into choreographed dance/fighting a la West Side Story, or maybe even a little basketball choreography…whatever gets the youth off the streets these days.  By the way, I did not know that movie won 10 Oscars.  Since Return of the King, Ben Hur, and Titanic are the big 11 Oscar winners they seem to get all the attention, but 10 Oscars is a darn impressive feat.  And until rewatching that YouTube clip, had never noticed that Bernardo wore Converse All-Stars.  That’s just classy.  Or maybe everyone wore Converse All-Stars in the ’60s and I’m just a little young to know or understand.  Either way, classy.  I stand by my opinion.

(Ever since writing this, I’m going to start pushing the theater department at our school to do West Side Story as the spring musical.  This year they decided to do The Wiz.  I’m ambivalent.  The Wiz is apparently done every year at one of the middle schools in Philadelphia.  I have a feeling it’s overdone in urban areas.  Personal opinion.  Although I have to give the theater department props for doing The Outsiders and moving the play from the middle of nowhere middle America in the ’60s to New York City in the late ’80s.  They’re good.)

I am constantly wishing the movies I watch pop up in my own life.  In case you hadn’t clued in yet, this is the MOVIES AS ESCAPISM philosophy.  This is what I believe.  This is why I particularly hate watching documentaries.  I don’t like the world enough as it is, do I have to watch it all over again when I get home?  (NOTE:  This movie is a rare exception to the documentary rule.  Moving on…)  Watching Hoop Dreams was painful.  Crumb?  Just unnecessary.

This is why I’m not convinced by District 9.  It’s a little to preoccupied with NOT allowing the audience member to hopefully ignore the fact that it is really about apartheid to allow the audience member to watch the movie without thinking.  I like movies that make you think.  I don’t like movies that do the thinking for you.  This is also why (but for a slightly different reason) I will never like the National Treasure movies.  The National Treasure movies, unlike District 9, just tell you the answer.  District 9, instead, hammers the obvious into you with a mallet.  Neither is very comfortable or easy to watch.

Clarification: Watching movies about the harsh realities of life is OK.  I don’t know why, but it is.  Watching Year of the Quiet Sun was much nicer than any factual movie I have watched about Europe post World War II.  It isn’t a happy movie.  It isn’t an altogether kind movie.  But because I know it is fiction, maybe it is easier for me to stomach and accept, because I know it isn’t reality.   The movie doesn’t have to be harsh to be hated.  It just has to be real.  Movies, to me, weren’t made to show the world.  They were meant to, at the most, mirror the world, echo the world, re-represent the world, meant to capture our shadows on the cave, not to show our true faces.

This brings be to the review of the article (a personal favorite): Sunshine (I’ll get to Solaris another day.)

I know this is really late.  I know this is two years late.  I’m going to start actually writing about modern and relevant movies when work allows me the time to go out to the movie theater and see relevant movies.  Until then, I’ll review old favorites.

This movie I think is quite wonderful.  I think it is quite wonderful because it was probably a movie made precisely for me.  Ebert got it right when he said the movie was made for nerds. But, it’s more than a movie for nerds.  It’s a classic movie in that it devotes nothing new to the entire subgenre of movies where a crew of people go into outer space, get on each other’s nerves, and grapple with the fact that they’re on a suicide mission all while trying to be both psychological and vaguely sexy.  It doesn’t add anything new because the genre exists solely for B-grade movies.  (The exception is Solaris almost exclusively.  I don’t like Alien or Aliens.  I’ll explain that one later too, I promise.)  I’m pretty sure this movie does not try to be anything more than the best it knows it can be–a B-grade movie.  This is why Ebert will give it a 3/4.   Because that’s all it should deserve.

Fortunately, it is more than that.  It is part Science Fiction, part horror, part drama, part diatribe.  It’s like an all style and no substance movie with a little bit a substance.  Not much, but just enough to be entertaining.  I won’t bother with the plot because the plot doesn’t really matter very much.   You’ve seen it before.  Until a certain moment in the film.  Then it switches genre with one fail swoop and moves into another type of movie you’ve also seen before.  It’s interesting to manage and understand the switch.  It’s not that interesting.  But it is interesting.  What’s more interesting are the visuals, which will always win me over storyline, although the storyline isn’t terrible.  It’s a joy to watch, the visuals will win any viewer over.

This, I admit is my major downfall as a moviewatcher.  Oftentimes I’m willing to allow my obsession with great visuals overtake my practical sense of plot, pacing, and acting, none of which is lacking in Sunshine.  Did I mention this is one of my favorite films.  I’m not sure why I’m trying to make it sound so bad.  It’s not.  It’s actually really good.  Give it a chance.  Put it on your Netflix queue.  I doubt you’ll be sorry.

If you are, let me know, and let me know why.  Like my students who all seem to think an opinion ends with yes or no, I will always respond in the same way: an opinion is no good without a valid reason.  Give evidence!  That’s usually when I start raving around the classroom like a lunatic screaming incoherently about the value of justification and evidence.  That’s when all my students stop listening.  Which is fine.  Everything is still fine.

I watched a movie last night.  I was called Raise the Red Lantern.  Planning to watch only the beginning because I had Saturday School the next morning, I began the movie only to know after the first moments I would not be able to watch the movie in more than one sitting.  The movie is transfixing, and if you do not find it absorbing from the beginning, it will probably be a movie you will not enjoy.

It begins with a face, a beautiful, angry, and sad face of a young Asian woman (a recent dropout from the university after her father’s death) that is discussing her marriage possibilities with her–to be labeled later–stepmother.  The dialogue is spoken dispassionately from the actor’s mouths, but the words and facial expressions are anything but.  Thanks to youtube, the clip of the first scene is below.

NOTE: There is also a trailer on YouTube, but I’m of the opinion hat it reveals too much.  I think it might be better to come into the movie knowing little, for it is not what will happen in the movie, but how it will happen in the movie that is most amazing.

Back to the summary:  The young girl is named Songlian, and she is wedded to an obviously wealthy man.  She walks to his estate, and the main house butler is surprised she did not wait for the wedding caravan.  The first hint that her independent, educated spirit is not in keeping with the traditions of the household.

As she is led through the estate, she is brought to the master’s first three wives: First Mistress, the eldest of the wives and mother of the eldest son–she is never with the master throughout the movie; Second Mistress, a kind woman with a sweet face, but a woman who is noticeably growing older; and Third Mistress, still young, still beautiful, and a former opera singer.  Our heroine is no longer Songlian, but the Fourth Mistress.  Along with meeting the other wives, she is also introduced to the ancient customs of the ageless household.  Most importantly, the red lanterns.  The mistress the master chooses to sleep with is honored by having red lanterns hung in her section of the house estate.  She also chooses the dinner menu.  She treated better by the household servants.  She is the woman in favor.

The rest of the movie is a battle of emotions between the women.  The master is often heard but not seen with any clarity.  The only male characters are the house butler, his aide in hanging the red lanterns, and the family doctor.  In thinking about this movie, the first adjective that sprung to mind was great. The second adjective was feminist. I’m not sure if it is a feminist movie, but for being a movie about the loves, betrayals, emotions, and actions of women who are pitted against each other to gain favor of the master and birth him a son, it certainly tends in that direction.  It is also based on the novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong.  It is clearly a story about women.  Beyond that I will not say because while it may be a story bout women, I’m not sure it is a movie entirely about women.

It is definitely a movie about a house.  The film is almost entirely restricted inside the walls of the house with the exception of the first few minutes.  The house stands as an unchartable piece of architecture, seen from the roof to extend over the horizon in a maze of pathways and stairs and secret rooms.  Each room of the different mistresses is patently different and lavishly decorated.  The house acts as a character of its own, lived out most closely by the actions and reactions of the First Mistress–dominated by custom, lacking emotion.

For a movie dominated by red it is blatantly lacking in sensuality.  The sex is custom and formality.  A demand of the master, treated like a competition to be won by the mistresses.  It is an exceptionally beautiful film, and I cannot praise it highly.  It is immediately a movie I knew I wanted to own.  It is captivating.  Beyond that personal reaction, it is technically tight.  The actors are entirely controlled and (re)act with as much honesty and energy as I expect in real life.  The cinematography is exceptional.  The direction: flawless.

Visually stunning, entirely controlled.

Visually stunning, entirely controlled.

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