Friday, April 25, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: Taxi Driver

"Taxi Driver" **** (out of ****)

Watching Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" again I came to realize how political the film is. I've always approached the film as a glimpse into the mind of a madman. While that is definitely true of the film, it takes on other dimensions.

Released in 1976 the U.S. was still coming off the heels of the Vietam War. Two years later films such as "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter" would be released. We know Travis Bickle is a Vietnam vet and we know of the psychological trauma the war had on those who served. The film also deals with a political assassination or the attempt of one. The film comes after a time when this was all too common. Memories still lingered from the assassinations of President Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

"Taxi Driver" is a true product of its time. A film which confronts issues and concerns of the day.

To simply describe "Taxi Driver" we could say it is the story of a New York cab driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) and his attempts to change the world around him. He feels he can bring salvation to a young prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) or find a romantic connection with a political activist, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) or maybe even save the world from the very politician Betsy campaigns for by killing him, Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris).

In the end though "Taxi Driver" hits upon a feeling of isolation which plagued the times. It deals directly with a disenfranchised youth and corrupt politicians (a la Nixon).

Take for example the speech Bickle gives about the filth in New York. Everything needs to be cleaned. The city, which could also be a substitute for society, is damned. Everything and everybody are scum.

And scum is all Travis Bickle sees on his cab routes. Of course, he goes where the scum is. Constantly watching porn, picking up hookers and pimps in his cab. If Travis hates filth and scum he doesn't seem to be trying to avoid it.

The film was written by Paul Schrader. Themes of obsession and loneliness are pretty common in his work. In fact, Schrader's next script would be for Brian De Palma's "Obsession", his "Vertigo" clone. De Palma was even offered the chance to direct "Taxi Driver" before Scorsese. But Schrader liked to write and direct film which show duality in man. Films which try to explore man's inner feelings. "Raging Bull" and "Auto Focus" come to mind. These men lead private lives which did not seem to match their public lives.

Lots of Scorsese fans cannot believe "Taxi Driver" would lose the "best picture" Oscar to "Rocky". But if we think about "Rocky" was clearly the safer choice and reflected a more positive image which the Academy and the country wanted to embrace. Both films are about underdogs. In one film the underdog prevails. In the other he becomes mad. America wanted to feel good about itself after such turbulent times. A film about a madman despising the world around him was too dark of a film. And to think Scorsese didn't even get a "best director" nomination! "Taxi Driver" did earn four Oscar nominations including "best actor (De Niro)" and "best picture". While it lost in all categories it did win the palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival where a film such as "Rocky" wasn't even nominated.

"Taxi Driver" is one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Film Review: Marie Antoinette

"Marie Antoinette" *** (out of ****)

The very first image we see in Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" is of the young future Queen of France sitting down while one of her servants tie her shoe. As she is licking the whip cream off a piece of cake. Making the viewers recall the famous quote attributed to her, after hearing about a shortage of food in France, she reportedly said "let 'em eat cake". But this image does more than that. It displays her vanity and how spoiled she was.

In an early scene when Antoinette is to meet her future husband, the Prince of France, she is told she must say goodbye to everything Austrian. So she turns and tells her friends and family goodbye. But, it in only when she is told she must also leave her dog behind she sheds tears. This shows her indifference to ordinary people. A claim which would later cost her, her life.

Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" is a modern updated biography of her life. Coppola has decided to focus more so on Antoinette's age. She was 15 years old at the time of her marriage to the prince.

But one has to wonder why? We've seen these type of modern updates when applied to Shakespeare. Think of "Romeo & Juliet" with Leonardo Di Caprio. There, the idea was suppose to be an attempt to teach younger generations about the work of Shakespeare. In order to capture their interest the stories would have to be told with a modern twist. But is there really a need to update Marie Antoinette's life to teenagers? Apparently Sofia Coppola thought so.

Antoinette is played by Kirsten Dunst, who also starred in Coppola's feature film debut, "The Virgin Suicides". Dunst plays Antoinette has a spoiled teenager who has great responsibility thrusted upon her after marrying the Prince of France, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) in an attempt to reconcile differences between Austria and France. Schwartzman plays the character as an odd, shy teenage boy who hasn't quite learned how to act around girls. He'd be the guy at the party standing in the corner next to the punch bowl.

Now, while Dunst and Schwartzman make the best of their roles, one has to wonder what exactly was Coppola thinking? She purposely made God-awful casting decisions. Dunst is simply not believable as an Austrian. She makes no attempt to even have an accent and is less believable as the Queen of France. Schwartzman is another mis-cast. Not to mention, everyone speaks English.

Though Coppola would argue, do not read into the movie so much. The film after all opens with a rock score playing over the credits. We are not to take "Marie Antoinette" seriously. Think along the lines of what Baz Luhrmann did with "Moulin Rouge!". Making characters sing songs out of their historical context. But Coppola's film lacks "Moulin Rouge!" breathtaking visually beauty. "Moulin Rouge!" was eye candy of the highest order. "Marie Antoinette" is a good film but nowhere near the creativity of Luhrmann's work.

Still we cannot judge Coppola's film too harshly. We must first understand what Coppola's intentions were and then decide how effectively she reached her objective. Coppola's succeeds in presenting Antoinette as a girl. In one scene we see her wear converse tennis shoes. And she is able to go over highlights of her life providing information for those who knew nothing about her.

"Marie Antoinette" is not a great film. But it is somewhat entertaining. Coppola has made more lasting works in "The Virgin Suicides" and "Lost in Translation". So we cannot argue she has no talent. But "Marie Antoinette" is a film I don't think people are going to remember her for. It was a brave attempt which didn't fully pay off. Then again, that's the risk you run when you try something new. But at least she tried.

"Marie Antoinette" was also nominated for one Oscar for "Best Costume Design" which it won.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Film Review: Lights in the Dusk

"Lights in the Dusk"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Aki Kaurismaki's "Lights in the Dusk" concludes his "loser trilogy". It is a tale of loneliness and desperation in a corrupt world where the nice guy does finish last.

That description may make Kaurismaki's film sound like a serious drama, but his approach to the material is light. "Lights in the Dusk" goes for dark humor. The character's desperation and loneliness is exaggerated for comedic effect. Their dour faces and gestures resemble Buster Keaton's "great stoneface". They are expressionless. Kaurismaki even goes as far as to position his characters in stances which resemble statues. They don't act like people but rather zombies. These extremes, in a werid way, make the film amusing and comedic.

Koistinen (Janne Hyytiainen) is a lonely security guard. He has no friends. He is ridiculed by co-workers and shun by strangers. Whenever he makes an attempt to confront people for their wrong doing he is immediately put back in his place, which is usually done by beating him. But Koistinen is a dreamer. Things will eventually get better or at least that's what he tells himself. He wants to open his own a business, a garage. He is under the impression some of his co-workers would join him. The viewer doesn't share his belief.

One day, sitting alone in a restaurant, a woman, Mirja (Maris Jarvenhelmi) approaches him and strikes up a conversation with him. She too seems like, to use Kaurismaki's phrase, a "loser", an outsider. They start to date. But then we discover Mirja's true intentions. She actually works for a gangster, Lindholm (Ilkka Koivula) who wants Mirja to get close to Koistinen so she can steal his security keyes and brake into the jewelry store where he works. Lindholm is convinced Koistinen is such a pathetic loser he won't mind being taken advantage of and even if he discovers Marji's intentions he still wouldn't do anything about it.

"Lights in the Dusk" isn't really a noir film, though the story has possibilities. It isn't really a comedy either, the characters don't speak in jokes the way you'd expect Woody Allen, Bob Hope or Groucho Marx to. And it isn't really a drama because the film is too much of a caricature of human existence to add any emotion involvement or depth. This is one of those films which in undefinable. It crosses genres and creates a new one. That is what makes "Lights in the Dusk" such a joy to watch. It's originality. It's ability to break film conventions and set out on a new course.

"Lights in the Dusk" could have been a dark, existential film. Imagine if Ingmar Bergman had directed it. Man's loneliness, the emptiness of the universe. But Bergman's vision would have been more poetic. Kaurismaki, while dealing with the same themes gives it a comedic feel.

The performances are quite effective as they perfectly convey the director's vision. Hyytiainen walks a fine line between going too overboard and losing the audience. There is that caricature but Kaurismaki does it within limits. If the film becomes too broad you can lose an audience. There has to be some structure to the film. Some rules Kaurismaki has set for himself. And the actors pull it off. The viewer does not lose interest in these people.

"Lights in the Dusk" was Finland's official Oscar nominee at the Academy Awards two years ago but for political reasons Kaurismaki refused the nomination. The film was also nominated for the palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Film Review: Colossal Sensation

"Colossal Sensation" *** (out of ****)

Robert Koltai's "Colossal Sensation (AKA Vilagszam)" is a film which attempts to achieve a lot but because it sets such high standards for itself it can never accomplish all it wants to.

Robert Koltai may not be well known to American audiences, in Hungary however he is probably one of the most popular comics. Every film he stars in and directs becomes a hit. But American audiences may think of Koltai as an acquired tasted. He is comparable to Chaplin in the way he attempts to combine pathos and chaos. Though he lacks Chaplin's grace and comedic innovation. Koltai doesn't have the film making ability of Istvan Szabo or Miklos Jancso. His work is more conventional and as a result doesn't make the powerful emotional and political statements they sometimes want to.

"Colossal Sensation" is the first comedy I have ever seen dealing with the '56 uprising. Robert Koltai and Sandor Gaspar play twin brothers; Naftalin and Dodo, who grew up in a circus family to become famous clowns.

One day as children the boys play a game of jumping over an alligator Dodo (Gasper) accomplishes the feat but Naftalin (Koltai) is not so lucky. The alligator snaps at his leg causing him to have a permanent limp. When their father, another clown, Slomo (Gyula Bodrogi) lashes out at the boys, especially Dodo for not looking out for his brother it creates a relationship where the two become reliant upon each other. Even when love enters the picture, Lizi (Anna Gyorgyi) who wants to marry Dodo, the two brothers can't even be separated for the honeymoon.

One of the flaws with "Colossal Sensation" is the way the film is structured. It jumps around time periods too often and starts with a dramatic discovery about one of the characters, but, never explains how a character got into this new situation. The viewer has to do a lot of guesswork and add things together. For example the film jumps ahead in time as we find out Dodo has been arrested. We jump again in time and find out Lizi is married and when we take one more jump it is now Naftalin who is in jail. Too much of the film has been edited. The film doesn't have a long running time as it is, it is under 90 minutes, so why did Koltai feel the need to rush the story?

The film also provides no details for non-Hungarians about the importance of events taking place. Because I'm Hungarian I knew what to expect. I understand the significant of the '56 uprising but what about someone who doesn't know anything about Hungary's history? How will that viewer react? The film just throws us into this historical event without explaining what the people were fighting for and what happened after the revolution failed.

Several films have attempted to tell Hungary's history. Karoly Makk's "Another Way (Egymsra nezve)" did a beautiful job exploring the aftermath of the revolt. Istvan Szabo's "Budapest Tales (Budapesti mesek)" tried to use allegory to explain the country's history with mixed results and of a more recent nature Ildiko Enyedi's "My Twentieth Century (Az en XX. szazadom)" which also made the same mistake Koltai's film does, not fully explaining the country's history.

The legendary Hungarian filmmaker Miklos Jansco was once ask why he, being such a politically bold director, never made a film about the '56 uprising. He said it couldn't be done. There are too many sides of the story to tell to successfully explain the events. To some extent Koltai knows this. His story is not in the broad sense how '56 impacted Hungary but instead how '56 made an impact on the lives of these two brothers. It is history as they saw it and experienced it. But, this approach is somewhat disappointing because these characters are not that interesting.

But this review sounds harsh. One can appreciate what Koltai wants to achieve. And the performances by Gasper and Koltai are strong. Koltai tries to play an innocent child-like man in the vein of Chaplin. He tries to win over our heart. Gasper is the strong brother and his performance is not as needy.

"Colossal Sensation" earns points for what it attempts to do and for the performances as well as some of the technical film making choices Koltai employs. He first shoots the film in b&w and then as the years go by switches to color. Some of the early b&w shots are quite visually beautiful and arresting. Though sadly in the end the film falls short of the greatness Koltai had in mind.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Film Review: The Vallet

"The Vallet" *** (out of ****)

You might think the French would be experts at making sex farces. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. Francis Veber's "The Vallet" is something of a mixed bag.

Francis Veber's films are usually quite successful in his home country. The films are so successful in fact that American producers continue to buy the rights to his films to rework them into English where they have bombed repeatedly. Some film fans may have never heard of Veber, but, trust me, you've heard of the American remakes. Just to give you a short list his films include "Le Chevre", which was remade in English as "Pure Luck" starring Martin Short. "Le Jouet", remade as "The Toy" with Jackie Gleason and Richard Pyor and "Les Comperes" remade as "Father's Day" with Billy Crystal and Robin Williams.

Now viewers can't say well gee, all of those films were terrible. Look at it this way, American producers keep buying the rights to these films thinking American audiences will want to see them. I mention all of this because I'm willing to bet an American remake of this film is already in the works.

"The Vallet" is a film about mistaken identity. It pretty much goes down the familiar path you would expect a story with this premise to take. A rich billionaire, Pierre Levasseur (Daniel Auteuil) has been having an affair with a famous supermodel, Elena (Alice Taglioni). One day the paparazzi take a picture of the two together. With such a photo published it could destroy his marriage to Christine (Kristen Scott Thomas) which would spell disaster for him since his wife owns 60% of the company where he works. As luck would have it however, another man was walking past the two lovers when the picture was taken. A vallet named Francois (Gad Elmaleh). In order to avoid a scandal Pierre pays Francois to let Elena live with him for a few days so the two can be seen together to prove they are a couple. It was with Francois, Elena was standing next to in the photo not Pierre.

The plot definitely has comedic possibilities. In our media obsessed world such a story seems quite plausible. An unsuspecting person becomes the talk of the town simply for escorting a beautiful celebrity.

The problem with "The Vallet" is Veber doesn't go far enough the film. He takes no chances. He doesn't risk anything and simply goes for the "safe laugh". The film is relatively short. It runs under 90 minutes. Events move too briskly for the film to sink its teeth into any one storyline sufficiently and wastes too much time on unimportant ones.

One scene deals with Francois and Elena having to sleep together on his bed to convince the paparazzi spying on them across the street. Francois has no curtains so the two must actually sleep together on the bed. So much time is devoted to this idea. In theory it may have seemed funny but by focusing so heavily on one joke Veber passes up the opportunity to make three more. What if Francois liked to sleep in the nude and had no pajamas? Or if Elena didn't bring any with her because she didn't suspect she would have to sleep in the same bed with him? Or what if Francois had a bunk-bed?

With so many missed comic opportunities you may ask, why recommended the film? The reason is because despite the failed chances for comedy the film is still pleasant enough to watch. It is a lighthearted diversion which the cast gives their all. The cast is really the best thing about the film.

Daniel Auteuil is one of the great French actors. His work in films such as "Jean de Florette" and recent films like "Cache" display an intensity he brings to the table. He has the ability to play many characters effectively. Kristen Scott Thomas isn't really given much to work with her but I was impressed how well she speaks French. I understand she lives there instead of England.

"The Vallet" is not a great comedy or a great Veber film. It is however a delicious French souffle. And like most sweets its not something you want to indulge in too often, just once in a while.

Film Review: Into the Wild

"Into the Wild" **** (out of ****)

So many times I try to make the case, don't judge films harshly just because you disagree with their ideas. Judge films on how well they executes those ideas. Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" is such a film for me. I disagree with everything the films presents. Every idea suggested in the film goes against what I believe in, but, there's no way to deny it is a beautifully told story.

Based on a true story written by Jon Krakauer and adapted to the screen by Penn, the film follows a foolish, Liberal idealist who is tired of living in a, what he calls, "sick society". He is a recent college graduate and has decided after four years of working hard in school he wants to drop out of society. He wants to go into the wild and be one with nature.

The idealist is Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch). He comes from a well to do family. On the day of graduation his parents; Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) and Walt (William Hurt) tell him they are going to buy him a new car. They are willing to help him get into Harvard Law. But Chris wants none of it. He feels the life his parents lead is boring. Living and working everyday, dependent on things such as money and their jobs, equals no life at all. So, without telling anyone, he disappears and heads off to Alaska.

Sometimes films are such a strong reflection of their directors the viewer begins to assume it is autobiographical. While the film is based on someone else's life, we get the feeling Sean Penn feels the same way about society. Penn is a very intense actor and stories suggest an intense person in real life. Labeled by some as an American bashing far-left Liberal nut, he has done some things out of the ordinary, like going to Iraq to report the news.

"Into the Wild" has a slow deliberate pace. The film recalls the idealist Liberal spirit of cinema from the 1960s shown in films such as "Easy Rider" and "Midnight Cowboy". Like "Easy Rider" it is about "lost souls" hitting the road in an attempt to "find" themselves. It also brings to mind the work of German filmmaker Werner Herzog, who has repeatedly made films about man versus nature. In fact, the cinematic response to "Into the Wild" would be Herzog's "Grizzly Man".

"Into the Wild" suggests nature is beautiful. People should live off the land. The film endorses Chris' irrational behavior. There is beauty to see in the world around us. "Grizzly Man" told us, nature is evil. Humans should leave it alone and let nature take its course. When another foolish, idealist Liberal in that film tries to live among grizzly bears, they eat him alive. It too was based on a true story.

But nevertheless the film has a lyrical quality to it. Some of Penn's shots go on a bit too long, that was the point. The film is trying to make the viewer become one with nature with its lingering shots of empty plains and rivers. And Emile Hirsch's performance carries the entire film. Very impressive for such a young actor working with much more seasoned actors; Harden, Hurt and Hal Holbrook.

Sean Penn, who has directed quite a few films already, including "The Crossing Guard" and "The Pledge", may never direct a better film. He seems to have found a story which he deeply cares about. A film which expresses his view of the world. When a director finds a story like that and he's able to reflect that on-screen the viewer can not help but keep their eyes glued to the screen.

"Into the Wild" was nominated for two Oscars; "Best Supporting Actor" and "Best Editing". Emile Hirsch won the National Board of Review award for "Best Breakthrough Performance".

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Film Review:The Hoax

"The Hoax" *** (out of ****)

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.
Abraham Lincoln

These were important words author Clifford Irving should have remembered before he started to created one of the biggest and most expensives hoaxes in the U.S publishing world."The Hoax" tells us the true story of Clifford Irving, a man who lead publishing company McGraw-Hill, he had inside access to billionaire Howard Hughes, who had granted him permission to write his autobiography. Of course, as the title may suggest, Irving had no such access.

The film opens up a lot of questions, how did Irving really plan on getting away with this? Why was McGraw-Hill so easy to convince? And why pick on Howard Hughes?

Richard Gere stars as Clifford Irving, giving a performance which may be one of his career best. The beauty of the film, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, is everything is played straight. The film doesn't go for a screwball comedy approach, taking us in the world of movies, where anything can happen. It tries to approach the material in a realistic matter. What kind of problems would one run up against trying to pull off such a hoax? While all the angles are not covered, enough of them are to make the film recommendable.

We learn early on Irving is a man with deep flaws and is prone to lying. Especially to his wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) as he has an affair with Nina Van Pallandt (Julie Delpy). The film suggest Irving was a desperate man who was in fincial ruins and thought his autobiography on Hughes would save him in more ways than one. As a man, a husband and an author.

Gere was a very good choice for the lead, he has played a con-man or a flawed man on more than one occassion. Look at his part in "Chicago" or "Unfaithful". In one he was a fast-talking lawyer and in the other he kills a man out of jealousy. Not exactly role model material.

Going along with Irving is his best friend and researcher, Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina). At first Dick wants a bigger percentage of the take but once the heat comes on, he wants to back out. The film tries to suggest him as a moral compass in contrast to Irving but in the end both men are just different sides of the same coin. Both were lead by greed and the desire for power.

What did shock me about the film though was Lasse Hallstrom's involvement. Hallstrom usually directs dramas such as "The Cider House Rules", "The Shipping News" and "My Life As A Dog". He has dabbled in light comedy "Chocolat" and "Casanova" but "The Hoax" seemed like a bit of a stretch for him. Though he does live up to the task. The film moves along briskly. The performances are fine and the editing crisp. The film moves at a good pace.

"The Hoax" starts to become a bit trippy at the end as fantasy and reality are played around it. It is suggested while working on the book Irving felt a kinship with Hughes and started to, in some ways, become Hughes. The book takes on a larger significance. Irving had ideas of taking down then President Nixon. And so the viewer is placed in Irving's mind, starting to question everything and everyone.

But "The Hoax" is good fun. Gere and company all give fine performances and Hallstrom's touch is consistant. Well worth seeing if only for Gere.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: Rear Window

"Rear Window" **** (out of ****)

"We've become a race of peeping toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change."

So says Stella (Thelma Ritter) at the start of "Rear Window". Alfred Hitchcock's best film and one of my all-time favorites. It's a key line into the film which was taken from a short story called "It Had To Be Murder" written by Cornell Woolrich and made into a screenplay by John Michael Hayes.

"Rear Window" gives Hitchcock the chance to explore one of his favorite themes; voyeurism. L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) is a photographer for a magazine who has managed to break his leg in an automobile race track accident. He has a cast from his foot up to his hip and has been in it for 6 weeks. Jeffries' passes his time by staring outside his window looking (or spying) at his neighbors.

I've noticed many people seem to overlook something crucial in this. Jeffries as the saying goes is a "watcher" NOT a "doer". He is by profession a photographer. He's always seeing the world through his lens. Never actually experiencing life himself. I bet even if he wasn't injured it seems like the kind of thing this guy would do anyway. It's in his blood. It's how he makes his living. By capturing moments of other people's lives or popular events. But, one day, Jeffries is going to see too much.

What makes "Rear Window" such a great film is the way the screenplay is constructed. The viewer never knows more than the lead character. Everything we see, we only see because that's exactly what he sees. We can only draw the same conclusions he does, because we only know as much as him. If he says 1+1=3, we have to go along with him, because we don't know otherwise. And this is where all the suspense leads in. You see, for those who have never seen this movie, Jeffries thinks he has seen one of his neighbors murder his wife. Mr. Thorwald (Raymond Burr, who would later become a lawyer, go figure!) was seen leaving his house several times during the night. We see him wrap up a saw and knife. And the next morning his bedridden wife is gone! Was she murdered? Or is there a reasonable explanation for everything? We are lead to believe she was murdered.

Hitchcock has such a confident feel for the material. I don't know if his directing was ever better. Some may argue "Psycho" or "Vertigo" but, whichever film you chose you can't deny how brilliant his directing is here. The way he adds to the suspense. Our emotions go back and forth. Was there a murder committed or not? As with all Hitchcock films you can expect that dry wit. In my opinion it has never played off as well has it does here. It's all over the place. Take Thelma Ritter for example. She plays an insurance company nurse sent to take care of Jeffries. Her dialogue is full of witty remarks. Just about ever word she chooses to use seems inappropriate at the time. There is also a character named "Miss Lonelyheart". A scene involves her getting dressed up, lighting some candles, dimming the lights, fixing the dinner table and then pretending she has a gentleman guest. It may not sound funny as you read it, but, to see it will put a smile on your face.

Besides Stella (Ritter) no one enters Jeffries apartment except Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly, looking her absolute best!). A designer who is a well known Manhattan socialite. Things are rocky in their relationship as Jeffries thinks she is "too perfect". But, naturally it's takes a murder to bring them together.

"Rear Window" was quite a big hit when first released. Hitchcock was at a peak in his career when this was made. The movie was nominated for 4 Oscars including "Best Director". When it was made it was also the largest set on the Paramount lot. But, that doesn't stop the movie from having a big city feel to it. Here's a film movie any true Hitchcock fan has to see. It's one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Top Ten Films Of 2005!

Lets try to go back in time and remember what the films of 2005 were about. Think about what was going on in the world and how films were a reflection of it. First, George W. Bush had won re-election and the war in Iraq continued. Starting with 2004 films were becoming very political. We seemed to be headed back to the 1970s, when several anti-war films were being made. Look how that has changed already though. Any film dealing with Iraq in 2007 is headed for box-office disaster.

But with the war and President Bush's re-election the concept of war and the United States standing in the world started to take shape. One of the biggest themes to emerge in films, especially within my choices for the best film of the year was moral responsibilty. "Munich", "Match Point", "A History of Violence" and "Notre Musique" all questioned what motivates as us as people. Cinema in 2005 was a sharp rebuke of President Bush rightly or wrongly. Here are my choices for the best films of 2005!

1. MUNICH (U.S.; Dir. Steven Spielberg) - I'm usually not a Spielberg fan, I've never really enjoyed his childhood fantasy films, i.e. "Hook" and "E.T." but when Spielberg tackles more mature, adult issues as he did in "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" I find myself more involved in his work. "Munich" may be his boldest film. Dealing with the 1972 Olympics and the death of 11 Israeli athletes at the hands of a Palestinian terror group the film argued violence will only lead to more violence and question what should the correct response be.

2. DOWNFALL (Germany; Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel) - Based on a novel written by one of Hitler's secretaries, Traudle Junge, the film follows the last days of WW2 inside Hitler's bunker. Bruno Ganz plays Hitler as a human being, which caused some controversy, but it is one of the greatest performances you may see. It was certainly robbed of an Oscar nomination that year. A brutally violent and ultimately depressing film.

3. SARABAND (Sweden; Dir. Ingmar Bergman) - This sequel to the 1974 masterpiece, "Scenes From A Marriage" sadly proved to be master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman's last film. The film follows Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson still trying to cope with one another after all these years. A worthy end to a great director's career.

4. MATCH POINT (U.K./U.S.; Dir. Woody Allen) - Allen's first film set in London brought a renewel of interest into the great filmmaker's work. Sadly it has started in dwindle again. Similar in themes to "Crime and Punishment", "A Place in the Sun" and Allen's own "Crimes and Misdemeanors" the film asks, and comes to an interesting conclusion, concerning what is right and wrong and just in our society.

5. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (U.S.; Dir. David Cronenberg) - Perhaps a bit more mainstream than some might like from Cronenberg, the film still retains his twisted and sordid view of society asking, what exactly makes people so violent and the continuing spiral of violence facing our society.

6. CRASH (U.S.; Dir. Paul Haggis) - The Oscar winner for best picture examined race in America and came to an unsettling conclusion; everyone has racist tendencies. The film boast an excellent cast including Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle and Sandra Bullock (perhaps giving her best performance) in this multi-connected Altmanesque drama.

7. HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (Japan; Dir. Hayao Miyazaki) - The greatest animated film I have ever see. Japanese animation master Miyazaki has no use for special effects and CGI. He still works with a pen and paper. Much more mature than what you find in most animation. I wouldn't be surprised if more adults enjoy his work than children.

8. 2046 (China/Hong Kong; Dir. Kar Wai Wong) - The sequel to Wong's masterpiece, "In the Mood for Love" follows Tony Leung again in the starring role looking for redemption in hopes of going back to rectify the past and his relationship with Maggie Cheung. Amazing visuals and Wong's eye for detail make this a pleasure to watch.

9. CINDERELLA MAN (U.S.; Dir. Ron Howard) - Usually emotional fluff from Howard ("Apollo 13",) but of the highest kind. Even the most cynical person will become involved in this tale of boxer James Braddock's life as a metaphor for the 30s depression. In this story of the underdog.

10. NOTRE MUSIQUE (France/Switzerland; Dir. Jean-Luc Godard) - One of Godard's great films. A perfect marriage of ideas and visuals, the film borrows from Dante's Inferno in this mature meditation of war.

Film Review: Blood Diamond

"Blood Diamond" *** (out of ****)

At first glance Edward Zwick's "Blood Diamond" appears to be nothing more than an action/adventure story. Not to say it couldn't be good, but, it seemed routine by Hollywood's standards. But Zwick and screenwriter Charles Leavitt have thrown in a social message to give the film some importance.

The film revolves around "conflict diamonds" or "blood diamonds", diamonds which are illegally smuggled out of Africa to Western countries. As a result of this, a civil war in Sierra Leone rages on as the money helps fund rebel forces.

Depending on your point of view, the film could either sound quite noble or heavy-handed. If you'd like to read some scathing reviews against the film check out The New York Times or Village Voice. But I'm not in the scathing business. I haven't scathe anyone since I was 13.

Though one could see their point. Is it possible to make a Hollywood film about exploiting the business of smuggling diamonds without exploiting the cause itself for potential box-office appeal? I don't have the answer to that question, but I don't think it matters. We are discussing a film here. I'm not giving a lecture at a university. Meaning, judge the film on cinematic terms not how effectively it will change the world and how other countries will view it. No film can solve a world problem. Do not it expect it to.

The film follows three central characters; Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) a smuggler, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) a local fisherman who has been forced to work in diamond mines, while his family has been taken away from him and an American journalist, Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) who comes to Africa hoping to break the diamond smuggling story.

Solomon finds a pink diamond, which he hides from his captors, not before one of them sees it and has Solomon arrested. It is the rarest of stones. And like the Maltese Falcon, it is the stuff dreams are made of. For Danny, is it his chance to get out of Africa. For Solomon it may be used to reunite him with his family. And for Maddy it may lead her to her big story. So all three travel across Africa to locate the diamond.

The film was released in 2006 and was DiCaprio's first performance after Martin Scorsese's "The Departed". Both provide the actor with tough guy, hard edge roles. And he is quite good in this film. Who would have thought the kid from "Titanic" would turn out to be such a good actor? I cannot say the same for Djimon Hounsou. Someone seems to have told this gentleman he can act. He has already been nominated for two Oscars (one for his performance here and another for his performance in "In America"). But Mr. Hounsou, who first entered the spotlight after appearing in Steven Spielberg's "Amistad" has no acting range. He appears to be playing the same character over and over again. Mrs. Connelly though gives a wonderful performance. I don't think I have ever seen her look more beautiful. Which is odd considering the backdrop of the film; war, blood, dead bodies...ect.

The film also has some of the most rapid edit cuts I have seen since "The Bourne Ultimatum". Which may have been done to show the chaotic nature of Africa or to give the viewer the feeling of being there, it does little more than make you dizzy. And, while speaking of editing, the film could have been shortened. It runs at two hours and 24 minutes. There is some excess fat to the story which could have been trimmed here and there, making the story a little tighter.

Still "Blood Diamond" does put on a good show, even while the film's political message may get a little heavy-handed at times. Director Zwick at least keeps the film moving along as an action film, which is where it largely succeeds.

"Blood Diamond" was nominated for five Oscars including "Best Actor" (DiCaprio) and "Best Supporting Actor" (Hounsou).

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Film Review: Sweeney Todd

"Sweeney Todd" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

There seems to be such a fascination with the Sweeney Todd story. There have been, according to my memory, at least 5 film adaptations of the story. There was one in 1926, 1928, 1936, a TV movie starring Ben Kingsley and now Tim Burton's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's musical.

I've always been somewhat apprehensive about Burton's work. Some of his early work, like "BeetleJuice" or "Batman" didn't interest me very much. His "Sleepy Hollow" had some good visuals and production value but little else to recommend. It wasn't until the release of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" I started to look at Burton differently. I found that film to be endlessly creative. Now, I stand corrected. "Sweeney Todd" may be Burton's best film. It has a dark twisted worldview, laced with black humor and sheer visual beauty.

In the early moments of "Sweeney Todd" the production value and Burton's rapid moving camera overtake us. There are times when the viewer feels as if they are right there on Fleet Street. You can smell the air and feel your feet on the pavement.

Just about every film making decision Burton makes is correct. His choice of casting is truly inspired. Who could have been better than Johnny Depp in the title role? Or Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett? For years producers and directors have wanted to turn Sondheim's musical into a film. Names floated around such as Harrison Ford or Robert Redford in the lead. Neither one of these men have the diabolical charm Depp possesses. As for Carter, she simply looks the part. She fits right in the nightmare vision Burton has created. She has a Gothic look to her.

"Sweeney Todd" is the kind of story Edgar Allan Poe would be proud of. Todd returns to London, after being in prison for 15 years after a judge, Turpin (Alan Rickman), who had eyes for Todd's wife, has his framed, so he could attempt to win her over. Todd, not knowing if his wife and child, Johanna (Jayne Wisener) are still alive has sought revenge against Judge Turpin and one of his cronies Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall).

Todd eventually eventually learns his daughter is alive but is informed by Mrs. Lovett (Carter) his wife is dead. So the two join a partnership. He kills innocent people, while she uses them to make her "meat" pies.

Burton treats the film as realistically as possible. And it shows on-screen. The actors treat the situations as if they are performing Shakespeare. The film even has a realistic look to it. The color tones seem to be predominantly grey (I can't say for certain since I am partially color-blind). But it has drearily hue to it.

Lots of viewer may complain there is too much violence. The body count reaches 12. But, walking into a film such as this, it could be assumed one knows what they are getting into it. And, if not, you have just been informed here.

The only complaint I can offer against the film is Depp's accent. At times it reminded me of Capt. Jack Sparrow. Other than that I have nothing to say except praises. What a pity the film wasn't showered with much Oscar nominations. Where was the "Best Picture", "Best Director", "Best Supporting Actor (Rickman), "Best Art Design" and "Best Costume" nominations. Luckily Depp was nominated but lost to Daniel-Day Lewis for "There Will Be Blood".

In the end though "Sweeney Todd" is a bloody good time (sorry I couldn't resist)!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Film Review: The Kite Runner

"The Kite Runner" *** (out of ****)

Marc Forster's "The Kite Runner" is a story about friendship, loyalty and becoming a man. About learning to have courage to stand up for what you believe is right.

The film is an adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's novel which takes place in Afghanistan, in the city of Kabul around 1978.

Amir (played as a child by Zekeria Ebrahimi) is a coward. He has no courage. He is consistently bullied at school and does not defend himself. His only friend, Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) comes to his rescue when in trouble time and time again.

This worries Amir's father, Baba (Homayoun Ershadi). He feels a boy who will not stand up for himself will later become a man who does not stand up for himself. He is ashamed of his son's weak nature. Baba is a fighter. He opposes much of what he sees happening in the world around him and is not afraid to say it.

It is through the father the viewer gets a sense of political history. Politics is not a prominent part of "The Kite Runner" but we hear characters discuss the Mullahs, Communist, the Soviet Union and the Taliban. Baba is an educated man who has a more liberal mind. Amir would very much like to please his father by gaining his strenght.

The two boys enjoy flying kites and dueling. The object is to cut the string of your opponent's' kite. Amir is seen as the best and Hassan is his kite runner. He chases after the fallen kite. One day after a tournament a group of bullies corner Hassan. Amir tries to rescue Hassan by chasing after him. While hiding in a corner Amir sees the group pick on Hassan. First they beat him for the kite and then they rape him. Amir looks on. He now recognizes he is a coward and what his father was talking about. Amir simply looks on and witnesses his only friend get beaten.

Amir becomes so guilt ridden he can no longer look Hassan in the face. And his guilt turns to anger as he cuts off all ties with his old friend. But this rival between the boys must come to an end as the Soviet Union has invaded Afghanistan. Baba must leave the country as he is a known anti-Communist.

The rest of the film takes place in San Francisco in the year 2000, where Amir is now married and has written a book. After receiving a phone call from an old friend of his father, Amir must now go back home to take care of his father's sick friend.

It turns out the friend was not sick after all but wanted to inform Amir, Hassan has died and his son is now in an Orphanage. He would like Amir to find the boy and take him back to America. He also reveals an old family secret, which will not be revealed here, which further prompts Amir to find the boy.

This then becomes Amir's chance to become a man, and to rectify the past. Can Amir overcome his past sins?

Marc Forster has proven himself to be quite a talented director. Prior to this film he has directed "Finding Neverland", "Monster's Ball" and "Stranger Than Fiction". And we can see connections between "Neverland", "Ball" and this film. They each have characters who must prove themselves to society and must find inner strenght. They are initially weak characters who search for inner-strenght.

Something about "The Kite Runner" reminds me of Mira Nair's "The Namesake". Both film revolve around family secrets and show us the journey, both emotionally and physical, foreigners must go through when coming to America. Both films are also about second chances and discovering your roots.

Much of "The Kite Runner" is shot fairly conventional. The film mostly succeeds on an emotional level. We come to understand all of the characters involved and grow to care about them to a certain extent. The only area where the film fails is by losing track of the Hassan character, who is just as interesting as the Amir character. It would have been interesting to see what happened to his instead of being told in dialogue. Then the viewer could compare and contrast the life choices these two men have made and how that fateful day affect both of them.

"The Kite Runner" was nominated for an Oscar for its musical score and received a Golden Globe nomination for "Best Foreign Language Film".

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Film Review: Louisiana Purchase

"Louisiana Purchase" *** (out of ****)

In honor of April Fool's day, I thought it might be time to take a break from all the hard hitting dramas and celebrate some of the great clowns who make us laugh. Now of course there have been so many great comedies made throughout the years ranging from the work of Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers it was difficult to select a film to discuss. Eventually a Bob Hope film was selected.

"Louisiana Purchase" was released in 1941, a year before the start of WW2 and given the film's subject matter, you can tell. Once the war started, it was pretty rare to find comedies which would attack politicians and bash the president. But, "Louisiana Purchase" is one big criticism of American politics dealing with corruption, political dirty tricks and double-crossing. There are plenty of jokes delivered by Hope which use President Roosevelt as the punchline.

The plot of the film concerns the Louisiana Purchasing Company, headed by character actors Raymond Walburn and Frank Alberton, who have been buy lumber from the government only to sell it back to them at a higher price. The U.S. Senate has caught on to the company's scheme and has sent a well respected Senator, Oliver P. Loganberry (Victor Moore), a Republican with presidential prospects, to investigate the matter. In order to avoid corruption charges the company has signed everything over to Jim Taylor (Hope) and plans to use him as the stool pigeon. It is now up to Taylor to find some dirt on Loganberry in an attempt to bribe him to drop his investigation. In order to do this Taylor hires the services of Marina Von Minden (Vera Zorina) to seduce the senator and catch him in a compromising situation.

"Louisiana Purchase" had plenty of opportunity to become a great political satire, but perhaps due to the times, the film never reaches the level of great satire. The film gets bogged down in musical numbers which display Zorina's ballet. She was quite popular at the time and starred in the Broadway version of "Louisiana Purchase".

The best moments in the film are the ones which involve Bob Hope. The viewer sees the how talented Hope was and his brilliant gift for delivery. His one-lines are right on, never missing a beat. When someone mentions previous presidents to Roosevelt, Hope shoots back "Other presidents? You mean there was someone before Roosevelt"? Or when he is accused of being a crook (back in the days before Nixon) Hope response is "Whose a crook? And how did you find out"?

This may not be Hope's best film or the best one to become familiar with his screen persona, that might be "Cassanova's Big Night", "My Favorite Brunette" or "The Great Lover", but "Louisiana Purchase" has enough zingers to make it work.

Victor Moore is also quite funny as the straight-laced senator. Most audience members might recall him as Fred Astaire's buddy in "Swing Time". He probably comes in second behind hope for the best scenes.

The film features a musical score by Irving Berlin, which to be honest is not up to his usually standards. The score does not include any memorable songs in the tradition of "Cheek to Cheek" , "Blue Skies", "Puttin' on the Ritz" or "How Deep Is The Ocean".

Still if you are merely looking for some fluff entertainment and a laugh or two "Louisiana Purchase" should be able to provide if only for some of Hope's one-liners.