Sunday, August 31, 2008

Film Review: Therese Raquin

"Therese Raquin" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

One of my favorite directors, who I never mention in conversations, is Marcel Carne. Carne is not very well known to most people. His name will draw a blank if you mention him. I like to consider him my own hidden treasure. It is for selfish reasons I never discuss him. I don't want the secret to get out about him. But because I'm always so pleased by his work I almost feel compelled to share the good news.

Carne is a French director. When we think of French cinema we tend to think of the French New Wave and the films of Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol. Carne came before all of them. He started working in the 1920s and made his last film in 1977. His first films in the early 30s and 40s were part of what is known as "poetic realism". Think in the vein of Jean Vigo's immortal classic "L'Atalante" (of course there is the possibility if you don't know who Carne is, you may not know who Vigo is either). Most viewers may have seen his "Children of Paradise". His other films include "Port of Shadows", "Daybreak" and "The Devil's Envoys" (if you are interested I reviewed some of these films on Every one of them I would consider a masterpiece. No doubt they will find there way as part of my "Masterpiece Film Series". Carne's films cast a lyrical spell over the viewer.

"Therese Raquin" is not quite as good as his earlier works but it is essential viewing nonetheless. The film has roots in film noir but never really goes down that path. We aren't in the shadow of characters, walking along the seedy streets of Paris. The film has the lighting of a romantic love story. And on another level it is a story of doomed love.

The title refers to the main character, a married woman (Simone Signoret) who is in a loveless marriage to a mama's boy, Camille (Jacques Duby). His over protective mother (Sylvie) lives with them constantly critical of Therese.

One day a stranger comes into Therese's life. Laurent (Raf Vallone) a drinking buddy of her husband's whom she has never met. When the two do meet it is because Camille is so drunk Laurent had to carry him home. Laurent is meant to be everything Camille is not. He is suppose to be handsome, strong and independent. We sense an immediate attraction between the two.

Without giving too much away the film will remind you of noir films such as Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice". And if you're really up to speed with things, lets throw in Visconti's "Ossessione" for good measure too. Of course each of these films were released before "Therese Raquin" so they all must have made some influence on this film. But it is worth mentioning the film was based on a novel by Emile Zola, the subject of the 1937 Oscar winner for best picture. Having never read Zola's novel I cannot tell you how faithful the script by Carne and Charles Spaak is.

Most viewers might not know but Simone Signoret was a famous actress. She was in "Les Diaboliques" and won an Oscar for her performance in "Room at the Top". Her work here manages to suggest all we need to know about her. She has a vulnerable nature to herself which makes her situation seem believable. Her performance is never bigger than the moment, meaning the film doesn't rely on grand gestures and turn into melodrama. Raf Vallone was an Italian actor who was also known in his day. He too manages to suggest all we need to know about his character. He has all the qualities to suggest the strong, mysterious stranger.

Those familiar with Carne's work refer to this as his last great film. Some suggest the quality of his work slipped as the years went on. "Therese Raquin" does follow in the vein of his early films though we can note a difference. The themes may be the same but the technique is different. Something about "Therese Raquin" didn't touch me as emotionally as his other films and I can't put my finger on why. Is there a social message I'm missing? "Children of Paradise" and "Daybreak" were making social and political commentaries. I'm not sure so about this film.

Roger Ebert once said you can watch any Eric Rohmer film and enjoy it. I almost feel the same way about Marcel Carne. You can watch any of his early films and enjoy them. He is a forgotten master of cinema.

Film Review: The Naked City

"The Naked City" *** (out of ****)

Continuing in the recent new direction I have decided to take this blog, namely focusing more attention on the works of distinguish filmmakers, it occurred to me the work of Jules Dassin has been left out.

Dassin has a unique biography. He was a member of the communist party back in the 1930s. He left the party in the 40s but was still blacklisted. As a result he left the United States to make films heading to France, where he shot what is considered the granddaddy of crime films, "Riffi". But "The Naked City" was made before all this controversy broke out. It was, in fact, the last film he made before the storm broke out.

"The Naked City" bills itself as an intense, gritty, realistic police drama. Emphasis is placed on the idea it was shot on location in New York.

The film wants to be observed as not glamorizing both city life and police work. It wants the viewer to believe what it sees on-screen as real not fiction. Many of the actors make debut here. It is suppose to resemble the Italian neo-realism movement but "The Naked City" doesn't come off as interesting as those classic films.

Barry Fitzgerald stars as Det. Lt. Dan Muldoon who is investigating the death of a young woman, along with his rookie partner, Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor). At first the case seems to lead to nowhere. But slowly clues start to pick up after a prime suspect Frank Niles (Howard Duff) starts to get caught in a pack of lies.

The film is told in a matter of fact kind of way. A narrator informs us about life in the city, the hard work police do and explains the thought process of the characters.

The narrator reminds me of Frank Capra's WW2 American propaganda short films.

"The Naked City" ultimately fails in my opinion for the very reason it wants to be celebrated. By having the story told so matter of factly it loses all sense of drama and suspense. The viewer simply sits and watches everything unfold before their eyes with no involvement. The film reminds me of the television show "Dragnet". If you ever watched that show, you could never accuse it of being suspenseful. Would Sgt. Friday solve the case or not? It was blandly acted and blandly written. It followed the catchphrase of Joe Friday "just the facts ma'am".

These type of films were becoming popular during this period. "The Naked City" was made in 1948, "Dragnet" appeared in 1951. There was the Jimmy Stewart film "The FBI Story" and the Oscar nominated documentary feature "I Was a Communist for the FBI". The public wanted to see these more realistic works involving police and their government. In many ways "The Naked City" started it or at least was a major influence. You cannot talk me out of believing this film made "Dragnet" possible.

There are two scenes which do stand out for me. The parents of the victim are called to identify the body. The mother breaks down. It does cause for a very emotional scene. And is probably the best in the movie. A chase scene at the end is actually well constructed and does become involving.

I don't mean to sound as if "The Naked City" is a bad movie. It isn't. Dassin was a talented director. But I feel he has made better films including "Night and the City", "Riffi" and "Thieves Highway". "The Naked City" has very little emotion and that caused me to have a difficult time getting involved in the flow of the picture. One might want to argue back at me, but that was the point! Fine, they succeeded in making a film that ultimately didn't involve me. Way to go!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Film Review: Life Is A Miracle

"Life Is A Miracle" *** (out of ****)

There is a sub-plot in Emir Kusturica's film "Life Is A Miracle" concerning a Bosnian woman falling in love with a Hungarian musician. She doesn't speak Hungarian and he doesn't understand her yet they claim to be in love.

You might not think much of their scene together but the message behind it is the language of love knows no barriers. And that is essentially what Mr. Kusturica's film is all about.

Taking place in 1992 right before the Bosnian war, life in Bosnia seems carefree. The townspeople are excited about a new railroad being built which hopefully will do a lot of tourism. For Luka (Slavko Stimac) he is happy about his son, Milos (Vuk Kostic) who dreams of becoming a soccer star and he seems to love his wife, Jadranka (Vesna Trivalic) who seems to have suffered a nervous breakdown. She was a once famous opera singer who now worries about being put into a home for the elderly.

During the opening moments of "Life Is A Miracle" I was ready to call it a masterpiece. There is something about the films of Kusturica which I find joyous. There is a wild energy in his work which has a devilish frantic pace. My favorite of his films is "Underground", released in 1997. It won the top prize at Cannes. His other works include "Black Cat, White Cat", "When Father Was Away on Business", "Do You Remember Dolly Bell?" and "Time of the Gypsies". "Life Is A Miracle" seems to follow in their footsteps. So much happens in the first 20 minutes of the film as we meet these oddball characters as the camera dances with excitement following them.

Sadly the film doesn't maintain this spirit for long. Events change Milos' plans as he is sent to report for the army after learning he could be signed on a major soccer team. Jadranka leaves Luka for a Hungarian cimbalom player (Dr. Nelle Karajlic). We learn Milos is now a prisoner of war. The plan is capture a Serbian, a young nurse, Sabaha (Natasa Solak) and suggest an exchange. Sabaha lives with Luka, as his prisoner, as she writes a letter to her wealthy family informing them of the trade.

When these events happen the film shifts in tone. It is no longer a madcap comedy adventure but wants to make a social and political commentary on the nature of war and the existence of the former Yugoslavia. This reminds me of the Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers film "Once Upon A Honeymoon". What started off as a classic comedy turns into a humanitarian film on WW2.

To further get his point across about love knowing no limits the Bosnian, Luka, falls in love with Sabaha. Proving we are all the same. Incidentally, Kusturica, who is himself a Bosnian, is not too loved in his home country. During the war Mr. Kusturica sided with Serbia. His film "Underground" confirms this idea as well. But the idea also reminded me of the Oscar winning Bosnian film "No Man's Land" where a Serbian and a Bosnian soldier are stuck in a ditch together.

"Life Is A Miracle" is a very long film. It runs over two hours. Normally Mr. Kusturica's films are not so long. Sometimes it feels as if Kusturica is going off message. He takes too many flights of fancy ultimately delaying his plot.

But this review may sound too negative. I don't mean for it to. I liked the film. There are moments of sheer joy and delight. The performances are effective and once in a while are able to find that special blend of pathos and comedy. Natasa Solak is a highlight. She possesses such a tender presence on-screen which makes it hard not to fall in love with her. And Kusturica's son, Stribor who plays an army captain has some funny moments as well. There is also a wonderful musical score done by Dejan Sparavalo and Kusturica (for those that don't know he has his own band). The music is a blend of traditional folk music but has a rock n' roll edge to it. And a cimbalom is heard throughout the movie.

There is some more sad news to report however. "Life Is A Miracle" has never been shown in the United States. The film has never found distribution. The last film to be distributed here was "Black Cat, White Cat" made back in 1998. Since that time Kusturica has made two films, this and "Promise Me". I'm not sure why the films are having a hard time being released here. Perhaps there was bad word of mouth when the film played at Cannes (where it was nominated for the palme d'or). Even die hard fans of Kusturica have bashed the film on But what were producers expecting? These films would never be top box-office draws but I'm sure they would do average art house film business. His fans would see the film if only to have the theatre experience of watching it on the big screen.

If you can find "Life Is A Miracle", there are some region 2 DVD's out there, I'd suggest watching it, especially if you are a Kusturica fan.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Film Review: Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle

"Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle" *** (out of ****)

Eric Rohmer is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers. I cannot be expected to hide my appreciation for his work. Never quite as daring as some of his contemporaries such as Jean-Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut, Rohmer went in a different direction. Where Godard was more political, Rohmer is more romantic.

That romance has caused several in the public and film critics to condemn Rohmer's work. He is often described as making films "too talky". The characters have long conversations regarding their feelings on love. They debate with themselves and with others.

Rohmer has made several masterpieces over his long career including "My Night At Maud's", "Chloe in the Afternoon", "The Aviator's Wife", "Pauline at the Beach" and the entire "Tales of Four Seasons" series. Sadly "Four Adventures of Reintette and Mirabelle" doesn't live up to those films. It is charming but a slight piece of work.

So why review this film as my first Rohmer review and why isn't it quite as good as some of Rohmer's other films? The answer to the first question is easier than you might think. I just saw this film recently for the first time. So it is fresh on my mind. The second question is a bit tricky.

The film follows two girls. If the title of the film didn't give it away their names are Reinette (Joelle Miguel) and Mirabelle (Jessica Forde). Reinette lives in the country. She loves nature. She is a painter and is in several ways naive. She is not use to fast paced city life. She says she admires self-discipline and has a firm set of beliefs that not only she must follow but others must live up to as well. Mirabelle is the more city smart of the two. She has a more carefree attitude.

The two girls meet when Mirabelle gets a flat tire on her bike and Reinette offers to help her repair it since she lives down the deserted road. An immediate friendship is formed. When Reinette tells Mirabelle her plans to attend an art school in Paris, Mirabelle suggest she come live with her.

The film is four short stories (or adventures if you prefer) titled; "Blue Hour", "The Waiter", "The Beggar, the Kleptomaniac, the Hustler" and "Selling the Picture". Only the "Blue Hour" takes place in the country. All four in theory are suppose to offer some life lesson. Though I think the lessons are one-sided. It seems to be Reinette who learns the most. She learns about the city and how people can manipulate you if you are not careful. Mirabelle's only lesson comes in "Blue Hour" about enjoying nature and to learn the importance of silence.

This leads to why I don't think the film is as successful as it could have been. I enjoy it greatly when Rohmer's characters talk about love and dating. Their words strike so many right chords it feels as if you are part of the conversation. Here though the characters are not discussing love. There is no flirtation, no disappointment of love, no search. "Four Adventures" doesn't seem to examine the characters as closely as I would have liked.

Rohmer's films I think are only as good as his characters are interesting. When I say "My Night at Maud's" is a masterpiece it is because I love the characters and want to spend time with them. I take delight in their delight. When I refer to a film such as this or "Summer" as a lesser Rohmer film, it is because I don't warm up to the characters as much.

But because Rohmer's films have an undeniable charm sometimes it makes it hard to resist. "Four Adventures" has some good moments. It has some interesting conversations concerning art and nature. The performance given by the two ladies are entertaining but I was disappointed Mirabelle didn't have more screen time. As I said, Reinette is the one who learns the most (the idea behind the film was Joelle Miguel's). But while most of the life lessons are aimed at her I don't think she grows. Reinette is the same person at the beginning of the film as she is at the end. I found that somewhat frustrating.

Roger Ebert once said anyplace is a good place to start your Rohmer viewing experience. I disagree. While there are a large number of great films to start your collection a film such as this one is not a good place. This is for the devoted Rohmer fan. It is for them I recommend this picture.

There has been a sad rumor circulating that Rohmer's latest film "Romance of Astree and Celadon" may be his last film. It will have a limited run in New York.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Film Review: L' Argent

"L' Argent"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Since my blog reached 100 entries I said I felt the blog is a failure because too much time is spent on discussing modern cinema. So, I've decided to write more about films made by great directors and less about more recent titles. To start things off I've selected a film directed by Robert Bresson, whom I've yet to review anything by on this site.

"L' Argent" in some ways is typical Bresson yet some elements of the film shocked me. For readers unaware of Mr. Bresson's work, he has been a filmmaker who has spent a career making films dealing with the human condition. He was raised a Catholic and some critics say his film are all religious in one way or another. An example would be his film "Au hasard Balthazar" a film about a donkey. It has been largely interpreted as a metaphor for the life of Jesus Christ (I reviewed the film on "L' Argent", his last film, released in 1983 when Bresson was 81 years old, he died more than a decade later in 1998, is a film which I think has a more ugly view of the world but has his usual religious undertones concerning guilt and man's moral dilemma.

The film was based on a short story written by Tolstoy as we follow a young boy who is mad at his parents, who refuse to give him an advance on his allowance. A friend has the answer. A fake 500 franc note which he tells the young boy to circulate. The boy does and now we follow the note as it goes from owner to owner as soon everyone realizes the note is fake. This is almost like the donkey in "Au hasard Balthazar" which goes from owner to owner.

No one in the film does the right thing, which would be to report the note or go to a bank. Each new owner lies creating more and more problems. Events get so out of hand that Yvon (Christian Patey) who eventually becomes our main character, is arrested. Yvon confronts the owners of a store where he received the bill as they deny they ever saw him. Yvon though does not go into fits of rage. He seems to accept what has happened as his wife Elise (Caroline Lang) and daughter watch on.

In prison Yvon goes through a dramatic change. When released he commits murder and appears to be losing his mind.

As someone who hates to know anything about a film's plot before hand I feel I'm not doing a disservice to you by revealing these events. Bresson's film is not so much about these people as it is about ideas. The characters are pawns Bresson uses to express his thought on our society and man's inherit evil nature full of corruption and greed, the basic underline theme of the film. There is no act of goodness unless that same person can benefit from it. This is what surprised me about the film. I hadn't really caught on to it the first time I saw this film but after multiple viewings new aspects jump out at me and I looked at the film in a different light. Bresson is a director I don't associate with such a negative outlook on life.

People lie in this film, steal, murder and cheat on each other constantly throughout the film. Only one woman displays kindness. An elderly woman who takes in Yvon after he is released from prison. Here Bresson seems to counter the earlier half of the picture showing us the world is not so evil. Kindness does exist. But even that doesn't last.

Bresson does something I found unusual in this film. At no time can I remember a close-up of a character's face. Objects are sometimes seen in close-up but never a character. Bresson doesn't seem interested in the human face in the same way Bergman or Szabo are. But I think this is a reflection of the idea I was expressing earlier. The reason we never get a close-up may be because Bresson wants to create a distance between the viewer and the character. I would not even be surprised if after watching the film you didn't remember a single character's name. The film is not about people but instead their environment. Bresson uses long shots and once in a while a medium shot. Characters are always seen in relation to their surroundings.

The film though has some flaws. Bresson was known for using non-professionals. Think in the vein of Italian neo-realism but the characters here seem a little stiff. You can't say that about the performances in "The Bicycle Thief". No one really creates any emotion. If you do feel anything it is because of the situation itself which may be dramatic which may lead you to identify with either the idea or the event. But I don't think someone would see a connection with the character themselves. Also the film runs 82 minutes. Here is something you may never read again but "L' Argent" needed to be longer. Certain scenes feel rushed. I was confused by some events. We don't see things they are just talked about. This story is deep enough where it could have been developed into a longer story.

Robert Bresson only made 13 films in a career which started in 1934. Between 1934 and 1983 he managed to get some masterpieces in. My favorite might be "A Man Escaped" followed quickly by "Pickpocket". His "Diary of a Country Priest" is often regarded as one of his great and lasting works as is "Au hasard Balthazar".

"L' Argent" was nominated for two awards at the Cannes Film Festival. It won the best director award (it tied with Andrei Tarkovsky for "Nostalghia") and was nominated for the top prize, the palme d'or. It did not receive any Oscar nominations. It was probably too good of a film to qualify.

It is hard to say what is the best place to start watching Robert Bresson's films. If you don't mind watching European films. And aren't bothered by their slow pace "L'Argent" may be a fitting beginning. If you feel you have to ease your way into it, try "A Man Escaped" or "Pickpocket" first then rent this one.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Film Review: The Life Before Her Eyes

"The Life Before Her Eyes" **** (out of ****)

I was initially mixed about watching "The Life Before Her Eyes". I had been a great fan of director Vadim Perelman's directorial debut, "The House of Sand & Fog", which I placed on my top ten list in 2003, so I was curious to see if Perelman would be able to repeat the magic, yet, at the same time this film looked a little weak. I didn't care for the title and the trailer made the film seem predictable and too sentimental.

Luckily I went against my instinct and watched the film anyway. Because I knew nothing about the film's plot everything took me by surprise and really struck me. I wasn't prepared to go down the path this film travels.
At first I thought the film was about a young girl who was a bit of a trouble maker as a teen who grows up and has a daughter which seems to be following in her footsteps forcing her to think back to her past and realize her daughter's mistakes.

"The Life Before Her Eyes" is and isn't about that. At least not as black & white as I thought it would be. The themes are there, life, death, guilt, the generation gap, teen angst. But "The Life Before Her Eyes" handles the material in a much different manner. In some ways it is similar to Perelman's first film. Perelman almost seems to shoot films in a realistic fashion, yet the films are stylized and poetic but the emotions feel sincere and the characters jump off the page and breath. The situations the characters find themselves in seem like they could happen to anyone, including yourself. And that's what makes "The Life Before Her Eyes" so appealing to me.

Though not everyone would agree. I was surprised after watching it to find out about the negative reaction the film was met with. It was made on a budget of $13 million and grossed a little more than $300,000. On the website, which is a collection of film reviews which then averages out their opinions the film scored a 26%. One critic I respect, Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote the film is "tidy, predictable, excruciatingly fussy in its detail and lacking the tiniest glimmer of humor." Why a drama like "The Life Before Her Eyes" needs humor is beyond me and is something only Holden seems to know.

But some did defend the film like Newsday which stated "director Vadim Perelman blends two powerful performances into a seamless whole, giving equal time to the dreamy sensuality of adolescence and the crushing weight of adulthood." That is a brilliant, perfectly expressed opinion of the film and really gets at the heart of why I too was so pleased watching this film. "The Life Before Her Eyes" is a look at the disappointment of life. How dreams die, hopes fade and society kicks us to the curbs. It is about unfulfilled desires. That may not sound like something a lot of people might want to watch and why I was puzzled Holden felt the film needed humor but films such as this always relate to me.

Films where characters look back on their life and regret it usually have universal appeal. Everyone can, on some level, relate to that idea whether it is Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" or "The Browning Version" or the more modern "About Schmidt" these films offer life lessons. It may seem cliche but you come away feeling, its best to do what makes you happy in life. And then you leave the theatre and realize, life doesn't work that way.

The woman looking back on her life in "The Life Before Her Eyes" is Diana McFee (Uma Thurman). She has a young daughter, Emma (Gabrielle Brennan) and a husband, Paul (Brett Cullen). Many years ago, when Diana was a high school student (this time played by Evan Rachel Wood) she and her best friend Maureen (Eva Amurri, daughter of Susan Sarandon) are victims of a school shooting.

The structure of the film is manly flashbacks as Perlman keeps showing us bits and pieces of the eventful day and clashing it with the present as Diana tries to cope with the 15th anniversary of that day and her daughter's own problems at school. Is life repeating itself?

Lots of people did not like the flashback structure. Maybe they found it confusing or distracting, as one critic did. I liked this device because it clearly shows us the line being drawn between Diana now and as a child. It also adds to our emotional impact because we know how things have turned out.

The film, which was based on a novel written by Laura Kasischke and adapted to screen by Emil Stern, is not a film with a large audience base. It is a small film which can and did get lost in the shuffle. But despite such negative buzz surrounding the film, I think those with an open mind will enjoy the film. The performances are pitch perfect. As was the case with "House of Sand & Fog" and the Jennifer Connelly character, Perelman knows how to direct females. And with this film he really gets into a feminine mindset. Wood, who started to gain lots of attention after her work in "Thirteen", another one of my favorite films of 2003, once again plays the trouble teen, though this role doesn't demand the ultra realism of that film. And Thurman tones it down ten notches from her work in "Kill Bill".

"The Life Before Her Eyes" is a poetic look at human hopes and dreams and how sadly we sometimes never reach our potential. It may be one of the year's best.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Film Review: The Fountain

"The Fountain" *** (out of ****)

Before watching Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain" I was aware of the negative buzz floating around about the movie. For those not aware Aronofsky has directed two previous films, "Pi" and "Requiem for a Dream". His work is usually met with strong critical support and lack-luster box-office. But why had the critics turned on him with this film I wondered?

I have mentioned in the past my disinterest with public opinion. I don't do it to be indifferent or to try and be difficult, I just usually find myself on the outside of public opinion. Ever since I was a child I have not been interested in mainstream culture. So it should not come as a surprise to those who know me that I enjoyed "The Fountain" quite a bit despite its poor reception it received from critics and the public alike.

"The Fountain" is a film about love and death and the search for eternal youth. I'm reminded of the Benny Benassi song "Love is Gonna Save Us". The film centers on three parallel stories being told from different times in history all concerning the quest to stop death to protect/save love. The oldest of the three stories takes us to the Spanish Inquisition where a conquistador (Hugh Jackman) is sent by Queen Isabel (Rachel Weisz) to search for the Tree of Life, based on a Mayan myth which says the tree is located in the heart of the jungle. Our second story has Jackman playing a scientist named Tommy married to Izzi (Weisz again). She is writing a book called "The Fountain" but because of an illness may not be able to finish her work. And finally we have Jackman as another scientist, this time in the future, as Izzi is now a tree itself, which Jackman is trying to preserve, perhaps in hopes she will come back to life (?). If that sounds a little crazy to you, I forgot to mention in the third story Jackman floats around in space and has a bald head, so don't get too worked up about the possibility of a woman being a tree about to be reborn in sense.

The key to the understanding the film is that the first and third story are fiction. The first story was what Izzi was working on in her novel. The third story is Jackman's version of it. Only the second story takes place in reality. Or for a better term, Aronofsky's reality. Nothing in "The Fountain" is meant to be taken serious. We are dealing with metaphors and science and philosophy (two subjects I failed in school). Once we accept this and simply watch the movie without questioning anything it is only then I feel this film succeeds.

Three of my favorite critics; Michael Wilmington, A.O. Scott and Roger Ebert all disliked the film. Scott ended his reviewing saying "The Fountain is something to see, but it is also much less, finally, then meets the eye." And Wilmington begins his review stating "It's possible to admire or respect a movie without enjoying it too much, and that's partly the reaction I had to Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain". It's an incredibly ambitious film of sometimes thrilling visual achievement, but it didn't connect fully to my mind and nerves."

The reason I separate from critics like Wilmington is because the film did connect to my mind and nerves. I'm either a hopeless romantic or just hopeless but the center idea of this film, search for a cure to prevent death to save love is one I can relate to. Without going into much personal detail, the idea of death has always plagued me. Like most people, I have lost people who have been very close to me, so the idea of stopping death is a subject I'd be interested in.

The film also takes on a religious aspect. Mention of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Life. Going back to the Bible is it said there were two trees in the garden of Eden. One which God forbade Adam and Eve from eating from (the Tree of Knowledge) and the Tree of Life. Tommy's family name we learn is Creo, Spanish for "I believe".

Aronofsky was going to film this story before in 2004 with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the leading roles but due to some difficulties the film was never completed. It was to be made on a budget of $75 million. Aronofsky later re-visioned the idea, made casting adjustments and brought the budget down to half. Who knows what the original would have been like and what the differences are but as it stand "The Fountain" is a film which I don't think deserves the negative attention it has received. Visually the film is impressive and the story, while some might argue is either too complex or in the case of A.O. Scott, "too simplistic" struck just the right chords for tragedy in my opinion.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Film Review: Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

"Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day" *** (out of ****)

"Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day" starts off with Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) losing yet another job as a maid. The time is late 1938, 1939. The place is London. Another world war is upon us. Miss Pettigrew has no money, no clothes and no prospects. She stands in a soup line as the song "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime" (written in 1931 and made popular the following year thanks to recordings by Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee) plays over the credits.

There we see the beginning of the film's problems. This was not a successful film at the box-office and going over my first paragraph you can tell why. What young, modern movie fan wants to see an old-fashion comedy? Who knows the song playing over the credits is "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime"? Who even remembers Bing Crosby or Rudy Vallee? And do young audiences even know there was a time in history called the 1930s? It reminds me of the problem "Being Julia", the Istvan Szabo film, faced in 2004. It takes us back to a time no one remembers.

"Miss Pettigrew" is a wannabe screwball comedy. It has its heart in the right place and some of the performances are fitting but the film never quite reaches the level it had hoped for. There is a bit of charm missing.

Miss Pettigrew is told at an employment agency that they can no longer find work for her. She has been fired too many times and since the country is facing a depression it is pointless to keep giving her work when so many other people are in need. Luckily though an address is left on an empty desk, which Miss Pettigrew picks up and pretends she has been sent by the agency.

The employer is Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) a would be actress and cabaret singer. When we meet Delysia she is rushing to get a man out of her apartment before another man shows up, who actually owns the apartment she is in. It is up to Miss Pettigrew to help her with the situation.

Delysia has slept with a producer, Phil (Tom Payne) of a west end show, hoping this will get her the lead role. The man who owns the apartment, Nick (Mark Strong) runs the nightclub where Delysia works. While her pianist Michael (Lee Pace) is also in love with her. After their brief meeting Delysia has become dependent upon Miss Pettigrew.

This situation lends itself to comparisons with the 1936 screwball comedy "My Man Godfrey" with William Powell and Carole Lombard. And speaking of Lombard, Amy Adams seems to be channelling her through this performance. I have not seen an actress so delightfully ditsy since the great Lombard. McDormand may get top billing but it is Adams who steals the show for me.

With Miss Pettigrew correcting Delysia's life and love problems, she finds herself helping out her friends, like Edythe Dubarry (Shirley Henderson) who has had her engagement broken off with Joe Blumfield (Ciaran Hinds) a famous designer, after he suspects she may have been cheating on him.

This aspect of the film I found quite unusual. I can't quite remember any classic screwball comedy being so direct with the women being so unfaithful. Both Delysia and Edythe have numerous lovers. Usually we tend to think it is the man having the affair making the woman the victim. Not here. Most of the men seem faithful, except for Phil, but every female character is more daring when it comes to love, except for our Miss Pettigrew. As in "My Man Godfrey" the maid or butler is the moral center. The viewer's compass for what is right and wrong.

The film also has a transformation scene as Miss Pettigrew goes from being a "forgotten woman" to a society lady. This also reminds the viewer of other older movies. Even the film's title suggest Frank Capra's 1933 comedy "Lady For A Day" (remade, by Capra, as "Pocketful of Miracles"). Where a poor woman is passed as a society lady for a day, just like our Miss Pettigrew. There is a Cinderella or Pygmalion feel to this film.

Some of the downfalls of the film though is the music. Nearly every scene has music playing in the background or usually front and center. It makes "Miss Pettigrew" basically a music video. Music is a special thing and should only be used to create a proper setting. Director Bharat Nalluri ("The Crow 2") uses music as a means to constantly remind us of the time period and try to invoke a certain nostalgia. But even with the music the film makes mistakes. The songs are from different time periods making it confusing as to where we are in history.

On the soundtrack we hear, in the background, the Johnny Mercer song "Dream", problem is the song was written in 1944. The film takes place in the 1930s. There is a duet between Delysia and Michael singing "If I Didn't Care" (written in 1939, made famous by "The Ink Spots"). The piano player is playing too modern for the time period. His chord changes and harmony are wrong as is the drummer's beat. It suggest, at the very least, the 1950s.

But, who is going to know these things? I do because I have no life and my family are musicians. Still "Miss Pettigrew" is an at times likable film with a remarkable performance given by Amy Adams. She is one of those rare actresses which can light up a screen. Her smile glows. But again we come back to Miss Pettigrew. She is much like the films of the 30s. She has style, wit, sophistication and good old-fashion conservative values. All the things films today have traded in for garbage. That's what makes "Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day" worth watching. It is a reminder of things that use to be.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: Singin' in the Rain

"Singin' in the Rain" **** (out of ****)

For something called the "Masterpiece Film Series" it must have seemed puzzling I had not included "Singin' in the Rain" as part of the series sooner. It bothered me too.

Generally regarded as one of the greatest American musicals of all time, "Singin' in the Rain" is simply put, a good old-fashion piece of Hollywood escapism which will put a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

For any of my readers who have never seen this film, it is a look back at the days when Hollywood was making the transition from silent pictures to talkies. Gene Kelly stars as charismatic leading man Don Lockwood, a Douglas Fairbanks Jr. swashbuckling type who is consistently paired with the beautiful Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), whom I suspect may be poking some fun at Jean Harlow with her platinum blonde hair and New York accent. Which leads us to the major conflict in the film. It has been decided that the latest film starring the two will be re-done as a talky, as box-office records are being set with the newly released "The Jazz Singer". For those who don't know "The Jazz Singer" was a real movie starring Al Jolson. It was the first film to feature spoken dialogue though a large percent of the film was silent.

The movie producers soon realize Lamont's voice is no good for talking pictures. She has a squeaky voice which doesn't match the sophisticated look she has on-screen. What will the studio do?

The film also co-stars Donald O' Connor and Debbie Reynolds. If you've never seen O' Connor in another film before you'd think he was a comic, especially after his "Make 'em Laugh" number, where he takes more pratfalls than Buster Keaton in "The General". But O' Connor, who plays Lockwood's best friend, Cosmo Brown, was actually a talented song and dance man himself. He never quite reached the heights of popularity of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly but he was a very good dancer. He didn't normally play such goofy, off-the-wall characters as he does here. Watch him in the screen remake of Cole Porter's Broadway musical "Anything Goes" with Bing Crosby or the Irving Berlin musical "There's No Business Like Show Business".

"Singin' in the Rain" is usually thought to be a film about movies and how they were made. But I find the film to be a celebration of music and dance. The film pays homage to earlier MGM musicals.

Some may not know this but nearly every song in this film was written for other movies. Only one song, "Moses Supposes" was actually written for this film. In the late 1920s and 30s MGM launched a musical series called "The Broadway Melody". The first one was made in 1929, it was the second Best Picture Oscar winner and the first musical to win the award. It was followed by films made in 1936, '38, '40 and '44. It was for these movies the songs heard in "Singin' in the Rain" were written for, including even the title song, which debuted in the "Hollywood Revue of 1929" and introduced by Cliff Edwards (AKA "Ukelele Ike"), better known to the world as the voice of Jiminy Cricket.

And that's what makes this film so special to me. When I hear the songs being sung my mind races back to the original films. The music here is just as much a star as the actors. Do you really think you would enjoy this film if Kelly did the Africa war dance for Reynolds instead of singing "You Were Meant for Me" (introduced by Charles King in "The Broadway Melody of 1929"). It is the song that makes the scene.

The stand out numbers are of course Gene Kelly singing and dancing in the rain to the title song, O' Connor's "Make 'em Laugh" and Reynold's performing "All I Do Is Dream Of You". In fact I don't think Reynolds has ever been cuter though "The Tender Trap" may come close.

All the times I watch this film there is one sequence I wish they would have left out, and it is probably a favorite of many. I don't like the Broadway Melody sequence. It just comes out of nowhere near the end of the film and I feel slows everything down. It brings the movie to a halt. Though this sequence is probably the most direct homage to earlier musicals.

The film was co-directed by Stanley Donen and Kelly and written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who also were a song writing team, writing numbers such as "Just in Time", "The Party's Over" and "Make Someone Happy". It received two Oscar nominations, both of which it won, but did not get a "best picture" nomination or "best director". In the Academy's wisdom, Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show On Earth" won that year. Now I have nothing against that film, but, if you were given the chance to watch one of those films tonight, seriously, how many would chose "The Greatest Show On Earth"? The other major award the film was nominated for best supporting actress, Jean Hagen. It was a well deserved Nomination and too bad she didn't win. She is delightful to watch. I wonder if Leslie Ann Warren mimicked her for her role in "Victor/Victoria"?

"Singin' in the Rain" represents the kind of film I love more than anything. It is classic Hollywood film making at its best. It is pure entertainment and one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Film Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

There use to be a ritual most film goers would keep. Every year Woody Allen would release a film and the public would go out in great excitement to see what Woody had in store for us this time. That ritual has slowly gone away. The last 15 or so years, after some personal stories involving his relationship with Mia Farrow were revealed, even Allen's most loyal critics and fans turned their backs on him.

Many of the New York critics would complain that Allen no longer shows a realistic view of New York. In films such as "Hollywood Ending", "Anything Else" and "Melinda and Melinda" these comments would fill their reviews and lead to their dissatisfaction. Now while many of the upper East side, Liberal, pretentious New Yorkers may have felt the same way, the problem with these remarks are, people in Cleveland, Chicago or Boston really don't care. We don't live in New York so we don't know how you New Yorkers view your city. Plus, these are movies. It is okay if Allen's films are not realistic portraits of the city he loves.

I mention all of this because when Allen shot "Match Point", his first film in London, many of the critics, including those in New York, went on and on how great it was to see Allen shot in a new location. How the London landscape offered something new for Allen and added depth to his story about the upper class and lust. I never agreed. I enjoyed his London films, "Match Point", "Scoop" and last year's "Cassandra's Dream" but I didn't find the landscape to be beautiful. I don't think London is a romantic city. Now, don't get me wrong. London is a nice place, I've spent some time there. The people are friendly and they have the greatest airport in the world. But London doesn't seem sensual. But Barcelona on the other hand is a romantic, sexy city. It adds something to the story in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona". In an interview Allen even admitted "when I began writing the script, I wasn't thinking of anything other than creating a story that had Barcelona as a character. I wanted to honor Barcelona."

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is seen by some critics as a yet another comeback for the greatest, unappreciated American comedy filmmaker of the last century. Noah Forrest of "MovieCityNews" wrote "Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a gem of a film, a vintage Woody Allen picture that is most reminiscent of the pictures he made in the late 70s." And in some ways it is.

The film has two young American tourist, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) who visit friends of Vicky's family; Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and Mark (Kevin Dunn) for the summer. At an art gallery they spot a painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who immediately catches Cristina's eye.

The girls, we are told, the film has a narrator, agree on just about every subject except love. Vicky is a more conservative woman who appreciates order, not only in her daily life but in love. She is about to marry Doug (Chris Messina) whom is successful and motived. Cristina is a bit more wild. She doesn't know what she wants out of life. She only knows what she doesn't want, which is everything Vicky wants. Cristina seeks adventure.

Later that same night, at a restaurant, Juan notices the two girls sitting down as Cristina has been looking his way the whole night. He approaches them with a proposition. Why don't the three of them go away to a small island for the weekend, doing some sightseeing and make love. Vicky is a little put off by Juan's directness while Cristina finds it refreshing.

We learn Juan has recently divorced. His wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) actually stabbed him in a moment of passion. Juan openly admits the two were meant to be but can not live together.

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" like most of Allen's films is about people searching for love and meaning in their life. What do we want out of love? What do we expect? The most typical Allen female in the film is not Vicky or Cristina but Maria. She is artistic, a painter and pianist, but also crazy and neurotic. She can be driven wild by passion.

The performances in the film are all effective and accomplish what Allen had in mind. It is amazing to see Bardem especially after his work in the Coen Brother's "No Country for Old Men". The range between the two roles and how realistic he seems in both shows his talent. Johansson, at first thought delivered her best performance in an Allen picture, but, the film changes focus and sort of loses her. But she is probably at her most sensual here. And Rebecca Hall, a new face to me, with limited acting experience, is a star in the making. Of course I felt the same way about Halley Atwell in "Cassandra's Dream" and I'm not sure how that will turn out.

But what really impressed me about "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" was the locations and the beautiful work done by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who has worked on Milos Forman's "Goya's Ghost" (also with Bardem) and Almodovar's "Talk to Her".

Roger Ebert I think ends his review with the best insight " Allen has set out to amuse and divert us and discover secrets of human nature, but not tragically deep ones. He is a little like Eric Rohmer here." That is a very clever point Ebert makes but he seems to suggest what the film does accomplish is not enough. "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is thoughtful and insightful. It is made in the best tradition of Allen's previous films.

Film Review: Smart People

"Smart People" **** (out of ****)

One of the great things about watching movies is sometimes you'll walk into a movie, have no idea what to expect, and find you have discovered your own hidden treasure. Noam Murro's "Smart People" is such a film for me.

After complaining in my review for "The Counterfeiters" about the lack of quality films coming out in 2008, "Smart People" is one of the year's best films. I remember when the film was first released in theatres and I did want to see it but never got a chance. When I found out the film was going to be released on DVD I said to myself I have to rent it.

I don't like to read movie reviews before I see a movie. I prefer to walk into a movie cold and then read reviews. Sometimes I'm afraid the critic might reveal too much. Other times I simply want to be surprised by everything. I want to discover things for the first time as the characters in the film discover them.

So knowing this about me, I walked into "Smart People" without knowing a single thing about it. There will be those who say "Smart People" does nothing new. In a way they are right. The film is similar to Noan Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale". But, have you ever just simply watched a movie, not analyze it, but just take in the charms of a movie and shut your brain off. To simply enjoy a movie for simply being a movie? That's what I did watching this film.

"Smart People" is about a pompous, conservative college literary professor (Dennis Quaid) who is disinterested in the world and his students. He cannot remember the names of his students and even suggest they wear name tags. His car takes up two parking spaces because he parks on a slant. His only concern in life is getting his novel published. He doesn't even pay his children proper respect; Vanessa (Ellen Page) and James (Ashton Holmes). It seems ever since his wife died Prof. Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid) has lost the ability to connect with people.

After Lawrence's car is towed, you can only park in two spots so long before someone notices, he sneaks into the car lot, not wanting to pay the fine, and takes a few things from the car. But when the security guard (a former student, whom he gave a failing grade to) catches him in action, Lawrence jumps a fence and hits his head suffering from a seizure. He is now unable to drive for six months as his step-brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) moves in to drive Lawrence around.

Chuck is not like the rest of the family. He is not a republican, is not as "smart" as Lawrence and Vanessa, who snicker at all people who they feel do not possess their intelligence, and has not amounted to much in life. But through this wild and crazy uncle, these smart people may learn something.

Lawrence finds himself attracted to his former doctor (and student) Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Vanessa learns to open up a bit and have some fun before she heads off to college. This tightly knit family, which keeps all their feelings inside are going to learn to communicate with each other.

Of all the characters in this movie, I think the one I enjoyed watching the most is Vanessa. I'm about a movie late in my appreciation for Ellen Page. Last year everyone fell in love with her as Juno. I was a little indifferent to that film and her performance. But, after watching "Smart People" I find her to be adorable! I can understand this character, I see a little bit of me in her. She has high standards, wants to desperately succeed, wants to impress her father, worried about getting into a good school, and is a member of the young Republican club. I was a member of my school's young conservative club, but I only went to one meeting and it didn't help that I'm not a conservative.

"Smart People" is really filled with characters and situations I think most audience members can relate to. That is what makes this film work. The characters seem like people you know. As you watch the film you just begin to accept these characters as real people and they win you over.

The writer of the film Mark Jude Poirier, has never written anything before this. It would be great if the Academy would nominate this screenplay. And director Murro is also a newcomer. How two people, who have never worked on any film before, could make such a film like this is amazing to me. There is so much talent out there that is just waiting to be discovered.

At the end of the day "Smart People" is a film which tells if even smart people do stupid things and need to be told what to do. How true that is. I hope others seek this film out. It's one of the year's best.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Film Review: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

"Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" *** (out of ****)

I'm going to tell you a quick story about how my feelings on animation have changed over the years. I never really appreciated animation growing up. Even as child I preferred live action films. As I got older I thought of animation merely as children entertainment and undoubtedly, that is the target audience. I didn't think there was anything there which could sustain the interest of an adult. Then Pixar and Disney started releasing films. I didn't like the first "Toy Story" but enjoyed the sequel greatly and loved "Finding Nemo", which I even placed on my "top ten" list in 2003.

It was around this time the name Hayao Miyazaki was brought to my attention. In 2002 his "Spirited Away" was released in the U.S. and critic Roger Ebert raved about it giving it a four star review and eventually placing it on his "top ten" list for 2002. And so I eventually saw a Miyazaki film. I can't remember which one I saw first but since that time I have been in awe of Mr. Miyazaki, whom many consider not only the greatest animator in Japan but in the world. No computer effects for Mr. Miyazaki, he does it the old fashion way; drawing. And many times his animation is quite simply more impressive than any computer animated effect.

"Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" (which I will refer to as "Nausicaa" from now on) is considered by many to be Miyazaki's masterpiece. I don't share that strong delight but it is a film worth seeing and does contain many of the elements which make a Miyazaki film great.

"Nausicaa" takes place in the future in a world where man and insects cannot co-exist. Man has destroyed the land by pollution. Now people must wear gas mask at all times when outside. There is a toxic jungle where the giant Ohm creatures live and when man does something to offend the creatures, they attack. There are now only a few places left where people can survive, one those places is called the Valley of the Wind and its princess is a young girl named Nausicaa (voiced by Alison Lohman in the U.S. release).

Ever since a child Nausicaa has loved nature and insects she independently has tried to figure out how man can restore the land before, it is feared, mankind will become extinct.

Now while this is going on there is another war being fought between two tribal groups the Pejite people and the Tolmekians. The Tolmekians are led by Princess Kushana (Uma Thurman) and the Pejite by Prince Abel (Shia LaBeouf). The Tolmekians want to unearth a giant warrior, five of which roamed the earth a thousand years ago during what is known as the "seven days of fire". This has a heavy biblical reference to it. It is said God first tried to destroy the Earth by water, Noah's ark. The next time he would try would be by fire. The Tolmekians want the giant warrior to destroy all the creatures so man can survive. The Pejite are afraid if the Tolmekians have the giant warrior they will kill everyone and want to rule the land.

This may all sound pretty complex to someone. Imagine trying to explain this to a six year old. But Miyazaki usually makes films which are very mature in their subject matter and go beyond anything Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny deal with. "Nausicaa", if you were paying attention, is clearly a story about the environment. Given all the attention global warming gets in the news it is fitting for some to see this movie. Here is a film made back in 1984 warning us about the dangers of pollution and it had nothing to do with Al Gore!

What stops me from giving the film four stars is, while I truly appreciate the mature storyline and Miyazaki's handling of the story, it doesn't have a certain magical quality I like in animation and from Mr. Miyazaki. My favorite, of all the films by him I have seen, was his last released in the U.S., "Howl's Moving Castle". It is a story dealing with the supernatural. About wizards and witches and a young girl who gets swept up into this magical world. "Nausicaa" even though it is really a sci-fi film, seems a little to, believe this or not, realistic.

When I watch animation I want to be taken to a different world. Animation for me, to quote Humphrey Bogart in the "Maltese Falcon", is the stuff dreams are made of. While I do want a story to hold my interest, animation can do things live action cannot. I want to see new worlds. Look at "Spirited Away", "Castle in the Sky" or "Porco rosso", unexplainable things happen. With "Nausicaa" I didn't feel that way. But because I may be the only one who feels this way about animation I have decided to recommend the film.

This film was released in the 1980s under a different title, "Warriors of the Wind". It is about an hour shorter, massive edits were made so the film would have a broader appeal to children. And given this storyline you can perhaps understand why. Though Miyazaki was extremely upset by these edits and in 2004 when Disney bought the rights to Mr. Miyazaki's work it was in their contract no editing except for translations. This version of "Nausicaa" is the original length, 2 hours long.

There has also been a bit of controversy surrounding the film regarding Nausicaa's clothes. Many people, including myself to be honest, could have sworn there are times when it seems Nausicaa is wearing nothing underneath her dress as the viewer sees, I don't know how to say this, her buttocks. Miyazaki has claimed the problem was due to a lack of color fidelity. It is really a pants Nausicaa is wearing which happens to be the same color as her skin. You can believe what you want.

It has been confirmed Mr. Miyazaki is about to release a new film, "Ponyo on the Cliff", the master says this will be his last film. Though I have heard from others Mr. Miyazaki has made this claim before. But one can never be too sure. Hopefully the rumors are false. Either way I look forward to seeing his new film which has a 2009 scheduled release.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

100 Reviews & Counting

Well my blog reached a milestone yesterday, 100 reviews, 100 blog entries. So I thought it was a good time to take stock of "Critic Picks w/ Alex Udvary" and discuss how I felt the blog is going.
Ultimately I view this blog as a failure. I had such high hopes for it. There were so many films I wanted to write about, I had so many ideas floating around my head when I started this and nearly none of them have been accomplished.

This blog was invented for a few reasons. One of them was to be able to show editors or publishers from newspapers some writing samples. And I have used it for that purpose. The second reason I started it was because I was getting tired of I hated the sense of competition. Competing to get "votes" and "helpful comments". I wasn't looking to compete with anyone. I simply wanted to do what I love, writing about movies. I wanted my writing to stand on its own. I wanted to have the final say. And this, in some ways, leads to my third reason to start to blog. Freedom. I can write about anything I want. Any movie my heart desires whether or not has it as part of their catalogue. And that was really what inspired me most about starting this. But that dream has slipped away.

One of the biggest problems any writer faces is understanding their audience. When you work for a newspaper or a magazine there is a built in audience, you understand the demographic the publication reaches out to and then you know how to write accordingly. With my blog, I don't have a clue who reads this. I don't know what you know. Also because I send this out to editors and publishers, I feel I have to write about contemporary films, to show I know what it going on currently in cinema, but, if I am honest with myself, I have little to no interest in writing about modern cinema. What would give me the most joy to discuss in this blog are films which inspire me. But then we go back to my point, who reads this blog?

Some of you may wonder, how do I decide which movies to review. There is a method to my madness. I try to create a balance between contemporary American films and contemporary international films. The "Masterpiece Film Series" was created so I could write about older titles which have inspired me. It would be a collection of films I feel are essential viewing. Films I place above all others.

My favorite films are American films from the 1920s to 1940s. I love the work of Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Charlie Chaplin, King Vidor, Clarence Brown. I love watching movie stars like Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Laurel & Hardy, Mary Pickford, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Myrna Loy, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. All directors and actors I have not reviewed yet. I've discussed "Modern Times" and "Gone With the Wind" among this era. But no reviews yet for Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Eddie Cantor, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart or Joan Blondel.

Besides my love of American cinema from this time period, I also love international cinema. Think of all the great directors I still have not reviewed films by; Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Eric Rohmer, Francois Truffaut, Istvan Szabo, Andrei Tarkovsky, Werner Herzog, Roman Polanski, Akira Kurosawa, Jean Renoir and others. But, who would want to read a blog filled with movies starring or directed by all the people I mentioned?

I'm sure eventually I'll get around to including some of these films in my "Masterpiece Film Series" but it is the damn modern films which take up all my writing time. It's not that I have something against modern films. I still go to the theatre and watch movies but I get more satisfaction writing about classics.

This may also lead some to wonder how do I select titles in my "Masterpiece Film Series". The film must have been made before 1980, otherwise I deem it too contemporary. Mind you, I'm not saying just because a film was made in say, 1982, does not mean it is not a good or even great film, but it won't be included in my series. I recently reviewed the Austrian film "The Counterfeiters" and called it a "masterpiece" in the review, and so it is. A modern masterpiece.

The reason for the 1980 cut off is because I'm not sure if anything after that time is really long enough for a film to have been tested. Has the film earned the right to be considered with some of the great films of the past. Sure some may argue with me that several films from the 80s are now generally considered classics. Perhaps you are thinking of "Raging Bull", "Fanny & Alexander", "Platoon", "The Last Emperor" or "Ran". They are all great films and are indeed considered great films but they won't be included in my series. That doesn't mean I won't review them however. I'm sure I will. But I think it is more important for people to see older titles first. If I were in a video store with you and you brought me two movies; "Raging Bull" and "Casablanca" and asked me which one you should see first, 10 out of 10 times I'll tell you "Casablanca". Yet another movie I haven't reviewed yet!

So now you perhaps understand this blog a bit more, understand my "rules" and why I consider my blog a failure. I may change some things and stop writing about so many contemporary films but don't worry, whoever you are, I'm sure I'll review something you like.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Top Ten Films Of 2001!

It was a strange year for the movies in 2001. That was of course the year September 11th changed everything. Everyone had their own theory what the events would mean for cinema. Some felt the events meant no more action films. No more films dealing with terrorism. Other thought that comedies would reign supreme at the box-office. Every week when a new film was about to open it seemed to confirm some "critic's" belief. "Don't Say A Word" the Michael Douglas thriller debut at number 1 and everyone said, see, people still want to see a good thriller. "Sidewalks of New York", the Ed Burns comedy, had to remove images of the World Trade Center so not to disturb audiences from reminding them what happened.

In one way or another I do think the events of that day had an effect on all of our cinematic tastes. Films seemed to have changed steadily from 2001. It took a while for mainstream Hollywood films to even mention what happened. Look at all the hype that went into 2006's "United 93", my pick for the best film of the year!

But back then in 2001 I think my taste did change. Some of my favorite films that year centered on family and longing. They were films which dealt with lost people. People confused by the world around them trying to make things perfect, trying to make sense of the world while holding on to their faith and tradition. Here then are my choices for the best films of 2001!

1. THE ROAD HOME (Dir. Zhang Yimou; China) - Perhaps my favorite of all of Yimou's films due to the simplicity of the story. It is a film about family and the past and honoring tradition. A boy remembers back to the story of how his parents met at his father's funeral while people carry the casket back to his village, so his soul knows the road home. This is a small film made back in the days when Yimous wasn't making action films but the movie more than any other released touched me. It was the most tender, embracing film I had seen that year. Incidentally, it marked the third time Yimou made a film which topped my list, making him my most honored filmmaker.

2. FAITHLESS (Dir. Liv Ullmann; Sweden) - Ingmar Bergman's script dealing with personal guilt associated with an affair the master filmmaker once engaged in. I reviewed the film recently on this blog and said I was surprised at how much of a confessional the film played out as. The viewer feels emotional pain watching this film, Bergman is able to make the connection so strongly with the audience. And Ullman of course deserves her share of credit. She strings things along masterfully.

3. A BEAUTIFUL MIND (Dir. Ron Howard; U.S.) - The Oscar winner that year for best picture ranks as one of Howard's best films. But as usually wasn't exactly deserving of the award but Jennifer Connelly as Crowe's wife was great and lit up the screen with her talent and beauty and deserved her award.

4. HEIST (Dir. David Mamet; U.S.) - Mamet fans turned their backs on this one and I'm not quite sure why. Then again, as you may be learning by now, I'm not someone influences by public opinion. I like what I like and don't care what others think. "Heist" rate with some of Mamet's best films and Gene Hackman's performance is terrific to watch. The film is loaded with Mamet's wonderful twist and turns (though admittedly I felt took a few too many turns near the end) still the dialogue and the performances make this one to watch.

5. VANILLA SKY (Dir. Cameron Crowe; U.S.) - Remake of the film "Open Your Eyes" here is a film about a man who thinks he has everything only to lose it all until a special surgery may give him back the life he wants. Again, like the other films on this year here is a movie about trying to make things right.

6. FOCUS (Dir. Neal Slavin; U.S.) - William H. Macy plays a man who buys a new pair of glasses and for some reason everyone now thinks he's Jewish. The film takes place during WW2, apparently a time of great anti-Semitism. The character now realizes how the oppress go through life. The film really managed to work me over causing strong, confrontational feelings within me.

7. THE PLEDGE (Dir. Sean Penn; U.S.) - The film was a re-teaming for director Penn and actor Jack Nicholson after their work in "The Crossing Guard". Here they fare much, much better as Nicholson plays a cop who just can't let go of a case dealing with a sexual predator who goes after children. It proves to be one of Jack's best performances and sadly was over-looked greatly.

8. MOULIN ROUGE! (Dir. Baz Luhrmann; U.S.) - If I had to pick one film to represent 2001 it would have been this astounding musical. It made Kidman a star and took her from under Tom Cruise's shadow. At the time of release, on, I called the film one of the great movie love stories of all-time. It may sound like high praise to some, but the film deserves such acclaim for Luhrmann's almost demonic energy in creating such a lavish, eye-popping film. It just seems to get better and better after every viewing.

9. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Dir. Kar-Wai Wong; Hong Kong) - Another film several critics didn't seem to respond to more affectionately. I fell in the love with the film when I first saw it, it marked the first time I had seen a film from the vastly talented director. The music, the acting, the cinematography it all just seemed to cast a spell over me. I 'm not sure if Kar-Wai has done better.

10 (TIE) MULHOLLAND DR. (Dir. David Lynch; U.S.)/NO MAN'S LAND (Dir. Danis Tanovic; Bosnia-Herzegovina) - The first Lynch film I ever saw! I was not prepared for it. At the time I described it as John Waters meets Federico Fellini. The second-rate dialogue, the beautiful women, off-beat characters. But I will be forever grateful since the film put Naomi Watts on the map, one of our greatest actresses working today! As for "No Man Land's" it was the surprise Oscar winner that year, most thought "Amelie" was a lock. The film takes place during the Bosnian war as two soldiers, fighting on opposite sides, get stuck in an area known as "no man's land", it is territory which belongs to neither side. And a message of peace is learned. It is a film which tells us in times of great conflict we must learn we are all the same and must stick together. What a message for 2001!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Film Review: The Counterfeiters

"The Counterfeiters" **** (out of ****)

"The Counterfeiters" directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky is based on a true story about the largest counterfeit program in history. It was also the Oscar winner for best foreign language film marking the first time an Austrian film had won the award.

This is yet another example of a WW2 story that somehow time forgot. You'd think by now we may have heard all the horror stories about the Holocaust but they keep coming out and oddly enough many times they are German films, that is partly what made last year's Oscar winner "The Lives of Others" such a welcomed relief, it dealt with Communism instead of Hitler.

"The Counterfeiters" is not so much a war story as it is a story of individual identity. The film is based on the book "The Devil's Workshop" by Adolf Burger, but the film is not about his life. It is about a man he stood side by side with in a concentration camp, known as "the king of the counterfeiters", Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovic).

Sorowitsch has made a nice living being able to counterfeit any legal document including money. But when he is rounded up and taken to a concentration camp the Nazis believe they can use his "gift" to their advantage. The Nazis want to break the British economically by circulating fake British pounds eventually they want to counterfeit U.S. dollars as well, but due to Sorowitsch's incredible work, along with a team of others, including Adolf Burger (August Diehl) and a young Russian Jew, Kolya (Sebastian Urzendowsky), The Nazi believe they could use this money to fund the war. Now Sorowitsch is put in a moral dilemma and this is where individual pride and nationality come into play.

Sorowitsch is a Russian Jew living in Austria. He however does not regard himself as a Jew but merely a businessman. He is willing to do business with anyone, just as long as they pay him. When he meets Kolya and reveals to him that he is also Russian Kolya is surprised to learn Sorowitsch does not like to speak Russian any longer he prefers German. Now Sorwitsch has abandon his Russian roots as well. Who and what is he really?

Most of the prisoners in the camp are happy to be alive and go about counterfeiting money, knowing full well what he may lead to, Germany's victory but Adolf Burger refuses causing problem for everyone as he refuses to print the money. He destroys it. Other prisoners fearing for their life do not understand his actions. Is it not better to be alive or is it more just to die for a noble cause?

Burger and Sorowitsch represent two different sides of the same coin. Burger will not forget his Jewish blood, Sorowitsch will do whatever he has to in order to adapt. He doesn't go by labels, Russian, Jew or German it is all the same to him.

Jews, much like gypsies, generally refuse to assimilate. They rarely adapt the customs of their land whether it is Russia, Poland, Germany or Hungary. Hebrew is spoken fluently in the home and they usually befriend their own. In fact two very interesting films were made dealing with this subject in Hungary, Istvan Szabo's "A Napfeny ize (Sunshine)" and Lajos Koltai's "Sorstalansag (Fateless)". In "Sunshine" a family tries to hide their Jewish blood while society will not let them. In "Fateless" a Jewish boy is put in a concentration camp and when released no longer feels Hungarian. He has resentment in his heart towards Hungarians whom he feels sold out their own, Jewish Hungarians.

"The Counterfeiters" doesn't dwell as deeply into this subject as the two mentioned films but there is no way to deny the ideas are there. In order to survive does one have to go against their people? Does that phrase even mean anything, one's people?

As I mentioned before this film won the Academy Award. While it is a very good film, a masterpiece, it didn't deserve to win. The more worthy film did not make it to the second round of the nominating process, it was a Romanian film "4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days)". Not only did that film not get a "Best Foreign Language" nomination it was completely shut out of any major awards as well. So for as good as "The Counterfeiters" may be, it is the second best foreign language film.

Still though don't allow that to stop you from seeing this film. I am very thankful I did. It has been a rough year. I've yet to see one truly great work of art this year. One film which I could describe as a masterpiece. If you look at my reviews you will notice I have not given any 2008 release four stars. "The Counterfeiters" will most certainly make my top ten list at the year's end. It is the only film I have seen thus far that actually provoked strong feelings within me. It is a film about something. It would be great if the Academy nominated the film for some awards such as cinematography and/or the musical score. But because we are taking about the Academy don't expect them to do the right thing.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Film Review: Brideshead Revisited

"Brideshead Revisited" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Although it may not sound manly I am willing to admit, I looked forward to seeing Julian Jarrold's "Brideshead Revisited". It may be considered by some as something of a "chick flick" since it is a British costume drama but the trailer for the film seemed to suggest a decadence, a look at a family of very loose morals when it comes to sexuality. I like films like this if they are done tastefully.

"Brideshead Revisited" is based on a 1946 novel written by Evelyn Waugh starring Matthew Goode, whom some may remember from Woody Allen's "Match Point" as our young hero(?) an atheist artist Charles Ryder. A young man who goes off to Oxford to study history where he meets a bizarre group of people as he forms a friendship with an openly gay man Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw, who was in "Perfume"). The two men come from different social and religious standings. Sebastian is of the wealthy. His family is strongly religious and devoted to the Catholic faith. Charles comes from more modest means and has no religious convictions to speak of.

As the film goes on we learn Sebastian wants to keep Charles away from his family, knowing how his mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) will react to Charles' religious views. But Charles is spellbound by the Brideshead estate. He considers it the most beautiful place he has ever seen and if that is not enough Charles becomes intrigued by Sebastian's sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell, who made a very strong impression on me in yet another Woody Allen film "Cassandra's Dream") Charles ends up being caught in a love triangle between the two siblings.

The best thing which can be said for this film is the wonderful use of visuals. The films takes us from London to Venice, showing us beautiful landscapes in shots which would make perfect postcards. But the major problem with "Brideshead Revisited" is a lack of passion.

This adaptation was written by Jeremy Brock, who does not have a long list of writing credits. One of his more notable efforts was 2006's "The Last King of Scotland" a film which I also thought had problems with its screenplay. The other writer was Andrew Davies, who has a long resume. He wrote "The Tailor of Panama", a good thriller made a few years back with Pierce Brosnan.

The problem with British cinema in general is its smugness. The British are a cold people. I'm sure they can be affectionate people, they like to keep their emotions hidden though. It is very important to always present dignity and refinement. To show public displays of emotion is vulgar. It is part of that stiff upper lip mentality. "Brideshead Revisited" suffers because of this. The characters are so emotionally closed. The film makes fun of this image through Charles' father (Patrick Malahide) who doesn't even realize his son is going off to college or that he has even returned. He is detached completely from society. How there could be a love story between these people is amazing. When did they find the time to talk about love. What is suppose to be a passionate love affair between Charles and Julia amount to nothing more than a kiss. And not even a passionate one at that because it is interrupted by Sebastian.

"Brideshead Revisited" is ultimately a boring dull picture. Nearly all of the performances are bland. The only exceptions are Lord and Lady Marchmain (Michael Gambon and Thompson) with Thompson giving the movie's best performance. She is really the only character who seems to convincingly express any emotion which the audience can relate to. Atwell, is good in her role but it didn't seem to deliver on the promise her performance in '"Cassandra's Dream" seemed to suggest. Neither film I felt fully takes advantage of her beauty and the seductive qualities which I feel she can display.

The film has been getting compared to the PBS 1980s miniseries "Brideshead Revisited" which starred Jeremy Irons as Charles. It was 11 hours long and according to several critics was a more faithful adaptation. Many feel this film cramps too much into its 2 hour running time not allowing characters to be fully drawn out. And there is a hint of that especially at the end concerning Charles and a sort of awaking he goes through concerning his deeper intentions with the Marchmain family. The funny thing is many people, if they had to chose, between seeing an 11 hour miniseries and a 2 film would probably chose the 2 hour film, but, "Brideshead Revisited" felt like 12 hours! I may one day seek out the miniseries, just to compare the two, but after watching this film I'm in no hurry to revisit Brideshead anytime soon.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Film Review: Paranoid Park

"Paranoid Park" ** (out of ****)

Gus van Sant is not your typical filmmaker. He walks a tight line between making mainstream Hollywood films and independent, more personal works. "Paranoid Park" is somewhere in the middle. And that's largely the problem with this film. It is a touch of this a dash of that and a mix of the other and it all amounts to nothing.

"Paranoid Park" is suppose to be a look at teenage life or as Sant suggest, the film deals with the way teenagers communicate or their lack of communication.

The title comes from a park where skateboarders meet. We follow two friends, Alex (newcomer Gabe Nevins) and Jared (another newcomer Jake Miller) two buddies who decide to make the leap and head to the famous park. I guess this park is where all the top skaters go. But one day something bad happens at the park, a security guard is found dead by railroad tracks not far from the park. The police think skaters must have been involved and head to Alex's school to question them.

Now maybe that idea sounds interesting. But van Sant is not interested in making a thriller. There are no suspenseful scenes, no intense interrogation scenes and not much violence, only one scene. What Sant does in "Paranoid Park" is show us the mundane daily life of skaters. So we see Alex talk to his friends, sit in his room, go to school and skate. It is a similar approach the filmmaker took in his 2003 film "Elephant", which won the palme d'or. It showed a high school mass murder but offered no explanation why these events happens. It merely showed us high school life without all the glitz and glamour. "Paranoid Park" wants to try something similar.

But Gus van Sant keeps straying from that simple idea and keeps taking the film in different directions. At least 10 times the Iraq war is mentioned. Alex sits in a coffee shop with a friend, Marcy (Lauren McKinney, making her screen debut) and she asks him what's been bothering him lately. He tells her it doesn't matter especially when you compare his problems to the war in Iraq and starving children. This made me think of the ending in "Casablanca" when Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman the problems of three people don't amount to a hill of beans in this world. But why is Sant having these young kids talk about Iraq? The film really has nothing to do with Iraq. I don't think Sant is making any political commentary perhaps he is trying to make a social commentary on adolescence but that is about it. Sant doesn't even get into the murder part of the plot until over a half hour into the film. And the movie is only 83 minutes!

There are also some unusual musical choices. Sant settled on the greatest hits of Federico Fellini movies. Much of the score comes from Nino Rota's score for "Juliet of the Spirits" and "Amarcord". This got me thinking, why? What is the connection between Fellini and Sant's film and for that matter Fellini and Sant? One is a daring bold filmmaker who has inspired countless directors after him and has created a film world for all of us to marvel at and the other is Gus van Sant. "Spirits" was the story of a woman married to a cheating husband as "spirits" try to guide her towards a better life. "Amarcord" was a humorous look back at Fellini's childhood. There isn't too much glue holding all this together. Plus the film score made me want to shut off "Paranoid Park" and watch the Fellini movies.

Because of Sant's film making decisions, showing us nothing visually exciting, though for the sake of argument the film does have occasional beautiful shots, the film creates such a wall between the viewer and the screen that I never really cared about what was going on. Many times that is the point of a film. But watching Sant's film I had no investment in anything. If I shut the movie off and never watched the ending I wouldn't care.

But the film does have some supporters. My least favorite critic for the New York Times, and one of my least favorite critics in general, a woman I have no respect for Manohla Dargis wrote Paranoid Park "is about bodies at rest and in motion, and about longing, beauty, youth and death" she goes to to write how van Sant owes much to Hungarian director Bela Tarr for his (van Sant's) "recent artistic renaissance - evident in his newfound love of hypnotically long and gliding camera moves." Now I reviewed Tarr's "Satantango" recently and made a point of saying how Tarr does in fact want to put us in a trance with his hypnotic style but the difference between what Tarr does and van Sant is, while Tarr is showing us the extreme long shot with one take, the images are fascinating van Sant is not as visually compelling as Tarr. To mention Tarr in the same sentence as van Sant only hurts van Sant. Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News disagree with me and says the film is a "striking mood piece that effectively reflects adolescent alienation."

It is odd for me to find the one critic I came across who I agreed with was another critic I have no respect for, Mr. Jonathan Rosenbaum the pretentious former writer for the Chicago Reader said Paranoid Park "has something to do with guilt, alienation, and the loss of virginity but a lot more to do with skateboarding and the emotional dissassocation."

And "Paranoid Park" does have something to do with the themes Rosenbaum stated. The problem is neither he nor I can figure out what. And I don't think van Sant knows either. Rosenbaum ends his review writing "Elephant said much more about teenagers and said it better." Here here Mr. Rosenbaum! I think I should stop there too.