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"Brief Encounter" is very quiet subdued film from director David Lean, known more for his sprawling epics "Lawrence of Arabia", "Dr. Zhivago" and "Bridge on the River Kwai" and from writer Noel Coward who was one of the most important playwrights of his time. Their respective brilliance is on show here, in this early masterpiece which stands up against Lean's later works.
The film seems to suffer from accusations that it has "dated poorly" but I honestly don't see it. It is the story of a potentially explosive affair that is told in a very reserved manner, and scarcely has any impact beyond the two central characters. For this reason the film seems like a breath of fresh air in a genre that tends to lean towards melodrama. With "Brief Encounter" we are given a focus more on internal conflict, particularly in the mind of Laura (Celia Johnson) whose inner monologue, spoken as if to her caring husband, is stitched throughout the flashback telling of her affair with Alec Hardy (Trevor Howard). This narration serves the purpose of highlighting Laura's self-consciousness and adds poetry to the calm visuals.
In the romantic genre this film is quite original in that it deals with a middle-aged middle-class couple who start an extra-marital affair. There are no villains, Laura's husband is respectful and understanding, Alec's wife is non-existent. The only conflict is internal, borne from feelings that cannot be helped and actions that occur spontaneously. We are not distracted by childish squabbles, we are dealing with intelligent respectable people who are overcome with love and misery and so we get a film that is not didactic or preachy in the way many American films of this time are. Although the affair between Alec and Laura doesn't work out there is no resolution. Even though the final image in the film is Laura and her husband embracing, her last true emotional act is her attempt to throw herself under a train. She is in pain from beginning to end.
This is not to say that the film wallows in depression or self-hatred. There are moments of real love and infatuation. The film explores the highs and lows of an incongruous love affair, shooting from the joy of being in the other person's company to the shame of being part of an illicit love affair that takes place outside the confines of what is socially acceptable, being forced to duck and hide outside one's usual social circles, having to lie to one's husband so as not to have to face the consequences of his disappointment.
Addressing the accusations of the film's being out-dated, there are of course a number of things in the film that betray the time in which it was made. Laura is a character who is exploring sexual possibilities outside the confines of a nuclear family, and seeing as the film was made during the reign of a conservative government during war-time, it is indicative of the changing values in a Britain that would be at the forefront of social reform 15 years later, and that would of course vote out the conservative government the following election. The film explores how women's place in society was rapidly changing, and how the change would not be easy for anyone.
The film is sprinkled with great moments but the most poignant is the one scene that takes place both at the beginning and the end of film, in which Alec and Laura part for the final time. In the beginning we see that Alec and Laura are annoyed by the arrival of Mrs Messiter, but it's not until we revisit this scene at the end of the film that we get to understand the irritation and discomfort of this departure. It was a relationship that was always overcast with fear of exposure and guilt, this ending is representative of the essence of the relationship. It can't even end well, but of course this is merely the end of physical interaction, the mental anguish will continue, which Laura understands, which is why she attempts to kill herself.
This is truly one of the greatest British films ever made from one of the great directors and one of the most notable playwrights of the 20th Century. It works because we are shown two characters who are smart enough to know what they are doing will end badly, but are too smitten with one another to be able to resist meeting every Thursday. They are both respectable family people, one holds down an admirable profession the other keeps house, yet for all their good education and high social standing they have no means by which to avoid these events. It is a story of love and tragedy in which physical appearances mean nothing and what lies beneath is where the seeds of change are sewn.
Could the pleasure I derive from watching this film be described as "guilty"? Maybe, but so what. I really do enjoy it. I've got a genuine thing about flashy extravagant musicals and this film is done exactly in that style, only instead of music we get Shakespearean language. If a film is going to yank us out of reality I'd much prefer it to be done completely like it is in this film rather than in a half-assed way, like most action/thrillers.
"Romeo & Juliet" is probably my favourite Shakespeare play, although I've not read them all yet. I wouldn't consider myself a huge sentimentalist, but there's something profoundly brilliant about the language and the plot as well as the deceptively complex characters. This is the greatest love story ever told for one reason (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!): both lovers die.
We get hints about Romeo that he is fickle. He begins the story in love with Rosaline, but as soon as he sets eyes on Juliet he's smitten with her and Rosaline becomes a nobody. Juliet is locked in an arranged marriage with a man she can't stand. At this point in her life the young handsome Romeo is her escape. This love could have been nothing more than an infatuation, let's not forget the story takes place over the course of five days and in this time the protagonists meet, fall in love, get married and die. The story is known as true love, but what if they hadn't died on the fifth day, would young love continue into middle and then old age? It's hard to imagine, but for Shakespeare this is the essence of love; spontaneity, recklessness, devotion and fleeting moments.
Now, as for Luhrmann's interpretation of the story, while it's hardly the definitive version of the original play it is certainly something to admire in my opinion. As for the modern interpretation, this isn't something unique to this film. Shakespeare's plays are often being reset in different time-periods (I once saw a version of Othello set in the 1930s, suspenders, phonographs and all). The specific one chosen for this film, Verona Beach, is like a post-apocalyptic Miami-style beach-side city in which two aristocratic houses are engaged in a gang war of sorts. This conflict in comprehensible in these terms. Modern gang-violence is a thing that is understood to some extent as being exactly the type of conflict that is present between the Capulets and the Montagues.
It is a conflict with no real origin, but is passed on through generations. The families hate each other and they can't say why. Each generation breeds it's own personal reasons for fighting, beginning with the inherited offences, and continuing with the deaths of the younger members, (eg. Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo kills Tybalt, etc.) thus perpetuating the violence.
What both Romeo and Juliet therefore represent is the breaking of the chain. For many people in the real world it is their parents (their views, their enemies, their issues) that mess up their lives, or what's worse, when people inherit their parents views wholesale, like in the case of Tybalt or Benvolio. Both Romeo and Juliet have a hatred for one another's family that they have inherited, but as soon as they meet it is gone, and their loyalties are only with each other. Unfortunately their families influence proves far too great and they perish because of it. As much as it is a love story, "Romeo and Juliet" is about how the generation before can come to destroy the younger generation if the two are not completely compatible.
These themes are well represented in this film. The younger Montagues and Capulets are nearly mindless with their hatred, Romeo's presence at the Capulet party is enough to gravely offend Tybalt, while the parents do nothing to bridge the gap that they have created. Luhrmann's direction is kinetic and very heavy handed, but it works very well, representing a flash-in-the-pan romance with a lightning-strike feeling and a bizarre punk-burlesque style.
My favourite scene in the play is when Romeo climbs the walls of the Capulet mansion and overhears Juliets pleas: "Romeo, Romeo, where for art thou, Romeo". It is probably the most memorable of all Shakespeare's scenes for it's incredible wealth of beautiful lines, "art thou not Romeo, and a Montague?" "Neither fair maid, if either thee dislike" and of course "that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But for the film the most memorable scene must be when Romeo and Juliet first meet through the fish-tank. It is a very peaceful moment in a very loud film and the coy playful interaction between the characters, beautifully and silently acted out by DiCaprio and Danes sticks in the mind, and - dare I say - is much more memorable than how the first meeting occurs in the play. In the film it feels genuine, and it's completely necessary for the rest of the film, because if we believe this meeting, if we believe the looks in their eyes then we believe their love will last forever.
The film on its original release made back it's $14.5 million budget more than ten times, and it's little wonder. Besides the obvious star-power the film flaunts, the modern aesthetic opens Shakespeare to a whole new audience, and it's a testament to Luhrmann's boldness that he retained the play's original language, rather than just adopting the basic plot outline. And new audiences being opened up to the brilliance of Shakespeare is always a good thing.
This great ensemble film about the porn industry by Paul Thomas Anderson and set during the late 70s and early 80s is a surprisingly unusual extravaganza, mostly because it is an intelligent director addressing a controversial subject matter. It is heavy on great music and complicated yet beautiful scenes, boasts an unbelievable cast and is one of the most competently written films you're likely to find.
What's most interesting about the film is how it spoofs the classical-era films, or in other words, the notion of nuclear American family. This is a very obvious characteristic that the film flaunts. Amber Waves and Jack Horner are surrogate parents for Dirk Diggler. Dirk rejects his family name and takes the name of his new parents; a porn name. He is in good company when he arrives in Jack's house alongside Roller Girl, Reed Rothchild and Buck Swope, all children in the new unconventional nuclear family. The classic Hollywood trajectory is followed surprisingly closely here (as seen in films from 1933's "Only Yesterday" all the way up to 1990's "Home Alone"), as the family is together then torn apart by an unseeable force (in this case, the video-tape) and is ultimately reconciled at the end.
Of course this conventionality is satirical and wildly off-set because of the actual setting of the film and its characters. Where the conventional American family is obviously represented in platonic relationships, the fact that Jack's family is based on sex upsets the feeling of familiarity usually a staple in such stories. What we have then is not a film celebrating the new unconventional family, such as something like Don DeLillo's "White Noise" but instead offers a new perspective on an old idea. Basically, the film purports the idea that a family is something that is built on a vested interest, something that was absent from Dirk's "biological" family; an antagonistic mother, a cowardly father and a sexual son. The film ultimately rewards all its characters, Buck gets his business, Maurice starting a new club with his brothers etc.
The family aspect focuses heavily on Dirk, but Jack also has an interesting struggle of his own involving the art of his trade. Early on when Jack, Amber, Roller Girl and Dirk all meet in a diner, Jack divulges his desire to create the ultimate film in which people will stay in the theatre after they've jerked off to see how the story ends. Jack's artistic hopes are given a fighting chance when Dirk arrives on the scene and brings his dreams to life. Despite the acclaim Jack's films finally receive he must come crashing back down to earth when he is forced to work on video.
Jack clearly has impressions of what porn and sex are that he eventually and disastrously discovers his audience don't hold the same view of what he does that he holds. This becomes clear in two scenes, first, the scene in which Jack comes to realise his financier is a paedophile, a thing that shakes his faith in the industry and second the scene in which Jack, Roller Girl and the cameraman are cruising through LA looking for an amateur to film with. Jack's artistic vision clashes with the amateur boy's desire to fuck, and so a tension arises. When Jack beats the boy he is beating his audience for its indifference to his vision; it's desire to "jerk off and leave". It is really a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the divide between film-makers and film-goers played out in a fantastically over-the-top manner.
Criticism of this film would have to include the fact that Anderson lifted the style of this film wholesale from Scorsese's "Goodfellas" and "Casino" with the use of kinetic camera movements, swift-editing and upbeat music feeling very familiar. Thankfully Anderson seems to have perfected his own individual style as is seen in "There Will Be Blood", but here his youth and inexperience are glaring, but not overpowering.
What is very impressive here is both the script, which sets up some fantastic moments, such as the scene with Alfred Molina's drug-dealer and his Chinese fire-cracker friend, and the amazing long-shots that appear throughout the film, most notably the opening scene and Lil' Bill's murder-suicide.
Overall, the film is messy at times, but delightfully provocative in its treatment of familiar themes in unfamiliar places. A great success.
It's the season for horror films and where better to search for a true classic than Germany in 1922. "Nosferatu", as you should know, is an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Victorian London-set Dracula, but here the action is shifted to Bremen (or Wisburg depending on which version you watch) in 1838.
Right away, let me explain why this is one of the great horror films. First, because there was no sound the idea of throwing a loud noise and an image on screen at once to make people jump could not be applied. In other words the film, probably the source of all modern horror, builds its entire atmosphere through images alone, which is a considerable achievement when one thinks of the atmospheres in horror films that are based almost entirely around sound (eg. The Cat People, The Shining).
Secondly, the make-up and performance of Max Shreck is so creepy and believable, that at times you could forget you were watching a fiction film. This particular element, along with some others I'll mention later, really adds to the themes Stoker was putting across in his novel. Basically, the novel reflects on the absence (and by extension, the presence) of supernatural phenomena in the increasingly technologised Victorian age. This film takes that idea but dilutes it somewhat, making the vampire the source of a plague, a very real threat to humanity.
Speaking on the character of Dracula (or Orlok), the shots of him are so beautifully eerie that they simply must be etched into the mind of whoever sees them. One that always strikes me is the figure of the vampire standing in the pointed-arch doorway before he attacks Harker (or Hutter). Another, would be the emotionally and sexually charged image of the vampire standing at his window, gazing over at Mina (Ellen) with a look of pure animalistic desire on his face.
Speaking of Mina, the film takes an interesting deviation from the novel. Besides the look of the vampire, his death is changed from being staked while riding in his coffin on a carriage on the side of the Carpathian mountains to being destroyed by the sun's rays in Mina's bedroom. This is a substantial act as it is a very early example of female heroes in cinema. Whereas the novel has Mina looking on as the men kill the vampire, here Mina consciously sacrifices herself to the creature (and the vampire is more a creature here than in any other film I've seen) in order to rescue Bremen, and her husband from the threat of the plague.
Mina's arc is fascinating and profoundly emotional for a time when visuals were all there was to communicate with. One of the most powerful images shows Mina standing beside a window which then cuts to a window-view shot of a number of coffins being walked down a street. Death is ever-present around Mina; the flower's Jonathan picks for her (an act that was not emphasised with inter-titles in the American version), the presence of Gothic grave-like crosses around her on the beach, all of which give the impression of what is to come. Gone is the Mina Harker of the novel who the men desperately try to protect from having to see the death and horror this monster has wrought.
Also, because of Mina's strong role in the film, Jonathan is surprisingly weak. He cowers from the vampire on numerous occasions, he nearly kills himself escaping from the castle, and he ultimately fails to protect his wife from the vampire. This shows a true crisis of masculinity that wouldn't re-emerge in cinema after the silent era until possibly the 1970s.
To return to the topic of visuals, the film benefits greatly from DW Griffith's technique of taking cameras away from single set shots and having the action take place largely on location. The scene in which the townspeople chase Renfield through the town gives great shots of the real-life location and adds to the film's stretch for realistic portrayals of these fictional events.
To be honest, I can't really make head nor tails of what the film is saying in relation to the theme of supernatural events in a logical environment. The presence of the plague seriously alters the book's meaning. Perhaps Mina is meant to be some kind of higher level being whose understanding, bravery and, ultimately, sacrifice are necessary for the largely ignorant masses to survive. Either way, as almost every other image in the film, the one in which the vampire feasts on Mina's blood is quite simply as disturbing an image as you could get.
Considering "Psycho" supposedly terrified audiences in 1960 I'd find it hard to gauge the impression a film such as this made on audiences in a pre-World War II society. Silent films certainly demand more attention than sound films, but this film, more than most others seriously rewards the effort. If you've not seen this I highly recommend it, it's in the public domain so you can legally watch it on a number of sites, but I'd recommend archive.org
I wish it weren't so, but in seven months between October 25th 1978 and May 25th 1978 Hollywood produced two horror films (Halloween and Alien, respectively) that were better than any and every horror film that has been released in the last ten years, and it's a damn shame, because horror is such a powerful genre when done properly, and to prove that I've decided to review "Alien".
One thing the horror genre always allowed for was taking more controversial social issues and representing them visually. The film has constantly been referred to for its portrayal of the female hero, Ellen Ripley, and has thus been labelled a "feminist" film, which it is, but it is also much more. The film is not simply a "female-kicking-ass" film (as, perhaps James Cameron's "Aliens" could be more accurately described), but is a deconstruction of the icon of the white man that has been a part of Hollywood's visual imagery for decades as well as being the centre of Western literature for centuries.
The film puts forward a number of contradictions to this myth of the great white man as hero and saviour of women and non-whites, as the possessor and user of penetrative phallic objects. The first and most obvious representation of this is the alien xenomorph itself. The first glimpse we get of it is its eggs (an overtly feminine symbol) and the emasculating monster it releases. This creature penetrates the male figure, effectively raping him, impregnates him and forces him to give birth. Immediately the role reversals have taken place. We get similar symbols when the alien's inner mouth penetrates Brett, yet another white man.
To continue this motif, the first four crew members who die are white men, including Ash, the android who is a personification of white greed and a creation in the image of a white man. The most symbolic scene in the film, I believe, comes when Ripley discovers the order on the ship's computer that the alien specimen has priority over the expendable crew. When Ash appears she uses a very masculine aggression to throw him to the ground, however Ash retaliates by trying to shut her up permanently by shoving his phallic-shaped magazine into her mouth, with some strategically placed porn images in the shot so one does not miss the meaning of this gesture. Finally, the white male's control of the ship is eradicated as Parker decapitates the robot and Lambert finishes him off.
To emphasise the relevance of the final scenes, try and imagine it as a Hollywood western from the 1940s, where it's two white women and a black man who take a stand against the villain. It's simply inconceivable, which is one of the reasons why "Alien" has such resonance and cultural importance. The final scene aboard the shuttle brings the idea behind the film full-circle. Ripley, now stripped, revealing her feminine figure, uses non-physical means to destroy the transsexual monster, the monster with an effeminate physique but with male penetrative actions, a monster Hollywood had yet to create. Ripley is certainly not a woman who uses male methods of problem-solving (ignoring the following films that possibly missed this theme). She is clearly emotional and fearful as she destroys the Nostromo, and as she confronts the alien at the end ie. she is most definitely a woman's woman, not a masculine one.
The film is not an indictment of white men, but of the representation of white men in literature, such as films or novels. The white men in "Alien" all show an entitlement to their dominance eg. Ash overruling Ripley's decision to quarantine Kane, Dallas's decision to follow the alien into the air shafts over Ripley.
In the end, the film is about survival, and refuting the idea that white men are the ultimate Darwinian triumph. The Xenomorph is shown to be a creature who can adapt to any environment, referred to by Ash as "the perfect specimen". This quote reveals the inherent self-hatred and self-denial in white supremacist doctrine; the refusal to accept one's own humanity, the insistence that white man is a divine creation. In the end, the inferior being, the woman - which great thinkers from Aristotle all the way to Freud have seen as deformed men, with even interpretations of the vagina as being an inverted penis circulating science communities in Victorian times - is the one who defeats this "triumph" of evolution.
The films isn't all symbolism however. On a technical level it has been oft-imitated, but never equalled. The slow creeping camera that travels in a circular motion almost throughout the film, slowly revealing what it is looking for, adds an intense atmosphere upon which the film's most primal impact is based, rather than Hitchcockian suspense. Adding in an equally tense, creeping score and a dark blue aesthetic and you've got the recipe for a profoundly spectacular horror film.
Ridley Scott's direction and vision for this film are unmatched, except maybe by his own later sci-fi film "Blade Runner". The entire film feels like it is set in a cold distant future on a faraway planet, and not for a moment like it's on a film-set. Truly, the art and set designers for this film deserve much accolades.
It's no wonder that "Alien" is still considered a landmark in American cinema, from both a thematic and technical perspective. Few directors have managed to capture or even understand the beauty that lies behind the film's atmosphere, and so its imitations are inferior. Truly an essential work