Mike Kueber's Blog

May 19, 2012

Saturday Night at the Movies #26 – Manhattan, Once, Man on Wire, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Taxi to the Dark Side

Manhattan is a 1979 Woody Allen romantic comedy, co-starring his long-time girlfriend Diane Keaton, plus Mariel Hemingway and Meryl Steep.  The Netflix jacket calls it “as much a paean to the city he calls home as it is a tale of [Allen’s] romantic foibles.”  That’s enough to sell me because Manhattan is my favorite place in the world.

Allen’s character is only 42-years old at the time of the movie, and its interesting seeing him as a relatively young person with some bounce in his step.  He is dating and sleeping with a 17-year old Hemingway, which seems a bit scandalous, especially in light of his eventual real-life coupling with his girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter.  Allen eventually married Soon-Yi Previn, and they have been married for 14 years, with two adopted children.

Allen’s character is typically witty and more confident, less neurotic than in his typical movie, but I was especially impressed with his complete honesty in dealing with two complicated romantic relationships.  There are numerous scenes where I expect him to fudge the truth in a way that avoids short-term difficulties while making things worse long-term.  But instead he is utterly honest.  The other characters, however, engage in rationalizations that are relatively mild, but become glaring compared to Allen’s uprightness. 

Allen’s uprightness reminds me of a saying that I just read on someone’s Facebook wall – Honesty is a very expensive gift; don’t expect it from cheap people.”  One of my major character flaws is a propensity to shade my statements to tell listeners what they want to hear, especially when telling the unadorned truth will disappoint the listener or make me look bad.  I really need to get better at telling unadorned truth. 

Rotten Tomatoes critics gave the movie a 98% score, while its audience gave it 91%.  I agree and give it three and a half stars out of four.  The only weakness is that neither Hemingway nor Keaton stirred my drink.

My drink was stirred by Once.  This 2006 low-budget ($160k) Irish musical shot in Dublin is utterly charming and is a musical only in the sense that George Strait’s Pure Country is a musical – i.e., the movie is about musicians playing their music.  The musicians in Once are Glen Hansard from the Irish folk-rock band The Frames and Marketa Irglova.  They wrote and performed most of the songs in the movie and one of the songs – Falling Slowly – won an Academy Award for Best Song.  The singing and acting are both understated, so the relative inexperience of the actors fits with the other aspects of the movie.  The story is absorbing, the characters are appealing, and the ending is perfect.  It’s Rotten Tomato scores – 97% from the critics and 90% from the audience – are virtually identical to the Manhattan scores, but I liked it better, so instead of three and a half stars that I gave Manhattan, I give Once a solid four stars.  The only reason I give a slight edge to the Before Sunrise/Sunset movies is that the couple in those movies were capable of traditional success but chose a different path, while the couple in Once were typical of dropouts.  I related better to traditional people who get off the beaten path than to people who never have been able to fit in.

After noticing the exceptionally high Rotten Tomato scores of Manhattan and Once, I decided to learn which movies of all time had received the highest Rotten Tomato scores.  As luck would have it, the Rotten Tomato website had a list of 100 movies that had received favorable ratings from every critic who had reviewed the movie, and to break the 100-way tie, the movies were listed in order of those that had been reviewed the most times.  At the top of the list was Man on Wire, a 2008 Academy Award-winning documentary about a Frenchman, Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974. 

I agree with the critics and found the movie to be interesting, entertaining and exciting.  But I also agree with the Rotten Tomato audience, which gave it a relatively diminished ranking of 88%. 

These numbers reveal the flaw of the Rotten Tomato rankings – i.e., they are essentially pass-fail.  Even though 100% of the critics thought Man on Wire was a good movie, their average rating is 8.4 out of 10.  Its Audience rating is 88% or 4.1 out of five.  By contrast, The Godfather is number 7 on the list because it only has 74 reviews, but its average Critics rating is 9.1 and its Audience rating is 97% or 4.4 out of five.  Citizen Kane has an even higher Critic rating of 9.4, although its Audience rating is only 91% or 4.1 out of five.     

My only disappointment with Man on Wire is that it glamourizes dare-devilish publicity stunts.  Although I do not share an interest in proving that undoable things can be done, I can understand why some people want to rise to the challenge, but Man on Wire is not doing an undoable thing.  The only thing that makes this feat exceptional is that Petit and his crew were able to surreptitiously gain access to the Twin Towers and that he risked his life in performing the stunt.  Sounds like Petit was merely a successor to Evel Knievel.     

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a 1988 movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a womanizing Prague doctor during the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.  Day-Lewis’s principal love interests are Juliette Binoche (naïve and histrionic) and Lena Olin (worldly, yet passionate), and they form a virtual ménage a trois.

The movie is interesting in depicting life in Prague before and after the invasion, but the storytelling is sometimes clunky in a way that commonly afflicts books that are adapted into movies.  Often you suspect that a scene in the movie does not fully make sense because you are lacking context that was included in the book.  In fact, Wikipedia states that the book of the same title is about two men and two women, while its description of the movie is about one man and two women.  The missing man, Franz, had a major role in the book and a relatively insignificant one in the movie.

The critics liked the movie more than the audience did – 94% of the critics liked it while 83% of the audience did.  I enjoyed the movie, but was disappointed with Daniel Day-Lewis because he came across as a bit effeminate.  Worse, he chose to be with the naïve and histrionic Binoche instead of the worldly, yet passionate Olin.  That wouldn’t make sense for a real man, but like I said, he was a bit effeminate.  I give the movie two and a half stars out of four.

Taxi to the Dark Side is a 2007 documentary that examines the use of torture by the U.S. following 9/11.  The movie is based on the story of an Afghanistan taxi driver who was “detained” for being a suspected terrorist and then was murdered by American soldiers while in custody.  The theme of the film is that, while some low-ranking soldiers were prosecuted for the killing, the high-ranking people who were ultimately responsible for allowing and even encouraging this sort of conduct completely avoided responsibility.

Because the documentary won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, I am mystified why I had never heard of it until I saw it on the Rotten Tomato list of movies with a 100% rating from the critics.  The audience gave it a solid 88% rating.

I reviewed a book on torture in my blog in early 2011, and this documentary takes a similar position against the enhanced interrogation techniques.  The documentary, however, was more effective because I finished reading the book still feeling ambivalent, but after watching the documentary, I am persuaded that America shouldn’t lower itself to such cruelty.

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