Friday, November 28, 2008

Film Review: The Blue Angel

"The Blue Angel" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

When "The Blue Angel" was originally released in 1930 Germany, director Josef von Sternberg filmmed two versions, one in German and one in English. Kino, who has released this on DVD, includes both versions. I have seen them both and have decided the German language version is better. I will explain certain differences between the two. The plot and the cast are the same, but minor edits were made to the American version. This review and its rating are a reflection of the German language version.

One of the most interesting things you will notice about "The Blue Angel" is Emil Jannings is given credit above the title. When modern film goers think of this movie (assuming they do) it is often thought of as the movie that made Marlene Dietrich a star and her singing of "Falling in Love Again". However it was Jannings who was the true star. He was one of the best known actors during Germany's silent film days. He is probably best known for the F.W. Murnau film, "The Last Laugh". Dietrich, at the time, was an unknown young German actress.

As in "The Last Laugh" Jannings plays a man of respectability who falls to new lows. In "The Blue Angel" he plays Professor Immanuel Rath. He learns that several of his students attend a nightclub at night called "The Blue Angel". This disturbs Rath greatly. He does not want his students to be subjected to the vulgarity which goes on in the club, where the main attraction is a cabaret singer, who parades around in skimpy clothes, Lola Lola (Dietrich). Of course, by today's standards, the idea of a teacher trying to protect their students from sex is a foreign one to us. We are use to hearing about students sleeping with their teachers. If the movie was made today the teacher would probably tell his students about the nightclub.

Prof. Rath goes to "The Blue Angel" in the hopes of catching his students and confronting Lola Lola in person. When he does see her in person he, like everyone else, is mesmerized. He has instantly fallen under her spell. And continues to go back to the club to see Lola Lola. Finally he asks her to marry him, which she does.

Once they marry Prof. Rath is fired from the local college and finds his social status has disappeared. At first he objected to Lola Lola continuing to perform at various clubs, but when he has no money to support them, she becomes the breadwinner. In one early humiliating scene, after Lola Lola's performance, Prof. Rath walks around the club trying to sell sexy postcards of his wife. And that is basically what the film is about, one man's fall from grace all because of a woman.

While the Professor character is suppose to be an intelligent man, he is presented as absent-minded. Is this where the cliche "absent-minded professor" character started? He always misplaces his hat and various other things. He constantly has a confused look on his face as he always double checks his pockets to make sure he has everything.

Many people often wonder why does Lola Lola marry Prof. Rath. While such a question is certainly up for debate my feeling is at the time he proposed, he represented something she admired. When we first see Lola Lola singing, she sings a song about wanting a "he-man". A man of action who has passion in his eyes. At first Prof. Rath is such a person. When a drunken sailor comes into the club, expecting some alone time with Lola Lola, and possibly more, it is Prof. Rath who defends her honor (if any is left). And beats up the manager, a magician (Kurt Gerron). Lola Lola also sees how strict he is with his students as he disciplines them in front of her. In these moments Prof. Rath is a man of action. Power is what attracts Lola Lola.

When Lola Lola first sings "Falling in Love Again" the lyrics seem flirtatious. It is as if she is talking to Prof. Rath when she sings lyrics which state "falling in love again/never wanted to/ but I can't help it". I translate this as she never meant to fall in love again but the Prof. came into her life and now she can't help her feelings. The song is sung again at the end of the film but this time it seems cynical. It's not that her delivery of the song has changed, but the lyrics now take on a different meaning after all these characters have been through. Lola Lola may not actually be singing about "love". Prof. Rath now seems to be like one of the many men who have fallen under her charms, but she is innocent. She can't help what happens. She now seems cold and selfish. No man can win her affection for a long time.

Once the Professor hits hard times, he becomes part of the act, assisting the magician, dressed as a clown. The film's climax, is when the traveling group heads back to "The Blue Angel". Prof. Rath has not been back to his hometown since he married Lola Lola. What will the townspeople think of him now?

At this point in the film Lola Lola doesn't seem interested in Prof. Rath. A strong man, Mazeppa (Hans Albers) has caught her attention. He openly flirts with Lola Lola right in front of Rath! Who remains helpless. His dignity has been taken away from him. He can't even defend himself or his wife's honor, as he once did.

I mentioned some differences between the German version and the English version. The German version seems more scandalous. One of the students is caught in the classroom with a picture of Lola Lola, in which she has a grass skirt on. If you blow hard enough the skirt flies up. When Prof. Rath is alone, he blows on the picture. This is not shown in the English language version. When Lola Lola is singing a song, her costume has no backside. She is in her underwear. During her performance she turns around to expose to back, in the English version the camera cuts away, in the German version we see her backside.

Besides these minor differences in editing, what also makes the German language version better is when the film was translated for English, it was poorly done. First of all, some characters still speak in German and no subtitled is given for what they are saying. Secondly, the translated script itself, is no good. I had a difficult time understanding what was going on. Events were not properly explained. The German version cleared up lots of things.

Today we can see how influential the film has become. We can clearly see how the Lola Lola character inspired the Sally Bowles character and Liza Minnelli's performance in "Cabaret". If you have ever seen Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" this is what Madeline Kahn was spoofing in her performance. And Rainer Werner Fassbinder remade the film in the 1980s, with his version called "Lola" (which I have already reviewed). It was part of his trilogy on Germany's economy.

As in "Lola", I also wonder if "The Blue Angel" could be interrupted as representing Germany and/or its economy since Prof. Rath was a great man who has now been reduced to nothing but yearns to go back to his former glory. Remember this film was made in 1930 and Germany's economy was still hurting. This gave rise to the Nazi party.

"The Blue Angel" set up Dietrich's career and von Sternberg's as well. The two would work together on "Shanghai Express" and "Morocco" both of which earned von Sternberg an Oscar nomination for best director. Oddly though sound films caused the decline of Jannings career. Unlike Dietrich he could never cross over to English language films because of his accent.

But "The Blue Angel" is a film which deserves to be re-discovered by a whole new group of film lovers. Hopefully they will.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: L' Innocente

"L'Innocente" *** (out of ****)

"L'Innocente (The Innocent)" marked Luchino Visconti's final film. By the time "L'Innocent" was released in 1976, the great Visconti was already in ill health. Sadly it shows as the film seems to direct itself. Visconti's hand doesn't seem to be present. This is a shame. Since this would be Visconti's last film it would have been nice if his health wouldn't have interrupted the potential of this film. However, it is still a powerful piece of work which should be seen by as many people as possible.

When we think of some of the great Italian filmmakers, names like Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci and Rossellini come to mind. But the name Luchino Visconti usually gets lost in the shuffle. He is just as important to cinema as any of the other names mentioned.

Visconti is credited with making what is generally reguarded as the first neo-realism film, "Ossessione" released before "Rome, Open City".

His name is not often mentioned with the neo-realism movement. Besides "Ossessione" the only other film made in that tradition was "La Terra Trema". Visconti normally made lush operatic films revolving around aristocrats, think of "The Leopard" and "Ludwig". After briefly departing from this style later in his career for more erotic films, "Sandra of A Thousand Delights", "The Damned" and "Conversation Piece" none of those films, except for "The Damned" were exceptional.

In "L'Innocente" Visconti finds the correct balance between these two styles of lush melodrama and erotic art. The story raises to the level of a grand opera, (Mr. Visconti was a great fan of opera and a friend of the renowned singer Maria Callas). The film in some ways is a fitting swan song. It is a story about love, death, lust, religious morality and living in a Godless world.

Based on a novel by Gabriele D'Annunzio and adapted by Visconti and Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi d' Amico, both of whom had previously worked with Visconti before. Medioli on "Rocco and His Brothers" and "Ludwig", d'Amico on "Conversation Piece" and though it is not a Visconti film, wrote the classic Italian comedy, "Big Deal on Madonna Street". The story involves a wealthy couple; Tullio Hermil (Giancarlo Giannini, who can be seen in the latest James Bond film, "Quantum of Solace") and his wife Giuliana (Laura Antonelli). Tullio has been having an affair, one of many, but this time it is serious. He is actually willing to leave his wife and the lifestyle he has become accustom to. The woman is Teresa Raffo (Jennifer O' Neill, of "Summer of '42" fame). Tullio doesn't hide his feelings from his wife. He is extremely open and direct with her telling her for the first time in his life he is obsessed. He says all Teresa need to do is demand and he is all too willing to obey.

After Tullio leaves his wife. Giuliana ends up starting an affair with a writer, Filippo d' Arborio (Marc Porel). But when things between Tullio and Teresa don't work out and Tullio returns home he is overcome with jealousy when he finds out what Giuliana has been up to. It is later discovered she is going to have a baby and despite Tullio's suggestion of abortion, she plans on keeping it. This drives Tullio to become filled with hate as the child will forever remain a constant reminder of Giuliana's actions. The baby becomes the "innocent" suggested in the title.

The emotions do reach highs and lows in the film but it never becomes a campy melodrama. The stakes keep rising with each new discovery but because the story and the performances are so strong will keep with the movie. We are involved. How will such a story end? What devilish secrets lurk in Tullio's heart and mind?

This makes "L'Innocente" sound like a brainteaser. It is not.

I've seen this film many times now. The first couple of times I watched it I came away feeling Visconti's directing was not strong. I thought the film felt too staged. In fact it probably would have made a very compelling stage play instead of a film. But I always came back to the film and try to relive the delights of the story. Besides the story the film has one of the most beautiful, haunting and heartbreaking theme songs I have ever heard. The music was done by Franco Mannino. He has not scored any other film I have ever seen but if this is just a sample of his work and what he was capable of, he was a very gifted composer.

The performance given by Giannini is the scene stealer for me. The women in the film are effective but I find Tullio to be the most interesting character. It is really his story we are watching. Giannini was fairly unknown back than, though he did appear in the original "Swept Away" at the same time. Visconti slowly shows us Tullio's slip into madness. One scene involves Tullio meeting Filippo at a fencing club, Tullio is a great fencer. They agree to a match. At this point in the story Tullio knows all about Filippo though we are not sure if Filippo is aware Tullio knows.

After their match Tullio sits in the shower, fully dressed staring coldly at Filippo, who is showering. Filippo feels eyes gazing upon him. At that moment we figure he knows his secret is out. He reacts by walking towards Tullio, fully naked, to get a towel, for the sole purpose that Tullio can see his manhood and what gave his wife pleasure. These are the kind of mind games going on in the film.

The Giuliana character is religious and carries a great weight on her shoulders due to her affair. It goes against her beliefs. When she does tell Tullio we are engaged in more mind games. Has she really repented? Does she still love Filippo? Tullio tries to pursuade her with sex by lusting after her again but is it working? I never thought much about these questions before. But seeing the film again I became intrigued trying to figure out what are these characters after.

Some readers may wonder about my star rating. Why am I including this film in my "Masterpiece Film Series" and I'm giving it only 3 stars. I stand by ever word I have written. "L'Innocent" is a great film. It is worth seeing. And is a return to form by the great Visconti. It is not a 4 star film but that does not mean the film should not be celebrated. Some entries in this series may not always be 4 stars but they are all exceptional films which deserve more attention. "L'Innocent", while not Visconti's best film, is one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Film Review: Quantum of Solace

"Quantum of Solace" *** (out of ****)

The name may still be Bond, James Bond, but there is little else to recognize in this latest entry in the series, "Quantum of Solace".

I have seen every James Bond movie, there have been 22 in all. I have enjoyed all of them except for one, the 2002 movie, "Die Another Day" with Pierce Brosnan. That is not a criticism against Brosnan, whom I thought was actually a good Bond, he looked like James Bond. The problem I had with that movie was Bond lost most of his charm. He wasn't suave and sophisticated. The movie played like an ordinary action movie. While minor attempts were made to update the series. Back then, I wrote a review on to voice my complaints. No one listened to me then and now the morons in Hollywood have repeated their mistakes.

Back when Daniel Craig was named as the new Bond, I, like many, voiced disapproval. But when "Casino Royale" opened in 2006, many film critics and much of the public liked it and responded well. Some said Craig is one of the best Bonds ever, even better than Connery. After watching that movie, I figured most people were probably smoking dope when they watched it. I was too cowardly at the time to offer my opinion but Craig and "Casino Royale" didn't impress me much. Because the attitude at the time was so positive I thought I should back off. But, I've grown more confidence since than and now the public is starting to turn my way.

We were told back than that Craig was taking the character in a different direction. His Bond would be a little rough around the edges. "Casino Royale" was the first book in the series and Bond would have to grow into the character we know him as now. So, I bought into the spin the first time around but now with "Quantum of Solace" there doesn't seem to be a return to the Bond of old.

Craig plays Bond as more of an action hero, think Jason Bourne. Craig's Bond is more violent. He lacks style, sophistication and wit. He is in my opinion one of the worst. Some people like to take shots at Timothy Dalton, but, I prefer Dalton over what Craig is doing with the character.

As we live in a time of supposed "change", the moron Hollywood executives and studio heads always want to update Bond. Bond is a tradition. He is beyond so-called "updates" and "improvements". When will Hollywood learn that? Stop trying to change Bond and the Bond formula. You would think Hollywood would follow the idea, if it's not broke, why fix it? For 46 years Bond has been with us and ever since "From Russia, With Love" the formula has been in place. And it has been successful. Did I mention the character has been around for 46 years? Clearly the formula worked.

Here were some observations I had while watching "Quantum of Solace".

First this is the only actually Bond sequel. References are made to "Casino Royale" and the Vesper character, which supposedly broke Bond's heart and turned him against the idea of love. There was a moment at the beginning of "From Russia, With Love" were one of the women Bond meets in "Dr. No" returns, right before Bond is sent on a new case. But "Quantum of Solace" takes things further. It wants to build on Bond's psychological state of mind.

After the movie's title credits (which I'll discuss later) there is an action sequence which could have been taken out of "Bourne Ultimatum". The cuts are so rapid that I honestly couldn't register what I was seeing. When I was a film student in college I had to edit my movies by hand, the old-fashion way with a razor blade. Having gone through that, the edits in this movie really caught my attention. I swear during this 5 minute sequence at least, at least 200 edits were done. I've never seen anything like that before in a Bond film. And there is a reason for that, it's a bad idea.

The director of "Quantum of Solace" is Marc Forster. Forster directed "Finding Neverland", "The Kite Runner" and "Monster's Ball". He may very well be the best director ever to do a Bond film. But, because he is associated with smaller, independent films, he had to give up his style and adjust it to a mainstream action movie. Which of course would only make sense. But the problem I have with this is, why bring such a talented director onto a film where he is not allowed to make it in his normal style? What is the difference if he or someone else directed it. Forster had to abandon his style anyway.

As for the title sequence, it may also be one of the worst. Not to mention a really bad song. I think the best modern Bond film may be "The World Is Not Enough" with Brosnan. It also had the best Bond song I can think of in the last 10 years.

Remember how we would see the shadow of Bond as he walks across the screen, goes for his gun at shoots at the camera before the credits roll? Well, that's out! They save that for the end. What does this add to the picture? Nothing as far as I can tell. So why did they change it? Not a clue. I guess they just thought it would be cool. And Craig can't even do this simple, traditional scene correctly. He walks too fast and aggressively.

The plot of this film isn't really interesting. It involves oil, a timely topic. A businessman, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) finds himself in South America, where he wants a small island. It is thought that he wants to land to attempt to find oil but we learn it is not oil he is after but water. There will be a huge water drought and he will be the sole provider of water.

The Bond girl this time is Camille (Olga Kurylenko) who was double-crossed by Dominic. She wants to kill a general, Medrano (Joaquin Cosio) who killed her family in front of her. The idea is both she and Bond are blinded by rage and thoughts of revenge.

There really isn't much more to say about this film without spoiling it and as I say it just isn't good enough to continue talking about it.

So why the three stars? Why am I actually recommending a movie I have spend an entire review bashing? Good question. As a Bond film "Quantum of Solace" is a let down. But as an action movie is it exciting. It does have some interesting moments. But those moments don't belong in a Bond film. Craig as I said is more of an action stunt man than a suave secret agent.

I will admit when I walked out of "Quantum of Solace" I did start to wish I was James Bond, but not this James Bond. I wanted to be the type with a witty remark on the tip of his tongue, a drink in his hand and a pretty girl in his sight. In other words, not Daniel Craig

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Film Review: The Kiss

"The Kiss" *** (out of ****)

One of my biggest regrets, so far, with this blog is I have not reviewed enough silent movies. It's not that I don't enjoy watching silent movies, I do, very much so. But I'm always pushing them aside.

When I was in college, as a film major, I never met another student who enjoyed silent films. Not once. During four years of school and meeting countless other film students, I never had a conversation about silent films and/or silent film stars. None of the students watched them and had no interest to start.

I was of a different breed. I grew up watching silent films. I especially loved slapstick comedy. I couldn't get enough of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. The more serious films were OK to watch, I wouldn't appreciate those until I got older, at least in my double digits.

Of all the great silent stars I believe one name stands head and shoulders above the rest. The great Garbo. She has become such an iconic figure, so important to the history of cinema, that one doesn't even have to mention her first name. If you are really clueless as to who I am talking about, first of all this blog probably isn't for you and secondly, her name is Greta Garbo.

Just saying her name invokes images of a mysterious, seductive lady, who famously wanted to be "left alone".

I can't say Garbo was my favorite actress (that might be Grace Kelly) but there is no way to get around her talent and place in history. She is a legend, who hopefully will never be forgotten. I find it sad to think so many young, so-called "film lovers" will never see a Garbo picture. They will never experience what intrigued audiences during the 1920s.

Garbo was born in Stockholm, Sweden, where she appeared in her first films. She wouldn't make her American film debut until 1926 with the film "Torrent" with Richard Cortez. That would lead to other films which had titles such as "The Temptress", directed by her favorite director Clarence Brown, and "The Mysterious Lady".

She held out longer than most of her acting contemporaries in resisting talking pictures. "The Kiss", released in 1929, would mark her end in silent films.

The movie was directed by Jacques Feyder, who directed the German version of Garbo's first talking picture, "Anna Christie" (Clarence Brown would direct the English language version). For me, "The Kiss" is not one of Garbo's great films and she doesn't deliver her best performance. For that watch her in "Christie" or "Grand Hotel", "Camille" or Ernst Lubitsch's "Ninotchka".

In this film however she plays Irene Guarry, an unhappily married woman who has been having an affair with Andre Dubail (Conrad Nagel). Andre wants Irene to confront her husband and tell him she wants a divorce. And even though she claims not to love her husband, she refuses to confess to him. She says she knows her husband, Charles (Anders Randolf), will not grant her a divorce. She worries Charles may become so jealous that he may kill Andre. Out of love she tells him they can never see each other again and he must go away.

Charles has not been behaving normally lately. We later find out he has taken a hit from the stock market (remember this film was made in 1929). He is on the verge of bankruptcy and asks a friend, Lassalle (Holms Herbert) for a loan. What Charles doesn't know is Lassalle's son, Pierre (Lew Ayres, in one of his first roles) is in love with Irene.

Pierre is a young college student who lets his affections known to Irene, who leads him on by playfully flirting with him, though she seems to have no real interest in him, other than not wanting to hurt his feelings by rejecting him. Before heading back to start leaving for school, Pierre asks Irene if she would give him a picture to keep, she agrees and tells him to meet her at her home later that night.

Not wanting to reveal too much of the plot, Charles finds Irene and Pierre kissing (hence the film's title) and becomes enraged with jealousy. Cleverly, off-screen, Charles is found dead. But who killed him? Pierre or Irene? Or was it suicide, as Irene proclaims?

"The Kiss" now turns into a courtroom drama as Andre comes back from his trip aboard to defend Irene in court.

There is one extremely interesting scene in the movie when the police question Irene on her whereabouts the night of the murder. It is clear she has something to hide and starts to ad-lib on the spot. The sequence shows Irene's thoughts as we follow her on the night of Charles' death. But because this is a silent film, there is no voice-over. To get pass this problem the film uses some clever devices. For instance, Irene cannot make up her mind on whether or not her bedroom window was open or closed. At first she says it was open but then changes her mind and says it was closed. At that moment the windows close as Irene stands in the middle of the room. Or when she can't decide on what time she went to sleep we see the hands on a clock move forward and backwards by themself. It was an interesting way to get around the problem of no sound.

But as I say this is not one of Garbo's great films. Her performance is very good. I think she does a better job than Nagel, who was himself a great star of the silent era. The two appeared in "The Mysterious Lady" and Nagel was in "The Divorcee" with Norma Shearer. But I never became fully involved in the movie. It is hard to explain why. I have a hunch the film would have worked better as a talking picture. The plot seems almost too complex for no sound. But that's not the real reason I'm reluctent to call this a masterpiece.

The Garbo persona doesn't seem to be in full use here. There is a level of mystic missing in her performance. And though she does have a few flirty moments with Pierre, she is not much of a seductress here either.

I mentioned this was one of Lew Ayres first roles. He possesses a natural screen presence, especially when you consider he is acting on-screen with a couple of heavyweights. His next project would be the Oscar winner, "All Quiet on the Western Front". He would have quiet a long career in films and judging by his performance here it is not difficult to see why.

"The Kiss" not only marked Garbo's last silent film appearance but was also MGM's last silent film. If you can find "The Kiss" on VHS (I'm not sure if it has been released on DVD) I would say check it out. Anything with Greta Garbo is worth watching.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Film Review: La Ceremonie

"La Ceremonie" **** (out of ****)

Claude Chabrol reminds me a little bit of Robert Altman in the way the public seems to constantly rediscover him. Every now and then a new film would be released by him and it would bring him back into the spotlight. With the late Robert Altman we would see this happen repeatedly after such films as "The Player" and "Gosford Park". With Chabrol though it has been a tricky journey.

By most film critic's accounts Chabrol started the French New Wave with "Le Beau Serge" in 1958. In the 1970s he was at the height of his powers with films such as "Le Boucher", "Wedding in Blood" and "This Man Must Die". His films took a cynical look at the bourgeoisie. He exposed their dark, perverse secrets. While on the outside they lived a charmed life in their hearts murder was hidden.

But during the 1980s something happened. Critics and the public just seemed to lose interest in his work. He had hit a slump. Sure some good films went unnoticed, like "Cop au vin" but Chabrol just couldn't catch a break. By the end of the decade things started to look up for him when "The Story of Women" was released with Isabelle Huppert, his greatest collaborator since his wife, Stephane Audran. But his fame was short lived. It wouldn't happen again until 1997 and the American release of "La Ceremonie" where audiences and critics would start to cheer his name again. It seemed Chabrol was back!

There is something unusual about "La Ceremonie" and yet very fitting and comfortable. On one hand it seems to be typical Chabrol and on the other it raises questions most Chabrol films don't.

Like nearly all Claude Chabrol movies this one deals with an upper-class family, the Lelievre's. Jacqueline Bisset stars as Catherine who is married to Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel). Together they have two children; Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen) and Gilles (Valentin Merlet). At the start of the film Catherine is interviewing Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) for a job as a maid. Sophie seems well prepared and gives all the right answers. She can clean and cook, doesn't mind hard work and appears soft-spoken. She won't cause much trouble. She is immediately hired.

Already it seems Chabrol is engaging in his class warfare. We have the wealth of the Lelievre's v.s. the poverty of Sophie. How will these two worlds collide? But "La Ceremonie" takes things a step further than Chabrol normally does. This film, more than any other I can think of, is pure Marxist. Normally a Chabrol film will deal only with the upper-class and not pit them against the working class. Watch "Merci pour le Chocolat", "The Flower of Evil", "Wedding in Blood" or "Les Biches". The film becomes nihilist at its climax.

Chabrol gives us two versions of the poor. In Sophie will see the obedient nature of the oppressed. Though Sophie has some secrets. She cannot read, write, count or drive. I wonder if Chabrol is trying to say when people are uneducated they are submissive? Sophie is a hard worker and gives the Lelievre family no reason to complain. But once Sophie begins to get wise, due to Jeanne (Huppert), the flip side of Sophie, she starts to change.

Jeanne is a postal worker, who has been accused of not only reading people's mail but of killing her own daughter. She doesn't like the Lelievres and they don't like her. She knows something sinister must be going on within the family. She befriends Sophie, perhaps in part to find some dirt and to stir up trouble. Jeanne makes Sophie go against the family by trying to convince her the family is manipulating her. They ask too much of her.

We see an example of this in a scene dealing with Melinda's birthday. Catherine wants Sophie to help out and prepare food for a party, but, it is on her day off, a Sunday. Sophie has already made plans to volunteer at a church with Jeanne and tells Catherine so. But Catherine ends up keeping Sophie longer than expected causing Sophie to sneak out of the house.

But Jeanne is not so innocent herself. If the Lelievre's are taking advantage of Sophie, so is Jeanne. Jeanne is a troublemaker. She wants Sophie to see the world as she does and go against everything and everyone.

It is interesting the way Chabrol shows the relationship between these two women. It is almost comical. They are presented as teenage sweethearts. Since the Lelievres do not like Jeanne she must sneak it to their home where she and Sophie sit in her room and watch TV. When it is found out Jeanne has been sneaking in Sophie is forbidden from bringing her back. It is like the family is trying to break them apart. But this leads to something more suggestive in nature. Is Chabrol trying to suggest they are lovers? When they watch TV they have their arms around one another. When I sit next to one of my guy friends in a theatre I don't put my arm around them. Is more going on than Chabrol is revealing?

The two leads are perfectly casted. Bonnaire, who also appeared in Chabrol's "The Color of Lies" and Patrice Leconte's "Intimate Strangers", carries herself as a wide-eyed innocent lamb, who actually may not be all that innocent. It is found out her father died under suspicious circumstances. And Huppert is a natural for the trash-talking, common street woman. Which at first may sound like an insult but is actually a compliment. It shows how versatile she is as an actress. And Bisset, as always, carries herself with absolute elegance.

And now for the ending. It is going to bother many. When I first saw this film, several years ago, I was just discovering Chabrol, I thought it was a good movie but not a great one. The ending bothered me. I didn't feel there was enough of a lead up to it. It happened so suddenly. I felt there needed to be something more to trigger it. Now, having watched the movie again it seems fitting. It does lead up to its climax. It is a heartless and cold ending. It may shock some viewers but everything has been leading up to it. There is simply no other way a story just as this could have ended.

The film, which was based on a novel by Ruth Rendell entitled "A Judgment in Stone" and adapted by Chabrol and Caroline Eliacheff, was nominated for 6 Cesar Awards (the French Oscar) and won one for Isabelle Huppert as "best actress". It also won the National Society of Film Critics award for "best foreign language" film and was nominated for the top prize at the Venice Film Festival.

One other interesting thing to note is, there is a scene where Catherine and Gilles are watching TV, a movie is playing. We hear Catherine talk about it in a previous scene. She describes the movie as great. The movie they are watching is "Wedding in Blood" directed by Chabrol.

"La Ceremonie" is a modern classic. It is one of the great Chabrol films and should be seen by any serious film lover. Rarely does Chabrol get any better than this.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Top Ten Films Of 1996!

For me the year 1996 will be remembered as the year Hollywood blew it. Because it was such a long time ago some movie fans may not quite remember what happened, as far as cinema is concerned, that year. At the Academy Awards show, celebrating the films of the year, very few mainstream Hollywood films managed to get nominated. It was a complete washout for the industry. It was the year of small budget independent films. Finally the Hollywood industry would embarrass itself and the public would see just how worthless and meaningless Hollywood can sometimes be. Even members of the Academy refused to celebrate the garbage they had pushed upon the public.

The five nominees that year for "Best Picture" were Mike Leigh's "Secrets & Lies", "Shine", the Coen Brothers' "Fargo", Cameron Crowe's "Jerry Maguire" and the eventual Oscar winner Anthony Minghella's "The English Patient". With the exception of "Jerry Maguire" which had Tom Cruise in it, nothing had the push of a Hollywood star in it.

We wouldn't experience a year as pitiful as 1996 until 2000 and more recently 2006, though it should be noted 2008 is turning out to be one of the worst years for movies as well. The surprise hits of the year were the Coens' "Fargo" which Siskel & Ebert named the best film of the year and expressed it is the reason they go to the movies. And Wes Craven's teen horror film, "Scream". The mainstream public started talking about directors they previously hadn't heard of. Suddenly Mike Leigh, Neil Jordan and Lars von Trier was on everyone's lips.

It proved to be a year of strong literary adaptations. Half of my list is filled with adaptations ranging from Jane Austen, Henry James and Shakespeare.

As someone who simply detest the Academy and all it stands for, it was a great year to see Hollywood fall on its face. Here are my picks for the best films of the year!

1. THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY (Dir. Jane Campion; UK/U.S.) - Normally such a film would not top my list. In all honesty in a better year it probably wouldn't even had made my list. But, because 1996 was such a sorry excuse for movies this was the film which most affected me and kept me involved. Campion had just come off success for her previous film "The Piano". This Henry James story however keeps more in touch with her feminist ideals following in the tradition of her films such as "An Angel At My Table". The film has a wonderful literary quality to it and sadly has been dismissed by movie goers. Perhaps they are unable to acknowledge she has ever made anything worth seeing after "The Piano". But the movie showed amazing detail in its production and costume design. These type of films are usually "Oscar bait". The terrific cast is headed by Nicole Kidman, who was still under the shadow of her husband but was starting to emerge on her own after having appeared in "To Die For" and "Batman Forever" the previous year. Her performance here is much more subdue than the others though. The rest of the cast consist of John Malkovich, Mary-Louis Parker and Barbara Hershey, who was nominated for an Oscar for her work here as was the costume design.

2. BREAKING THE WAVES (Dir. Lars von Trier; Denmark) - Von Trier emerged strong on the cinematic scene with this powerful film about love, relationships, faith and God, even though he had been around for a while making movies before releasing this film. Many mainstream audiences had been unaware of the Dogma style of filmmaking but it managed to catch on rather quickly, mostly finding its way in several parodies. Still the performances given by Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgard feel genuine. Watson is superb. She rightfully received an Oscar nomination for her performance.

3. SHINE (Dir. Scott Hicks; Australia) - Based on the true story of pianist David Helfgott who suffered a nervous breakdown due to the abuse he received from his stern father (Armin Mueller-Stahl, who was nominated for an Oscar) went on to become a critically successful pianist in the later years of his life. Geoffrey Rush won an Oscar for his work here and he may have never given a better performance than he does here. He becomes totally believable as Helfgott. In a time when numerous musical bios are being made covering everyone from Johnny Cash to Ray Charles here is one of the truly great bio's made in the last 15 years.

4. A SUMMER'S TALE (Dir. Eric Rohmer; France) - The third part in Rohmer's charming "Tale of Four Seasons" series is one of the master's best films. The only entry in the series which comes close to this is "A Tale of Winter" but that one was more romantic, "A Summer's Tale" is more playful as a young man finds himself caught between three beautiful girls during a vacation and can't chose between them. It is a typical example of the complexities of young love as only Rohmer can show us.

5. MY FAVORITE SEASON (Dir. Andre Techine; France) - Techine's best film in my opinion (perhaps only with "Strayed" coming in a close second). The film stars Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil as brother and sister who have lost touch over the years. With their mother in ill health the two start to relive bitter memories of the past. Here is a powerful film which shows us sometimes family isn't always the answer but many times is the problem.

6. MICHAEL COLLINS (Dir. Neil Jordan; UK/U.S.) - Described by Jordan himself as the most important film he ever made here is the true story of the man who fought to make Ireland a free state as played by Liam Neeson. Michael Wilmington, then of the Chicago Tribune, called it the best film of the year. This is one of Jordan's most powerful films.

7. HAMLET (Dir. Kenneth Branagh; UK/U.S.) - As someone who struggles understanding the great Shakespeare this has to be one of the greatest modern adaptations of his work with Branagh as the "Prince of Denmark". The film has a roll call of great actors in various cameos. Watch for Richard Attenborough, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon, Judi Dench and Gerard Depardieu. Nominated for 4 Oscars the film won one for "best adapted screenplay", which was written by Branagh.

8. EMMA (Dir. Douglas McGarth; U.S.) - Another adaptation! This time the writings of Jane Austen is given the modern treatment. McGarth may not be known to many film fans but he is a frequent collaborator with Woody Allen. The two co-wrote "Bullets Over Broadway". McGarth has also appeared in "Celebrity", "Sweet and Lowdown" and "Small Time Crooks". Here though, on his own, he proves he is capable of writing and directing on his own. Just don't watch his comedy "Company Man". Gwyneth Paltrow stars and gives one of her best performances as the carefree and innocent Emma. The film won the Oscar for "best musical score".

9. THE ENGLISH PATIENT (Dir. Anthony Minghella; U.S.) - The kind of movie "best picture" Oscars are made for. A soaring, heartbreaking love story. Minghella may be trying to duplicate David Lean here, and while he may not succeed in doing that he does make one epic romance as Ralph Fiennes stars as a wounded Hungarian and Kristen Scott Thomas the woman he loves. The movie was nominated for an amazing 12 Oscars, winning 9 including "best picture", "director" and "supporting actress" (Juliette Binoche). Fiennes would later play another Hungarian in Istvan Szabo's masterpiece "Sunshine (A Napfeny ize) ".

10. SCREAM (Dir. Wes Craven; U.S.) - A guilty pleasure of mine. Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williams redefined the teen horror genre which was on life support at the time. This was a hip film. It put Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and Rose McGowan on the map. Not to mention a brilliant opening scene with Drew Barrymore. For a while after this film, Williams was a hot property creating the TV show "Dawson's Creek" and working on "I Know What You Did Last Summer".

Film Review: The Visitor

"The Visitor" *** (out of ****)

We've been hearing about immigration for a long time now. We've heard what all the politicians have had to say on the subject. They respect legal immigration but coming here illegally is simply against the law. America is a nation of laws. We need guest worker programs one side declares. We are a nation immigrants another shouts. We need to punish businesses which hire illegals for cheap labor. The illegals came here to do the work Americans won't. This kind of asinine rhetoric runs both ways. "The Visitor" tries to put names to the faces.

The film was written and directed by Tom McCarthy and done so clearly with a Liberal point of view. If only we came to know these people and understand their struggles would we relax our feelings on people entering this country illegally.

Richard Jenkins stars as a middle-aged professor, Walter Vale, who has a son living in London and a wife who has recently passed away. He has written three books and says he is working on a fourth, though we never actually see him do that. Life is a meaningless routine for him. He tries to amuse himself and takes piano lessons, but, he is told he doesn't have the natural gift for the instrument. We learn his wife use to play and gave lessons. Is this his way of trying to connect with his wife? A remembrance of the past? A way to keep her memory alive? If so, it then becomes clear he is a man living in the past with nothing to look forward to in the future.

All of this changes however when he travels from Connecticut to New York, where he is attending a conference. While in New York he finds, unknown to him, a couple has been living in his apartment for the past two months. The man is from Syria, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) the wife from Senegal, Zainab (Danai Gurira). Walter takes pity on them and allows them to stay in the apartment with him until they find a new place of their own.

The situation intensifies when Tarek is arrested. Walter learns the couple has been living here illegally for the past three years. Tarek may now face deportation.

For a man who had no hope for the future Walter become emotionally invested in this couple's lives. He hires an attorney for them and when Tarek's mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass) comes to New York to find her son, Walter takes her in and finds himself having feelings for her. But will Walter be able to do anything for these people?

Richard Jenkins has never been a leading man. He has appeared in a number of movies you have probably seen but you may not remember him in them. He has worked a lot with the Coen Brothers. He appeared in their most recent film "Burn After Reading" and was in "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "Intolerable Cruelty". He was also in the American remake of "Shall We Dance" with Richard Gere and "Changing Lanes". "The Visitor" is his breakout role. Some people are even talking about an Oscar nomination for his performance.

Jenkins is the heart and soul of the picture but I don't know if the performance is as good as others claim it to be. It is a very subtle performance and because of that there are times we really don't share in Walter's grief and despair. When he does begin to transform it goes under the radar. The film doesn't give us a montage with Walter smiling with his new friends trying all the things he never attempted before. I can appreciate that but part of me wishes Jenkins would have been a bit more animated. I'm not talking about anything over the top. The performance could have remained 95% the same, I just wish Jenkins would have went through more of a transformation process.

Socially "The Visitor" is a timely film. There was also another film dealing with illegal immigration released this year called "Under the Same Moon". The Liberals in Hollywood are really trying to push this idea home. Dramatically it does work best. If you made a film representing the other, Conservative side you wouldn't have much of a character investment. The character would know they did something wrong and would be deported. No problem. Here though the viewer is told these are good people. These people came here for a better life and since they are here already there is no reason for them to leave.

Politically this may bother some viewers. But remember. This is a movie. A writer and/or director is only interested in presenting us the most interesting story (well, sometimes anyway). Don't allow your politics to interfere with watching the movie. "The Visitor" has moments to be enjoyed no matter what your views are on the subject.

"The Visitor" is Tom McCarthy's second film, coming after "The Station Agent". If he continues to make films like this Mr. McCarthy may find himself making films for a long time to come.

Film Review: Transsiberian

"Transsiberian" *** (out of ****)

"Transsiberian" didn't play very long in theatres unfortunately. I can't think of a good reason why audiences just didn't seem interested to watch it. Hopefully, now that it is released on DVD, viewers will get the movie a chance.

The basic plot of the film involves an American couple (Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer) who have been in China helping children through a church program. They are now headed back home and have decided to go by train. It is their first time abroad and they figured if they go by train rather than plane they will be able to take in more sights. So they board the Transsiberian, which takes them from China to Russia.

"Transsiberian" becomes a suspense film as a possible heroine smuggler may have been murdered and the couple may know something about it. As a detective (Ben Kingsley) searches for the truth.

Whenever you have murder and a train two things will instantly come to mind. Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" and "Murder on the Orient Express". There is something about trains going hand and hand with murder.

One of the first things the viewer hears is the church director thank the volunteers by telling them the world is full on contrast. There is also a choice in life between right and wrong, black and white. But concludes "with faith, the choice is an easy one." The audience knows these words are going to take on great significance as the film goes on.

After having reviewed the French thriller "Lemming" recently, here is a movie that does what that film didn't. "Transsiberian" does a good job creating suspense and making us truly care about this couple; Roy (Harrelson) and Jessie (Mortimer). They seem to find themselves digging a bigger and bigger hole for themselves as they keep lying to the police trying to protect themselves and the would-be smuggler's girlfriend, a young girl, Abby (Kate Mara), who they fear may be in danger.

I first became aware of Mortimer when I saw her in the British comedy "Bright Young Things" but she didn't seem to really breakthrough with that film. I don't think it was until she appeared in Woody Allen's "Match Point" that things started to happen for her. And like "Match Point" and a few other Allen films ("Crimes and Misdemeanors", "Cassandra's Dream") Mortimer finds herself in another film about moral responsibility of murder. "Transsiberian" doesn't dwell on the issue the same way Allen would have but there are hints of it suggested. We think back to the church directors words. We always have a choice. If you do the wrong thing we must live with the choices we have made. Roy and Jessie by the end of this film are going to have a lot on their minds.

As far as the acting goes who really managed to impressed me was Ben Kingsley. Exactly how talented is this guy? Does anyone know? Here is a man who seems to be able to play any character. He was Ghandi, he played an ex Iranian soldier ("House of Sand & Fog), a Polish-American ("You Kill Me") and now a Russian. In addition to which he has acted in one of my favorite films of the year so far "Elegy", where he has given a performance which should bring him an Oscar nomination.

Kingsley plays the character as a complete mystery. We can never tell which side of the law he is really on. He seems to know too much yet says very little. Is he really out to help Roy and Jessie find this smuggler because it is his job or does he want to find him for more personal reasons?

While Harrelson and Mortimer are good in the film, I think she fares better, I sometimes couldn't help think perhaps they are wrong for the roles. Harrelson doesn't seem to fit his character as a straight laced religious man. Mortimer doesn't seem to show scares of being a wild party girl trying to reform her life.

The film was directed by Brad Anderson, who has mostly done TV work, directing a few episodes of "The Wire" and "The Shield". It was co-written by Anderson and Will Conroy, who has only written one of movie, a short film directed by Vincent D'Onofrio entitled "Five Minutes, Mr. Welles". Given their lack of experience the team still managed to write a pretty solid screenplay. Everything seems to fit together nicely and though the movie is close to two hours it all goes by fast.

I'm not sure how much of an audience will seek this film but it is worth watching if for any reason just to see Ben Kingsley on-screen.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Film Review: Lemming

"Lemming" *** (out of ****)

There is something about Charlotte Rampling that never grows old. I must admit, she is one of my favorite actresses. Just knowing she is in a movie will compel me to see it. She has just an amazing range as an actress. And what is even more incredible is after all these years, Ms. Rampling is still in demand.

In Dominik Moll's "Lemming" Ms. Rampling isn't put to full use. Too bad. "Lemming" is Mr. Moll's follow-up to his 2000 French hit, "With A Friend Like Harry". The two films share something similar but, in fairness "Lemming" seems to be a more mature film, despite some of its flaws.

Like "With A Friend Like Harry" this film revolves around a seemingly nice stranger who enters a young couple's lives only to bring destruction and interrupt their happiness. In "Lemming" that disruption is brought upon by two events. One is a dead lemming (a Scandinavian rodent) found in the pipes of the young couple's kitchen sink and Alice Pollock (Rampling).

Alice is married to Richard (Andre Dussollier, who was in Alain Resnais "Private Fears in Public Places"). They are invited to dinner one day by one of Mr. Pollock's employees, Alain Getty (Laurent Lucas). Alain, in addition to being Richard's favorite employee, is a happily married man for the last three years, to his lovely wife Benedicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

The Pollock's are late for dinner and when they do arrive do nothing but argue. The dinner scene which follows is something out of "Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolfe" and/or the dinner scene in Bergman's "Scenes From A Marriage". It is all at once realistic and extremely uncomfortable. Alice reprimands her husband, who she feels has been cheating on her with whores. She explains that is why they are late. Richard sits there with a forced smile, trying to apologize for his wife. Ask yourself, how would you react in this situation. The young couple try to brush it off. But there is such intensity filling the air it is simply too hard to avoid. By itself, it is a nearly perfect scene.

What happens next is a little tricky to explain without revealing too much of the plot. In fact it is nearly impossible. "Lemming" is a movie which works entirely on its twist and turns. It wants to be a suspenseful psychological thriller but like "With A Friend Like Harry" never quite reaches the target it has set for itself.

The two biggest problems I see with "Lemming" is the editing. The film just lingers at times. It could have used some slight trimming. This would have made it a more solid piece of work. I think it would move more smoothly. Secondly, the film just doesn't work as a thriller. Moll doesn't do a great job creating a suspenseful atmosphere. What made "Lemming" watchable in my case was the drama of the situation Alain finds himself.

"Lemming" is the kind of film if you think about what you just saw afterwards it may frustrate you more and more. This is a movie to watch, shut off, and go on to a new activity. Enjoy it for what it is. There are a lot of open questions floating around when the movie is over. If you just accept it for what it is without trying to solve anything, the movie is now a passable diversion of time.

The third problem with "Lemming" is there is not enough for Ms. Rampling. She seems to be the only one who really generates anything from the screen. Sure, the other actors, like Dussollier, have a certain charm to them, but they all seem dull compared to Rampling. When she is not on-screen, which is for at least an hour of the film, it drags a bit. When she is on-screen she brings intensity and sexuality.

Rampling though is no stranger to these kind of brainteaser films. She fared better in the 2003 film "Swimming Pool". Where she was even asked to display more sex appeal than she does here! That movie could have your head spinning for days. But you just knew there was something going on beneath the surface. With "Lemming" you suspect there is but Moll doesn't offer us enough clues to figure it all out. He makes it seem like it was all a coincidence.

"Lemming" was nominated for a palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival and was scripted by Moll and Gilles Marchand. If you enjoy Ms. Rampling, the film is worth renting. "Lemming" is not really a disappointing film. It deserves credit and should be seen but I just can't help but feel this could have all been done a little better with a little more style. Still, you must accept the film for what it is.

Film Review: Offside

"Offside" *** (out of ****)

When I first started this blog, one of my goals was to write about films from other countries. I didn't want this blog to be only about American mainstream films. I wanted to go beyond that. To a small extent I have kept true to my promise. I have already written about Hungarian, Romanian, German, French, Italian and Chinese films. But, I have not written about anything from the Middle East.

In fairness I should point out my knowledge of cinema from this region is not very strong. I have seen a few Iranian films, some of which I have enjoyed greatly. My favorite director may be Abbas Kiarostami ("The Wind Will Carry Us", "Ten"). It is debatable, but, he may have the greatest crossover success compared to his fellow filmmakers. There are of course the films of Majid Majidi ("Baran", "Children of Heaven") whose work has also enjoyed critical success in America.

"Offside" is the work of Jafar Panahi. I have not seen his other films but going over his credits I am familiar with every one of them. I remember when each of them was originally released. His work includes "Crimon Gold", "The Circle", "The Mirror" and "The White Balloon". "Offside" is his most recent film.

When Americans or other Westerns look at works from the Middle East and Iran in particular, I think there is a tendency to read into these films a bit. I think we look at these movies to help us see the way life really is in this part of the world. While, I agree, cinema has the power to do that, to show us worlds and people we may normally not be exposed to, I sometimes feel one can over-do it. Sometimes a film has no greater message than to entertain. This could lead to a culture clash. American simply won't be able to relate to what the film is trying to do. I find I have this problem mostly with international comedies.

"Offside", a half comedy, half social commentary, doesn't suffer from this problem in great detail. It does however take on a subject nearly every film I have seen from Iran deal with. Women in society and their place in the world. The best film I have seen which dealt with this is Kiarostami's "Ten". "Offside" uses more humor to get its point across and because it doesn't feel like a lecture, not the "Ten" does, I think it has a pretty good chance of reaching a larger Western audience.

The film takes place in 2005. Iran's soccer team may qualify for the World Cup if they can beat Bahrain. In Iran women are not allowed to attend sporting events. You see, at games men may become so involved in the game that they may start to curse and swear and such language should not be heard by ladies.

Still some young girls resent this fact and want to watch their fellow countrymen play, especially the young girls who are soccer fans. So a small group decide to dress up like boys and try to sneak into the stadium.

As "Offside" starts off an elderly man (Reza Farhadi) is looking for his daughter, who he has found out is trying to sneak into the stadium. If she is caught, it is unclear what may happen. The man fears the men may kill her.

This is followed by a young girl (Sima Mobarack Shahi) sitting on a bus headed for the game. It is logical to assume this girl is the one the man was looking for. And so we think the film will be about her attempts to see the game. But like an Antonioni film, as we start off watching one character only to find the story was really about another.

The girl is caught by security and placed with other girls who have all tried to sneak in. They must wait until the game is over to be taken by the vice squad, where their families will be called to pick up the girls.

"Offside" as I said handles much of this with humor. It becomes a sort of battle of the sexes film. The young girls do not understand why they are unable to watch the game live. At one moment one of the girls sits down with one of the guards. She asks him, why are they unable to. He really doesn't have an answer for her, other than men and woman cannot sit together. But the young girl responds back with, what about going to the movies? It is perfectly legal for men and women to sit together in a theatre.

This I think is an example of a society which follows rules it doesn't understand. It is not just Iran but people of all countries. We just accept certain rules and never really question why it is we follow them. If we ask questions we are mocked. We are simply told things are the way they are because that is the way it is. Try explaining that to a five year old.

There were a few things which really impressed me or stood out about "Offside". The first was the structure of the film. How we follow one character simply to "lose" to a host of other characters. The second was that for a film about a sporting event, we never actually see the game. The game is kept off-screen. We hear the crowd in the stadium, we will hear it on the radio or even one of the guards describing the game to the girls but we never see the game take place. And third, as I have already said, the way Panahi combines a sports movie with a social commentary and does it all with humor.

While at first there is resistance between the guards and the women, by the end of the film, I think the message is one of harmony. We can all get along and celebrate because we are all one, or in this film's case, we are all Iranians. In a small way it also shows the power of sports. Sports have a way of uniting people. Everyone sits in a stadium, equally cheering the same team. Everyone pulls together. Now, if only it was that way in life all the time.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Film Review: Snow Angels

"Snow Angels"

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

I often hear that David Gordon Green is one of our most talented filmmakers on the independent scene. Film critic Roger Ebert has thrown the most praise his way, that I am aware of. Some of Mr. Green's films include "George Washington", his debut film, "Undertow" and a recent mainstream comedy "Pineapple Express".

I'm not as familiar with Mr. Green's films as I would like to be. I have only seen his "Undertow", which greatly impressed me (my review can be read on

"Snow Angels" was released earlier in the year and didn't seem to make a lasting impression at the box-office. I always meant to watch the film but just didn't get a chance. After all this time, I'm glad I finally sat down to watch it.

As with "Undertow" (and "George Washington") the film revolves around children and broken families. Green seems to have a good ear for natural dialogue. That is a rare gift. So many times I'll watch movies which try to present themselves as everyday life and yet none of it rings true. The characters don't speak the way normal people speak. The situations don't seem believable.

On the surface "Snow Angels" doesn't seem to be doing much. It is a collection of glimpses into three families who are at a crossroad in their lives. One couple is Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glenn (Sam Rockwell). They are separated. After the separation Glenn sunk into a depression and tried to commit suicide. He is a bit on shaky ground. He is not stable. He was an alcoholic, who now says he has given it up and has found Jesus. He is trying to rebuild himself so he can win Annie's heart again and spend more time with their daughter, Tara (Grace Hudson).

Annie now works at a Chinese restaurant. Two of her co-workers she has known for years. One she use to babysit, Arthur (Michael Angarano) and the other is Barb (Amy Sedaris). Since Annie's separation she has been seeing another man, Nate (Nicky Katt) who is married to Barb.

Arthur's parents; Louise (Jeanetta Arnette) and Don (Griffin Dunne) are separating as well. Arthur doesn't seem too effected by this but it may be misleading. Don and Arthur have one scene where they just let it all out as Arthur complains that his father is selfish. And there is a comical scene when Arthur, along with his girlfriend, Lila (Olivia Thirlby) and Don with a new lady friend meet at the same place, unexpectedly.

"Snow Angels" is a film about lost souls. People caught in the struggle of everyday life trying to make sense of it all. And Green handles it all like a pro. His instincts as a director are nearly flawless. Dare I say the film has a Bergman-esque quality to it.

Across the board the performances are effective. It has been a while since I have seen Griffin Dunne in a movie. It has been years since he appeared in Martin Scorsese's "After Hours". He has mostly done smaller films and dropped out of the public eye. That is too bad for all of us. I've always thought he was a good actor who just never seemed to catch a break.

Kate Beckinsale as grown into a fine actress. The first time I saw her in "Pearl Harbor" I wasn't impressed. With her or the movie. I thought she was a pretty face but wouldn't make a lasting impact. I was wrong. Film after film she turns in a good performance. Sure she does the mainstream box-office movies but every once in a while she'll turn up in a smaller film. Watch her in "Laurel Canyon" and the romantic comedy "Serendipity". Tell me she is not charming.

For all the good Mr. Green does, it is at the end of the film I think it loses its way. The ending feels a little contrived and breaks the flow of the rest of the movie. Up until this point the film had a good sense of realism. When certain events happen, it starts to feel like a "movie". That is too bad. Still you have to give Mr. Green credit. The film does so much right it would be a shame not to watch it. David Gordon Green is going to have a long career ahead of him.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Film Review: The Silence

"The Silence" *** (out of ****)

"The Silence" marked the conclusion of what was known as the "faith" or "religion" trilogy by famed Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. The trilogy started with the masterpiece "Through A Glass, Darkly" followed by "Winter Light". The last two films in the trilogy were never quite as good to me but had their moments.

Bergman, as most readers and/or fans of his work should know, was not a very religious man. His father was and would beat "God" into him. He would lock him in a closet so the young Bergman would learn about God's existence.

However Bergman doesn't always seem to have a negative view of religion. I gather from his films he senses there is a place for it in our world. None of his films condemn religious people, in my opinion. Even in his most famous film, "The Seventh Seal" where a man plays chess with Death, searching for meaning in his life, Bergman ends the film on a surprising happy note.

The "faith trilogy" however and "The Silence" in particular, is a bit more harsh. Many people interpret the title referring to God's silence. Perhaps. But I felt Bergman was going a bit beyond religion. I thought "the silence" was more a social commentary on our inability to communicate. It didn't feel like a spiritual or existential critique to me.

The film has two sisters, Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and Ester (Ingrid Thulin) traveling with Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom), Anna's son. It is never mentioned where they are coming from, but they are on their way home when they stop in small town as Ester has fallen terribly ill. The viewer is lead to believe Ester is dying. Of what is never mentioned. The three spend a couple of days in the hotel as Ester remains in her bed and Johan roams around the large hotel.

The relationship between Anna and Ester is not a good one. We can sense their distance. They rarely speak and when they do there seems to be an intensity behind their words. Their words are said with venom.

Ester is a translator. She speaks Swedish, English, French and German. But in the small town none of those languages are spoken. Here is where the difference in communication comes in. Ester is not able to communicate with one of the room service employees, (Hakan Jahnberg). They do their own version of sign language. Johan meets a group of dwarfs, who also speak another language unfamiliar to the boy. And Anna picks up one of the townspeople, whom she can't understand either. The problem is not God's silence but man's silence. We live in a society which doesn't communicate with one another.

Beneath all of this is a strong sense of sexuality. There seems to be a sense of incest between the sisters. Ester gets jealous when she sees Anna going out, knowing what she is up to. At one point Anna even makes sure Ester sees her with the man. There also seems to be a sexual relationship between the mother and son. He peeks through cracked doors spying on his mother as she undresses. He even washes her back while she takes a bath. And the hotel employee sometimes acts like a dirty old man going after Johan. In another scene with the dwarfs, they dress Johan up like a girl. But the most graphic of all scenes may be Ester masturbating. We see Ester unbutton her blouse and place her hand down her pants. The camera moves up on Ester's face while she reaches climax.

All of this caused quite a stir in Swedish when the film was first released. It was seen as too sexual but did lead to a more relax attitude towards sexuality in Swedish films. We are still waiting for that to happen in this country.

This in a certain way leads me to somewhat dislike the film. I find it too sexual for Bergman. The only other film I can think of where Bergman seems to be using sex in such a frank way is "From the Life of the Marionnettes", his sequel to "Scenes From A Marriage". Bergman isn't at the top of his game when he brings sexuality into the picture. I don't think that is his strength as a writer. He works better when dealing with the bigger questions. Is there a God? What is man's purpose on Earth? When he discusses sex I feel he doesn't know where to go with it. He doesn't know how to treat the subject in the same realistic and poetic way he treats other issues dealing with the human condition.

The film was shot by Bergman's long time collaborator, Sven Nykvist. Nykvist is able to convey the idea of being suffocated throughout the film. During the opening scenes the sisters complain about how stuffy the weather is. We sense they are hot and sweaty. Nykvist keeps close-ups on the characters. He traps them in spaces. Many times shooting a frame within a frame. He is unrelenting in his close-ups.

Of the two performances I find Lindblom the more sexual and the more interesting to watch. She appeared in Bergman's "Winter Light" and "The Virgin Spring". She is a very good actress and was able to get across what I think Bergman intended. Thulin has a more tricky character to play. I feel more is demanded of her. She must go through more emotions. Thulin is also a Bergman regular. She appeared in "The Rite", "Hour of the Wolf" and "After the Rehearsal".

Bergman is known for making films about women. Think of his "Persona" and "Cries and Whispers", also about sisters. In those films Bergman seemed to be hitting at something deeper. The viewer was haunted and touched by what they saw. In "The Silence" I didn't have that same strong reaction. I think I understand what Bergman is trying to do but I don't feel he conveys his message in the most powerful of ways. There seems to be so much hidden beneath these characters which Bergman doesn't explore. Too many questions are left unanswered. That may very well have been Bergman's intention but it frustrates me. How did the relationship between these two get so bad? Are they lovers?

Because it is an Ingmar Bergman film there is a certain level of intelligence to it. Bergman doesn't look down upon his audience. The film also has a strong consistent tone and pace to it. And the cinematography by Nykvist is first-rate. Bergman is clearly challenging his audience. He is willing to take chances. You have to give the old master credit for that. But I just feel as if the movie doesn't reach the depths of these characters' souls. The viewer doesn't understand them. Though Bergman has some tricks up his sleeves.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: The Conformist

"The Conformist" **** (out of ****)

When the great Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci emerged on the world scene with his debut film "The Grim Reaper", at the age of 25, he was in awe of one of the leading directors of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard. All of Bertolucci's early films were Godard-lite. Bertolucci seemed to share Godard's left-wing views. He too wanted to make films which served not only to entertain but to make political and social commentaries.

Watch "Before the Revolution" and "Partner" and you will see the influence Godard had on Bertolucci. The problem with this is, Bertolucci didn't seem to have his own voice. He was the Godard for people who didn't like Godard. But in 1971 something happened. Bertolucci seemed to have found his own voice. He broke away from Godard and started to make films in a style which would be exclusively associated with him. He would start to find a way to blend sex and politics into one. The film which started it all was "The Conformist".

The film was based on novel written by Alberto Moravia and adapted by Bertolucci himself. Jean-Louis Trintignant (from Lelouch's "A Man & A Woman") plays Marcello Clerici, a Fascist hitman, assigned to kill an anti-Fascist Professor, who Marcello was once a student of, who now lives in Paris.

The "conformist" in the film is Marcello. Is he really a devoted fascist? According to his Professor (Enzo Tarascio) he was one of his best students. Even the professor doesn't believe Marcello truly accepts the fascist ways. But Marcello is a hitman. A job is a job and he must do what he was paid to do. But he resist.

Marcello is also about to be married to Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli). Giulia comes from a wealthy family. Marcello doesn't seem to be in love with her, but, he feels it is the right thing to do. To get married, have a wife and start a family. He wants to be seen as "normal". He gets into many discussions concerning what is "normal".

For readers unaware Sandrelli was quite a sex symbol in world cinema. She has such an innocent look to her yet she is fully aware of her beauty and the power it gives her over men. Her character is a playful flirt, and may even have a touch of lesbianism in her.

The professor is married to a much younger woman, Anna (Dominique Sanda, who was in Bertolucci's "1900"). She and Giulia seem a little too close for comfort. They undress in front of each other. And in one of the movie's most famous scenes, they dance a tango. In some versions of this movie the scene was cut out. It was banned in many countries for being too sexual and suggestive.

"The Conformist" is one of the few films I would describe as truly being "art". The cinematographer was Vittorio Storaro, who worked with Bertolucci many times. He is my favorite cinematographer. His wonderful use of colors always impresses me. It is vibrant. It reminds me of a Goya painting. In fact Storaro did shoot a movie on Goya's life.

Two scenes are extremely powerful in this film. One involves a murder in the woods. It is not because it is violent that it stands out but because of the emotional power it has. It is in this scene I believe Marcello is confronted with what type of person he truly is. He looks one of his victims in the eyes and sees the horror on their face. His stare is cold. He appears powerless in the situation. He doesn't attack but realizes what the eventual outcome must be.

The other powerful scene comes at the end of the film. It is the last image. Mussolini has been thrown out of power. A new social order is on the way. Marcello heads to the streets where protest are going on. He sits behind a fence where a fire is burning. The camera shoots him from behind. He slightly turns his heads. The viewer sees him behind the bars of the gate with the shadow of flames in the background. I like to interpret this as Marcello caged in, trapped in his own inferno. He must morally deal with his past and the sins he has committed. There is even a confession scene in the film, when Giulia tells Marcello he must confess his sins before they marry.

These two scenes I think shows us Marcello in the best light. They reveal what kind of person he is. It shows us his inner conflict.

Many filmbuffs like to refer to "The Conformist" as Bertolucci's best film. I agree with them. It is in this film Bertolucci is able to blend sex and politics in a masterful way. For many years the film was not available on VHS or DVD. Finally it has been brought to DVD. It should be seen by everyone. At least by those who call themselves film lovers. It is one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Film Review: The Swindle

"The Swindle" *** (out of ****)

The name Claude Chabrol invokes mystery and murder. A look at the rich upper-class. Family secrets and the lies within them. But Chabrol's "The Swindle" doesn't swing as hard as he normally does at these targets.

In another review that would be a major criticism. In Chabrol's "The Swindle" it is a compliment. Rarely has Chabrol seemed to be having so much fun with his cast and crew. The film has elements so light they could boarder on comedy. The only recent film Chabrol has made where he seems to be having this much fun is "Comedy of Power" also with Isabelle Huppert.

"The Swindle" tells the story of two small time crooks; Elizabeth (Huppert) and Victor (Michel Serrault). Elizabeth lures men into buying her a drink and take her to their hotel room, only for Elizabeth to drug them while Victor comes in and picks their pocket. Though he only takes half! Even crooks have morals.
Their arrangement seems to be going fine until Elizabeth says she wants to take a vacation before their next scheme, a dentist convention in Switzerland. Victor agrees as he constantly reminds Elizabeth about their next job.

Elizabeth tricks Victor and shows up early with another man, Maurice (Francois Cluzet). She tells Victor she is playing him for a fool. But is she really? Maurice is on business to deliver 5 million Swiss Francs to a Monsieur K (Jean-Francois Balmer). But why? Who is Monsieur K? What is Maurice really up to?

Chabrol has a lot of tricks up his sleeve in "The Swindle". Not only do the characters all seem to be swindling each other but Chabrol seems to be trying to swindle us. What should the viewer believe as truth? Is Elizabeth really trying to out con Victor? Is Maurice really trying to con Elizabeth and Victor? Is Victor really trying to trick Elizabeth?

The film has a lot of fun with Victor and Elizabeth's relationship. We can never quite tell what they mean to each other. Is it a father-daughter relationship? Strictly a platonic business relationship? Or are they lovers? Elizabeth sometimes calls Victor "daddy". But is it sarcastic? Victor says he "loves" Elizabeth? But as a daughter, friend or companion? He seems pretty jealous when he sees Elizabeth and Maurice.

Huppert is no stranger to Claude Chabrol. The two have worked on several films. Huppert may be the best muse Chabrol has worked with since he wife, Stephane Audran. Together the two have teamed up on "Comedy of Power", "La Ceremonie", "Madame Bovary" and "Merci pour le Chocolat".
The role is perfect for Huppert. She always has a poker face on. The viewer can never tell what exactly she is thinking. In films such as "Merci pour le Chocolat" the look adds to the film's suspense of whether or not she is really a murderer. Here in "The Swindle" her look adds to the film's more comedic moments.

Michel Serrault is not someone I am terrible familiar with. He was in "Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud", another film about a relationship between a young girl and an older man. But Serrault is able to play both the suave and comedic parts effectively. In the film's opening moments he looks like a cunning con man. As the movie progresses he takes on characteristic often associated with Woody Allen and becomes a wise-cracking, stumbling, hand gesturing fool trying to con his way out of one major problem after another.

"The Swindle" doesn't answer all of its questions. It leaves a lot of plot holes open but what saves the film is the devilish pace Chabrol keeps things moving. The viewer gets caught up in the characters' situations and begins to forget about the under-developed points of the plot. The acting is simply too tasteful not to enjoy. Huppert and Serrault are not to be missed. It is a shame Chabrol never used these two again. And finally everyone just seems to be having too much. It becomes contagious.

Will there be some viewers who complain Chabrol isn't working at the top of his game? Of course! Aren't there always? Certain members of the public have been trying to knock down Chabrol for decades. They tell us with each new film Chabrol has lost his touch. Never will he make masterpieces like "Les Biches (Bad Girls)" and "Le Boucher (The Butcher)". Please, pay no attention to them. "The Swindle" is just about as cynical as other Chabrol films only here he subtly mask the darkness with humor.

"The Swindle" is not one of the great Chabrol films. That has to be admitted. But even if you consider this second-rate Chabrol, this is better than most director's first-rate work. A must for Chabrol fans!