Saturday, January 31, 2004

Movies I've seen recently: Lost in Translation, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country.

Star Trek 6 was... meh. I didn't hate it. But it was completely and totally for the Trekkies, and I'm not one. I liked its humor ("There is an old Vulcan proverb: only Nixon could go to China," and "Those weren't his knees.") And it fits in that class of movies that's not necessarily good or bad, but fun. But the plot was predictable, and the political subtext was just another joke to me. Is that because the Cold War ended before I was old enough to care, or is it because (as I understand it, I could be wrong) the Federation is an authoritarian state with a centralized and planned economy, so which side are we supposed to be rooting for? Oh yeah - and there were a ton of plot holes or logical inconsistencies. Heckling a movie can be fun, but it makes it much harder for the movie to be good.

And finally, special effects can't make a movie good, as we've found out with so many SF movies recently, but they can make a mediocre movie so much worse. See, if the technology doesn't exist to create something convincingly, then a competent director would have it happen offscreen or in the shadows or something. When Obi-Wan Kenobi vanished into thin air in Star Wars, he was wearing a heavy cloak which was left behind. But when something gets vaporized on Star Trek, there's a bright glowy thing that looks like it instantly got covered with Christmas lights, which is probably how the effect was done in the original series.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico was weird. If you take the exact balance of action, humor, and drama all wrapped up in a fairy-tale feel as found in The Princess Bride, set it in Mexico, and direct it by Quentin Tarantino channeling John Woo, you'd have a very good idea of what this movie is like. I liked it. It was politically incorrect (a drunk, a gigolo, and a vengeful fugitive, all of them musicians, team up to save Mexico's incompetent president from a coup!), but that only added to the humor. And it had Johnny Depp in it. He was amazing. You know, the reason he's so great in movies like this is that any idiot can be a tough guy, especially with the writer and director on your side. But the really dangerous type of man is a lunatic because someone who's not controlled by self-preservation is really not controlled by anything at all. And it takes a truly unique actor to convey that recklessness completely and convincingly at the same time. An actor like Depp. And Antonio Banderas was in it too. Depp was more fun, but still, Banderas's dramatic performance as a mourning, vengeful widower single-handedly prevented the movie from being campy. Eva Mendes, Willem Dafoe, and Selma Hayek all had roles too, and they did very well, but I barely noticed their great acting talents, I was so caught up in everything else. (Okay, maybe I noticed Selma Hayek a little bit.) This movie would be too violent for many people and the violence would be too unrealistic for many more, but... Damn, it was cool!

As for Lost in Translation: it had good comedy, good acting, good writing, good directing, and good casting. It had a great performance by Bill Murray - he's really capable of serious acting when he wants to, and he did an unprecedented job here. But what the movie didn't have was one single microsecond that could be called even remotely exciting. They clearly were trying for something different, which is good because they didn't succeed at doing it traditionally. I would recommend it, personally. Just not when you're sleepy. And when I say "not even remotely exciting", I mean it. Go for a half-dozen laughs, two characters, and one heartwarming moment. If you go for anything else, you'll be disappointed.

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