Sunday, March 30, 2008

Film Review: Before the Rain

"Before the Rain" *** (out of ****)

"Before the Rain" takes place during the early 1990s in a country once known as "Yugoslavia". We are amid the Bosnian war and Milosevic's "ethnic cleansing".

The film tells three separate stories, each of which will follow a common thread. The first one is called "Words". Macedonia is the setting as we follow a monk, who has taken a vow of silence. His church has given shelter to refugees, mostly Muslim Bosnians. But this time an Albanian girl, Zamira (Labina Mitevska) is missing. She has killed a Catholic Macedonian. Unknown to the monk, the girl has been hiding out in his room. When a gang, headed by the decease's brother, Mitre (Ljupco Bresliski) comes looking for the girl the monk's faith is challenged.

Our next story takes place in London. It is called "Faces". It follows a Yugoslavian photographer, Aleksander (Rade Serbedzija), who has been having an affair with a married woman, Anne (Katrin Cartlidge). She is pregnant with her husband's child. Aleksander meanwhile has decided he wants to return to Yugoslavia, Anne does not. It is not safe in Yugoslavia she tells him. They are better off in London, away from violence. Or so she thinks. While seeing her husband, to discuss her pregnancy, she learns in times of war, no place is safe.

We conclude with the final chapter, "Pictures". Here we follow Aleksander on his journey back home as he witnesses first hand the destruction taking place in his homeland.

I said there is a common thread to these stories and there is. Violence leads to more violence. And when violence is near, there is no way to escape it, whether you are a photographer in London or a monk in a remote village.

The film was directed by Milcho Manchevski. It was his feature film debut. Manchevski is a Macedonian, who returned home, after living in the U.S., to show the struggles of his country. I remember quite clearly the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. I also remember the cinema coming from the Balkan region at the time. Films ranging from Emir Kusturica's masterpiece "Underground" to Goran Paskaljevic's "Cabaret Balkan" and Lucian Pintilie's "An Unforgettable Summer". All three films condemned what was going on at the time. The stupidity of the idea of hating "the other".

But, for as good as "Before the Rain" is it didn't captivate me the way other films dealing with the subject had. There is clearly a passion to what Manchevski is doing but it doesn't always translate well on-screen. Sometimes he seems too subtle and other times too forceful. The two are never balanced.

When Aleksander returns home and sees the state of his country we understand the social commentary. Or the violent conclusion to "Faces" the messages are clear. As is the metaphor of rain and an impending storm. The symbol is too heavy handed. But sometimes the message seems open for interpretation. We aren't quite sure what Manchevski is trying to tell us.

It is however difficult to deny the impact of certain moments. Credit must be given to Manchevski for his bravery to shot a film in a war-torn country. And for his passion to tell his country's story. "Before the Rain" speaks to the power of cinema. Cinema is a powerful tool which can show us and teach us about different lands and cultures. It can make social and political commentaries and expose evils to the rest of the world. If that sounds too pretentious to you, tell that to people like Manchevski who risk their lives for cinema. The very least we can do is listen to what they have to say.

"Before the Rain" was nominated for the "best foreign language" Oscar and won the "Golden Lion" at the Venice Film Festival.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Film Review: Landscape in the Mist

"Landscape in the Mist" **** (out of ****)

"Landscape in the Mist" is one of filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos' masterpieces. How sad to consider than that the name Angelopoulos means so little to so many people. Unless you are a film critic or a cinephile, you've probably never heard of him or seen one of his films.

Angelopoulos will never be a mainstream director. He has gained great international fame, but, in the United States, his name draws a blank. He is the master of imagery as far as I am concerned.

"Landscape in the Mist" is a typical Angelopoulos' film. It has long, unbroken camera shots, long periods of silence, and to some, pretentious, philosophical dialogue.

The film revolves around two children, a brother and sister; Alexander (Michalis Zeke) and Voula (Tania Palaiologou). Their mother has told them that their father, whom the children have never seen, lives in Germany. Curious to learn more about their father, the two children run away from home and set out to find their father. Later on it is sadly revealed, their mother made up the story. In actuality she has no idea who the father is.

On this journey the children will experience many things. They will meet many people, mostly subsititue father figures, they will grow both emotionally and mentally. One of the men the children become close to is Orestis (Stratos Tzortzoglou). An actor who travels with an acting troupe and seems destine to join the army.

"Landscape in the Mist" is not a film to be watched. It is a film to be experienced. It is about moods and emotions. It is a series of beautifully constructed shots placed together. You many not see their connection on your first viewing but their collective impact is lasting. The question is, are you willing to sit down and watch an Angelopoulos film two or three times?

Watching "Landscape in the Mist" again, I was struck how fluid the story is. The film runs at 126 minutes. Relatively short for an Angelopoulos film. Some of his other works, including "Ulysses' Gaze" and "The Travelling Players" run three hours. Usually at the two hour mark, Angelopoulos is just getting warmed up.

Some of the film's most memorable moments include a snow storm, where everyone stands still as the children run in slow motion. It is as if time has stopped around the children. Another moment has the children hitchhiking. A truck driver picks them up and stops on the side of the road for a rest. The way Angelopoulos sets up the shot is by dividing the screen in half. The parked truck takes up the right side of the screen, while the on going traffic takes up the left. The truck driver grabs Voula and takes her to the back of the truck. At this point we know what is going on. But, because of the way the shot is framed we suspect someone will intervene and protect the girl. I won't say whether or not someone does.

There are also several scenes by the ocean, which is always an important location in an Angelopoulos film. In these scenes the acting troupe reflect on the past. Could Angelopoulos be using the ocean as a symbol for these characters drifting along? It is reminiscent to Antonioni's "L'Avventura", where he too used the ocean as a metaphor for drifting along through life.

One of the film's more interesting symbols comes when the children find a piece of film celluloid. The image on the film is of mist. They are told if they look hard enough they will find a tree in the distant background. But they do not see it. This comes full circle. At the end of the film the children are on a boat, the screen goes black, we hear gun shots. The scene ends. The next scene takes place in a storm of mist. An image makes its way through it is the children. But where are they. Could it be heaven? Could the mist be clouds floating by? In the distance we see a tree suddenly appear. We think of the earlier image with the celluloid film. Is Angelopoulos telling us if we search hard enough at a film image we will see what we want to see? Films are open for multiple interpretations?

"Landscape in the Mist" is a film about the past, dreams and remembrance. Rarely will you see a film which will sweep you under its charms. "Landscape in the Mist" is a film of breathtaking beauty and mystic charms. If you ever get the chance to see it, please do.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: Modern Times

"Modern Times" **** (out of ****)

"Modern Times." A story of industry, of individual enterprise - humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness."
opening credit of "Modern Times"

The first image we see in Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" is of a flock of sheep. The image is juxtapose with a group of workers headed towards a factory. If we read the two images correctly, it would seem Chaplin is making the case, workers are like a flock of wandering sheep.

The next scene shows us the president of the company, sitting down restlessly putting together a puzzle, reading a newspaper. Here we see a disconnect between the factory owners and the workers. Maybe, it is the owners who see sheep when looking at the workers?

When you consider these images with the opening credit, it wouldn't seem like "Modern Times" is a comedy, but it is. That was the unique gift of Chaplin. He could take a story ripe for tragedy and find laughter in it.

"Modern Times" was released in 1936, America was still in a depression, but, things weren't as bad as they were in 1932, before FDR was elected president. Still, the country was hurting. At its core "Modern Times" is suppose to represent the dehumanization of man, as he must be replaced by machine. Machine and man do not get along in Chaplin's film. At one point, Chaplin gets stuck inside a machine. For a brief moment, man and machine are one. But at other moments they are enemies. A company tries to sell the factory a device which we feed workers as they work, to reduce lunch time and keep production going. The machine doesn't work. It has a malfunction, perhaps suggesting the idea, machines are not reliable and cannot nor should not replace man. Especially when so many people are out of work and in need of a job.

"Modern Times" has always been my favorite Chaplin film. I know "City Lights" and "The Gold Rush" are more highly regarded, but, "Modern Times" has a better sense of structure. Many have argued over the years that Chaplin's films sometimes lose sight of their story and becomes mini comic episodes for Chaplin to display his comedic abilities. I don't really agree with that opinion but, "Modern Times" does a pretty good job of staying "on message" and hitting home its theme. It doesn't stray from the film's ultimate objective.

Chaplin, I should also mention, is my favorite comedy director. Now, of course that is a subjective statement. Everyone has their own favorite. Of the silent clowns some may argue Keaton was better or Harold Lloyd. I agree, both of those men were extremely funny. But, Chaplin has an edge over them. Because Chaplin could combine pathos and comedy so effortlessly I become more involved with his characters and their situations. Chaplin seemed to have a better sense of character development and story structure.

At its original time of release "Modern Times" was set to be Chaplin's first talkie. What it became was the last silent film made. But Chaplin does allow sound effects to be part of the story. In a very clever decision, Chaplin allows sound to only come from electronic devices. Near the end of the film Chaplin sings a song, but it is in gibberish.

The film ends on a surprising hopeful note. Paulette Goddard plays a Gamin who travels along with Chaplin's Tramp as they search for a job. Her father has died and her sisters have been taken away to an orphanage, but, this does not deter the characters. The film ends with perhaps one of the most memorable images in film history. Chaplin and Goddard walk along together in the sunlight, hand and hand hopeful of what tomorrow will bring. In the background the song "Smile" plays. It makes for a very emotional moment. Its one of the reasons why "Modern Times" is one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Film Review: Letters From Iwo Jima

"Letters From Iwo Jima" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Back in 2006 director Clint Eastwood tried an interesting experiment. Tell the story of the battle of Iwo Jima, but, tell it from both sides. "Flags Of Our Fathers", tells the story of the war from the American perspective. "Letters From Iwo Jima" gives us the Japanese perspective. Somehow the Japanese perspective is more interesting then the American perspective. And not only that, "Letters From Iwo Jima" is a better film.

"Flags Of Our Fathers" didn't feel very patriotic. It didn't develop the characters in an interesting way. It didn't seem to represent the American culture of the time period quite well. But "Letters From Iwo Jima" demonstrates the Japanese mentality much more effectively. It gives the viewer the opportunity to see how these soldiers think. Funny that an American director such as Eastwood would be able to do this and not be able to do it with the American story.

"Letters From Iwo Jima" is really a film about honor and the Japanese culture. It is a war film second. Another interesting aspect of the film is, I cannot remember another recent film which gives us the perspective of war from the losing side. History, we are told, is told from the victors. But Eastwood does something very impressive with this film. He manages to make the viewer root against their own interest. We don't really see these characters are Japanese or American, but simply as people. By becoming so involved in the story of these soldiers, we find ourselves identifying with them and rooting for them against the Americans.

There is a scene near the end of the film where one of the Japanese soldiers wants to surrender. He goes across enemy lines and waves his white flag. The American soldiers capture him. Here the soldier sees another Japanese soldier who has surrendered as well. The two men talk and seem to share the belief that not only have they done the right thing, but, they will be treated better as American prisoners than Japanese soldiers. But the American soldiers do not want to sit around watching prisoners, fearful an attack may be on the way. So, they shoot the prisoners. This puts the viewer, assuming they are American, in the odd position of feeling bad for the prisoners, not the American soldier. With this image in our head we remember an early scene when the Japanese capture an American soldier who has been wounded. The commanding officer tells his men to treat him, despite their lack of medical supplies. At first the men resist, insisting the Americans would never do this for a Japanese soldiers. The commander tells them otherwise. How wrong he was!

"Letters From Iwo Jima" is mostly told from the perspective of Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) a private who doesn't share his commanders' view of the world. He may love his country but he doesn't want to die for it. He has a wife and child, whom he hasn't seen yet. He doesn't seem to understand the Japanese mentality of going into a battle knowing full well they are all going to die. The Americans outnumber them, and reinforcements will not be sent. When members of his brigade decided to kill themselves rather than surrender to the Americans, Saigo watches each of them kill themselves, but he runs away.

Other interesting characters in the film are General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara). These two men have spent time in America. They also don't seem to share all of their country's beliefs. They are not as harsh as some of the other commanding officers. Most of the Japanese soldiers are told Americans are savages. But, because these two men have spent time in America, and have actually met Americans, they know this is not entirely true. Even though they feel a loyalty to their country, they also feel an inner-conflict.

Eastwood directs many of the war scenes with a fierce grittiness we haven't experienced since "Saving Private Ryan". Coincidentally enough, Steven Spielberg is one of the film's producers. But the war scenes in this film are just as harrowing, if not in some instances, more so.

The film also has an usually texture to it. It has a grainy look to it, which almost makes it look like a black&white film, while still having tints of color. Some scenes showing the American boats headed towards the island of Iwo Jima, are actually visually beautiful. The cinematographer, Tom Stern, deserves much credit. He also shoot "Million Dollar Baby" and "Mystic River".

"Letters From Iwo Jima" was a widely respected film in 2006. It won the Golden Globe for "best foreign language film" and was nominated for 4 Oscars, including "best picture" and "best director". It did win one Oscar for "best sound editing". It seems age has not slowed down Eastwood. With every new film he releases he seems to get better and better. For now, "Letters From Iwo Jima" is one of his best films.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Film Review: Sleuth

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

Yesterday I reviewed Michael Haneke's remake of his own film, "Funny Games", in that review I mentioned this film. "Sleuth" is a remake of the 1972 Josephn L. Mankiewicz's film of the same title, which itself was an adaptation of Anthony Shaffer's play.

In the original Laurence Olivier and a very young Michael Caine get into a battle of wits and male ego in a series of games and revenge. This time around Caine takes on the Olivier role as Jude Law appears in his second Michael Caine remake, the first was "Alfie".

This time however the film is directed by Kenneth Branagh. At first I thought what an odd choice to direct this film. Branagh is mostly associated with his Shakespeare adaptations including "Hamlet" and "Love's Labour Lost". But, if you think about it, isn't death and revenge usually prominent in Shakespeare's work? You can't deny its existence in "Hamlet". And of course, Branagh has directed another mystery film before, "Dead Again" back in 1991.

If you've seen the original film or for that matter, the play, you pretty much know what to expect. If you haven't seen either, I'll give you a quick run down of the plot. Michael Caine plays Andrew Wyke. A successful crime writer, whose wife is having an affair with Milo Tindle (Jude Law). Wyke's wife wants a divorce so she can marry Milo. The two men meet at Wyke's home to discuss the matter. According to Wyke, Milo can have his wife. Wyke's is fed up with his money hungry, gold digging wife. He has found himself another woman. Still though, Wyke's worries Milo, an out of work actor, will not be able to provide for his wife and soon she will come crawling back to him. Wyke has an idea. Their are jewels hidden in his safe which are worth a million pounds, half a million in U.S. dollars. Wyke wants Milo to steal the jewels and have them pawned in Amsterdam, where he will get 800 million pounds for them and thus lead him to be able to support Wyke's wife.

I can tell you all of this information because it isn't really what the plot is about. Everything I've just told you is presented in the first half hour or so of the film. The interesting stuff happens later.

The two men start to play games with each other. Each man tries to humilate the other. It is a series of mind games, with each man trying to prove his masculinity to the other.

Luckily for the Branagh and cast, it had been a while since I had seen the original film version, so I was a little rusty as to what happens. But it didn't matter. I forgot about the original and simply watched this version with great excitement. The film works on its own. There is no need to compare the two versions.

You might think a film revolving around only two characters will be boring. I was so involved watching the film, I actually hadn't realized there are only two characters until the ending credits rolled by. So much action and suspense happens you forget the film is basically a conversation between two people.

What makes "Sleuth" work is Harold Pinter's adapted screenplay. It is full of wit and sharp cutting remarks. There is a great deal of chemistry between Caine and Law as they deliver their lines with stinging effect. Sometimes the words take on two or three meanings leading the viewer to wonder, what exactly are they talking about. We aren't even sure if the characters themselves know what is going on.

If "Sleuth" makes any mistakes it is in the last act of the film. A homosexual undertone is played between the two men which I found unnecessary. It takes the film in a different direction. Although one has to wonder, how serious is the offer, since both men are about manipulation. But I would have preferred either greater explanation in this development or eliminating it from the screenplay altogether. But, by the time this happens, you'll have so much fun watching the film, you'll forgive the film for its only flaw.

The film, it should be mentioned, was nominated for the "Golden Lion" at the Venice Film Festival, where it lost the top prize to Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution".

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Film Review: Funny Games

"Funny Games" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

The term "challenging film" was invented for movies such as Michael Haneke's "Funny Games". Then again, Haneke has always been a challenging filmmaker. I've enjoyed what I've seen from him, "The Piano Teacher", "Time of the Wolf" and "Cache". None of these films came to easy conclusions and they most certainly did not ask easy questions. But, when do we, as an audience, draw the line?

"Funny Games" is a remake of Haneke's own 1997 film, under the same title. It was nominated for the "Golden Palm" at the Cannes Film Festival. This new film couldn't even get an invite. It wouldn't even be able to park cars at the festival.

Naomi Watts, truly one of our greatest actresses, stars as Ann. A happily married woman, whom, along with her husband, George (Tim Roth) and their son, also named George (Devon Gearhart) head out to their family cabin for the week.

At the beginning of the film we see the family play an innocent car game of name that tune. With that immediately the concept of "games" is placed in our head. A piece of classical music plays in the car and over the credits and sudden the music comes to a stop as loud head-banging rock music plays. This took me out of my element. It made me uncomfortable. It makes us aware it is a movie. We are awaken and slightly disturbed. This feeling will play out again and again through-out the film.

While cooking dinner there is a knock at the door. It is one of their neighbor's guest, a young man named Peter (Brady Corbet). He asks Ann if she can spare some eggs, 4 to be exact. She hands him the eggs but he drops them. Annoyed she gives him 4 more. While leaving, the family dog jumps on him, scares him, and causes him to drop the eggs again. This time however with Peter is Paul (Michael Pitt). They need 4 more eggs. Ann refuses, and asks them to leave. She needs the remaining eggs herself. But the boys do not leave. They insist upon getting the eggs. Soon Both George and George Jr. enter the house. Ann tells her husband to ask the boys to leave. They do not. At this point I was reminded of the Luis Bunel film "The Exterminating Angels" in which a group of guest arrive at a party and once the party is over, for some reason, cannot bring themselves to leave the house.

What happens next is unpredictable. The young boys beat the father and keep the family hostage while insisting on playing "games". And these games are nothing like the innocent family games we saw being played in the car. From this point on the film is about the family's struggle to stay alive.

I'll leave the plot there. If, for some reason, you chose to see the film, I suppose it is best to be surprised. The larger question to examine here is, what is the point of all of this? Is Haneke making a social commentary on violence? If so, I much prefer David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence". Or is the point suppose to be, we are merely suppose to watch how senseless and unpredictable violence is? In which case I prefer Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" which showed us a high school massacre being committed. It offered no explaination, it just showed us the events of the day in an ordinary fashion. Prior to seeing this film, I saw Kenneth Branagh's remake of "Sleuth". There too was a film about "games" and revenge. "Sleuth" though had razor sharp dialogue. It didn't pretend to be about more than what it was; slick and well-conceived. My gut tells me Haneke wants to tell us something.

For about the first hour, even though I was slighly bothered by what I was seeing, I was aware this is how Haneke wants me to feel. So I was reacting appropriately. I knew the film was about more than the violence we see on-screen. I knew Haneke is pushing our social buttons. He wants to see how far he can take this. The film now becomes more of an experiment than an actual film. But then Haneke loses me and its hard to explain how without revealing much of the plot.
The young men suddenly leave the cabin. Ann and George try to find an escape. George's leg at this point is broken after getting beaten with a golf club. Had the film end at this point, I would give it 4 stars. Because up until this point, I felt I understood Haneke's message. It had succeeded. But then the boys come back and now we begin round two and here is where the film loses control and a sense of purpose. Paul starts speaking directly to the camera, breaking the fourth wall and once again reminding us, as happened with the music shift, we are experiencing a movie. But the acts repeat themselves. The second half almost seems comical. The ending seems to be trying to make us laugh.

Credit has to be given to the actors involved. I also recently watched "The Painted Veil" with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. Nothing about her character in that film resembles the character she plays here. She is such a talent. She has the ability to lose herself in her roles. Even if I don't enjoy a particular film she is in, which doesn't happen often, I still leave the theatre with admiration for her. Tim Roth is another gifted actor. Never content on playing ordinary characters either he doesn't shy away from a challenge. I can understand why they took on these roles. And Michael Pitt, you may remember from Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers". Pitt is so effective in this movie, I won't deny watching him in this movie, I was starting to have violent thoughts. I wanted to strangle him or shoot him or something. And that's exactly what he was suppose to do. He is not playing a likeable character. He is playing a killer.

Maybe that was the point of Haneke's film. How we, the audience, respond to violence. What runs through our brains when we see these images. The "experiment" was on us. Then again, who knows, only Haneke has the answers to these questions. But, I will say this. If Michael Haneke makes another film like this, I may have to stop by his house and ask for some eggs....

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Film Review: Goya's Ghost

"Goya's Ghost"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Milos Forman's "Goya's Ghost" has unfortunately received many harsh reviews both abroad and within the U.S. Why are so many critics content to belittle and bash some of our great filmmakers such as Milos Forman, Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola and yet praise the work of some new kid on the block?

Despite its title, "Goya's Ghost" is not actually about Goya. If you are looking for a biography on the famous Spainish painter's life, this is not the film for you. In which case I would recommend Carlos Saura's 2000 film, "Goya in Bordeaux".

According to Milos Forman, who has said repeatedly in interviews, he sees comparisons with this film and the current situation in Iraq. As much as I admire Mr. Forman, I believe he is overstating his film's case. Forman says the film comments on the United States stance or lack of on torture.

"Goya's Ghost" takes place around the time of the Spainish Inquisition. A time when Catholics and Protestants were at war with each other. The Catholic church was out to convert all others whom, in their eyes, were "sinners".

Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) urges the church to show more restrait. Various paintings by Goya are being bought on the street which depicts the church in a cruel light. Brother Lorenzo feels the best way for the church to handle the situation is to not respond. But Brother Lorenzo is a man who does not practice what he teaches.

The church arrest a woman, Ines (Nathalie Portman) based on claims she is a practing Jew, when she is seen in public as refusing to eat pork. In order to get her to confess she is "put to the question", in other words tortured into confession. The church believes if a person is innocent, God will give them the power to withstand the pain for, the truth will set you free. If you are a God fearing person, you will not lie. Ines' father, Tomas Bilbatua (Jose Luis Gomez) becomes worried about his daughter, and in an act of revenge puts Lorenzo to the question to confess he is really a monkey. Needless to say, when tortured Lorenzo confesses he is in fact a monkey.

This however puts an end to the moral aspect of "Goya's Ghost", becomes then it settles for melodrama. Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) becomes an observer of Spain's history as he watches the Catholic church lose its power only to regain it once again. He even tries to help Ines get out of prison and help her once released.

Brother Lorenzo becomes a different man once forced into confession and abandons the church. Claiming to turn over a new leaf. But there are secrets in his past involving Ines.

"Goya's Ghost" is similar to another film I reviewed recently, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age". Both films roughly deal with same time frame, the Spainish Inquisition. And both films paint history with too broad a brush. But, I don't go to the movies for a history lesson. I go to be entertained. That is why I am recommending both films. But, if pressed for an answer, I will say "Goya's Ghost" is the better film.

Another flaw with the film might be the lack of a central character. The film juggles around many plot points and tries to interwine many of the characters. There is also a shift in tone, when the film goes into its final act.

But Forman's film is worth seeing. But not for the reasons Forman might lead you to believe. I saw no connection to our world. Instead, the film like a Goya painting, is simply beautiful to look it. I marveled at the cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe, who worked on "The Others" and Almodovar's "Talk to Her", currently he shoot Woody Allen's lastest film in Spain.

I also admired the art direction and set designs. These things in some ways over-powered the performances. No one really stands out in my mind, acting wise. Not to say the actors involved do not do an acceptable job. Skarsgard, Bardem and Portman are fine. And if anything Portman may slightly edge them out.

The film might also be Forman's best work in quite a while. It resembles his "Valmont" and "Amadeus" (only has far as costume and set design is concerned). It was the first film he has made which I actually had an interest to see after his "Man on the Moon" and "The People vs Larry Flynt".

Monday, March 24, 2008

Film Review: Just Sex and Nothing Else

"Just Sex and Nothing Else"
  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

It is through cinema many people get their impressions of other cultures. During the Cold War and beyond most Americans have felt Hungarians are depressed/surpressed people. And, for most of history that had been true. The Turks, Austrians and the Soviets have all occupied the country. Most people think of Hungary as a Communist country. That the weather is always bleak.

These views are a backwards way of looking at Hungary and its people.

Having just returned from Budapest I can tell you Hungary is a lot more like what you see in "Just Sex and Nothing Else". Budapest is a modern city. It even has a McDonald's! People walk around in modern fashions and the women! Don't get me started on that.

But life in Hungary is no different than life in any other big city. People ride taxis and subways, go to work and struggling with morning traffic and search for love.

"Just Sex and Nothing Else" is kind of the Hungarian "Bridget Jones' Diary" Originally made in 2005 I saw the film at the 2006 International Chicago Film Festival, where I feel in love with it. I thought it was one of the best films at the festival. But sadly since that time the film seems to have distribution problems as it has never been properly distributed in theatres in America or on DVD. So, while in Budapest I bought a copy of the movie.

Like "Bridget Jones", this film follows a 30-something year old woman, Dora (Judit Schell), who has come to the conclusion her biological clock is ticking away. After a bad break-up with a man she didn't realize was married with children. Dora decides she is through with love and only wants a man to give her a child and never see her again.

Currently Dora is working as a writer on a play. The company is doing a production of Dangerous Liaisons, which is being directed by Pasko (Karoly Gesztesi). The male lead goes to Tamas (Hungarian heartrob Sandor Csanyi), who is seen as a ladies man, who gets through life based on his looks. It is alleged the reason he was fired from his last job was because he was having an affair with the boss' wife.

Dora hates men like Tamas, especially since her break-up. But, might he be the perfect, irresponsible man to give her a child and never see her again?

The film, co-written and directed by Krisztina Goda, follows in the old-fashioned formula of having the lead characters overcome a series of misunderstandings which keeps the couple apart until the end.

While the formula is nothing new the film can only succeed if the characters are likeable and the two leads have chemistry. Luckily the answer to both questions is yes.

Schell and Csanyi were both part of the Radnoti Theatre in Budapest and the two have appeared in previous films together including "Stop Mom Theresa". Because of this they know how to play off each other. They understand how the other approaches a role having been in the same theatre group.

And the script written by Goda, along with Reka Divinyi and Gabor Heller, has many funny one-liners and a surprising amount of insight between the sexes. The film knows its limits but that doesn't mean it shouldn't do what it is going to do well. It never over-steps its bounds but settles very comfortably in its shoes. And I admire that.

Film Review: Death At A Funeral

"Death At A Funeral"
* 1\2 (out of ****)

Comedy has much in common with music. In order for a comedy to work it should have a series of highs and lows, ups and downs. The energy level should fluctuate. "Death At A Funeral" is tone deaf. It has a monotone pace to it which never becomes anything more than somber.

Comedy director Frank Oz, perhaps best known to the world as Miss Piggy, usually has a good eye and ear for comedy. Some of his previous films include the Steve Martin comedy "Bowfiner", "In & Out" and "HouseSitter", also with Martin and Goldie Hawn. I even liked what I felt was an underappreciated comedy, the remake of "The Stepford Wives".

"Death At A Funeral" has a lot of tricks up its sleeve. It keeps attempting to raise the stakes but it is never played out correctly. The risks and dangers of a given situation are not played up. This is why you need highs and lows. Moments when the film moves along briskly and moments when it doesn't.

This has always been a rule in comedy pacing. Think of films such as "Duck Soup" or "The General". While most people may only remember the funny scenes, such as the "mirror" scene or the war sequence or Keaton's stunts. These films had slower, gentler scenes which served as a counter balance to the more outrageous moments.

The film takes place at the funeral of Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen) and Robert's (Rupert Graves) father. Robert is a successful writer now living in New York. Daniel is seen as being jealous of his brother's talent and fame. Daniel is even planned to give a eulogy, even though everyone seems to think it should be Robert, since he is the writer in the family.

Attending this funeral is Simon (Alan Tudyk) with his girlfriend Martha (Daisy Donovan). Martha wants to introduce Simon to her father, Victor (Peter Egan) the deceased brother. We have Peter (Peter Dinklage) who has a secret about the deceased.

Without spoiling anything it turns out Simon accidently takes drugs before arriving to the funeral. Causing him to act very, very strange. Peter's secret involves blackmailing the brothers for 15 thousand pounds. And Martha has a big secret for Simon and her father.

While each new surprised is revealed the film never picks up the pace. Comedy should thrive on chaos. The screenplay partly understands this as it keeps building on this situation of a family getting together at funeral and one mistake after another occuring but it doesn't know how to treat the situations. This hurts the film greatly because events and moments which should have been funny simply aren't. There is a connection to the audience which is missing.

Some moments are truly outrageous. One character finds himself naked standing on the roof of a house while everyone watches. Two bodies are found in a casket, with one of the bodies still alive. And half of the characters get high. All of this should have been funny but is doesn't play out.

Some may want to agrue the humor in "Death At A Funeral" is your typical British humor. I disagree. Watch episodes of "Faulty Towers" or "Are You Being Served?" and you'll see shifts in tone. It is a basic rule of comedy.

"Death At A Funeral" could have been a very funny movie but Frank Oz and the cast just didn't know how to approach the material and how to pace it.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Film Review: The Good Shepherd

"The Good Shepherd"
*** ( out of ****)

It has been 13 years since Robert De Niro has sat down in a director's chair, after his 1993 film "A Bronx Tale", arguably a contemporary classic. This time around, I don't think De Niro has quite reached the same heights, but, he has made a well crafted film.

Once again De Niro is involved with the C.I.A., if you remember his character in both "Meet the Parents" and "Meet the Fockers" used to work for the agency. But here in "The Good Shepherd" De Niro isn't going for laughs.

"The Good Shepherd" tells the story of the history of the C.I.A. as seen through the eyes of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon). A young Yale graduate part of the famous secret society of skull and bones who is asked if he would be willing to work in a counter intelligence agency which would do in peace time what it did during World War II. Namely spread enemy propaganda.

The film runs 2 hours and 40 minutes. It is one of the problems I have with the film. For a movie to have such a running time, you would think it is an epic. The film doesn't seem as important as the running time suggest. At times I felt I was missing out on something as the film jumps around in time periods. For a film nearly three hours we, the viewer, should not feel we are missing out on anything.

Still there is a part of me which is tempted to reward De Niro for taking his time to tell this story. He doesn't rush it. He allows the story to move at its own pace. It allows characters and situations to set themselves up and lets the audience see them grow. We see a progression in Edward. But at the end of the day, I felt the film falls slightly short of the greatness De Niro had in mind. Clearly this was an ambitious project but we never really get to know these characters' thoughts.

I have a theory the reason for this might be De Niro is mostly known through his collaboration with director Martin Scorsese as playing gangsters. Two of his last great roles were in Scorsese's "Casino" and "GoodFellas". De Niro is usually on the opposite side of the law which he is presenting in "The Good Shepherd". Perhaps he just doesn't understand the mentality of these type of characters. Edward Wilson though does share a common characteristic with those gangsters De Niro has played. They are all paranoid. Edward is repeatedly told not to trust anyone. He has no friends. You never know when someone can be a spy.

Another problem I have with "The Good Shepherd" is the lack of details. The film paints history with a broad brush. Events such as the "bay of pigs" are mentioned but there importance and consequences are never explained. A majority of the film revolves around the Cold War and the Soviets. Yet major world events dealing with the Cold War are left out. No mention of the '56 uprising in Hungary. Or revolts in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

The film also doesn't tell us exactly how the C.I.A. works. De Niro doesn't take us inside the C.I.A. kind of odd for a film about the agency's history.

But this is just starting to read like a negative review that really doesn't deserve to be treated so harshly. The best thing one can say about the film is the acting by the cast. De Niro, I would imagine being an actor, knows the little tricks to get the most out of his performers. Damon is probably the most developed character but Angelina Jolie as his wife Margaret has some strong moments. But the script doesn't dwell deep enough inside her past to make her a more compelling character. Alec Baldwin is always a pleasure when on-screen, in one of those cameos that steals the show. Think of "Glenngary Glenn Ross". And William Hurt as Philip Allen, Edward's boss, brings an interesting mystique to his character.

But such complaints about character development seem odd especially when you consider who wrote the script. He may not be a household name but Eric Roth has actually written quite a few films, many of which I've praised. His scripts include "The Insider", one of the greatest journalism films. And "Munich", my choice for the best film of 2005.

In the end though I think a rewrite and some editing could have made what is without question a good film an even better film. "The Good Shepherd" was also nominated for an Oscar for art direction.

Film Review: Running With Scissors

"Running With Scissors" ** (out of ****)

"Running with Scissors" is based on a book written by Augusten Burroughs, which also had the same title. Supposedly the events depicted in the film are based on fact. Because Borroughs is a writer we can imagine some artistic license may have been taken. And since Burroughs' did not adapt his own work to the screen, we can also assume screenwriter Ryan Murphy, may have taken artistic license as well.

I've never read Burroughs' book. And, based on what I've seen in this film, I don't think I ever will. I have a hunch though, the book is better than the film.

"Running with Scissors" suffers from a basic cinematic problem. In an attempt to be everything at once it becomes nothing. Every character in "Running with Scissors" seems to be competing for the title "most crazy character in a motion picture". What this does is alienate the audience.

According to the film, Augusten Burroughs' (Joseph Cross) parents were in a tormented marriage. His mother, Deirdre (Annette Bening) has hopes of becoming a writer. And she does managed to get her work published in small journals. Still she feels her husband, Norman (Alec Baldwin) is jealous of her and wants to keep her at home. In this cross-fire Augusten tends to side with his mother.

Due to their domestic problems, Deirdre goes to a psychiarist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox). Finch has a very strong hold over Deirdre and eventually convinces her to leave her husband, whom according to Finch, has anger problems and may want to kill Deirdre.

This is where Augusten problems only begin to start. After the seperation, Finch even manages to talk Deirdre into giving up custody of Augusten so he can live with Finch's family. Which includes two daughters; Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) the oldest and Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) along with his wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh).

They are not a normal family. Some of their strange behavior includes turning to the bible for life's big questions such as what to cook for dinner, by merely opening the good book to a random page and point at a word as they try to decode the word's meaning. Or Hope, who thinks her pet cat speaks to her and tells her the day it will die.

And there is more, but at this point why continue. With the information I've given already you can kind of tell what type of film this is. It is a film without boundaries. Anything can and will happen. Nothing is considered too extreme for this story.

The problem I have with the film though is given all the little events which seem to happen, nothing really big happens. The film never really goes anywhere. Characters never fully grow. They way they are at the beginning of the film is the way they remain until the end. There is no arc. No growth within these characters. Any growth which does happen takes place off-screen as the ending credits tells us where these people are now.

The film is repetitive. The mother's problems continue over and over again. One moment she seems better than she gets worst. Than better and then worst.

Augusten is suppose to be the "normal" character in the film. The character we can relate to. He sees this madness and realizes it is not normal. The problem is, he isn't normal either. His behavior seems irrational to me too. He begins an affair with a man twice his age, who also happens to be his step-brother. Since Finch has adopted both of them.

Much of the acting in the film is fine, it has a very talented cast, but the script is weak. Potential was there, as I guess an interesting story could have been developed with these characters, but things become too extreme.

It is often said writers should write what they know. Augusten Burroughs did just that. Maybe in his case, he should stay away from what he knows and picture a more happy place. That would be more of a challenge and he could really let his imagination run wild.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Film Review: Redacted

"Redacted" ** (out of ****)

Brian De Palma's "Redacted" is a film which clearly inserts its politics into the story. And depending on what your politics are, it will affect how you view this film. That's the biggest problem I have with this film.

"Redacted" tells the true story of American soldiers in Iraq, four of which raped an innocent young girl, just because they could and were "in the mood" so to speak.

For the past six years we have read about the war. We know sometimes American soldiers kill innocent people. Given the war we are fighting, it is difficult to tell who the "good guys" are and who the "bad guys" are. So mistakes are made, but, they simply become the casualities of war.

On paper De Palma's film sounds interesting. The film goes through a lot of trouble trying to present itself as a real documentary. It is shot hand-held and has shaky camera movements. We even see the "filmmaker", Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), walking around with his camera shooting everything he sees in hopes it will help him become a real movie director.

But "Redacted" wears its politics too much on its sleeve. Normally that doesn't bother me. This is coming from the guy who loved "Fahrenheit 9/11". I also just named Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs" as one of the best films of 2007, but "Redacted" simply struck me as too manipulative. It is too aggressive. It tells us what to think too much. The others films mentioned I felt lead us to come to our own conclusions, De Palma doesn't give us that luxury. The viewer must think what he wants us to think.

Normally I'm a big Brian De Palma fan. I've enjoyed his Hitchcockian films such as "Sisters", "Dressed to Kill", "Blow Out" and "Body Double", but not since "Mission to Mars" has De Palma made a film which instinctively does not feel like one of his films. Nothing about the subject matter and the shooting style would ever suggest De Palma to me.

What attacted him to this story? Was it just his liberal instincts? Did the story honestly intrigue him? If so, why did he chose this style? I can't answer any of these questions. Because the film suggested a documentary I kept thinking of better real documentaries on this subject. "No End in Sight", "Uncovered", "Gunner Palace", "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "The War Tapes". Those works felt more honest.

To give an example of what I'm talking about the film ends with a montage of actual photos from Iraq of dead bodies. It is mostly women and children. As we see this image soaring music plays in the background. Now, given what we have seen for the past hour and thrity minutes, the viewer is suppose to think, "look at the damaged these soldiers have caused." The viewer is suppose to think look how terrible this mission has gone. But couldn't De Palma get these emotions across in a more subtle way?

De Palma has scenes where soldiers conduct a raid, a journalist follows them. She asks questions while one of the soldiers takes papers from a notebook with him. He calls it "evidence". The journalist ask if he can read arabic. He says no. The soldier is made out to look ridiculous. De Palma paints a picture of American soldiers who don't know what they are doing. They are in over their heads. They don't understand the customs and ways of Iraq. Simply put they shouldn't be there. Now, even if I agreed with that message, and for the sake of complete honestly I do. I was against this war from the beginning. But, you have to ask yourself, is De Palma making the best film he could have on the subject. My gut tells me no. There is definitely a story here worth telling, but a director must check his or her politics at the door and allow the film to tell its own story and allow the viewer to come up with their feelings and thoughts.