Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Film Review: The Last King of Scotland

"The Last King of Scotland" *** (out of ****)

One of the most talked about performances of 2006 was Forest Whitaker as Ugandian leader Idi Amin. He just seemed like a sure bet come Oscar time. I didn't even see the movie at the time yet I knew he was going to win an Oscar.

Well I finally got around to watching this film. What an over-rated film and an over-rated performance.

Is Forest Whitaker convincing as Idi Amin? I guess so. I don't know anything about the real Idi Amin. I have nothing to compare his performance to. But, even if you find that to be a baseless claim, after all, how many times have we seen actors play real people we've never heard of? Julia Roberts won an Academy Award for playing Erin Brockovich, and I never heard of her either before the film.

So now the question is, not how does he compare to the real person but how effective is the character strictly as a character? Is it a convincing performance? For that I have to say no. I never found Amin particulary evil. I didn't fear him. Much of that is because of the structure of the film's screenplay.

The film is not told from Idi Amin's point of view. Instead it is told from the perspective of an outsider, a scotsman, Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy). A recent medical graduate who wants to change the world. After spinning a globe and deciding to travel wherever his finger lands, he finds himself in Uganda.

Quickly Garrigan finds himself in the good graces of Amin, after helping him with a sprained finger. He eventually becomes one of Idi Amin's closest advisors. And it is through Garrigan we discover things about Amin.

My problem with the script, based on Giles Foden's novel and adapted by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, is by not having Idi Amin as the lead character we can never quite get into his head. And because of that we do not understand him and eventually do not fear him.

Had the film followed Amin and told us his story I think that would have made the film more effective.

"The Last King of Scotland" is set up as a thriller and there are a few suspenseful moments but the film never succeeds as a thriller. At best it is a bio-pic and an average one at that.

While the film is told by Garrigan, I felt he gave the better performance if only because I had more of an investment with his character. Not good when he's not your subject and the film is about Idi Amin.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: The Godfather

"The Godfather" **** (out of ****)

The first words we hear in "The Godfather" are heard while the screen is black. They are " I believe in America". In some ways that was what the first two "Godfather" films were about. Family and the American dream. Secondly, it is a mob movie.

Throughout the film we hear Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) speak of the importance of family. At one point he says "a man that doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man." Yes, Vito Corleone is a gangster, he has had people killed, but, he believes in family. That of course doesn't mean we should forgive him his sins and overlook his faults but it is part of the brilliance of Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola's script that they add a human element to these characters. We accept them for what they are yet we can relate to them. Their actions seems justifiable.

And for as good as the script is, credit must also be given to the cast. Marlon Brando's performance as "The Don" is one of his all-time great roles. It is an memorable as his performances in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "On the Waterfront". His role here may not be as dominate as those other parts, but that is only because he is sharing screen time with more actors. And what a cast! Has there ever been a more perfect cast in an American film? Every actor carries their weight. We simply cannot picture any other actors in these roles. Al Pacino's performance as Michael Corleone is as culturally significant and indelible in cinema as Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, Gene Kelley in "Singin' in the Rain" and Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane.

In addition to all of that, what about Gordon Willis' cinematography? Known for his use of shadows and darkness, here they add and reveal important character traits. These men live in the underworld.Their lives are surrounded by darkness. Some of Willis' most memorable work may be in this film. If not, perhaps only his work in Woody Allen's "Manhattan" could match it.

Even the musical score by Nino Rota, who has worked with legendary Italian filmmakers such as Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti on their respective films such as "8 1\2", "Amarcord" and "The Leopard". Nearly every film he has worked on has had a score that is as memorable of the film itself. Many times, his music makes a particular film. That was clearly the case with "Amarcord". I remember the music more than the film.

"The Godfather" is perhaps the greatest American film ever made. Everything about the film just manages to fall into place. Everything is perfect about it. The performances, the music, the cinematography, the pacing, the editing.

To think Coppola had not had much experience as a director when this film was made, only goes to show his talent. Even he may have never made a better film.

But this review just seems to gush praise at the film. But what else can I say about it? That is why it is one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Film Review: The Darjeeling Limited

"The Darjeeling Limited" ** (out of ****)

I don't know if I have hated a movie more in the past year than this one. I've usually made the correct choice and have avoided Mr. Anderson's films, which include "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenebaums". I saw his film "Rushmore", was not terribly impressed and decided not to give Wes Anderson a second chance, until now. When will I learn?

But clearly I am in the minority here. If you ever talk to young inspiring filmmakers you will hear Anderson's name tossed around quite a bit. As I recent college graduate from a liberal arts school I can testify to that. All you would hear the film majors talk about was Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry.

There is something about Anderson's style that annoys me. The only adjectives you can use to described his movies are offbeat, eccentric, and whimsical. But his films seem to be too eccentric, too whimsical for there own good.

Lets look at Anderson's latest film, "The Darjeeling Limited" as an example. Here three brothers; Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrian Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) decided to go on a "spiritual journey" in India. The three brothers have not spoken to each other in over a year, since the death of their father.

The vacation was the idea of Francis, the oldest brother. But Francis has more up his sleeve than just wanting to visit various temples and find a spiritual awakening. He brought his two brothers along because he has tracked down their estrange mother (Anjelica Huston). Who has since become a nun.

Now perhaps on paper this all sounds like it could work, but, there is nothing for the viewer to relate to. These characters seem more like cliches, comedic devices rather than people. Of course an argument could be made suggesting the Marx Brothers were not individuals eithers. True, but do you want to compare Jason Schwartzman to Groucho Marx? The Marx Brothers were at least funny and socially revelant. Wes Anderson is not.

But as much as I hate this movie, it is not to suggest it is a diaster. There was nothing for me to relate to, and I did not laugh once at any of the "jokes" or "humor" in the film, but it is technically a well made film. There is nice cinematography and, an at times, pleasant musical score. But even the music is eccentric and wanting to be ultra-hip.

When it comes down to it, Wes Anderson's films lack heart. He is a souless filmmaker. Is any of his films based on his own experiences? I surely hope not. But, even if they aren't that is fine. His films still lack emotion. Anderson does not have the ability to create characters and/or situations which gain my sympathy. The viewer has no investment in these people. And if all of that were not enough. They aren't funny! And that is unforgiveable.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Film Review: Elizabeth: The Golden Age

"Elizabeth: The Golden Age" *** (out of ****)

As I began watching Shekhar Kapur's "Elizabeth:The Golden Age", I thought to myself, did we really sequel? I felt the original 1998 film, simply called "Elizabeth" was a fine film on it's own. There was really no need to continue upon the story. I hope we are not going to see a series of films about Queen Elizabeth I.

When watching this film, you can see both sides of the argument. This sequel is a much more mainstream, "watchable" version, compared to the first one. That is not a flaw, but, because of that, the film's topics are treated differently, so the film can have broad appeal.

There is a lot going on in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age". Some might argue too much. Much of the film revolves around the conflict between the Protestants and Catholics. Queen Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) is a Protestant. She is at war with King Philip of Spain (Jordi Molla). The people of England are by a majority Catholic. Several people feel the queen's cousin, Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton, completely wasted here) should be queen since she is a Catholic. The countries are about to engage in a "holy war" which even seems to have the blessing of the Pope.

Now normally that would be enough plot for a film. If it was handled in a serious manner. But, no. There are more sub-plots along the way. One of which involves the queen's relationship with a young explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen). He seems quite taken by her. And she starts to feel the same way about him. But there is another. One of the queen's subjects, also named Elizabeth (Abbie Cornish) who has an eye on Raleigh.

This is what I believe slows the film down and where things start to go wrong. First of all, this situation between the three is treated as if it were a soap opera. The film takes serious themes and does not treat them in a serious way. It is not offensive, but, disappointing. I guess that's what has to happen when you try to make a mainstream film. It's hard to please everyone.

Blanchett, who won an Oscar first time around for this role, is once again watchable in the title role, but, this time around, because of the writing, it makes Queen Elizabeth seem like just any other woman. Much is done to flesh out the character. We see a woman in conflict, with her people, her subjects, her cousin and the King of Spain, but by doing this, we lose sight of who this woman really is. By making her seem so common we forget we are watching a queen. Compare this to Helen Mirren's performance in Stephen Frears' "The Queen". In that film we also see the queen as a woman, but, we never forget who she is. Mirren managed to contain a regal presence throughout the film.

The point of all of this is when the film deals with the love triangle, it could have been any character. It didn't have to be Queen Elizabeth.
Yet there are still elements to enjoy while watching the film. Visually it is beautiful. Kapur's use of colors is striking. Blanchett is still worth watching, and much of the cast does a fine job. Geoffrey Rush as Sir Francis Walsingham, one of the queen's subjects, probably comes out looking second best (behind Blanchett of course). His character is one in inner-conflict as well.

The film managed to win an Oscar at last night's Academy Award show for "best costume". It was a well deserved award. Blanchett was nominated, but lost, the best actress category.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Film Review: The Invasion

"The Invasion" *** (out of ****)

A funny thing happened while watching Oliver Hirschbiegel's "The Invasion". I kept thinking of other movies. Because of the presence of the film's star, Nicole Kidman, I thought of "The Stepford Wives". Another film in which people from a community are programmed to act "perfectly". Then I thought of "Night of the Living Dead". After everyone becomes programmed they seem to resemble zombies. And finally "War of the Worlds" (Spielberg's version) because each film had an opportunity to make a social/political commentary but didn't take full advantage of the situation. Oddly enough though, I never thought of the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers".

In this, the fourth adaptation of Jack Finney's "The Body Snatchers", Nicole Kidman plays Carol Bennell, a psychiatrist who starts to notice unsettling patterns, an estranged ex-husband (Jeremy Northam) gets in comtact with her about their son, Oliver (Jackson Bond). Her son also begins to have reoccurring nightmares, one of her patients speaks of her husband's odd behavior, "my husband is not my husband" she says. And a nation wide "flu" has been going around.

The cause for some of this strange behavior may be the result of a space shuttle which crashed and within the debris left a highly infectious bacteria.

Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) and Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright) are two doctors who have concluded the bacteria is not from our planet. Its characteristics do not match any organism found on Earth. It has an usually high resistance to both extreme heat and cold. Making it difficult to "destroy".

The film has been subjected to much unfair criticism. Its reputation as a poorly conceived film proceeds it. It is simply not true. "The Invasion" is an enjoyable, routine action/adventure genre piece. It is only when the film tries to become something more it fails. Hence the connection to "War of the Worlds". Much is made about the Iraq war, war in general and foreign diplomatic relations. Why? I'm not sure. What is the film trying to tell me about the Iraq war? Again, I'm not sure. Could it be the only way to succeed in life is to conform? Maybe. But what does that have to do with the Iraq war? If we all think and act the same, the world will be safe? Again, maybe. If we, the viewer, cannot come to some definite terms about what a "message" movie is trying to say, than the message wasn't clearly expressed. That is why when the film stays away from politics it works best.

"The Invasion" is the English language debut of German director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Who directed the 2005 film "Downfall", one of my favorite movies of the year. If we really want to blow our minds, we can say the film is against Fascism. The original was deemed a commentary on Communism. Or maybe the film is just against any regime where masses follow one voice.

Not all the criticism can be thrown at Hirschbiegel. The studio took the film away from him, brought in the Wachowski Brothers and James McTeigue to add more action sequences. Apparently the original version was more subtle. It focused more on the drama of the situation. Sometimes these styles collide. But never to an annoying level where the films becomes unwatchable.

Hirschbiegel is a capable director. Kidman one of our best actresses and Craig well suited in the action genre, he is after all James Bond. So much blends together nicely. If only the film would have stayed "off message" more people may have liked it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Top Ten Films Of 2007!

There seems to be a consenus that 2007 was a very good year at the movies. For some reason or another, I never fully agreed. For all the talk of "Juno", "No Country For Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood", I felt the critics hyped these movies quite a bit. I thought all were good films but not great films. Why "Juno" is nominated for "Best Picture" at this year's Oscars is beyond me. Why "No Country For Old Men" was the most celebrated film of the year, appearing on over 100 "Top Ten" list is also a mystery to me.

Clearly, you won't find these films on my list. And I'm willings to bet everyone who reads this list will hate it. None of these films broke records at the box-office, which means one of two things. Either people haven't heard of these films or they did but opted not to see them. The best films of the year in my opinion were ones which went under the radar. They were smaller foreign and independent films.

If I had to find a common theme among some of the year's best films, it might be moral responsibilty. But I'm not sold on that idea. That was what the best films of 2005 were all about. Films have also been getting more and more political since 2004. We saw a lot of films in 2007 tackle politics. There didn't seem to be one common theme among my favorite films this year except that they were all timely. So, here are the top ten films of 2007:

1. THE ORPHANAGE (Mexico/Spain; Juan Antonio Bayona) - Not exactly the popular choice, but no other film managed to involve me from beginning to end quite like this film. The film marked Bayona's film debut and if this is any indication, we may have a major talent on our hands. This is a psychological, horror, suspense masterpiece.

2. MICHAEL CLAYTON (U.S.; Tony Gilroy) - George Clooney's stunning turn as a man who suddenly gets a conscience was a film that worked on all levels. The acting in the film is standout, but it is really Clooney's show all the way. Still the film serves as a political conscience of our times.

3. 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (Romania; Cristian Mungiu) - The palme d' or winner at the Cannes Film Festival was one of the most intense films of the year. The film takes us back to a political history not too long ago and deals with one of the most controversial subjects of our times; abortion. But the film comes to no easy conclusions. It is a masterpiece in pacing. The two female leads are amazing. Why on Earth did the Academy overlook this film for any major awards?

4. LUST, CAUTION (Hong Kong/China; Ang Lee) - A film almost as controversial as Lee's previous film "Brokeback Mountain". The film's NC-17 rating was uncalled for. This is not a porno but an interesting film about politics and the repression of love and sex. Maybe one day the film will get the attention it deserves.

5. CASSANDRA'S DREAM (U.S./UK; Woody Allen) - To some a rehash of Allen's "Match Point" but not quite. So many people bashed the film and Allen himself that it didn't stand a chance. The film's box-office was bad even by Allen's standards. And that's saying a lot. But the film deals with interesting ideas and has a star making performance given by Hayley Atwell. She is a treasure!

6. SICKO (U.S.; Michael Moore) - Moore's look at the health care system in the U.S. as compared to Europe is a real rabble-rouser. Moore's acid sense of humor is fully shown. Here is a film that Democrats and Republicans can both enjoy. And how often does that happen?

7. LIONS FOR LAMBS (U.S.; Robert Redford) - Another film the critics and the public did not respond kindly to. Who knows why. Here is a film that 20 years from now I can tell my children was a perfect time capsule of our times. A call to action by Redford, the film tried to start a debate about the current situation in Iraq and President Bush's legacy.

8. AWAY FROM HER (Canada; Sarah Polley) - The film debut of Sarah Polley's showcases what kind of major talent she is. How someone so young could have directed such a film about love and age is beyond me. An Oscar favorite for Best Actress (Julie Christie).

9. 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST (Romania; Corneliu Porumboiu) - What is going on in Romania cinema, huh? Currently Romania is a hot property and I hope it continues. This was one of the year's funniest films and one of the great political satires of our times.

10. THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Germany; Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) - This Oscar winner for best foreign language film also takes us back to a political history not too long ago. The film at times is melodramatic but never without cause. Very effective film which even relates to a few issues going on in the Bush administration.

Film Review: Michael Clayton

"Michael Clayton" **** (out of ****)

We live in a world where the rich and powerful always seem to get away with everything. Well, we no longer have to wonder why. It is because of a man named Michael Clayton.

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) use to be a lawyer. And according to some, he was a pretty good one at that. Now he has been reduced to what is known as a "fixer". You have a problem, he'll fix it. No matter what and no matter if it is legal.

The firm where Clayton works at is in trouble. They have been boggled down in a case for the past six years. The details of the case are never really made clear. But, the film is not about legal details. This is not a courtroom drama.

Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) is a laywer working on the case. He suddenly has a bit of a breakdown. How bad is the breakdown? Well, he strips off all his clothes and hits on the prosecution's witness, Anna (Merritt Wever) telling her he is in love with her. Guess who they send to fix this problem?

And that is a majority of what "Michael Clayton" is about. Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) is head of the law firm which also employs Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), a litigator also working on the same case. Each who does or doesn't seem to know what the other is doing behind closed doors.

"Michael Clayton" sets itself as a film about ethics and morals. How long can Clayton go on doing what he is doing. When do we reach a turningpoint and say to ourselves, enough is enough! Clayton has helped a lot of people who really don't deserve any help. His law firm has defended people knowing full well they are guilty. When do our actions catch up with us?

Somehow, somewhere along the way George Clooney has become the political, liberal conscience of this country. Along with this film watch "Syriana" and "Good Night and Good Luck". All three take a political stance. Each deals with contemporary issues. War, oil, corporate greed.

If "Michael Clayton" works, it is for one reason. Clooney makes the film. Everything rest on his shoulders. Everyone in the film delivers a fine performance. But, for as good as they are, they are after all, supporting characters. The viewer must connect with Clayton. The viewer must be compelled by his character. Writer and first timer director, Tony Gilroy, does a great job as well. But, if he had chosen another actor, I'm not sure this film would have come out as well as it does.

The film has been nominated for 7 Oscars including, "best picture", "best director", "best screenplay" and "best actor". It pretty much deserves what it was nominated for. Of all the films nominated for best picture at this year's award show, I feel this is the strongest of the nominees. It is one of 2007's best films.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: Wild Strawberries

"Wild Strawberries" **** (out of ****)

Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" is a film that takes on many concepts. It is a story about fathers and sons and the generational gap between them. It addresses themes of life, death, love, family and self-examination. Given these themes the film could have been Bergman's swan-song. In fact the film shares a lot in common with "Fanny and Alexander", which was intended to be Bergman's last film, released in 1983.

"Wild Strawberries" is one of those films with improves with age. As we get older, we see ourselves in the characters. The themes are universal. We also discover new things with each additional viewing. Scenes which at one time didn't seem to reveal much now take special meaning.

Dr. Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom, in his last screen appearance) is about to receive an honorary doctrine for the work he has done over the last 50 years in the medical field. He must drive out to his hometown and accept the award. But Isak has no one to share the moment with. His son, Evald (Gunnar Bjornstrand) lives from away. He is not very close with his daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) who lives with him for the moment, due to an agrument with Evald. And his wife has passed away.

At the last moment Isak decides to drive with Marianne to his hometown. When he arrives there, he is flooded with memories of the past. Isak, now in his older years views his life a failure. He has changed so much over the years. He has no emotional connection to anyone. He son hates him. He has no friends to speak to. He looks at his marriage as a failure. Being married to a woman he really didn't love. And he worries he has carried his problems onto his son.

Many have described the Bergman style as "bleak". I don't think one could say that about this film. I think it ends happily. By the film's end, I think what Bergman is telling us is, yes, we all must die. We cannot rectify the mistakes of yesterday. There is no way to change the past. But, we can find inner peace. We can try to live our lives better and be hopeful of what tomorrow may bring. The future is still changeable as long as we have the will.

Much of "Wild Strawberries" is told in flashback. It is here we learn about Isak's youth. His first love. His fond memories of wild strawberries (which are suppose to represent innocence). His old home. The sudden revelation that his wife had an affair.

These images of old are countered by images of youth. On the road Isak picks up a young girl, Sara (Bibi Andersson). She brings out Isak's youth. He feels young around her.

One of the most famous moments in the film is a dream sequence at the beginning of the film. It sets the tone of the rest of the film. In it Isak is confronted by death. The metaphors project in the sequence are done with a brilliance many filmmakers to date have been unequal to match. Bergman simply finds the right object to suggest the correct emotion. It tells us everything we need to know about Isak's character. His fears, his longings and his view of the world and mankind. And all of it is silent.

"Wild Strawberries" was released at a time when Bergman was starting to gain international fame. Largely in thanks to "The Seventh Seal" released two years before this film in the United States. Critics responded well to the film. Sjostrom won a best actor award from the National Board of Review. It also took their prize for best foreign language film. Bergman was even nominated for best original screenplay but lost to, can you believe this, "Pillow Talk".

Still "Wild Strawberries" is a powerful film. And without question in my mind, one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Film Review: Margot at the Wedding

"Margot at the Wedding"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding" is a difficult film to watch and in many ways an unnecessary one. Much of the terriority covered in "Margot at the Wedding" was addressed in Baumbach's previous film, "The Squid and the Whale".

"Margot at the Wedding" revolves around a dysfunctional family. Margot (Nicole Kidman) along with her son, Claude (Zane Pais) are going to attend her sister's, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding. The two sister have not spoken for some time. Why is not exactly explained. Though, seeing the two sisters together, it is not difficult to see why these two women do not get along.

And that's really what is wrong with this film. The characters are not likeable at all. The viewer feels extremely uncomfortable watching these people on-screen. There is an ugliness to their behavior. We have nothing to connect to. There is no emotional investment.

Now, of course a film can be made dealing with unlikeable characters, but usually, somewhere along the way the viewer finds themself involved in the story. With "Margot at the Wedding" I never really cared what would happen to these people.

Every character in this film seems out to hurt someone. As soon as Margot and Pauline meet, Margot insults Pauline's fiance, Malcolm (Jack Black). Then Margot proceeds to insult the way Pauline's place looks. And it just gets worst from there.
It is revealed Margot and her husband, Jim (John Turturro) have fallen on hard times. Margot is having an affair with Dick (Ciaran Hinds). She has a werid relationship with her son. She is very critical of him one moment and nice to him the next. Malcolm has a wondering eye. And Pauline seems like a child, always trying to look on the bright side, but really wants to embarrass and emotionally hurt Margot.

It could be assumed when watching a film such as this that Baumbach is showing us something real. He is not dealing with cliche Hollywood types. We should be able to relate to these people. But we don't! These characters do not seem real. They seem more fake than characters in a big budget Hollywood film.

Nicole Kidman is quite an actress. She has the ability to shift projects, doing an intimate film such as this or "Fur" or a Hollywood film like "The Invasion". Her work is always rewarding to watch, as she is one of our best actresses to date. I suppose Kidman does what she can with this character. In some ways she is the most interesting but, compared to this group, that sentence isn't really a compliment.

Jack Black proves once again, as he did in "King Kong" that he should stay away from semi-serious roles. They just don't work for him. He has no range as an actor. He should stick to his comedic roles and call it a day. He is not believeable. I don't say that because I'm use to seeing him in one type of role but because he doesn't have the ability to lose himself in a role and convince himself he is more than Jack Black the comic.

But to write such things about a Noah Baumbach script is surprising. If you've seen "The Squid and the Whale" you wonder how things could have gone so wrong. In "The Squid and the Whale" the characters were alive. The film was vibrant. We could relate to the characters. The situations presented in the film seemed to mirror real life. In "Margot at the Wedding" Baumbach seemed to have recycled many of the themes from the previous film but avoided adding any human element.

The film does however have its fans. Much praise has been thown at Jennifer Jason Leigh. She was nominated for best supporting actress at the Independent Spirit Awards and at the Chicago Film Critics Association. But, since when have I ever agreed with award shows?

Film Review: Lust, Caution

"Lust, Caution" **** (out of ****)

So much has been made about Ang Lee's lastest feature film, that it has almost caused as much controversy as his last feature film "Brokeback Mountain". It seems Mr. Lee is a filmmaker that doesn't shy away from pushing people's social buttons.

But oddly enough this WW2 film set in Shanghai, dealing with the Japanese occuption of China, has much in common with Lee's previous film about gay cowboys. Both films are about the repression of love or to some extent sex. The same could also be said about one of his other masterpieces "The Ice Storm".

"Lust, Caution" stars Wei Tang (making her film debut) as Wong Chia Chi. A young girl who joins a theater troupe headed by Kuang Yu Min (Lee-Hom Wang) which puts on patriotic productions to bring the Chinese people together and reject Japan's occuption.

One day Kuang informs his troupe of a Chinese traitor, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung, star of two of Kar Wai Wong's masterpieces, "2046" and "In the Mood for Love"). Kuang decides that the troupe should assassinate Mr. Yee and so an elaborate plan is hatched to make Wei Tang, Mr. Yee's lover in order to gain his confidence.

The film received an NC-17 rating, which was the reason for the controversy. But, people who have been avoiding this film for fear it is really a porno in disguise are mistaken. The film is not offensive at all. In fact there should have been more sex scenes and they should have been more graphic than what we see on-screen.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying this just for the sake of saying it. Sex, as in most films, is not presented as an act between two people in love. Sex in this movie is a device for power. It is a way of hiding what people are really thinking. It is something done to gain control of a situation.

Wei Tang enters this affair fully knowing Mr. Yee may be killed by her people at any moment. There is also the fear Mr. Yee will find out real her identity. She uses sex to gain power and his trust. Mr. Yee uses sex for power.

Overall Mr. Lee's film is a masterpiece. One of the best films of 2007. But there are a few weak moments. For one Mr. Yee is not made out to be enough of a villian. Mr. Yee should have been a truly evil person. A heartless man. The viewer should have seen some of his dealings. Selling out the Chinese people.

But, "Lust, Caution" doesn't go down that path. It does however remain consistent with it's story, which was based on a novel written by Eileen Chang. The film also offers impressive cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, who shot Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" as well as Oliver Stone's "Alexander". His work here resembles classic noir films but romanticizes them, making the film look like a WW2 love story. Something along the lines of David Lean's "Brief Encounter" or "Casablanca".

One also has to wonder about this film's title. What exactly does it mean, if anything? Could it refer to the idea when one is in lust with something they must proceed with caution as to not let their feelings of lust get the better of them and allow them to lose all sense of judgement? Or could the title suggest being cautious is what provokes feelings of lust? Think along the lines of, we want what we cannot have. When you tell someone they can't have something, they are now tempted by it. Maybe it is a combination of the two. In some ways "Lust, Caution" is about both of these ideas.

Further showing it's stupidity the members of the Academy Awards have decided not to nominate this film for any awards. What a shame. However the film has earned it's share of praise. A Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film and it was the winner of the "Golden Lion" award at the Venice Film Festival. Hopefully the film will not be ignored by viewers.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Film Review: 2 Days in Paris

"2 Days in Paris"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

According to several critics Julie Delpy's "2 Days in Paris" is a sort of modern day parisian version of Woody Allen's classic romantic comedy, "Annie Hall".

Delpy plays Marion, who has been in a two year relationship with Jack (Adam Goldberg). In an attempt to celebrate their two year anniversary they have taken a trip to Europe. First Italy and then, as the title suggest, two days in Paris, so Marion can visit her parents (played by her actual parents; Marie Pillet and Albert Delpy).

Up to this point things seem to have been going well. The couple seems happy, they joke around, laugh, flirt with each other. They seem like a typical couple. But, Paris has a way of changing things. And boy does it ever.

While in Paris Jack runs into several of Marion's ex-boyfriends, complains about every, and gets embarrassed at every turn. A nude picture Marion took of Jack, for instance, finds it way in the hands of Marion's parents.

But with the couple in a foreign land, and with Jack deeply dependent on Marion, since he doesn't speak French, here is where a couple's love is truly tested. When they only have each other to rely on, will they be able to stand each other? Anyone that has ever went on a weekend trip with a loved one, knows exactly what I'm talking about.

Much of the film's humor comes from social and cultural stereotypes. Marion is promiscuous, or at least seems that way to Jack. She has very causal sexual morals. She tells Jack what she has done with certain lovers. When Marion and Jack are about to make love, Marion's mother walks in, but, it is no big deal to Marion.

Jack is a neurotic, whinning, complaining liberal New Yorker, a la Woody Allen. He worries about everything! As soon as they arrive in Paris he tells Marion he is afraid of a terrorist attack happening, because, after all, as he points out, France is a Muslim country. He becomes jealous of Marion's every action and is considered a bit of a stuck up.

In a scene when Jack sees Marion's apartment in Paris he complains about black mole in her bathroom. For a second I thought he might tell her he saw a spider the size of a buick. If you've seen "Annie Hall" you'll get that reference.

The two have amazing chemistry between each other, which may not be all that surprising since Goldberg and Delpy actually use to date. The way they exchange one-liners off each other is very reminiscent of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. Here is one of my favorite exchanges between them when Jack finds out Marion lives in an apartment above her parents:

Jack: This is your big investment huh? An apartment one floor up from your parents.

Marion: It's convenient.

Jack:Yeah, especially if you like your privacy.

While perhaps that exchange doesn't read funny, the way Goldberg delivers the line, with a very sarcastic tone, makes lines, which perhaps wouldn't normally seem funny, actually very funny.

Sadly though, while I enjoyed much of the film, the resolution falls flat. After a while it oocured to me the film only has one trick up its sleeve and only works on one level. It doesn't raise the stakes against the couple high enough. First they seem happy but Jack soon becomes jealous and then the film cops out. There is no big confrontation really. Emotionally we never really become invested in these characters. But, because I laughed so much at the first two-thirds of the film, and really liked some of the witty banter between the two I've decided not to be so negative against the film. Still, when we see characters who seem so likeable at first and you want to get involved in their relationship, you feel slightly jilted when the film doesn't bring you completely in. But I guess no matter what, this couple will always have Paris.

Delpy was nominated for a Cesar Award ( the French equivalent of an Oscar) for her screenplay and the movie was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best first feature for Delpy, whom previous to this film had directed two short films.

Masterpiece Film Series: The Bicycle Thief

THE BICYCLE THIEF **** (out of ****)

I've decided to offer a film series regarding what I think are some of the greatest films ever made. Here I will be able to write about classics in world cinema. I won't just limit the series to American films, though, of course they will be included. In the series films from France, Sweden, Russia, Germany, Hungary, b&w American films and silent films will be discussed.

But where to start with such a series? Of all the great films that have been made how do I select one title to start off the series? For some that may have been a tough question, for me, it was easy. I simply went with my favorite movie of all time, Vittorio De Sica's "The Bicycle Thief".

One of the major film movements in cinema has been the neo-realism movement in Italy. During the second world war much of the country was left in ruins. But this did not stop filmmakers in the country from making movies. Why not show this environment in their films? Cinema, after all, is a reflection of society. Films do not merely exist within their own universe. Cinema has the ability to make social commentaries. And people in Italy wanted to see films which dealt with the issues they were facing.

Of all the great films made during the period, which many believe started with Luchino Visconti's "Ossessione" and ended with De Sica's "Umberto D.", "The Bicycle Thief" is perhaps one of the best known films of the neo-realism movement.

To describe the plot of the film, it may sound boring. If the plot is summed up it is about a man who gets a job working for the city, putting up film posters around town. One day, his bicycle is stolen. The job requires that he have a bike as a form of transportation, and if his bicycke is stolen he will lose his job. So he, along with his son, search the streets of Rome trying to find his bike.

The bicycle now becomes a symbol for a better life. It is a way Antonio (played by non-actor Lamberto Maggiorani, who actually acted in a few films after this) can provide for his family and help them live a better life.

Watching the film again however I noticed how much the film is a film about poverty. Especially after such natural disasters in the U.S. and the images we see on TV of poor families trying to survive, I noticed a parallel between the two.

De Sica, for his part tries to create a lot of suspense in the film. He keeps making us think Antonio will find the bike. And in the beginning moments of the films keeps hinting the bicycle will be stolen, though, the title of the film kind of gives that part away.

Lets look at a scene in which Antonio takes his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell) to visit a fortune teller to tell her about her husband's new job. Maria is with the fortune teller for a long time as Antonio, waits outside, with his bike, impatiently. He finally leaves the bicycle and heads inside to get Maria. We keep going back to the bicycle as the two are inside. The thought enters our head, will someone steal the bike?

De Sica actually started out as an actor way back in the silent era. His first on-screen credit is dated back to 1917! He was even nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar in 1958 for the film "Farewell to Arms", but it is his work as a director which has given him a special place in cinema. Some of his other films include "Two Women", "A Brief Vacation" and "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis".

So what makes "The Bicycle Thief" my favorite film? Sometimes films are so powerful we forget it is only a movie. We identitfy so strongly with the characters on-screen their problems seem real to us. No film has been able to do that to me, to the extent in which "The Bicycle Thief" does. It has a raw power to transform beyond just being a movie. The fact that non-actors and real locations were used probably helped pushed this idea even further.

And that is what makes Vittorio De Sica's "The Bicycle Thief" one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Szabo: Finding My Roots

Growing up I always felt like an outsider. When I started school and the other kids would find out I was Hungarian, they would make me feel like I didn't belong. My family was different. We ate different food, usually a good plate of goulash or chicken paprikash, we listened to different music, watched different movies and spoke a different language at home. Why was I so different? How could I fit in?

As I got older however those feelings changed. Sure I still felt a certain distance from my classmates, but, I started to appreciate my Hungarian heritage. And to a very large extent that was due to the films of Istvan Szabo.

Istvan Szabo is one of the great Hungarian filmmakers. He was part of the Hungarian New Wave during the 1960s along with Miklos Jancso, Karoly Makk and Martha Meszaros. Together these filmmakers were not only exploring the technical aspects of cinema but they were showing outsiders about Hungary. People who normally would know nothing about the culture of Hungary were now seeing what these people looked like, how they spoke and most importantly, they were learning about the history of the country.

I never knew much about Hungary's history. I heard the stories from my grandparents or my parents about what life was like under communism and the importance of '56, but it wasn't until I watched Szabo's films I started to appreciate what my family and other Hungarians went through. Watching the films of Szabo I realized I was watching films made by a man who had a love of country and wanted others to know about its history.

When I first saw films such as "Apa (Father)" or "Szerelmesfilm (Love Film)" I became deeply affected by them. One can argue there have been more accomplished or influential filmmakers; Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Altman, Kubrick or Tarkovsky, but when I watch Szabo's films I feel as if he is speaking directly to me. I can understand what it is Szabo wants to say.

Szabo's only film to win an Oscar was "Mephisto", a semi-autobiography film based on the Faust legend. In that film an actor sells out to the Nazis in order to achieve fame. Szabo in real life had to sell out. He worked for the Communist after the '56 uprising. It went against everything he believed in, but, it was his only way to survive. He didn't want to leave his country. We see this duality in Szabo's other characters. People who realized Communist Hungary could not give them the life they wanted, yet, they did not want to leave home.

Luckily Szabo continues to make films. His masterpiece "Sunshine" was released in 2000. His film "Being Julia" won Annette Bening an Oscar nomination. And now for his last two films he has returned to Budapest. His film "Rokonok (Relatives)" is a look at Communist Hungary and corrupt politicians, a favorite theme of Szabo's films, the corruption of power, and his yet to be released "Utas es holdvilag (Journey by Moonlight)" is based on a classic novel by Antal Szerb.

I had the pleasure of meeting Szabo once. We talked about my appreciation for his films and the impact they have had on me. He was shockingly nice. He was giving a lecture on the importance of the close-up, and afterwards actually took the time to speak to everyone that wanted to talk to him, for as long as they wanted.

Ingmar Bergman

SO often, when people find out about my love of cinema, I am immediately asked, as if it is an easy question, what is your favorite movie or who is your favorite director? People think just because you love movies you should instantly have an answer. Sadly that is not the case. It's a tough question, but, I've always tried to have a ready answer. Of all the great filmmakers in the world of cinema, I've never hidden the fact Ingmar Bergman probably means the most to me. Sure there are other great directors. Istvan Szabo, Miklos Jancso, Federico Fellini, Claude Chabrol, R.W. Fassbinder and Martin Scorsese but Bergman has always been at the top of my list.

Why Bergman? There is something about Bergman's work which has a way of getting inside of me. I've felt no filmmaker has been able to articulate their feelings on the human condition in such poetic ways since or before him.

Yes, many have described Bergman's style as bleak and depressing, so how can I say his work is poetic? Great art has a way of inspiring me. An argument can be made against Bergman's "Cries and Whispers" that it is really a depressing film. And you wouldn't get much of an argument out of me. But, because the film is so well made. And done with such craft, I can't help but become moved and inspired by what I see on-screen. Is it sad? Yes. But you have to remember that is how Bergman saw the world.

So if it is sad, why celebrate it? Well, Bergman's world view; we are all alone in the world, there is no God, life is meaningless, in certain ways mirror my own feelings. But even if they didn't, I still have to go back to the argument, great art inspires us. Even if I disagreed with Bergman's world view, I would have a very hard time arguing against his craft. His films are clearly the work of a man who had a love of cinema. He was able to take his viewers into a different world. What world in which we live in compares to the ones in "Persona", "Hour of the Wolf", or "The Rite"?

It is sad now that Bergman is gone. The cinematic giants are leaving us one by one. Gone are Bergman, Antonioni, Fellini, Truffaut and Tarkovsky. Luckily Bertolucci, Szabo, Chabrol, Allen, Scorsese and Godard are still with us. But with Bergman gone cinema seems kind of empty.

Here is a top ten list of my favorite Bergman films:











Top Ten Films Of 2006!

IT was a pretty grim year for the movies. Film after film showed us a world in which danger lurks everywhere. The films of 2006 reminded me that cinema can be a reflection of society. Films can mirror our fears and desires. They play off of our emotions, no matter what the topic. The best films of the year showed us war, crime, racial/political/social injustice and the decline of a culture. Not what you might expect from the dream factory known as Hollywood. But, here we are, my top ten favorite films of 2006!
1. UNITED 93 (U.S. Paul Greengrass) - One of the most talked about and controversial films of the year. We heard the question asked over and over again, "are people ready"? "Is it too soon"? I thought the questions were all non-sense. "United 93" proved to be one of the most emotional times I had at the movies. To sit and watch the film was a draining experience. The film captivates its audience as we sit and watch a film which deals with a subject we all remember a little too well. Still, the film was expertly made and done with a lot of care.
2. THE CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (Hong Kong/China Zhang Yimou) - Here we have the downfall of a dynasty. Director Zhang Yimou, coming off the critical praise of "House of Flying Daggers" and "Hero" expands upon those films with a story fit for Shakespeare. This is more than just a pretty film to look at, though it is visually stunning, it is a work of lasting importance. In many ways I prefer this over many of Yimou more recent films.

3. BABEL (FRANCE/U.S./MEXICO Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) - Inarritu is perhaps the only filmmaker since Ingmar Bergman who has been able to show the human condition in such poetic ways. With this, only his third film, Inarritu makes a film which may be relevant for years to come. While I didn't feel it had the emotional power of his previous film "21 Grams" it did however make a greater social commentary and because of that was able to connect to a larger group of people.

4. THE DEPARTED (U.S. Martin Scorsese) - After getting some uncalled for flack for "The Aviator" and "Gangs of New York" Scorsese returns to those gritty "mean streets" he seems to know oh so well. The film takes on one of Scorsese favorite themes; loyalty. Watch for who you put your trust in because many times, people aren't what they seem.

5. FATELESS (Hungary Lajos Koltai) - With all the films made about the Holocaust sometimes people may forget children suffered during this time of unspeakable Hell. But Koltai's feature film debut doesn't back away. Based on a pultizer prize winning novel, which was also based on a true story, the film ranks among classics such as "Schindler's List" and "The Pianist". Sadly it never found much of an audience.

6. THE QUEEN (UK/FRANCE/ITALY Stephen Frears) - There were moments as I watched this film, I thought to myself, "this feels real". How did Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan managed to obtain such personal information? The performance given by Helen Mirren undoubtedly deserved the Academy Award. She doesn't give merely an impression but fleshes out the queen and makes her a character. The audience comes to an understanding about what kind of person she is. And that's hard to do when playing a real life person who is still alive.

7. PAN'S LABYRINTH (Mexico/Spain Guillermo del Toro) - As we live in a world full of evil and hate here is a film which tells us the only way to escape it, is to lose ourselves in our dreams. But sadly, sometimes that is not enough. What do we do when our dreams become crushed by reality? That is what is at the heart of this masterpiece.

8. DON'T COME KNOCKING (U.S. Wim Wenders) - One of the more gentler films of the year follows in the tradition of Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" and Anthony Asquith's "The Browning Version". This is a movie about second chances and the ever popular "what if". Too bad no one gave the film a first chance.

9. THE PROMISE (China Chen Kaige) - Following in the footsteps of his contemporary Zhang Yimou, Kaige makes a film which blends action, adventure, myth and romance all with great skill. While some may agrue the film doesn't compare well to Yimou's films may only suggestion is, then don't compare it!

10. A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (U.S. Robert Altman) - Unfortunately a sad farewell to one of the all time great American filmmakers, Altman. But at least he ended his career on a high note. And how many great directors can say that?

Oscar Nominations & Eastern Europe

The Academy Awards always do something to annoy me! Why do they insist upon doing that? Every year when nominations are announced or when the winners are decided I'm usually left feeling somewhat disappointed. My dissapointment in fact has reached the point where I no longer watch the show! I stopped after the 2002 award show. That was the year "A Beautiful Mind" won. My decision however had nothing to do with that particular film winning the award, I actually thought it was a good film. My decision to stop watching from that year on was based on the fact that was the year I finally realized how much politics plays a role in the voters judgement over which films to nominate and ultimately which films to give an Oscar to. The Academy is so full of themselves. They are so image conscious. They want to desperately avoid bad press. Of course, many will agree with me, when you try to please everyone, no one is happy.

But what about this year's Oscar nominations? I have to admit, I was shocked. So many people have claimed what a great year it was for American cinema, that I have to sit back and ask myself, "what are people talking about"? "No Country For Old Men", "There Will Be Blood" and "Juno" all critical darlings and public favorites, but why? "Juno" was a vastly over-rated film in my opinion. Not to say a bad film, but not good enough to earn an Oscar nomination for "Best Picture". "No Country For Old Men" is another over-rated film in my opinion, but, is without question a vast improvement for the Coen Brothers when you compare it to "The Ladykillers", "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Intolerably Cruelty".

Though my biggest complaint this year has to do with a film sadly not many people have seen. Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile)" . It is a Romanian film which has opened up to some of the best reviews of the year. It has been placed on at least 40 "top ten list" and was considered a lock for the "best foreign film" category. It was Romanian's official entry. But, what a minute, no! The film did not even make it to the second round for consideration. Why?

For what I imagine are purely political reasons, the Academy usually avoids nominating films which were on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. For instance, no Romanian film has ever won an Oscar and for that matter has never been nominated for an Oscar. When you consider the great films made by directors such as Nicolae Margineanu or Lucian Pintilie, you have to ask yourself how can this be? Countries on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall (Hungary, Romania, Poland, the former Yugoslavia and the old Czechoslovakia) have received a total of 31 nominations and 5 wins. That is all of those countries combined. Lets compare that number to lets say France and Italy. Between the two countries they have received 67 nominations and 25 wins.

Now perhaps you say, so what? Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic don't make good films. My answer to that is during the late 1960s and into the early 70s these countries were making headways in cinema. The 60s saw a "Hungarian New Wave" thanks to Istvan Szabo (the only Hungarian to ever have a film win the "Best Foreign Film" category. The film was "Mephisto") Miklos Jancso and Karoly Makk among others. Among the classis made during this period include; "The Red and the White", "Silence and Cry", "Love", "Adoption", "Father", "Love Film", "The Girl" and "Cat's Play". During the same time Poland and Czechoslovakia were also having a "New Wave" movement and currently Romania is going through one ("The Death of Mr. Lazarescu", "12:08 East of Bucharest" and "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days").

But why care? It is not only because I am Hungarian. No Hungarian film was remotely considered to be nominated this year. I'm mad a Romanian film did not get nominated. When will the politics between the "east" and "west" be settled? When will the Academy and its voters start to show more appreciation for films from these countries instead of nominating films from their usually favorites; France and Italy?

information on foreign film nominations can be found here:
List of Academy Award winners and nominees for Best Foreign Language Film - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia