Friday, June 27, 2008
"Persepolis" is the animated film for anyone who has ever gone through culture shock or has just never fitted in. It is the story of an outsider trying to make sense of the world while retaining a portion of who she is and never forgetting her roots.
The film deals with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 when the Shah was taken out of power and Islamic fundamentalist were put it. Pretty big subject for an animated film, wouldn't you say? Yet Marjane Satrapi's comic book novel and her film deal with this material in a refreshing, adult manner. Just because the film is animated does not mean is it for children. Children in fact may not even understand half of what is going on in this film.
Our hero is Majane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) a 6 year old girl, whose parents (voiced by Catherine Deneuve, Mastroianni's real life mother, and Simon Abkarian) are well to do leftist. They are against the Shah and teach their daughter the truth about after young Marjane declares he was put into power by God, whom the young girl has regular bedtime conversations with. Her family is happy to see a revolution take place but are unhappy when the fundamentalist gain control. In many ways they feel Iran has gotten worst. Fearing for their daughter the parents decide they may have to send Marjane away. And they do. Marjane goes to France and to Austria.
Life is different for the Marjane, who along with her friends, dream about what Western culture must be like. She and her friends would listen to punk music and attempt to pick up Western habits. In Austria and France Marjane is an outsider. No one can relate to her and initially are only interested in her stories, not necessarily her. At one point Marjane narrates "I was a stranger in Austria and now I'm one in my own country."
After spending years away from home Marjane decides she wants to return home and when she does she finds she no longer fits in at home either. She has been exposed to Western culture so long she no longer feels at home anywhere she is.
When in France at a party a young boy asks her what her nationality is, afraid to say Iranian, because of the image it might create in people's mind, she says she's French. She views this as a betrayal of her people and where she has come from.
Much of "Persepolis" deals with Marjane trying to come to terms with her identity. For the most part I think it does a fairly good job showing the complexity of east versus west. To physically be in one place yet have your heart in another. Though not everyone likes this film.
In "Cineaste" magazine a review was written by Rahul Hamid who was "greatly disappointed" watching the film. He goes on to write "the plot of the novels is squeezed into the hour-and-a-half running time of the film, removing many of the vivid characters and ideas." He goes on to add "the consequence is that the film presents a more cliches and predictable perspective on the events portrayed." Despite how I may feel about the film I can understand these remarks because I felt the same way watching this film.
"Persepolis" is not a long film and because of that is does brush over many aspects of Marjane's life and desires as well as historical events. There is actually something to be learned while watching this film as I, for one, knew little about Iran's, or for that matter, the middle east in general's history. "Persepolis" does seem to rush through her love life and her middle ages. As for historical information on Iran, we must please try to remember this is a film. I tend to give movies some slack when they play fast and loose with historical facts. I'm not watching a history lesson on screen, I'm watching entertainment. There is a time and place for everything.
Still, there are those you liked "Persepolis". I tend to think A.O. Scott, critic for the New York Times made some good points. "If "Persepolis" had been a conventional memoir rather than a graphic novel, Ms. Satrapi's account of her youth in pre - and post-revolutionary Iran would not have been quite as moving or as marvelous. Similarly, if the movie version had been conventionally cast and acted, it would inevitably have seemed less magical as well as less real."
My feelings are somewhere in the middle between these two thoughts. I can see the faults with the film as we s the elements worth praising. In the end I feel there is more to praise than condemn. Hopefully you'll agree.
"Persepolis" was nominated for a palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival, an Oscar for best animated film and a Golden Globe for best foreign language film. "Persepolis" was even France's official Oscar entry for foreign language film but did not make it to the second round. So an animated nomination was given where it lost to Disney's "Ratatouille".
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Ever since 2002 and the American remake of "Ringu", "The Ring" with Naomi Watts there has been a new horror genre created. It is referred to by many as "J-horror", or Japanese horror. There has been a long line of Asian horror films which have been remade in America. I, for one, do not like these movies. There seems to be something of a culture clash. What Asian filmmakers seem to find scary I find laughable. I'm never fully involved in the original Asian films or the American remakes.
For the sake of fairness I should admit, once in a while I am surprised. Many people did not like the American film "The Grudge" with Sarah Michelle Gellar. But that may be because they did not see the mess that was "Ju-On", which "The Grudge" was based on. It was a vast improvement and added a coherence that was missing in the original. I also saw "A Tale of Two Sisters". Not a very scary film, but well made.
And now we have "One Missed Call" based on the Asian film of the same title which was based on a novel written by Yashushi Akimoto, of the same title. Once again I am surprise to say the film was not what I expected and surpassed my expectations.
The film is about a group of college students who suddenly die when they discover they have one missed called. You see, after someone dies, a spirit goes through that person's phonebook and calls a random friend. When the other person picks up their phone, a voice message is left dated on the date that person will die, usually two days later. Sound a little odd? Well, welcome to the world of "J-horror".
The group of friends is headed by Beth Raymond (Shannyn Sossamon). One of her friends include Taylor Anthony (Ana Claudia Talancon). Beth soon starts to realize something is going wrong, I think it has something to do with all her friends dying in front of her, so she goes to the police. No one will listen to the poor girl except a officer Jack Andrews (Ed Burns) who is getting over the death of his sister. He believes Beth's story because he has a feeling there may be a connection with his sister's death.
At this point "One Missed Call" becomes a story of child psychology and religion. It seems the root of the problem may have been because of a mother who abused her two daughters. The "missed call" may have been a call for help.
Religion is thrown into the story because Taylor is religious and thinks a TV producer, played by Ray Wise, who host a show on miracles, may be able to help her by exorcism. Needless to say, the plan doesn't work as people of Catholic faith are presented as con-artists. In what is the second mainstream film I have seen to present religion in a negative light ("The Mist" was the other).
"One Missed Call" does a lot of things right. It adds a good amount of background story for the characters. It provides some depth and tries to give the film a psychological edge. But it doesn't balance the horror and the psychological suspense as effectively as "The Orphanage" or "Dark Water" (another example of an effective American remake of a "J-horror" film). For everything "One Missed Call" does right, it forgets to be scary.
There are some well constructed scenes and some clever camera placement. But screenwriter Andrew Klavan, who wrote "Don't Say A Word", the Michael Douglas thriller, doesn't seem to do a worthwhile attempt to add horror.
I don't mind if the film wanted to throw religion in the story but it doesn't do anything with it. Think of "Rosemary's Baby" or "The Exorcist". We never quite get that blend of religion and horror as presented in those films.
I'm not sure what most who see this film are expecting but "One Missed Call" meet my expectations. That is not saying much, but the film may be worth a late Friday night rental when you are all alone.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Back in 2006 several film critics and much of the public were just buzzing with excitement over the cinema coming from Mexico. At the Oscars that year, three of the most talked about films were directed by Mexican filmmakers, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel), Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) and Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth). Critics kept saying how the new wave of cinema was coming from Mexico how these three men were going to create a cinematic storm and blow over Hollywood. I didn't think that was fair at the time and I still don't. I liked these films very much. Two of the three made my "top ten" list back in 2006 but I didn't feel Mexican cinema was breaking any ground or was where our attention should be. I felt audiences should be keeping their eyes on Central and Eastern Europe.
Ever since the Cold War American audiences have simply kept many of the countries on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall out of sight and out of mind. Too bad. This part of the world has usually been a step or two ahead. The New Waves of Poland, Czech Republic, Germany and Hungary were breaking new ground. The cinema coming from this part of the world was truly experimental. Milos Foreman, Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Miklos Jancso and Istvan Szabo. These filmmakers were taking risks and at the same time were showing American audiences what life was like in these countries.
But today this still exist. Look at Jan Svankmajer's "Alice", Emir Kusturica or the films of Bela Tarr (Satantango, Werckmeister harmoniak). It is these filmmakers who are worth our attention if you truly want to see something different. And now it is Romania's turn.
Also going back to 2006 audience members have steadily seen a growing interest in Romanian cinema. When "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu)" opened it was the beginning of what is now being called the Romanian new wave. And since that time we have seen "The Way I Spend the End of the World (Cum mi-am petrecut sfarsitul lumii)", the Cannes 2007 palme d' or winner "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile)" and this film "12:08 East of Bucharest (A faost sau n-a fost?)".
Ever since the Soviets left artist from these countries can now finally start to tell the true stories of their countries. What life was really like living under communist dictators. These films coming from Romania are all confrontational. They each, in their own way, challenge and question the past and the role of the government.
"12:08 East of Bucharest" is a film about the Romanian revolution. On December 22, 1989 dictator Ceausescu left Bucharest and brought about the end of communism. But did a revolt ever happen in the nameless village where this film takes place?
A TV producer, Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban) will host a show celebrating the 16th anniversary of the revolution by bringing on two guest who claim not only was their a revolt in their town but they were also part of it. A drunken, debt-ridden history teacher, Tiberiu Manescu (Ion Sapdaru, who also appeared in a more serious look at the revolution, "The Paper Will Be Blue") and a man known throughout the town as playing Santa Claus, Emanoil Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu).
At its core "12:08 East of Bucharest", the original title is actually translated as something along the lines of "did it happen or didn't it", is the story about our memories and history. First time director Corneliu Porumboiu says the film was actually inspired by a television show he saw discussing the revolution but become so furious with the show he decided to take on the subject. In an interview with GreenCine Porumboiu said this " I was interested in how people fictionalized history. People change history according to who they want to be; their own personal histories become entwined with a larger historical picture."
As the two guest discuss their memories of that day, declaring themselves as heroes, calls start pouring in as they refute the guest stories. Some callers say there was no revolt in their town while the guest fight back saying they were there. At one point when the host of the show ask Tiberiu if anyone was with him, he responds three other teachers were, but sadly two have died and one left the country. How strangely convenient.
The other guest, Emanoil, says he went out to the town square to prove to his wife that he could be a hero. Though he also admits he was a little sad to see Ceausescu go, the government was going to send out $100 dollar checks to help the economy.
That is the key to the success of this film. It takes a serious subject and then laces it with humor. Emanoil discussing it in a serious way and then throws in his wise-crack. Nothing in "12:08 East of Bucharest" can really be taken serious.
In some ways this film reminds me of Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Spider's Stratagem", the story of a young man who grew up believing his father was a hero who fought the Fascist in Italy. The father's village even has a statue dedicated to him but when the son visits he learns many things about his father.
Both films question what makes a hero and how accurate is history? Who decides what should go in the history books? And from whose's point of view?
While some may want to dismiss "12:08 East of Bucharest" as nothing more than a silly comedy, to do so is a mistake. It has serious ideas. It is relevant in today's world. And those who see it are relating to it. The film won the "golden camera" at the Cannes Film Festival, won "best Romanian film" at the Transilvania Film Festival and was nominated in the foreign film category at the Independent Spirit Awards.
If after watching this film you found yourself interested in learning more about the Romanian revolution I suggest watching the documentary "Videograms of a Revolution" one of the most dazzling documentaries I have ever seen!
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
"Kontroll" begins with a warning from a Budapest Metro worker informing us that the events which take place in this film and the characters represented in it are purely fiction. There were in fact two versions of this film. One with the introduction and one without it. When I saw film in theaters, back in 2005, and the DVD copy I own, both had the introduction.
But this opening immediately sets up the concept of what is real and what isn't? A theme which will be played through-out the film. Is this really a metro worker or not? (In fact it actually is a real metro worker. Many people were afraid audience members would think this is based on a true story.)
This introduction is followed by a scene where a drunken woman comes down an escalator, opening a bottle of champagne. She waits for the train to arrive. She is alone, we suspect it is very late, as no one else is around. Being alone, waiting for a train can be scary. The viewer senses her fear as she looks around impatiently for the train and the surrounding area. We see the lights from the train in the distance. Soon the platform light starts to flicker, the screen turns to black and the lights come back on. The train is now closer, it passes the woman. All we see are her high heels, still on the platform as the train speeds by.
The sequence is followed by a man sleeping on the same platform. Is what we just saw this man's dream? Are we still in a dream? Here again the concept of fantasy vs reality is presented. What exactly is real?
As it turns out in the past month seven people have died by the train platform. Did they jump or were they pushed? The metro company at first feels it was suicide and starts to worry about their image. The man we saw sleeping on the platform is actually a "kontroll" agent or a ticket inspector. His name is Bulcsu (Sandor Csanyi). These inspectors go on the train and check if everyone has a ticket or not. This part of the film is true. There are such people who ride the metro as many people do try to ride for free.
Bulcsu has a crew of co-workers who are part of his team. They include a new kid, Tibi (Zsolt Nagy), Laci (Laszlo Nadasi) and Muki (Csaba Pindroch), who suffers from narcolepsy. Constantly going from conscious to unconscious. Another example of fantasy vs reality.
Early on in the film two of the co-workers get into an argument leaving one of them to say "he is a product of his environment. When you are surrounded by aggressive people you become one." The viewer may not realize it at the time, but that is a key line into the film. Does it serve as a defense of the killer? Is he a product of his environment?
"Kontroll" simply could have worked as a thriller revolving around the serial killer but it doesn't want to settle for that. It wants to be more than a genre film. It wants to make a social commentary. In an interview with "Film Freak Central" director Nimrod Antal said "I saw things when I returned to Hungary that really bothered me, for sure, some aspects of how society has sort of sheared off into haves and have-nots after the fall and I do try to portray a little of that in the picture."
Of all the metro workers the one we follow the most is Bulcsu. We learn he has dropped out of society. He lives in the metro underground. Back in the real world we learn he use to be a big shot. He had a good job, making a lot of money. While his profession is never revealed I gathered he was some sort of architect. He says he simply couldn't deal with the struggle of everyday life. He couldn't handle the pressure of trying to prove he was the best. But now as a "kontroll" everyone hates him. No one pays attention to him. He is invisible.
Later in the film one of the co-workers, Laci, snaps. He kills a man who hit him after he asked him for his ticket. Laci says he cannot deal with the job anymore and the way he is treated. And now we are back to that line about being a product of our environment. Laci is now worst then the people he complains about. He has now killed.
The film ends with the image you see on the poster. Bulcsu agrees to meet with the daughter of one of the train drivers, Szofi (Eszter Balla) at a costume party being thrown on the platform. She dresses as an angel or a fairy. She leads Bulcsu to the escalator where he goes to the top as we see a shining light awaiting him. Has she become his angel? She guides him towards the light and back into society.
The film was the feature-length debut of Nimrod Antal, who was born in the U.S. to Hungarian parents, in Los Angeles to be exact. He went to Budapest in 1991 to attend the Budapest Film Academy. He never graduated from there but did find work directing music videos and directing two short films. He is a very talented director. He has a wonderful visual eye. The most striking thing about this film may be the visuals and the cinematography by Gyula Pados.
What I don't really like about this film however is the blend of the two ideas. The social commentary and the serial killer story. Perhaps the two together could have made a great film but Antal, I felt, never quite balances the two equally. Either story could have been entertaining to watch separately. And to be honest, I wish we had more of the serial killer aspect of the film. Antal would go back to this idea when he directed his English language debut film, "Vacancy", a Hitchcockian thriller.
But much of "Kontroll" works and is worth seeing. Antal will hopefully be around for a long time.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
When "The Orphanage (El Orfanato)" opened in Chicago late 2007, I wrote a review on amazon.com and declared it the best film of 2007! Quite a few people thought I was crazy. How dare I like a film that was not as popular as American favorites such as the Coen Brothers' Oscar winner "No Country For Old Men" or Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" or the comedy "Juno". But, for me, 2007 was a year for over-hyped movies. All three of the mentioned films were ones I would describe as good and entertaining but to hear others tell the story these films were masterpieces! The greatest film ever made in the history of cinema! So many people cheered 2007 as a great year. For me it was the same old story. The better films were the ones which went under the radar, got lost in the shuffle. These were smaller independent films and foreign ones. And the best of them was "The Orphanage".
No other film in 2007 really allowed me the opportunity to dwell deep into a character's mindset. Juno may have been cute but what did we really know about her. I was surprised such a simply story of a teenage crush would be so celebrated. In "The Orphanage" we are nearly at all times in the lead character's mind. Everything is based on her fears and desires.
"The Orphanage" is the feature-length debut of Juan Antonio Bayona. He has directed several music videos in his native home of Spain, but his name means little to the rest of the world. The film was produced by Guillermo De Toro, who in 2006, had his film released "Pan's Labyrinth". One of the masterpieces of the year. Because audiences and critics responded so well to that film, the marketing gimmick was to place emphasis on the name Del Toro. If people heard his name they would associate it with "Labyrinth", remembered they liked that film, and if "The Orphanage" is anything like that film, they will probably like this film as well. I can't comment on how well that strategy may have worked, as the film was never a box-office hit, but it has picked up quite a reputation on DVD. It has found a larger audience, which seems to appreciate it. Maybe now so many people will not think I am crazy for my strong appreciation for the film.
Belen Rueda stars as Laura. A woman, who as a child, lived in an orphanage. Now married and with an adopted son of her own, Simon (Roger Princep) Laura wants to go back to that orphanage and reopen it. It is her way to give back what was given to her. Since the couple has arrived in the house Simon tells his parents he has invisible friends. All of them wear sacks over their heads and like to play treasure hunt games with him. Sometimes revealing information his parents wish he did not know.
At the opening of the orphanage Simon disappears. Was he kidnapped? Did one of his friends steal him? Did he run away from home? An investigation happens but with no results on the child's whereabouts. But Laura never gives up. Eventually she turns to the supernatural for help and seeks the services of Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charles) a psychic. Through Aurora she learns many disturbing things about the orphanage and what lurks in these walls.
What makes "The Orphanage" such a compelling story is director Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez are not merely content with providing us with cinematic scares. They give the viewer characters to relate to and situations which seem realistic, at least as far as this story in concerned.
In an interview with Greencine written by Michael Guillen, Sanchez was asked about the origin of his script, he responded by saying "[what] sparked the idea for The Orphanage was [an illustration] on the copy of Peter Pan that I read as a kid. It was [an illustration] of Wendy's mother sitting by the window, waiting for the children to come home." Sanchez feels "The Orphanage" is really Peter Pan told through the mother's point of view. But Sanchez wanted to add another element to his story. His other source of inspiration was the Henry James short story "Turn of the Screw". "I wanted to write a horror film" he says "that could be ambiguous enough to admit a double reading." And "The Orphanage" does give the viewer something to think about. How much of what the audience sees is really happening or all in the mother's mind?
A film such as this, while there are obvious connections to Peter Pan, could simply be described as the story of a mother's love. After Peter Pan, the closet thing which comes to my mind to compare it to is Walter Salles' "Dark Water". There was another example of a horror film which took its time to set up characters instead of throwing cheap scares our way.
When I first saw this film I called it a "magical nightmare". I'll stand by that. We are never quite sure where the film is going to take us. It resembles a nightmare in the way we seem to be headed down a dark, chilly path that may lead us straight to hell. But it is magical in the sense that we are dealing with the unknown. We have entered a world where anything can happen.
I've now seen this film twice. This is one of the few times I was struck more by a film the second time. The film handles the characters so well. We go along with Laura at every twist and turns. Her desires become our desires, her fears, ours. By the end of the film there is such a poignant feel, but, it is not overly sentimental. The film feels complete. The viewer is satisfied. We have went on a journey and survived. The lead character has transformed. And we are different after watching it to.
"The Orphanage" won the top prize at the Barcelona Film Festival, was one of the foreign film nominees at the Chicago Film Critics Award and won several awards at the Goya Awards.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
You really can't fault "Evening" for being a bad film. It pretty much does what you'd expect it to do, only it doesn't do it very entertaining.
The film was directed by Lajos Koltai. Koltai got his start working as a cinematographer in his native Hungary, working for director Istvan Szabo. Koltai though has started to veer off on his own and take the director's seat. "Evening" marks is second feature and his debut American language film. His debut film was "Sorstalansag (Fateless)" a World War 2 story based on Imre Kertesz award winning novel. How did Koltai go from that story to this one?
"Evening" is based on a novel by Susan Minot, who also adapted her own book along with Michael Cunningham. The story revolves around Ann (Vanessa Redgrave) who is dying. She is surrounded by her two daughters; Nina (Toni Collette) and Constance (Natasha Richardson) as her last moments go back to her first love, Harris (Patrick Wilson), who is the one that gotta away. From this point the film switches time frames going from flashbacks, showing us how Ann meet Harris and Ann now reflecting on the past.
The younger Ann is played by Claire Danes. Ann was to attend the wedding of her best friend Lila (played as a young woman by Mamie Gummer and as an older woman Meryl Streep). Ann has been dating Lila brother, Buddy (Hugh Dancy) but when she meets their childhood friend Harris, all bets are off. Ann and Lila are both hopelessly in love with him. Lila is so much in love with him that she tells him she would be willing to go away with him the day before her wedding if only she would ask.
For the first hour or so I enjoyed the film. I liked the characters, and was willing to find out more about them and how things would turn out. Danes and cast are all fine, especially on those rare moments when the script requires they do something and show some real emotion instead of just standing around. As the film switched time frames though I noticed I was always more interested in the modern story with the daughters' relationship with their mother.
"Evening" wants to be a sentimental, sappy weeper. A "chick flick" if you will. It has some of the right ingredients, but doesn't execute them correctly. There are no real emotions on display. We don't really come to love these characters. The film goes on about 30 minutes too long and I simply started to lose interest in these people when the story started to focus more on the flashbacks.
I liked the idea of an elderly woman about to die thinking back on the past re-examining her life. Some have said it is not realistic. Why would a dying woman only think about the man that got away not not her children or her departed husband? In realistic terms they may have a point. But luckily this is a movie and such a situation is ripe for sentimental romance. On some level I suppose all can relate to the theme of what if we let "the one" slip away. And that was what I liked about this film. But "Evening" doesn't fully explore this situation. By the end of the film it becomes a generational story among the mother and the daughters. One mistake leads to another. Children mirror they parents. Kind of, but out played out as expertly, like "Wild Strawberries" where we see a son about to turn into his father and the father's attempt to stop that.
And again I must come back to the question, why? What about such a story appealed to Koltai? He just isn't the right director for a story like this. It takes him out of his element. If he wanted to make a film in English he should have taken smaller steps. How about a story dealing with Americans in Hungary or Hungarians in America. At least then he could relate to the situation. In the whole crew only one other Hungarian worked with him, his cinematographer, Gyula Pados, who also shot "Sorstalansag" and other recent films such as "Basic Instinct 2" and a Hungarian film called "Kontroll". Pados gets some great shots and does make the film look like an old-fashion romance film but the look of the film is more beautiful than the story we are watching.
"Evening" may work for some audiences and that is fine. It is not a bad film just an uninspired one with far too many talented people working on a story beneath them.
Monday, June 16, 2008
Steve Buscemi is quite an actor. If you look over his list of credits you will notice a wide range of films he has appeared in. You have the Coen Brothers' "Miller Crossing" and "Fargo", voice over work for "Monsters, Inc", "Ghost World", "Armageddon", "Pulp Fiction" and "Big Daddy". Who else has appeared in such diverse films?
"Interview" also puts Buscemi in the director's chair. He has mostly done TV work including "The Sopranos".
The film is a remake of a Dutch film directed by Theo van Gogh, which had the same title. It was part of a suppose trilogy of American remakes Gogh was going to work on, but, after a sudden death, Buscemi took over directing duties.
I find it odd the first film I should review after the death of Tim Russert be called "Interview". Where Russert was a brilliant interviewer here is a film about everything you should not do when conducting an interview.
The film has Buscemi playing Pierre Peders. Pierre wants to cover the political beat. A scandal has broken out, in what I believe is the Bush administration, though I can't remember his name said. His editor instead assigns him to the entertainment beat where he is suppose to interview Katya (Sienna Miller). The latest hot young actress who is known for her activities off the movie set rather than her acting.
Pierre resents every minute of it, and doesn't even bother to do research before the interview, for which Katya is an hour late. As soon as they do meet however it is clear they do not like each other. Pierre doesn't like what Katya represents, a culture in decline, obsessed with unimportant things such as who she is sleeping with. And Katya doesn't like Pierre because he doesn't seem interested and impressed with her.
The rest of "Interview" follows their night together as Pierre attempts to get his interview with Katya, when the two aren't at each other's throats.
The structure of the film reminds me of "Before Sunset" and "Before Sunrise". We are just placed in the middle of these characters worlds and, depending how you feel about the film, leave it all too soon. It seems to end without any sense of conclusion. At least not a conclusion most will be happy with. But it gives the viewer something to think about. And because we like these characters and become involved with them, we want to know more.
"Interview" may not seem to be doing much but what I love most about this film is the dialogue. Which was originally written by Theodor Holman and adapted by Buscemi. It has such rapid, wise-cracking exchanges. It reminds me of the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. The two characters are equals. Katya insults Pierre just as much as he insults her. Pierre doesn't hold back just because she is a woman. That makes no difference to him.
This aspect of the film however makes me think of "Two Girls and A Guy" with Heather Graham and Robert Downey Jr. There was a film where everyone had a poker face on. Here with "Interview" it is the same. We can never tells when the characters are telling the truth and when they are lying. What is going on in their heads? Is there ever a sincere moment in the film? This also gives "Interview" its appeal.
For as entertaining as Buscemi is in this film it was Miller who impressed me most. I have only seen the actress in "Layer Cake" with Daniel Craig. I don't remember that film very well and remember even less of her performance. Here though Miller really makes a lasting impression. This film presents such opportunities for her to display her acting range. She can play sassy, vulnerable, sexy and dramatic, all in one part!
Will some be bothered by this film? I'm sure of it. Why does it end the way it does? What does it all mean? I don't have the answers to these questions. But I had such a good time watching the movie and watching the performances given by Buscemi and Miller, I said to myself it really doesn't matter. What these characters do to each other isn't as important as how they do it to each other. That's what makes the movie.
Saturday, June 14, 2008
Tim Russert didn't direct movies. He wasn't a screenwriter or a producer or even an actor. He was a journalist. And a damn good one!
Before I received my BA in film and video at Columbia College my original intention was to major in journalism. I took several classes. Everyday, even to this very day, I read the newspaper religiously. Both Chicago papers, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today...ect. I have great respect for the profession. And one of the reasons I have great respect for it is because of Tim Russert.
Russert was something rare in the news business. He was neutral. You couldn't tell who Russert was going to vote for or what his stance was on the issues discussed. He merely reported and asked the tough questions. The way a journalist is suppose to.
I remember the first time I sat in a journalism class and what every instructor told the class. No one care what you think! Keep your opinions to yourself. I took those words to heart and I still do. That is why I become very upset when I see what some of these anchors do while reporting the news. Especially lately. You can just tell where they are coming from politically. But Russert was something special. If I ever become a political journalist, Russert was one of my heroes. I wanted to emulate his approach. Be as prepared as he was. He was a pro. No one can do what he did and no one should try.
I never met Tim Russert but hearing about the news of his death, I felt I lost someone close to me. His death was so unexpected. Reports say he showed up for a taping of his show, collapsed and simply died. He was only 58 years old.
Watching "Meet the Press" was for a time a tradition at my house. I would wake up early every Sunday, have a cup a coffee and sit down and watch Russert. For the last two years it has been a bit difficult for me because of my job and the fact I work Sunday mornings. But I would always come home and watch the reruns on MSNBC. Sundays and politics will never be the same. You will be sorely missed Mr. Russert.
Friday, June 13, 2008
"The Fall" is a similarly told film. A stuntman (Lee Pace) has injured himself during a movie shoot. He fell off a bridge and missed his mark. In addition to which, his girlfriend dumped him for the star of the film. He now wants to commit suicide. In the hospital he meets a young girl, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru, a young Romanian girl, who does not speak English but memorized all her lines). She is in the hospital for a broken arm. The stuntman, named Roy, starts to tell the girl an epic story about five heroes, in hopes to win favor with the girl so she will do him a favor, which is assist him in his attempt to overdose on pills.
And so he begins to tell a story about five bandits, an Italian, Luigi (Robin Smith), a slave, Otta Benga (Marcus Wesley), Charles Darwin (Leo Bill) and an Indian (Jeetu Verma) each want to kill Odious (Daniel Caltagirone), who has harmed them in one way or another.
The film was based on a 1981 Bulgarian film entitled "Yo ho ho" directed by Zako Heskija and written by Valeri Petrov. This adaptation is directed by Tarsem Singh (who is credited simply as "Tarsem"). Tarsem has only directed one other feature lenght film, 2000's "The Cell" with Jennifer Lopez. His other credits include music videos for such artist as R.E.M. Already, after only two films Tarsem has his own style. If you missed the opening credits of his films, there is no way you can deny it is his works. His imprint is so strong and recognizable.
The film opens with a beautiful black&white shot of the accident. We hear Beethoven in the background as we are under water. The crew jumps in to save Roy. A block & tackle is used to lift a horse out of the water. This sequence is so stunning amazing. Every frame is a painting. It could be used as postcards of the old west.
The rest of the film has Roy and Alexandria arguing over what should happen in the story. We see a scene played out as Roy wants to tell it, only to break the scene with Alexandria putting in her opinion, thus changing the order of things. Alexandria will introduce herself into the story, Roy will kill certain characters. Together they try to work out an ending.
At its core "The Fall" is a film about imagination and the power of storytelling. The film ends with a montage of silent movie clips. I didn't recognize everything but I did notice Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and I think Harry Langdon. But with this message, that is where the film fails. The story is all over the place. There is such an inconsistency. The film moves along at its own whim and desire. Paying no attention to what has been previously set-up. What then makes "The Fall" such a striking film is the visuals. The vast landscape, the bright colors, the eccentric costumes. It is pure eye candy. And it is enough to keep an audience's interest but imagine what could have been if the story had been a bit stronger. More coherent. I felt "The Cell" was an example of that. "The Fall" doesn't quite live up to what that film accomplished, despite whatever praise I may give the film.
Tarsem is an interesting and clever director. There is no doubt about that. With these two films under his belt, he will have a long career in cinema. While "The Fall" may not reach the greatness I had hoped it would, his very next film just very well may live up to my expectations.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
"Gone with the Wind" is one of, if not the greatest example of early Hollywood epic filmmaking. Many people have said many things about this film. Some say it was a poor adaptation, other complain about the use of black stereotypes and a select few say it is simply too long. They may say what they will, but, "Gone with the Wind" is one of the greatest films I have ever seen. One of my personal all-time favorites.
I don't think I really have to describe the plot of "Gone with the Wind" as anyone who considers them self a film lover has probably seen it, so I'll explain what I like about this film.
First of all, you have an amazing cast. What film, up till 1939, had such an amazing cast. I can think of some great films made before "Gone with the Wind", take for example "Grand Hotel", the 1932 best picture Oscar winner. Or the great comedy "Dinner at Eight". Both had all-star cast. But, as great as those films are, neither one is really an the iconic level of this film. "Gone with the Wind" has become a film part of America's culture. We all know the lines, "frankly my dear, I don't give a damn", "tomorrow is another day".
Who, other than Vivien Leigh or Clark Gable could have played Scarlett O' Hara and Rhett Butler? Others were considered, like Gary Cooper and Bette Davis, but, neither would have worked. Davis wasn't attractive enough and lack a certain feminine touch. Cooper lacked Gable's charisma. I don't think Clark Gable was really a great actor, but his screen presence is unmatchable. When Clark Gable is on-screen you watch him.
And the supporting roles are just as memorable. Olivia de Havilland, who was also considered for the role of Scarlett and Leslie Howard are perfectly cast. Neither one tries to steal scenes from the two stars, but actually compliment them. Howard was a better actor than Gable. You can tell Howard had more training. He was a much more versatile actor, but he doesn't give Gable an acting lesson here. When the two are in scenes together, Gable takes control.
I was also fascinated by the use of colors. Despite being partial color blind, I could still appreciate the vivid colors presented. The film has a beautiful look. And the cinematography does such a great job of giving the film an epic feel. Think of the scene when Scarlett sees all the wounded and dead soldiers. The camera pans along from right to left in an extreme long shot. We see the scope of the scene. The camera pans further and further back.
As for some of the racial stereotypes some may complain about. I don't feel they have much of a case. I would hate to condemn "Gone with the Wind" as a racist film. Though one scene does stick out. When Scarlett is passing through the shantytown and a black man attacks her while another black man comes to protect her. I was reminded of a famous scene in "Birth of A Nation", where a group of white women are about to be raped by a group of black men while the KKK comes to their rescue. Here we are getting an opposite message. In fact, many were concerned "Gone with the Wind" would turn out to be another "Birth of A Nation".
Still others complain about the "prissy" character, the housemaid who can't deliver a baby. Some say she was portrayed as too ignorant. Again, I'm not prepared to condemn the film on these grounds either. Giving the time frame in which the film takes place, I will admit it was probably exaggerated for comic effect, but, some sense of truth is probably there. In real life a character like Prissy would probably be ignorant.
"Gone with the Wind" won 10 Oscars including "best picture", "director", "actress" (Leigh) and "supporting actress" (Hatti McDaniel as Mammy, becoming the first black woman to win an Oscar). While an historic moment I still feel de Havilland, who was nominated in the supporting category, should have won. Unfortunately Gable lost that year to Robert Donat for "Goodbye, Mr. Chips". Now while Donat and the film are very good, what the heck was the Academy thinking? Even if they didn't want to give it to Gable, how about Laurence Olivier in "Wuthering Heights", the only other film in the magical year of 1939 that might have deserved a "best picture" Oscar.
For those who have not yet seen "Gone with the Wind" you have no clue what you are missing. As cliche as it may sound here is a film that has action, romance, humor and drama. It blends everything perfectly. "Gone with the Wind" is one of the true masterpieces of cinema.
Monday, June 9, 2008
1. 21 GRAMS (Dir. Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu; U.S.) - Rarely do films hit me on such a personal level. This was the most intense film going experience I had in 2003. There is so much pain expressed in this film that I was actually starting to hurt inside. A much more powerful, involving film than Inarritu's debut film, "Amores perros".
2. HERO (Dir. Zhang Yimou; Hong Kong/China) - Though this Oscar nominated martial arts film was eventually released in 2004, I saw an advance copy in 2003, hence why it is on my list. Resembles Kurosawa's "Rashomon" and Chen Kaige's "The Emperor and the Assassin", but ranks as one of Yimou's best films.
3. HOUSE OF SAND & FOG (Dir. Vadim Perelman; U.S.) Quite an impressive debut film from Perelman. Amazing performances given by Jennifer Connely, who sadly was ignored Oscar time and Ben Kingsley. Like "21 Grams" this is a film which involves the viewer in the most personal of ways.
4. HUMAN STAIN (Dir. Robert Benton; U.S.) - Released at a time when Nicole Kidman was starting to gain more and more popularity, this film is just another example of her talents, proving as far as I am concern, her status as one of the greatest modern actresses we have today!
5. THE FLOWER OF EVIL (Dir. Claude Chabrol; France) - Chabrol's 50th film was a throwback to his earlier work in the 60s and 70s. Chabrol has not lost his touch to make portraits of French upper-class families and the ugliness which lies inside.
6. KILL BILL VOL. 1 (Dir. Quentin Tarantino; U.S.) - The first part in an amazing series. One of the most violent films I have ever seen, even if you argue the violence is cartoon violence. But Tarantino has never failed to deliver in my opinion. A tour-de-force performance given by Uma Thurman.
7. MYSTIC RIVER (Dir. Clint Eastwood; U.S.) - A favorite of several American critics who actually wanted this to win the palm d'or at Cannes Film Festival. One of Eastwood's very best films with a worthy Oscar winning performance given by Tim Robbins. Sean Penn delivers two of the most amazing performances of the year with this film and "21 Grams".
8. THIRTEEN (Dir. Catherine Hardwicke; U.S.) - Semi-autobiographical film written by teenager Nikki Reed. The film has two star making performances by the two leads; Evan Rachel Wood and Reed. Wood has become a star, and will remain one. Reed, for some reason, hasn't quite caught on with mainstream audiences. I only hope that changes very, very soon.
9. FINDING NEMO (Dir. Andrew Stanton; U.S.) - My second favorite Disney/Pixar film and the first animated film I ever put on a "top ten" list. I don't think Pixar as done anything since to top this film. Great voice-over work by Albert Brooks and Ellen De Genres, who provide comedy adults will even enjoy.
10. MAGDALENE SISTERS (Dir. Peter Mullan; UK/Ireland) - A little known masterpiece based on true stories showing "problems" with the Catholic church. This was a movie which really got under my skin, having gone to a Catholic school for many years. Sadly it hits on many true notes.
Sunday, June 8, 2008
Given this film's story-line, under normal circumstances, you'd think what a moronic, pathetic, waste of time. What kind of person would even think to write such a film? And worst yet, what kind of person would even bother to film such a story? Yet here I am, giving this movie three and a half stars.
"Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" is about one man's unique sense of smell. He can distinguish any scent in the world. Along the way he acquires a desire to capture all the beautiful scents of the world by killing beautiful young ladies in an attempt to capture their scent.
But the film tells this story with such confidence the viewer can't help but get drawn in. No one in the film seems to realize what an absurd story this is. This could have been the kind of junk John Waters makes. Yet because the film believes in itself, we follow. It seems to know what it is doing so we trust it.
The film was directed by Tom Tykwer, director of one of the greatest modern films I have ever seen, "Run, Lola, Run". It was made on a budget of 65 million and grossed, in the U.S., a little more than 2 million. By all accounts it was a failure. But don't let that stop you from seeing one of the most unusual films you will see in mainstream Hollywood.
Ben Whishaw plays Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the young boy with the gift of scent. Because of his talents he luckily gets a job working for Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), a once famous perfume maker, whose best days are behind him. Though with Grenouille's help, he soon finds himself respected again.
After Grenouille becomes obsessed with capturing scent, he decides to leave Grenouille in order to go on a killing spree. He finally sets his sights on Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood) daughter of Richis (Alan Rickman), who begins to realize a serial killer is on the towns hands.
This story story-line in some ways reminded me of "Sweeney Todd". In that film a man kills so a woman can use the meat for her pies. Here a man kills so he can create a better perfume. Both characters have the wrong idea about what to do with humans. Oddly enough, Tim Burton was once considered to direct this film.
"Perfume" like "Todd" takes the viewer so closely on this journey that at times we feel we are there with the characters. We can almost smell what Grenouille smells. The look of the film is, to be blunt, perfect. I can't imagine the film looking any better. It is a visual fest for the eyes.
There is only one flaw I have with the film and it is in the final moments, after Grenouille is discovered for his activities. It let me down. I understand the film's message, I just wanted a different fate for the character. Something more horrific. But, aside from that "Perfume" is worth sniffing out for.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
Royalty behaving badly, that would have been a more appropriate title for this film.
Word on the street is don't watch "The Other Boleyn Girl" if you are looking for historical accuracy. This leads me to wonder, why are people watching movies to learn about history? I was always under the impression cinema is fictional and is suppose to entertain. If you are looking for facts, may I suggest something called a book! There are plenty of books dealing with King Henry VIII.
"The Other Boleyn Girl" is the story of how two sisters; the seductive Anne (Natalie Portman) and the more gentle Mary (Scarlett Johansson) both came into the King's favor.
Queen Katherine (Ana Torrent) has just had a miscarriage, it was to be a boy. The couple have one child, a daughter, but Henry (Eric Bana) wants a son. Some speculate Katerine is no longer able to conceive children. In a diabolical effort the girl's father, Sir. Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) along with his brother-in-law Thomas Howard (David Morrissey) have conspired to arrange to have the eldest daughter, Anne, become the King's mistress. Never in cinema has a father been so eager to have his daughter fool around!
If Anne does a good job and provide King Henry VIII with a son, the family will fall into the good graces of the King. But Anne is a bit too wild for the King's taste. He seems to prefer the more sensitive Mary. So daddy makes the switch.
Now the two girls will back stab each other, fighting not only for the King's attention but the approval of their father.
Lets call a spade a spade, "The Other Boleyn Girl" is a soap opera. If it weren't for the talent involved, this would have been a campy melodrama. But Portman and Johansson and Bana all play the material straight. They attempt to rise above the material and slightly succeed. Though Bana does come out looking the least impressive.
The film also has very good production and costume designs. Technically it is a good looking film. And this is why I ultimately have decided to recommend it.
As previously stated some have criticized the film for its lose historical facts. One of the critics for the New York Sun said the filmmakers should have taken a history class. I think the critic should have taken a film class. We are not reviewing history but a movie.
"The Other Boleyn Girl", like "Elizabeth:The Golden Age" or "Goya's Ghost" treats history minimally and focuses more on the characters. We don't get a sense of the times watching this film.
That is odd because the film was adapted from a novel by Peter Morgan, who wrote the 2006 film "The Queen", one of my favorite films of the year. One of the reasons I liked that film was much was because the film seemed to have first hand knowledge of all the events taking place. We could have been watching a documentary.
Justin Chadwick, a TV director makes his feature film debut and does, for the most part, a good job. He keeps things moving along nicely, though near the end of the film it does start to drone a bit.
While not a masterpiece "The Other Boleyn Girl" for its fine performances and good production design deserves to be seen.
Friday, June 6, 2008
It is absolutely astounding that a film such as "Flawless" did so poorly at the box-office. Grossing a little more than 1 million dollars, "Flawless" was an extremely financial and critical let-down. But why?
Did the public think Michael Caine and Demi Moore would be a love interest in the film and that turned them off? Or maybe the public had a sinking suspicion the film might be good and decided they'd rather see the comic book movie opening that week.
Despite its title, "Flawless" is not a flawless film, but it is a entertaining the seems to come apart by the third act. But Moore and Caine are so good in the film, it makes it hard to tell others to stay away from the movie.
Set in London during the 1960s Moore plays Laura Quinn. The only female executive at London Diamond Corporation. She has been passed up for a promotion 6 times, by much younger and inexperienced men. Her only conclusion is sexism is at play. But a woman like Laura knew competing in a "man's world" would be difficult. Still, it is hard to hide her frustration.
Michael Caine plays Mr. Hobbs, a nighttime janitor who is nearing retirement. He too has a bone to pick with the corporation, but his motives are not as clear to us at first.
The idea is, Hobbs wants to steal a small fortune from the company's vault, which is not only the largest diamond trader in London, it is the only one. Hobbs claims he has the perfect plan. He is left alone for hours at a time while moping the floor. He is within inches of the vault, completely unattended. All he needs though is the code to open the vault which changes every week. This is where Laura comes in. He needs her to give me the codes.
The heist goes off well, with one surprise for Laura. Hobbs doesn't steal a "small fortune". The original idea was, he would only take enough which could fit in his coffee thermal. Instead, he wiped the vault clean!
For the most part "Flawless" works. There is some suspense and the performances are effective. But the film starts to talk about politics. Did Soviets steal the diamonds? Or maybe spies? Was it someone who is upset with the dirty business of diamond trading, something seen in the film "Blood Diamond". It is oddly when the motives are revealed I was starting to tune out.
"Flawless" shouldn't have been so much about why they steal the diamonds but how they did it. Whatever their personal reasons are, the script should have kept it simple. Once we start to get bogged down in explanations we are taking away from the suspense.
Of course Caine knows a thing or two about a good heist, having appeared in the original "Italian Job". I think Caine may have delivered the better performance. I've never really thought of Moore as a great actress and going over her credits, no great film stands out to me.
The film was directed by Michael Radford, who directed of all things, the 1994 Italian hit, "The Postman". Radford keeps things moving along somewhat nicely, especially in the beginning. But perhaps because I am unfamiliar with his work, I really couldn't feel the hand of a director at work here. Caine and Moore simply seem to be doing their thing. It is hard to imagine what kind of advice Radford could have given them.
"Flawless", in spite of some flaws, is still a movie worth seeing. I'm still surprised by the American public's reaction, but hopefully more people will watch it and enjoy. And, how can someone not like a film where Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond play "Take Five". That would be criminal!
Thursday, June 5, 2008
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
When the French New Wave exploded on the cinematic scene in the 60s the world was introduced to Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer and Chabrol. But Claude Lelouch and to some extent Rohmer, never seemed to fully fit into the club. Lelouch is generally not as highly regarded as some of his contemporaries. A shame.
"Roman de Gare" is roughly translated in English as "airport novel". Now, while I've never read what could be described as an "airport novel", I have read novels while flying. I think both probably serve the same purpose. The main idea behind reading a book while traveling is to divert the time. To occupy two or three hours of our time with some light, fluffy silly diversion. That is more or less how one could describe Claude Lelouch's latest cinematic offering. A two hour piece of fluff.
But not many are looking at it in that perspective. Critic Roger Ebert didn't care for the film very much, giving it only two and a half stars. But, if you pardon the expression, who really cares what Ebert thinks? He has not been very kind to Lelouch in the past. He has little admiration for this extremely gifted filmmaker. Now of course some will say, but Mr. Udvary, that's not fair! Clearly you like Lelouch. Yes. I'm guilty as charged. I like to compliment talented directors. It's a silly habit I have, wanting to appreciate good films directed by good directors.
"Roman de Gare" is not one of Claude Lelouch's great films. I almost decided to give the film two and a half stars but decided against it. I first had to figure out what I felt the film was about.
The film follows three stories all which seem to connect. First we have a famous novelist, Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardent, the former Mrs. Truaffaut) who has written her latest book, "God, the Other". It is seen as a comeback for her after her previous novel was seen as a disappointment. The second story revolves around Pierre Laclos (Dominique Pinon) who may or may not be a serial killer/rapist or a secretary to miss Ralitzer or an innocent man merely looking to escape his past and his family travelling on the road. He picks up a woman, Huguette (Audrey Dana) who was just dumped by a man who stole her car and left her stranded at a gas station. And finally we have a Florence (Michele Bernier) whose husbands has mysteriously left her and she reports to the police on a daily basis only to find she no longer cares if her husband returns or not as she has fallen in love with the police commissioner (Zinedine Soualem).
I am not, under any circumstances, going to reveal one more bit of information. I won't explain how, if at all, the stories connect or why. A film such as "Roman de Gare" works best when the viewer knows little to nothing about it. The film must in a sense trap you and catch you by surprise. If you walk into a movie such as this knowing all the plot twist the film will be boring. You could argue that makes "Roman de Gare" a gimmick movie and you may be right. This is not a great piece of lasting cinema. It is a light diversion.
Having just reviewed Woody Allen's "Scoop" I now find myself discussing another movie dealing with the rich, murder and magic. The structure of "Roman de Gare" is all over the place. The film switches time frames going from flash backs to present day frequently. It is like a puzzle where we are missing a few of the pieces but because we have the cover on the box, we know how it should look.
Given such a lose structure one would have to be a magician to string this all together. And that is where credit must be given to Lelouch. Like Harry Houndini, Lelouch pulls the wool over our eyes and somehow makes us care about some of these characters and adds some plausible explanation for these series of events.
In an interview Lelouch says, when describing this film, "I think it is a film that is a result of 50 years of work. I tried to mix know-how with spontaneity. I am fascinated by the spectacle of life, and by the strength of lies, because I'm afraid the world is being led by lies." There is definitely a element of deception and lies working its way through-out this films but another theme came to mind while watching it which Lelouch doesn't go into much detail in his interview.
The books written by Judith Ralitzer are seen to reflect her life. So much so that they are used strongly against her later in the film. This leads one to wonder how closely does the artist's art imitate their life. More importantly, how close does "Roman de Gare" reflect Claude Lelouch's life. Lelouch says he actually saw a woman get dumped by a gas station, which provided the inspiration to make this film. But, what else could he have drawn inspiration from?
Lelouch has made other mystery films dealing with crooks and love. Two of my favorites are "Happy New Year" and "The Crook". "Roman de Gare" isn't quite as fascinating to watch as those two other films. But there is clearly a craft to what Lelouch is doing.
For those who don't know much about the filmmaker, he started directing in the 1960s and gained international fame with the 1966 film "A Man and A Woman". Some critics, such as Roger Ebert, have claimed Lelouch's career from that point on has mostly consisted of many retreads of that particularly film. That is simply not true, though Lelouch did make a sequel to that film in 1986 "A Man and A Woman:20 Years Later". He has also directed "And Now My Love", a terrific adaptation of "Les Miserables" and "And Now...Ladies & Gentlemen".
While all of his films may not work for some viewers and "Roman de Gare" may not help win over new fans, you have to give Lelouch credit for trying. At a time when most films seem only contented with providing us with the familiar Lelouch as least takes a few chances. Bravo!
When Woody Allen's "Scoop" was released back in 2006, I had a mixed reaction. I didn't think the film was a disaster as others proclaimed it, but I didn't think it was a film which lived up to Allen's standards. I wrote a negative review for the film on amazon.com and gave it two and a half stars. Then I bought the film on DVD (even though I didn't like it very much, I still collect all of Mr. Allen's films). After watching it again, I found I really, really enjoyed it! In fact I loved it! I watched it many times over and over again. I now feel the film is worth watching.
What changed my mind? I'm not sure. My initial reaction was the script simply wasn't funny. Allen's performance was too animated. He acted a bit like a ham. I didn't feel there was chemistry between Allen and Johansson.
On a second viewing, I don't understand what my criticism was with Allen's performance. Was it animated? Yes, extremely so. But, hasn't Allen always given an animated performance? His acting in "Scoop" reminds me of the performances he has given in films such as "Love and Death", "Broadway Danny Rose" and "Manhattan Murder Mystery".
"Scoop" marked Allen's second London based film after "Match Point". Both films deal with the British upper-class, secrets and murder. Had it been set in France, it could have had the makings of a Claude Chabrol film.
The film starts with the death of journalist Joe Strombel (Ian McShane). As death leads him to the other side Joe strikes up a conversation with the former secretary of Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), son of Lord Lyman. According to the secretary she died under very suspicious circumstances. She feels Peter Lyman is really the tarot card killer. A serial killer who has been roaming the streets of London killing prostitutes. She feels once she discovered the true identity of Peter Lyman that she was poisoned. With such a "scoop" Joe must found a way to contact the living to investigate the story. He finds a young college journalist, Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) who is on holiday in London.
Joe first contacts Sondra while being part of a magic act by the great Splendini (Allen), as part of a disappearing trick. When he enters the "dematerializer" Joe gives her the scoop. Now Sondra, along with the help of Splendini will try to crack open the case.
Peter Lyman is kind of the London Jack Kennedy. A young handsome man from a powerful, socially connected family with political ambitions. And he has a womanizing problem. It's really not hard to see what Allen had in mind when he wrote this character. As Sondra pursues her investigation she ends up falling in love with Peter, causing a conflict of interest, as she refuses to accept Peter as the killer, even though circumstantial evidence keeps pointing that way.
Allen says after shooting "Match Point" with Johansson he became so impressed with her he decided he wanted to do a comedy with her. "Scoop" was made for the sole purpose of Allen acting alongside her. It isn't very often Allen writes roles for a particular actor or actresses.
It is clear what Allen's intentions are with this film. He wants to take us back to the "Thin Man" series. The amateur detectives in way over their head, dropping wise-cracks in every direction. For the most part Allen is able to get the feel of those movies. Though admittedly his writing isn't always as sharp as in those movies. But Allen does get in some wonderful one-liners. Not wanting to give away the film's best lines I'll just get one example. When talking about his ex-wife, Splendini (AKA Sid Waterman) confesses his wife always thought him immature and states "I had a great rebuttal for her. I coulda nailed her, you know. But I raised my hand. She would not call on me."
Allen also makes comments on the cultural differences more so here than in "Match Point" between Americans and the British. Allen's view seems to be Americans are far more uncultured and uncivilized. Many jokes demonstrate this point, like this one; When getting a tour of Lyman's house Sid says it brings to mind Trollope. Peter says "the author"? To which Sid responds "no, a girl I used to date."
While most people described "Scoop" as a slight comedy, like most Woody Allen films there is a social commentary being made. I think "Scoop" is really a film which warns us, nothing is ever like it seems. Danger lurks everywhere. The powerful are corrupt. Or like Sid says at one point in the film "not everything in this world is sinister. Just practically everything." How true that is!
Monday, June 2, 2008
If you were to do a random survey and ask fans of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers what they think the team's best film may have been chances are you'll hear "Swing Time" said the most often. I never accepted that as my final answer. "Top Hat" is my all time favorite Fred & Ginger movie. It is one of my desert island films.
Lets assume someone has never seen a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film (which should be your first cue they really aren't a film lover) "Top Hat" uses the formula most successful for the team. The concept of "mistaken identity".
Most Fred and Ginger films could be described as musical-comedies. They had some elements of screwball comedy with the female chasing after the male. Think of "Carefree" or the relationship with Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick. She is clearly the most dominate personalty of the two.
In "Top Hat" Fred plays Jerry Travers. An American tap dancing star who has signed to perform in a production being put on by producer Horace Hardwick (Horton). While working on a dance routine at Horace's apartment late one night, Dale Tremont (Rogers) is awaken on the floor below. It is such a shame at an expensive looking hotel such as this one has such thin walls, ceilings and floors! Dale complains to the manager and walks up the to the floor above to complain. This is where Jerry and Dale meet, and for him, it is love at first sight.
Through a series of mishaps Dale comes to think Jerry is really the married Horace Hardwick, the husband of her friend Madge (Broderick). And as a results wants nothing to do with him. Madge and Jerry do not understand as Madge keeps insisting Dale become more friendly with Jerry, while Dale tells Madge everything "Horace" has said to her. Causing a riff between Madge and the real Horace.
We would see variations of the plot in other Fred and Ginger films such as "The Gay Divorcee" and "Shall We Dance?". It was their most common formula. Here though in "Top Hat" I feel it works best.
The great thing about "Top Hat" is there really is no social message. I suppose you can read into certain elements. Horton was clearly a homosexual and was always presented as being in a loveless marriage. He even has domestic quarrels with his servent, Bates (Eric Blore), which resemble the bickering between a husband and wife. You can also see more conservative morals as compared to today's standard. Dale would not think of being with a married man. How many films can we think of today which deal with affairs?
But "Top Hat" is largely pure Hollywood escapism at its best. It is sheer fluff. The pleasure of the film comes in Fred & Ginger's dancing. The Irving Berlin score, including "Top Hat, White Tie & Tails", "Isn't It A Lovely Day", and perhaps the most memorable number in the film and the one most associated with Fred & Ginger, "Cheek to Cheek". Their dancing in this number is easily one of the most iconic moments in film history. Up there is Gable saying "frankly my dear, I don't give a damn", Brando's "I coulda been a contender" speech and the closing moments of "Casablanca".
Remembering America was still in a depression when this film was released, 1935, "Top Hat" allows the viewer to forget the hardships of daily life as they watch characters stay at fancy hotels and take weekend trips to Italy, as if it is all part of the norm. This is what movies were capable of doing at one time. Make us forget our daily routine and show us, "how the other side" lived.
"Top Hat" was originally a stage play, written by the Hungarian team of Sandor Farago and Aladar Laszlo and Karoly Noti. None of whom unfortunately received screen credit. It was directed by Mark Sandrich. Probably the team's most trusted director. Sandrich would direct 5 Fred & Ginger films in total, including "The Gay Divorcee", "Follow the Fleet", "Carefree" and "Shall We Dance?". The film was nominated for 4 Oscars, "Best Picture" and "Best Song" being two of them. And was one of the highest grossing films of the year. Collecting more than 3 million dollars!
For sheer Hollywood pleasure, Fred & Ginger's dancing, a terrific Irving Berlin score, all done with style and sophistication "Top Hat" is one of the masterpieces of cinema.