Monday, September 29, 2008

Film Review: Righteous Kill

"Righteous Kill" *** (out of ****)

Word on the street is, don't see this movie. The film was not screened in advance for critics (rarely a good sign), and little advertising went into it, though the director, Jon Avnet and the film's producers, were banking on the idea the public would want to see two of our greatest living actors (and that is not an overstatement) appear in the same film.

The film has been bashed by the critics and many in the public. The estimated budget for the film is around $60 millions dollars. As of the date of this review, the film has grossed $28 million but with many new films coming out and a lack of public interest, the film will begin (if it hasn't already) to be lost in the shuffle. A shame.

Manohla Dargis of the NY Times considered the film "a clutter of recycled cop-movie and serial-killer film cliches." The L.A. Times wrote "Righteous Kill" is "a tricked-up and often turgid police thriller." The only positive review I came across was written by my favorite critic Michael Wilmington of who stated "the movie could have been better written and directed, but, in their cases, it could not be better acted." I agree.

That is largely what makes "Righteous Kill" worth seeing. Say what you will about the directing, cinematography, editing, or script but you cannot say the acting by De Niro and Pacino is bad. If anything the film should serve as a curiosity piece. These two great actors have only appeared in the 1995 film "Heat", where they had one scene together. Both were in "The Godfather Part II" but never in the same scene.

The film has De Niro and Pacino play two New York city detectives; Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino). They have been on the force many years. They joke between them there is 120 years of experience. They take their work serious. They are out to serve and protect. But sometimes criminals fall through the cracks and are let free. This happens when a child rapist and murderer is set free, when of the mother of the child defends the man who did it, her boyfriend. Turk and Rooster feel the system has failed them. They know the man is guilty and something must be done about that. Turk decides to plant evidence against the man for a crime he never committed. He does so with Rooster's approval.

Soon a serial killer is on the loose killing others who have managed to beat the system. Rooster thinks the murders may have been done by a cop, so a young team has been assigned to the case; Det. Perez (John Laguizamo) and Det. Riley (Donnie Wahlberg).

The film was written by Russell Gewirtz, who wrote Spike Lee's "Inside Man". The director, Avnet, released another film with Pacino this year, "88 Minutes". Avnet is not up to the task of directing these two icons and the script isn't up to their standards. It is a missed opportunity. Imagine if a more gifted director like Scorsese, Coppola or Sidney Lumet had been involved. A director who could get some great performances out of these stars.

But despite that the public has damned the film unfairly. It is not as bad as so many are making it out to be. I've noticed this trend over the years. The public and the critics simply over-hype some movies and send other ones unfairly to their death. Think of films such as "Town & Country", which was considered the worst film ever made when released. Or "The Brown Bunny". Boring? Sure. Worst film I've ever seen in my life? No.

The film works for me because it has a certain amount of raw energy. It has some grit. The visual style of the film reminds me of a little seen cop movie called "Narc" with Ray Liotta. And the performances are worth while. Pacino and De Niro don't turn in the greatest performances of their careers and in 20 years from now or 20 days from now, the film may be forgotten. Gone are the days when the public would look forward to seeing these icons. They aren't in movies such as "Taxi Driver" (who De Niro's character resembles in some ways. Mostly the idea of wanting to rid the world of scum.) and "GoodFellas" or "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Serpico". Instead filmbuffs and movie fans want to see superhero movies and push aside these great actors. That's not right. They deserve better.

In Memory: Paul Newman

Over the weekend, on September 26th, American icon and rebel Paul Newman died at his home in Connecticut. He was 83.

Newman established that rebel persona through the 1967 film "Cool Hand Luke". In what I think may be one of his defying roles. He also scored big with a pair of films he made with Robert Redford; "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969) and the Oscar winner, "The Sting" (1973).

He was nominated 9 times for best actor/supporting actor including roles in such films as "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", "Cool Hand Luke", and his last nomination in 2003 for the film "Road to Perdition". At the time I felt he should have won the award that year for "best supporting actor".

Of those 9 nominations Newman won once for his role as Fast Eddie Felson, which he originated in the 1961 film "The Hustler". When he did win it was for Martin Scorsese's sequel "The Color of Money".

Besides his work as an actor Newman switched to directing. He directed 6 films, only one of which I have seen. His 1968 film "Rachel, Rachel" which starred his wife Joanne Woodward. She was nominated for "best actress" that year and the film was up for "best picture". Two very deserving nominations.

Newman may also be known for his political activities. He was a self-proclaimed liberal, who was even put on President Nixon's "enemy list" (he placed number 19). Newman jokingly considered that one of his great achievements. And some may know him for his humanitarian work. His salad dressing and sauces, which all profits went to donate money to charities.

As with Sydney Pollack, who also died earlier this year, I can't pretend that Newman might a lot to me now that he has died (despite being Hungarian). Of course I respect him as an actor and was sad to hear of his passing, but, honestly, when have I mentioned Paul Newman before? Still Newman was a great actor, who retired in 2007. Nearly all of his films are considered classics or should be. He was without question in the same league as Marlon Brandon, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. It has been said also that he was a very humble man. He had a good sense of humor. That was evident in his cameo role in the 1976 Mel Brooks comedy "Silent Movie", where he played a wheel-chair bound race car driver, who races Brooks. In real life Newman was also an avid racer.

Here now are some of my rating for films with Paul Newman.

"Buffalo Bill & the Indians" **** (out of ****)

"Cat on the Hot Tin Roof" **** (out of ****)

"The Color of Money" *** (out of ****)

"Cool Hand Luke" *** (out of ****)

"Rachel, Rachel" (director) *** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Road to Perdition" *** (out of ****)

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

"The Verdict" **** (out of ****)

"What A Way To Go" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Film Review: Burn After Reading

"Burn After Reading" ** (out of ****)

In the Coen brothers latest film a character ask himself, what did he learn. The answer he says is to never do it again, but he doesn't know what he did wrong in the first place. The Coen brothers should take this advice.

Joel and Ethan Coen may not know what they did wrong while making "Burn After Reading" but lets hope they never do it again.

A funny thing happened to me as I left the theatre. I took a walk home and thought about what I had just seen. I knew I didn't like the movie but I started asking myself why. What was it about this movie that didn't connect with me? And suddenly it hit me. I think I always knew this but I kept it in the back of my mind. I worried about what other filmbuffs would think of me or indie film fans. I even kept my true feelings hidden from myself. I don't like the Coen brothers yet I go and see all their films. Why! Why do I do this to myself? I do it because I keep falling for the same old trick. The Coen brothers are critical darlings. Each time out I keep thinking to myself this will be the one. I'll enjoy this one, I mean c'mon, it got good reviews.

To be fair yes, I've recommended some Coen brother movies in the past but I've usually done so without any enthusiasm. I simply don't like the Coen brothers style of comedy. It doesn't match my own. I rarely find their characters interesting. I rarely become involved in the plots. Sometimes I think the Coen's are too clever for their own good. I was never on board with the praise "Fargo" received. Siskel & Ebert said "Fargo" is the reason they go to the movies. That's a bit of an overstatement to me. I flat out don't like "The Big Lebowski" despite the cult following it has among fans. And I thought critics and the public over-hyped "No Country for Old Men".

The Coen brother movies I like are the ones no one else seem to. My favorite has been "Miller's Crossing". The last Coen brother I really enjoyed in theatres was "The Man Who Wasn't There". Ask how many Coen brother fans liked that one?

"Burn After Reading" continues the slump I feel the team has been in. The film is really a waste of time and money. I'm sorry I saw it. The film seems underdeveloped. The characters don't go anywhere. The plot is stuck in gear. The jokes don't work.

To explain the plot of "Burn After Reading" is not fair. Not because I might spoil it but because it makes it all seem like it makes sense. I would edit my description and just give you the meat and potatoes of the story but what happens in between is the problem. The CIA has decided to transfer one of their agents, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich). They say he has a drinking problem. He tells them he quits. His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) is upset. What will Osbourne do now? He says he will write a book. Transcripts of his book find their way in Linda Litzke's (Frances McDormand) hands. She works at a fitness center and desperately wants to under go plastic surgery. She and a co-work, Chad (Brad Pitt) attempt to blackmail Osbourne. Meanwhile Katie has been having an affair with Harry (George Clooney) who also happens to be married. Each of these characters are going to connect to a large story. All of their lives intertwine.

This makes "Burn After Reading" sound good, funny at the very least. But nothing works. The Coen brothers seem to be mocking modern day society; fitness, on-line dating, the government and Brad Pitt but it goes nowhere. Characters seem important to the story then vanish and reappear at the Coen's whim. Nothing is consistent.

To a lot of fans that is exactly the point. As I left the theatre I heard people talk among themselves saying how much they enjoyed the movie. So clearly I'm in the minority here. The film shouldn't make sense. It is suppose to be oddball entertainment. An off-beat Coen's comedy. But again, I must go back to what I said before. I don't like their style of comedy.

You can't blame the actors for the mess this movie turned out to be. Clooney, McDormand, Malkovich, Swinton and Pitt all do fine work. They do the best with what was written. But none of them are able to make a lasting impression. Swinton, one of my favorite modern actresses, does nothing memorable. Why is it that once an actress wins an Academy Award they appear in nothing worthwhile ever again. Look at Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Mira Sorvino and God forbid Tilda Swinton. Every character seems to be a bit of a cliche, a caricature. Nothing is plausible. But that's what the Coen's wanted to do right? That doesn't mean it was the right decision. You know, the Coen brothers can make mistakes too.

Is there an audience for this piece of junk? Sure. Coen fans are going to flock to it especially after the Oscar win for their previous film. But "Burn After Reading" is worth burning.

p.s. a lot of people may complain about the film's ending. Given what happens before the film's conclusion, I honestly couldn't think of a better ending. It actually makes a strong commentary on our government.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Film Review: Mother of Tears

"Mother of Tears" *** (out of ****)

Finally. This is it. I've talked about Dario Argento's "Mother of Tears" on this blog for a long time. In preparation for it I've reviewed my first Argento film "The Stendhal Syndrome". I've reviewed films with Mr. Argento's daughter, Asia ("The Last Mistress", "Boarding Gate"). And now after my long wait "Mother of Tears" has come out on DVD and I have finally watched, what was for me, one of the most anticipated films of the year.

In my review for "The Stendhal Sydrome" I confessed the name Dario Argento strikes fear in my heart. His reputation as one of the great horror directors in Italian cinema intimated me. Also they said rumors that his films are ultra-violent and flooded with gore. I've since gotten over that fear. I was not afraid to watch "Mother of Tears". Having seen something previously from this director I now knew what to expect and looked forward to the experience of seeing my second Argento film.

"Mother of Tears" continues on what I noticed in my first Argento viewing experience. We have the fascination with blood. In this film the violence is turned up a notch (well maybe more than 1 notch) and the blood splatters more. But the film is the work of a born director. A director with an uncompromising vision.

The film waste no time gettting into the "swing" of the story. Our first murder happens rather early in the story and Mr. Argento never lets up. The film takes the viewer on a journey into the underworld. We plunge into the depths of the occult. I found it similar to the work of Roman Polanski in films such as "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Ninth Gate". And like those films it is not a horror film in the traditional sense. Mr. Argento's films go beyond cheap scares. I feel his work would be better classified as thrillers or psychological suspense films.

Asia Argento stars as Sarah Mandy. She works at the Rome Art Institute where an urn is delivered to her boss, Michael Pierce (Adam James). The urn was sent by a priest, who was convinced the urn once belonged to a mystical, evil spirit, he hoped Michael would confirm his suspicion. But Michael is not in his office as Sarah and a co-worker take it upon themselves to open the urn which releases the evil spirit.

Now Rome has turned into a deadly city. People become violent. Mothers kill their children. Citizens engage in other violent acts such as smashing cars and beating each other up. Suicide rates have jumped up. 52 deaths in two days. And there have been a vast amount of exorcisms reported. Has Hell found its place on Earth? Is this the end of days.

We learn the spirit was a witch, who had two sisters. The sisters have died but the third one, known as the mother of tears, is bringing a second coming of witches on Earth. Only Sarah can stop this spirit since her mother had powers which would help her communicate with the dead. It is believed Sarah has the same powers.

But what am I talking about here? The plot may sound ridiculous to many. It is strangely for that reason I enjoyed the film so much. We have entered a world where anything can happen. The film plays on our imagination. Our darkest fears are realized.

I'm not the world's most religious person but I was raised a Catholic and went to a Catholic school. Certain teachings of the church have stuck with me. I believe in exorcisms and the idea of the devil taking possession of bodies. That is why I consider films like "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist" as the finest of their genre. They feed on my perception of reality. Those events could happen. That's what makes them work. "Mother of Tears" doesn't fuse religion and horror as masterfully as those films but it is in their mode. As I have said the film deals with the occult moreso then religion.

I'm always mixed on my feelings of Asia Argento. I think she has a great screen presence. She dominates the screen and that is true here yet for some reason I was a little letdown by her performance here. It didn't seem as bold as her work in "The Last Mistress" or "Boarding Gate" (both released this year as well). Her scenes are the best. The film becomes the most involving when we see her but there is a connection missing with the character. The audience should identify with her more. The character is a bit too distant. She doesn't seem to have anything personally at stake. What attempts are made I found too simplistic.

"Mother of Tears", it should be pointed out, is part of a trilogy. This is the final part. The other films were "Suspiria" and "Inferno". I have not seen these films. I have already stated, I have only seen two of Mr. Argento's films. Because of that I am not sure if I'm missing something because of that. It seems the film can stand on its own without any knowledge of the two other films. I enjoyed it.

The more important question to ask is, will others enjoy this film? Clearly if you are an Argento fan you will. You don't need me to tell you that. But for the person who has never seen an Argento film or is a casual viewer, I think the film works. Yes there is violence but I never found it to be disturbing. It never became so excessive that I had to look away. The film is a wild and exciting ride.

Film Review: Leatherheads

"Leatherheads" *** (out of ****)

"Leatherheads" is a throwback to the romantic comedies of the 1930s and the college sports movies of the 1920s and 30s. It is directed by George Clooney, whose previous film, "Goodnight and Good Luck", was also a period piece. The 1950s in that movie's case.

Clooney might be the only actor today who is capable of pulling off these kind of roles. The kind of roles Cary Grant would have played 60 years ago. There is something about his looks and his personality where he can get away it. There are times he has hints of Grant's suave, smooth style. The Coen Brothers like to take advantage of that. Watch him in "Intolerable Cruelty" or "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?".

In "Leatherheads" Clooney plays the Cary Grant part again as Dodge Connelly. A 40-ish year old football player trying to make it in the pro league. The film takes place in 1925. Pro football is not the way we know it today. There are no rules and regulations which we have today. "Leatherheads" wants to be the story of how football transformed into the game we know it as today. At least that is part of the story.

The more interesting part of the film is the throwback to a forgotten era. I've never been shy to admit my love of films of the 1920s-1940s. Every once in a while Hollywood wants to attempt to make films in that vain. Earlier this year I reviewed "Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day". Another wannabe 1930s comedy.

I usually like when Hollywood tries to go back to its roots but sadly the films are never quite as good. There just doesn't seem to be the same level of talent anymore. Are the Coen Brothers this generation's next Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch?

A lot of critics and some of the public were pretty harsh on this film. I think I know why. Films such as these (Miss Pettigrew, Being Julia) are taking us back to a time most movie fans know nothing about. There is nothing for them to relate to. These movies work for me because I'm familiar with what the director is trying to do. I know the films they are paying homage to. I have a certain nostalgia for the era and its films. Critics today, who also know those old movies, criticize the films because they follow the rule, if something was made today it can't be good. It's better to say everything today is bad when compared to the films of yesteryear. Sometimes that is true. But sometimes you have to stop being a snob and admit when something good does actually come out.

What really makes this film special for me is the chemistry between Renee Zellweger and Clooney. Zellweger plays Lexie Littleton a Chicago Tribune reporter sent on a special assignment to follow a college football superstar and war hero, who single handedly captured a dozen German soldiers, Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski). It turns out Carter's story may not be true. Lexis is sent in the hopes she can seduce the truth out of Carter. But Lexie has managed to catch Dodge's eye, despite the two's constant arguing.

Zellweger was a good choice for the part. It is her second time back in the roaring 20s. If you remember she was in "Chicago" as Roxie Hart. Zellweger has a Rosalind Russell quality to her. Just the idea of Zellweger playing a reporter made me think of "His Girl Friday". She and Clooney have a sort of Grant/Russell banter to their speech.

John Krasinski some may know from the Robin Williams comedy "License to Wed". He played the non-religious boyfriend of Mandy Moore. He was a bit annoying in that movie and he's a bit annoying here too but I think his non-likable personality is more suited here because he's playing a liar and a cheat. So it works in his favor.

One has to admit though that the film does leave some things to be desired. Some people may complain the film doesn't dwell deep enough into the characters. It doesn't allow enough of a set-up to show Dodge and Lexie falling for each other. Not all of the jokes work. In fact more miss than hit. And the film's climax is an absolute disgrace and an insult to cinema. It is anti-climatic. It should have been rewritten. It is a football match which has no suspense. There are no laughs either. Think of the "big game" in other college sport films such as "The Freshman" with Harold Lloyd or "Horse Feathers" with the Marx Brothers. That is what "Leatherheads" should have been aiming for.

But good points about the film is Clooney and Zellweger have enough star power and likability to carry a film. They have chemistry together and deliver some good lines at each other. I also liked the musical score which was written by Randy Newman (he has a cameo has a piano player in a bar who gets involved in a bar fight). But some real songs make their way in the movie such as Gershwin's "The Man I Love".

Will everyone enjoy this movie? Of course not! But those you like old-fashion comedies will. Luckily I do!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Film Review: A Very Moral Night

"A Very Moral Night (Egy erkolcsos ejszaka)" *** (out of ****)

"A Very Moral Night (Egy erkolcsos ejszaka)" is a little seen Hungarian film directed by Karoly Makk, released in 1977. It was part of the Hungarian New Wave of cinema which included Marta Meszaros "The Girl (Eltavozott nap)" and Istvan Szabo's "Father (Apa)".

"A Very Moral Night" at first positions itself as a sex comedy but it never becomes the wild romp it promises. That is part of the problem with this comedy. It is never very funny and little on sex. But one can see the potential which is what makes it so sad when the film doesn't deliver and live up to what could have been.

Most of the film takes place in a brothel run by the madame (Iren Psota). Nearly all of her girls take an interest in Dr. Jeno Kelepei (Gyorgy Cserhalmi). He is not a particularly attractive man, he doesn't have much money and according to the ladies his so called "intelligence" doesn't impress them. Yet they all melt around him.

One day, over lunch, Jeno explains to the madame his mother sends him 120 crowns. His rent is 90. He complains it doesn't leave him much spending money, especially since he enjoys visiting the ladies at the brothel. The madame makes him a deal. He can live there and pay 80 crowns. Jeno agrees but informs the madame it can never be known to his mother (Margit Makay) where he lives now or else she will not send him any more money.

Because this is a comedy you can pretty much guess what happens. The mother one day pays an unexpected visit on Jeno causing major disruptions at the brothel. The girls must keep their work a secret until the mother leaves. She thinks it is a boarding house. The situations increases as Jeno is nowhere to be found. He is out at a poker game and no one can get in touch with him. The girls must watch the mother.

You have to admit this all sounds pretty funny. Just think of the idea of an elderly woman associating with whores. Now the film's title takes on a new meaning. We can sense a certain amount of sarcasm in it. For tonight these ladies will have to show respectability and morals.
But Karoly Makk doesn't allow the film to play out correctly. Makk doesn't seem to understand comedy. All the films I've seen directed by him have been dramas. I've never seen him approach comedy and this film makes a pretty good case why he shouldn't.

The film has no flux in tone. Nothing ever seems to build up tension. The situation never seems to increase. There are rarely moments when the viewer worries if the mother will find out where she is. Makk limits the suspense of conflict. The film is monotone. Comedy needs highs and lows. Especially this kind of comedy which could have been played as a sex farce.

"A Very Moral Night" however seems more interested in providing us with a social message rather than laughs. What I came away with watching this film is the idea of old society meets new society. The mother represents old morals while the the girls are new society. As I said this film was made in 1977. Many parts of the world were in a sexual revolution. American cinema was tackling the issue in more explicit ways. Watch "Looking For Mr. Goodbar" or even the Oscar winner of that year Woody Allen's "Annie Hall". Much of that film has to do with sexual hangups. "A Very Moral Night" is caught in a conflict. The mother seems to be rubbing off her old-fashion values on the girls. The mother makes the girls think of the life choices they have made. One of the girls, Bella (Carla Romanelli) breaks down and tries to commit suicide. She is in love with one of her customers, seeing the mother talk about her son and married life, fills Bella with guilt.

The film is based on a novel written by Sandor Hunyady and adapted by Peter Bacso and Istvan Orkeny. Bacso worked with Makk before. He wrote the screenplay to Makk's "Szerelem (Love)". But Bacso moved on to directing. His masterpiece may be "A Tanu (The Witness)". But Bacso, while a talented writer and director, has not made a great comedy I have seen. He has done some comedies though.

Karoly Makk needed to decide which tone the film should have taken. Either you treat this material seriously or take advantage of the comedic aspects of it. The comedy elements are too strong to have been avoided which is why I think going a bit over the top with the comedy, exaggerating it, would suit this film better.

A lot of my readers may not know much about Makk. He has retired from filmmaking but before that he has made some classics in Hungarian cinema. Six of his films have been nominated for the palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival. "Szerelem (Love)" is one of his masterpieces which was nominated as was "Macskajatek (Cat's Play)", and "Egymasra nezve (Another Way)". These may have been his best films. Despite these high points in his career Makk is not a favorite director of mine. I never or rarely feel he pushes the medium far enough. His films are usually shot very conventionally. There is little visually interesting about "A Very Moral Night". He seems reluctant to take chances, though I must admit "Szerelem" and "Egymasra nezve" are bold films which attack life under Communist rule in Hungary.

So much of this review reads as negative. But "A Very Moral Night" is worth seeing. I enjoyed the performance especially by the girls in the brothels. Bella and Darinka (Gyprgyi Tarjan) are very interesting characters. Darinka is the cliche whore with a heart of gold. She seems to be in love with Jeno, and even writes a letter to her boyfriend to call off their engagement. She is presented as young and "innocent". Innocent in the ideas of actually feeling love. And as I have mentioned the story has possibilities.

This is not a great introduction into Makk's work but once you have seen his other films and/or if you enjoy Hungarian cinema "A Very Moral Night" may pass as a clever diversion.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: Safety Last

"Safety Last" **** (out of ****)

It is probably the most iconic moment in silent comedy history. A man hanging onto the hands of a clock several stories high risking almost certain danger. But how many people can name the man or the movie from which the image appeared (cue Jeopardy theme.....time's up)? The man is comedian Harold Lloyd, the film is "Safety Last".

Every now and then I mention my love of screen comedies on this blog. Comedies are rarely shown their due respect by film goers. It is always hard hitting dramas which are shown the most appreciation. Comedy, it is said, is the most difficult of the genres to write. It's never explained why but my guess is because so many people find different things funny. With drama they feed on basic human emotions we can all relate to. But a man slipping on a banana peel, now that's an acquired taste.

Still I must call a spade a spade. I am guilty of this myself. I talk about comedies but how many have I written about on here? Very few. There is Chaplin's "Modern Times", a Bob Hope movie, something by Woody Allen and the recently released "Smart People". And "Modern Times" is the only other silent comedy I've written about. Something had to be done about that.

When I was growing up if you were to ask me who is my favorite silent comedian my answer would be Harold Lloyd. I took pity on him. Lloyd has been referred to as the "third genius" of silent comedy coming behind Chaplin and Keaton (or Keaton and Chaplin if you prefer). Because I felt bad for him, I thought someone should like him, I nominated myself. Of all of the films Lloyd made I had only seen this film growing up. My local library also had a collection of some shorts (2 reelers) Lloyd made but that was it. That was my introduction into Lloyd's work.

Harold Lloyd was considered an "everyman". He could have been your next door neighbor. He wasn't an outsider, a dirty tramp (like Chaplin). He looked normal (unlike Keaton, with his "stone face" expression). And, at times, he behaved like an adult (unlike Harry Langdon). Lloyd's character became known as "glasses". Lloyd described the character as such "glasses would serve as a trademark and at the same time suggest the character - quiet, normal, boyish, clean, sympathetic, not inconceivable in romance."

It was difficult choosing a film to introduce readers to Harold Lloyd. I struggled between this and his college comedy "The Freshman". "Safety Last" though is a good example of what was typical about Lloyd's comedy. In it he plays a character simply credited as "the boy". He is in love with "the girl" (played by his real life wife Mildred Davis, who appeared in some of Lloyd's films and 2 reelers). They want to get married but before that can happen "the boy" must go out to the city to make good. Once he saves up enough money he will send for his bride-to-be.

"The Boy" gets a job as a department store clerk but lies to "the girl" in the letters he writes, telling her he is big shot and doing very well. It will be a matter of time before he sends for her. But one day Lloyd gets a break. The general manager is desperate for a new promotion the store can use to attract customers. Lloyd's roommate is a "human fly". He can crawl up buildings, this character is played by Bill Strother, a real life "human fly". Lloyd suggest his friend climb the department store.

If Lloyd's plan works it will mean a $1,000 bonus, just enough for Lloyd to get married and start a family. But things don't work out as planned. The friend accidentally upsets a police officer (Noah Young) who chases after him causing Lloyd to have to be the one who climbs up the building.

Here we can see what made Harold Lloyd so popular with audiences in the 1920s. His character was very American. He had a "can do" attitude. Nothing would stand in his way. He represented the clean cut gentleman. He wants to live the American dream, fall in love, get married, live in the big house with the white picket fence. And Lloyd's films were topical. Advertising during the 1920s skyrocketed. There was always some kind of crazy promotion going on to attract buyers. "Safety Last" is a comment on the culture.

"Safety Last" though, one has to admit, is not a perfectly structured film. The film is really set pieces thrown together. It is a collection of visual gags which don't always advance the plot. We see Lloyd late for work and come up with an elaborate plan to get there in a hurry. Another sneaky plan to punch in on time. A set piece revolving around his hiding from his landlady and buying "the girl" gifts. Other films such as "The Freshman", "Grandma's Boy" or "Girl Shy" were more focused. The jokes were part of the plot. They were built into the story.

After watching this film I'm sure a lot of people are going to wonder how on Earth did they do the building climbing scenes. Lloyd has been very secretive about this not wanting to spoil the "magic" of it. He would let people think what you saw is what actually happened. That is not exactly true. It is true Lloyd, like Keaton, would do his own stunts, but trick photography was used. I won't explain how exactly it was all done because I don't want to spoil it. Watch it and figure it out yourself.

I remember the first time I saw this film and how I felt watching Lloyd climb up the building. My heart was in my throat. I sat on the edge of my seat. I was actually worried Lloyd would fall and hurt himself.

Something very clever about the sequence is you'll notice the street below is also in frame. But it is not a static background. Otherwise some might think it was all done behind a green screen on a studio lot. We see moving cars and people walking. It appears to have been done in real time.

The film was directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. Both men had worked with Lloyd before. Newmeyer directed "Hot Water", "Girl Shy" and two classic shorts; "Never Weaken" and "Now or Never". Taylor's work goes beyond Lloyd's films (the talky comedy "The Cat's Paw") he also directed Laurel and Hardy in "Nothing But Trouble" and a brilliant silent comedy "Exit Smiling" (which sadly is out of print) it stars Beatrice Lillie. One of these days I'll include it in this series.

For those who have never seen a Harold Lloyd comedy I think you will be in for a treat. Like Buster Keaton, Lloyd's comedies have a lot of energy. They move fast. "Safety Last" never lets up. It is one gag after another. The film is relatively short. Only 73 minutes. So it should be an easy view for most, even those who say they don't like silent comedies.

"Safety Last" is one of Lloyd's great comedies and one of the great comedies of all time. I will always think of it as one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Top Ten Films Of 1999!

Having completed my list of the best films of the 1990s, I am now going to give my list for the best films of 1999.

Seldom have there been years as entertaining as 1999. It was an incredibly strong year. Directors took chances. Films which were actually about something were being made. Of course, as with any year, there were some low points, but the high points far outweighed them.

One of the most important cinematic events of the year was the release of Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut", it would be Kubrick's last movie, he died just before the release but in time to hear about the controversy surrounding the film. It was said it would receive an NC-17 rating unless Kubrick edited it. He did, though the original version was shown in Europe. Some suggest behind the scenes problems were brewing between Kidman and Cruise, which led to their break-up. All the hype that went into the film all fizzled. The film didn't do the box-office so many expected. And two camps were formed. Those for the film and those against it. The against it crowed was bigger in numbers.

The world entered the Matrix. A box-office hit which gained a cult following. People searched for hidden clues in the film to give us the meaning of life.

Teen comedies broke out with "American Pie" setting new rules for what the public would accept as both entertainment and funny.

The international film of the year came from Germany; "Run, Lola, Run". Art-houses were buzzing with excitement and delight.

Theo Angelopoulos finally won his palme d'or at Cannes. I'll tell you a brief story. In 1995 "Underground" won the top prize at Cannes beating Angelopoulos' "Ulysses' Gaze", which came in second place. When Angelopoulos went to the podium he said "if this is all you have to give me, I have nothing to say." At least he didn't take it personal, right? But his "Eternity and A Day" was one of his great films.

Here now are my top ten choices for the best films of 1999!

1. EYES WIDE SHUT (Dir. Stanley Kubrick; UK/U.S.) - A misunderstood masterpiece which Roger Ebert described as a worthy final chapter in Kubrick's career. I was 16 years old in '99, and I have only seen this movie that one time in theatre but I remember vividly how I felt watching this movie. It remains my favorite, yes I said favorite, Kubrick film.

2. AN AUTUMN TALE (Dir. Eric Rohmer; France) - The final chapter in Rohmer's "Tale of Four Seasons" series. Unlike my first choice, a sexual odyssey, here is a more gentle film about love and courtship. Like all of Mr. Rohmer's films the characters are charming and hard to resist.

3. THE EMPEROR & THE ASSASSIN (Dir. Chen Kaige; China) - After Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine" critics seem to have a hard time giving him credit for his other films. Like his contemporary Zhang Yimou, Kaige is one of the greatest filmmakers to emerge in the last 20 years. The film is a historical epic. The beyond beautiful Gong Li stars.

4. AMERICAN BEAUTY (Dir. Sam Mendes; U.S.) - The Oscar winner for "best picture" was an indie film which broke out into the mainstream. It was one of the most successful films of the year. It made stars out of Thora Birch and Mena Suvari but unfortunately neither has been in anything quite up to this level of quality. At the time when I first saw this film I called it an amazing portrait of today's American family.

5. SWEET & LOWDOWN (Dir. Woody Allen; U.S.) - Allen ended the decade on a high note in this jazz bio of the world's second greatest guitarist in the world. Sean Penn gives a performance which I felt should have won the Oscar. The film does a great job of recreating the feeling of the time period. As the son of a musician I can also tell you he gets the lifestyle down cold.

6. RUN,LOLA, RUN (Dir. Tom Tykwer; Germany) - As I said before a wild, entertaining ride. Germany's answer to "Pulp Fiction" the film never slows down for a minute. It grabs the viewer and never lets go.

7. PRIVATE CONFESSIONS (Dir. Liv Ullmann; Sweden) - Based on a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman, concerning the story of how his parent met. The film is powerful and dark, examining what lies within our souls. A little slow moving for some but well worth seeing.

8. THE HURRICANE (Dir. Norman Jewison; U.S.) - Based on a true story starring Denzel Washington, giving one of his best performances. The film is a well made tear jerker. Very emotional, well acted film all stylized by Jewison.

9. THE END OF THE AFFAIR (Dir. Neil Jordan; UK/U.S.) - My favorite film by one of my favorite modern filmmakers. The movie has two great performances given by Fiennes and Moore. Has a great literary quality to it.

10. THE MATRIX (Dir. The Wachowski Brothers; U.S.) - Not typically my kind of thing but a dazzling display of special effects mixed with some good performances made this film work for me. I never got involved in the cult aspect of it but it is a film worth multiple viewings.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Top Ten Films Of The 90's!

As part of my series on the "top ten" films of the year, I have managed to work my way back to the 1990s. But before I start with my list of the "ten best films of 1999" I thought it would make more sense to start with my list of the best films of the 90's first.

It proved to be quite a decade. Most filmbuffs will agree with me the 1980s were such a disappointment! What happened? While the 90s did start off a little slow, you have to admit the years got better and better. Great directors were making great films.

Some highlights of the decade include Eric Rohmer's "Tale of Four Seasons" series. Even though the great Ingmar Bergman gave up directing, he wrote some of his most personal screenplays with "The Best Intentions", "Sunday's Children" and "Private Confessions". Woody Allen consistently made engaging films; "Husbands & Wives", "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Deconstructing Harry". Steven Spielberg grew up! Making some of his most mature films; "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan", proving he was more than just a childhood fantasy filmmaker. And Tarantino gave us "Pulp Fiction" which has managed to influence films to this date and will probably continue to for the next 100 years.

There were some sad farewells though. Some of our great filmmakers passed away. Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini and Stanley Kubrick to name a few. Before each passed away though they gave us one last film to cherish from Kurosawa's "Rhapsody in August", Fellini's "Intervista" and Kubrick's (sadly underappreciated) "Eyes Wide Shut".

It was such a strong decade you may be able to understand the difficulty I had coming up with only ten films. Think of how many films were made in the decade and I'm forced to reduce it all to just ten films. Needless to say it is impossible. I have a hard enough time making a "top ten" list just for a single year alone. I mention this because I'm certain I'm going to leave out titles. Some great films. But because they are not on this list don't think I don't appreciate them. And because this is such a difficult thing to do I have decided instead of listing my films in order of preference I'm going to list them alphabetically. There was no way I could pick one over another.

So here are my top ten films of the 90s.

1. BUGSY (Dir. Barry Levinson; U.S.) - A truly underappreciated film. A pity. Perhaps director Barry Levinson's best film. If you look on the film only has 38 reviews. Are you kidding me? Warren Beaty and Annette Bening may have never given better performances in their lives. The film was unfairly snubbed Oscar time. Harvey Keital, Ben Kingsley and Joe Mantegna round out the supporting cast in this masterpiece.

2. EYES WIDE SHUT (Dir. Stanley Kubrick; UK/U.S.) - As I mentioned already a misunderstood masterpiece. Kubrick's final film was met with nothing but controversy. So many people truly hated this film. I saw it as a bold masterpiece. It may be my favorite Kubrick film.

3. GOODFELLAS (Dir. Martin Scorsese; U.S.) - Considered by many fans the best film of the decade. Many also feel the film was unfairly looked over at the Oscars, losing the "best picture" award to "Dances with Wolves". However you may feel this is one of Scorsese's great films. The performances across the board are compelling. Who else but Scorsese could give us such an "inside" feel into the world of the mob?

4. HUSBANDS & WIVES (Dir. Woody Allen; U.S.) - Allen's personal life was just starting to make headlines at the time of this film's release. Too many felt the film was a confessional on his relationship with Mia Farrow. Regardless this Bergmanesque (a la "Scenes From A Marriage") examination of marriage and the battle of the sexes offers us typical Woody Allen insights as he blends comedy and drama so effortlessly. Allen's screenplay was nominated for an Oscar as was Judy Davis' performance.

5. LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (Dir. Roberto Benigni; Italy) - Caused some controversy when firsted released. Many Jewish groups felt Benigni was wrong to tackle such a serious subject as the Holocaust and make a comedy out of it. I never felt the film belittled this important time in history. I felt then, as I do now, it is an emotional portrait of the horrors which so many had to endure. Like the work of Chaplin ("The Great Dictator") here is a film which blends comedy and drama.

6. MY FAVORITE SEASON (Dir. Andre Techine; France) - This little seen Techine masterpiece may be my favorite of all his films. It has two powerful performances given by Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil as brother and sister, in a film which shows us the "evil" of family.

7. RUN, LOLA, RUN (Dir. Tom Tykwer; Germany) - The kind of film which jumps out at you, grabs you and never lets go. This was Germany's answer to "Pulp Fiction". An exciting ride.

8. SCHINDLER'S LIST (Dir. Steven Spielberg; U.S.) - Many thought Spielberg was an unlikely choice to direct this at the time. If I'm not mistaken I think Roman Polanski and Billy Wilder were considered at one point. But Spielberg pulled it off proving he is good for more than "E.T." and "Indiana Jones".

9. SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (Dir. Frank Darabont; U.S.) - A heart breaker of a film if there ever was one. Who would have thought such material would come from Stephen King?

10. UNDERGROUND (Dir. Emir Kusturica; Bosnia & Herzegovina) - Kusturica's masterpiece. My absolute favorite of all his films. The film is so joyous and told with such energy. The camera dances with excitement at every movement of these characters. Like Fellini, Kusturica has made a lovely look at his childhood and a country he loves.

So there you have my imperfect list. Which films did I leave out? "Short Cuts", "The Ice Storm", "Saving Private Ryan", "Pulp Fiction", "Forrest Gump", all of Zhang Yimou's films ("Raise the Red Lantern", "To Live"), "Casino", "Dances with Wolves", "Apollo 13", "Heat", "Leaving Las Vegas", "Farewell My Concubine" and many, many more.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Film Review: Stage Door

"Stage Door" *** (out of ****)

As I recently rewatched George Cukor's "The Women", a film I must admit I didn't like very much, I kept thinking about this film.

"Stage Door" was made two years before "The Women" in 1937. It too feature a large female cast. The director was Gregory LaCava, he made a few films worth noting. His most successful film may have been "My Man Godfrey". Also check out "5th Avenue Girl" and "She Married Her Boss". The film was based on a play written by Edna Ferber and the great George S. Kaufman.

The cast includes Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden and a young Lucille Ball and Ann Miller. The small male cast consist of Jack Carson and Franklin Pangborn.

The plot involves a group young wannabe actresses who live at a theatrical boarding house for women. Each of them waits for their big break when they can meet a producer and find their way to fame and fortune. In the meantime however the ladies sit around throwing insults and wise-cracks at each other.

Things change in the boarding house when a wealthy young women seeks a room. Her name is Terry Randall (Hepburn). She is determined to succeed as an actress and finds herself the object of scorn among the other tenants. They look upon her as a snob. Terry thinks they are lazy.

Ginger Rogers plays Jean, Terry's roommate. Jean is a dancer. Her partner is Annie (Ann Miller). They get a break when a Broadway producer, and known ladies man, Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou) takes an interest in Jean and offers the two a job at one of his nightclubs, in exchange for a few dates with Jean. Lucille Ball plays Judith, a woman who seems to get by, by meeting single men who take her out for dinner. None of whom are really appealing. Jack Carson plays one of the dates. Eve Arden plays Eve (I wonder how long it took the writers to come up with that name?). Arden, as usually, plays the sarcastic, world weary supporting actor. I'm afraid a lot of readers may not be familiar with Arden. Her name doesn't float around anymore. She was a very funny and talented lady. She always had a wise-crack ready. She even got to match wits with the great Groucho Marx in one of the Marx Brothers comedies, "At the Circus". Finally there is Kay (Andrea Leeds) the only actress in the boarding house which may actually have talent. But currently even she can't find a job and is behind on her rent.

"Stage Door" suffers from a few of the problems "The Women" suffers from and creates some new problems all its own. Like "The Women", it becomes a little annoying listening to all these characters complain and throw nasty remarks at one another. I love sarcastic humor as much as the next person. But when you have so many characters all engaging in biting remarks it becomes too much. We can deal with Groucho or Bob Hope doing it because they are only one character. The rest of the cast balances them out. Here though, there is no escape. It becomes too much of a good thing.

What separates "Stage Door" though is at times it is very funny. Even though I may complain about the over use of sarcasm I must admit, there are some good lines. I love the banter between Ginger Rogers and Hepburn. They exchange insults so fast. It reminds me of the speed in "His Girl Friday" it is unrelenting. And of course, you can also count on Arden to know how to deliver a one-liner. Other highlights include seeing Rogers and Miller dance together. It may have been the first and only time these two talented ladies danced together on-screen. Sadly though not enough time is given to them, there are no elaborate dance numbers for them. The film is more of a comedy than a musical.

But for whatever good I may say about the film you can't hide its faults. The film has a great first act but a weak second and third act. The stakes never seem to gradually grow. There are no highs and lows in our emotions. The film never really seems to go anywhere. It is not a realistic portrait of theater life either. It may however get some of the underlying themes correct though such as the hard aches associated with breaking through, the perseverance involved and the idea of tragedy inspiring art. By the end of the film "Stage Door" seems to turn into "42nd Street". The story of a novice actress going out on the stage having to prove herself.

The film was nominated for 4 Oscars including "Best picture", "director", "screenplay" and "supporting actress (Leeds)". It didn't win any of the awards. There was a lot of tough competition that year including the eventual "best picture" Oscar winner "The Life of Emile Zola" and Leo McCarey's great screwball comedy "The Awful Truth".

If someone is looking for a harmless comedy with some good writing and amazing star power, the performances given by Hepburn, Rogers and Arden are all great, "Stage Door" may be worth watching, especially if you enjoy black&white Hollywood films.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Film Review: The Women

"The Women" ** (out of ****)

Some of my readers may know there is currently a film out in theatres now called "The Women" it stars Meg Ryan, Annette Bening and Debra Messing among others. What some of you may not know is that film is a remake of this film, the original screen adaptation of Clare Boothe Luce's novel. I thought it would be a "cute idea" to review the original at this time.

This 1939 version stars some of MGM's top female stars of the day including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine and Virginia Grey. I'm sure a lot of these names mean very little to you, don't worry I'll explain who some of them are. The film was directed by a man who was nicknamed "the women's director", because he was known for his relationship with the women he directed, George Cukor (who was Hungarian).

The plot of the film is rather simple. It is a comedic look at how society women, all of whom pretend to be friends, go around spreading gossip about each other. One day some big news is revealed. Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) is unaware her husband, Stephen (who is never shown on-screen, this is an all female cast) has been cheating on her with a perfume sales clerk, Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). Which is embarrassing not only because Mary's husband has been cheating but no less with someone not of their social order.

Of all the reviews I've written on here I think this is the one I might get in the most trouble for. I've written negative reviews before but no one writes to me when I say "Hancock" is a bad movie. But with "The Women", a film viewed by some filmbuffs as a "classic" I'm just asking for trouble. But before the mobs come after me with the rope please allow me to explain.

First of all, I love Hollywood films from the 1920s-1940s. I think all the leading actresses in this film are great! I've seen them in countless other films, nearly all of which I think are much better. But "The Women" first of all is too damn long. The running time is 2 hours and 12 minutes (yes! I timed it. Leave me alone). This story doesn't have to be so long. I've seen movies with more plot tell their story in less time. Nearly every character in this film is the same. Now, before you say anything, let me beat you to the punch. But Alex, that was the point. To show how phony all these women are. They are all the same. Point taken. But I didn't find it interesting to watch. I was starting to get a headache listening to the ladies complain so much. And this is coming from someone who lives in a house full of women. Cukor's touch is nowhere to be found. The film feels as if it directed itself. And finally there is a fashion show sequence, shot in color(!), that slows this film down to a halt. It was not needed and if I'm wrong about the necessity of it, did it really have to last so long?

Norma Shearer is the only one who is a little different from the other women. She doesn't go around spreading gossip. That was part of Shearer's screen persona. She usually played the lady, the well dignified woman. Though Shearer was no stranger to making controversial films. Watch her pre-code films such as the 1929 film "Their Own Desire" or her Oscar winning performance in the 1930 film "The Divorcee". For their time these films were bold.

More readers are probably familiar with Joan Crawford, perhaps for all the wrong reasons. Maybe you heard of the book written by her daughter, "Mommie Dearest" or saw the film of the same title starring Faye Dunaway. I hear from a lot of people, especially those my age, that Crawford was a bad actress. Her acting style was campy. When they say this I sit in shock. I always thought of her as a very good actress. Watch her in "Paid", another controversial movie, "Possessed" with Clark Gable or her Oscar winning performance in "Mildred Pierce".

The rest of the cast may be hit or miss. Playing Mary's cousin, Sylvia, the lead gossip is Rosalind Russell. She was in "His Girl Friday" and "Auntie Mame". Paulette Goddard makes her way into the film very late as a woman Mary meets in Reno, as they are waiting for their divorce papers to come through. She was living with Charlie Chaplin and was in two of his films; "Modern Times" and "The Great Dictator". Joan Fontaine plays Peggy, a young woman who is more innocent then the other gossips and just seems to be following in their footsteps to fit in. She was in a Bob Hope movie "Casanova's Big Night". And though she doesn't have a big part I had to mention Virginia Grey as Pat, another perfume sales clerk. She has some great lines throwing insults at Crawford. She was in a Cole Porter musical "Born to Dance" she introduced the song "I've Got You Under My Skin".

For all of "The Women's" faults there are some good things about the film. There are two scenes I like very much. One of them involves Mary and her mother (Lucile Watson). The mother comes to visit Mary after she finds out the gossip. Their conversation has a lot of wisdom in it. They speak openly about Mary's situation. You almost wonder how did this get past the censors. The mother tells Mary she should stay with her husband because all men cheat and he doesn't love Crystal plus their is their daughter to think of. Mary tells her she doesn't want her husband under those terms.

Another scene involves Mary and Crystal meeting for the first time. Again it is the dialogue which stands out. Mary tells Crystal to stop seeing her husband but Crystal's response actually surprised me. Crawford tells Shearer, while not using these words, but the message is underneath them, "I'm f*cking your husband. And I'm not going to stop." Can you believe that? Crystal has no shame, she doesn't feel embarrassed being confronted by the wife. Remember this is 1939, society had something called morals back then. Maybe I'm too old-fashion but this scene really shocked me. The censors must have understood what message this sends out.

What is also great about this scene is you can almost feel the hate between these two ladies. I don't think I'm spreading Hollywood gossip when I write this but it was well known in real life Shearer and Crawford hated each other. In the early days they would compete for the same roles causing some jealousy.

But nothing else about the film is worth recommending. Cukor has directed many films. A lot of them are classics like "The Philadelphia Story", "My Fair Lady" and "Dinner at Eight" but "The Women" doesn't deliver on its promise. Of course I realize I'm in the minority on this one but "The Women" doesn't deserve the standing it has among filmbuffs.

A lot of people may think of this as a feminist film. Given the female star power involved, no males in the cast, it was written by two women but the message does not advance women in any way. The message is a woman needs her man, no matter what. Men are immature, they do stupid things but it is up to the woman to behave like the adult and accept their husbands. That does not advance women's rights and proves mother was right after all.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Film Review: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

"Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion"
*** (out of ****)

After reviewing far too many modern films, I believe 4 in a row, it is time to review an older title. As I have mentioned before this blog is going in a new direction with more of a focus on great directors and their films.

"Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion" may be director Elio Petri's most celebrated film. This Italian film won the 1971 Oscar for "best foreign language" film and was nominated again the following year for its screenplay. Due to the Academy's stupid rules a film can not be nominated for any major awards until it has played in both L.A. and New York. A similar situation happened with Truffaut's "Day for Night". The film was also nominated for the palme d'or and a Golden Globe.

The film starts with a man and a woman meeting at her place for an affair. When they meets she seductively asks "how will you kill me this time"? The couple are involved in playing kinky death games. The man likes to photograph the woman in gruesome death position, re-enacting famous crime scenes. But this time something goes wrong. The man actually kills the woman. Though he doesn't act the way we might suspect a killer to act. He takes a shower, leaving DNA on the towels, he leaves his fingerprints all over glass bottles, he purposely steps in her blood with his shoes and leaves a trace of footprints and is seen leaving the woman's apartment.

The woman's name is Augusta Terzi (Florinda Bolkan) and the man is head of the homicide police division (Gian Maria Volonte). His plan is to prove he is above the law. After the woman's murder he predicts he will be above suspicion because he is in charge of the investigation.We learn that since he has been in charge of homicide over 200 murders have taken place, only 10 remain unsolved. The murder takes place on his last day in charge as he is being transferred to a political division. Where he is to watch out for left-wing activist.

Through flashbacks we find out Augusta was attracted to men with power. She would provoke the police chief (who is never given a name) into committing small crimes, like going through a red light just to see if he would be able to get away free. And he does. But she begins to cheat on him with another man, Antonio Pace (Sergio Tramonti) a left-wing activist. This hurts the police chief's pride more than anything else. He does not love this woman but demands that she realize how powerful he is.

The chief suffers from the same problem most people with responsibility suffer from, especially those associated with the law (police, lawyers and judges) they feel they are above the law. Here in Chicago we hear countless stories of police officers abusing their power. From a black man , who was unarmed, who was shot 30 times to a Polish woman who was beaten by an off-duty cop. Police feel they can get away with anything because everything will be kept secret by their own. "Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion" examines what happens when the temptations become too strong to prove one's worth.

Given the storyline some might be tempted to compare it to Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" and the moral dilemma of murder. If you remember in that novel a man rationalizes murder. But there is also a hint of Franz Kafka. Think of his novels "The Trial" and "The Castle". "Investigation" is also a comment on bureaucracy. The film even ends with a quote from Kafka on man and the law.

The film also has strong political ties. The police are made out to be right-wing fascist. They speak of order and how all left-wing protesters are sexual predators and out to cause social disorder. There may be some truth to that but Petri doesn't allow his political undertones to play out correctly. They don't seem to belong in this film. It is not the most interesting aspect of the film unless Petri was going to move this idea front and center in his story. Petri was a member of the Italian Communist Party until 1957, so he tends to lean towards the leftist in this film suggesting the right-wing nature of the police is corrupt.

The performance given by Volonte is quite good. He is believable as the character. His name doesn't mean much to American audiences sadly. He was in Jean-Pierre Melville's "The Red Circle" and two films part of Sergio Leone's "Name With No Name" trilogy. It is too bad he wasn't given an Oscar nomination.

The film is not available on VHS any longer and there is no North American DVD release. But there are some region 2 DVDs out there and who knows, you may get lucky. Perhaps it may show at a retrospective as part of a look back at Italian cinema in the 70s. Regardless of how you see it just try and make an effort to find it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Film Review: Elegy

"Elegy" **** (out of ****)

Time. It is something we all fear because we cannot stop it. The days, weeks, months and years go by, sometimes so fast, we often sit and wonder where did the time go? With time of course comes age. No one wants to grow old. Secretly we all fear it, I know I certainly do.

These are the type of things which David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) often thinks about. He is a college professor where he teaches literature. We see him on the first day of class giving a lecture on Tolstoy's "War & Peace". He tells his students each time they go back and read it, it will always be different because they are different. Time has a way of changing their perspective. It is also during this first day of class that David meets Consuela (Penelope Cruz) another student. For David it is lust at first sight. Her beauty stuns him. David has a reputation for coming on to his students but he senses something different about her. He feels she is more old fashion and needs to be wooed.

At this point "Elegy" sounds like a film about a dirty old man who uses his students as sexual prey to fulfill his fantasy. I'd like to point out that is not at all what the film is about. The relationship between these two is never perverse. Consuela knows perfectly well what she is getting into. Penelope Cruz does not play a ditsy 20 something year old. As for David he understands their age gap and it bothers him. David is afraid of growing old. He fears Consuela will cheat on him with a younger man, someone closer to her own age.

David's only friend is George (Dennis Hopper). They are both the same age and in George's opinion, he should end their affair. He tells David nothing good can come from this situation. It will end with her dumping him. David agrees and he doesn't agree. He thinks he may have fallen in love with her, a feeling he says he has never felt before, despite having been married once before and having a son, Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), with whom he has problems with as Kenneth still resents David for leaving him and his mother.

Before meeting Consuela, David's life was fairly simple. He is a man of culture. He enjoys teaching, reading, art, he attends the theatre where he occasionally writes reviews for the New Yorker. He sees a woman, Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson) who wants nothing more than sex from him.

The film was directed by a Spanish filmmaker, Isabel Coixet. I have not seen any of her films. It was based on a novel by Philip Roth and adapted by Nicholas Meyer. The screenplay is amazing in the way it weaves through these themes so effortlessly. It is so intelligent and genuine. We care about all of these characters. The film has not been dumbed down for the greatest common denominator. David talks about the arts as someone who appreciates beauty would. I recently reviewed Claude Chabrol's latest film, "A Girl Cut in Two" and was disappointed in Chabrol's choice for the lead. A man whom I felt was ugly. It didn't seem conceivable that a younger woman would find him attractive. With Ben Kingsley, I wouldn't be surprised.

And that leads us to the performances in this film. I'm not sure I have seen two actors give better performances than Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz this year. Cruz is an actress I never thought much of. I first began to take notice of her after I saw her in Almodovar's "Volver", where she received an Oscar nomination. Her talent shined through in that film. I had of course seen her in American films such as "Vanilla Sky", "Blow" and "Head in the Clouds", but nothing really impressed me. This year, 2008, seems to be her year. With her work here and in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" she has broken through. No longer can someone say she is only a pretty face. For as great as Ben Kingsley is, it was Penelope Cruz who light up the screen for me. When she is on-screen the movie sings. When she leaves the film it suffers. She should get another Oscar nomination.

Kingsley just seems so well suited for this character. We believe he is this man. We saw Kingsley play a character similar in "The Wackness", a film I didn't much care for but here Kingsley soars. I felt such a connection with his character. I could almost see myself in him. Even though I am 25 years old I rarely connect with characters who are my same age in movies. It is with characters who look at their life with regret that I find the most comfort. I feel the way they do. Kingsley takes this character and fleshes him out. Watching him in the role what other actor could have played the part? Jack Nicholson? Tom Hanks? Al Pacino? Robert De Niro? All fine actors but I think Kingsley has a quality to him which gives him both an every man appeal and yet we believe women would throw themselves at him.

I've read some people complain about the ending. It seems too forceful, reveals too much while going for an emotional ending. I disagree. The ending of this film could have really gone over the top but it doesn't. The film rings true. If anything, I was disappointed because the film ends at all. I wanted it to go on and on. I wanted to find out more about these people. What happens to them after the film ends?

In a year I felt has been truly disappointing here is one of the year's best films. A film for adults.

Film Review: Reprise

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

During the first 30 minutes or so of Joachim Trier's "Reprise", the film is told with an almost devilish amount of energy. It moves at a frenetic speed. The film is vibrant and alive. The characters nearly jump off the screen. The viewer wishes they could sit down and talk to these people themselves. Perhaps you see yourself in them. You remember back to the days when the world seemed open to new possibilities. You were actually going to make a difference. The world would know your name.

These dreamers are Phillip (Anders Danielsen) and Erik (Espen Klouman). They are would be aspiring novelists. One day the both of them decide to send out one of their manuscripts to a potential publisher. To give an example of the cinematic devices director Trier uses, I'll explain the scene in detail.

The two twenty something year olds stand by a mail slot, about the drop each of their manuscripts off. When they do the camera goes inside the mailbox, zooms in on their envelopes and tells us the future as the boys see it, changing things at their whim. A narrator tells us both of their manuscripts will be accepted, they will each travel abroad, leaving Norway. They will have great love affairs, some which may lead to their downfall, they will meet other writers, their work will cause a revolution in Africa and will even be banned by the Vatican. As the narrator tells us this, we see the images on screen rapidly.

Needless to say none this happens. But, that is I think the point of the film. In our youth we dream big then we get a mean slap from reality across our face and realize how foolish we were to expect good things out of life. The viewer knows things won't work of for these boys. Not only because we have our own life experiences but because, honestly, what kind of movie would that be if everything was perfect? Would you really want to watch that movie?

The boys are best friends though different in many ways. Phillip is the first one to get his manuscript published. He meets a girl, Kari (Viktoria Winge) with whom he falls madly in love with. They travel to Paris where they share their first intimate moment. Phillip loves Kari so intensely who goes insane. He gives up writing and is put in a hospital.

Erik is the more pretentious of the two. He tells Phillip they must break up with their girlfriends. They must devote themselves to their art. Women will only interfere. How many times have we seen this situation? The ballet dancer, the classical musician or the reclusive writer who put their art before life. Erik has been seeing Lillian for three years and has made a vow, once his first novel is published he will end his relationship. When he finally does get something published he heads towards Lillian's place to break the news to her.

The scene is very telling. In their first scene together we never see Lillian's face. We only see her from her back. This represents Erik's mindset. To him Lillian is faceless, she has no identity. She is nothing to him.

Another telling scene is when Phillip leaves his hand print on a glass window. His print quickly disappears. Is this foreshadowing what is to come? Phillip's "mark" on the world will be short lived?

"Reprise" has generally received good reviews. Going on the website I see the film scored an 86%. Out of 70 reviews, 60 were positive. One of the ten critics who did not like this film was my old buddy Roger Ebert. To Ebert everything done in this film was done before in Truffaut's "Jules & Jim" and done much better. To cause a really big debate, I'm going to admit I never liked that Truffaut film. And secondly, where the heck does Ebert comes off comparing the two? I will admit it has been years since I saw that Truffaut film but as I remember it is was a love triangle. Two men vying for the affection of a woman. Other then a carefree attitude of youth, what else do these films have in common? I don't find the comparison fair.

But "Reprise" does have some faults. After the incredible inventiveness of the first half hour the film does slow down. I watched the film twice and came away feeling the same both times. I also came to strongly dislike the Phillip character. He whines and complains too much. He is not likable. After he leaves the hospital he meets Kari again, even though his doctors advise him not too. He seems unable to function in society and, in what I guess is his attempt to feel "normal" again, wants to get back with Kari. We wants to take another trip back to Paris with her exactly one year after they first went and do all the same things they did before on the exact same day. This doesn't come off as romantic or sentimental to me. I understand what is going on but I find it pathetic. The sequence doesn't seem believable. The film isn't manipulating our emotions properly. Why is he so obsessed with this girl? Are his feelings even real or is he using her for security, to go back in time? I also felt the film went on a bit too long. About 15 or 20 minutes too long.

Still though one must admit "Reprise" is the work of a talented young man. He tells his story with confidence. And as I have said it does contain some brilliant moments. I don't think this is a mainstream film though. Art house fans will enjoy it as will probably amateur filmmakers and film snobs, which sadly are usually one in the same. But if you have any sense of cinematic adventure in you, you might find "Reprise" worth watching.

p.s. I wonder about the film's title. "Reprise" is a musical term. It means a repetition in a phrase or verse. What does this have to do in relation to a story about writers?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Film Review: A Girl Cut in Two

"A Girl Cut in Two" *** (out of ****)

It has been exactly 50 years since the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) started in 1958 with Claude Chabrol's debut film, "Le Beau Serge". Ever since then Chabrol has kept his eye on the bourgeoisie exposing their desires and attacking politics.

It has been a bumpy ride for Chabrol. Now after 69 films under his belt (strangely not all of them have been distributed in America) he is considered a master, but during the late 1970s and into the 1980s the critics and the public damned him. Everything Chabrol did was met with criticism. Comments like "it's not as good as his earlier work" were repeated often. But Chabrol kept working being "rediscovered" film after film.

As much as I admire Chabrol (he's one of my favorite directors) his work of late has suffered. Not to suggest he is no longer talented. The films are better than most of what passes for good films in today's cinema but Chabrol has become soft. His last great film was "The Flower of Evil" made back in 2003. His films since "The Bridesmaid" and "Comedy of Power" no longer have Chabrol's cynical outlook.

It's said that writers and directors usually love their characters. They treat them as their babies. Despite all their faults they represent blood, sweat and tears. And I'm sure that is true in Chabrol's case too but Chabrol was always willing to judge his characters. That has really been the point of his movies. Exposing the upper class lifestyle. On the surface everything looks perfect. The loving wife, the happy children and the faithful husband but beneath of all that lurks dark, hidden secrets.

Nowadays Chabrol doesn't judge these people as harshly. Watch "The Bridesmaid" than compare it to "Wedding in Blood", "The Unfaithful Wife" or "Innocents with Dirty Hands".
Some of that bite finds its way back in "A Girl Cut in Two" but the film almost seems too stylized for its own good. It doesn't feel like a Chabrol film. It seems too modern. Modern in the choice of music, the dialogue and the acting styles.

The film follows a rich novelist, Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Berleand). He is a typical bourgeoisie. He leads a sheltered life with his wife of 25 years, Dona (Valeria Cavalli). He has contempt for modern day society. He doesn't even watch television. But with his latest book, his editor, Capucine (Mathilda May) has talked in into giving TV interviews and attending book signings. After a struggle, he agrees.

It is at the book signing he meets Gabrielle Snow (Ludivine Sagnier) a local weather girl. She is young and beautiful. She catches Charles' eye. He suggest the two go out on a date. She is responsive. She knows his situation but is not bothered.

Now enters Paul (Benoit Magimel) a spoiled rich kid. He says he loves Gabrielle after only one date. She doesn't love him. He says he has connections and could jump start her career. She doesn't care.
Paul and Charles know each other and for unknown reasons Paul hates Charles. The two now compete to win Gabrielle's favor.

In Paul, Chabrol gets to make fun of the rich. Paul is one of those people who thinks he can do whatever he likes because of his family man. He parks wherever he likes and when given a parking ticket, merely rips it up. He thinks Gabrielle should be with him because of his money. Chabrol presents him as an unstable loser.

The problems with "A Girl Cut in Two" are due to the acting and the casting. Normally I would not write such a remark because it would seem inappropriate but Francois Berleand is an ugly man. He can act, but he doesn't look the part. Why such a young and beautiful woman like Gabrielle would talk to, even look at him is beyond me.

Ludivine Sagnier first caught my attention in a pair of Francois Ozon films; "Swimming Pool" and "8 Women". After seeing her in "Swimming Pool" she would seem to be a natural for Chabrol film I thought. But Sagnier is not the typical Chabrol female. Compare her to Stephane Audran or Isabelle Huppert. Sagnier comes off too vulnerable. Audran and Huppert always kept a certain mystery about them. They had that Buster Keaton "stoneface" on all the time. They always seemed to be thinking. And usually about murder. Sagnier isn't as mysterious. Her character only becomes confusing. Does she really love Charles? Is she using him to get ahead? If she just wanted to get ahead surely Paul could arrange things for her. What are her motives?

The film was co-scripted by Chabrol and his step-daughter, Cecile Maistre. It is based on true events, the 1906 murder of Stanford White. He was killed by Harry K. Thaw because Thaw felt he was going after his woman, a chorus girl, Evelyn Nesbit. The idea seems interesting enough where I could understand why Chabrol was interested. But the material doesn't develop enough. There seems to be so much more going on then meets the eye. What exactly is Charles' relationship with his editor? It seems they once had a sexual past. Why does Paul hate Charles so much? And does Dona really not know anything about Charles' secret life?

"A Girl Cut in Two" is not a bad film. Of all the films I have seen directed by the master, only one has disappointed me, his 1992 film "Betty". But given his track record I feel I owe it to him to give that film a second chance. This film is at times watchable. And its fun to look at Sagnier but over all I cannot say this is one of Chabrol's great films. It belong near the bottom of the ladder.

p.s. I have already written about Chabrol. I included his 1968 film "Les Biches" as part of my "Masterpiece Film Series".

Friday, September 12, 2008

Film Review: Flight of the Red Ballon

"Flight of the Red Ballon" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

When I first heard filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hisein was going to remake the 1956 Oscar winning short film, "The Red Ballon" I was actually eager to see it. I should clarify that statement. "Flight of the Red Ballon" is not really a remake of that charming short film. It is more of a homage. A tip of the hat to the original but in no way does it want to be viewed as a remake.

As I began watching "Flight of the Red Ballon" I thought I was in good hands. The film starts off with a long shot of the famous red ballon as it drifts along in the sky. Hsiao-Hsien keeps his camera on the ballon. I was reminded of the work of Hungarian director Bela Tarr or Greek director Theo Angelopoulos. Hsiao-Hsien is in the same category. He allows his films to move at a different pace. They are slow moving but thoughtful. Hsiao-Hsien, for readers unaware, directed the critical acclaimed 2006 feature film, "Three Times", which I didn't care for.

"Flight of the Red Ballon" is a film all about its characters and not about its plot. The film doesn't really have a plot. The viewer is shown mundane activities but Hsiao-Hsien seems to have confidence that we will come to care about these people. We will find the mundane to be magical. The characters in this film dictate where the plot will go not the other way around.

I admire a film and a director that is willing to do that. So often films seen so formulaic that we sit in the theatre bored. We could have written the film ourselves. Everything is so predictable. So when a movie comes along and doesn't follow the rules it is refreshing. I like slow, meditative films.

Sadly though Hsiao-Hsien gets the slow part right but not the interesting part. I hate to compare this film to the original directed by Albert Lamorisse but this new film has none of the charm or innocence of the original. The 1956 film followed a boy and a magical red ballon which follows him around the streets of Paris. It seems to be alive. The film is playful and the ending as tender as any could be. This new version simply can't compare.

Normally I like films about childhood. Think of the great films by Truffaut such as "400 Blows", "Small Change" or Tarkovsky's "My Name Is Ivan". How many films have been able to show the pain of growing up the way Truffaut did? "Small Change" doesn't really do anything visually exciting. It shows small moments in children's lives. "Red Ballon" has a simple plot as well but these films achieve more than most would think. They seem pure.

"Flight of the Red Ballon" makes the mistake of not following our young hero, Simon (Simon Iteanu) closely enough. The film is not told from his point of view. We don't see the world in the eyes of a child. That was what made those other films so special. And we don't see the world in his mother's, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) eyes either.

The film's plot has Simon get a new nanny, a foreigner from Taiwan, Song (Song Fang). She is a film student who tells young Simon about the short film "Red Ballon". She wants to make a similar film herself. Meanwhile Suzanne is an actress. She does voice over work for puppet shows. In addition to which she is having problems with her downstairs tenant who has not been paying his rent.

The film doesn't dwell into these people's lives or their situations. Which is fine by me because none of it really matters except for the boy. I understand what the basic idea was. The mother who has no time for her child leading the boy to daydream, hence his fascination with the red ballon. But Hsiao-Hsien doesn't effectively get this point across.

The film has some good moments. As I said I enjoyed the slow pace of the film. It isn't a bad piece of filmmaking. Hsiao-Hsien is not a bad director either. But I think he gets away from himself. Maybe he aimed too high, had so many things he wanted to say that in the end he doesn't say enough.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: Casablanca

"Casablanca" **** (out of ****)

It's funny, for a film thought by so many to be one of the all time great Hollywood romances, "Casablanca" should have such strong political overtones (as suppose to undertones). The film is so blatantly political. It makes a strong social commentary on WW2 and America's involvement concerning isolationism. But for most it is the famous lines; "here's looking at you kid" and "we'll always have Paris" or the famous ending scene at the airport that sticks out to most people.

I've seen "Casablanca" several times. First as a child then as a teenager. But I always watched it strictly as a movie fan. I wasn't trying to analyze the film or search for hidden meanings. I would casually watch it and enjoy it. When I was in college we had to watch this film for a class. That was the first time I actually "studied" the film. I have seen it a few times since then.

During the viewing in college it all became so clear to me. How political the film is. Imagine what audiences in 1942 thought with the war going on in Europe. Nowadays I can't watch the film and think of it as a romance. It goes beyond that for me. To think of the film as a "love triangle" for me, means to skip over the more interesting aspects of the film.

Humphrey Bogart, as Rick, cements his tough guy image here. His "I stick my neck out for nobody" mentality is a direct relationship to America's isolationism foreign policy. Remember the war started in 1939 when the Germans went into Poland and America didn't get involved until December of 1942 with the invasion of Pearl Harbor. By the time "Casablanca" premiered in 1942, America was still not in the war.

Of course the love triangle of the film seems to be the part of this classic which resonates with most with the public. A love affair cut short because of the Germans entering France. The two never see each other again. Years (or time) goes by. The woman is now a faded memory. It has reshaped his view of the world and his feelings towards women. When one woman ask Rick if they can meet later in the night he tells her, I never makes plans that far ahead. Because of a broken heart he commits himself to no one.

In case you've never seen "Casablanca" before the man I speak of is Rick. The woman is Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Isla thought her husband, a Czech freedom fighter, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) was killed by the Nazis. She finds out he was not and tells Rick, just before the two were going to leave together, she can never see him again. Never telling him the true reason why. The two meet again when Isla and Victor come to Casablanca where they are looking for letters of transit. They are to pick them up in Rick's cafe.

"Casablanca" is regarded as one of the great American films of all time but as Roger Ebert always mentions, the public loves "Gone with the Wind" and "Casablanca" but critics always praise "Citizen Kane". As great as "Kane" is even I must admit, I prefer "Wind" and "Casablanca". "Citizen Kane" is noted for its use of the camera and editing, which were ahead of their time. But "Casablanca" I think has much more audience involvement. Which man will Isla choose to be with? Will Rick help Victor? Will the Nazis kill Victor?

Near the end of the film these questions loom largest. I'm often confused by the end in fact. It's not that I don't understand what it is going on. I become emotionally confused. SPOILER ALERT! Does Victor know Isla is going to go by Rick to get the letters? Does she even love Rick anymore? Does Rick know what she is up to? I tend to think Rick realizes Isla doesn't love him anymore. Her heart belongs to Victor but she is willing to sacrifice everything for him. Still, she puts up such a struggle at the airport when she find out about Rick's plans. But then again Rick squarely tells Victor what happened. When we ask ourselves these questions, I think some of the romance dies. Everyone just seems to be lying seeking to get ahead. END SPOILER

"Casablanca" also has one of the greatest cast for a Hollywood film in its era. Supporting roles were given to Claude Rains as a crooked French Captain. Conrad Vedit as a Nazi Major and Peter Lorre and S.Z. Sakall. In fact Rains was even nominated for an Oscar.

But why do I personally like "Casablanca" so much? I think my reason is the same as most. It simply has a great story. That is, above all else, what makes a great film. If you find yourself involved in the story and interested in the fate of the characters then the film has succeeded. You have went along with the characters on their journey.

Plus "Casablanca" is a film I grew up watching. I have a nostalgia for it. It takes me back to my youth. I used to always watch American films from the 30s and 40s when I was younger. "Casabalnca" is in some ways a perfect time capsule of the times. It gets the feeling and the dread of war just right. When the film was going to be released in the U.S. the real Casablanca was invaded by the Nazis.

The film was directed by Michael Curtiz. Here is some fun trivial for you about this film. Although it is generally regarded as an American classic, "Casablanca" has a lot of Hungarian roots. Mr. Curtiz was actually born in Hungary. His birth name was Mihaly (Michael in Hungarian) Kertesz. Peter Lorre was also born in Hungary as was S.Z.Sakall, he plays the waiter. The character's name Victor Laszlo, Laszlo is a Hungarian name and the actor who plays him, Paul Henreid, was born in a part of Italy that was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

I'm not sure how well known Curtiz is to modern audiences. He was actually a good director. Besides this film, which he is probably best known for, he also directed "Mildred Pierce" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy". Curtiz even won the "best director" Oscar that year. The film also won "best picture" and "best screenplay". It was a pretty good year for films in 1942. "Casablanca" went up against "For Whom the Bell Tolls", Ernst Lubitsch's "Heaven Can Wait", the Noel Coward/David Lean collaboration "In Which We Serve" (Lean's first film) and "So Proudly We Hail!".

For it's romance, lively characters and time capsule of the times "Casablanca" will forever be an audience favorite and one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Film Review: Redbelt

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

I first became aware of David Mamet when I saw his "The Spanish Prisoner" in theatres back in 1998. I have seen nearly all of his films, except for one, his remake of "The Winslow Boy". I have also enjoyed each film, to various degrees, except for one, his comedy "State & Main".

David Mamet writes some of the best dialogue you will hear in modern cinema. It is said Mamet uses a metronome when he writes so his words flow to a certain rhythm. I love the intricacy of his choice of words. His script for his last film "Spartan" really brought this to my attention.

Before watching "Redbelt" I was under the impression many critics and the public thought of Mamet's latest film as a disappointment. A "lesser" film. Those who know me know I tend not to read reviews on a particular film until I have seen it myself. But somehow I gathered this impression. I have now learned that is not true. On the film scored high. A majority of critics liked it I'm happy to say. As for the public, well, I'm not too sure about them.

"Redbelt" seems to be a mix of the two types of films Mamet likes to make. First you have the issues he is best known for, films about cons and con men. Nothing in the world is as it seems. Examples of this would be "The Spanish Prisoner" and "House of Games". But then we have his "moral" films. Films where the characters beliefs are tested and their true character is shown. Think along the lines of "Homicide".

"Redbelt" is a nice combination between the two but it doesn't always hit the target.
The man in question is Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiotor). He is a ju jitsu instructor and runs his own academy. It is a failing business where he is the only instructor and his only employee is his wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), who tells him he is unable to make this month's rent. Mike is a proud man, he refuses to ask her more successful brothers; Bruno (Rodrigo Santoro) and Ricardo (John Machado) for a loan. Ju jitsu has taught him patience and honor. He believes in living a life devoted to ethics. He must stay true to his own code.

His beliefs will be challenged. A bizarre series of events have chain effect which will position his character. A stranger (Emily Mortimer) walks into his academy one day after she hits a car parked outside and looks for the owner. She has emotional problems. She was on her way to fill a prescription and seems disjointed. One of Mike's clients, a police officer, Joe (Max Martini) tries to calm her down. She becomes alarmed and picks up a gun Joe left lying around and shatters Mike's front window. Joe pretends the incident never happen. The stranger we find out is a lawyer, Laura Black.

Without giving away too much information this events leads Mike to meet a famous celebrity, Chet Franks (Tim Allen) whom he protected in a bar fight, a loan shark, (David Paymer) a fighting promoter (Ricky Jay) and Hollywood assistants (Joe Mantegna).

Much of the film is beautifully constructed. It really caught me off guard. But near the end of the film it starts to lose its way. Too many questions are left unanswered. The conclusions seem weak but I like the final image. It reveals nothing but gives the viewer something deep to think about.

The dialogue also doesn't always live up to Mamet's standards. And characters which at first seem important to the story disappear and come back at the end to close everything in. It is not effective.

But "Redbelt" is worth watching. The film had me involved from beginning to end, so that must count for something. I wouldn't described "Redbelt as a boring film. And despite the weak ending many moments in the middle are good. Mantegna, though the role is small, delivers Mamet's lines better than anyone in the film. He has appeared in several of Mamet's films and stage plays ranging film "House of Games", "Homicide" and last year's "Edmond" (though Mamet didn't direct that film).

"Redbelt" doesn't belong at the top of Mamet's great films but it doesn't belong at the end of the list either. Those unfamiliar with Mamet's style may see seeds are greatness here but I wouldn't recommend starting your Mamet collection with this film. But Mamet fans should have a good time.