Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Film Review: The Wrestler

"The Wrestler" *** (out of ****)

Watching "The Wrestler" brought back a lot of old memories for me. When I was younger I use to be a huge wrestling fan. I knew everything about wrestling. I had every WWF pay-per-view event and almost as many WCW events. I would go to see live matches when they would come in town with my father and would watch it religiously on television.

Because of this I know a little bit how the business works. This Darren Aronofsky film written by Robert Siegel gets a lot of it right. The way wrestlers carry a razor blade with them to cut themselves during a match. The lifestyle of traveling on the road, crappy pay in small towns, women throwing themselves at you and all the drugs you can get. If you follow wrestling this is a familiar story. Wrestling fans know what happened to people like Jake "the snake" Roberts or the Iron Sheik.

The critics are proclaiming this is Mickey Rourke's comeback role. Rourke for some reason or another just never made it to "A" list stature in Hollywood. Lots of people were getting ready to call him the next De Niro. The two even appeared in the same movie, "Angel Heart". Rourke may be best known for his role in "The Pope of Greenwich Village". But, after Hollywood snubbed him he decided to become a boxer. He had a record of 12 straight wins. He retired in 1995 and has been quoted as saying he would do anything for a second chance in Hollywood.

I don't know if "The Wrestler" will be the comeback he is hoping for. That is not to say the performance is not any good but if Rourke is going to plan a comeback a huge chunk of that is going to depend on the public. Are they willing to give Rourke a second chance? My gut tells me no. Yes, the theatre which I saw this movie at was packed, but, is this just a one time deal? Will audiences continue to pack in houses to watch this movie? Will they continue to see film after film in which he appears in? Otherwise, Rourke is back where he started. A serious talent who no one took serious enough to turn into a star.

Aronofsky is quite a challenging director. His last film was "The Fountain" a movie which received a lot of mixed reviews. I reviewed it here on this blog and recommended it. He also was the man behind "Pi" and "Requiem for A Dream". His films are not usually mainstream. But he has a strong following who enjoy his non-conformist ways. Usually working outside the mainstream.

In that respect "The Wrestler" could serve the same purpose for both Rourke and Aronofsky. The film may allow them to be discovered by a whole new audience which may have otherwise not paid attention to them.

"The Wrestler" tells us the story of Randy "the Ram" (Rourke), a wrestler who was once a star attraction in the 1980s, even going as for as winning a championship belt. But as "The Wrestler" starts Randy's fame has slid away. He now works for small promotions, wrestling in gyms but, among those in the business he is still treated with respect among the new guys. He is still put in the main event bouts and is even given his own dressing room. But the money is not the same. Some people still remember him but mostly as an almost forgotten memory. "Hey, weren't you that wrestler from the 80s"? Is what he mostly hears. But when a promoter gets an idea for a rematch with the Ayatolla (Ernst Miller), which was his most famous match, as the 20th anniversary approaches, Randy starts thinking he might make his comeback.

Fate has different plans for him however. Life usually gets in the way of our hopes and dreams. In Randy's case he gets a heart attack and is told he will never wrestle again. This near death experience makes him more introverted. He spends more time reflecting on what is important in his life and begins to realize, he is all alone. He has no one to share his life with. Randy decides to get in touch with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). He abandoned her and her mother when she was young and has remained distant ever since. The only other woman in his life is a stripper, Cassidy (Marissa Tomei). She wants to keep things strictly professional but to two seem to have developed a friendship.

The film's most tender moments involve the father-daughter relationship. It is in these moments we see how vulnerable Randy is. He spills his heart out to his daughter hoping she will forgive him.

Although Rourke has been getting tons of praise for his work and he should, Evan Rachel Wood holds her own with Rourke in every scene. She does not seem intimidated on-screen. She goes toe to toe with Rourke in all her scenes allowing for a main event bout in acting between the two of them.

I almost feel "The Wrestler" has too many scenes which take place in the ring, showing us what Randy puts his body through in every match. He is a beaten old man by now. But says he'll never stop fighting until the public tells him his time is up. But the wrestling scenes, while interesting, take time away from the film's most interesting part of the story, Randy's attempted connection to his daughter and relationship with Cassidy.

Aronofsky films "The Wrestler" almost as a documentary. We get shaky hand-held camera movement. The film doesn't have the "prettiness" of most movies. Sometimes this device works but other times I was getting a little tired of it having a hard time following the camera.

I don't think I have to tell audiences "The Wrestler" is not really a story about wrestling. In some ways it resembles Brando's famous speech in "On the Waterfront" in his "I coulda been a contender" moment. "The Wrestler" is a story about a man looking for a second chance. It is about realizing when our star has faded. About when life cruelly scatters all our hopes and dreams and takes away our happiness. But do we go on and fight or go down for the count?

It is hard to say if Rourke will get nominated for an Oscar. Some critics would suggest it has been a year full of good performances. But the Oscars are not above making bone head moves. Already Rourke has won an acting award from the Chicago Film Critics Association and he, along with Marissa Tomei, are nominated for Golden Globes. And the film itself won the golden lion at the Venice Film Festival.

I don't know if Rourke is going to be a star again from his performance here, but, why don't you go and see it and judge for yourself.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Top Ten Films Of 2008!

We are in the final days of 2008 and boy am I glad to see it go!

Every year I like to compose my list of the ten best films of the year. This year was perhaps my biggest challenge. What a pathetic, mindless, worthless year 2008 proved to be for cinema. Up until this very date, it looked like I wasn't even going to make a top ten list. My initial plan was to give a list of about 15 or so films which I thought were watchable. But, I didn't want to be a coward like Roger Ebert, who didn't even make a top ten list because he says he enjoyed too many films, not realizing it is his job to evaluate movies and judge them. I didn't want to take the sissy way out.

It is my guess, but, I would say anywhere between 400 - 500 movies opened within the Chicago land area this year. Of those movies I saw only 80. A mere fraction compare to what most professional critics see, but, a substantial number when compared to the average moviegoer. Out of those 80 movies, 7, yes 7 of them I gave four stars to. I was simply unable to connect with a majority of movies this year.

As is usually the case, I'm going to have lots of people bitch and complain about my list. Why did I chose such and such title as the best? Why did I leave such and such movie off the list? People are going to assume I didn't see the heavily hyped movies of the year. Let me put your suspicions to rest. I saw "Frost/Nixon", "Doubt", "Gran Torino", "Rachel Getting Married", "Wall.E", "The Reader", "W", "Happy-Go-Lucky" and the list goes on and on.

This is the first time in a long time I've seen nearly everything I wanted to see in a given year. I have very little catch up to play. I would say I've seen at least 95% of the movies I wanted to see this year. I admit I have yet to see "Frozen River", "Milk" and "The Wrestler" of the acclaimed movies this year. But everything else I have (if it played in Chicago).

One of the things which disappointed me so much this year was the great and celebrated filmmakers did not live up to their reputations. Claude Chabrol's "The Girl Cut in Two", while a watchable film, does not rank among his greats, Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky" was a minor work which didn't affect me the way his best work does ("Naked", "All or Nothing", "Vera Drake"), Jacques Rivette's "The Duchess of Langeais" was disappointing, Oliver Stone's "W" also left me cold. Only a few directors managed to succeed. Woody Allen has gotten some rave reviews for his "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", Ron Howard did a fine job with "Frost/Nixon" and Clint Eastwood had a pair of hits; "Changeling" and "Gran Torino".

As was the case last year, if you wanted to see good movies you had to go outside the mainstream. In fact you had to practically search under every rock to find a great movie. They were so hard to come by. I'm shocked to hear people thought this was a great year for movies. They must have very low expectations.

This was the first year where I'm left thinking, perhaps Hollywood should stop making movies. It is better to end things now. Like a relationship starting to go bad, let us still have good memories. Hollywood has given us many good memories; "Casablanca", "Citizen Kane", "Gone with the Wind", "Singin' in the Rain" and "The Godfather". But if Hollywood is going to continue giving us the kind of films it gave us this year, lets just call it quits. Hey, I mean c'mon, Hollywood had a good run, over a 100 years, but, now is the time to stop making movies.

Of course I'm only kidding. About 5% only wants to see an end of movies, but my hatred, frustration and disgust for the year is 100% genuine. Hollywood cannot go on only wanting to have one good month (December). A business cannot succeed only one month out of the year. What are film goers suppose to do the other 11 months? Enough is enough.

The films of 2008 clearly surprised me. We got an unusual and almost unhealthy amount of French imports this year. At least 15 films from France came our way this year; "A Girl Cut in Two", "Fear(s) of the Dark", "I've Loved You So Long", "Duchess of Langeais", "A Christmas Tale", "The Last Mistress", "Flight of the Red Balloon", and "Roman de Gare". Plus others. Didn't any other country make movies this year? We had two films from the Czech Republic; "I Served the King of England" and "Beauty in Trouble", one from Lebanon; "Caramel" and one from Austria; The Counterfeiters. But what about Hungary, Romania, Slovak Republic, Russia, Bulgaria, Poland or Serbia? Something worth while must have been made in those countries to find distribution for the American market.

The most successful film of the year was a superhero movie; "The Dark Knight". A movie I resisted despite it's over-hyped acclaim, but, I must admit, it was good. Not great. But good.

I'm glad to see this year come to an end. It was too bad to go on any longer. It was very difficult for me to come up with this list. I know people will not like it. I'm telling you, you won't like it. You're going to say I left off your favorite. You hadn't heard of these movies. Or you saw them and they sucked, right? I know the story. But remember. If you think I made a bad list, my list is only a reflection of the year. A bad year will produce a bad list. Look at what the critics had to say. Usually by the end of the year every critic seems to have the same ten movies on their list. But this year there was a lot of diversity. There were no clear front-runners. You may say that's a good thing. But, the way I see it is, everyone came away liking something else. There was no consensus on what was good this year. Everyone had a hard time finding agreement.

Here are my ten "favorites" of the year:

1. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (Dir. David Fincher; U.S.) - Every year I always put the film which touched me the most on a personal level as my favorite. In the past my choices have included "Eyes Wide Shut", "21 Grams", "The Passion of the Christ" and "United 93". All films which greatly affected me. They hit me on a deep and profound level. Nothing released this year got to me that way.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is an imperfect film. There are lots of things wrong the film. There are lots of areas the film avoids and some I'm glad it did. But this movie got me thinking about life more than any other film this year. It wasn't so much because of anything the film did in particular, but because I brought my personal life to the story. When something happens to Benjamin (Brad Pitt) I would think how it related to my own life. It wasn't Benjamin's story which I was reacting to but my own.

Still I must admit by the end of the film I was teary eyed. Here is a movie about age, life, love, death and destiny. A movie about things which are out of our control.

Brad Pitt gives one of his most subtle, delicate and sensitive performances ever. I don't know if it is the best performance of the year but I'm sure he'll score an Oscar nomination. And he deserves it.

The director, Finch, usually makes good action movies; "Panic Room", "The Game", "Fight Club" and "Zodiac", but, none of those movies would have led me to believe he was capable of directing a film as romantic as this.

The film was written by Eric Roth, whose name has been behind some true favorites of mine, "The Insider", "Munich" and "Forrest Gump", which "Benjamin Button" most resembles. Both are films about "limited" men who achieve great things and are surrounded by extraordinary people.

2. ELEGY (Dir. Isabel Coixet; U.S.) - For a while I thought about naming this as the best film of the year but as the year went on something was holding me back. It didn't feel like a proper choice for best film of the year. But Ben Kingsley gives an amazing performance. It makes me sad to think he will be forgotten come Oscar time. The movie opened too early in the year and the film simply got lost in the hype of other movies. This was perhaps the performance which most touched me. And Penelope Cruz is outstanding. I find her to be better here than in Allen's "Barcelona".

3. CHANGELING (Dir. Clint Eastwood; U.S.) - It has been quite a year for Mr. Eastwood. First he gave us the remarkably touching true story of a woman (Angelina Jolie) who took on the corrupt LAPD when they tried to convince her they had returned her stolen son to her when she insisted the child was not her's and it wasn't!

Jolie may sometimes get a bad rap because of her life off of the screen but that shouldn't matter to people. Her work here is memorable. She manages to create a very convincing character who gains our sympathy.

4. FEAR(S) OF THE DARK (Dir. Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre Di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti and Richard McGuire; France) - I know, I know, I was suppose to say "Wall.E" was the best animated film of the year, right? Not this! Disney had nothing to do with it. Who the Hell do I think I am to recommend an animated film which wasn't done by Pixar? But "Fear(s) of the Dark" felt more epic. The animation in this film impressed me more. While I admit not all of the six stories which are pasted together here work, the film has a tone which felt consistent to me. I love the story by Burns, about a young geek guy who finds himself with an attractive girl. But things go very, very wrong.

5. BEAUTY IN TROUBLE (Dir. Jan Hrebejk; Czech Republic) - Here is another film a lot of people probably haven't heard of but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be seen.

Hrebejk is the director of the Oscar nominated "Divided We Fall" and the outrageous comedy "Up and Down" but here he takes it easy. The film has moments which are delicate with humor closely woven in. And it has the most unusual message you may see this year about the power of sex.

The performance by Anna Geislerova stole my heart. What a "beauty"!

6. MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA (Dir. Spike Lee; U.S.) - Some directors have gained the reputation of making the same movie over and over again. Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman usually have those comments thrown at them. I've defended those directors in the past but Lee is someone who I think does do that.

I'm usually skeptically walking into a Spike Lee film. I find him to be a racist. He becomes a stereotype himself; the angry black man, but "Miracle at St. Anna" won me over despite all the controversy which plagued the movie. Not since Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" has a war movie taken me on such an emotional roller-coaster. I'm not saying this is a better movie than "Ryan" or as good. But on Spike Lee's scale this is one of his best films.

7. THE COUNTERFEITERS (Dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky; Austria) - This Oscar winner for best foreign language film asks one of the more personal and unusual questions of the year. A film with a deep moral conscience.

Based on a true story the film follows Salomon Sorowitch (Karl Markovics) who led one of the biggest forgery schemes in history during WW2. Sorowitch was an Austrian Jew, who was pressured into helping the Nazis into printing money. Sorowitch says he has no loyalty to anyone, but can we live that way?

8. SMART PEOPLE (Dir. Noam Murro; U.S.) - A movie which sadly mostly got negative reviews. But I really found myself enjoying this movie.

Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church and Elle Page (of "Juno") make a fantastic ensemble of quirky characters who managed to involve me from beginning to end. While most people fell in love with Page in "Juno" it was here she won me over.

9. THE LAST MISTRESS (Dir. Catherine Breillat; France) - Breillat is a director I've usually criticize in the past. She is a feminist director whose work deals with female sexuality. Her work is very graphic and off putting to lots of viewers but here she finds the right balance to get her opinions across and still seem thought-provoking.

Asia Argento gives a good performance but it is not really one of her best. Still she has a way about her of bringing the screen to life.

10. CARAMEL (Dir. Nadine Labaki; Lebanon) - For me the surprise hit of the year. Like most films from the region, this movie deals with women in society and their role. But the film is more than a "chick flick". This is a human movie about real people. We care for these characters. Their concerns become our concerns. Not well known but well worth searching for.

HONORABLE MENTION: "FROST/NIXON" (Dir. Ron Howard;U.S.), "DOUBT" (Dir. John Patrick Shanley; U.S.), "VICKY CRISTINA BARECLONA" (Dir. Woody Allen; U.S./Spain), "STILL LIFE" (Dir. Jia Zhang-ke; China), "THE READER" (Dir. Stephen Daldry; U.S.) and "THE LIFE BEFORE HER EYES" (Dir. Vadim Perelman; U.S.)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Film Review: Three's A Crowd

"Three's A Crowd" *** (out of ****)

When we think of the great silent film clowns we think of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. But there were so many other comics who time has forgotten.

There seems to be a ranking game going on. It is debatable who is the best of the slapstick comics, though the position is usually held for Chaplin or Keaton, depending on your preference. I'm a Chaplin man myself. Then we have Lloyd, seen as the "third genius". And fourth on the list is the "forgotten clown", Harry Langdon. So does that mean Charley Chase is fifth? Why do you need to rank these people? Can't we enjoy all of them?

I've written about some of the great slapstick clowns. I've included both Chaplin's "Modern Times" (1936) and Harold Lloyd in "Safety Last" (1923) in my Masterpiece Film Series and have written about Laurel & Hardy. I've also been trying to write more reviews for silent films, an unappreciated art form which modern film fans carelessly ignore.

Harry Langdon started performing as a child, joining the circus, minstrel shows and medicine acts. Eventually he found his way on vaudeville, where he had a very popular act with his wife. At the age of 40, Langdon had signed a contract with comedy madman Mack Sennett, best known for his Keystone Kops and Bathing Beauties.

He made his debut in 1924 with a two reeler, "Picking Peaches". His Sennett comedies, many times are too broad. The plot is all over the place. "Picking Peaches", "Smile Please" and others have promising set-ups but there was no discipline. Sennett's style of comedy had a do anything mentality. If someone thought something would get a laugh, it found its way in the short. Sometimes, against everything, the shorts would work. "Saturday Afternoon", "Hansome Cabman" and "Luck O' the Foolish" showed more restraint and as a result focused more on the Langdon character instead of plot.

Helping along with these two reelers were some very talented people who worked for Sennett. The director of his first couple of shorts was Roy Del Ruth, who worked on several comedies and musicals in the 30s and 40s including "Kid Millions" (1934) with Eddie Cantor. Also helping out with stories were Clyde Bruckman and Felix Adler, old pros of comedy writing who worked with Buster Keaton (Bruckman directed "The General"(1926), Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy.

Eventually a young man was brought in to write stories, who would become a great director in his own right, Frank Capra. Capra would even direct some of Langdon's first feature films, "The Strong Man" (1926), considered to be Langdon's best and "Long Pants" (1927).

The Langdon character was considered a man-child. A grown-up innocent adult who carried the mannerisms of a child. He was a kind, good-hearted, well intentioned man who found himself in strange situations, many times having people take advantage of him. The character wasn't as enduring as Chaplin's "Tramp", Lloyd's "Glasses" or Keaton's "Stone-Face". Some people even find the character creepy. I don't. Ask yourself this, do you find the Stan Laurel character creepy? Laurel used the Langdon character as an inspiration, while of course adding elements of his own.

Harry Langdon though didn't make it through the decade. His star had faded. Was it because of the character? Some say he had an ego problem. In Frank Capra's autobiography, he has many unkind things to say about Langdon, insisting Langdon did not understand the character and wanted to add character traits which didn't belong.

Langdon and Capra had a falling out and Langdon would go out to direct his own films giving him greater artistic control. And that is where we find ourselves when we watch "Three's A Crowd" (1927).

This was to be Langdon's first film as director. One of the arguments Langdon and Capra would get into was Langdon's insistence on adding more pathos to the stories. With Capra out of the picture Langdon would achieve his goal. "Three's A Crowd" is Langdon's attempt at a Chaplin movie. A combination of pathos and comedy.

Watching Langdon's two and three reelers I can see how he got the idea. His character at times reminds me of Chaplin's Tramp. Both wear baggy pants and big shoes, are short in stature and are loners. Langdon tries to fit into society, he gets married, has a job, but in the end, he only has himself. I can sense tragedy within the character.

In "Three's A Crowd" Langdon is billed as "The Boy", though if you can read the character's lips everyone refers to him as "Harry". Harry has a job as a mover and admires his boss' wife and child. One day he too would like to fall in love and start a family. During a cold, snowy winter night a pregnant woman is found outside. The woman (Gladys McConnell) has left her husband (Cornelius Keefe) because of his drinking, which has caused him to lose his job. Harry takes the woman in and treats the baby as his own. But the husband has changed his ways. His father has taken him in, sobered him up and has found him a job. What will happen when he comes looking for his wife?

The elements for great drama are seeded. And Langdon's man-child character surprisingly seems well suited for the role. Surprisingly because, for a child of mind, he seems prepared to be a father. The problem however lies in the story, done by Arthur Ripley, who worked on Langdon's shorts. Langdon gets the comedy parts correct but none of the drama. The film starts off rather good. Lots of comedy and misunderstandings but the film is unable to gather enough sympathy.

If Harry Langdon didn't have an ego problem, you might not believe it if you watch this. He is nearly in every scene. The film needed more scenes with the woman. We needed to see her start to care for Harry. We needed to see them slowly becoming a family. An emotional investment growing. We need to feel, that when the inevitable happens, and she must chose between the two men, it will be a tough decision. Then when she makes her choice it has the ability to break our hearts.

Even in the film's last scene Harry gets it wrong. The film ends with a gag. Harry goes for a laugh. This doesn't feel correct. It should have ended on a poignant note. The situation cries out for melodrama. The film should have built up to a very emotional ending.

Despite this though Langdon proves to be a capable director. Sometimes, I admit, I didn't quite understand why he shoots scenes the way he does, using extreme long shots when a medium shot may have been more effective. But he shows much restraint. These are nothing like the Sennett comedies. Langdon follows a consistent story-line. He doesn't break away from the story for a gag. In his next film "The Chaser" (1928), he takes a brilliant idea and destroys it by straying too far away from his central idea, a commentary on double standards between the sexes.

The film does have some good comedic moments and this may have been the best performance I have seen Langdon give.

"Three's A Crowd" was sadly a flop at the box-office and the beginning of the end of Harry's career. He would go on to direct 4 more films, two more silent films, each one, critics consider got worst and worst. By the end of the 20s Langdon was no longer a top draw at the box-office. But "Three's A Crowd" is beautifully told. It doesn't take full advantage of all the dramatic possibilities of the plot, but, what it does do, is beautiful to look at.

This Kino print is nicely restored except for a few minutes in the beginning. It looks like the film may have either been burnt or badly scratched.

"Three's A Crowd" is a film which deserves a second chance. Time is on this film's side. Younger audiences will not look at this film the way audiences of the 1920s did. We have more distance. We don't expect as much as audiences did then. We aren't as familiar with the Langdon character. While Harry Langdon is no Chaplin or Keaton or Lloyd, he doesn't deserve be to forgotten. "Three's A Crowd" may serve as a nice introduction into his feature work.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Film Review: The Nativity Story

"The Nativity Story" *** (out of ****)

All through this Christmas season, I've been slipping in a few Christmas themed movie reviews. They have mostly been of a secular nature; "Holiday Inn", "It's A Wonderful Life", though that does have a certain religious aspect to it. But Christmas was originally intended as a religious holiday. You remember what religion is, don't you? It's that thing liberals want to keep out of schools (just kidding! I just like to make fun of liberals. Sorry).

Christmas was suppose to be a time when believers of Christ celebrate his birth. Somehow though over the years, that has become an after thought. Christmas in now a time for Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman and other secular symbols. And, while I must admit, my family has a Santa decoration hanging on the door, we still have not forgotten about the true meaning of Christmas. At midnight on Christmas Eve we will attend midnight mass. People need to remember the religious side of the holiday.

In 2006 when "The Nativity Story" was released, it came on the heels of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ", which was released in 2004. Though Hollywood is predominantly a secular town, they are never one to pass up a buck. Thinking that religious movies may be all the rage, "The Nativity Story" was rushed into production to beat the competition. And in the process became the first film to premiere at the Vatican.

It didn't do the box-office the Gibson film did, in fact, it didn't even get the critical attention. On the film scored 38% out of 123 reviews, 47 were positive while 76 were negative.

But don't let that stop you from watching this movie. "The Nativity Story" admittedly doesn't do anything special. The director, Catherine Hardwicke, wanted the film to be told as simply as possible and even attempted to tell it as realistically as possible. Having the characters work with tools from 2,000 years ago.

This however takes away some of the emotional impact the story has. While we all pretty much know the basic idea. The young Virgin Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is told by the angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) that she has been chosen to give birth to the son of God and his name will be Jesus. There are still elements which can be quite moving within the story.

Keisha Castle Hughes at the time had only appeared in one other movie, released in 2003, the charming "Whale Rider". For her performance she even managed to receive an Oscar nomination, making her the youngest person ever.

Catherine Hardwicke, had only directed one other film herself, the coming of age story "Thirteen" which made Evan Rachel Wood a star. Since this film Hardwicke has directed "Twilight" and "Lords of Dogtown". With the exception of "Dogtown", she seems most interested in making movies centered around young girls. If we include "Dogtown" into the mix, she has a youthful appeal.

The movie was written by Mike Rich. He scripted such films as Gus Van Sant's "Finding Forrester" and "Radio". He was quoted as saying "I tend to write stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things." And what could be more extraordinary than giving birth to Jesus Christ!

The performances in "The Nativity Story" are pretty good across the board. Everyone seems to be giving the same kind of performance however. They are very subtle. No one is trying to ham it up. Everything about the movie is somber. Hardwicke does try to throw in some humor, with the depiction of the Three Wise Men (Nadim Sawalha, Eriq Ebouaney and Stefan Kalipha). Who argue the whole time on their journey.

"The Nativity Story" is not George Stevens' "The Greatest Story Ever Told" or "King of Kings". For that matter it is not even "The Passion of the Christ". Those movies, you could tell, wanted to be epics. "The Greatest Story Ever Told" for example was flooded with stars; Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Edward G. Robinson. When we think of Biblical films, some of us may think of those old De Mille movies of the silent era. But "The Nativity Story" is not a movie like that. In some ways I like that and in some ways I don't.

I appreciate Hardwicke's decision in the fact that nothing takes away from the story. The movie is only about telling us the story of Christ's birth. It is not about the acting or production design or music. I don't like the decision however, because those older films, while star-studded did inject lots of emotion, but kept with Jesus' teachings.

The reason I reviewed this modern film as oppose to an older film is because I fear in this day and age, most people don't like to watch older films. Plus I'm not sure how easy it is to find a copy of "The Greatest Story Ever Told" or "King of Kings". I doubt your local Blockbuster will have it. But, because this is a modern film, you should be able to find it easily.

Despite everything this is a very good movie to watch on Christmas and understand the true meaning of the holiday. It's important people understand what exactly it is they are celebrating.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Film Reviews: The Dark Knight, Man on Wire, Encounters at the End of the Wold, Slumdog Millaionaire

"The Dark Knight" *** (out of ****)

Recently I have seen a lot of movies but have not had the chance the write about them. And since the year is coming to a close I wanted to get as much done as possible. So I've decided to write a bunch of mini-reviews.

"The Dark Knight" was the highest grossing film released in 2008. It is a continuation of the trend in Hollywood to make comic book movies. Those who know me know of my dislike for the genre. I have said some pretty mean things about comic book movies in the past feeling they are better left for the brain-dead and the blind. I've seen several of them including "Spider-Man" 1 & 2, the first two "X-Men" movies, "The Hulk" with Eric Bana and "Daredevil" with Ben Affleck. But I always walk out of the theatre disappointed. For that reason I never saw "The Dark Knight" in the theatre. I've given up on the genre. But as 2008 comes to a close, and I still don't have a "ten best" list, I have gone back to play some catch up on titles I originally missed. So I thought, why not give "The Dark Knight" a chance.

Now I could have avoided putting myself in this situation. I don't have to write about this movie. But I'm an honorable guy (believe it or not) and wanted to publicly admit I was wrong. Keep in mind, I don't find this Christopher Nolan sequel to "Batman Begins", to be as good as some of you out there do, but in the end, it is the first comic book movie I have seen I can actually recommend.

I don't think this is one of the best films of the year. It is not one of the great achievements in cinema. And Heath Ledger's performance is not amazing, but more on that later. The public over-hyped this movie to the extreme. Fans and defenders of the movie don't even want to hear the tinest bit of criticism aimed at the movie. But, hey, c'mon. Lets be sensible about this. I'll admit I was wrong, and the movie is watchable but you have to admit you over did it with praise for this movie.

"The Dark Knight" suffers from the same problems I had with "Batman Begins". I hated that movie. First of all both films are way too long. "The Dark Knight" runs at 2 hours and 30 minutes. My patience and interest in these characters had already run out by the end of the film.
In "Batman Begins" I felt the movie did a terrible job with the villain, Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy, who also makes an appearance here too). I had no idea who the villain was suppose to be in that movie. No one addresses him as "Scarecrow" until the end of the movie. There was no background story given about that character. Now, some of you may say, so what. That wasn't the point. The movie is about Batman not Scarecrow. Who wants to know more about Scarecrow anyway? I DO! Don't tell me it's not important. In "The Dark Knight" they do the same thing with The Joker (Heath Ledger). The Joker is an interesting character but here there is no explanation on why is he the way he is. At least in Tim Burton's "Batman" they offer an explanation. Here, with this movie, whatever knowledge you bring to the table before watching the movie is exactly what you are going to walk out with knowing.

In the movie's defense however, they do an excellent job with the Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) character. We understand who he is and what leads him to become the villain, Two-Face. It may be my favorite aspect of the movie.

I also found "The Dark Knight" to be repetitive. Many are calling "The Dark Knight" a movie about ethics and morals. The Joker puts characters in these moral dilemmas. But he does it so often I felt the writers were going to the well too many times. First he gets Salvatore Maroni's (Eric Roberts) henchmen to fight each other for survival. Telling three of them he only has room for one to join his gang. He puts Batman (Christian Bale) is a situation where he must chose between two people to save at the same time. And in the best scenario two boats are told one of them will explode but it is up to the people in each boat to decide which one it will be.

"The Dark Knight" is surprisingly a very dark, grim movie. When I think of comic book movies I think of something vivid and colorful. These type of movies usually do not exist in our world. They are almost like fairy tales. But 'The Dark Knight" depicts a real world. A world in which we live in. Because of the grim nature of the movie I am surprised the public responded so well to this movie. You'd think people might want something more up-beat. This was a very risky but mature move on Nolan's part.

And now for Ledger's performance. I say this as no disrespect to him or his family. But honestly. If Mr. Ledger were alive today, do you honestly think he would be getting half the acclaim he has been getting for this movie? Would he be considered such a sure thing and a lock for the "Best Supporting Actor" Golden Globe and a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination? I have a feeling people are just being sentimental. In ten years from now, after people calm down and start to become a bit more stable and rational, I doubt we will look at his performance here and say to ourselves "this is one of the greatest screen performances in history"!

Still, in the end "The Dark Knight" does succeed. It is not a movie I would ever want to watch again, but it is a major move forward for the comic book genre.

MAN ON WIRE ** (out of ****)

James Marsh's documentary following Philippe Petit, a man who tightrope walked between the World Trade Center in 1974, is another movie that has been over-hyped by the critics. If you go on the site,, which is a collection of film reviews where rating are averaged out, the movie scored a 100%. Out of 135 reviews written on the movie, every critic recommended it. How's that for over-hyping a movie?

The problem I faced watching this movie is the same problem I have with some Werner Herzog movies. Characters who have odd obsessions. I can't relate to their interest. They don't correspond to mine.

When "Man on Wire" was playing in theatres I had no interest to see it. All I knew about the
movie was that it was a documentary about a man who crossed the WTC. I never read reviews, or at least, rarely read reviews before seeing a movie so I didn't know if there was more to this movie or not. But what I did know, simply did not seem interesting to me. Why would I want to watch a man do this? It seemed like a boring idea.

Sure enough as I sat down and started watching this, I was bored. What was the point? Why did people consider his act beautiful? Was it art? If I saw someone crossing the WTC or any building on a tightrope, I may stop and look for about two seconds, then I'll ask myself why and finally I'd walk away. It is the same as watching someone climb a mountain, say Mt. Everest. I could care less to see that too!

But what really infuriated me about this documentary was Mr. Petit's answer to why he did it. Finally by the end of the documentary the question is asked. I thought, OK, perhaps now I'll be able to understand this man. And perhaps come to grips with his world view and understanding. He says there was no reason. NO REASON! What fucking bullshit! Did you just wake up one day say to yourself, "hey, today's Sunday, I think I'll go tightrope walk across the World Trade Center today." Of course he had a reason! The man spent so much time and effort flying from France to New York to work on designs and prepare to try this feat. To suggest he had no reason at all to do it I find insulting to my intelligence. I would of rather he not mention anything. Leave the question alone. Don't even approach it.

I have my own theory why he did it, but I can't be sure, since Mr. Petit is a moron and won't come clean. I think he was simply a thrill seeker. He says the WTC was a dream come true for him. He knew he'd have to cross it. It is like someone who wants to climb a mountain. It gives them a sense of being. A certain sense of importance. It is a major victory for them.Mr. Petit may have felt a great amount of accomplishment for his feat but I felt boredom watching him do it.


I mentioned Mr. Werner Herzog in the previous review, well here is his latest documentary. It takes him to Antarctica where he explores the landscape, the people who inhabit it and the animals which live there.

In Mr. Herzog's previous nature documentary, "Grizzly Man", which I enjoyed. Mr. Herzog seemed to have found the perfect counterpoint for his feelings on nature in Timothy Treadwell. In "Grizzly Man" Herzog shows us nature is not what we think it is. Nature is not beautiful but ugly. There is violence and danger. Herzog expresses a cynical view which contrast with Mr. Treadwell, who decided to live among grizzly bears which eventually killed him.

Herzog seemed at once both fascinated by Treadwell and put off. What made this man do this? In the process Herzog asks some profound questions about nature and man's relation to it.In "Encounters at the End of the World" Mr. Herzog's cynical voice is missing. He speaks in a sarcastic tone, at one point he says this is not going to be a documentary about penguins (a knock on "March of the Penguins"), he says he has more profound questions to ask concerning nature. Unfortunately Mr. Herzog left his notepad at home and never asked those profound questions.

I had a hard time deciding what is it exactly Mr. Herzog thinks about the animals and people he is following. He seems to like them and is fascinated by them. Therefore we get no other voice. In "Grizzly Man" he had an interesting subject which he could debate. Here there is no such interesting subject. Now, someone looking for an argument with me will say but the landscape and the animals are the "interesting subject". That may be true. The problem is, I share Mr. Herzog's opinion expressed in "Grizzly Man". I don't find nature fascinating. So seeing a rare and exotic fish or some other water creature is only interesting to me for about 2 seconds. Then I ask, now what? And Herzog rarely seems to challenge his subjects.

I've been disappointed with Mr. Herzog lately. Why has be focused so much on documentaries? In the last decade he has only directed two feature films; the 2002 film "Invincible" and last year's "Rescue Dawn". And why has he started making films in English? What happened to his homeland, Germany? Gone are the days when we could expect a film such as "Fitzcarraldo" or "Aguirre, Wrath of God" from Mr. Herzog. Now we are left with these minor efforts like "Encounters at the End of the World".

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE ** (out of ****)

Everywhere I go I hear people talking about Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire". The word on the street is positive. On the film scored a 93%. The always interesting Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News says "Slumdog Millionaire" is a "simultaneously epic and intimate, earthy and unreal." I can understand why people such as Ms. Weitzman like this film. I can see what Mr. Boyle wants this film to be, but, I never became emotionally involved in what he was doing.

A film like "Slumdog Millionaire" is going to succeed largely on your investment in the character. If you don't feel for him and want to go along on his journey, you have nothing left. I don't care how well made someone wants to say this movie is, if you not emotionally involved there is no reason to watch it.

Danny Boyle wants "Slumdog Millionaire" to be a "feel good" crowd pleaser. But I saw through this movie. I could see how Mr. Boyle wants to manipulate the audience. In an early scene when our young hero, Jamal (Dev Patel, as an adult) meets his favorite movie star, we are suppose to laugh at how he does it. And when he gets into an argument with his brother, Salim (Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, in his middle years) pulls a gun on him we are suppose to be heartbroken. How can this be? How can a brother do that? And when Jamal, who is on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be A Millionaire" wants to phone a friend, we are suppose to be left in suspense as the phone rings and the person, Latika (Freida Pinto) doesn't hear it. And we are suppose to be elated with joy when he wins and finds his love, Latika, as she meets him at a train station.

But, despite the unbelievable amount of praise the film has been getting, it seemed predictable. I knew where this story was going to go. I knew Jamal would win, I knew he would find Latika. I knew how she felt about him. "Slumdog Millionaire" becomes too slick. Too well packaged. It is all too transparent what Mr. Boyle wants us to feel.

For a really good review of this movie read Rob Gonsalves at His views on this film are right on. He nails it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Film Review: Christmas in Connecticut

"Christmas in Connecticut" *** (out of ****)
Although it has the word "Christmas" in its title and takes place on Christmas Eve, "Christmas in Connecticut" has nothing to do with Christmas actually, but it is usually played around this time of year and I'm glad it is. This is one of those rare gems that seems to get better and better. It has aged wonderfully and actually seems funnier each passing time I see it.

At its heart "Christmas in Connecticut" is a bit of an old-fashion screwball comedy. It doesn't follow all the rules of screwball comedy but there are slight touches. Still this movie is so charming you'd think it was directed by Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges. It wasn't. It was directed by Peter Godfrey.

Growing up my family and I would always watch this movie around Christmas, mostly because it has some Hungarian connections. And that leads to one of the reasons I find this movie so funny. Yes, Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan are very good in this, but it is the supporting cast, which I think really holds this movie together. Especially the performance given by S.Z. Sakall. He is the funniest thing in this picture.

You may not recognize the name, but, trust me, you have seen his face. He played the head waiter in "Casablanca". He appeared in some musicals with Doris Day; "Look For the Silver Lining" and "Lullaby of Broadway". He was never a leading man. He always played the comic relief. But in my family we always took great delight to watch him on-screen. My grandparents would also happily and proudly point out to me, "he's Hungarian"!

He was born in Budapest and was part of a comedy act on stage. He eventually came to America where his fat was considered a plus. He was quickly nicknamed "cuddles" because of his fat cheeks.

In the movie he plays Barbara Stanwyck's best friend. Stanwyck is Elizabeth Lane. A famous writer for a home magazine. She is considered an expert cook. She lives out in Connecticut, with her husband and baby, where they have a farm. She is a Martha Stewart type. She knows about cooking, cleaning, home repair, farming, basically how to enjoy "the simple life". The problem is, none of it is true!

A wounded soldier (the film was released in 1945, at the end of WW2), Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), sends a request to the magazine's editor, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) concerning how much he loves to read Ms. Lane's articles and if he would be possible for him to be her guest for Christmas up in her cabin in Connecticut. Mr. Yardley, being a shrewd business man, sees this as a great story and a great way to boost circulation. So he immediately agrees on behalf of Ms. Lane.

When Elizabeth is told about the situation from her agent, Dudley (Robert Shayne) they figure the scheme is over. There is no way Elizabeth will be able to get married, have a baby, move to Connecticut (currently she lives in New York), and learn to cook in a matter of days. Or will she?

The fates start to deal her a good hand when a constant admirer, John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) proposes to Elizabeth, once again. As luck would have it, he owns a cabin in Connecticut. Dudley sensing to beginnings of a new scheme, encourages Elizabeth to accept his hand and get into that cabin. So she agrees. As for the cooking part, well, her friend Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall) is a cook. In fact, he is the one who gives her, her recipes. He runs a Hungarian restaurant.

So nearly all the chips are in place now. They have even managed to get a baby. John's maid, Norah (Una O' Connor) babysits for a neighbor and friend. All Elizabeth has to do now is convince Jefferson and Mr. Yardley that she knows what she is talking about.

Without revealing too much more of the plot. Elizabeth and Jefferson start an immediate attraction towards each other. This gives the movie a surprising edge. You must remember the production code was still in effect at this time. And there were certain rules of decency still in play. "Christmas in Connecticut" ever so closely pushes the envelop.

As far as Jefferson is concern Elizabeth is married. But that doesn't stop him from hitting on her and it doesn't stop her from responding. The film is being very playful about infidelity. At one point Jefferson even tells her, "you don't act like a married woman."

As I went over the plot describing the characters, true film buffs probably noticed the amazing supporting cast this film has. Sydney Greenstreet might be best known for his role in "Casablanca". Reginald Gardiner, though maybe thought to be attractive, never really became a leading man, still he worked with some great comedians. He acted opposite Laurel & Hardy in their French foreign legion comedy "Flying Deuces", in a role I will always identify him with. And he acted alongside Charlie Chaplin in his masterpiece "The Great Dictator".

I have already talked about Sakall and as for Una O' Conner, undoubtedly she has to be best known for her role in "Bride of Frankenstein". She was the inspiration for the Cloris Leachman role in "Young Frankenstein".

Dennis Morgan was an actor I thought never fully reached his potential. We fans of older movies of course know who he is, but, his name has not found its way with some of the other leading actors of his era; Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart or others. That is a shame. He was very talented. The Warner Brother movies he appeared in weren't always great. Watch "Kisses for Breakfast" or "Affectionally Yours" as proof. But he would star in grade "A" movies like "Kitty Folye" with Ginger Rogers. He had a good face. A very likable personality on-screen. He had an "every man" appeal to him. I think he could play drama and comedy equally well. Warner Brothers, wanting to steal some of the thunder from the Crobsy and Hope "Road" movies, paired Morgan with Jack Carson for their own adventures.

Barbara Stanwyck was another versatile talent. Today she may be best known for "Sorry, Wrong Number" and the movie she made before this one, Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity". But we may forget she too could play comedy as she demonstrates here and in Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve" with Henry Fonda.

As I have already said, my favorite moments in the film involve Sakall. At one point he and Nora argue over her kitchen. She is preparing Irish stew. He claims it is really goulash. And they get into an argument over what to call it. He settles it but pouring paprika in it saying afterwards, "now its goulash"! You might have to be Hungarian to get the joke. We put paprika on everything.

But if Sakall doesn't do it for you, which I simply wouldn't be able to understand why. The structure of the story is near comedic perfection. It was written by Adele Comandini and Lionel Houser (who wrote another great 1940s comedy with Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas, "Third Finger, Left Hand"). The way the situation which seems to gradually intensify putting Elizabeth in more and more trouble is the essence of this style of comedy. And Stanwyck lives up to the challenge.

Does "Christmas in Connecticut" have to be viewed as a "Christmas" movie? No, not at all. It really has nothing to do with the holiday. But it is a good family film to watch which I think most people will enjoy. It can always be seen on TV. So look out for it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Film Review: Frost/Nixon

"Frost/Nixon" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Ron Howard insist that "Frost/Nixon" should not be viewed as anything more than a film about Richard M. Nixon. We are not suppose to draw connections to our current president and the political environment we find ourselves in. Howard says this is only about Nixon and his wrong doing. Well, Howard can say what he wants but he can't stop people from thinking. Our environment dictates our feelings and understanding of the world we live in. "Frost/Nixon" then becomes the film of our times.

If I came away with anything after watching this film it was that no man is above the law. No politician can get away without being held responsible for their action. All men must be held accountable.

How strange that this film opened within the same week in Illinois when our own governor, Rod Blagojevich, brought shame and disgrace to our state on alleged corruption charges due to taped phone calls. Corruption was around in Nixon's day, today and tomorrow. It doesn't matter whether it is Richard Nixon, George W. Bush or Rod Blagojevich. The names change but the corruption remains the same.

I've noticed lately, for about the past decade or so, society seems ready, willing & able to forgive Nixon for his criminal acts. After his death in 1994, historians and political insiders were starting to revisit Nixon's legacy. Maybe he wasn't as bad as we thought he was. The following year Oliver Stone released his bio on Nixon with Anthony Hopkins in the lead. The tagline for that movie was "greatness was in his grasp". That film suggested that Nixon was a man who wanted to do good but was caught in circumstances out of his control. He never wanted the Vietnam War, understood the protesters, but, wanted to leave with honor.

Now when we think back on Nixon we don't judge him so hard. Film after film has shown us what a tragic figure he was. Watch Robert Altman's masterpiece "Secret Honor" and tell me you don't feel a tad bit of sympathy towards him. Nixon was a Shakespearean character. A man who brought himself down.

I saw Stone's "W", his look at our current President. I didn't care for that movie very much. I said at the time I didn't find Bush to be an interesting character. I compared him to Nixon in that review. Speaking strictly as a characters, Nixon is the far more interesting. Nixon was an intelligent man. Say what you will about him but don't doubt his intelligence. He was a man who was smart enough to realize what he was doing was wrong. He understood the consequences of his actions. President Bush is seen as a man who was in over his head. A man who was taken advantage of by men around him who had greater ambitions and used him as a tool to meet their ends. As a result there is no conflict within Bush. He doesn't understand what went on around him. But Nixon, now that's another story.

"Frost/Nixon" is based on Peter Morgan's London and Broadway play of the same title. On Broadway it starred both Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, both who reprise their roles here. And Morgan even adapted his own play.

The film is told from David Frost's (Sheen) point of view. He is presented as a man looking for a second chance. A man looking to redeem his career. He had a successful television show in America but after it was cancelled he never recovered. He moved to Australia where he managed to get another show, playing host to such guest as the Bee Gees. He yearns for the opportunity to make an impact. He sees Nixon as that opportunity.

At this time in history Nixon has just resigned. He has left office in disgraced. His Vice-President, Gerald Ford, has given him a full pardon. Nixon will not have to face trial. This just makes the public even more upset. Same old story of dirty politics at work. Nixon however also yearns for a chance to tell his story. He says he did some good while in the White House. He was in fact an expert on foreign policy. Probably our most knowledgeable in the last 30 years. But with Watergate, all of his so-called accomplishments have disappeared. He will forever be remembered for one things; Watergate. He wants to set the record straight.

Frank Langella's performance as Nixon may be one of, if not the best, of his career. There have been few highlights in my opinion. He was excellent in the 1970 Mel Brooks comedy "The Twelve Chairs", is said to have given one of the better Dracula performances and got a lot of attention last year for his performance in "Starting Out in the Evening".

In Langella we see Nixon's guilt. We see the remorse, the inner conflict and the desire to fight back. There are several scenes when Langella's face tell us more than words could ever convey. He stares off into space. We can tell his mind is at work. He's plotting something.

One of the more harrowing scenes comes near the end of the film. Frost and Nixon are about to have their last interview. Nixon calls Frost to tell them how they are both alike in many ways. They both want a second chance. They were never given a proper first chance because of the liberal elites. Nixon goes on expressing how these interviews are his chance to redeem himself. He later confesses he is a bit drunk. But they say when we drink we speak the truth. We allow our true feelings to be revealed. Here we feel sorry for him.

So much attention has been thrown at Langella that Michael Sheen I felt has not been getting his due respect. He gives a very good performance. If Langella is the highpoint of the film, Sheen is right there with him. He holds his own against him. I can only imagine since both men played these roles on Broadway they are very comfortable in them. There is also a good amount of chemistry between them.

Peter Morgan has also written "The Queen", one of my favorite films of 2006 and "The Last King of Scotland", a film I had some problems with. His script here, as in "The Queen", gives us an insider's feel. What we see on-screen we accept as truth. This must be the way it was.

Some pretentious film snobs might think Ron Howard makes mainstream, sentimental Hollywood crap. I don't feel that way about him. Yes, his films are emotional but they are involving. They don't feel cheaply sentimental. I enjoyed "Cinderella Man", "Apollo 13" and "A Beautiful Mind". "Frost/Nixon", for all of its fine points and there are many, didn't involve me as much as his other films. It wasn't as emotional as I would have liked it.

Still, this is a fine film. It represents the world we live in. Of all the films I have seen this year, this is the one I think has the strongest chance of winning the Oscar for best picture. This is the film of our times.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Film Review: Shine A Light

"Shine A Light" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

It's not often I'll say a Martin Scorsese movie should be avoided, but, I suppose there is a first time for everything.

I really can't blame Scorsese for my inability to enjoy his latest documentary. This is not one of the great Scorsese works. His feature films rank among the best of them. "Taxi Driver", "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore", "GoodFellas" and "Raging Bull". But I've never seen any of Scorsese's documentaries. One of his most famous is probably another rock concert he filmmed, "The Last Waltz" back in 1978. It was the last concert given by "The Band".

"Shine A Light" follows the Rolling Stones, as they give a concert at the Beacon Theatre, as part of a fundraiser being hosted by former President Clinton, who makes an appearance and even opens for the Stones.

My father is a musician. He plays mostly Hungarian folkmusic but also music from our neighboring countries including; Romania, Slovak Republic, Serbia, Bulgaria and Russia. He looked down upon modern mainstream music. So growing up I wasn't really allowed to listen to rock n' roll or hip hop. It wasn't accepted in my family. So, while most people celebrated The Beatles or Elvis Presley, in my family, we laughed at these people. We didn't consider them good musicians. The Rolling Stones also fell into that group.

So going into "Shine A Light" I didn't know much about the Stones. I have heard their song, "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" but that is about it. I eventually decided to watch this because as 2008 comes to a close, I can't think of ten titles to put on my year end "best" list. I've seen pretty much all the movies I wanted to see this year but because it has been one of the worst years for movies in a long time I have no list. Since I'm desperate, I'm starting to go back and look at titles I at first dismissed. So, I thought I'd give "Shine A Light" a chance. I watched this not because I am a Stones fan, clearly I am not, but out of respect for Mr. Scorsese, one of my favorite directors.

As "Shine A Light" started, I must admit, I became pretty interested in it. We see how the Stones prepare for a concert, by doing as little work as possible and how Scorsese is about to lose his mind trying to figure out how to shoot this. Scorsese keeps asking for a list of the songs to be performed so he can figure out camera angles. The Stones, of course, don't really understand what exactly Scorsese is doing and all the preparation needed to go into making this documentary. They never give him the list of songs!

This is all pretty funny. It's funny the way Scorsese is trying his hardest to keep his cool as you can clearly see he is under a tremendous amount of stress compared to the Stones, who seem as cool as a cucumber.

These "backstage" moments take up about the first 20 minutes or so of the documentary, the entire concert runs two hours, after which we see the Stones on stage perform.

Now of course it wouldn't be fair if I didn't admit, clearly I am the wrong audience for this documentary. I am not a Stones' fan, I don't know their music. But "Shine A Light" does try to give the audience the feeling of what it would be like to actually be at a Stones' concert. The camera is right up there following Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, getting extreme close-ups and multiple angles. Fans of the Stones, who may actually know these songs, will be greatly impressed. There will be much more excitement on their part as they watch this. Also in the spirit of fairness, I have given this the highest star rating I could give it, without actually recommending it, because I realize fans will react differently than I.

Because this is essentially a concert on film I'm tempted not just to offer a review of it as strictly a movie but also a music review. I'll tell you why I don't think the Rolling Stones are a good band. First of all Richards and the other guitarist, Ron Wood, play like children. They don't know how to solo. Their ideas are bland. When various guest make appearances on stage, ranging from Blues legend, Buddy Guy (who sings a crazy song about smoking dope) to Christina Aguilera, they outperform them. Aguilera has a much wider vocal range than Jagger, who doesn't have much of a range to begin with. Richards sings a few songs while Jagger takes a break. He sings completely off key! Jagger is a little better, but, that's not much of a compliment, since the other guy doesn't sing in key.

Scorsese, in between songs, inserts old clips of the Stones in interviews. This is interesting, especially for those of us who are not familiar with the band. The problem is, it doesn't give us all the information. Clips are shown where Jagger is released from prison. But it never explains why he and Richards went to jail in the first place. I have a hunch it had something to do with drugs, but it is never clearly stated. Also, what year did this happen?

Maybe "Shine A Light" could have used more of these old clips. They help create a nice contrast to what we are seeing during their concert and as I said, helps give viewers a little more information and background knowledge about them.

Is "Shine A Light" a complete waste of time? Not really. I didn't get much fun out of it, but there is a reason why. If you are a Stones fan I could see why you would like this. It is well worth watching if you like rock n' roll. Sadly I don't. Too bad for Scorsese and the Rolling Stones.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Film Review: Doubt

"Doubt" *** 1\2 (out of ****)


Watching "Doubt" I was reminded of my years at Catholic elementary school. I attended a Catholic school for six years, grade k - five. In those days some of the teachers were sisters. Though the school was mildly starting to turn away from that. But all the students always hated to have the sisters as teachers. They were the most strict.

One year, in fourth grade, I got stuck with one of the sisters. She did not like me. She always wanted to use me as an example. She constantly wanted to try to get me in trouble with the principle, who was not a nun. It caused me great psychological and emotional trauma. I missed several days. To make a long story short, at the end of the year it was said the teacher had resigned. Secretly though some whispered, she had been forced out due to complaints. I was said to be one of the main reasons she was let go.

I tell you this useless information because Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), in the opening moments of "Doubt" reminded me of that fourth grade teacher and most of the sisters who taught at my school. Sister Alysius is such a threatening presence that even the other, younger, sisters like Sister James (Amy Adams) are afraid and intimidated by her.

Walking into "Doubt" I was expecting one type of movie and got another. The trailer for this movie is incredibly misleading. The trailer, in my opinion, makes Sister Aloysius out to be a villain. A woman with a grudge. It seems she is plotting against the others at the school. The trailer was vague, which I appreciate, but it suggested a different type of movie. Whether or not Sister Aloysius is a villain or not is going to cause a bit of a debate. But, we'll get to that later.

"Doubt", which was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who wrote the Tony award winning play which the film is based on, sets this film in 1964 New York, the Bronx to be exact. The film starts off with a mass being conducted by the newest member of the church, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Today he will talk about doubt. He mentions President Kennedy had just been assassinated a year earlier and the doubt the entire country experienced. And how in that doubt a people came together. Doubt, he tells his congregation, can be a binding force.

Father Flynn, much like Sister James, is a different voice to the church. They are willing to adapt more to society's changing ways. They don't want to church to get left behind. Sister Aloysius doesn't feel the need to change. In one scene the three discuss a Christmas pageant to take place at the school. Father Flynn suggest perhaps they sing a secular song instead of religious hymns. Perhaps "Frosty the Snowman", which Sister Aloysius says is a song that promotes witchcraft. Better to sing "It's Beginning To Look A lot Like Christmas".

One of the major ways in which society and the school is changing is due to race. There is only one black student at the school, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II). He is an alter-boy. Father Flynn takes a special interest in the child. He see him give the boy a gift. They smile at each other and exchange glances. But all is harmless, right?

One day, during Sister James' history class, Donald is called to see Father Flynn, without a third party present. Such things are forbidden. Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius cannot even be in the same room without a third party present. Sister James doesn't think much of the incident until the boy returns. He starts sobbing. She even says the smell of alcohol is on his breathe. Unsure what to do she confides in Sister Aloysius.

Without saying it, the suggestion of whether or not Father Flynn is molesting the boy is in the air. Given what we have been hearing in the headlines for the past couple of years, the idea is not far fetched. And judging by the film's screenplay, it wasn't even far fetched in 1964 either. The two sisters confront Father Flynn about Sister James' concerns. He refuses to talk about it and says he is disappointed in the way she has gone about this. But Sister Aloysius will not let the situation go. Father Flynn says the boy was caught bring alter wine and had to be dismissed as an alter boy. But Sister Aloysius doesn't believe it.

The film doesn't pry into Father Flynn's past. He is not shown as a corrupt man. But is he guilty? The viewer only knows as much as the Sisters in the film, which is almost nothing. But are we willing to believe?

Much of "Doubt" for one reason or another, didn't connect with me. I wasn't emotionally drawn into the story. The approach is too subtle for my taste. I wanted more confrontation. The actors, all of them great, aren't really allowed to let 'em rip.

The film has two powerful scenes. They are combative, confrontational scenes. Sister Aloysius calls Donald's mother (Viola Davis) for a visit to discuss her concerns. The mother seems unphased by the whole ordeal. She doesn't care if the Father is molesting her boy because she says it is only few a few months anyway. He'll graduate soon and be headed off to high school. Plus, she reveals, the boy is gay. This is unacceptable to Sister Aloysius. The boy's sexuality doesn't matter. The Father's actions are important. The question is, will she be able to have Father Flynn removed from the church?

The other powerful scene is the big showdown between Flynn and Aloysius. Here we get a lesson in acting. The two are unflinching. There is a level of intensity which almost makes the viewer think they are going to come to blows. Now we see why both of these people are great performers. And this scene will cause the most debate.

Two questions are raised in this scene. Is Sister Aloysius really a villain? And are the charges against Father Flynn true? I can only offer my interpretation, which is not fact. Sister Aloysius is not a villain. I believe her when she says she cares about the child and the church. I don't think she wants him to resign because of a power grudge between the two but because she finds his actions wrong.

As for Father Flynn. He seems guilty of the charges set forth. Their showdown has a moment when Aloysius tells Flynn she called the parish where he was in charge and one of the nuns said disturbing things about his behavior. He demands to know which nun said this and why didn't Aloysius speak to the head of the church instead of a nun. After their talk Father Flynn resigns. But does resign because he is guilty or because he just wants to move on? Is their doubt in anyone's mind?

This is the big conversation audiences are going to have after this movie. What was really going on here? The last scene in the film will only confuse you more and more.

The performances given here are all good. Streep hasn't really been in a movie worthy of her for awhile now. She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in "The Devil Wears Prada", but, that was far from a great movie and a perfect example of Hollywood's stupidity to even nominate such a movie. In Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs", which I was a big fan of, she isn't given much to do. Here in "Doubt" she is given a role in a movie which deserves her. I'm not sure if it is Oscar worthy but it is effective. Does she have to win an Oscar to make people think she was good?

Hoffman is effective too. Not as good as I thought he was in Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead", he gave my favorite performance of the year. And Amy Adams is always a delight to see on-screen. I loved her in a movie released earlier in the year called Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day". I thought she should have gotten nominated for "Best Supporting Actress", but, I fear people forgot about that movie and if she is nominated for anything it would be for this movie. But even here there is something about seeing her on-screen which brings a smile to my face.

I thought "Doubt" was going to be one of my favorite movies of the year. Sadly it is not. It has just been such a bad year for movies, that I've only seen a small handful of movies I've actually given four stars to. But in such a mindless, worthless year as 2008, "Doubt" is one of the better movies to see.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: It's A Wonderful Life

"It's A Wonderful Life" **** (out of ****)

As I have been reviewing Christmas themed movies for the month of December, I've yet to review anything I think really displays the meaning of the Christmas spirit. Sure "Holiday Inn" and "March of the Wooden Soldiers" are pieces of harmless entertainment, which may serve as good family viewing, but, those movies don't offer a moral. "It's A Wonderful Life" is probably one of the greatest if not the best Christmas movie ever made.

I haven't reviewed anything yet on this blog by Frank Capra. But it has nothing to do with my feelings on his films. He's one of my favorite directors. To a lot of people I imagine they think of Capra and his films as sentimental hogwash. His films are too sappy. As a society we tend to look down upon films which are sentimental, melodramatic, emotional films. Why is that? What's wrong with a movie working purely on our emotions? What's wrong with a little sentimentality?

Capra's movies make us feel good about ourselves. They embody a true American "can do" attitude. They make us inspire to be better people. Does that sound like too much praise for Capra? Maybe you've never seen one of his movies before.

Of all of Mr. Capra's great films, which include "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town", "It Happened One Night", "Lady For A Day", "You Can't Take It With You" and "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington", "It's A Wonderful Life" remains my favorite. It is the quintessential Capra film because it represents everything Capra stood for. Capra himself even said this was his favorite among his own films.

"It's A Wonderful Life" seems to be one of those movies everyone has seen. Films buffs and casual movie fans all know the story. It plays on TV every Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. I've never met someone who told me they never heard of it or have not seen it.

Still I'll explain what the movie is about. The film follows a young dreamer, George Bailey (James Stewart). Ever since he was a child George has wanted to travel all over the world. Like most young children he thought he could change the world. He wanted to leave his hometown of Bedford Fall and never look back. A man can't make much of himself in that town. George's plans were too big for the people of the town.

But George, like so many dreamers, never achieved those dreams. Something always interfered with his plans. When his father dies, it is George who must take over his father's building and loan business. George sends his younger brother, Harry (Todd Karns) to college, with the money that was originally intended for George. Harry, he figures will take over the business after he graduates. But Harry gets married, and his father-in-law offers him a job in his company. So George gets snubbed again.

Then Mary (Donna Reed) enters his life. It may be the only bright spot, even if it is slightly bittersweet. Meeting her, means he has to spend more time in Bedford Falls. Now he is a married man and must settle down. Still, he loves her. They have known each other since children. When even then Mary loved George.

But George has hit rock bottom. His business partner and uncle (Thomas Mitchell) has lost $8,000, which was suppose to be payment to the bank. Without it George will have to close the business and may have to go to jail. The only man he can turn to is a man his family has been doing business with for years, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Mr. Potter doesn't like the Bailey family. He doesn't understand their optimism and wanting to help the less fortunate. They make bad businessmen he feels. Naturally Mr. Potter refuses to help George.

When that happens, George no longer wants to live, and when God hears that an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) is sent to help George discover the meaning of life and his own importance by showing him what life would be like if he were never born.

I wonder if Ingmar Bergman was influenced by this movie when he made one of his many masterpieces "The Seventh Seal", where Death meets a man, and through their encounter, he too learns about the meaning of life and God's existence. Of course Bergman's film is more bleak in its approach, but the message is almost the same.

The most amazing thing about "It's A Wonderful Life" is Stewart's performance. We see ourselves in him. At one time we too thought we could change the world. We thought anything was possible. We wanted to explore the world over. But something called "life" interfered. Dreams crumbled. Hope faded away. We settled down got married had children and found out what a mortgage is. Then you start to hope your children will accomplish all those things you never did and the vicious cycle of life continues.

Stewart is able to show all these dimensions in his performance. We can see the sorrow and despair on his face. We see how life has simply become too much for him to deal with. When he yells at his children we understand him. We know he loves his children but the world is spinning out of control. When that happens we take our anger out on anyone next to us. Even in those moments when George isn't shown in the best light, Stewart is able to make us relate to the character. There is something universal about it.

It has been said Stewart had that "every man" appeal to him. And he and Capra made many films to help enforce that idea whether it was "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" or this film.

In the end "It's A Wonderful Life" teaches us the importance of family. Being around loved ones. Learning to treat others as you would want to be treated. Every life has value. No man is a failure as long as he has friends and family. And that is what the Christmas spirit is suppose to be about. Not Santa Claus, not a talking snowman or flying reindeer. Sorry kids! This time of year should be a reflection on our own lives and helping others.

It still amazes me "It's A Wonderful Life" flopped at the box-office and won not a single award at the Academy Awards ceremony that year. Though in fairness it lost to some good competition, William Wyler's "The Best Years Of Our Lives" (which is also included in my "Masterpiece Film Series"). But, time is the ultimate judge of which films are classics. As great as "The Best Years..ect" is, I'm willing to bet more people have seen "It's A Wonderful Life" than "The Best Years". Hopefully it will be a film that will always be around. It's values and message is one should we always remind ourselves of. That's why it's one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Film Review: March of the Wooden Soldiers

"March of the Wooden Soldiers" *** (out of ****)
I've never quite figured out why Victor Herbert's opera "Babes in Toyland" is considered to be a Christmas movie, however, who am I to argue with the public?

Herbert's "Babes in Toyland" was written in 1903 and was a smash success. It was seen as capitalizing on the success of "The Wizard of Oz". In Herbert's play, a world of make believe is possible. Toyland is a place where all your favorite fairytale stories come to life. Mother Goose lives there, Santa Claus visits, Little Bo-Peep, the Old Woman who lived in a shoe and threats of the bogeymen haunt children.

Hal Roach, who produced Laurel & Hardy's shorts and featured films, was a man of culture. He loved opera. He bought the rights to several operas and used them as Laurel & Hardy vehicles. However as all fans of Laurel & Hardy, and for that matter, the Marx Brothers, will tell you, sometimes these stories didn't use the comics to their full potential.

These operas are based on previously written material which were not suited for Laurel & Hardy's style of comedy. Parts had to be written specially for them and as a result usually reduced them to supporting characters offering comic relief to a love story. "March of the Wooden Soldiers" is no exception. Other examples include "Bohemian Girl" and "The Devil's Brother".

This 1934 film version of Herbert's play has retained little of the original story. The film revolves around Mother Peep (the little old woman who lived in a shoe, Florence Roberts) who is in debt to Silas Barnaby (Harry Kleinbach), the meanest man in town. Barnaby has a mortgage over her shoe and Mother Peep is unable to pay. But Barnaby has eyes for Little Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry, who previously appeared in "Alice in Wonderland" in the title role, which feature an on-slaught of cameos including Cary Grant, W.C. Fields, Jack Oakie and Edward Everett Horton). If Bo-Peep will agree to marry Barnaby, he will rip up Mother Peep's mortgage, as a wedding present. But Bo-Peep doesn't love Barnaby. Her affections are for Tom-Tom (Felix Knight), you know, the Piper's son.

Laurel & Hardy play Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, a variation of Twiddle Dum and Twiddle Dee. They live in Mother Peep's shoe and it is now up to them to help Mother Peep. Their first plan is to ask their boss, the ToyMaster, to give them a loan. When that doesn't work they try to steal the mortgage papers from Barnaby.

For children I can understand why a movie such as this would interest them. The film was made on a pretty good budget and the world of toyland is vivid and colorful. As for adults though I can see why this wouldn't hold their interest. For us luckily there is Laurel & Hardy.

The performances, across the board, are not effective. Felix Knight is not much of a leading man. He never had much of a career in films. He mostly appeared in bit parts. He was in Laurel & Hardy's "Bohemian Girl" and "Caravan" with Charles Boyer. My guess is he was chosen for his singing instead of his acting.

The best performances in the film belong to Laurel & Hardy. If people think they were not good actors, they are sadly mistaken. The boys (as they were sometimes called) were nothing like the characters they played on-screen. They played their characters to perfection. They were brilliant comedians and effective actors. Don't think otherwise.

As for as judging this film as either a Christmas movie or a Laurel & Hardy film it is a little weak. As far as Christmas movies goes, this movie is not really about the holiday spirit, although Santa Claus does make an appearance. But there is no moral about the importance of family, showing good will towards your fellow man, learning to share..ect.

Compared to other Laurel & Hardy movies "March of the Wooden Soldiers" doesn't show the team at their best. They are too restricted by the plot. So much of it doesn't involve them. Still they manage to get in some funny bits including Stanley's favorite past-time and their plan to sneak into Barnaby's house, via the battle of Troy, with Oliver hiding in a gift which is sent to Barnaby's warehouse.

If you really want to see Laurel & Hardy at their best watch "Way Out West", "The Devil's Brother", "Sons of the Desert" or "Bonnie Scotland". In those movies they are given a little more freedom to insert their style of comedy and show you why they are, in my opinion, the greatest comedy team in history.

The movie was co-directed by Gus Meins, who worked for the Roach studios directing the Little Rascals and Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly shorts. And Charley Rogers, who had worked with "the boys" often. He directed "Bohemian Girl" and "The Devil's Brother" and wrote "Swiss Miss", "Way Out West" and "Bonnie Scotland".

Though the story has been altered for the film, five of the songs remain. They are "Toyland", "Never Mind, Bo-Peep", "Castle in Spain", "Go To Sleep" and "March of the Toys".

"March of the Wooden Soldiers" is a good family movie. It is sweet and entertaining. While not my ideal choice for a perfect holiday film, it is funny and well worth watching if for no better reason than to see Laurel and Hardy.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Film Review: Beauty in Trouble

"Beauty in Trouble" *** 1\2 (out of ****)
I noticed recently that so many of the imports we are getting this year are coming from France. There was Catheine Breillat's "The Last Mistress", the recent "A Christmas Tale", "Fear(s) of the Dark", Claude Lelouch's "Roman de Gare", Jacques Rivette's "The Duchess of Langeais", Claude Chabrol's "A Girl Cut in Two" and "Flight of the Red Balloon" among others. Why is this I thought to myself? Why no films from Romania, Hungary, Russia or Poland? Jan Hrebejk's "Beauty in Trouble" from the Czech Republic is a welcomed treat. It is one of the year's best films.

I never would have guessed such a film like "Beauty in Trouble" would come from Hrebejk. He directed the Oscar nominated "Divided We Fall" and the outrageous comedy "Up & Down". I have not seen "Divided" but "Up & Down", the story of a traveling orphan, was such a broad attempt at comedy, that a film as delicate and human as "Beauty in Trouble" seems out of place for Hrebejk.

The film takes us back to 2002, Prague, amid a severe flood which has devastated the city. Marcela (Anna Geislerova) and her husband, Jarda (Roman Luknar), had their home destroyed. To make up for this, Jarda has resorted to stealing cars and stripping them.

Their luck is about to change though when one of Jarda's co-workers steals a Volvo which belongs to Evzen Benes (Josef Abrham), which had a satelite tracking device. Now with Jarda in jail, Marcela is faced with difficult problems. She and Jarda were not getting along before he went to jail. She had been living with her mother, along with her two children. She is not sure if she should divorce him or not. And what should she tell her children? Her mother, Zdena (Jana Brejchova), tells her to leave her husband and lie to the children, telling them their father is out of town on business. And do Marcela writes letters, pretending to be Jarda explaining he is in India.

Living at her mother's place is not ideal. Zdena husband Richard (Jiri Schmitzer), does not seem to like Marcela or her children. He constantly disciplines them behind Zdena's back, in the most cruel ways. When one of the children forgets to take out the trash, he throws it all over them while they are sleeping. If that is not enough Jarda's mother Liba (Emilia Vasaryova), pleads with Marcela not to divorce her son. It would be wrong in the eyes of God.

Things seem to have hit a low for Marcela until she meets Benes at a police station. At first he does not know her relationship to Jarda, but when he finds out he is not in the least bit affected. Taken away by her beauty, he offers to help her and her children.

Benes has returned to Prague, after living in Italy, to reclaim his family's house, which was taken over by the Communist in 1956 ('56 also carried a special meaning for Hungarians as well).

Marcela is now confronted with two choices, which offer two extremely different lifestyles. Live with Benes, who is wealthy and kind to her children or stay with Jarda and hope he has changed his ways.

The "beauty" suggested in the film's title offers multiple meanings. It could refer to Marcela - a beautiful woman in trouble. Or beauty could be Prague, which has suffered after the floods. Or beauty could be our way of life, which is in trouble.

Anna Geislerova is the real reason to watch this movie. At first I was completely taken away by her beauty. She is stunningly beautiful, but she makes Marcela a real character. Not a cliche, a newly divorced woman with two children. The audience can relate to her. The film doesn't go to extreme ends. It seems realistic and treats its characters and their situations with intelligence.

For a story that has such serious consequences I was surprised how easily humor finds its way in the story. No matter how grim we may think our lives are there is always room for laughter.

Some viewers may wonder why does Marcela have such a difficult choice anyway? Jarda is a criminal. Benes is a wealthy man who can provide for her. Her choice shouldn't be that difficult. But the one thing Jarda has going for him is that the sex between him and Marcela is amazing. In an early scene we see and hear them make love. She screams violently while her children are in their bedroom holding their ears. We never see Marcela and Benes, who is much older than her, in an intimate situation. Though I just assume the sex is not the same between them. When Marcela does she Jarda again, after he is released from prison, they sleep together. Like wild animals they rip each other's clothes off.

Viewers may not like Marcela's choice in the end. I think it was perfect. It shows us when it comes to love there is no "all good" or "all bad". No choice is perfect. No one person can offer us everything we want in a relationship. The film's ending suggest the power of sex. Marcela may never find complete happiness, but who among us has. That's life.

[NOTE: Here in Chicago, the movie opened yesterday (Dec. 5), it has a limited run. It will be gone before the end of the week, (Dec. 11). I would strongly suggest holding off on more mainstream titles, which will probably have a longer run, and catch this movie while you still can.]

Friday, December 5, 2008

Film Review: Caramel

"Caramel" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

I had heard of this latest film from Lebanon, but, never was interested to see it. It's not that I thought it wouldn't be a good movie, I didn't know enough about it to make that decision, I just placed other films on my "to do" list.

And now I have finally see the movie. Boy do I regret having waited so long to see this. If anyone reading this hasn't seen this movie yet, please do so. It is one of the best films of the year.

It is because of occasions like this I love watching movies. Here is something I had no strong desire to see. I knew absolutely nothing about the plot. I sat down watched the movie and felt I had discovered my own personal treasure. That's what makes movies so great. You never know what to expect. You never know where a film is going to take you. What new worlds and people you will see.

"Caramel" is one of those special kinds of movies where we feel as if we know the characters. The film has a charm that invites the viewer inside. We come to feel for these characters. We understand their problems. We want to to help. How often can you say that about a movie?

The film takes place in a beauty salon in Beirut. It centers on the workers there, four women, each of whom faces problems in love. But I fear that makes "Caramel" sound too simplistic. That description makes "Caramel" sound like a "chick flick". This is not the Lebanese version of "Barber Shop" with a female cast. "Caramel" goes deeper than that and becomes a film about women in Lebanese society.

Layale (Nadine Labaki, who directed and co-wrote the film) runs the salon. She is an independent woman, who lives at home and has been having an affair with a married woman. Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri) is about to get married but worries she is not conservative and traditional enough for her future husband. She dresses more modern than her in-laws and is not a virgin. Jamale (Gisele Aouad) has recently divorced her husband. When not at the salon she tries for acting parts but worries about competing with the younger, more attractive actresses. And there is Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) a closeted lesbian, who doesn't make much of an effort to hide her sexuality, as she never shows an interest in men.

These ladies and their struggles seem to suggest the problems women in the Middle East face. The attractive idea of having the freedom of a Western woman while trying to please the traditional values of their families. Layale may run a salon and be successful but she still lives at home. There is still pressure on her to get married.

In one touching and sad scene, Layale wants to surprise the man she is seeing by throwing him a birthday party. Since her affair is a secret she cannot bring him home. She tries to get a hotel room but proof is needed that she is married. Each hotel she goes to she gives a fake name. Eventually one of the hotel managers assumes she is a hooker and gives her a room. In the West, a woman may not face such a problem.

Nisrine, while also financially independent and inspired by Western ideals must try to conform to please her man. She goes for a surgery to make her "pure" again.

Advancement for women has come slow to the Middle East. These women know what goes on outside of Lebanon and want to achieve the same standards, and have in their own way, but, you can only go so far when society hasn't caught up.

Some male readers may say to themselves this sounds way too feminine for them. But, as a man myself, I'm of the opinion a good movie should always be seen. Yes, "Caramel" has such cliche scenes as one of the women breaking down crying while her girlfriends come to cheer her up and offer a little men-bashing but the film doesn't become overly sentimental. The film itself is not cliche. It is fresh and vibrant.

Nadine Labaki has acted in a few films prior to this but has never written or directed anything before. She says the story is one she has had in mind for years. I'm glad she has finally told it and as someone who has never seen her act before, I hope she has much success. She has a very natural presence on-screen. Her beauty is inviting instead of intimidating.

One of my problems with the movie however is I wish it would have done more with the Rima character. I wish she would come out and say she is a lesbian. The viewer mildly gets the sense her other women known, especially after a female client always makes an appointment with her. She never gets a haircut just a wash. The mere act of Rima washing the lady's hair becomes a sexual act and is filmmed as such. But I wanted more of a confrontation. I was curious to see how everyone would act having the secret exposed.

Still, there may be many reasons Labaki avoided the subject. "Caramel" is nonetheless a dazzling film. It is a piece of work filled with beauty. Unlike caramel itself, which is used for waxing in the film, hence its title. The film does not seem bittersweet to me. It is simply sweet and wonderful. Again, one of the year's best films!