Tuesday, January 27, 2004

The Butterfly Effect / *** (2004)

The popularity of chaos theory goes way beyond being a topic of discussion between science geeks on a lazy afternoon; the very idea itself has writhed its way into the subtext of movie screenplays longer than you might realize. Though an adamant subject to penetrate no matter how thorough the knowledge, the most fundamental principle of the theory—known in several circles as the "Butterfly Effect"—is as simple enough to the average moviegoer as the concept of a moving camera. Essentially, this "effect" is a semi-scientific belief that the smallest actions can have devastating consequences (in more metaphorical terms, a Butterfly that flaps its wings in Africa can jump-start a typhoon on the other side of the planet). Now think about that idea closely for a moment and try to think of a film that operates on those levels of reasoning. Time's up—how long did it take for "Jurassic Park" to enter your head?

Swimming Pool / ***1/2 (2003)

Writers deal with major social problems on a personal level every single day, contemplating moves and reaching conclusions that carry nearly all the emotional weight of major life-altering decisions. Their dedication to the work is no easy task because it normally requires them to confront themselves on a routine basis, to see their own values as an artist before they can begin to share their work with the world around them. The more they discover, the more motivated they become, but once they have exhausted every opportunity to reveal something new about themselves, the well of knowledge runs dry. That's why the best writers of our time are those who demonstrate evolution as a person—if the goals have changed and the perspective has grown from when it originated, then the groundwork is in place. Inspiration, on the other hand, sometimes requires a certain amount of external searching, something that may or may not be an easy task for any kind of writer.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Cold Mountain / *** (2003)

If Margaret Mitchell were alive to see the continuing fascination with the Civil War in motion pictures, she might have regretted the penning of "Gone With The Wind." Her most famous and honored literary work didn't just inspire an equally-famous 5-hour film epic, after all, it also created the shell for which nearly every similarly-themed movie in the 60-odd years to follow would use as a housing unit, some so directly that they could pass off as cheap imitations. Whatever the reason behind so many filmmakers being so directly motivated by the work of one 1930s movie, however, the audience's continued fascination with the era no doubt fuels their efforts. Why? Not because moviegoers are interested in the war or its long and exhausting conflicts; likely, they are still amused by the period's amusing sense of social skill, as it typically involved, especially in the south, people communicating through clever analogies or lengthy discussions entirely spoken through the excessive use of metaphors. This is ultimately one of the major attractions to the idea of doing a Civil War film; everything else, including battle sequences, character strategy, moral conflicts and visual presentation, have all become side dishes.

Monday, January 12, 2004

The Last Samurai / **** (2003)

The word "Samurai," as emphasized a short distance into the new Edward Zwick film "The Last Samurai," means "to serve," specifically in this case to the Japanese empire in which it originated from. History tells us that this class of warriors, most of them peasants or citizens in the lower class, originated in the early 12th century and were subsequently called upon to act as a defense against powerful cartels of rebels, their style of combat appreciated so earnestly that its essence as an art form remained an active military force for more than 700 years. Alas, with the western influence reaching overseas by the late 1800s, these great protectors quickly became a dying breed, their skills replaced by industry and men in suits who thought catch phrases and barked warnings were much mightier than a sword's agility. This is most evident during a crucial scene during the middle act of Zwick's film, when Samurai ride into residential streets only to be stared at by hordes of disapproving eyes. Here, no one remembers what these men have done for their nation in the past; they are now just outsiders in the very society they tried to preserve for the last seven centuries.

Kill Bill, Vol. 1 / **** (2003)

"Revenge is a dish better served cold."

The flutter of Quentin Tarantino's creative wings is a sight that every movie lover should see at least once in his or her lifetime, even though the opportunity only presents itself at the multiplex once or twice every decade. A master of his craft and probably the most inspired amongst his peers, he is someone who loves movies almost as much as he enjoys making them, a detail that provides him with an excellent source of groundwork in his apparent goal to satisfy as many moviegoers as possible. Consider "Pulp Fiction," his most lauded effort to date; here he harvests as many narrative and technical gimmicks as he possibly can in just two short hours, combining a modern mindset with elements of various genres of the 1970s in order to establish something more distinctive than anything done by anyone else in the industry. The movie is quirky, ironic, clever and nostalgic all in the same gulp, and the fact that it always manages to entertain without fail amongst all its style-bending and cliché-melding is further proof of how dedicated the man is to his cause.

Identity / **** (2003)

Your identity is the blueprint of your being, the foundation on which morals, ideals and opinions evolve on an internal level. Every behavioral detail is derived from its essence, and when it undergoes any kind of damage or harm, one's perception of the world around them is greatly altered. That, of course, leaves a door wide open to argument because mindsets are never similar to begin with; they are fundamental but simply not universal. And yet if that's what adds to the wondrous dimension of humanity, then no wonder it is such a studied concept in so many factions of society. Understanding our own minds is one thing, but trying to comprehend that of another, particularly someone who is much more apparently flawed, is a strangely alluring effort.

21 Grams / **** (2003)

For its perplexing first half hour, "21 Grams" exists as a series of plot splinters, fragmented and inconclusive, almost as if just a collection of outtakes from a more established product that remains unseen. But then the movie reveals itself almost as easily as it gets underway; a light switch goes on and the darkness fades away, revealing a story so stirring, so inquisitive and so uninhibited by the restraints of cinema that it absorbed me in ways that few movies ever have. You know you are dealing with something great when a plot can so easily absorb you without actually being very obvious, but it takes a stroke of pure brilliance to twist it into so many knots while keeping its viewers thoroughly engaged in the process. This isn't just one of the best movies of the year; it is one of the most thoughtful, challenging and engrossing endeavors we will ever see. Don't be fooled by anything the first 20 minutes might suggest.