Friday, August 28, 2009

Film Review: Scarlet Street

"Scarlet Street" *** (out of ****)

Not too long ago I reviewed the Fritz Lang film "The Woman in the Window" (1944). Well, if you happened to take my advice and rented that movie and you liked it, I've got another treat for you. "Scarlet Street" (1945) was Fritz Lang and Edward G. Robinson's next film.

"Scarlet Street" and "The Woman in The Window" have many things in common. They both deal with very similar ideas and have much of the same cast.

Normally, I feel when reviewing a movie you should always review the film on its own merits and not compare to other films. But, in the case of "Scarlet Street" I think the comparisons are appropriate. These are two very interesting films that are about much more than what is on the surface. The films belong hand and hand. If you haven't taken my advice yet and watched "The Woman and the Window", please do yourself a favor and watch both of these films back to back.

In "Scarlet Street" Robinson once again plays a middle-aged man. This time Chris Cross, who is celebrating 25 years of working at a bank as a cashier. His real passion however is painting. When we first meet Chris he is reflecting upon his old age and wonders about younger women. He wonders what it would be like to have a young beautiful woman love you. What kind of things does that do to a man?

After the party, while walking home, he notices a young woman getting beat up by a man. He slaps her around, and when she falls down he starts kicking her. I can't think of too many movies where this sort of brutality was shown against women. Chris runs to the young woman's defense and hits the man with his umbrella. When Chris notices the man is not moving, he runs for the police. When he does, the man gets up as the woman tells him to beat it. It would appear they know each other.

The woman is Kitty March (Joan Bennett, who was the woman in the window) and the man was her boyfriend/pimp Johnny (Dan Duryea, also in "The Woman in the Window", playing a similar sleazeball kind of character). Chris is immediately taken in by Kitty's beauty. She looks at him as a weird older man. In an attempt to impress Kitty, Chris pretends he is an artist, and doing quite well. He lets her think he is a big name in Europe where his paintings sell for hundreds of dollars.

Eventually we find out why Johnny was hitting Kitty. Johnny is a gambler and a drunk. He wanted some money but when Kitty didn't have it, he felt he had to teach her a lesson. Since they are hard up for cash, Johnny has an idea for the perfect scheme. Chris is clearly in love with Kitty, and since he is so wealthy, why not let him take care of her. And so the two con Chris into buying Kitty a studio apartment and always helping her out financially whenever she needs it.

What Kitty doesn't know is that Chris is married to Adele (Rosalind Ivan). It is a loveless marriage. She is a nagging brute. It is her second marriage. She even keeps a giant photo of her husband in their living room and constantly compares Chris to her departed first husband.

These scenes are crucial to the film because they set up the underlying themes of the movie. In this marriage Adele is head of the household. It is Chris who cleans the house and does the dishes. When he does do the dishes he even wears an apron. That in itself is not bad, but, he wears a flower apron. When a friend stops by Chris must watch his "p's" and "q's". He must make sure not to disturb his wife. He has no freedom in his own home.

And that leads to what both "Scarlet Street" and "The Woman in the Window" are really about. In both films Robinson must prove himself as a man. These films are about masculinity. In "Scarlet Street" he has lost it and must prove to others and himself that he is in fact a man. Both of these films have more in common with F.W. Murnau's "The Last Laugh" (1924), a film about the downfall of a man who loses his dignity, than other noir films such as "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1946) or "This Gun For Hire" (1942).

Yes the usual elements of noir are here; lust, women, money, power, double-crossing. But those are just a pretext to tells us the story of the emasculation of Chris.

If you read my review for "The Woman in the Window" you'll know I said I enjoyed the film a great deal except for the ending, which I felt was a cop out and rumor has it, Lang didn't want that ending either, but, was forced to add it on by the Hollywood censorship board. "Scarlet Street" doesn't have that problem. This is a much darker film with a disturbing ending. The film doesn't pull back. In fact, in certain ways, it was ahead of its time. It was banned in some cities.

First of all, the whole aspect that Chris is married yet is seen flirting with and kissing Kitty was against the production code. Even though Adele and Chris are not in love. Also, it is one of the few films I can think of where an "innocent" man dies. And its "punishment" is drastically different than the retribution most criminals get in other films. But, I can't comment on these things without spoiling the film.

The only thing I don't like about the movie is the lighting. It is not a dark movie. It is pretty brightly lit. It doesn't have a true noir feel to it. Though as I said, many of the ingredients are here. It is darker in its story and its treatment of characters but I thought Lang should have been making more use of shadows and darkness.

The film was based on a Georges de la Fouchardiere novel entitled "La Chienne" and adapted by Dudley Nichols. A rather strange choice in my opinion. He wrote the Rene Clair comedy "It Happened Tomorrow" (1944), which I reviewed on here and the classic screwball comedy, Howard Hawks' "Bringing Up Baby" (1938). "Scarlet Street" is a very different film in tone.

While I may not like this movie as much as I do other Fritz Lang titles; "Fury" (1936) or "M" (1931), I have to admit this is an entertaining picture with interesting social ideas. And you have to give credit to Edward G. Robinson. These two roles; "Woman" and "Scarlet" are just opposites of the roles that made him famous. If you are not familiar with Robinson, he use to play tough guys. To see him in roles like this is all the proof one needs that he was truly a gifted actor. I think his performance here is stronger than in "The Woman in the Window". And I think Joan Bennett is much more sexier here.

"Scarlet Street" is a sharp, well written, wonderfully acted film. This is not your typical noir film. Please watch this back to back with "The Woman in the Window". I think film buffs or younger movie fans will be impressed.

Film Reviews: Man of Iron & Somewhere in the East

"Man of Iron" *** (out of ****)

Here we have two movies which deal with Communism from a European perspective.

To a large number of movie goers, films are nothing more than "popcorn" entertainment. Movies are simple diversions. Going to the movies is just something to do on a Friday night. But, to others cinema is about artistic vision. Movies are an important window into society. They teach us about different cultures. They become historical documents. Few directors have used cinema this way like Andrzej Wajda.

You'll think about these kind of things when you watch "Man of Iron" (1981), Wajda's palme d'or winner at the Cannes Film Festival. This film has an undeniable power because it is showing us history in the moment. In a way it was a crying call to other countries. The film is largely about the Solidarity movement in Poland, which was taking effect during the making of the film.

For those that don't know, Solidarity was a non-communist trading union attempting to give workers more rights. It was a major thaw in Communist controlled Poland during the Cold War.

What makes "Man of Iron" such a powerful film is Wajda uses actual documentary film footage along side his fictional film. We are seeing actual protesters and demonstrations.

At the same time that is what hurts the film a little bit in my opinion. I wasn't born during that start of Solidarity and I'm not Polish. This creates a bit of distance for me. At the time of the film's release I could see how this film would deeply resonate with people. It was something they heard about and saw in the news. The film was timely. It was putting names and faces to a problem most Americans maybe didn't quite understand.

I know what the Solidarity movement was. I understand what life was like in a Communist countries (my family is from Hungary). But it is one thing to read about events in history books and another to have lived through them and experience them. This is what stops "Man of Iron" from getting a higher rating. I can tell the film is important but there is an emotional discourse because of my age and nationality.

But my case may not be common. That is why I'm recommending the film to others. It is clearly a powerful, emotional and personal film. People should make an effort to see this movie.

"Man of Iron" is a sequel to Wajda's "Man of Marble" (1977), which I have also reviewed on here. In "Man of Marble" we followed Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) a bricklayer who becomes a national hero. This time around we follow his son, Maciej (also played by Radziwilowicz) and his relationship with the woman who tried to tell his father's story in "Marble", Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda).

The government is trying to set-up Maciej to be the fall guy to stop negotiations from taking place with Solidarity. So they pay a has-been filmmaker to do a documentary on Maciej in hopes it will turn out to be a character assassination. But when the filmmaker, Winkel (Marian Opania), learns Maciej's and his father's story he is caught in a moral dilemma of what to do.

In "Man of Marble" Agnieszka was our main character. We were following her as she learned about a time in history she knew nothing about due to her age. In "Man of Iron" she is not the main character. She has been in jail because of her relationship with Maciej. This turns out to be another flaw I have with the movie.

Winkel to goes Agnieszka for an interview in prison. She begins to tell us what happened when "Marble" ending. How they fell in love and had a baby. But also how they got caught in a political storm as they tried to tell his father's story. They were met with much resistance, his job was put at stake.

The problem I have with all of this is the film shifts focus from the Solidarity movement to a love story between Agnieszka and Maciej. The love story is not the most interesting part of the movie. It is the politics which make the film interesting. But the last 40 minutes of the film are spent on their love. I thought this slows the movie down.

Still there is no way to deny the grand sweep of the movie. Even though the film won the palme d'or it lost its Oscar nomination that year in the "Best Foreign Language Film" category to Istvan Szabo's "Mephisto" (1981). Both are fine films and each would have been deserving of the award.

If you'd like to learn more about the Solidarity movement watch Jill Godmilow's semi-documentary, semi fictional film "Far From Poland" (1984).

"Somewhere in the East" (Undeva in Est) *** (out of ****)

"Somewhere in the East" (Undeva in Est, 1991) is another powerful film about communism. This time the subject is collective farming in a small Transylvania town.

One of the things which is interesting about the film is its title. "Somewhere in the East". That could mean "somewhere" in Eastern Europe or "somewhere" in Eastern Romania, but Transylvania is in Western Romania. So who knows exactly what the title is referring to. But I think the film is trying to send a larger message. Yes it is about Romania, but, stories such as this one were happening all over the Eastern Bloc.

The government sends Radu (Valentin Voicila) to the village hoping to influence the townspeople of the benefits of collective farming. His main objective is to get a wealthy landowner, Ion Margureanu (Remus Margineanu) to sign on, since he is treated as the leader of the town. If he joins others will follow his example.

But Ion doesn't like the idea of Communism or collective farming. He says he has worked all his life. He had to save for years to get all the things he has achieved. Why should he have to share it with people who didn't work as hard as he did?

So the people resist causing a civil war between the government and the townspeople. They resist because they feel the Americans will come and help them. Of course America doesn't come to help the people of Romania or the people of any country. America and the British simply gave Eastern Europe to the Soviets in a nice package with a bow on top.

Watching "Somewhere in the East" you can feel the frustration of the people. Like "Man of Iron" this film is showing us a specific time in history.

The movie almost has a documentary look at it. This helps create the idea what we are watching is real. The characters may be made up but we know events such as this did in fact take place. In Hungarian cinema there was a very famous film about collective farming "Korhinta" (1956) directed by Zoltan Fabri, which I have also reviewed on here. So the pressures were real. People from other countries felt it.

The film was directed by Nicolae Margineanu. I haven't reviewed the films of Mr. Margineanu on here before but he is considered, along with Lucian Pintilie, as one of the great filmmakers in Romanian cinema. He has been much more prolific than Mr. Pintilie.

All of the films I have seen by Margineanu are political and deal with Communist life in Romania. His masterpiece in my opinion is "Bless You, Prison" (Binecuvantata fii, Inchisoare, 2002), which I placed on my "top ten" list for the year. He started as a cinematography before making a documentary, "This Above All" (Mai Presus de Orice, 1978) and directed his first feature film a year later, "The Man in the Overcoat" (Un om in Loden, 1979). Since then he has had a steady output of films, one of them, "The Famous Paparazzo" (Faimosul Paparazzo, 1999) was even Romania's official Oscar entry, though it didn't make it to the final cut.

"Somewhere in the East" has many powerful moments. The film, even though it deals with a single family, I don't think is interested in merely telling their story. I feel the characters are pawns used for a larger purpose. They represent all Romanians who suffered during this horrible time in history.

Sadly, "Somewhere in the East" and all of Mr. Margineanu's films are not available in America. I was lucky enough to buy all the films I did. You just have to be willing to look. Movie buffs should definitely seek out the work of this great director. "Somewhere in the East" would be a good introduction into his work and the issues he deals with.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Resposibility Of A Critic

Let me tell you a story. Nearly two weeks ago I wrote a review for a movie. I won't reveal the title for reasons apparent as this entry continues. I disliked the film. But I sent a facebook "friend request" to both the star of the film and the director. Why? I have no idea. In hindsight, it was a very big mistake to do so. The actress in question (again I won't reveal names) accepted my friend request. I can assume she snooped around my profile, found a link to this blog, read the review and wrote me a facebook message. Here is what she wrote:
"Dear Alex,
Surprised to find you added me as a friend. As I understand, you hated my work in the last two films I did with [director]. Sorry to hear that. You will probably most likely not like my work in our next film,[title of film], either, or any work i do after that for that matter. Glad that didn't affect your opinion of [director]. He is truly a genius. "

I was surprised that this actress would take the time out of her day to not only read my blog but actually write to me and express an extremely annoyed viewpoint with me. But, I figured I'd just chalk it up as just one of those things and let the incident slide. But it did get me thinking about what is the role of a film critic. What exactly is my responsibility to my readers and to the talent involved in a particular film?

I stopped thinking about it and went on with this thing called "life". But today another incident happen. The filmmaker of the film in question wrote to me about my "friend request" to him. Here is what he had to say:
"After your unpleasant attack on the brilliant [actress] two days before her birthday, I see no reason to have any contact with you."

Boy it seems like this director, whom I normally have great admiration for, and this actress can't seem to get over my comments. I can only guess apparently she told him what I wrote or sent him a link to my review. Or something. Bottom-line, he found out about what I wrote. And again I was plagued with the question, what is the responsibility of a film critic? Should I only say nice things about everyone and every film? Should I only review movies which I like? I can do the latter. This is after all my blog and I'm free to review whatever movie I like. But why? Why should I or anyone else be restricted to only say nice things about movies? What happens when you do not like something? Will the director come to your home and beat you up?

Once the incident first happened I felt very bad about everything. I thought maybe I should never write another negative thing again. But then I realize how I interpret the role of the critic. The critic can't only say nice things. That is not my job. My job is to evaluate art. To be objective and honestly state my opinion and explain why I did or didn't like something. As long as I am honest, I feel I did nothing wrong. And if someone does not like that, well, sorry to say, but that is too bad. Don't take the review so personal. I don't personally know Hollywood filmmakers and actors. As a result I don't pull back. I have no personal relationship with these people. And after this incident I think it is best if a film critic does not have a relationship with a director. One or the other will mistake it for friendship. And that might influence the critic's reaction to a film. The critic might feel compelled to only say nice things about a particular director's films.

As for the movie itself, well, I checked on-line to read what other critics had to say. It appeared to be a general consensus that the film was not up to the director's best work. Did that justify what I wrote? Yes and no. My reviews are mine alone. I don't turn to other critics to check if I'm in agreement with them. It doesn't matter to me one way or the other. All that matters to me is that I'm honest with readers and I'm able to express myself clearly. If I can do that, I'm happy and pleased with my review. But, with so many other critics agreeing with me, it at the very least suggest, others agreed with me and I wasn't going out of my way to knock the film. If the director and the star had a problem with what I wrote, how exactly did they react when the reviews from the professional critics came in? Did they have a temper tantrum like children? That seems extremely unprofessional to me on their part.

But will this incident have an affect on me and the way I judge this director's work? Not at all. Just because he and the actress aren't professional is no reason I have to follow their example. I'll happily look forward to seeing this director's next film. If I like it, I'll review it and say so. If I don't like it, I'll review it and explain why. But their reaction to my review will not determine how I react. It does prove one thing however, apparently my reviews have quite a sting to them. I like that. Clearly people react to what I write. That makes me happy. That means my writing is good, at least to me. Though I do wonder, why did my words bother these two so much? Who am I? Who reads this blog? I'm no one important. I don't write for a newspaper, I don't have my own television show. This blog isn't sponsored by anyone. No other celebrities have written to me. The only other person who wrote to me was Elizabeth Weitzman, film critic for the New York Daily News. But she didn't appear to be annoyed with me. Do the director and actress think I have any sway? They must think something if they wrote to me. They felt compelled to let me know they were displeased. That says a lot to me. I got under their skin.

Though I'm serious when I say this will not influence me in my decisions. What does it mean that I took the time to write a blog entry? Well, I did so, so readers know what happened. Also because I have a bit of a mean streak in me and wanted to make it public. But, I stopped myself and did the professional thing. I didn't reveal their names. Plus I just want my readers to know, when I review a movie realize the opinion expressed is mine and mine alone. I don't seek justification from others. I don't care what the mainstream thinks. I don't care if I upset someone because I liked or didn't like a movie which they like. That is not my job as a critic. I can't please everyone and quite honestly I don't want to. The only person I want to please is me. I must be honest with myself first and foremost. I won't back down and avoid a confrontation. Though I prefer not to have one. I prefer a civil debate. A serious discussion of cinema as an art form.

Hopefully this incident will now blow over and I won't have to endure any more e-mails from these people. They should worry about their next film and improving upon what they did wrong in their last film. Don't worry about some crazy Hungarian kid with a blog.

Film Review: A Short Film About Love

"A Short Film About Love" *** (out of ****)

"A Short Film About Love" (1988) is not your typical love story. This is far from a Hollywood romance. The film revolves around a young man, Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) who spies on on a woman, Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska) who lives across from him in another building.

At first his spying doesn't seem to be based on sex. He doesn't look into her apartment seeking a cheap thrill. It is as if she is a statue, he simply wants to adore her from afar.

This set-up almost recalls Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954) where Jimmy Stewart, who was wheel-chair bound, spied on his neighbors until he thought he was a witness to a murder. But there is no murder here.

As the film progresses Magda does learn what Tomek has been up to. Tomek works at a post office and has been sending her slips that she has money orders waiting to be picked up. We see him call her, but never speaks and we find out he has been stealing her mail. The amazing thing is he actually admits all of this to her. To my further amazement, she doesn't call the cops on him.

Movies are not required to have characters audiences will like. I can think of two modern movies which focused on very flawed men, "The Woodsman" (2004) and "The Statement" (2004). One was about a child molester and the other about a Nazi. Watching these men put us in their moral dilemma. They were interesting characters. That is the problem I have with "A Short Film About Love". Tomek is a pathetic loser, who does not deserve to walk among the living. His life bears no meaning. He merely takes up space. He has no friends and no girlfriend. He says he has never had sex and I'm willing to bet he never even kissed a girl. Yet he claims to love Magda. He will do anything to be in her presence.

The film raises the stakes by having Magda show interest in him. Does she find him pathetic too? Does she want to teach this young punk a lesson? Or is she flattered by his behavior? On some level she goes through all three reactions eventually turning to mutual affection for Tomek or dare I say, love.

The film was directed by Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski. This is the first time I have reviewed one of his films on here. I have never really paid much attention to Kieslowski. He is a decent filmmaker who is probably best known in this country for directing his "Three Colors Trilogy" (1994) based on the colors of the French flag; Blue, White and Red. "Red" was not only the final film in the trilogy but also Kieslowski's final film. He retired from filmmaking and died two years later. He is also known for directing "The Double Life of Veronique" (1991) and a 10 hour mini-series called "The Decalogue" (1990). It was ten one hour films each based on one of the ten commandments.

The reason I have never really paid much attention to him is because I've always thought of him as a "modern" filmmaker. I'm perfectly willing to give him his due credit. I placed both "The Three Colors Trilogy" and "Veronique" on my top ten list for their respected years. But I wasn't going to over sell him. He didn't seem to belong in a class with Andrzej Wajda for instance, my favorite Polish filmmaker. All the films Mr. Kieslowski is known for are his modern films. And that is fine. But if you are a "modern" filmmaker, I'm not going to put your name along side the greats.

The "older" films by him that I have seen are "No End" (1985) and "Blind Chance" (1987). But going over his filmography I realized he has been around for a very long time. He started off making shorts and documentaries. His first was "The Tram" (1966). He directed 18 of these until finally making his feature film debut in 1976 with the TV movie "Personnel". This impressed me. Maybe I should give him a second chance. And so I did.

I think because Kieslowski started off making documentaries, which showed people's daily lives, his feature films are very similar. His films lack a certain visual aesthetic. I'm not saying that is always the case. His "Veronique" is visually stunning but his work doesn't impress me as much as Wajda. Wajda seems more poetic as well. Kieslowski is a little rough around the edges. Strangely enough, he is one of the few directors I can think of where his later works are better then his early films.

But that may make it seem as if I don't like Kieslowski. I do. I think people should see his films if only because it is important to see all the films of acclaimed filmmakers. And Kieslowski is an acclaimed filmmaker. He is not terribly well known to mainstream audiences here in America but a small group of filmbuffs know who he is. His films have won and been nominated for various awards at various film festivals and his "Red" won him a "Best Director" and "Best Screenplay" Oscar nomination.

"A Short Film About Love" is not a great movie. But it has some interesting moments. One of the best takes place at the end of the movie. Magda is now in Tomek's room. She is looking in at her own apartment. A flood of memories follow. It is actually a very heartfelt, emotional moment. But for all the moments which may work in the film the rest of it I found somewhat dull. That's the problem I have with a lot of Kieslowski early films. I'm merely not interested in a lot of what is going on. His "No End" may be the best I've seen among them. Szapolowska was also in that movie and I felt gave a better performance. Here she doesn't seem like a real person. She merely reacts the way the plot requires her to. Tomek in a strange way I suppose is more of a character, only because the film is told from his perspective. But Magda is the more interesting character because she has lived. She actually has stories. Because Tomek is such a loser he has nothing interesting to tell us.

Still I'm recommending the film. It serves as a nice break from more mainstream Hollywood films. I don't think however the film would serve as good introduction into Kieslowski's work. I would probably suggest watching his "Three Color Trilogy" first and then "Veronique". Get around to this after you've taken in some of his other films.

By the way, Kieslowski actually decided to expand on the theme in his fifth Decalogue film which is how "A Short Film About Love" came to be. He did the same with the sixth story, which would become "A Short Film About Killing" (1988).

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Film Review: Belle Toujours

"Belle Toujours" *** (out of ****)

Filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira is one of the most respected directors in the world. He has won and been nominated for numerous awards all over the world including having several films nominated for the palme d' or at Cannes and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

In America however it is sadly a different story. His movies open to mixed reactions. Most of the general public has not only never seen one of his movies but they have probably never heard his name before either. I'm even willing to bet people who consider themselves filmbuffs have not seen one of his movies. It is because of this I wanted to review one of his movies.

Oliveira was born in Portugal in 1908, he is currently the oldest living filmmaker. And even in his old age the master finds time to make one movie a year. He is currently working on a new film.

He started out making documentaries, his first was in 1931, "Working on the Douro River". Eventually this lead to a career in feature length films. "Aniki-Bobo" (1942) was his debut.

Unfortunately his work is very hard to come by. A select few of his more recent films have been made available however. Of all the films he has made, I've only seen one, "A Talking Picture" (2003) which had an all-star international cast consisting of John Malkovich, Stefania Sandrelli and Catherine Deneuve. So clearly I am not an authority on his work. I'm still searching for his titles. But even after only seeing two films by the man, I recognize his talent and want to see as much of his work as possible.

"Belle Toujours" (2006) is a little seen sequel to Luis Bunuel's masterpiece "Belle de Jour" (1967). It was the story of a sexually repressed housewife (Catherine Deneuve) who finds a daytime job as a prostitute. It was typical of the kind of films Bunuel engaged in. Most of his work took a very cynical look at the upper-class. It has been years since I first saw "Belle de Jour", and I must admit I remember very little of it. Watching "Belle Toujours" I tried my hardest to recall scenes from the original. All I could think of was a dream sequence out in the woods where Deneuve fantasizes about getting gang banged, yes you read that right.

The final image in "Belle de Jour" was of Severine (Deneuve) with her crippled, wheel-chair bound husband, who knows nothing of her double life. Severine is afraid her husband's friend, Henri (Michel Piccoli) has told him of her secret, since he is the one who suggested it to her. The final image was of a tear in her husband's eye. But the question was never answered, did Henri reveal the secret? That is where "Belle Toujours" starts off.

Michel Piccoli reprises his role as Henri as he sees Severine (this time played by Bulle Ogier) at a classical music concert at the start of the film. After the concert he chases after her, following her to a bar. She has just left when he enters. He sits down and orders a drink in an attempt to get some information from the bartender (Ricardo Trepa). And he does, nothing extremely useful however. But after a few drinks, Henri brings the young man into his confidence and tells him his story of his relationship with Severine, without revealing his part.

After that night Henri doesn't give up his search. Fate keeps bringing the two together. He finds out where she lives and they casually meet. It is clear she remembers him and wants nothing to do with him. She is not the same person she was before. When do they finally meet de Oliveira pulls the camera back for an extreme long shot and as a result we cannot hear their conversation.

In many ways this is fitting. A lot of things happened off camera in "Belle de Jour" and de Oliveira is giving the characters their space by not allowing us to eavesdrop. Finally the two characters do meet for dinner at what I assume is Henri's hotel. As they eat they do not say as word. For us, the viewer, this actually creates some tension. I wasn't comfortable watching them sitting across from each other not speaking. I suppose in some way though that is how it often is in real life. We want something but when we get it we don't know how to react. Suddenly we have nothing to say.

All of this may not sound like much but I've actually just describe the entire movie for you, give or take a scene or two and not the final moments of the film. As you can tell "Belle Toujours" is very light on plot. And if you read some of the public's reaction you will notice this bothered a lot of people. Many feel this film, as well as most of de Oliveira's work, moves very, very slow.

There was a lot in "Belle Toujours" I quite honestly didn't understand. I had some difficulty figuring out de Oliveira's use of the camera. He has a lot of cut away shots of the Paris landscape. I looked for a deeper meaning but couldn't think of one. As for the film's final moments, what does it all mean. Where does "Belle Toujours" leave us? Does it really resolve anything? I suppose in a sense it does, but, is it satisfactory? In fact, was a sequel to "Belle de Jour" really needed?

But there are elements of the film which I must admit I found quite charming. The film has a very pleasant tone. While others complain the movie moves slowly, I found the pace brisk and carefree. The film is only 66 minutes. And though this is a sequel to a Bunuel film, de Oliveira makes the material his own. His films appear to be very conversational, at least this and "A Talking Picture" both were. I like movies like that. Think of Eric Rohmer, though without all the philosophy about love. Here the dialogue is all about memories.

For me the best moments in the film are not with Severine and Henri. They are in the bar with Henri and the bartender. I enjoy their conversation and banter. Henri and the bartender debate what really happened between these people and the nature of humans in general. These scenes also try and find some humor as two prostitutes (Leonor Baldaque and Julia Buisel) frequently visit the bar hoping to get picked up. They each have their eye on Henri who pays no attention to them.

The film also has some beautiful visuals. My favorite is at the end of the film, the dinner between Henri and Severine. It is by candle-light. Henri shuts off the room's light as light from the window comes through. We only see them in shadows. Here they are having a very personal conversation about what exactly happened 40 years ago. It is fitting it should take place in the dark. In the dark we lose our inhibitions. We speak and act more freely. While the characters may be sitting in the dark, their answers to questions will see the light. Now finally they may have some peace of mind and let go of these memories.

There is something sweet and almost innocent to the performances here. I'm not familar with Ogier, she was in last year's "The Duchess of Langeais" directed by Jacques Rivette. But for me Piccoli steals the movie. The film is told from his perspective, he carries the movie. Besides being in "Belle de Jour" he was in such films as Chabrol's "Wedding in Blood" (1973) and the charming musical by Jacques Demy, "The Young Girls of Rochefort" (1967). Here Piccoli is able to bring us into his memories. We want to hear his stories. I found him very charming in this role. There is a sensitivity to what he is doing. It is very effective.

I don't think a large portion of the public will admire this film. They will say it is slow moving, boring, too slight. They will complain it doesn't go anywhere. On the last account they may have a point. This film couldn't work without "Belle de Jour". That film is needed as a reference point. And that can hurt the film. "Belle Toujours", just like any sequel or film, must be able to stand on its own. "Toujours" doesn't really do that, but I appreciate the acting, the dialogue and the charm of the film. While it is not a great movie I do feel it is worth seeing regardless.

Masterpiece Film Series: Horse Feathers

"Horse Feathers"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Young movie fans may not realize this, but, there was a time when comedies were actually suppose to be funny. They had funny lines, humorous situations and laughable characters. Today's comedies mostly want to gross us out. They want to see how far they can push the envelop. They want to make us laugh not out of joy but out of discomfort. We laugh because we don't know how to respond in awkward situations.

But that is not the case with "Horse Feathers" (1932). We laugh because the Marx Brothers are genuinely funny. Snappy lines and broad physical comedy dominate the film.

I have said before, comedy is my favorite genre. I've tried to review the works of all the great comics. In the month of April I devoted myself exclusively to the genre. I wrote about Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and Abbott & Costello. But strangely enough this is the first time I've written about the Marx Brothers.

I wasn't always a Marx Brothers fan. As a child I watched their films, as I did all the other great comedians of the era, but they were a bit advance for me. Many of Groucho's one-liners went completely over my head. I didn't understand all of Groucho's references to wanting to marry Margaret Dumont for her money. At the time my favorite of the brothers was not Groucho, not even Harpo, whom most children like. I liked Chico. I would sit with joy and amazement as he played the piano. I thought he was the greatest pianist of all time. For those who have never seen a Marx Brothers comedy he did all sort of "tricks" while playing. Playing with two fingers as they "walked" over the keys. Or pretending his hand was a gun and "shoot" the note.

I started to like the Marx Brothers when I got much, much older. Around my early teens. And since then I have been a devoted Marxist ever since. I've seen all of their movies and among them "Horse Feathers" is my favorite.

While I'm not fan of today's comedy with comedians like Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers and writer/director Judd Apatow, the Marx Brothers actually have something in common with them. Just as Sandler and Myers are crude and vulgar in their comedy, the Marx Brothers were considered cutting edge at their time. Today it all seems like innocent fun but back then the brothers were engaging in comedy anarchy. Breaking down the social order of things. They were a slap in the face of the American lifestyle. And none of their films, I feel, is quite as off-the-wall as "Horse Feathers".

"Horse Feathers" has no real established characters, no character arc, no real plot, no resolution, no satisfying ending, there is no cinema aesthetic. There is no message. Nothing is artful about the film. And because of that it is perfect. I wouldn't change a single frame of the film. The only disappointing aspect is, the film is too short. A mere 65 minutes.

The film immediately makes it clear it will not follow "rules" or a movie formula. Right at the start of the film Groucho sings "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It" which starts off with the lyrics, "I don't know what they have to say/ It makes no difference anyway/ Whatever it is, I'm against it/ No matter what it is or who commenced it, I'm against it"

There is some non-sense of a "story" about Groucho, who plays Prof. Wagstaff, who becomes the new dean of Huxley College. He has done so because his son (Zeppo Marx) is dating the "college widow" (whatever that is) Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd). But that idea is quickly abandon. Now the film is about a college football game between Huxley and rival college Darwin. And that's it.

The college campus has always provided good material for comics. Buster Keaton made the film "College" (1927), a minor effort not among his best. Harold Lloyd enrolled in "The Freshman" (1925) considered his funniest film. Those films though took more advantage of the college setting, playing around with the hierarchy of power, trying to fit in. "Horse Feathers" could be interpreted as a satire on college life, deeming it useless. This at a time when a majority of young people were attending college, setting records in attendance.

But there is no plot holding everything together. The film is just a collection of gags and comedy routines. Everything moves so fast that if you blink, you'll honestly miss a gag. I don't think any of the brothers have a line of serious dialogue, maybe Zeppo. Every line out of Groucho's mouth is a wise-crack, Chico is constantly engaging in his word-play, changing the meaning of everything. Most comedies, how ever good they may be, cannot keep up this level of insanity. But there are no slow parts in the movie. Each scene is set-up, delivery and cut to a new scene with the same agenda.

One of my favorite scenes takes place in a speak-easy. Groucho has gone there to buy some football players (Nat Pendleton and James Pierce) but instead enrolls Chico and Harpo. Groucho and Chico have a routine involving a password:

Chico: Who are you?
Groucho: I'm fine thanks. Who are you?
Chico: I'm fine too, but you can't come in unless you give the password.
Groucho: Well, what is the password?
Chico: Ah, no. You gotta tell me. Hey, I tell you what I do. I give you three guesses. It's the name of a fish.
Groucho: Is it Mary?
Chico: That's a no fish.
Groucho: She isn't? Well she drinks like one.

Another moment in the speak-easy has a couple of guys playing cards. One of them says cut the cards. As the man says this Harpo walks by and over hears him. He pulls an ax out of his pocket and chops the cards. You might think that is corny but I think it is hilarious. Then there is a very funny exchange between Groucho and the bartender concerning him cashing a check for $15.22 cents, which I won't spoil.

The Marx Brother films were also known for sequences where Chico, as I already said, would get to play the piano and Harpo, the harp. Chico's piano solo here is one of my all time favorites. He plays the classic 1920s tune "Collegiate". While Harpo and every other brother, does their version of the song "Everyone Says I Love You". Each performance is memorable.

The film was "directed" by Norman Z. McLeod. I wonder if it was actually possible to "direct" the Marx Brothers? McLeod directed their previous film "Monkey Business" (1931), another one of their great comedies. He also directed W.C. Fields in "It's A Gift" (1934) my favorite Fields' comedy and the charming "Topper" (1937). The script was written by S.J. Perelman, who wrote "Monkey Business", the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy "Hold 'Em Jail" (1932) and the Oscar winner, "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956) and co-written by the songwriting team of Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmer. They also wrote the Marx Brothers' comedy "Animal Crackers" (1930) and "Duck Soup" (1933) as well as two Wheeler and Woolsey comedies; "The Cuckoos" (1930) and "Hips, Hips, Hooray" (1934). Their life story was told in the musical "Three Little Words" (1950) with Fred Astaire and Red Skelton.

"Horse Feathers" is my kind of comedy. A no holds bar laugh fest. Will younger generations like it? I honestly think so. Their movies move very fast and Groucho's wit will impress them. For years now my friends and I have always quoted his one-liners to each other. Who else is there better to steal from? "Horse Feathers" would also make for a good introduction into their comedy. Afterwards I'd suggest watching their other beginning comedies; "Duck Soup", "Monkey Business", "Animals Crackers" and "A Night at the Opera" (1935).

For its wild daring pace and cynical look at college life "Horse Feathers" is one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Film Reviews: The Sheik & The Son of the Sheik

"The Sheik" *** (out of ****)

I've discussed a lot of the great female stars of the silents era; Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Lillian Gish and Marlene Dietrich but I haven't discussed any of the male figures of the silent era. Now I'm going to write about one of the most popular sex symbols of the era; Rudolph Valentino.

Rudolph Valentino was born in 1895 in Italy. He came to America in 1913. By 1914 he appeared in his first film as an extra in D.W. Griffith's "Battle of the Sexes". His first big break came in 1921 when he appeared in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse". But it was his appearance in "The Sheik" (1921) that cemented him as a national sex symbol. By the time he made the film he had already appeared in 21 films. In total he acted in 37 movies but "The Sheik" is his most famous movie and the role he is most often associated with.

This is not his best performance however. But because it is his most popular movie I had to review this first as an introduction into his work. About half of the films he appeared in are now considered lost, of the remaining films I would say he gave better performances in "Beyond the Rocks" (1922) with Gloria Swanson, a film which was thought to be lost for many years until 2002. It was put on DVD in 2006. Also watch him in "The Eagle" (1926). He even gives a better performance in "The Son of the Sheik" (1926), his final film.

I have always meant to discuss Valentino on this blog. In my opinion, you cannot have a serious film blog and not discuss Valentino. He was one of the great icons of early cinema. His impact can not be overstated.

It is said when he died in 1926, that 100,000 people filled the streets of New York to pay their respects, a majority of them were women. It was even said some women committed suicide. Others fainted at the sight of his casket. Many have claimed these reports were exaggerated, while others have said it was all a publicity stunt.

Valentino was actually a divisive figure. While he was a big hit with the ladies, male audiences were not impressed. Some actually walked out on his movies, several found his love scenes laughable, jokes were made about all the vaseline used in his hair. There were even claims he was a homosexual. It is said men felt threatened by him. As a result they tried to knock him down.

I'm not jealous of Valentino but I must admit, I don't quite understand the appeal he had. As far as pure acting ability goes I think there were others much more talented. I'm a big Chaplin fan, but, of course, they were in different leagues. Chaplin wasn't a sex symbol. Of the leading men of the silent era I would say the greatest actor was John Barrymore. Incidentally, KINO has recently released a collection of Barrymore's silent films. I also like Douglas Fairbanks. And, though his name hasn't lived on the same way as Valentino and Fairbanks I'm also a fan of Conrad Nagel. Watch him in "The Mysterious Lady" (1928) with Greta Garbo, one of her great performances.

In "The Sheik" Valentino plays Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan who falls in love with Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) at first site. She is an English orphan. She is a modern woman who feels she does not need a man in her life to make her happy. She doesn't play by society's rules. She is planning a trip out in the desert on her own, with no male companion to escort her. She doesn't need one.

When these two characters meet, Diana isn't interested in him because he will be at a casino where only Arabs are allowed. Since Diana is use to getting her way, she doesn't like to be told she can't do something. So she decides to sneak into the casino and pretend to be an Arab woman. When the Sheik discovers her, he throws her out.

The next day when Diana is on a tour of the desert, the Sheik follows her and kidnaps her. He will force her to love him. And that is what the rest of the film is about. These two people trapped together. In some ways this reminds me of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew". Will Diana learn she can't always get her way? That in other cultures women must do what they are told. Will the Sheik be able to tame her and make her love him?

A Western friend of the Sheik, Raoul de St. Hubert (Adolphe Menjou) is coming to visit. Not knowing he has taken Diana prisoner. She is embarrassed to have one of her own see her treated this way.

Meanwhile a bandit, Omair (Walter Long) has seen Diana and now he too wants to kidnap her.

There is a lot of ugliness underneath the story of "The Sheik". Arabs usually find the performance by Valentino as racist. But there is much more than that. First of all, the whole treatment of women. Diana must learn her place in society, to submit herself to a man. The film was based on a book, and in the book the Sheik actually rapes Diana.

Because society could not deal with an interracial romance on-screen, it is revealed that the Sheik is not actually Arab. His parents were English and Spanish. They died in the desert when they were discovered by an Arab tribe which took the boy and made him one of their own. That is the only way the romance between the two characters would be seen as acceptable.

The other problems are with Valentino's performance. He is very animated. He engages in the usual wild hand gestures and overly expressive facial emotions most actors did in the silent era. Today's audiences find it laughable. Normally I defend these kind of performances, because it was accepted at the time. And I'll defend Valentino too. But with all those other great actors around it just strikes me as odd that it was Valentino that became the icon.

The supporting actors were also very famous as well. Adolphe Menjou was a ladies man as well. Often voted as one of the best dressed men in Hollywood. Watch him in "The Front Page" (1931) the original screen adaptation of Ben Hecht's play, which was later turned into "His Girl Friday" (1940), he played the Cary Grant part. Also watch him in "Morocco" (1930) with Marlene Dietrich, there was a movie way ahead of its time. And he even tried comedy, he appeared along side Harold Lloyd in "The Milky Way" (1936).

Walter Long as the bandit was also somewhat famous. He appeared in Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" (1915) but Laurel & Hardy fans know him as playing a bully opposite them. His most popular role might have been in "Going Bye-Bye" (1934) where he threatens if he ever sees "the boys" again, he'll rip off their legs and wrap them around their necks.

"The Sheik" for the most part is not really a bad film and if you are going to start watching the work of Valentino there is no way you cannot sit down and watch this film. It doesn't show him at his best but any one that considers themself a film lover has to see the film if only for its historical purposes.

"The Son of the Sheik" *** (out of ****)

If you don't like "The Sheik" try watching "The Son of the Sheik" (1926), it will make you appreciate the original more. "The Son of the Sheik" is at times an outlandish film. The beginning is all over the place with bits of comic relief which are extremely out of place. But once the film settles into its story, it becomes a somewhat interesting melodrama.

Valentino now plays both the father and son of his original character. This time around he has fallen under the influence of a dancer, Yasmin (Hungarian actress Vilma Banky). Her father, Andre (George Fawcett) does not want her to associate with Ahmed (Valentino), while Ahmed's father has already planned a bride for him.

If 'The Sheik" seemed to suggest "Taming of the Shrew" I guess "The Son of the Sheik" is a low rent version of "Romeo & Juliet".

Valentino personally picked Banky for the role. The two had appeared together in his previous film "The Eagle". Banky is much more attractive than Ayres, who also appears in the wife as the wife. And has a more natural presence.

As I said Valentino gives a better performance this time around. He tones it down a lot. Perhaps because of more experience or a change in acting styles. In this movie we can accept him more as a leading man.

Between the two films though I'd say "The Sheik" is the better of the two.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Film Review: The Woman in the Window

"The Woman in the Window" *** (out of ****)

In my "300 Reviews & Counting" blog entry, I mentioned how there were still great filmmakers I've yet to discuss on this blog. Here now I will have the opportunity to perhaps introduce some readers to the work of Fritz Lang.

Lang was a German filmmaker who is perhaps best known for directing the silent science-fiction film "Metropolis" (1927), which has a heavy socialist slant, and the horror film "M" (1931) starring Peter Lorre as a child murderer.

Some critics and filmbuffs will say those are his best films. And I tend to agree. Lang did his best work in Germany. But in 1934 he left the country. It has been speculated he did so after having a meeting with Joseph Goebbels, who offered him the chance to head UFA studios. Supposedly Lang was against the Nazi regime and left that same night. None of this has ever been proven, but, it is at the very least a fun story.

Lang then came to America, where he directed "Fury" (1936), one of the greatest movies I've ever seen. He then became closely associated with film noir. It has been suggested he more than any other filmmaker established the genre creating films which dealt with paranoia, psychological conflicts and loose morals. These films include "Ministry of Fear" (1944) a minor attempt in my opinion, "Secret Beyond the Door" (1948) and "The Woman in the Window" (also 1944).

"The Woman in the Window" stars Edward G. Robinson as Professor Richard Wanley. A married man with two children. His wife and kids are going away on vacation while he stays at home. To pass the time he meets with some friends, one of them being a district attorney, Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey). They usually meet for drinks and discuss women. One woman in particular has caught their attention, only she isn't real. It is a woman they have seen in a portrait in a store window. They can't help but stare at it wondering what kind of woman she must be in real life.

At this point the conversation turns a bit risque for 1944. Wanley talks about how terrible it is to be in middle-age. His mind wants to do one thing while his body another. He'd love to chase after pretty girls and flirt, but, he realizes he is not a young man, and his body could not handle a wild partying lifestyle.

Later that same night, when on his way home, he stops at the window again to stare at the portrait, this time however he notices a figure standing next to him, a young woman. It is the same woman in the painting. Her name is Alice Reed (Joan Bennett). At first Wanley is embarrassed but they begin a conversation which leads to them going out for drinks and back to her place.

When at her place, where she wants to show Richard some sketches, her lover Claude Mazard (Arthur Loft) walks in and goes into a jealous rage. Richard, fighting for his life, stabs Mazard in the back with a pair of scissors. The scene is reminiscent to the murder scene in Hitchcock's "Dial M For Murder" (1954).

With the dead body in Alice's apartment they hatch a plan. Alice reveals that no one knew she was seeing Mazard. No one had ever seen the two together. So Richard decides they should move the body out of her apartment and leave it far away and promise never to see each other again.

The plan is Richard will go back to his apartment to get his car and he will take the body and drop it off in the woods. In these scenes Lang and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, are creating a lot of suspense and tension before anything really happens. Richard's trip to his apartment and back to Alice's is filled with mishap after mishap creating nothing but witnesses for Richard who can remark on his strange behavior. At one point a police officer even stops him. It seems as if their plan is going to backfire.

At this point in the film I was thinking of two things. First everything resembled a Hitchcock film, the theme of an innocent man caught in a web. Richard didn't do anything wrong. He killed the man out of self-defense, but he wants to avoid a scandal thus digging a hole deeper for himself. And because of Robinson's appearance as a man trying to get away with the perfect murder, how can one not think of Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" (1944). Here Robinson is playing the reverse of his character in that film. This time around he is Fred MacMurray.

Much of "The Woman in the Window" feels right. Lang does what you'd expect in a noir film. After dropping off the body Richard reads in the paper the body has been discovered, and his district attorney friend seems to have everything figured out except for who did it. He figures out the man did not die at that location but was brought there afterwards. He also tells Richard they found tire tracks and blood stains. Richard cut himself on some barb-wire.

Here Lang seems to be having some fun with the story. It becomes slightly humorous. Richard and Lalor have some friendly banter as Richard becomes more and more of the ideal suspect. In one scene Lalor invites Richard to come with him to the crime scene and without realizing it Richard is leading him to the body without anyone telling him where to go.

For much of the film I was enjoying what Lang and Johnson, who adapted a novel by J.H. Wallis called "Once Off Guard", were doing. Robinson, as usual, was giving a fine performance playing with his image as a gangster. For my younger readers, Robinson did break out in Hollywood for his roles in crime movies such as "Little Caesar" (1931) and John Huston's "Key Largo" (1948) opposite Humphrey Bogart. He even played a gangster for laughs in "Larceny Inc." (1942).

But then there is that ending. Right up until that point I thought this was going to be a very successful Lang film. It seemed to be pushing the limits of the Hollywood censorship board. Here was a movie that wasn't playing by the rules suggesting an ending we normally did not see in films from that period. Without revealing what actually happens, the film cops out. It was such a letdown. It goes from being a noir film to being a film about a male fantasy ego trip. It even turns to comedy. The comedy is completely out of place. The film actually wanted to be an examination of the male mid-life crisis.

A lot of people won't have the same bad reaction I had to the film's ending. Most people actually like it, thinking it is a sharp twist. But Lang never wanted that ending. He was pressured by the Hollywood censors to add additional footage. Lang originally wanted the bleak ending the film, at first, suggest. Instead we get this cheerful more upbeat ending. To me the ending serves as a reminder of the needless production code which interfered with artistic vision. Lang could have made a daring bold film but because of censorship he had to compromise his vision.

"The Woman in the Window" is not a bad movie. As I have said, it does have traits which I do recommend. It is not Fritz Lang's best film and probably should not be your introduction into his films either. Watch "M" or "Metropolis" first. If you want to see this noir material played correctly I'd advise you to watch "Double Indemnity" instead.

Film Review: Man of Marble

"Man of Marble" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Well, it only took 40 years but here is Poland's answer to "Citizen Kane" (1941), Andrzej Wajda's "Man of Marble" (1977). One of the great filmmaker's masterpieces.

A young director, Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda, who was also in Wajda's "The Counductor" (1980), which I have also reviewed) is doing her thesis film on a Communist hero, Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), whom she finds out was merely a government propaganda tool.

Like "Citizen Kane" the film starts off with archive footage showing us Birkut's great accomplishments. And also like "Kane", Agnieszka must interview those close to Birkut to get his life story creating a constant shift in time frame as the film goes back and forth between modern time and flashbacks.

But enough with the "Citizen Kane" comparisons. "Man of Marble" deserves to be evaluated for its own accomplishments.

I have seen this film a few times now. Each time I watch it, it grows on me. I discover new things. I notice lines of dialogue I hadn't before. I understand the edits better and the transitions.

To me the film is working on several levels. Agnieszka is a young twenty-something year old. She has no memories of Birkut. For her everything is a history lesson. And so we are getting a story of a younger generation going back to its roots. As one character in the film says, it is good for young people to study history so they don't repeat the same mistakes.

This is typical of Andrzej Wajda. His entire career has been to document Polish history and all her struggles. I'm sure he wants the youth of society to be familiar with their country's past.

The film also serves as a strong argument against the Communist government and shows the control they had over society and the censorship placed on a artist.

If I interpret this film and Wajda's work in general correctly it seems Wajda was himself a leftist but disliked the government. His depiction of Birkut is not a negative one. Naive perhaps but not harsh. Birkut is presented as a man who was a true believer. He finds the underlying goals of the party noble. He believes in equality and a workers revolution. But it is the government which has strayed from these ideas and has become full of corruption and greed. We see this over and over again in Wajda's films such as "The Promised Land" (1975) and "Danton" (1983) which was about the aftermath of the French Revolution starring Gerard Depardieu. There the people revolted against the corrupt government while the incoming one became just as corrupt while pretending to work for the people. Wajda seems to be saying with great responsibility comes great corruption. This sounds like the work of Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo. The two men are friends and probably share a similar philosophy since both were artist in Communist countries and probably endured the same censorship.

Birkut is a brick layer who was chosen by a filmmaker, Jerzy Burski (Tadeusz Lomnicki) to star in a propaganda film where he and 4 other men will lay 28,000 bricks in 8 hours. This "collective working" would symbolize Communist strength. Birkut becomes a man of the people. A symbol of the common worker. Even a statue is made in his honor. But as quickly as fame comes his way it is taken away from him.

Agnieszka finds nothing but resistance when trying to make her film. Her supervisor (Boguslaw Sobczuk) does not want her to make the film and each subject she tries to interview is hesitant at first. But the truth starts to slowly reveal itself and when it does Agnieszka is told her film is going over budget and must be scraped. Was she coming too close to making the government look bad?

I found the two lead performances quite effective. Krystyna Janda is extremely beautiful and talented. She presents the character as both pushy and manipulative, going to any lengths to get her interview. But Janda makes the character believable. Many young filmmakers are exactly like that. And to think this was her debut acting performance.

Radziwilowicz on the other hand is much more child-like and innocent. Even when it is clear people are against him he never seems to fully comprehend who his friends and enemies are. In one scene he is brought to testify against a co-worker, Witek (Michal Tarkowski) who may or may not be a spy and may have been responsible for a personal injury Birkut endured. But Birkut, rather than go against a fellow worker, defends the man. He is an innocent bystander caught in a political storm.

If there is one downfall to the film it is that there is nothing really visually striking about the film. I don't find Wajda to be a visual filmmaker. He has not created indelible images. His film are more about ideas. It is rare a film will have both startling images and a message. It is for that reason I consider "Kanal" (1957) to be his best film. I will be sure to include it in my "Masterpiece Film Series". "Man of Marble" is told in a straight forward visual style. But it is still able to incite powerful emotions within the viewer.

I also dislike the musical score which is 1970s disco. What was Wajda thinking? This music is inappropriate for the movie. It doesn't suggest the right emotions. Whenever the music plays it takes us out of our element.

But it is the story which makes the film watchable. It is a powerful look at Communist Poland. The film won the FIPRESCI award at the Cannes Film Festival. Wajda returned to this material in his sequel, "Man of Iron" (1981), dealing with Birkut's son. "Man of Marble" is one of Andrzej Wajda's best films. This would make a wonderful introduction into the great director's work.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Top Ten Films Of The 1940s

Now we are getting to my favorite decades in these "top ten" list. I've complained before about the low quality of films in other decades. But cinema, especially American cinema, from the 1920s-1940s, to me, is unbeatable.

Hollywood was a true dream factory back then. Some people may not like that. Many may not find enjoyment in pure Hollywood escapism. But I do. That is one of the great things about movies, their ability to take us away. To transport us to places which don't resemble our world. Places not plagued with our daily problems.

During the 1940s we would see some of the great screwball comedies like Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday" (1940). One of the fastest talking comedies I've ever seen, only the Marx Brothers in "Duck Soup" (1933) can match it. We would also see many films dealing with WW2 and patriotic pride. Two of the greatest films to deal with life at home were the Oscar winning "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) and "Since You Went Away" (1944), both of which I have already included in my "Masterpiece Film Series".

But cinema from other countries was just as amazing, but taking a totally different approach. The war left Europe in ruins. They weren't looking for escapism. They wanted to see films which showed life as it was for them. This gave rise to the Italian neo-realism movement. In France the great Marcel Carne made what many consider his masterpiece "Children of Paradise" (1945), interrupted as an anti-war parable.

Though this list, more than any of the previous list, will have mostly American films. These are the films which have left the biggest impact on me. Those 20 years, between the 1920s-1940s, I feel showed Hollywood at its peak. These are the movies I find myself going back to repeatedly. Just think of all the great filmmakers and films which were made in this single decade. I didn't even come close to capturing all the magic the decade produced. And I'm even including a runner's up list! But that isn't even enough. Just think, Orson Welles, John Ford, Charlie Chaplin, Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, William Wyler and Frank Capra were all alive making films which many considered their best. You will see their films on this list. These are the films I think young film buffs should throw themselves into. Take a break from today's current movies, they aren't going anywhere, but films from this decade and those before it are sadly becoming forgotten. Youthful audiences aren't turning to these films. This is where your attention should be. These are the films you should be studying.

This list is not perfect, not by a long shot, but hopefully it will serve as a nice introduction, a starting place, for people to begin with. Unlike other lists, this one will be done in order of preference, though I may regret that tomorrow. Here are some of my favorite films of the 1940s.

1. THE BICYCLE THIEF (1949, Dir. Vittoria De Sica; Italy) - This is not the most characteristic film of the 1940s but it is my personal favorite movie of all-time. There was no way I couldn't include it on the list. For me it is the best Italian neo-realist films ever made. It is hard for me to say what makes this film seem so perfect to me. If I told you the story, you might find it boring, though the title gives a lot away. But it isn't the story, on the surface, which makes this a memorable masterpiece, it is what is underneath. Here is simply a film about people. People we come to identify with. We struggle along with this family. Their concerns become our concerns. The film was even given an honorary Oscar and was nominated for "Best Screenplay". De Sica won the "Best Director" award from the National Board of Review as well.

2. MRS. MINIVER (1942, Dir. William Wyler; U.S.) - Another one of my all-time favorites. Here we have a WW2 story told from the British perspective. Supposedly, British moral was very low by the time this film was made. This film was an attempt to inspire nationalist pride. The film was nominated for 12 Oscars walking away with 6 including "Best Picture", "Director" and "Actress" (Greer Garson). A sequel was made many years later, "The Miniver Story" (1950) which brought back Garson and Walter Pidgeon, and while it is a good film, it doesn't have the heartfelt sentimentality and emotion of this great film.

3. CASABLANCA (1943, Dir. Michael Curtiz; U.S.) -I would have gotten in a lot of trouble if I didn't include this one. An American classic. Bogart, Bergman and Paul Henreid will forever be associated with this movie. They have reached icon status. Of course the film won the "Best Picture" Oscar as well as ones for "Best Director" and "Screenplay" but was nominated for 5 other awards.

4. CITIZEN KANE (1941, Dir. Orson Welles; U.S.) - Another one of those American classics I'd have to include on this list. But Welles' masterpiece was clearly one of the most influential American films of all time with its advanced editing and story structure. Many claim Welles never directed a better picture than this his debut film. The movie was nominated for 9 Oscars winning one for its screenplay. It has even caused a debate about the merits of the Oscar awards. The film lost the "Best Picture" race to John Ford's "How Green Was My Valley" (1941). Many claim this was one of the Academy's great mistakes.

5. THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940, Dir. Charlie Chaplin; U.S.) -Chaplin's first full sound film was an attack on Hitler at a time when American movies weren't really addressing the conflict in Europe. A small group of film buffs see this movie as too preachy and sentimental (as I have said before this country has a big problem with sentimentality). Others say Chaplin doesn't work well in the sound medium. I don't know, these kind of remarks have become more cliche arguments to me rather than insight comments. "The Great Dictator" is a masterpiece in my opinion. Not Chaplin's greatest work but it belongs beside his best. Yes it is sentimental. And yes it is preachy, the famous last scene. But, so what? It doesn't ruin the movie for me at all. The film even went on to earn 5 Oscar nominations including "Best Picture", "Actor" (Chaplin) and "Screenplay". Co-starring is Paulette Goddard and Jack Oakie.

6. RANDOM HARVEST (1942, Dir. Mervyn LeRoy; U.S.) - It could be considered an odd choice. And the plot could be thought of as pretty goofy. But the movie is able to pull my heartstrings in a way few films do. It is one of my favorite movies. Ronald Coleman is a WW1 soldier who loses his memory and forgets his life with Greer Garson, whom he was suppose to marry. At its time of release it was a big hit and was nominated for 7 Oscars but lost everything to Wyler's "Mrs. Miniver".

7. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946, Dir. Frank Capra; U.S.) - A holiday favorite. This film has probably been seen by more people than any other film on this list. I think it is Capra's best film. And is one Jimmy Stewart is most often associated with. It has some pretty dark moments but its ending can make a stone cry, to quote Orson Welles (he was talking about a different movie).

8. DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944, Dir. Billy Wilder; U.S.) - This Billy Wilder noir film could be one of the most perfectly constructed films of all time. It is one of the noir films which all others are measure against, if only for its popularity. There were some better movies (check out my 1950s list) but the film shows Wilder's great versatility. Based on a James M. Cain novel with an adapted screenplay written by the great Raymond Chandler. Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson star in this classic.

9. CHILDREN OF PARADISE (1946, Dir. Marcel Carne; France) - Made during WW2 and released shortly after most people spend time talking about the great difficulties Carne and his crew had to go through to get the film made. It is pure eye candy and a true testament to the power of cinema that the film was made in the first place. I don't know if it is my favorite Carne film, nearly all of his films are masterpieces, but the film is one no film lover should go without seeing.

10. UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (1948, Dir. Preston Sturges; U.S.) - I had to include a comedy on here with all these serious war bound stories. This is my favorite Preston Sturges comedy about a conductor (Rex Harrison) who wants to murder his wife (Linda Darnell) whom he suspects his cheating on him. The film has great dialogue and memorable physical comedy, just as Sturges' best films always do. Many consider this Sturges' last great work.

RUNNER'S UP! (In no order)

1. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946, Dir. William Wyler; U.S.)

2. SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944, Dir. John Cromwell; U.S.)

3. (TIE) A GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT (1947, Dir. Elia Kazan; U.S.)/ A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1945, Dir. Elia Kazan; U.S.)

4. REBECCA (1940, Dir. Alfred Hitchcok; U.S.)

5. ROME OPEN CITY (1945, Dir. Roberto Rossellini; Italy)

6. (TIE) THE MORE THE MERRIER (1943, Dir. George Stevens; U.S.)/ THE TALK OF THE TOWN (1942, Dir. George Stevens; U.S.)

7. HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (1944, Dir. Preston Sturges; U.S.)

8. MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947, Dir. Charlie Chaplin; U.S.)

9. THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940, Dir. Ernst Lubitsch; U.S.)

10. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940, Dir. George Cukor; U.S.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

300 Reviews & Counting

Yes my readers, somehow, I've made it to 300 reviews on this blog, in a little over a year. First of all I must apologize for recently reviewing so many modern titles; "Irene in Time" (2009), "Ponyo" (2009), "Paris 36" (2009) and "Two Lovers" (2009). As readers know, it was never my intention to review so many modern films in a row. One once in a while, sure, but not so many in a consecutive order. So I must apologize. I will keep my eye on it.

Well I must say this blog is about 80% where I want it. It is in much better shape than it was at the 200 reviews mark. Since that time I have managed to review the works of many great directors and celebrated stars. There have been reviews for Akira Kurosawa, Yasijuro Ozu, John Cassavetes, Rene Clair, Federico Fellini, Andrei Tarkovsky and movie stars such as Louis Brooks, Greta Garbo, Chaplin, Harry Langdon and Laurel & Hardy.

Yes this blog has come a long way in trying to inform my readers of the great works of the past. The great films and stars you may have missed out on. But there is still work to be done. Going over these past 300 reviews I've noticed there haven't been any reviews for Fritz Lang, David Lean, Robert Altman or Stanley Kubrick. I haven't discussed stars like Mary Pickford or Rudolph Valentino. I can promise you within the next 100 reviews you will see these directors and stars written about.

And I think it is important that these things be discussed. As this blog has progressed I've assumed that I reach a younger audience of film fans. Most of the people who have contacted me, seem to be younger. What that said, this helps me chose titles to write about (so you know, I don't review everything I've seen) and how I write it. I feel there is a rich history out there younger audiences are not tapping into. There are wonderful films that are forgotten that don't deserve to be. Great works which aren't being explored. It is my hope that I can introduce people to these films. Imagine how many movies someone would have seen if they viewed everything movie I've written about and have name dropped in my reviews.

Hopefully this blog has introduced people to new titles and they've found this blog helpful. I thank everyone that reads this blog on a regular basis and hope you will enjoy what I have in store for you in the future.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Film Reviews: Paris 36, Thirst and Taxidermia

"Paris 36" *** (out of ****)

After watching strange movies like "Thirst" (2009) and "Taxidermia" (2009) it is nice to watch a normal movie about normal people with no violence and disturbing images.

I looked forward to seeing "Paris 36" (2009) when it was released in theatres earlier in the year but bad reviews kept a lot of people away. Some critics like the NY Times' A.O. Scott, who sometimes knows what he's talking about, called the film a "national embarrassment". The much better critic, Michael Wilmington, didn't like the film either, nor did Roger Ebert. But neither was as hard on the film as Scott. Perhaps if the film had Batman or Spider-Man in it they would have all liked it.

The critics complained the film was too sentimental and had too much French nationalism. I've noticed in this country we treat sentimentality as if it is a cancer. People don't like sentimental movies for some reason. They find them cheap and vulgar. As far as French nationalism goes, geez, how many movies show American nationalism and the critics love it? What the heck was Frank Capra doing? Sometimes I feel like critics get an idea in their head and all of them run with it, not really thinking about what they are writing.

"Paris 36" is no masterpiece, I'll grant you that. But what's wrong with watching a sweet, old-fashion, escapist piece of entertainment? I'm usually a sucker for these type of movies so clearly I'm in the minority.

The film was directed by Christophe Barratier, who directed the Oscar nominated "The Chorus" (2005) which also opened to mix reviews. This new film stars Gerard Jugnot (who was also in "The Chorus") as Pigoil. A stage hand at a music hall. As 1935 comes to an end, the music hall will have to close down when the owner is unable to pay his rent to Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). Who wants to knock down the building and rebuild it.

With the new year everyone finds themselves out of a job. The film though has strong political ties. Many of the workers at the music hall were leftist, headed by Milou (Clovis Cornillac). After the 1936 elections the leftist Leon Blum government has taken over, causing all workers to go on strike.

But with no job Pigoil loses custody of his son Jojo (Maxence Perrin). He will now go back to his mother, Viviane (Elisabeth Vitali) who was cheating on Pigoil and walked out on them. Pigoil big plans is to re-open the music hall with the help of the old gang, including Milou, Jacky (Kad Merad) and a newcomer, Douce (Nora Arnezeder).

You can probably guess how everything will play out. I'll admit there are no surprises to the story. It follows a simple formula that we have seen variations of in other stories. But "Paris 36" does everything with such style it won me over.

Some of the characters are able to grow on us but the one I was most impressed with was Douce. Nora Arnezeder is very beautiful and quite a talent. I'm not sure if that is really her singing but if it is she has a wonderful voice.

And that leads to another thing I enjoy about the movie. It has a terrific musical score. I wonder if it is possible for the film to win an Oscar nomination for the music. The songs might be too good for the Academy. Remember they let Eminem win an Oscar once.

"Paris 36" went on to earn 5 Cesar nominations (the French Oscar). It is a sweet light diversion with eye candy cinematography, likable characters and great music.

"Thirst" *** (out of ****)

I struggled with this one. I was ready to give it 2 and 1\2 stars but changed my mind because the more I thought about it, I suppose the film is inventive and creative enough to gain an audience.

"Thirst" was directed by South Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park. He is considered one of the country's best horror directors. He was part of the horror anthology masterpiece "Three...Extremes" (2005), his story "Cut" was probably the best. And he is best known in this country for directing "OldBoy" (2005).

"Thirst" is a combination of vampire story mixed with Emile Zola's "Therese Raquin". But the film is not your typical vampire movie. It is a clever twist on the familiar story. Here we have Priest Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) who goes to Africa to volunteer to find a cure for a deadly disease. Every volunteer has died. And so does the Priest, except, after a blood transfusion, he comes back to life. Now he is a vampire.

When he returns from Africa he is treated almost as a saint. Various people now want him to pray for their loved ones. It is when he returns he meets an old childhood friend, Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun) who has cancer and his wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin).

The priest and Tae-ju begin an affair and she plants the idea to kill her husband, this is where the "Therese Raquin" aspect of the film kicks in.

"Thirst" is a very bloody picture with lots of disturbing images. The film is almost unrelenting in its shock value. I haven't seen many South Korean films. But I've noticed a trend in Asian horror films and cinema from the country. They are all incredibly violent. Even Park's contemporary Kim Ki-duk makes disturbing films. Watch his "Bad Guy" (2001) and "Samaria" (2004).

What exactly about all this violence appeals to South Koreans? I don't have the answer but "Thirst" is a typical example of cinema from the country. The film was even nominated for a palme d'or at Cannes.

Will everyone like "Thirst"? Not at all. This is far from a mainstream film. But as I said it is a clever twist on the vampire legend.

The story of "Therese Raquin" was filmmed once before by the great filmmaker Marcel Carne in 1953 starring Simone Signoret. I reviewed it on here before. That is a much better film dealing with the same material. As far as the vampire parts go, I prefer last years "Let the Right One In" (2008), which was also a new twist on vampires, making them 12 year old children.

"Thirst" will be good for those who like their cinema on the cutting edge.

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

I've usually written about classic Hungarian cinema. The great works by Istvan Szabo, Miklos Jancso or Karoly Makk. They were part of what is known as the Hungarian New Wave. I appreciate those films a great deal and I'm able to relate to them. Modern Hungarian cinema doesn't often impress me.

I've seen such titles as "Delta" (2008) and "The Last Blues" (Az utolso blues, 2002) neither of which I liked. There have been some good ones in recent years; "I Love Budapest" (2001), "Stop Mom Theresa" (Allitsatok meg Terezanyut, 2004), "Kontroll" (2005) and my favorite, the romantic comedy "Just Sex & Nothing Else" (Csak szex es mas semmi, 2007).

"Taxidermia" (2009) was directed by Gyorgy Palfi. It is his second film coming after a documentary "Hukkle". The film was generally well praise as has been, to my surprise, this film.

"Taxidermia" follows three men, all related. First there is Morosgovanyi (Csaba Czene) a soldier who is obssessed with sex and masturbating. Then there is his son, Kalman (Gergely Trocsanyi) who has become a world's speed eater champion. And finally his son, the puny Lajos (Marc Bischoff) who has become a taxidermist.

What the heck does any of this mean? What is the point of all of this? Many have championed the film's visuals. But what about the story? I have no clue what any of this was truly about. And honestly, I don't care.

The film has some truly bizarre images and an unhealthy amount of violence and gore. Not as much as "Thirst" however.

If there is an audience for this film it is probably the same people who will like "Thirst". I recommended "Thirst" because at least it had a story and I was able to follow it. "Taxidermia" doesn't have much of a story. If it did, I would probably extend to it the same courtesy I did "Thirst".

These aren't really my kind of films I'll admit. I don't mind experimental cinema but it has a way of dividing an audience. In this case I was on the other side. And quite happily I might add.

Film Review: It Happened Tomorrow

"It Happened Tomorrow" *** (out of ****)

How great it would be if we could predict the future. It has become quite a business; fortune tellers, tarot card, tea leafs. Everybody wants to know what lies in their future. But suppose you did find out, what would you do with that information? Would it be a burden to know such things?

Now imagine the person who is able to predict the future was a journalist. Think of the advantages he has in getting the news headlines before anyone else. This is what has happened to Lawrence Stevens (Dick Powell) in Rene Clair's "It Happened Tomorrow" (1944).

Lawrence has been promoted from obit writer to reporter. Desperate to prove himself he grumbles if there was only a way he could get the newspaper one day in advance to beat the competition. Pop Benson (John Philliber), who is in charge of the paper's archives, warns him against wishing for that. What if you knew exactly when you would die? It would only put a burden on you. You wouldn't be able to live your life to the fullest. To know the future is to carry a heavy responsibility. But Lawrence isn't concerned with all that. He just wants to impress his boss.

After a night out drinking Lawrence sees Pop again. This time Pop hands him a newspaper and tells him to protect it. It is tomorrow's evening news. Now Lawrence can read the headlines and be at all the places the news is going to happen. But everything doesn't work out the way he wanted. How is it he knows when burglaries are taking place? Is he in on the job? That's what Inspector Mulrooney (Edgar Kennedy) thinks.

Of course no one believes him when he tells them the truth, not even his girlfriend, Sylvia (Linda Darnell) who works as an assistant for her uncle, a fortune teller who goes under the name Cigolini (Jack Oakie). Though his real name is Oscar.

Events will take an ugly turn when Lawrence reads in the paper that he will die the next evening. On the same day he planned to marry Sylvia.

"It Happened Tomorrow" is actually an observational comedy that is smarter than most viewers might think. It is about man's destiny and how no man can escape it. We must enjoy our lives and not worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow is out of our reach. Live in the moment.

I wonder how such a message was taken during the war years? It is best not to know the future. This was at a time when many Americans wanted to know when the war will end and when their loved ones will be returning home. Though after the war years more people did start looking to the supernatural.

Of all the performances in the movie it is Powell's show all the way. The role isn't given any dramatic depth. It is a purely comedic performance. And Powell pulls it off nicely. Some of my readers may not know this but after the 1930s Powell retired from singing. He made his name appearing in Warner Brother musicals, paired often with Ruby Keeler, in films such as "42nd Street" (1933) and "Dames" (1934). In the 1940s he made the switch to comedic and dramatic performances appearing in Preston Sturges' "Christmas in July" (1940) and "The Bad & the Beautiful" (1952).

The cast also has good actors in supporting roles. Jack Oakie, probably not very well known today, was at one time a big star. He appeared in a Powell & Keeler musical even, "Colleen" (1936). But is probably best known for his role in Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" (1940). He was always a lively screen presence and seems to be having fun with the character. Edgar Kennedy on the other hand had been around since the silent era working for Mack Sennett and Hal Roach. Also spot Sig Ruman in a brief role. Sadly he is given nothing to work with.

Rene Clair, I'm afraid to say, is probably forgotten today. I doubt many younger viewers know who he is or have seen his work. He however was most adapt at making these fantasy comedies. One of his other American comedies, "I Married A Witch" (1942) with Veronica Lake and Frederic March, deals with a man marrying a witch, proceeding the TV show "Bewitched".

Clair got his start in France working on silent films. His earliest films are what are most often celebrated. His most famous films are; "Under the Roofs of Paris" (1930), "A nous la liberte" (1931) and "Le Million" (1931). "Le Million" is probably my favorite. He resisted sound so watch the clever ways he addresses the issues, especially in "Under the Roofs".

As WW2 approach Clair left France for America, a put a self-imposed exile on himself. He only made a few American films before returning to France. Those American films weren't considered as good as his French films. "I Married A Witch" was very popular however and his adaptation of Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" (1945) is considered the best screen adaptation.

"It Happened Tomorrow" isn't quite as good as "I Married A Witch" but it is a pleasurable diversion that is only 82 minutes. It has some funny sequences. The best is after Powell figures out when he is going to die and his reluctance to do anything at all. He pleads with the police to lock him up. When they refuse he says only for a half hour. Another good sequence is when he goes to the races and picks all the winners in each race.

Filmbuffs should definitely check out "It Happened Tomorrow" it is a good old-fashion piece of Hollywood escapism even though it isn't Clair's best film. Hollywood should make more movies like this instead of spending so much time on superhero movies.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Film Review: Ponyo

"Ponyo" ** (out of ****)

It is so disappointing when the great ones fail. Woody Allen failed earlier this year with "Whatever Works" (2009), Henry Jaglom with "Irene in Time" (2009) and now the master Hayao Miyazaki with "Ponyo" (2009).

Oh how much I looked forward to seeing this movie. Originally I didn't know it was going to be released today but when I found out I immediately changed my plans and decided I simply had to see this.

I've written about Miyazaki on this blog before. I reviewed his "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" (1984) a film which many consider his finest work. In that review I explained how it was Miyazaki that made me realize animation is not just for children. Sometimes animation can appeal to adults.

Hayao Miyazaki makes films which are very complex. The world is not always good vs bad, black & white, sometimes there is gray. His characters, though often children, are usually placed in realistic dilemmas. His films often have powerful messages, usually about nature.

And then there is "Ponyo". Ponyo is a fish (voiced in the English version by Noah Cyrus) that desperately wants to transform into a human. Her father, Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), was once a human but now has become some sort of water wizard. Though he still looks human. How did he transform? What made him even want to? None of that is explained. How is he able to have fish for children? Who knows, who cares! Right? At least that's what Miyzaki wants me to think to myself.

Fujimoto warns Ponyo to watch out for humans. They abuse nature and the ocean. They are disrupting the balance of nature by throwing garbage and toxic chemicals into the ocean. But none of that matters to Ponyo.

On land we meet Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) and his mother, Jill (Tina Fey). Sosuke is only 5 years old and has a great love for the water, his father, Koicki (Matt Damon) is a sea captain. Their house is on a cliff over looking the sea. It is here Sosuke first meets Ponyo. Susuke wants to keep Ponyo as a pet but Fujimoto will not allow this and makes every attempt to get back his daughter.

Eventually is it revealed that Ponyo loves Sosuke. And wants to lead the life of a human so she can be with him. After Ponyo finds herself fooling around with her father's magic potions she turns human and looks for Sosuke.

A lot of this might sound very familiar to you. Miyazaki has stated the film was inspired by Disney's "The Little Mermaid" (1989) and the classic fairytale.

My biggest problem with "Ponyo" is the story's structure. I wanted to learn the background story of Fujimoto. How did he become the way he is? Who put him in charge of the ocean? Instead the film almost seems to be throwing us into the story in mid-sentence. It took me a while to figure out exactly what is going on and how everyone is related to each other. Why couldn't Miyazaki offer a brief introduction explaining all of this. It would also be useful because then the audience can immediately understand the dramatic implications of everything. If I was confused how is a 5 year old going to react?

Miyazaki is known for making his films the old fashion way. Paper and pencil. No computer effects. This is not Pixar with its digital animation. Many times Miyazaki's films look very realistic. Objects seems to jump out at you because of his wonderful use of color patterns. Surprisingly here in "Ponyo" the animation doesn't seem to have the same depth. It looks too washed over.

I wouldn't be surprised if children didn't like Miyazaki's films. I have a 5 year old niece and she doesn't like Miyazaki. She saw one of his films and wasn't impressed. She only knows him because I like him. But that's what I like about his work. He is responsible for two of the greatest animated films I have ever seen; "Howl's Moving Castle" (2005), my all time favorite. I even placed it on my "top ten" list of the year and "Spirited Away" (2002). "Ponyo" doesn't seem as thought provoking to me. I don't think parents are going to enjoy this. It will have a very limited appeal to children. Is it just me or does it look like Disney, which is releasing this film, tried to make the poster resemble their "Finding Nemo" (2003)? A much more successful film about fishes.

As I said, it was Miyazaki who made me realize the power of animation. "Ponyo" is a giant step backwards. What makes all of this so sad is that there are rumors this will be the master's final film. I truly hope the old master has one more story to tell. I'd hate for this minor and disappointing film to be his final statement.

If you've never seen a Hayao Miyazaki film before, please don't start here. Watch "Howl's Moving Castle", "Spirited Away", "Princess Mononoke" (1997) or "Nausicaa". Adults I think will be most impressed with these films. If you want something for the children show them "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989). Just stay away from "Ponyo".