Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Film Review: P2

"P2" *** (out of ****)

"P2" is really nothing more than a less than average "B" slasher film which offers nothing new to the genre and for that matter doesn't attempt to offer anything new. It works within the genre playing by rules set forth.

Under most circumstances I would have criticized this film as predictable and meaningless. A waste of time. But, I saw this film on the same day I did "Untraceable", a film which I recently reviewed. "P2" is everything I thought "Untraceable" would be. A taut, suspenseful, exciting thriller which would keep me involved from between to end.

"Untraceable" was a predictable film but wanted to offer us a social message, which made the movie seem hypocritical. It had uninteresting characters which merely served as plot devices and were terribly underwritten. As I'm writing this, I realize the exact same thing can be written about this movie, minus the whole social message part. But, I found I liked "P2" more.

"P2" is nothing more than a genre film. And as I stated before, not even a very original one. So why like it? "P2" understands the guidelines set forth by previous films. It doesn't try to over-reach and become something more. It tries to have fun working within the conventions of slasher films.

We meet Angela Bridges (Rachel Nichols) a business woman working late on Christmas Eve. She is already late for a family Christmas party and still has some work to do. After finishing her work she arrive in the parking garage only to find her car won't start. She is lock in the garage but finds a parking attendant still lurking around, Thomas (Wes Bently). He suggest maybe it is her battery. He tells her he can recharge it. She just wants him to open the garage door so she can hail a taxi and leave. He wins out and find out it was not her battery after all. Reluctantly he agree to walk her to the exit. While walking he ask her if she would like to join him for a Christmas dinner. She laughs it off and thus her nightmare begins.

Thomas has a crush on Angela and decides to hold her hostage so they can have dinner together. But Thomas also has other plans. He thinks of himself as something of a moral crusader. At the office Christmas party one of her co-workers got a bit drunk and was fresh with her. Thomas saw it all on the security camera in the elevator. He wants to get revenge for her to protect her honor.

"P2", which gets its name because that is where her car is parked, the second level, now consist of Angela trying to escape the garage before Thomas has his way with her.

Admittedly, it may not sound very original but "P2" does have a few things in its favor. It is actually suspenseful in a few scenes and has one very entertaining performance given by Bently. Bently's previous credits include "American Beauty". He was the boy who taught us the beauty of watching a paper bag get swept up in the wind. Here his performance as a psycho-killer is over-the-top but in a strange way perfectly on target. I absolutely hated his character. He wished he would meet a violent, brutal death. To inspire such hatred in a viewer must mean he was effective. The viewer is suppose to want him to die. He is a killer!

Rachel Nichols is a new face to me. She has been in the Steve Martin comedy "Shopgirl" and "The Amityville Horror" remake. She is so-so in the film. The director, Franck Khalfoun, however seems obsessed with her cleavage. The only problem I had with Nichols, and this may sound mean, is she is not very pretty to me. Normally this wouldn't matter in the slightest, but, she is suppose to be a beautiful, businesswoman type. She simply doesn't have the look.

I'm sure a lot of people are going to dismiss the film. It did pretty bad at the box-office grossing a little more than 3 million dollars, but "P2" is pure, harmless, mindless, Hollywood studio entertainment. As a genre film it succeeds while doing nothing particularly special.

Film Review: Untraceable

"Untraceable" ** (out of ****)

What is it that attracts people to violence? Why are teen slasher films routinely number one at the box-office upon their release? Why do people say "I love a good scare"?

"Untraceable" a lack-luster new thriller starring Diane Lane makes you think about such things. Too bad the movie wasn't a bit better or it would provide a good social commentary even though it would make the film a bit hypocritical.

Why hypocritical? "Untraceable" is a film about cybercrime. Diane Lane stars as Agent Jennifer Marsh, an FBI agent whose sub-division deals with capturing cyber predators. A website site has come to her attention http://www.killwithme.com/. On it viewers watch live stream murders take place. The hitch is, the more people who log in, the faster the person dies.

So while "Untraceable" is warning us, and questions our fascination with violence, the film itself is violent and we are watching it. The film condemns the very thing it is doing. Sound hypocritical?

Many critics of the film, and there are many, have stated the film glorifies violence to a new level. Film critic for the New York Times, Stephen Holden, described the film as such, "morally duplicitous torture porn". Many people have used the phrase "torture porn" to describe this film. I don't think that is fair. I wouldn't say the film takes any pleasure in showing us torture. The violence, while at first graphic, later subsides and takes a back seat to the plot. That is when the film becomes the most watchable.

"Untraceable" seems to want to set itself up as a cat and mouse game between the website designer and Marsh, but, the film isn't very suspenseful and for that matter, not scary either. Marsh's partner is Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks) who does little more than provide comic relief (and very little at that). It is such a bland, wasted character, I wish the screenwriters would have eliminated the character from their final draft. Many of the characters in this film are terribly underwritten. There is no growth or chemistry between anyone.

A detective is brought onto the case, Eric Box (Billy Burke) and in most other films, this would provide a love interest for Marsh, a widower with a daughter. Box knew her husband. What a coincidence! But the film doesn't provide us with a love story. Which in many ways I'm glad it doesn't. It avoids that cliche and supplies us with others instead.

What really drags "Untraceable" down is merely the routine nature of the film. It is heavily predictable and takes no chances to try something new. If it had least been suspenseful and kept me involved I may not have mind the film's familiarity but that doesn't happen.

Lane's performance is decent. One gets the feeling her presence brings more to the character than the writers originally intended. And she is the only character that really remains interesting to watch.

The Internet has provided Hollywood with lots of material to make thrillers. Cybercrime is a real and serious problem, whether it is identity thief or myspace stalkers, it needs to be addressed. Watching this film I was reminded of another film dealing with a deadly website. "Feardotcom" which starred Stephen Rea and Natascha McElhone (the beauty on Showtime's "Californication"). It was about a website which made people confront their fears. Most people hated that movie, but I really liked it. It was a good genre film which created some suspense. "Untraceable" could have taken a few lessons from it.

"Untraceable" is not even a made you can work up anger about. It didn't provoke strong feelings in me either way. It merely exist. It's not a terrible film, it is just boring.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

In Memory of Sydney Pollack


I was quite surprised how shocked I was at hearing of the recent death last night of filmmaker/actor/producer Sydney Pollack (1934 - 2008).

Now that he has passed away I cannot pretend he was one of my favorite directors around, he wasn't, but, by no means did I think of him as a hack Hollywood studio director. I actually liked him and found him to be a pretty good actor. No one is going to say he was Robert De Niro or Al Pacino but many times he was just as effective in his roles.

I think the first time I saw Sydney Pollack may have been in his 1982 comedy "Tootsie". The film was nominated for 10 Oscars and was named by AFI as one of the 100 Funniest Films of All Time. But it wasn't until I saw him act in Woody Allen's "Husbands & Wives" and Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" that I really considered myself a fan of his work.

I have not seen all of his films but Pollack was a filmmaker who consistently made entertaining, watchable films. He was one of those lucky people who enjoyed commercial success but also gained critical success as well. He didn't make a masterpiece every time, but that is okay. It is difficult to do that within the studio system.

The last film Pollack directed, that I saw, I actually didn't like very much. It was "The Interpreter" starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. It wasn't an unwatchable film but I found some of the character development weak and little chemistry between the two stars. But films such as "The Firm" and "Tootsie" are enjoyable to watch.

Pollack's acting impressed me more than his directing. Besides appear in Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick movies he was also in last year's highly acclaimed "Michael Clayton" playing George Clooney's boss. The film was on my "top ten" list for 2007. It would have been my choice for "best picture" of the films nominated. Pollack also served as a producer on the film. Other films Pollack was in include "Changing Lanes" "The Player" and "A Civil Action".

He also produced a great many films from the recent HBO film about the 2000 presidential election, "Recount" to "Cold Mountain", "The Quiet American" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley".
Here are some ratings of films Pollack either directed, acted in or produced:

"The Interpreter" (Dir./Prod/Act) ** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Sabrina" (Dir. /Prod) ** 1\2 (out of ****)

"The Firm" (Dir./ Prod) **** (out of ****)

"Tootsie" (Dir. Prod/ Act) *** (out of ****)

"Husbands & Wives" (Act) **** (out of ****)

"Eyes Wide Shut" (act) **** (out of ****)

"The Quiet American" (prod) **** (out of ****)

"Cold Mountain" (prod) *** (out of ****)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Film Review: The Mist

"The Mist" ** (out of ****)

There was a time you could look forward to Hollywood making film adaptations of Stephen King's novels. There have been a few chestnuts in the collection. Stanley Kubrick's "The Shinning", "Misery" and "The Shawshank Redemption". Sadly those days are gone. The latest King adaptations have been very disappointing. They are almost pointless to watch. I feel as if Stephen King is wasting my time.

"The Mist" takes us to a small east coast town where a turbulent storm has brought a strong mist to the area causing a group of people to be stuck in a supermarket. It is said there is something in the mist. Something violent.

The film soon pits the locals against one another. After being trapped in the store for days it becomes every man for himself. Deep resentments are brought up between the townspeople as we start to see people's true colors.

Of the people in the store we mostly follow David Drayton (Thomas Jane, who was in King's "Dreamcatcher" and "The Punisher") his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) the local religious crusader, Mrs. Carmody (Marica Gay Harden), the Drayton's neighbor, Brent (Andre Braugher), Amanda (Laurie Holden) who works at the local school and one of the store clerks, Ollie (Toby Jones, who gave a terrific performance in "Infamous" as Truman Capote, and since then has yet to match it).

This leads to one of the problems with "The Mist". I have have never before in recent memory seen a mainstream Hollywood film which was so strongly against religion. The film presents Mrs. Carmody as the villain. The townspeople conspire against her and want nothing to do with her religious message. It is Mrs. Carmody's opinion that the mist represents the end of the world and people should start praying to God. The townspeople reaction against her is so strong, that it actually turns violent.

Religion is actually a pretty important theme in "The Mist". What happens when people turn to religion to explain the unexplainable? According to this film, you get a group of idiots!

The second problem I have with this film is, to put bluntly, the lousy acting and weak screenplay. As the townspeople start to go against each other we hear bits and pieces of background information. For example. We find out Brent sued David and lost the case. Since then Brent has felt the locals have been against him ever since. What was the lawsuit about? Why was there even a lawsuit? Why would Brent feel people are conspiring against him? All very good questions which receive no answers. Now, one might want to say, Mr. Udvary, you are missing the point. Background stories dealing with these characters are not important. The argument between David and Brent was just "filler" dialogue. Words merely said to pass the time between killings. OK. But why those words? I'm someone who believes everything in a film has meaning. A director has a character wear a certain color for a reason. Films a shot at a certain angle for a reason. Has a character say certain words for a reason. Cinema is not a random art. People prepare to make sure every shot is perfect. Every actor in place. To supply us with "filler" dialogue which has no meaning is to waste our time.

As for the acting, Thomas Jane is not a hero. He does not possess leading man qualities. Again some may argue, that was the point. OK. But does that mean he also has to read his lines in a monotone voice without any feeling? And he's not the only one. Sometimes the actors seem like zombies. You feel as if you are watching outtakes instead of the final cut.

"The Mist" marks the third collaboration between director Frank Darabont and Stephen King. Together the two worked on "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile". "The Mist" is nowhere near the class of those films. Why Darabont would be attracted to this story is a mystery. Did he feel just because King wrote the novel the two would work magic again? When you keep going to the well, eventually you'll run out of water.

"The Mist" reminds me of a John Carpenter film, "The Fog". There too we had a film revolve around a small town as a fog sweeps over the town which also becomes violent. I hated the Carpenter film and the remake which followed. But I would rather watch that film over this movie any day.

It seems with "Dreamcatcher" and "1408" King is heavily getting into the supernatural genre. I have a problem with the way King approaches this. When you have a film where anything can happen you lose suspense. There are no guidelines for the viewer to follow so we can never clearly sense the characters are in danger because we know anything can and will happen and thus lead to their protection.

And this leads to the final compliant. How did this mist come to be? We are given a flimsy excuse, dealing with a military experiment gone wrong, but even with that explanation, I still couldn't figure out what was going on. Obviously the film is not so much about the mist as it is about what is inside of these characters. Perhaps a good film is lurking somewhere behind all of this but Darabont and King were the wrong people to tackle such a project.

Don't get me wrong. I like Darabont. He has a very interesting personal life story. He was born in France to Hungarian parents who were escaping communist Hungary. Darabont knows about inner turmoil. About saving graces. In many ways "The Shawshank Redemption" was such a story. "The Mist" isn't. I think it's time Stephen King calls it quits and Hollywood stops adapting his story. I for one, I'm done with King.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Film Review: The Way I Spent The End Of The World

"The Way I Spent The End Of The World" *** (out of ****)

The title "The Way I Spent The End Of The World" may make you think the film is about nuclear disaster or the apocalypse. But it is not actually about the end of the world. It is about the end of an era. The "world" represented in the film is Ceausecu's regime. The film is about the end of communism in Romania.

Romania is going through an exciting time in cinema. The country has been experiencing a world wide interest thanks to films such as "12:08 East of Bucharest", "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" and last year's palme d'or winner at Cannes, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days".

"The Way I Spent The End Of The World (Cum mi-am petrecut sfarsitul lumii)" is not as confrontational as these other films but it does show us how life was before the end of the regime and the resentment people had towards Ceausecu.

The film follows Eva Matei (Doroteea Petre, in only her second film role) as a high school student who gets expelled after she and her boyfriend, Alex (Ionut Becheru), whose father has strong communist ties, accidentally knock down a statue of Ceausecu. This is treated almost as a crime against the state. All of her fellow students, including Alex, go against her, forcing her to drop out of the young Ceausecu communist league.

When attending a new school, one designed for students who have been expelled from previous schools and have shown disobedience towards the state, she meets Andrei (Cristian Vararu). The two plan to kill Ceausecu. Even her younger brother, Lalalilu (Timotei Duma) along with his friends devise their own plan to kill the dictator.

Clearly a film such as this could never have been made during Ceausecu's regime. Given the end of communism in Romania artist now clearly have more freedom to express ideas and talk about life under communism. The film isn't terribly harsh but does offer subtle ways to show non-Romanians what life was like under the time. In "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" we get a better understanding of the times. This is what stops me from throwing too much praise at the film. It is not the strongest of the films part of Romania's new wave.

The film was directed by Catalin Mitulescu. He has directed a few short films but this is his debut feature lenght film. He clearly has talent and it will be interesting to see if any more of his films find distribution in America. I would be very much interested to see more of his work.

Doroteea Petre is also someone worth pointing out. It is simply amazing how talented many of these young Romanian actresses are. I was so impressed by the simplicity of her performances. She has no film acting experience to speak of, appearing only in the film "Rya" and now this. I said the same thing about to the two performances in "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days". For Petre's performance here she won a acting prize at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2006.

While "The Way I Spent The End Of The World" is not as strong as some of the other Romanian films we have been lucky enough to see here, it is a kinder, gentler film which should not go on without an audience. Even if you only see it for Petre's performance.

Top Ten Films Of 2004!

As you can tell by now, I like to make "top ten" list from the previous years before I started writing this blog. Now we are up to 2004. This was the year cinema really started to turn around. Films became more political but they also took some daring risks. A lot of controversial films were released this year and many of them are on my list. So here are the ten best films of 2004!

1. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (Dir. Mel Gibson; U.S.) - Perhaps the most controversial film of the year! Called by many an anti-Semitic piece of work (and later rantings by Gibson did not help him) the film was still one which managed to touch me on a profound and personal level. Was it anti-Semitic? My feelings at the time and now remain the same. People saw what they wanted to see.


2. FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (Dir. Michael Moore; U.S.) - In an attempt to influence the 2004 presidential election Michael Moore released what has become the most profitable documentary of all time! It didn't help change the election results but I found the film fascinating. And this says nothing about my own political beliefs.


3. HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (Dir. Zhang Yimou; China/Hong Kong) - Coming off the success of "Hero" Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers" is in some way a better film. It relies more upon the drama of the characters. I tried to make a similar point in my review for Yimou's "Curse of the Golden Flower". These are films which are visually beautiful but told with a lot sentiment and human involvement.


4. THE DREAMERS (Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci; France) - One of the first meaningful films Bertolucci has made in a long, long time. Probably since "The Last Emperor". Caused a bit of a controversial due to its NC-17 rating. But the film was not a porno. It had some of the most beautiful cinematography I can think of, of all the films released in 2004.


5. STRAYED (Dir. Andre Techine; France) - This WW2 story never found an audience. Too bad. Techine is one of the few modern directors around I like to pay attention to. Emmanuelle Beart gives one of her best performances.


6. THE AVIATOR (Dir. Martin Scorsese; U.S.) - Made back in the days when Scorsese couldn't win an Oscar "The Aviator" tells the story of Howard Hughes. It is a big epic kind of storytelling which most don't associate with Scorsese but he and Di Caprio pull it off quite effectively. This should have beaten "Million Dollar Baby" for the Oscar!


7. BAD EDUCATION (Dir. Pedro Almodvar; Spain) - Here was another film which received a NC-17 rating and caused some controversy, it deals which the Catholic church and young boys. I say no more. But Amodvar has made a modern noir classic. All that's missing is Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.


8. KINSEY (Dir. Bill Condon; U.S.) - Liam Neeson plays sex educator Alfred Kinsey is this bio-pic which has something to say about sex education in America and some of the ignorance surrounding the subject.


9. DOGVILLE (Dir. Lars von Trier; Denmark) - Here was a film that got bashed in every direction being called "anti-American". The film was an absolute masterpiece with Nicole Kidman giving one of the greatest performances. This was a start of a trilogy dealing with American history. Trier's next film in the series "Manderlay" didn't quite live up to what this film accomplished. Hopefully audiences will give the film a second chance.


10. SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER AND SPRING (Dir. Kim Di-duk; South Korea) - A smaller film which also didn't get much attention the film was still one filled with hidden truths. Bit of a departure for Di-duk who is known for making more violent films.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Film Review: Curse of the Golden Flower


"Curse of the Golden Flower" **** (out of ****)

"Curse of the Golden Flower" is the first of Zhang Yimou's martial art films to center completely on the plot. Read the reviews of Yimou's previous films "House of Flying Daggers" and "Hero". All the critics seemed to talk about were the film's visuals. And while they were certainly impressive little attention was paid to the film's plot. It is for that reason I think "Curse of the Golden Flower" may actually be the better of the three films.

Many viewers first became aware of Zhang Yimou back in 2004 when his film "Hero" was released, but for those of us who have followed this talented director's career we know him as something different. Yimou first started his career making period pieces. Films such as "To Live", "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Shanghai Triad". It has only been recently he has turned to martial art films. And these films have been his biggest money makers in the U.S.

But in "Curse of the Golden Flower" we are taken back to the Tang Dynasty. The year is 928. We are about to witness the downfall of a culture and a civilization. "Curse of the Golden Flower" is a film with a lot of family secrets. There is layer upon layer of family deception and greed. That makes it somewhat hard to describe the plot. How much does one reveal?

Empress Phoenix (Gong Li) has been having an affair with the Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), the Emperor's (Chow Yun-Fat) oldest wife by his first wife. He wants to end the affair as he has fallen for another. A servant, Chan (Li Man). Meanwhile the Empress has been taken medicine, for the past 10 years by the Emperor's orders. It is revealed for the last 10 years black fungus has been added to her medicine. If taken long enough it will cause her to lose her mind. This leads the Empress to want her oldest son Prince Jai to form a rebellion against the Emperor after she reveals what he has been doing to her. But there is a younger son, Prince Yu (Qin Junjie) who feels he has been over-looked.

The story is ripe for Shakespeare in the way it deals with this material. I'm almost reminded of the film "Lion in Winter" with Peter O' Toole and Katherine Hepburn. Another film about sons rivaling for the father's power while under the thumb of their mother.

And despite my earlier claim, one must admit the visuals in "Curse of the Golden Flower" are stunningly beautiful. Yimou and his cinematographer's lavish use of colors are pure eye candy of the highest order. But unlike some of Yimou's previous films this film's visuals do not distract us from the film's plot.

"Curse of the Golden Flower" was nominated for one Oscar "best costume design" unfortunately the film didn't get more nominations. This was one of my favorite films in 2006, actually second behind "United 93". While it may not be Yimou's best film, it still manages to put on one heck of a good show.

Film Review: The Departed

"The Departed" **** (out of ****)

One of the legitimate reasons film lovers had to criticize the importance of the Academy of Arts & Sciences was their refusal to give Martin Scorsese a "best director" Oscar. He didn't need it to prove anything, the public already acknowledged him as one of the greatest living directors, we were just waiting for the Oscars to acknowledge it as well. Well, there goes that!

"The Departed" is a remake of one of the most successful Hong Kong films in years entitled "Infernal Affairs". But Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan make what could be described as a typical Scorsese film. Even though Scorsese is working with someone else's source material, he makes "The Departed" his own. What other American director could you imagine directing this film?

The film follows two Massachusetts State Police officers; Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). Neither is what they appear to be. Sullivan is seen as a model cop. He is rapidly promoted and sent to work on a criminal case involving mafia boss Costello (Jack Nicholson). The twist is, Sullivan and Costello are old friends. Sullivan has been under the thumb of Costello since a child.

Billy Costigan on the other hand comes from a family and thieves and criminals. He is trying to better himself by becoming a cop. But he is told by two superior officers, Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) given his family history and his own, he's been in jail, he is not police material. Instead they have an offer for him. Work undercover, trying to get inside Costello's ring and try to find out who Costello's police contact is.

"The Departed" now becomes a story dealing with one of Scorsese's favorite themes; loyalty. Especially childhood loyalty. Could Sullivan ever turn his back on a man who was like a father figure to him? Can he turn his back on the oath he took with the Massachusetts State Police?

Sadly when this film was made Scorsese was getting a lot of uncalled for flack for his two previous films; "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator". Both were great films and did not deserve to the bashed. Many of the pretentious film critics out there felt Scorsese was making Oscar bait films. His sole intention was to make epic films only so he could finally win a "best director" Oscar. I personally don't buy that, but, it is probably what lead him to direct this film. "The Departed" takes Scorsese back to those gritty mean streets he seems to know all too well.

Nearly every performance here is pitch perfect. Every actor and actress does a wonderful job fleshing out their character but, for me one person stands slightly above the others; Jack Nicholson. Easily one of our greatest actors in a league with Robert De Nero, Al Pacino and Gene Hackman, Nicholson relishes the role. Some may argue Nicholson is milking scenes but rarely has an actor enjoyed playing a villain more. Nicholson approaches the role with the same energy he did playing the Joker in Tim Burton's "Batman".

DiCaprio I'm happy to say has surprised me in his career. After "Titantic" I thought he was someone who merely got by on his looks and 12 year old girls. But, no. The kid can act. "The Departed" marks DiCaprio's third collaboration with Scorsese. With a fourth reportedly on the way. "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" with DiCaprio in the lead. I must admit I'm getting a little tired of seeing DiCaprio in Scorsese film after film but, he lives up to the challenge every time.

And just so you don't think it's an all boys club, Scorsese does throw in a female touch. Madolyn (Vera Farmiga) a psyichiartist who is dating Sullivan and treats Costigan. She is very effective in her role questioning everything around her and serves as a bridge between the two male leads.

"The Departed" brought a lot of praise Scorsese's way, winning various awards including a National Board of Review and Golden Globe award for his directing. And of course the Oscar. Which I guess just goes to show you, the Oscar's can't always screw up.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Film Review: Exterminating Angels

"Exterminating Angels" ** (out of ****)

"Exterminating Angels" the latest film from French filmmaker Jean-Claude Brisseau is a film which may push a lot of social buttons. It reminds me of the work of another French director, Catherine Breillat in the way this film tries to explore female sexuality.

Brisseau's film is clearly not for everyone. Even the film's poster may turn off some viewers. All you have to do is look at it and many people will instantly make up their minds whether or not they want to see such a film. They may be well advised to pass it up.

The film follows Francois (Frederic van den Driessche) a director who decides to make a film about female sexuality and breaking socially accepted sexual taboos.

In order to make such a film Francois is going to have to interview several woman and tape them as they confess their deepest darkest desires and pleasure themselves in front of him. But it is understood he will not touch them. After all, he's only the director.

At this point the film largely consist of Francois meeting with beautiful women and watching them please themselves. All the while, Francois goes into what he considers profound questions trying to understand female sexuality and what arouses them.

Of all the women he "interviews" he finally decides upon three; Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil), Julie (Lise Bellynck) and Stephanie (Marie Allan). All of them tell Francois they have never experienced such pleasure in their life and find themselves attracted to the idea of him watching them. Some even claim to have fallen in love with him.

For one reason or another the idea of exploring sex in philosophical, analytical terms has always seemed to attract French filmmakers and thinkers. But in doing so, they merely become pretentious bores themselves. The way they phrase the question and how they go about exploring the issue is wrong. Can an intelligent film be made about sex and how the sexes view it? Of course, I have no doubt about it. But the work of Breillat and to a larger extent "Exterminating Angels" seem more like porn than art.

The difference between Breillat, who has directed such films as "Anatomy of Hell" and "Sex Is Comedy" and Brisseau is Breillat doesn't seem to want to arouse us. "Exterminating Angels" seems to exploit the issue. It relies so heavily on female nudity and graphic sex scenes that the viewer simply becomes distracted from any greater social point the director may be trying to make.

Some have claimed the film is auto-biographical, though the director denies that claim. While filming his last film "Secret Things" two actresses involved in that film filed charges against Brisseau as they claimed misappropriate events occurred during auditions and as a result harassment charges were lead against Brisseau. Could this film be his way of vindicating the matter? Is this his version of what happened? Does it matter?

"Exterminating Angels" is the kind of film where a man asks two women to take off their clothes and make love to each while he watches. He calls it art. I call it a very good date. You decide.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Film Review: Starting Out In The Evening

"Starting Out In The Evening" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Andrew Wagner's "Starting Out In The Evening" is one of those films you feel you should like. You almost feel a certain amount of pressure to force yourself to like it. But in the end, the film simply doesn't live up to the ideas presented.

"Starting Out In The Evening" stars Frank Langella as Leonard Schiller. A 70-ish writer who wrote four novels which are currently out of print. He was once part of the in-crowd in the literary world, now is he but a faint memory. Hardly read anymore, especially by a younger generation an offer comes his way. A young college student, Heather (Lauren Ambrose) wants to write her college thesis on him. She hopes it will rejuvenate his career in the process and introduce his work to a new generation. Leonard reluctantly agrees.

Leonard Schiller is an old-fashion man. He always dresses conservatively, he even wears a tie when sitting at his desk writing. To have a young woman follow him around asking him question will be both a disturbance and a distraction. For the last ten years Leonard has been trying to finish his fifth novel, which, given his age and health, Leonard knows will be his last.

Heather is a bit of an opposite. A young, ambitious, brash woman who despite her college education, hasn't learned the meaning of the word "no". She's like one of those guest at a party who just won't leave, at least not until she gets what she wants first. We sense Heather is up to more than she lets on. She seems to be wearing a poker face which Leonard either can't read or is simply willing to go along for the ride.

Leonard also has a daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor) who at 40 years old feels her biological clock tick, tick, ticking away. She is not married and sees no prospects on the horizon except for an ex, Casey (Adrian Lester) who told her he didn't want any children, causing a very bad break-up which lead Ariel in a year long depression.

And so one of the themes of "Starting Out In The Evening" is revealed. Time. Leonard makes much of his age and dying. He repeatedly says time is running out for him. He needs to finish his novel. His age is countered by Heather's youth and what seems to be an attraction to older, intellectual men. Then there is Ariel who feels she is running out of time to conceive a child and Casey whose time acting selfish is running out.

All of this sounds quite interesting. And the performances are wonderful. There was much buzz about Langella receiving an Oscar nomination. He is terribly convincing as a lonely, forgotten writer facing death. No other actor could have played this part with his subtle nature. I have a feeling he fleshed the character out more so than was written on the page. And Ambrose for the first time in her career, which started getting attention in the teen comedy "Can't Hardly Wait", proves she may be one of those actresses who sticks around for a while.

But "Starting Out In The Evening" fails ultimately because the film, like a novel, is about words and ideas. That is fine by me, but, you see, cinema is a visual medium. Nearly nothing cinematically gets the film's themes across. Everything is said by word. The film presents ideas about the writer and his process but never presented them in a way I found interesting. I never cared about these people. While the performances are good, at times they seemed cliche. The young girl attracted to the older man. The older man attracted to the young woman in the hopes it will bring back some sense of youth. Kind of like the professor and the student relationship. It becomes a little to self-important for me.

Though my opinion is in the minority. Several critics, some whom I greatly admire, gushed beautiful praises at the film. Roger Ebert gave the movie four stars. A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote a favorable review and Stephen Holden also of the Times, placed the film on his year end, top ten list. I think the reason these men did this is because they can probably relate more closely to this character than I. These men, and really most professional critics, are middle-aged men. They carry a self-importance attitude. They think they are intellectuals. They probably see themselves in this man. And that's fine. But they are bringing something to the table which may not have been there to begin with. They are adding a narrative which I don't think exist. They are placing their hopes and dreams into this character and using it as a mirror. In which case, we can say any movie is great. How could one fail when we add to the story filling the plot cracks?

"Starting Out In The Evening" is not a bad film. It is not a waste of time. But, given what the film seems to want to accomplish it is a bit of a letdown. The viewer has to add to much of their self to make the film work. Movies shouldn't be so much work. They should just enter inside of us with no effort or resistance.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Superheroes Rescue Hollywood!

The recent release of the new superhero, comic book movie "Iron Man" (one seems to be released every month) and its box-office success has lead me to continue asking the question, why? Why does Hollywood repeatedly make these movies and why does the public repeatedly flock to see them?

To answer why Hollywood continues to make these movies, I feel the answer is simply. It deals purely with economics. The films make money. No one ever accussed Hollwyood of being tactful. If they can milk an idea dry and drain it for all the money it is worth, they will. But, why in 2002, starting with "Spider-Man" did they genre take off?

There had of course been comic book adaptations before. The best known were probably the "Batman" series in the late 80s and into the 90s. But those films didn't seem to cause a wave of comic book adaptations. Christopher Reeves in the "Superman" films, while causing a series, never inspired other adaptations in such rapid succession.

Since "Spider-Man" opened the film launched two more sequels, with talks of more on the way and a host of other superheroes. So far we have seen "Daredevil", "The Punisher", "Fantastic Four" and its sequel, "X-Men" and its sequel, "The Hulk" (and with a new one coming out in order to restart the series), a new "Batman" series (with a new one being released this year!) and the start of a new "Superman" series. And with the success of "Iron Man", talks have already started for a sequel.

So what about our current times are leading people to want to see superheroes? Cinema is a reflection of our society. Hollywood will give the public what they want, and for some reason the public wants superhero movies. Could this be part of a deeper commentary on the world? Has what appears to be an endless war in Iraq and the threat of terrorism caused such fear in people that the idea of a super being or group of super beings, protecting us seems comforting?

Maybe it sounds like a far fetching idea, but, we shouldn't merely brush aside the idea. If people have a thirst for these type of movies, it must stand a reason. I don't accept the notion they are merely "fun to watch". If they are "fun to watch" why did the trend only occur now?

But this trend also comments on Hollywood's current state of being. It is running out of ideas. Yes, of course original films are still being made, but, Hollywood is desperately looking for sure fired hits. Films which can be easily marketed and sold to the public with a built-in fan base. Comic books seem to be their answer. Hollywood, at least as far as the big picture studios go, have lost creativity. They no longer want to reinvent the wheel but simply duplicate it over and over again.

And this leads me to my problem with comic book movies. They are bad! I have yet to see one I enjoy. Because the films are marketed towards a very specific audience who understands the product an outsider simply gets lost. When I watch these movies I have no clue with is going on and for the life of me I cannot figure out what is the appeal? All the films seem brain dead. They are little more than eye candy, and not even good eye candy. But I'm not the audience for these films. I'm not who Hollywood is trying to appeal to. Maybe I just don't understand the need people have for seeing a man wearing a cape.

Here are my ratings for the few superhero movies I have seen:

"Spider-Man" * 1\2 (out of ****)

"Spider Man 2" * (out of ****)

"Daredevil" * (out of ****)

"X-Men" * 1\2 (out of ****)

"X-2" * (out of ****)

"The Hulk" ** (out of ****)

"Batman" ** (out of ****)

"Batman Returns" * 1\2 (out of ****)

"Batman Forever" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Batman & Robin" * (out of ****)

Film Review: Iron Man

"Iron Man" ** (out of ****)

I walk into any superhero, comic book movie with a disadvantage. I don't like comic book movies and I don't know who these characters are. I don't understand their origins. So when many comic book fans praised the "X-Men" movies I sat in bewilderment. I didn't understand what I was watching. It was an illogical mess to me. I've usually made the correct choice and have stayed away from these type of movies after being largely disappointed by them. After watching the first two "Spider Man" films, "The Hulk", "Daredevil" and the "X-Men" films, I had decided to save my money and time.

But all of that changed with "Iron Man". The film opened to mostly good reviews, good box-office (currently it is number one) and generally good word of mouth. I was conflicted whether or not to see this film.

"Iron Man" in the end, gets one thing right. It takes its time setting up who "Iron Man" is and what lead him to become who he is. One of the problems a film such as this faces with me is, if I don't understand who these superheroes are, I get lost in the story. But "Iron Man" does such a good job explaining the story behind "Iron Man" that it forgets to be exciting and supply us with action scenes.

"Iron Man"s identity is Tony Starks (Robert Downery Jr.) a war profiteer, who after being captured by a terrorist group, learns the error of his ways. The very weapons Stark created to defeat terrorist, were the ones used to hold him hostage. The terrorist want Starks to create a missile for them which Starks has created for the U.S. military. After three months, Starks builds a suit of armor which will set him free. Or so he hopes. Thus is the emergence of Iron Man.

When Starks returns home he decides his company will no longer build military weapons. Which causes his partner, Obadian Stane (Jeff Bridges) much alarm. What will this mean for the company, let alone stock prices? A weapons company which doesn't make weapons. Iron Man is going to destroy the very weapons he created in order to make the world safe.

This premise takes roughly over an hour to set up. This film's running time is two hours. There is too much set up and not enough pay off.

The cast however surprisingly does an admirable job. But Robert Downey Jr. probably comes out looking best. A majority of the film rest upon his shoulders. Jeff Bridges on the other hand seemed a little stiff. His performance may be the most wooden from the entire cast. Perhaps while filming the movie he began to realize what exactly he had gotten himself into. There didn't seem to be much he could do to make the part memorable. But Gwyneth Paltrow, as a sort of "his girl friday", a loyal secretary, Pepper Potts, does come out looking better, doing the best she can to leave a lasting impression. Both characters sadly though are simply underdeveloped.

The film was directed by Jon Favreau, who seems to be heading towards the direction of becoming a director instead of an actor. Some of his credits include "Elf" and "Made". This film bears more in common with "Elf" being it is a film which will largely appeal to the same age group. My guess being the 10 and over crowd.

I am admittedly a little tired of Hollywood adapting these comic books into movies. Why can't people in Hollywood make better films? What started this trend for comic books? But, as much as I may dislike this new genre I must admit "Iron Man" was a step in the right direction. It may be the best superhero movie I've seen. Giving my past criticism, that may not be much of a compliment, since it wasn't a high bar to reach. But if screenwriters and producers can learn from this film and build upon it, who knows, maybe one day they will make a good superhero movie.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Film Review: The Savages

"The Savages"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) is a 39 year old woman, having an affair with a married man, Larry (Peter Friedman). She is an aspiring writer who has been trying to receive a grant so she can produce her play, a semi-autobiography on her childhood. Wendy is also a self-absorbed woman always looking to be the victim and have others feel pity for her.

When we first meet her she has just learned the results of a test from a recent doctor visit. Everything has come back positive but she tells her lover it may lead to cancer, so he can comfort her. When they make love she just lays there.

Her brother is Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman). A drama professor who is also self-absorbed. He is in love with a Polish immigrant whom he has been seeing for three years. Her visa has been denied. She will have to leave the country unless she gets married. Jon, 42, does not want to rush into marriage. Even if it means keeping his girlfriend in the country. So, he drives her to the airport.

"The Savages" tells the story how these two people have to learn to take responsibility and deal with their actions. When their abusive father,Lenny (Philip Bosco), whom they have been out of contact with for years, suddenly starts to show signs of dementia it is determined he can no longer be left alone. So Wendy and Jon must try to reconnect with their father and take care of him. When Jon first hears of his father's condition in the middle of the night, he ask if he can call back later the next day. He has an early class tomorrow. He's too busy to hear about his father's health.

While the family name may be "savage" it also refers to the emotional relationship the family has had with each other. Heartless and ruthless. Non caring.

In the beginning moments of "The Savages" I was afraid the film was going to be too cynical. If a film is going to revolve around heartless, cold characters it will become difficult for the film to sustain an audience's attention. Who really wants to watch a film about people you don't like and feel no sympathy for?

But the film is able to toll that fine line between creating characters who are cold to the core but give them heart. The events dealing with their father begin to change them. The relationship between the brother and sister becomes stronger as they learn to deal with problems instead of running away from them.

The film does follow the cliche that a woman is more sensitive and caring since it is in Wendy we see the biggest change. She is the one who immediately changes heart towards her father. When Jon suggest putting him in a nursing home Wendy resist. She cannot accept the fact her father's health is so bad he needs constant attention. She cannot accept how fast the dementia has set in.

The film was written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. To her credit she is able to make a film about serious subjects and find humor in them. "The Savages" is actually a bit of a black comedy. One funny scene deals with "movie night" at the nursing home. Each resident is allowed to pick a movie on a particular night. Lenny selects an Al Jolson film. We see Jolson apply "black face" and at that very moment Wendy turns around and notices a black family sitting behind her, offended by the movie. She and Jon slouch down in their seats.

Philip Seymour Hoffman had quite a good year in 2007 appearing in three acclaimed films. He was nominated for "best supporting actor" for his work in Mike Nichols' "Charlie Wilson's War", which I reviewed and found somewhat over-rated. He was also in Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead", which was my favorite performance of the year. His performance in "The Savages" bears some resemblance to his work in the Lumet film. He is a desperate man. A man who wants to "feel" and enjoy life but had too many scars from the past to do so. He doesn't want to hurt anyone and doesn't want to get hurt.

You could say the same about Laura Linney. One of my favorite modern actresses. She too appeared in a family about a family coming to terms with itself, "The Squid and the Whale". Linney plays Wendy as a woman who makes one bad mistake after another just so she can face disappointment. Why else have an affair with a married man? Constantly lie? And always want to be the victim?

"The Savages" was nominated for two Oscars. One for best actress and best screenplay. From what was nominated at the show perhaps Linney did give the best performance and was wrongly overlooked. Then again, what's new?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Film Review: Edes Anna

"Edes Anna" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

As you can probably tell I've been reviewing a lot of Hungarian movies lately. For one reason or another I have been watching many films from Hungary lately. This trend will not last long, so please bear with me. In the end though, perhaps you have not heard of these films and are learning about something new. Secondly, as for my decision not to include this in my "masterpiece film series". The film does offer a classic performance given by Mari Toricsik but I would not say overall the film is a "masterpiece" in the same vein another recently reviewed Zoltan Fabri film was, "Korhinta". Just because I will review older titles now and then does not mean they are all classics.

"Edes Anna" as I have already stated was directed by Zoltan Fabri and was his follow up collaboration with "Korhinta (The Merry-Go-Round)" star Mari Torocsik. Here the two play with the image which was created for Torocsik in that previous film. In "Korhinta" Mari's character was a sweet, innocent girl deeply in love with a man her father would not let her marry for political reasons. In "Edes Anna" Torocsik continues to play the innocent girl but with more distrubing results.

The film takes us back to 1919. World War One has ended as the dominate powers (Communinst) have lost power. In many ways the film is about class warfare. Now that the communist have lost power the bourgeoisie have regained power. We see this clearly in the Vizy household. Mr. & Mrs. Vizy (Karoly Kovacs and Maria Mezei) have employed several peasant servants who happened to be communist. But now with the war over communist are shunned. Many are rounded up and shot. Knowing this one of their employees, Ficsor (Bela Barsi) tries to get into their good graces by recommending a new maid since the couple is having trouble with the current one. He recommends his god-daughter, Edes Anna (Torocsik).

At first Anna does not want to work in the Vizy household she enjoys her current job working for another family, watching their son. But, since Ficsor fears being outed as a communist, forces the girl to leave.

Very soon the Vizy's comes to like Anna. She is quite, hard working and provides no problems of any kind for the family. Still though, they feel they have a slight edge over her since she is a peasant. In one scene a dinner party is given as we hear the guest discuss servants. Mrs. Vizy takes great pride in showing off Anna, as something like a trophy. But soon we hear the guest criticize the working class. One guest even goes as far as saying he does not believe in equality concerning the classes. "Servants are different. Their souls and stomachs are different" he declares. Within this scene we can clearly see the bourgeoisie attitude.

But "Edes Anna" soon becomes something more. One day the Vizy's nephew, Jancsi (Zsigmond Fulop) returns home from the war. Anna seems immediately struck by him and he does not treat her the same way others of his class do. Unfortunately Jancsi gets Anna pregnant and because of the difference of social rank he decides it would be best for him if Anna aborts the child. After which he begins to shut her out of his life.

It is after this the film begins to take a sharp turn. It veers away from being a story about social class and turns into a story about young love and a young woman's desire to be a mother.

"Edes Anna" resembles the work of Claude Chabrol in some ways. We are dealing with family secrets of the rich (a young man getting his maid pregnant) and exposing them for how ugly they really are. We are seeing underneath the surface. Plus, as in most Chabrol films, events turn deadly. But "Edes Anna" was released in 1958 a year before Chabrol's first film and the start of the French New Wave, "Le Beau Serge".

The film also takes on some hidden political meaning. When "Korhinta" was released it was in 1956, but released months before the uprising in October. Now with those events behind them "Edes Anna" comments on regime changes and the effects it brings on social class. One of the ideas behind communism was equality between the classes. All men are equal. Which is why at the dinner party we hear one of the bourgeoisie guest says he does not believe in equality between the classes.

Like "Korhinta" Fabri seems to fall on the side of the workers. We have sympathy for Anna. We see how hard life is for her and the way she is disregarded. Especially after her abortion. Fabri seems to be a director of the workers.

"Edes Anna" was based on a novel written by Dezso Kosztolanyi and adapted by Fabri and Peter Bacso. Bacso would later become a well known filmmaker himself, directing "A Tanu (The Witness)" a comedy masterpiece showing life under communist rule. He also wrote Karoly Makk's masterpiece about life under communism "Szerelem (Love)". The film was also nominated for a palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: Korhinta

"Korhinta" **** (out of ****)

"Korhinta" is one of those great films people always talk about but few have actually seen. Its significance in Hungarian cinema is considerable. It was released during a time many Western countries either had a negative view of Hungary or a limited one. "Korhinta", when released in America in 1958, put Hungary on the cinematic map.

The film was directed by Zoltan Fabri. At one time considered one of the great Hungarian directors. A key figure in the Hungarian New Wave of cinema, but, his success would not last long. Once the 1950s came to an end an emergence of younger Hungarian filmmakers erupted. Americans may not recognize the name Fabri but I'd be willing to bet they have heard the names Istvan Szabo, Miklos Jancso and Karoly Makk.

On the surface "Korhinta (Merry-Go-Round)" is really a love story between two peasants, the beautiful Mari (played by Mari Torocsik, in her film debut) and Mate (Imre Soos). But what's underneath the surface is a story of government propaganda. It is a film which makes the case for collective farming. How no man should be able to take care of his own land. It needs to be divided. This adds a bit of a socialist/communist slant to the film, which is understandable since the film was made during the time Hungary was under the control of the Soviet Union. What makes this message odd though is the film was released in Hungary in 1956. The year ended with an uprising in October against the Soviets.

While the politics of the film may seem more interesting to some to discuss lets keep our attention on the love story instead and treat the film as such.

Fabri uses the concept of the "merry-go-round" as a symbol of innocence and youth. When we first see the two lovers ride together they smile and kiss. They have no problems or concerns at that moment but once the ride ends reality must set in. Mari's father, Istvan (Bela Barsi) does not want Mari to associate with the "co-operative" since Istvan has left the group so he alone can attend to his own land. Mate is still a member. Instead Istvan would like his daughter to marry Sandor (Adam Szirtes), who has joined Istvan in leaving the "co-operative".

Events come to a dramatic climax at a celebration, a wedding. Mate has been drinking and seeing Sandor and Mari dance fuels him with jealousy. He asks for a dance and soon scandal starts. The couple are the only two on the dance floor as the band plays on. Everyone just stares at them, while the couple dance in a circle. Like the earlier scene with the "merry-go-round" the camera spins in a circle itself creating chaos. But this circle is no longer one of joy and happiness. Tension, anxiety and sexuality fill the air. Mari is now not only bringing shame to herself but to her family. Mate grabs her tightly and stares at her intensely. It is no longer the happy smiles from before. Now they seem to be in a vicious circle. What was once innocent no longer is so. Fabri then visually makes the connection by cutting to the earlier scene on the amusement park ride and cutting back to the wedding dance.

One of the things which struck at first watching this film was Torocsik's performance. I had never seen much of her earlier work. Only her films in the seventies. At that point, while still attractive, no longer had the beauty others once raved about. Now I see what they meant. She was a beauty. She had a face as pure and innocent as one I have ever seen. Besides her beauty she could also act. While the character doesn't go through much of an emotional range Torocsik still brings us into her character and makes it more than a cliche. When Fabri and Torocsik would work again, two year later, on "Edes Anna" we would see a more complex interpretation of an innocent girl.

Imre Soos on the other hand would not have a lasting impact on cinema. For the times he was well known but sadly this would be his last performance. He committed suicide the following year bringing about an end to what appeared to be a very promising career.

It is hard to find information on the Internet concerning the film. I did however come across a review from the New York Times which bashed the film saying it is nothing fresh. But despite a negative review from the Times the film was nominated for a palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956 and would be considered by many as Fabri's greatest work. It will always have a place in cinema as one of its masterpieces.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: Szegenylegenyek

"Szegenylegenyek (The Round Up)" **** (out of ****)

Miklos Jancso's "Szegenylegenyek (The Round Up)" tells the story of the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution in which Hungary tried to break ties with Austria. One of the heroes of the failed revolution was Lajos Kossuth. Since the Austrians have regained control of the territory, largely thanks to the Soviets, Kossuth has disappeared, but, his soldiers are still loyal to him and sympathetic to the cause. Various guerrilla leaders have continued attacks against the Austrians which has resulted in all known Kossuth supporters to be "rounded up" in an attempt to find the names of these leaders.

"Szegenylegenyek" marks the beginning of a trilogy of films dealing with Hungarian history just before the start of the 20th century. The films include "Csillangosok, katonak (The Red and the White)" and "Csend es kialtas (Silence and Cry)". The most significant of the three, or at least the best known among them, might be "Csillangosok, katonak".

This film however is a bit different from "Csillangosok, katonak". Unlike the other films in the trilogy "Szegenylegenyek" seems to have established characters, there are close-ups and audience involvement.

Jancso's films are usually told from an outsider's perspective looking in. His camera usually keeps a distance between the viewer and the characters. We rarely, if ever, see an event from the point of view of one of the characters. Many times we don't even know their names.

But with this film Jancso gives us a character whom we begin to follow. A murderer, Janos Gajdar (Janos Gorbe), who is about to be executed unless he can find another prisoner who has killed more men then him. This puts Janos in the position of having to go against his fellow soldiers and countrymen. But he seems all too willing to comply.

Jancso treats the prison yard as a place where not only danger from the Austrians lurk everywhere but danger from your countrymen. Everyone is ready to double-cross the other in an attempt to survive. The Austrians pit Hungarian against Hungarian so they lose sight of who the true enemy is.

"Szegenylegenyek" was released in 1966, ten years after the Hungarian Uprising. Many have accused Jancso of using historical events of the past to make a social commentary on Hungary's current situation (at least at the time) dealing with the revolt and Soviet occupation. If this is true the connection would be how outside forces (the Austrians, Soviets) tried to dominate Hungarians and pit them against each other. It shows betrayal as an act of survival in times of war and the will of the oppressed to be free.

After the failed revolution in 1956 many Hungarians were blackmailed into working for the Communist. One of the most notable might be fellow filmmaker, Istvan Szabo. So the idea of betrayal and deception was common during this period. Outside forces would try to blur the lines of who your enemies really were.

The film was written by Gyula Hernadi, who worked with Jancso before on "Csillagosok, katonak" and "Szerelem, Elektra (Electra, My Love)". He also worked with Jancso's wife, perhaps the most prominent female Hungarian filmmaker, Marta Meszaros, on her film "Orokbefogadas (Adoption)".

As a historical look inside Hungary's history and a social and political commentary on modern Hungary "Szegenylegenyek" proves to be one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Film Review: Charlie Wilson's War

"Charlie Wilson's War"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

Before watching Mike Nichols' "Charlie Wilson's War" I thought it was going to be a biting political satire aimed at exposing pointless bureaucracy, corrupt politicians and needless wars. While there are some elements of that in Aaron Sorkin's (creator of TV's "The West Wing") script, ultimately the film becomes too gentle and loses some of its nerve thus not making the strong political points it wanted to.

The script was inspired by the book "Charlie Wilson's War:The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History" written by George Crile, based on supposedly actual events. There actually is a Charlie Wilson, a Texas congressman who helped end the Cold War by making sure the CIA aided the people of Afghanistan fight off the Soviet Union.

Charlie Wilson, as played by Tom Hanks, may not seem like the likely hero. He drinks too much, takes drugs and mixes company with Playboy models and strippers. Yet, despite his unprofessional behavior, he seems to understand issues and the way government works. He truly wants to do good and bring about an end to the Cold War. Which leads one to wonder, how could a man lead such a self-destructive lifestyle and still be knowledgeable about facts?

Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman co-star as a wealthy right-wing Texas socialite , specifically the 6th wealthiest woman in Texas and Hoffman as a CIA agent with a bit of a temper problem.

It seems since winning her Oscar Julia Roberts has yet to do any work of real substance. Her best role since winning the Oscar 7 years ago for her performance in "Erin Brockovich" may have been in Nichols' previous film "Closer". In "Charlie Wilson's War" she seems to be phoning in her performance. Aside from an accent, what great detail did she go into to flesh out this character?

Hoffman seems like a caricature. He's mostly the smart-alec, wise-cracking buddy. Somehow he managed to win an Oscar nomination for his performance here for "best supporting actor" when his magnificent performance in Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" went unnoticed.

Hanks is likable in the title role and his charisma picks up the film a bit and makes it somewhat watchable.

Director Nichols is a very funny man. I enjoy his work with Elaine May but for some reason I'm rarely, if ever, fully involved in his comedies. I feel his dramatic films such as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Closer" are far better films then "What Planet Are You From?" and this movie. He just has not been able to find a comedy which allows him to utilize his gifts and insight in comedy. Even among his better comedies such as "Working Girl" and "The Graduate".

The film's ultimate goal is to draw a line between the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the current situation between the U.S. and Afghanistan and now the American government did not finish the job it started by not funding reconstruction efforts. This, the film suggest, is what fueled anti-American sentiment in the region. Now, while this may very well be true, the film doesn't offer these links until the end of the film. If Nichols and Sorkin really wanted to hit this message home they should have made a great effort to exploit the connection. And even so, what does it suggest can be done now?

"Charlie Wilson's War" despite much praise by critics, comes off feeling slight to me. It never fully engaged me and I never felt the film approached its subject in the most compelling and more importantly, funny way. There are some laughs to be found in the film, but coming from Mike Nichols you'd expect more.

Film Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Films like "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" give one hope and make you feel glad to be alive and appreciate what you have in life. That may make this film sound overly sentimental or cliche but not in this film's case. Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is a beautifully told story done with delicacy and passion.


The film is based on a true story of a man who became paralyzed from head to toe, yet luckily his brain did not shut done. The condition is known as "locked-in syndrome". He remains unable to speak and as a result cannot communicate. That is until a speech therapist has devised a system where by blinking his eye he could find ways to express himself. Someone must simply go through the alphabet and when the desired word is said he must blink until a word or sentence is formed. If that alone is not remarkable through this system the man is able to write a book, a memoir. This is that book which was adapted by Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist", "Being Julia").


The man was Jean-Dominique Babuby (Mathieu Amalric), a former editor of "Elle" magazine. Babuby was not a perfect man. He had many flaws. He never married the mother of his children, Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), he had numerous love affairs and was considered to be, at times, selfish. But after his stroke one of the greatest things Babuby regrets is now his inability to right his wrongs. He can never utter the words "I love you" again or "I'm sorry".


"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" takes us inside Babuby's mind. He is the film's narrator as we hear his personal thoughts. By doing this it is the film's best way to make the viewer feel the what Babuby does. Much of the movie is presented through Babuby's point of view. The camera becomes his eyes. It was the only technique Schnabel had available to him to help the viewer going into this man's mind and have us relate to him.


The film also uses flashbacks to show us Babuby's past relationships with women, his children and his father (Max von Sydow). This also adds to the film's sentimentality as we see a man who enjoyed life and is now reduced to being dependent upon others.


Julian Schnabel's film managed to win some Oscar nominations including "best director", "screenplay" and "cinematography" but sadly no "best actor" nomination for Amalric. In a year when all anyone could talk about was Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood" other great performances got pushed aside. This was one of them. Amalric's performance makes the film. It was a challenging role not being able to fully physically express himself. He could not use any dialogue, hand gestures or body language of any kind. Yet the film conveys emotion, Amalric finds a connection to the audience.


In a year I felt was overshadowed by over hyped films such as "Juno", "There Will Be Blood" and "No Country for Old Men", "the Diving Bell and the Butterfly" got a little lost in the shuffle. Too bad. This is one of those films which can change your outlook on life.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Film Review: Cloverfield

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

So far, one of the big "monster" hits of 2008 has been the sci-fi flick "Cloverfield". After endless Internet buzz and brilliant marketing the film was highly anticipated for months. Plot details were even hidden from the actors as allegedly no one knew what exactly they were auditioning for. I'm happy to say all the secret behavior and creativity on the part of the filmmaker and those involved paid off. "Cloverfield" is a near masterpiece.

We are set in modern day Manhattan. A going away party is being thrown for Rob (Michael Stahl-David) who is about to go to Japan to accept a vice-president position at his company. But, a few minutes past midnight something happens. New York City seems to be under attack by something or somebody.

Now Rob and some of his friends, including his brother, Jason (Mike Vogel), Hud (T.J. Miller), Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) and Jason's girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas) must find a way out of Manhattan to safety. This is until it is revealed Rob's love, Beth (Odette Yustman) is trapped in her building where the monster has already attacked. She may be dead but Rob feels a certain obligation to go and rescue her.

The film is shot with a Panasonic hand-held camera, as one of the characters, Hud, films all of the events as they unfold. Claiming "people are going to want to see this". Many have claimed the jerky hand-held movements made them feel uneasy. Theaters received complaints that audience members felt dizzy afterwards.

There is a temptation to compare this filmming technique to "The Blair Witch Project". Both admittedly had brilliant marketing. If you remember "The Blair Witch Project" was being billed as a true story. The viewer was watching found footage. "Cloverfield" begins with a warning. This is government property. It was found in an area formerly known as "central park". But I would argue "Cloverfield" is a better movie then "Blair Witch". I didn't enjoy "The Blair Witch Project" I felt it was too much talking and little action. "Cloverfield" has more established characters and plenty of exciting visuals. Like the famous image of the head of the Statue of Liberty rolling in the middle on Manhattan.

There will be nay-sayers against the film. If this really was government property why would all the footage, including a half hour of Rob's going away party be kept? Would the government simply edit the tape and keep only the parts dealing with national security? How did the camera survive? If such events did happen, would someone actually film the whole thing and never put the camera down? And most importantly, how did this creature come to be?

Lets address the last question first because to be honest, the other questions do not have a right or wrong answer, they are debatable. It is true to film offers no explanation about the existence of the monster. But the film is not about the monster so much as it is about how these group of characters react to the monster. If this were a true story and people were running away from a giant monster would someone pause for a moment and ask themselves how did this happen? That would only be an after thought behind your first concern, which would be to run as fast as you can to safety, if of course, such a thing as "safety" exist.

I said the film is a near masterpiece. The last act of the film is where I felt slightly disappointed. The film goes on a little bit too long and had at least three separate occasions where it could have ended in a far more effective and dramatic way. Secondly I was disappointed to find out about the fate of Beth in her apartment. I would have preferred a different outcome which would have made more sense given the storyline. Still these complaints are not enough for me to not recommend the film. The film takes the viewer on an exciting ride. Many moments are quite gripping and nerve ending. You become involved with the characters and want to see the conclusion. While some might say "Cloverfield" is a gimmick movie, they are correct, but, when you have this much fun watching a film, does it matter?