Thursday, July 31, 2008


I read this on it was an article by one of my favorite critics, Mr. Michael Wilmington, formerly of the Chicago Tribune. He is now contributing to this website. It resembles an article I wrote earlier about this very subject, it is called "Superheroes Rescue Hollywood".

Let’s ask the obvious psycho-question first: Isthe real reason we’re getting so many superhero big bucks spectaculars this summer -- Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Hancock, Hellboy 2 and now the all-conquering The Dark Knight, (and also, if you want to stretch a point, Indiana Jones and the super-heroine of Wall-E) -- is the real engine behind all this super-ness, the fact that we feel weaker or more vulnerable or put-upon? A tanking economy, a messed up foreign policy, failing old media and a planet in peril -- don’t they all nudge us into wanting to imagine ourselves as super-powered (if sometimes tormented) heroes and heroines?Of course. Batman and Superman themselves were born out of the Depression and thrived during WW2; all their antecedent-heroes just spin out the fantasy further. If you’re feeling weak, you dream you’re a titan. If you‘re down and maybe out, you dream of spectacular victories. And maybe you get them.The really unusual coup for The Dark Knight, though, is its critical grand slam. I haven’t read all the reviews, 95% on Rotten Tomatoes last I looked. But this movie seems to be getting all the near-unanimous plaudits that The Rules of the Game, to name one initially neglected classic , didn’t (at first) or that Rio Bravo, Vertigo or Singin‘ in the Rain to name three genre masterpieces, didn’t either. Not that it doesn‘t deserve its good press. Not that Chris Nolan isn’t something of a wizard. Not that The Dark Knight isn’t personal art as well as mass commerce. But critics used to try to be seekers and arbiters of the great and unusual, as well as affirmers of public taste when it‘s right on -- as with the triumphs of the great popular movie artists like Chaplin, Spielberg and Hitchcock. I don’t have any trouble enjoying The Dark Knight. Or finding it. But I hope we’re all just as alert and celebratory when the next under-appreciated “Rules of the Game“ or well-appreciated Citizen Kane comes along.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Film Review: Faithless

"Faithless" **** (out of ****)

"No common failure whether it be sickness or bankruptcy or professional misfortune, will reverberate so cruelly and deeply in the unconscious as a divorce. It penetrates the seat of all anguish forcing it to life. With one cut it slices more deeply than life can ever reach."
Botho Strauss

Liv Ullmann's "Faithless" starts off with this quote, as it is said in a voice-over, over a black screen. "Faithless" was released in the United States back in 2001. It was written by the great Ingmar Bergman and directed by perhaps his greatest muse, Ullmann. Bergman didn't direct the film because after the 1984 U.S. release of "After the Rehearsal" Bergman swore off directing. He did still however direct many Swedish television movies and plays.

At this time in Bergman's life, as we can assume, the master felt death gained closer and closer on him, Bergman started to clear out his closet so to speak. His screenplays in the 1990s and early 2000s were reflections on his past, his childhood, his parent's relationship and as is the case with this film, an affair the filmmaker was involved in.

Ingmar Bergman has not been shy to admit his personal failings. He was known to have relationships with his actresses, including Liv Ullmann, the two had a child together, while Bergman was married to another woman. Is "Faithless" based on their affair? I can't say, but it doesn't really matter. "Faithless" is not so much about the actually affair as it is about the guilt associated with it. It haunts the character in this film and we can assume correctly haunts the writer as well.

Watching "Faithless" again I was struck by how much of a confession the film plays out as. Bergman makes very little attempt to disassociate himself from the material. One of the characters in the film is even named "Bergman". You simply cannot talk me out of believing this character is Ingmar Bergman himself. The film was also shot on his island, Faro and in Ingmar Bergman's house.

The story has an old man, Bergman (played by the great actor Erland Josephson) alone on his island preparing to write a story. A young woman named Marianne (Lena Endre) visits him. She is a 40-ish year old actress. She acts out a story of infidelity between herself and a man named David (Krister Henriksson), clearly Bergman as a younger man. And the effects the affair had on her marriage to a famous conductor, Markus (Thomas Hanzon) and her 9 year old daughter Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). The character Bergman was married to a woman named Marianne and this leads to an interesting question. Is the Marianne who visits Bergman real? Is she simply a character in his story? Is she the real Marianne? Or is she just a ghost? "Faithless" doesn't answer these questions and to be honest it is just as well.

When we first see Bergman and Marianne together, Bergman is sitting at his desk. He opens a drawer and takes out some photos. One is of a young girl (Isabelle) then other we only see the bottom half of the face. We cannot make it out, but, it resembles Liv Ullmann a bit. Suddenly Marianne's voice is heard. She wants Bergman to "describe her character" when he does she appears.

The film now shifts from their conversations and flashbacks of the story Marianne is telling. Liv Ullmann, who had directed another Bergman script "Private Confessions" proves herself to be a good director. I don't want to say she merely copies Bergman's style but we can see the influence Bergman has had on her. She too likes lots of close-ups of character's faces. One interesting scene has Bergman and Marianne sitting by a window. The sun shines brightly through. Bergman draws the shade halfway down. In long shots the characters are in the dark. In close-ups there is dim light hitting the side of Marianne's face. When she discusses the first time she and David slept together she pulls up the shade in a sense, bringing light on the situation. It is a very clever use of lighting.

Few filmmakers have used cinema in such a confessional way. As we watch "Faithless" I sometimes felt I'm seeing and hearing things I shouldn't. I actually felt emotional pain. I was starting to hurt inside. Bergman is able to connect with the viewer that strongly. Many of us live with guilt. And those memories haunt us. We hate ourselves when we think of our actions and why we didn't react differently in a given situation. Bergman uses cinema as a form of therapy. He is sharing the most personal details of his life with strangers. That is partly what makes "Faithless" so appealing. It is very risky to share so much with an audience. What if they don't respond kindly? That is what makes Ingmar Bergman so brave. He is willing to put so much on the line. As an amateur filmmaker myself, I never like to tell personal stories. I keep my life out of my stories and collect inspiration from other movies, music and literature. So a director like Bergman I find fascinating for that reason.

The film ends with Bergman and Marianne separating and again I wondered about her. Even if she wasn't real I don't think it matters to Bergman. His loneliness and guilt have taken over his life. Like a holy confessional Bergman needs to confess his sins to whomever will listen. Now, which Bergman am I talking about?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: Les Biches

"Les Biches" **** (out of ****)

A beautiful socialite named Frederique (Stephane Audran) notices a young artist (Jacqueline Sassard) drawing a picture of a doe on the sidewalk. The two ladies soon speak and it is clear there is an attraction between them. And so starts Claude Chabrol's deadly game between lovers in "Les Biches".

Much has always been made of the film's title. Some people may have the urge to call the film "les bitches". This is not correct. It is difficult to write down the pronunciation of the word but translated it has a double meaning. "Biches" means doe, as in the animal or young girl in slang. Though when the title credits roll and the film's title appears the translation underneath reads "bad girls".

It is hard to say what exactly Chabrol had in mind with the film's title though if we accept the idea "bad girls" Chabrol makes it quite clear why one would consider them that.

"Les Biches" was released in 1968. Chabrol hadn't quite made the masterpieces he would become universally known for. At this time under his belt were titles such as "Les Bonnes Femmes" and "Le Beau Serge" (regarded by many as the first film of the French New Wave). But his masterpieces would come after this film. "Les Biches", Chabrol says, was "the first film which I made exactly as I wished." This film would set Chabrol in the direction most of his films would follow. Showing us the private lives of the rich and the deep dark secrets which lie within them. His film "A Double Tour", made before "Les Biches" was another early example but "Le Beau Serge" and "Les Bonnes Femmes" were looks at the lower, working class.

In "Les Biches" Chabrol takes aim at the wealthy. To say a murder happens in the film is not a spoiler. This is a Claude Chabrol film after all. Murder is second nature in his plots. But "Les Biches" is not so much about murder. It is a power struggle for control. The film is about seduction, love, jealousy and identity thief. It is about people who say one thing and do another, characters which are question marks. This point is perfectly illustrated in the young artist's name, Why.

"Les Biches" follows both Frederique and Why as they travel to Frederique's winter estate in St. Tropez along with two male guest, Robeque (Henri Attal) and Riais (Dominique Zardi), a homosexual couple. At first "Les Biches" does not seem to lead on it is a thriller. The film just seems to be about the relationship between the women but one day a man, Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) enters the picture. At first he seems bewitched by Why, when the two meet at a Frederique's house, during a poker game. They spend a night together. This causes Frederique to become jealous. She steals Paul away from Why, apologizing all the time.

Nearly all the performances in the film are perfect. Stephane Audran, whom at the time was married to Chabrol, is amazing to watch. At the same time her face reveals nothing yet we understand her so well. Not since Isabelle Huppert has someone been able to do that so well. Audran was such an important ingredient in Chabrol's film. Her sleek beauty was perfect for Chabrol's sinister look at the upper class.

Trintignant and Sassard are also right on with their performances. Sassard at first seems to be the innocent fool getting swept into a lifestyle well over her head and Trintignant as the unsuspecting man caught in the middle of a menage a trois.

But if there is one place Chabrol goes wrong it is with the gay couple. I've seen "Les Biches" several times. It was one of the first Chabrol films I ever saw. I always thought of the film as a masterpiece, one of the master's great films, but, it wasn't until recently I noticed how out of place Robeque and Riais are. Chabrol uses the characters as a sort of comic relief but they are not needed. Usually a filmmaker will use humor to release some tension created in scenes to give the audience a break from the action. But the way Chabrol works there is no such tension. It all builds up slowly in very subtle ways. We don't need a break from it. These characters belong in a different film. I cannot think of another film where Chabrol uses such over-the-top characters. I don't know why I wasn't bothered by it before but it is the only thing about the film I don't like.

But that is a small criticism when there is so much to praise about the film and discuss. While the gay relationship is treated as a joke, the lesbian relationship is taken very serious. From the women's first meeting in the park until the end we sense Frederique is in control. This is mostly done by her clothes, for instance in early scenes she wears men's hats. At the poker game, where Paul is introduced, it is Frederique who is playing cards with the men, while Why is sent to get drinks. And even though there are some erotic scenes, the camera lingers on Why's body as she takes a bath. Chabrol is ultimately interested in the struggle for power between the two. Is Frederique really in control or does Why let her think she is?

It all ends in a way some viewers might find anticlimactic. It seems heavily influence by Ingmar Bergman's "Persona" in fact, released two years earlier. It leaves many questions open but I don't think Chabrol could have ended the film any better. It seems to represent a vicious pattern in human behaviour. This is not a film I would recommend one begin their Chabrol collection with, "Le Boucher" may be a better place to start, but "Les Biches" truly is one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Film Review: Shutter

"Shutter" ** (out of ****)

Before I watched "Shutter" I didn't know much about it. It wasn't until the opening credits began I realized this is a remake of a Thai horror film and is yet another entry into the "J-horror" genre.

Most recently I reviewed another "J-horror" film "One Missed Call" also released in 2008. Then there was "The Eye" which I have not gotten around to reviewing yet. In my review for "One Missed Call" I explained my dissatisfaction with this genre. There is a bit of a culture clash. I don't find these films scary. The premise of these films are often so goofy and off-the-wall I'm unable to understand how these films could actually scare someone.

"Shutter" like most films in the genre has deep psychological themes played out and I've noticed are commentaries on modern day technology. Think back to the film that started it all, "The Ring", there a video tape killed people. Then two films were made concerning phones; "One Missed Call" and "Phone" and now we have a film about cameras. The evil spirits travel through these devices to attack their prey. Are we correct to assume these films are warnings on the rapid technology making its way through Asia?

This remake of "Shutter" (the original was made in 2004) has a newlywed American couple; Ben (Joshua Jackson) and Jane (Rachel Taylor) Shaw on a business trip in Japan. Ben is a photographer, who use to live in Japan and has been called back by some old business partners; Bruno (David Denman) and Adam (Josh Hensley) to do a photo shoot for them.

Before arriving to their hotel Ben and Jane get into a car accident when Jane says someone was walking in the middle of the road on a dark night. Jane says she hit the woman, Ben says he saw nothing. The police are called and no traces of blood or a body are found. Later, the next day, the couple notices strange images on their photos. We find out these are called "spirit images". It is a way for the dead to contact the living. The images however are of the woman Jane says she hit. Could could this spirit possibly want from them?

"Shutter" doesn't work because it does nothing new or exciting. It is a by the numbers horror film with all the "scares" coming in all the right places. Luckily the film isn't very long, a mere 89 minutes (and that's including the ending credits, which you don't have to watch anyway).

The performances are somewhat effective. Jackson, known for his turn on "Dawson's Creek" goes back to the horror genre, he was in "Urban Legend" and had a brief role in one of the "Scream" movies. It seems his career has not gone anywhere since the end of that TV show so returned to a genre he thought his audience base would want to see him in. Taylor is a new face to me and reminds me of Naomi Watts and "Shutter" reminds me a bit of "The Ring", though this film doesn't go in all the loopy directions "The Ring" did.

The film was adapted by Luke Dawson. This is his first full length script, he wrote one short film before this. He might be the underlying problem with this movie. Who knows, maybe somehow a truly effective film could have been made dealing with an evil camera but Dawson doesn't know how to write a suspenseful scene. Or is it the fault of the director, Masayuki Ochiai, who doesn't know how to create a proper atmosphere? Either way there is just something slightly off about this film. The viewer is never taken in by the characters and their situations.

The best part of the film is the ending, and no, not because the film is over. The ending is somewhat clever as we learn all the twist and turns, which aren't that surprising, even if, like me, you never saw the original. There are only so many directions a film such as this could go in and the viewer pretty much has it figured out well before the end of the film.

If someone is looking to rent a decent "J-horror" film you have some better options. Though I didn't recommend "One Missed Call" check that out instead or rent "The Grudge" or a little known film, which luckily has not been given an American remake, "Tale of Two Sisters". "Shutter" is close to the bottom of the list.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Film Review: Superhero Movie

"Superhero Movie" * (out of ****)

Given all the hype about the recent Batman movie, "The Dark Knight" and the box-office records it is breaking, I decided to rent this superhero "spoof". Those who know me or read this blog know of my strong contempt for the comic book genre. I find the films to be mindless and pathetic. All of them are pretty much a waste of time. At least all the ones I've seen. So it was with some pleasure I went about watching this film.

"Superhero Movie" is just as big a mess as real superhero movies. I thought the film would belittle the brain dead genre instead it becomes part of it. "Superhero Movie" makes no attempt to show the absurdity of the genre. Why are there superheroes in the first place? How do they get these powers? And why do they always wear tights? Craig Mazin, the suppose "writer" and "director" of this "film" doesn't make one attempt to show the stupidity of the basic idea of superheroes.

What the film primarily mocks is the original "Spider-Man" film. Which was made back in 2002. Way to go to keep up with the times! The film follows "Spider-Man"s formula even by casting actors who look like cartoon versions of the originals. There is Rick Riker (Drake Bell) an unpopular loser with no friends who drools over the pretty neighbor Jill Johnson (Sara Paxton) who doesn't know he exist.

One day on a field trip to a science lab a super dragonfly bites Rick on the neck giving him superhuman powers. And along the way he meets Lou Landers (Christopher McDonald) who runs the science lab and has created a device to end sickness as we know it. Lou's nephew goes to the same school as Rick, Lance Landers (Ryan Hansen) who is also dating Jill.

And as in "Spider-Man" Rick lives with his grandparents (Leslie Nielsen and Marion Ross) after his parents died, in a scene which I think is suppose to resemble "Batman".

All of the jokes in this film are pretty lame and spend way too much time on flatulence! One sequence goes on for minutes! But "Superhero Movie" takes no chances. It doesn't dwell into the mindset of the genre. The "jokes" in the film do not come from spoofing superheroes but from the story itself. For instance. It is suppose to be funny that Leslie Nielsen keeps telling Rick that now he has superpowers he can pick up hot babes, though he doesn't use the word babes, but another word which begins which a "b".

Craig Mazin wrote "Scary Movie 3" and part 4. It has the same kind of humor. I actually liked "Scary Movie 4" and the more recent "Epic Movie" but the genre is getting a little old. Only once in a while do these films work. In order for parody to work you have to show the viewer why you are mocking something in the first place. Why is it worth making fun of? Explain that to the audience. Let your jokes come from the basic idea of what you mock.

If you want a more clever "Spider-Man" rip-off listen to "Werid Al" Yankovic's "Ode to a Superhero". At least that was somewhat clever.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Film Review: The Last Mistress

"The Last Mistress" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

It was a little less than two weeks ago I reviewed Asia Argento in the film "Boarding Gate". I didn't care for that film very much but said I was indeed quite curious to see more from Argento. I didn't find her to be a great actress or even one who seems to deserve the label which has been placed upon her, that of "beauty" but she has a face I would describe as "interesting". So it was with great excitement I walked into Catherine Breillat's "The Last Mistress".

Having watched this film on the heels of Jacques Rivette's "The Duchess of Langeais" this film is everything I hoped that one would be. I said "Duchess" lacked passion not so with this film. We know every little dirty thought going on in the lead character's mind. And that should not come as a surprise considering this film's director. We sense the longing and frustration within these people. We never quite sensed much in Rivette's characters.

"The Last Mistress" deals with the marriage between Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aatou, whom Breillant supposedly discovered in a cafe) and Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). He is a libertine, a man of lose morals. She comes from a wealthy family with good standing. It is discovered, thanks largely to viscomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale) and comtesse d' Artelles (Yolande Moreau), that the young man has been having an affair with Vellini (Asia Argento). The old couple take great pride in delivering the news as Prony even goes to Vellini's, whom he too had an affair with, to tell her the news of Ryno's marriage. When word gets to Hermangarde's grandmother (Claude Sarraute) who also arranged the marriage, she decides she and Ryno need to have a heart to heart talk. So Ryno confesses everything and tells her the story of how he met Vellini. The rest of the film is told in flashbacks.

Breillat has been a director I rarely take pleasure in watching her work. Her films are highly explicit and usually deal with female sexuality. I've only seen two of her films, the last two she had made, "Anatomy of Hell" and "Sex is Comedy". Some of her other credits include "Fat Girl" and "Romance". As I understand it her films many times are extremely vulgar. Her films are not meant to excite us but rather make us think about sex and the gender roles associated with it. But after watching two of her films I felt the issues in her films are more interesting than the way she presents them. "Anatomy of Hell" was one of the most disturbing times I had watching a movie. Because her comedy "Sex is Comedy" wasn't as extreme I decided that was perhaps my favorite. Here though with "The Last Mistress" Breillat has made a near masterpiece.

Breillat tells a more mainstream story but one still dealing with love and sex, obsession and gender roles. The film has some nude scenes but they are not vulgar. Breillat shows a great restraint and lets the characters unmask their emotions instead of taking off their clothes. This is both good and bad. I wish Breillat would have kept everything exactly the same about this film but added more sex because the sex is not porn in this film but a device used to further illustrate obsession and desire.

As for Ms. Argento. Well, she's better here than she was in "Boarding Gate". I'm still not convinced she is a great actress but was suited for the role. She is not a beauty but in this role has a great deal of sex appeal which was strongly needed for the character. And I must admit when she is on-screen I did take notice. Roxane Mesquida is a greater beauty but doesn't have the screen energy Argento has. As for her acting. She is not quite there yet but neither was Marilyn Monroe. What makes them famous is there on-screen presence. Whatever one says about Argento she is interesting to watch.

"The Last Mistress" also has some great cinematography by Giorgos Arvanitis, who has shot several Theo Angelopoulos films and has shot several Breillant films including "Romance" and "Fat Girl". He is able to perfectly capture Ryno and Vellini's desires with close-ups and taking one object and making us think of another and all the sexual implications of it.

Though I've not been a fan of Breillat's work in the past here she shows she is a capable director. A filmmaker of great craft. The film was even nominated for a palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival and judging from what I've seen so far this year, it is one of the year's best! Bravo Ms. Breillat!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Film Review: The Duchess of Langeais

"The Duchess of Langeais" *** (out of ****)

"The Duchess of Langeais" is a story about love and sex (yes, sometimes they are two different things) two things which the characters in this film never really seem to experience.

The film was based on a novel by Balzac and directed by that great French filmmaker, one of the founders of the Nouvelle vague, Jacques Rivette. But sadly this teaming doesn't amount to much or at least what could have been.

Our two lead characters are Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar) and Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gerard). She is a bored duchess, whose husband is never seen and he is a celebrated general who has returned from battle. She sees him at a party and thinks he must have amusing stories. She is told he is a bore, but it makes no difference to her, she seems attracted to him.

But even if she is attracted to him she never shows it. The two people, like countless others in love stories, are doomed to be apart. She likes to play mind games. She invites him to call upon her, at her home, at 8 o'clock. He arrives and though she remembered he would arrive it turns out it is the exact time of a ball she planned on attending. Or knowing he is waiting in the next room the duchess tells her servants to ask him to wait, while she does nothing. It is all mind manipulation to show him who is in control. He may be a general but in the battle of the sexes he is a private.

These characters know others gossip about them. Every night Arman visits the Duchess, as everyone thinks they are having an affair, but we never even see these characters so much as kiss. Understandably Armand grows tired of this and warns the Duchess he needs more from this relationship.

"The Duchess of Langeais" is basically the story of doomed lovers who never quite see eye to eye. When he is ready to tell her he loves her she doesn't want to hear it and when she is ready to tell him, he is gone.

From the very first shot, which is of a church, the viewer knows what kind of film this will turn out to be. It is a very slow moving picture. What struck me most about it was the sound design. There is little to no music on the soundtrack only the sound of waves and seagulls.

What stops "Duchess" from being a great film is Rivette doesn't film this story with any passion. How strange for a love story. Even though the characters deny themselves love Rivette should have been able to visually show us a burning passion within them. There is no spark, no audience involvement to this film. There is also little chemistry between these characters. Guillaume Depardieu lacks a sexual intensity which his father use to have. Watch Gerard in the French classic "Loulou". Guillaume doesn't have much of a screen presence. It's hard to understand why any woman would be interested in him, especially a woman like the Duchess, who could have her pick of any man.

What is also disappointing about this film is Rivette doesn't do anything visually exciting with this film. It is told conventionally. I'm not suggesting Rivette take us back to the 1960s and gives us jump cuts but there is very little compelling to the eye.

Though there is something to recommend about the film. There are some wonderful shots of the sea and landscape from cinematographer William Lubtchansky, who shots Truffaut's "The Woman Next Door" and Godard's "Nouvelle vague". Also, despite my feeling the film goes on a bit too long, it is fittingly paced. It drags a bit but so does the character's feelings. It was also a pleasure to see Michel Piccoli as Vidame a relative of the Duchess, who sometimes gives love advice.

Rivette's is a great director. He is probably best known for "Celine and Julie Go Boating" but has made some good romance movies including "Va Savior" and his masterpiece "La Belle Noiseuse". "The Duchess of Langeais" is not a great movie despite showing off Rivette's craftsmanship. And that's too bad.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Film Review: Factory Girl

"Factory Girl" *** (out of ****)

It was about a month ago I reviewed the Steve Buscemi comedy "Interview" which also starred Sienna Miller. Watching that film I praised Miller as a wonderful talent. I was so shocked by her performance that I felt she stole the film from Buscemi. So I decided to see more with her to check if her other performances were just as engaging. I'm now here ready to admit I've fallen in love with Sienna Miller.

That may not sound quite professional to hear but Miller is a true beauty and an amazing acting talent. In "Factory Girl" she has a way of lighting up the screen. Seeing her makes me smile. She has the most radiant screen presence of most better known actresses I can think of today. There may have been other actresses who could have played this part, Heather Graham comes to mind, but no one could bring Miller's presence.

"Factory Girl" is based on the life of Edie Sedgwick a model/actress/party girl who associated with Andy Warhol (Guy Pearce). She appeared in many of his "movies" and the two were inseparable. As soon as Warhol saw Edie he knew she had the makings of a star. Her beauty was undeniable.

Sadly Edie Sedgwick's life and career were short lived. She died at 28. Had no money. Became addicted to drugs. And had most of the people she thought were her friends, including Warhol, turn their back on her.

Director George Hickenlopper does a decent job re-creating the times but does however get powerful performances out of Pearce and Miller. We sense the scenes involving Warhol's "Silver Factory" may be as accurate as can be. Everyone takes speed, talks about pretentious art and engaged in free love while the strange Warhol collects these characters for his amusement.

Those characters include Edie's friend Chuck (Jimmy Fallon) and Richie Berlin (Mena Suvari). I've never thought much of Fallon. I probably shouldn't say this but he just seems like a no talent two bit actor who is not under any circumstances funny. But here he is watchable as Edie's gay friend. I think his performance may be as good as it is does we see so little of him. Suvari is also wonderful. I've been a fan of hers since "American Beauty" but I don't think she has done anything which has quite lived up to that film.

There is also a sub-plot involving Edie and a folk singer (Darth Vader himself, Hayden Christensen) who many feel bears a strong resemblance to Bob Dylan, though Dylan's name is never said. The character is simply billed as "musician". It seems Mr. Dylan was going to sue the filmmakers for their portrayal. Others claim "Factory Girl" is a bit fast and loose with its facts as there seems to be no documented proof Edie and Dylan ever had an affair. Though others claim some of Dylan's songs were inspired by her.

The film comes very close to presenting Sedgwick as a victim who had the world turn against her despite her good intentions. Warhol is presented as a heartless worm. A vindictive puppet master who used people for his own pleasure and once he grew tired of them or felt a threat from them he deserted them.

If the film had become very sentimental in its portrayal of Sedgwick I think many viewers may tune out. But the film rise above melodrama. There is no loud, sad music which swells at heartfelt scenes and last minute confessions after Sedgwick's death. But still several critics did not like the film. Two whom I trust the most; Michael Wilmington, then of the Chicago Tribune and Stephen Holden of the New York Times were not pleased with the film. Wilmington wrote the film is "lively but chaotic and evasive. The period re-creation switches on and off." But even he acknowledges Ms. Miller's performance saying she "can seduce the camera". Holden on the other hand had little love for the film describing the film as "a magazine layout masquerading as a film."

Critics who disregard this film I think are missing a larger point, where most of their focus should be. Is "Factory Girl" a great film? No. But people should watch this film for Sienna Miller. We have the makings of a star. Watch the film for no other reason than to see Sienna Miller.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Film Review: Boarding Gate

"Boarding Gate" ** (out of ****)

I'm a little late in the game when it comes to the director and star of "Boarding Gate". The director is French filmmaker Olivier Assayas and the star Italian actress Asia Argento.

Apparently the two have a very large cult following which I have been completely unaware of. Assayas was a film critic turned director who has directed a segment in last year's disappointing "Paris je t'aime" and the film many see "Boarding Gate" as the sequel to, "Demonlover". He also made a film with his ex-wife, Maggie Cheung, "Clean" (which I haven't seen yet).

Asia Argento, daughter of famed Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento is seen by some as a screen vixen. Many people speak of her beauty. I have only seen her in "XXX" the Vin Diesel action film, which I honestly cannot remember her in (she made quite the impression on me huh?) and Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette", where she had a very small role. She can currently be seen in "Mother of Tears" directed by her father. Which had a very limited run in Chicago.

If "Boarding Gate" is any indication of what to expect from Ms. Argento she seems to try and walk that fine line between sexy and sleazy. Just look at this film's poster and the way the film was marketed. I will include another poster to fully illustrate this point. She also seems to be a bad-ass. A modern femme fatale in a sense.

"Boarding Gate" and Assayas took quite a beating when the film premiered, out of competition, at Cannes. Assayas' work seems to be controversial as his works causes much critical debate. One group loves him while the other thinks he makes trash. In fact in an interview with IFC Assayas said "I did not want to be concerned with making something that was in good taste" when asked if "Boarding Gate" should be perceived as sexy or sleaze. The film took nearly a year to find a distributor.

The film follows Sandra (Argento) the former lover of businessman Miles Rennberg (Michael Madsen) who is now in debt looking for a way out after some questionable business moves. Miles was married at the time he was with Sandra and their relationship seems to involve several layers which the viewer has to play a guessing game to figure out. The two seemed to have a S&M relationship but did Miles use Sandra to get information from competing businessmen by having Sandra sleep with them? I have a hunch he did, but neither character comes out and says it. The dialogue in there scenes together plays off as two people continuing a conversation from the day before. Meaning the viewer is somehow in the middle. We don't know what was said before and where the conversation will go. The characters speak in "code".

Sandra wants to end her relationship with Miles as she is now in love (?) with Lester (Carl Ng) another married man, whom she works with, along with his wife Sue (Kelly Lin).

Sandra kills Miles (this is not a spoiler, director Assayas has mentioned this part of the plot in interviews) and seeks the help of Lester to get her out of the country. He agrees to help her by getting her a passport and putting her on a plane to Hong Kong, where the two will meet. But when in Hong Kong things go wrong as now Sandra fears for her life.

Assayas says the film is based on a true incident but the case has not yet went to trial. Even if all of this or half of it was true the biggest problem with "Boarding Gate" is there is very little suspense. Assayas does little to create any true tension. Some scenes work and supply us with some gripping moments and shocks us but much of the picture does not.

Normally when you make a film like this the viewer becomes involved in the hero or anti-hero's situation. We see them slip deeper and deeper into trouble up against a wall. We come to relate to them. The viewer can sense their desperation. Think of the work of David Mamet and films such as "The Spanish Prisoner" or "Heist". Think of Neil Jordan's "The Crying Game" of any film with Linda Florentino, who I think Argento can be compared to, at least in this film. Argento simply doesn't have the acting chops to do it. We ultimately don't care about her. Some blame must be placed on Assayas as well. If the material wasn't in the screenplay, which he wrote, you can't take it out on the stars. But Argento never makes us believe she is in trouble. That she truly is a victim who has been caught in a greater plot.

Some critics liked the film a lot. I was at first surprised to read the New York Times recommend it and then I saw who wrote the article, Manohla Dargis. She writes on the effects this film will have on Argento career "Boarding Gate" did do was reconfirm Ms. Argento as one of contemporary cinema's most fascinating creatures." Really? There must not be many fascinating creatures in contemporary cinema. Variety on the other hand said the film is "a limp, sleazy inanity". I wouldn't go that far but the film seems to fall somewhere in the middle. It is neither entertaining or boring.

According to an interview Assayas did with GreenCine when asked about a theme this film has in connection to other films he has made he said "I see a connection between sex and the relationship created by control and power within the capitalist system." Now I can see how Sandra uses sex as a way to gain power. Sex is never done out of pleasure or love in this film. But "Boarding Gate" as a commentary on our capitalist system? Talk about overachieving! I must have been sleeping during those parts.

If there is any reason to watch "Boarding Gate" it is because of Asia Argento. There is an interesting character lurking beneath what Assayas has created. But I never felt the character was fully fleshed out and developed. I said she seems like she it never over her head, and there are moments when that is true, yet there are times, we wonder how did she get into this situation if she is so smart? She reacts to situations in any way the plot demands her to even if that goes against what has been establish about the character previously.
Olivier Assayas I think knew he had a slim story here so it was decided to place more emphasis on Asia Argento. She prances around half of the movie in her underwear. And I'm not complaining but I think Assayas should have rewritten this film. Take the film into darker places. Go deeper with this story. And rewrite the Sandra character so she is more consistent. Then "Boarding Gate" would be worth departing on.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Film Review: Satantango

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

The famous opening shot of Bela Tarr's "Satantango" is done in a single take lasting seven minutes. It is of a herd of cows walking across an empty landscape as the camera pans from right to left.

This is not exactly the kind of shot which would thrill most American audiences. And it may be for that reason Hungarian filmmaker Tarr has not quite gained fame in this country.

"Satantango" is a seven hour film consisting of extreme long shots done in single takes lasting minutes on average. It was shot in black&white, as are most of Tarr's films.

Originally released in 1994 "Satantango" went on to achieve some fame on the international festival circuit. Only now has Facets released the film on DVD. It will be available next week in a three disc set. Since I use to intern at Facets, and this was one of the films I worked on, I received an advance copy. When the DVD is available to the public, it will become, in my opinion, the major DVD event of the year! Finally this masterpiece can now find a larger audience.

Going back to the first image in the film, many people are going to shake their heads, why? What does this mean? Why is Tarr showing us cows? I think this shot is important for many reasons. First of all it sets up the fact the film takes place in a small village. We are among the poor, working class. The land is deserted. No one takes care of it and no one seems to be watching those cows. And could the herd of cows represent the characters in this film? At one point we hear a character describe the others as a "herd". The characters may be wondering aimlessly just like the cows searching for meaning, a purpose. Of course these aren't answers, merely suggestions.

But "Satantango" is filled with images like this with shots which run just as long. Tarr leaves the camera on moments viewers will find boring, whether is it animals, landscapes or a character's face, Tarr's films are loaded with scenes other directors would throw out and leave on the cutting room floor. But Bela Tarr and "Satantango" represents a different kind of story-telling.

I think the reason Tarr has shot last so long is to put us in a trance, to lull us. I'm reminded of the story told about Werner Herzog. Supposedly he hypnotized his cast in the film "Heart of Glass" to get a dreamlike quality out of them. Tarr too wants to hypnotize us. He wants to viewer to feel uneasy. He wants to attempt to calm us down. When you look at most American films with their rapid edits, the films consist mainly of cuts and jump cuts. Images flash before our eyes so fast sometimes we can't even register what we saw. Tarr comes from a tradition of filmmaking similar to Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos and Antonioni. He takes his time setting up a shot and lets the story move at its own rhythm.

There is not much of a plot to "Satantango". If the film had been told in a more conventional manner it would not take 7 hours to tell. The film follows 8 people from a small community who have put their money together just to be conned by two men thought to be dead; Irimias (Mihaly Vig) and Petrina (Putyi Horvath). These men promise a new life for the people by moving them to a new village where better work can be found. But the villagers not only are suspicious of the two men but each other as several have planned to steal the money themselves. Tarr seems to be making a commentary on greed and capitalism. Many critics regard the film as a commentary on the end of communism. I'm not sure I'm willing to go that far, as Tarr claims he is not a political filmmaker, but there is an undertone of corruption and greed. One character even says people are afraid of freedom but there is nothing to be afraid of. Order though can be frightening. Is this the freedom of democracy and the order of communism?

Despite the simple plot what makes "Satantango" such a must see are the visuals. Tarr gets some truly beautiful shots. The very first time we see the two con men they are walking in the middle of the street as a strong wind storm blows garbage around on the sidewalks. The shot last for two minutes but it is amazing. Another scene does a 360 degree turn, in a close-up, on a woman's face. What's the point? Not a clue, but fun to look at.

One scene which bothers a lot of people is a sequence where a young girl, Estike (Erika Bok) kills her cat. A lot of people wonder why would she do it. Why would Tarr have such a scene? I think this is a reflection on the hierarchy of power. The girl's mother bullies her as does her friend. But who can she bully? She picks on the cat. It is similar to the way the two strangers bully the town into giving them their money. Those who feel they are strong pick on the powerless and defenseless. What match is the cat for the young girl? The girl incidentally is on the cover of this DVD.

"Satantango" also marks, at the time, the second collaboration between novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Tarr. The two had worked on "Karhozat (Damnation)" previously and continued their work in "Werckmeister harmoniak (Werckmeister Harmony)" and Tarr's most recent film "A londoni ferfi (The Man From London)". These films show a shift in style on Tarr's part, from his early films which were docu-dramas which made social commentaries on communist life. Now Tarr has become more psychological.

And what about the film's title? The movie is divided into twelve chapters. Six of them move the story forward, 6 are flashbacks. The structure is suppose to resemble a tango. But what about the "satan" part? Is Tarr showing us hell on Earth? Are these characters experiencing hell? Remember the film Tarr made before this was called "Damnation". The very last scene in the film seems to suggest the end is near. The screen fades to black as we hear a character's voice over. The last words heard are of an impending war.

If there is a valid point of criticism (not comments like, the movie is too long, or in black&white, or it's in Hungarian) it is that at times you feel Tarr is making more of an experiment rather than a film. I also never seem to enjoy the last act of the movie. Or in this case, disc 3. Here the film shifts its focus from the townspeople to the con men. I love the first two disc and the way Tarr shows the village and the people and how everyone seems to fear the strangers. They have a mystic power over everyone. But once the film starts to focus more on them they seem harmless. Was this Tarr's point? People we fear are only human and should not be feared? Either way I lose interest in the film's final moments.

Facets has also included some special features including Tarr's rarely seen version of "Macbeth" which aired on Hungarian television in the early 80s. It was done in two shots.

Anyone who considers themself a film lover will be doing themself a great favor by buying this film. I know 7 hours is a long time to sit through. And I know it is in Hungarian. But after watching this film you will be seeing a master filmmaker at work. Anyone who thinks there is nothing interesting being done in cinema anymore has never seen a Bela Tarr film.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Top Ten Films Of 2002!

Here is another "top ten" list as we go back in time to celebrate some of the best films of previous years. I intended to make several of these list and now we are coming to the beginning of the decade. It was surprisingly not a bad year for cinema in 2002. I had so many four star films that it was actually difficult to only select ten. And there was an unusual amount of very good American films released in 2002. Here are my top ten favorites:

1. CHICAGO (Dir. Rob Marshall; U.S.) - I'm often accused of always putting sad, depressing movies on top of my list ("21 Grams", "The Passion of the Christ", and "United 93") but here is a good old fashion piece of Hollywood escapism. It does exactly what the movies are suppose to do, make us excited about them. Were there more heartfelt, emotion films released this year? You bet! But none were as much fun to watch as this, the eventual Oscar winner for "Best Picture".

2. 13 CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ONE THING (Dir. Jill Sprecher; U.S.) - Here is a film about our eternal search for happiness. This movie probably touched me on a more personal level than "Chicago". This is a great film which went under the radar. So few people took a chance and saw this film, a shame!

3. GANGS OF NEW YORK (Dir. Martin Scorsese; U.S.) - The first Scorsese film I can think of in recent memory which took a beating from some of the critics. Cited by many as "Oscar bait", part of Scorsese's attempt to (at the time) finally win a Oscar. But, I thought the critics were showing what type of pretentious Liberal jerks they are. Here was one of Scorsese's most visually striking films. It had amazing production design and great performances through-out the cast. I think Scorsese should have won his Oscar for this film.

4. THE PIANIST (Dir. Roman Polanski; France/Germany) - Perhaps the most haunting film I have seen on WW2 and the holocaust. It is, for me, more powerful than "Schindler's List". This is the film Polanski was born to make. If Scorsese wasn't going to win an Oscar that year I'm glad he lost to Polanski.

5. WE WERE SOLDIERS (Dir. Randall Wallace; U.S.) - Another film dealing with war, this one is about one of the first major battles in the Vietnam War. It starred Mel Gibson, and surprisingly had very intense, gritty battle scenes.

6. BLESS YOU, PRISON (Binecuvantata fii, inchisoare, Dir. Nicolae Margineanu; Romania) - Every director has one story they are born to make. One film which sums up everything they have been trying to accomplish their entire career, so it is with this film from one of Romania's greatest directors, Nicolae Margineanu. Based on a true story here is a film which shows us the hardship of life under communism.

7. HAPPY TIMES (Dir. Zhang Yimou; China) - The great Yimou is known for his more dramatic films but the master director takes a shot at comedy in this film which recalls Chaplin's "City Lights". It doesn't quite reach those heights it is however yet another example of Zhang Yimou's talents.

8. POSSESSION (Dir. Neil LaBute; U.S.) - Neil LaBute's more gentle film starring Gwyneth Paltrow is a sweet romantic movie which somehow managed to sweep me under its charms. Another rarely seen film which I think if people gave a chance they may enjoy.

9. INSOMNIA (Dir. Christopher Nolan; U.S.) - Nolan's follow-up to "Memento" is one of the few times we can say the remake is better than the original. Based on a Scandinavian film Nolan along with his cast, including Al Pacino and Robin Williams have created an intense, expertly directed, paced and written thriller.

10. ABOUT SCHMIDT (Dir. Alexander Payne; U.S.) - Jack Nicholson gives one of his best performances in Alexander Payne's American update of Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" as an elderly father (Nicholson) travels to stop his daughter from following in his footsteps.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Film Review: My Blueberry Nights

"My Blueberry Nights" *** (out of ****)

There's something about a film where a character heads out on the road in an attempt to find themself that appeals to me. I love self-discovery road movies whether it is Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries", Anthony Asquith's "The Browning Version" or Denise Hopper's "Easy Rider". We all have to try and make sense of this crazy world and sometimes we just need lots and lots of time by ourselves to figure it out.

Kar-Wai Wong's English language debut film, "My Blueberry Nights" isn't quite as good as the mentioned films but it follows in their spirit, especially "Easy Rider".

The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival (where it was nominated for the palme d'or) back in 2007 where it was universally slammed. Since that time Wong cut the film by 20 minutes. I never saw the original version so unfortunately I cannot tell you if the changes were needed and/or what impact the cuts make.

As "My Blueberry Nights" stands as is, it is a nice slice-of-life film. Norah Jones makes her film debut playing Elizabeth. A New Yorker with a broken heart who finds comfort talking to the owner of a diner, Jeremy (Jude Law) who informs her of her ex's cheating, when the two eat at his diner.

Jeremy and Elizabeth don't spend much time together but a connection grows quickly. At first we think the film will be about them falling in love as Elizabeth recovers from her recent lost. But instead Elizabeth settles for the blueberry pies Jeremy makes before heading off on the road.

Elizabeth goes to Memphis and Nevada where she finds odd jobs as she meets a strange group of characters. All who have lost something important in their life because of failed relationships.

In Memphis, where Elizabeth works as a waitress in the morning and a bartender at night, she meets Arnie (David Strathairn) a cop with a drinking problem and himself brokenhearted as he and his wife, Sue Lynn (Rachel Weisz) have separated. Arnie can't get himself to accept these recent developments as he sees Sue with a new guy. In the meantime, Arnie seems to enjoy Elizabeth's company. Elizabeth seems to be the only person whose company Arnie enjoys.

While in Nevada, working in a casino, she meets Leslie (Natalie Portman) a poker player who has just lost a fortune. The two girls start talking as Elizabeth casually reveals the amount of her life savings, which, wouldn't you know it, is exactly the amount Leslie needs to get back in the poker game as she promises not only to give Elizabeth back her original amount but also a third of her winnings. And if she should lose, she promises to sell Elizabeth her brand new car.

"My Blueberry Nights", like Kar-Wai's other films, including two recent masterpieces "In the Mood for Love" and "2046" as well as "Happy Together" is a story about love's missed connections. About people who just don't see what is in front of them. It is about failed people and failed relationships. Whether is it between a husband and wife, Arnie and Sue, a daughter and father, Leslie and her never seen father, who taught her how to play poker, who may or may not be dying or between Elizabeth and her ex-boyfriend.

Lots of American critics didn't like this film, but, I found their reasons unfair. Whenever a foreign director makes a English language film, critics always like to say there is a language problem which the director couldn't overcome. Don't believe me? Here's what Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips had to say about this film. "The film may be set in America, and shot in America, and co-written with Wong by Lawrence Block. But its creamy abstractions, both visual and verbal, become a perceptual blur." Not convincing enough for you? Okay, try Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News. "Everything is slightly off, perhaps in part because this is Wong's first feature film in English." And A.O. Scott of the New York Times writes how the America presented in this film is one we will not recognize.

These complaints I feel miss the point. "My Blueberry Nights" is a film about moods and emotions not so much about plot. The film's beauty comes in the cinematography, which was by Darius Khondji, who shot Bernardo Bertolucci's "Stealing Beauty", Woody Allen's "Anything Else" and Roman Polanski's "The Ninth Gate".

Critics who complain the film doesn't show America correctly or believably are kidding themselves. This is not a valid point. This story could take place anywhere. So why did Kar-Wai chose America. He says after meeting Norah Jones he wanted to make a movie with her. In "Filmmaker Magazine" Kar-Wai says "she has a very interesting face and a very interesting personality. She has so many variations."

"My Blueberry Nights" is not a perfect film. I felt it didn't examine Elizabeth enough. But like any desert or blueberry pie, it has a sweetness to it which may not be filling, but is at the very least enjoyable at that moment.

Film Review: In Bruges

"In Bruges" *** (out of ****)

I walked into Martin McDonagh's "In Bruges" expecting a Quentin Tarantino, wham bam thank ya mame kind of film. Something loaded with violence and hip dialogue. In some ways it is, but, "In Bruges" goes beyond that and is a film with a surprising conscience.

Colin Farrell plays Ray, a hitman who has just botched a job badly. Now he and a friend, Ken (Bredan Gleeson), another hitman, sent as a sort of guardian, are on the lamb in Bruges (and to answer your question, it is in Belgium) awaiting a call from their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) with further instrustions.

The comedy in "In Bruges" comes from the relationship between Ray and Ken. Ken takes on the role of tourist, wanting to sight see and visit all of the famous spots in Bruges (if such a thing exist) while Ray counts the seconds they are there. At one point he even says, in the middle of the town, "Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn't, so it doesn't."

And this bickering continues over and over again. Making Ray the worst travel companion in the world. But notice something else about this dialogue. There is nothing politically correct about it. Ray says just about anything he feels like. Remarks about midgets, mentally disable, Belgium, blacks. It makes no difference to him and oddly, I found myself laughing at things I knew I shouldn't.

But "In Bruges" starts to get a bit more serious minded at times. The conscience of the film comes into play as Ray expresses remorse over his last job. He accidentally killed an innocent person. And this makes Ray take stock of himself. Is he cut out for this line of work. I was reminded of a famous line in "The Godfather". "It's not personal, its business". That is the mentality you would think people like Ray and Ken have but no. Ray understands murder is murder. And he fears one day he may have to face judgement.

I don't want want to you think however the film somehow makes a shift in tone and goes from comedy to drama. Those moments of Ray's self-reflection are laced with humor. But I felt it was refreshing to see a film, a film like this no less, ask these type of questions.

Martin McDonagh is a noted playwright who had only made one short film before this. It won an Oscar and several critics have thrown praise his way for this film. So don't be surprised if McDonagh receives an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. McDonagh seems like a cross between David Mamet and Tarantino. The dialogue has a certain rhythm to it like Mamet. But uses a lot of dark humor like Tarantino.

One of the best scenes in the movie involves the final shootout between two of the characters as they debate where to have, so they don't hurt any innocent people. Leading someone to tell them, why don't you put the guns down and talk, leading one of the gunmen to say, that would be stupid. How do you argue with such logic?

"In Bruges" is a fast and entertaining film with a very good performance given by Farrell, playing his second killer, he was in Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream". And a great over the top performance by Fiennes.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Film Review: Mongol

"Mongol" ** (out of ****)

When you walk out of the theatre after watching Sergei Bodrov's "Mongol" regardless of whether or not you liked it, I think the visuals will blow you away. That is the best compliment I can give this film and sadly the only one.

"Mongol" is the beginning of a proposed trilogy on the life of the great (?) Mongolian leader Genghis Khan, though known as Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) in this film. It was also the official Kazakhstan entry for the 2008 Oscars for best foreign language film.

Sergei Bodrov is not a director I am terribly familiar with. I heard of his previous film, "Nomad", a story set in the 18th century about a man who brings together three warring tribes but never saw it. There is enough craft and knowledge of film presented in this film to make me interested to see more by him.

Bodrov knows how to make an epic scale film. He makes heavy use of the landscape here. In some ways it reminded me of David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" in the way both films used the landscape. In "Lawrence of Arabia" Lean would set-up extreme long shots of the desert as what appeared to be an ant moved alongside frame from left to right. That "ant" by the way was Peter O' Toole (that should give you an idea how extreme these long shots were). But the funny thing is normally when you have a static shot you would tend to think your eyes would follow movement. But not. My eyes would just try to soak the beauty of the landscape. Bodrov, like Lean, knows how to paint a beautiful landscape canvass. And before everyone starts sending me hate mail, let me clarify. I am not saying "Mongol" is as good or better than "Lawrence of Arabia". And Bodrov is not a better director then Lean.

For all of this film's beauty and awe it lacks heart. There is no understanding of the man. We know about his love for his wife, Borte (Khulan Chuluun) and the affection he has for his blood-brother but nothing about his desire to conquer. What drives Khan? What is in his soul? Those who defend the film, and there are many who defend it, will say, give this film time. There are two more on the way which will addressed all of this film's flaws. They may in fact be right in the end. But what are we suppose to do in the meantime? Here is a film which tells us nothing about Khan. Whatever we knew about him walking into this film you will leave knowing exactly the same.

The cinematography was by Rogier Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov. Stoffers shot "Disturbia", the earlier released teenage Hitchcock rip-off and "Quills". Trofimov shot the Russian sci-fi film "NightWatch". Neither man's previous work would have lead me to believe they are capable of the work presented in this film. There are amazing lightning shots and vast empty landscape shots. The best way to watch this movie, if you chose to see it, would be to go to the theatre, put in some ear plugs and simply look at the movie.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: The Best Years of Our Lives

"The Best Years of Our Lives" **** (out of ****)

Given that it is the fourth of July I felt I should honor the holiday by celebrating a truly American film. A film which celebrates this country. It sounded like a cute idea but which movie should I write about? I thought about Frank Capra and the American idealism presented in films such as "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" or "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" but eventually decided I wanted to write about a war film.

"The Best Years of Our Lives" is not exactly a war movie. It deals with WW2 but only the aftermath of it. It is about three soldiers returning home discovering how much has changed on the home front. For me it is one of the two greatest films made dealing with what life was like back home during the war. The other is the sadly forgotten "Since You Went Away".

"The Best Years of Our Lives" is not too well remembered either. Directed by William Wyler the film was released in 1946. Right around the actually time soldiers were returning home from the war. And several experiencing what these characters were feeling. The film tackles three social and economic problems all soldiers may or would face as represented by the three starring characters.

First we have Al Stephenson, (Fredric March) a banker and the oldest of the three returning soldiers. He is married to Milly (Myrna Loy) and has two children; Peggy (Teresa Wright) and Rob (Michael Hall). Al's problems are emotional. He represents the soldier who no longer recognizes civilian life. At one point he tells his children he's going to need time to get to know them again. He says he has no idea who they are.

Al is no longer content staying at home spending a night in with the family. He feels the need to lose himself, to be active in an attempt to take his mind off of his memories and experiences on the battleground. As soon as Al comes home he tells his family lets all go out and celebrate. By celebrate Al means his wants to get so drunk he forgets his name. Drinking won't solve his problems but it will at the very least delay his having to face his real problems.

Our second soldier is Homer Parrish (Harold Russell). Homer is a double amputee. He represents the physical effects the war had on those who served. In real life Russell was a war veteran who lost both of his hands.

Before the war Homer was going to marry his childhood sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O' Donnell) but since he lost his hands he feels others will treat him differently. He no longer shows the girl affection even though she does nothing to suggest she would not want to marry him. Homer does not want others to feel pity for him and is afraid Wilma will not be able to deal with the challenges of living with him when he will be very dependent upon her.

Finally there is Fred Derry (Dana Andrews). Fred comes from a poor working class family. Before the war he worked as a soda jerk. His biggest problem is finding a job. He represents the finical set-back soldiers faced. During the war, as the men served, women were now in the workplace doing jobs usually associated with men. And any man who was rejected from serving were also in the workplace. But when the soldiers returned, who was going to give up their job? People may have been proud of their soldiers and happy to see them come back home alive but secretly resented them because what did it mean for their jobs?

When we first meet these characters they are all sharing a taxi going home. But instantly the conflicts are set-up. Homer is the first to be dropped off but before he leaves he suggest why don't they all go to a local bar which his uncle owns. Al and Fred know what he is doing. He's stalling for time, wanting to avoid the inevitable meeting with his family and girlfriend. But when Al is the next to be dropped off, he isn't so eager to return home either.

One of the film's best scenes is when Homer shows Wilma what life would be like if they married. He tells her to follow him to his room. Homer was given two hooks to replace his hands. He has figured out a way to remove the harness which is attached to them and places them on the bed. He explains to her once he does that, that is when he feels the most helpless. He can no longer reach for anything. If he should need to open the door he can't. If he should want to put the harness back on, he can't. At that moment he is dependent upon others. Homer does this to deter Wilma but she is not. She still wants to marry him.

Viewers might feel Homer is not a complete character. That he is only used to tug at our heartstrings. That is not true. Homer is a real character. He faces a conflict and grows as a character. His very appearance is not used for sympathy. Russell even won an Academy Award for "Best Supporting Actor" and an honorary award for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans".

Another important scene is when Al is working at the bank. He is put in charge of small business loans. A returning soldier comes to him and asks for a loan. He has no money. Al gives him the loan. The bank is upset. They are afraid Al is going soft because the man was a veteran. In public they say they support the troops and value their service and in private their feelings are, don't give them any money, at least not the bank's money.

When "The Best Years of Our Lives" was released it was the biggest box-office success since "Gone With The Wind". It was nominated for 8 Oscars and won 7 of them including "Best Picture" (beating such films as Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life" and Howard Hawks' "The Big Sleep") , "Best Director", "Best Actor" (March), and "Best Screenplay" (Robert E. Sherwood).

It is sad more people have not seen this film. "The Best Years of Our Lives" reminds us what people have done for this country and what we owe them. Life is not easy returning back from a war. We can never know the effect seeing battle has on someone. Plus this is simply a great piece of film making with great acting. I haven't even begun to dissect this film and all its brilliance. "The Best Years of Our Lives" is one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Film Review: Sandra

"Sandra" *** (out of ****)

Originally titled "Sandra of A Thousand Delights", it has remained that elusive Visconti title which has always managed to escape me. But not today. It played as part of a Visconti retrospective at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago where I eagerly attended.

Luchino Visconti has long been one of my favorite filmmakers but sadly often neglected. His name gets lost in the shuffle when compared to Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica. But it was Visconti who made what some consider the first neo-realism film, "Ossessione", made two years before "Open City" was released.

Visconti has two styles, two periods if you will which his films seem to fall into. You have the early realistic films, "Ossessione", "La Terra Trema" and "Bellissima" and then you have the operatic, sometimes decadent films such as "The Damned", "Conversation Piece" and "Ludwig". "Sandra" was made in the middle. Released in 1965 and the winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival (beating such films as Milos Forman's "Loves of A Blonde" and Godard's "Pierrot le fou") it doesn't seem to have the Visconti stamp.

The film follows Sandra (Claudia Cardinale) and her American husband Andrew (Michael Craig) as they travel to Sandra's old home in the country. There they meet her brother, Gianni (Jean Sorel) her step-father Gilardini (Renzo Ricci) and her mother (Marie Bell). Sandra and Gianni have sold a piece of their property, a park which will now bear they name of their father, A Jew who died during WW2 in a concentration camp.

But Andrew will find out about dark family secrets, especially one involving Sandra and Gianni and their relationship with their stepfather.

The way Visconti films this story is by adding his operatic touch to it. Cinematographer, Armando Nannuzzi, who shot "Ludwig" (my personal favorite Visconti film) and "The Damned" uses a lot of long shots. Filling up the frame but only having action take place in the corners of the frame. Or creating a shot within a shot. They rarely, if ever, actually use the whole screen. The technique reminded me of Antonioni. But when Antonioni did it, it was to create isolation. When Visconti does it I feel he is adding more to the story than is needed. He is placing a greater importance on the story. The camerawork draws too much attention to itself.

Visconti also has the camera go into for close-ups of Sandra. This is understandable since the film is called "Sandra". The camera lingers on her face and sometimes has long shots where Sandra stands in the middle of the frame in a long shot so the viewer can admire her figure. And boy is there a lot to admire! Cardinale, who during the 60s was one of the sex symbols of Italian cinema and made a hit in the U.S. (she appeared in the original "Pink Panther") had acted in other Visconti titles like "The Leopard" and "Rocco and His Brothers". Here though she is the center of attention.

There is also a heavily used classical score to the film which again I felt place a greater emphasis on the story than was needed. Visconti has used classical music in his other films but there I felt they blended into the story. Visconti is using his old ways to tell a story which needed to be told in new ways.

"Sandra" is really a character study of sorts as it tries to get into her mind, and come to some conclusion about who she really is. It spends some time examining Gianni as well, though there is little there for him because the character is not as complex. From the moment we see Gianni we understand all we need to know about him.

But Sandra is a puzzle. Who is she really? What is in her past? Visconti doesn't fully address these question but the viewer never really minds. The screenplay, written by Visconti, Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi d'Amico doesn't go for any deep question and answers. It settles for a story about incest and escaping the past.

Despite my admiration for Visconti I have to wonder why was he chosen for this film? What lead him to think he could direct it? As I have said the film was released in 1965 during this time period I think another Italian director would have been far more suited for such a story. What would you think about Bernardo Bertolucci directing it? Bertolucci came along in 1962 with "The Grim Reaper" by 1965 he had already directed "Before the Revolution" which had a relationship between a nephew and aunt. And what about his film "La Luna" about a mother and son and look at how he treated the incest in "The Dreamers". What other filmmaker has done such an amazing job showing sex in cinema? "Sandra" would have truly been perfect for Bertolucci. What a missed opportunity.

What is ultimately missing in "Sandra" is any eroticism. Keep in mind the film's original title; "Sandra of A Thousand Delights". The tagline for the film was "Sandra is excitement! What Sandra does... is astonishing". Here's a compliant you don't hear much, but, this film needed more sex! The very title of the film could be titilating. Visconti doesn't know how to create an erotic scene. And I never expect him to be able to. That's not why I watch his films. I can only think of two other films which had an erotic nature; "The Innocent" and "The Damned". But neither one of those films really focused on eroticism, they had a scene or two which was erotic. That is why I suggest Bertolucci has a director for this film.

But of course "Sandra" wasn't directed by Bertolucci. So what makes the Visconti film worth seeing? You have a strong performance by Cardinale and an idea which is very interesting. The story does grab the viewer's attention. Plus it is hard to deny the film was made with craft, you just wonder if it was right for this particular film.

I never thought this would be the first Visconti film I would write about and I don't recommend this as your introduction into his work but "Sandra" is worth seeing for Visconti fans if only for the fact it is so rare.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Film Review: Hancock

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

We've had Spider-Man, Superman, a new Batman series, The Incredible Hulk and perhaps the best comic book adaptation Iron Man. But, has there ever been a black superhero? In the world of Barack Obama, it was time to make a movie about one. And so we get "Hancock".

After I somewhat praised "Iron Man" (I gave it two stars) as the best comic book movie made in a while, Hollywood takes three steps backwards and gives what is arguably the worst film I've seen this year.

I walked into "Hancock" not knowing a single bit of information. All I knew was Will Smith was in it and I saw a trailer where he throws a whale into the ocean. I wish I would have kept it that way.

Will Smith was at one time considered the king of the 4th of July weekend box-office with films such as "Independence Day" and "Men In Black". "Hancock" may in fact become a huge success, but, does that necessarily mean it is a good movie?

Smith is not an actor I like. I will forever think of him as the Fresh Prince. He is not someone I take serious as an actor. I view him as a Hollywood mainstream actor who appears in commerical fluff that is rarely entertaining. He doesn't have a wide acting range and usually plays the same type of character. Some city smart, wise-cracking smartalec who is out to save the day. Look me in the face and tell me that doesn't describe characters he played in "Independence Day", "Men In Black" and "Bad Boys".

In "Hancock" Smith plays John Hancock. A man who 80 years ago notice he had superhuman powers. He can fly, withstand a collision from a train and lift cars in the air. But his good deeds are not appreciated. He causes more destruction than good. He destroys roads, causes car crashes and damages buildings all in an attempt to save one person. The people of LA have had enough and a warrant is out for his arrest.

Hancock is also a bum. When we first see him he is sleeping on a bench at a bus stop and has two empty bottles of whisky. All we mostly see Hancock do is sleep and eat when not attempting to help someone. This aspect of Hancock I can see stirring trouble. Depending how far black activist want to take this, they can site racial stereotypes. Hancock is lazy, doesn't have a real job and as I said, mostly sleeps and eats and it takes a white man to save his image.

The white man is Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) who is in public relations. He has grand ideas of changing the world, but when that fails, he sees an opportunity to change the way the world views Hancock. The two meet when Ray is stuck in traffic directly on railroads tracks as a train approaches. Ray can move his car and it is Hancock who comes to the rescue by tipping his car over backwards smashing the car behind him.

In an attempt to say thank you Ray invites Hancock over for dinner to meet his family. His wife Mary (Charlize Theron) and their son Aaron (Jae Head). When Mary and Hancock meet we sense tension in the air. Do these two know each other? How?

What is basically wrong with "Hancock" is it is not very funny and ultimately, as I sat in the theatre I thought to myself, what is really the point of all of this? The movie takes a sudden shift in an attempt to explain the Mary and Hancock relationship and when it does that I knew this film was in trouble. Either the situation should have been established earlier or avoided because it takes away from everything the script had set-up at that point involving Hancock's reform efforts.

I haven't been terribly impressed by what I have seen this year, I still haven't seen one movie I would have described as "one of the year's best" but "Hancock" is sure to make my list of the worst films of the year due to its awful screenplay and bland acting that takes a back seat to special effects.