Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Films Of 2009

Usually around this time of year I am making my "Top Ten" list of the best films of the year. I have been doing this online since 2000. For the past nine years I have been writing film reviews online. First on and for nearly the past two years on this blog. Well my dear readers, this year marks the first time I am unable to compile a list of ten films which truly touched me and moved me. There were not ten films to be found which I felt I should honor. In total I saw 77 films this year. This is not to say every movie I saw I hated. Actually on the whole I saw more movies I liked than I didn't. I only disliked 23 and like 54 but more than 30 of those 54 films I gave three stars. By itself that is not a bad thing. A three star rating is a recommendation. But many times those three star films felt mediocre. And that, to me, describes the films of 2009; mediocre.

I haven't been pleased with contemporary cinema since 2006 onwards. The movie industry I feel has been going through a long slump. But it has been these past two years in particular that I have simply found disgusting. Last year I made a "Top Ten" list despite not giving 10 movies four stars. Reflecting on that list I wish I could change some things but, what's done is done. This year I don't even want to bother. I only gave 8 movies four stars and one of those movies has not been theatrically released in the U.S. yet (I saw it at the Chicago International Film Fest).

But all of this has lead to something further. Dear readers, as of today my feelings are this blog will no longer continue. Contemporary cinema has been my downfall. I simply don't want to bother with it any longer. It has sucked all the joy of cinema right out of me. I don't feel like writing about movies any longer. At the start of this blog I made a deal with myself. Once this blog stopped being fun I would quit. There have been months keeping this blog going have been a challenge for me, but, I usually had a desire to write. That desire has left me. It may not be a permanent thing. It may only last a month or two. Though if this blog returned it would undergo major changes. The format must change. As you know I write a "Masterpiece Film Series". This is where I write my four star reviews, where I like to put a spotlight on what I feel are the best films. I usually write one every tenth review. The proceeding nine are three star reviews where I like to introduce a director or actor whom I haven't written about yet. I don't like to write too many four star reviews in a row. Otherwise what is the point of the "Masterpiece Film Series"? Unless of course it is a contemporary film then I don't mind having a few four star reviews in a row as those films are not eligible in my "Series". The cut off date in 1980. If the blog returned I would scrap the "Masterpiece Film Series" and just write about all the movies I enjoy and not care if I have a row of four star reviews. Contemporary movies would be given less treatment than I give it now. Either it would be completely abandon or I would only highlight smaller independent or foreign films which I feel are worthwhile. But we shall see.

I have other plans however. I have been giving serious thought to starting another blog which showcases my own work. No matter what I do, I will inform readers of this blog one way or another.

Back to the pathetic films of 2009. So what did we see in this lackluster year? We saw movies hit on a lot of current themes. The economy; "Up in the Air", "Capitalism", war; "The Hurt Locker", "The Messenger", religious tension; "Adoration", "The Girl on the Train". Even some of the big blockbusters had political tones to them; "Transformers", "Avatar" and "The Watchmen". Some of these films you heard of, some you didn't. The most successful movie of the year was "Transformers" grossing nearly a half a billion dollars in the U.S. alone. This is what the people want to see?

I'm sure there will be some who might get mad at me for criticizing the year. You'll say things like well did you see such and such film? Let me put your mind at rest. I saw the big blockbusters; "Bruno", "New Moon", "The Watchmen", "Inglourious Basterds", "Up!", and "Avatar". I also saw the smaller films and some of the international films; "Paris", "Gomorrah", "An Education", "Invictus", "In the Loop", "Cheri", "The Headless Woman", and "The Limits of Control". Some of these movies I liked but the majority of them I found simply average. They weren't good enough to make a "Ten Best" list.

But I'm afraid this all sounds too mean spirited and angry. And if this is going to be my last blog entry I don't want to seem angry. Yes, contemporary cinema sucks. So what? The films of 2009 were disappointing. Big deal! There is more to life than movies. There is spending time with your friends, family, sports, reading, drinking, love, money! When I think of all the time and money I spend on movies this year I wish I would have engaged in these other activities instead of sitting in a dark and sometimes empty theatre. Still I wanted to be nice. We have just celebrated Christmas, a time which is suppose to bring out the best in people and now we are getting ready for the New Year. A time of optimism and hope. A time for looking forward. So I have decided to give a list of all the movies I have given four stars to and another list of the movies I gave 3.5 stars to. It is not a "Top Ten" list so don't read it as such. Still, I felt it was the least I can do. The films will be listed in alphabetical order.


1. ADORATION (Dir. Atom Egoyan; Canada)

2. CAPITALISM (Dir. Michael Moore; U.S.)

3. A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Dir. Robert Zemeckis; U.S.)

4. THE CLASS (Dir. Laurent Cantet; France)

5. THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (Dir. Andre Techine; France)

6. JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY (Dir. Ole Bornedal; Denmark)

7. ME & ORSON WELLES (Dir. Richard Linklater; U.S.)

8. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (Dir. Ari Folman; Israel)


1. BROKEN EMBRACES (Dir. Pedro Almodovar; Spain)

2. THE INTERNATIONAL (Dir. Tom Tyker; U.S.)

3. JULIA (Dir. Erick Zonca; U.S./Mexico)


5. PARIS (Dir. Cedric Klapisch; France)

6. RED CLIFF (Dir. John Woo; China)

7. TAKEN (Dir. Pierre Morel; U.S./France)

8. TWO LOVERS (Dir. James Gray; U.S.)

9. UP! (Dir. Peter Docter/Bob Peterson; U.S.)

10. UP IN THE AIR (Dir. Jason Reitman; U.S.)

11. A WOMAN IN BERLIN (Dir. Max Farberbock; Germany)

So there you have it. And if this is to be my last review I would just like to thank those whom have taken the time to read my blog. I hope I have been able to introduce some readers to movies and/or directors they never heard of before. That was the whole point of the blog. If one person found out about a movie through this blog that they otherwise would have never seen than I consider this blog a success. And I would just like to wish my readers a HAPPY NEW YEAR! I hope whatever good fortune you had in 2009 may it double in this New Year.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Film Review: Painted Faces

"Painted Faces" ** (out of ****)

For a long time I've wanted to write about comic Joe E. Brown. I know the name may not mean much to some of my readers (though he does deliver the famous ending line in Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" (1958), "nobody's perfect") but as you may know by now, I have a great appreciation for comedy and love to discuss the comics which time has forgotten. In the past I've written about Harry Langdon, the comedy teams of Wheeler & Woolsey and Olsen & Johnson but I never wrote about Brown. Even back in April of this year, when I dedicated the entire month to reviewing classic comedies I neglected Brown.

The problem was not that Brown didn't appear in any movies which I enjoyed and felt were worth writing about but I simply didn't feel like going back and rewatching his movies. I have seen so many and wanted to discover some new titles. I haven't seen any Joe E. Brown comedies in the past couple of months but recently was given this movie as a Christmas present. I looked forward to seeing it but ultimately was disappointed by the movie. At the rate I was going I would never write about Joe E. Brown. So I'll just write about this one.

Brown actually got his start in the business by joining the circus. He ran away from home at the age of 10, supposedly with the blessing of his parents, and started a tumbling act. He later moved on to vaudeville where he started to incorporate comedy into his act. By the time he entered films he considered himself a comic.

The Brown persona can best be described as a mix between Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. Like Lloyd, Brown had an "everyman" appeal. He was very "American". He had a go-getter attitude. He was persistent, he believed in himself and followed the rule, with hard work you can accomplish anything. He loved women, cars and most of all sports, especially baseball (how American is that?). And that leads us to Keaton. Brown was quite an athlete. Like Keaton he was very good at stunts. Many of his comedies involved sports giving Brown the opportunity to show off his skills. In one of his best comedies, "Local Boy Makes Good" (1931) he joins the track team for instance. "You Said A Mouthful" (1932), another candidate for one of his best, involves water sports.

Sadly none of that is on display in "Painted Faces" (1929). In fact the movie isn't even a comedy. I don't mean to say it isn't funny, I seriously mean it isn't a comedy. It "wants" to be a sentimental weeper, a tear-jerker. But in the end it merely feels like the movie is jerking us around.

"Painted Faces" is one of those primitive early talkies. In the first few minutes of the film the sound isn't even synchronized properly. It involves characters locked into one room, so as to limit movement, and a lot of them speaking loudly so the microphone will pick up their voices. But these crude methods aren't what bothers me about the film. The problem is the story and the screenplay.

The film is about a murder trial. A vaudeville entertainer, Roderick (Lester Cole) has been murdered in his dressing room. The main suspect is Buddy Barton (Barton Hepburn) who was seen coming out of the dressing room with a gun. Though Buddy says he didn't do it, but merely found the gun in the dressing room and picked it up. But no one believes his story. His motives seem plain enough. Buddy was part of a double act with Babe Barnes (Dorothy Gulliver). Roderick was known to make the moves on Babe which upset Buddy very much since he was in love with her.

The majority of the film is not about the actual trial but what happens in the jury room as the jury tries to reach a verdict. Eleven of the jurist think the man is guilty but one holds out, a Dutch immigrant, Hermann (Brown). He is convinced the man didn't commit the murder because there were no eye witnesses. This infuriates the rest of the jurist who feel it is an open and shut case and simply want to go home. The film takes place a few days before Christmas, as everyone is eager to go on with their holiday shopping. All the characters begin to insult Hermann, throwing out anti-immigrant remarks like "what do you expect from a foreigner". They feel because he is a foreigner he is dumb and doesn't understand the law or the case. To them it is all so simple.

Finally when they stop harassing Hermann he begins to tell them a story of his days in the circus, he was a clown. He raised a young girl, Nancy (Helen Foster) after her father, a fellow circus performer died. He has managed to raise enough money to send the girl away to school but when she comes back she is now a beautiful woman and Hermann seems to have fallen in love with her. But he is too embarrassed to admit such a thing. She has fallen in love with another man, a singer. But Hermann knows the singer has a reputation as being a ladies man. He wants to warns Nancy about the man but doesn't want to make it obvious that he is only doing so because he loves her.

I really can't reveal any more of the plot without spoiling the entire thing. Great tragedy ensues confirming Hermann's greatest fears.

At the end of Hermann's story the rest of the jury wonders what his story has to do with the case and why he is so convinced Buddy is not guilty. Then Hermann drops a bombshell.

I suppose this could have been a very moving, emotional film but the film is so poorly structured and written. And the ending simply asks us to accept too much. I understand that some movies require us to stretch our imaginations a bit, dinosaurs coming to life, aliens attacking the world...ect. And I'm always willing to go along for the ride but "Painted Faces" isn't that kind of movie. It is suppose to be more human and that is why it is hard to accept what it is telling us. The ending is too contrived, too manipulative. It simply wouldn't happen in real life. It is suppose to be an emotional shocker (and it does shock us) but it is a false note. It clearly feels like a plot device used to trigger our feelings.

The structure of the film is off as well. The movie waste too much time until Hermann tells his story. The jury simply insults Hermann and repeatedly take a vote but no one wants Hermann to explain why he feels the way he does. I would have liked more of a deliberation. Wasn't anyone on the jury the slightest bit interested why Hermann feels the way he does?

And I haven't even mentioned Brown's Dutch accent. It sounds pretty phony. In fact I've heard Brown use it in other movies for comedic effect.

Some readers might be saying to themselves this movie sounds an awful lot like the classic court room drama "12 Angry Men" (1957). And you're right. But "Painted Faces" is nowhere near as good as the Sidney Lumet film. At least there they are deliberating. They are arguing, expressing ideas. There are richer characters in that movie. Hermann would be our Henry Fonda character but honestly isn't as interesting or insightful.

The film was directed by Albert S. Rogell, who only other film I know of his "The Black Cat" (1941), not to be confused with the 1934 film of the same title which is based on the Edgar Allen Poe story. The script was by Frederic and Fanny Hatton from a story by Frances Hyland, who wrote the somewhat clever "The Thirteenth Guest" (1932).

Unfortunately this isn't the best movie to use as an introduction into Joe E. Brown's career. First because it is a bad movie and secondly because it isn't even a comedy. Though I would imagine no matter how bad the movie is there are probably a few people who would want to see this as a curiosity piece. If you are familiar with Brown this would be a change of pace. It is a pretty rare movie, to my knowledge is not shown on TV, so if you are a bit adventurous it could catch your interest.

However, if you are not familiar with Brown I wouldn't start with this movie. Watch "You Said A Mouthful" and "Local Boy Makes Good". You might also enjoy "A Very Honorable Guy" (1934) based on a story by Damon Runyon (of "Guys & Dolls" fame) and "Earthworm Tractors" (1936).

If you enjoy classic comedy I honestly think there should be something about Brown for you to enjoy. Some of the movies may be heard to come by, but a few are available on DVD, mostly his later "B" movies. His earlier stuff sometimes is shown on TCM. These are better, funnier films.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Film Review: Polar Express

"Polar Express" *** (out of ****)

The highest compliment I can pay "The Polar Express" (2004) is it seems to have been made from a child's imagination. What I mean is, the film looks the way I would expect a child to imagine the North Pole looks like and how Santa Claus looks. It seems filled with the wonderment and joy children associate with Santa Claus and Christmas.

And I'm even willing to pay the film another compliment. I would consider it a modern Christmas classic. I personally I have included it among the Christmas films I need to watch every year just like "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946) or "White Christmas" (1954), both of which I have reviewed.

So after such compliments why am I not giving the film a higher rating? Why have I only stopped at three stars? First of the all the film is a technical marvel. I am more impressed with this film's technical achievements, it was the first film to use "digital capture motion", than I was when I saw "Avatar" (2009). Now, I'm just asking for trouble aren't I? But the reason I wouldn't give this a full four stars for example is because despite what I previously said, the film could have done more to capture the magic of Christmas. Every time I watch the movie I become very impressed with the beginning. I like the world the film creates with the young boy headed on the train, the mystery surrounding it and the possibilities which the journey suggest. But I always feel the film becomes too much of an action/adventure story with all the antics concerning the train falling off tracks and the children getting into trouble. I would have preferred the film focus on the children and their wonderment without the action scenes but instead focus on them each of them, particularly the hero, learning the meaning of Christmas holiday.

"The Polar Express" represent a kind of secular holiday. In this film Christmas is a time for Santa Claus, the North Pole and presents. And to be fair I suppose that's what Christmas is for every child. The religious side of the holiday gets lost on children. But, I find as I get older, the religious aspects mean more to me. Perhaps because the "magic of Santa Claus" has left me. Now the holiday is about celebrating the birth of Christ and appreciating the time I spend with my friends and family. Secretly I wish the film would have found a way to incorporate that into the film. That our young hero would have also learned the importance of family during the holiday not just to believe in the wonder of Santa Claus and that Christmas time keeps us young in our hearts.

After watching "The Watchmen" (2009) earlier this year and recently the epic and over hyped "Avatar" I've come to the conclusion special effects are no longer special to me. I need more than to merely look at a movie and be impressed with the technical advancements of a film. "Avatar" felt like little more than a special effects roller coaster. I need a story. I need to feel a connection to what I am watching on screen. That is what I feel separates "The Polar Express" from other "special effects" movie. Though as I said I wish it would have went deeper. Still the story is interesting enough and at times emotionally involving enough that I am willing to go along on the journey and not just sit there in awe of the effects. I felt a similar reaction to Robert Zemeckis' recent film "A Christmas Carol" (2009), which I feel is one of the best films of the year.

In "The Polar Express" a young boy, who is never given a name but played by Tom Hanks and voiced by Daryl Sabara, has decided he no longer believes in Santa Claus. He believes he has exposed the myth. How, for instance, can Santa fly all over the world so fast? Where does he put all the presents? And what about all those department store Santas? What are they up to? The so called "magic" of Christmas is leaving the boy as he grows older. But, one Christmas Eve, as he is restlessly awake, hoping to get a sneak at Santa, to prove his exist, a train approaches the young boy's house. Though he seems to have been the only one awaken by it. He rushes outside and finds a train called "The Polar Express" is ready to take him to the North Pole to meet Santa just before he heads out to delivery all the children's presents. The young boy boards the train where he meets other children like the know-it-all (Eddie Deezen) and the Girl (Nona Gaye) and a Lonely Boy (Peter Scolari) who says "Christmas doesn't work out for him". We suspect because the family is so poor he never gets any presents. Our hero seems to be the only one to doubt Santa's existence. But a larger question to ask is, is this all a dream? Do the children represent different sides of his personality?

As I already said the film becomes an action/adventure film with the train going off track, both literally and figuratively. And the children roaming off on their own searching for presents. The obstacle is to get to the town square of the North Pole where Santa will pick one of the children and give out the first present of Christmas.

Tom Hanks stars in the film and plays various roles. Among them the young boy, the train conductor, a hobo, who may or not be ghost and the big man himself, Santa. He manages to give each character a distinct personality, though he spends the most time playing the Conductor, which looks the most like him compared to the other characters he plays.

The director Robert Zemeckis seems to be the director who has perfected this "digital capture motion" technology, now having made three films in this style; "The Polar Express", "Beowolf" (2007) and "A Christmas Carol". Of course he and Hanks have worked together before on "Cast Away" (2000) and the Oscar winner "Forrest Gump" (1994), perhaps my favorite Zemeckis film.

The story is based on Chris Van Allsburg novel, and if this film is a faithful adaptation I'm willing to bet the book is a wonderful read which really lets children's imagination go wild.

This Christmas Eve I think a family sitting together watching "The Polar Express" will find a lot to enjoy and share a lot of Christmas magic.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Film Review: Being Julia

"Being Julia" **** (out of ****)

Watching "Be-ing Julia" (2004) made me realize, once again, what kind of wonderful charming, nostalgic movie this is. I had almost forgotten how pleasurable the movie is to watch.

I remember seeing this Istvan Szabo comedy back when it was released in 2004. I even went to see it opening day and even than I thought it was one of the best films of the year and thought Annette Bening gave not only one of the best performances of the year but one of the best performances of her career.

The movie was based on W. Somerset Maugham's (best known for "Of Human Bondage" and "The Painted Veil") novel "Theatre" and was adapted by Ronald Hardwood, who was coming off great success after winning an Oscar for his screenplay for Roman Polanksi's "The Pianist" (2002). For a while he was a hot property writing films like "The Statement" (2003) and Istvan Szabo's previous English language film "Taking Sides" (2003).

I should admit Istvan Szabo is one of my favorite filmmakers. He might not be one's first choice to direct this kind of English comedy but it does share one trait with one of his most popular films, "Mephisto" (1981). Both films are about the theatre and actors who use the theatre for their own personal advantages. In "Being Julia" though the consequences aren't as bleak. "Mephisto" was a modern adaption of the Faust legend, about an actor who sells out to the Nazi Party in return for fame as an actor. In this movie however an actress learns to mask her true feelings in the name of the theatre, which is where she was lead to believe the "real world" exist. Only the theatre is real. Nothing else matters.

Szabo though is a filmmaker known for making movies about his homeland's (Hungary) past. I have included one of his film in my "Masterpiece Film Series", "Szerelmesfilm (Love Film, 1971)". His other films include "Apa (Father, 1967)" and "Tuzolto utca 25 (25 Fireman's Street, 1973)". Each films deals with a trouble part of Hungarian history, usually the 56 uprising where a Soviet army crushed the spirit of young Hungarian protesters attempting to send a message to the rest of the world that Hungary did not embrace Communism. His masterpiece, in my opinion, is "Sunshine" (2000) an English language movie which most recently I declared one of the best films of the decade. But in "Being Julia" there is no mention of Hungary. The film has nothing to do with the outside world.

The film takes place in 1938 London, where the famous actress Julia Lambert (Bening) is in need of a rest. Acting is a hard job. Julie is at that point in her life where she no longer feels like a woman. Middle age is catching up to her and her mundane life of parties, meaningless affairs, and various stage plays no longer bring her the enjoyment she once felt. She needs a change of pace and demands her agent/husband, Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons, who had a similar role in another movie in 2004, "Callas Forever", which is equally great) close down her latest play, which is a hit. She wants to take a vacation and visit her family.

But Julia is introduced to a young American, Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), whom Michael has agreed to help show the ropes to. Tom has been hired as an accountant but really wants to meet Julia, whom he say he has been a fan of her years, catching her every performance. But we suspect Tom is nothing more than a social climber, using Julia and Michael to achieve greater needs. Regardless they start an affair which breathes new life into Julia and may have even improved her acting.

Julia professes a great love for Tom but events soon turn sour when a young actress enters the picture, Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch, who is set to appear in the next Woody Allen film). She too is a social climber, and has managed to seduce Tom away from Julia. Since there have been rumors Tom and Julia have been having an affair, Avice feels if she can get Tom's ear, he might talk to Julia about allowing her to audition for a new play Julia is doing. Though by this time Julia is well aware of what is going on and Tom's true feelings.

To some the story may sound slightly predictable or a little goofy but Szabo, Harwood and Bening pull off the endeavour with great skill and style. The movie has a sense of good natured fun. Nothing in the film can truly be taken seriously. It should be viewed as a light hearted farce. More skeptical viewers might feel the marriage between Michael and Julia isn't realistic or underdeveloped. Others may feel Julia's action are "too theatrical". In real life characters wouldn't behave this way. If you think this way though you will be disappointed. Plus, people will then be able to rightfully accuse you of having no sense of humor.

There is also an interesting theme concerning the actor's mentality. Always with Julia is the spirit of her deceased acting mentor, Jimmie Langton (Michael Gambon, probably best known for his role in the "Harry Potter" films as Dumbledore. He also worked with another distinguished Hungarian director, Karoly Makk in "The Gambler" (1997) where he played Dostoyevsky). Jimmie gives Julia acting lessons for life, dictating to her how to behave in real situations. Telling her the best way to deal with life and all its messiness is by acting her way out of it. Acting will be her shield. It is through her acting she will be saved. Heavy handed? Not really. Especially not the way the material is presented here. It is carefree and fun. Not serious and meditative.

The film is also able to invoke a great nostalgia through the wonderful musical score, which compliments particular scenes quite beautifully, revealing to us character's feelings, though sometimes the songs are too much on the money and overstate the situations. The score includes; "Nobody But You", "Mad About the Boy", "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", "Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries" and "I Get A Kick Out Of You".

And I have to mention the cinematography by Lajos Koltai, Szabo's long time collaborator, now turned director. He gives the film a lavish colorful look. Much like they did on their follow-up film "Rokonok" (2006), which shamefully has not been distributed in America (I saw it at the 2006 International Chicago Film Festival).

The movie received much acclaim, all of it for Bening's performance. She was nominated for an Academy Award, won a Golden Globe and won a National Board of Review award. Strangely enough Szabo's name wasn't on everyone's lips. Even the film's poster doesn't make mention that he directed the movie. You'd think a movie directed by one of the great figures in cinema would use his name as a marketing device. Either way, I'd suggest seeing "Being Julia". It is a wonderful, lighthearted movie oozing charm. A modern masterpiece.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Golden Globe Nominations

As a lot of my readers already know the nominees for the Golden Globes were announced and I thought I'd offer my perspective on what was nominated.

By and large I pretty much felt the nominations were disappointing but that is mostly because it has been a disappointing year filled with mediocre movies. But the show must go on in good years and bad. The Golden Globe nominees, in my opinion, reflect what a weak year the movie industry has had. Of the nominated films I have seen 12 of them; "Inglourious Basterds", "The Hurt Locker", "Up in the Air", "500 Days of Summer", "Julie & Julia", "The Hangover", "Brothers", "Invictus", "The Informant!", "An Education", "Duplicity" and "Up". Nearly all of them were average, entertaining films. Some I liked more than others and I even reviewed a couple; "Duplicity" and "Up". Some of the nominated movies haven't opened in Chicago yet; "Nine", "The White Ribbon", "The Last Station", "Lovely Bones". Others only opened yesterday; "Broken Embraces" and "Avatar". I'm sure I'll see them before the award show, not that it matters anyway, since I don't watch award shows.

Since I haven't seen all of the nominees I can't offer predictions really but I would like to discuss a few things.

The nominees for "Best Picture" Drama are; "Avatar", "Inglourious Basterds", "Precious", "The Hurt Locker" and "Up in the Air". I have seen three of the nominated pictures and it strikes me as a race really between two of the films; "The Hurt Locker" and "Up in the Air". Already "The Hurt Locker" has won several "Best Picture" awards from various Film Critic associations including; Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Austin. It has a total of three Golden Globe nominations. "Up in the Air" won the National Board of Review award for "Best Picture" and the Southeastern Film Critics Award. The screenplay won in L.A. and New York. It received six Golden Globe nominations. Personally I prefer "Up in the Air" but if "The Hurt Locker" does win and if it were to eventually win an Oscar it wouldn't bother me. It would be a much better choice than "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008) last year. A film which I regard as one of the worst "Best Picture" Oscar winners of all time. "The Hurt Locker" would be an improvement but not really an inspired choice.

In the comedy category the nominees are; "500 Days of Summer", "It's Complicated", "Julie & Julia", "Nine" and "The Hangover". In general I would say the comedy nominees tend to be weaker films compared to their dramatic counterparts. For the life of me I can't figure out the hoopla surrounding "Julie & Julia". Meryl Streep, a fine actress, is even nominated for her performance as Julia Childs and there is talk of an Oscar nomination. For what? In a better year would such a film and a performance be nominated? I seriously don't think so. This award seems to be "Nine's" to lose. I haven't seen the movie yet but there is buzz surrounding it. It is the movie I am most looking forward to seeing. If it can live up to the hype it could be a sweeping victory for the film and a strong indication what to expect when the Oscar nominees are announced. This could be the film to break "The Hurt Locker"'s winning streak.

One thing that really disappointed me was there were no nominations for "Me & Orson Welles". A smaller movie which the critics have been praising; every critic I read gave the movie a favorable review; Roger Ebert, Rex Reed, A.O. Scott, Elizabeth Weitzman and Michael Wilmington, though the public hasn't "found" it yet. A shame. It is one of the best movies I've seen this year. I hope it gets some Oscar nominations. I have a theory that sometimes a movie is too good to be nominated. The award shows are primarily popularity contest in my estimation and unless a studio really pushes hard for a nomination for a particular film, it will go unnoticed. It is more about Hollywood politics than quality. I'm afraid this might be happening with "Me & Orson Welles".

You can read a full list of the nominated films here:

The awards will be given out Jan. 17, 2010

Friday, December 18, 2009

Film Review: Buck Benny Rides Again

"Buck Benny Rides Again" *** (out of ****)

If someone came up to me and asked me what is the best way to get acquainted with the comedy of Jack Benny I would tell them watch his television show. That is not to say any of the movies he appeared in weren't good, some are funny but they always come in second to his TV show, I haven't heard enough of his radio program to accurately comment on it.

The problem with movies were they never managed to take full advantage of Benny's comedy persona. The character he played on television was funnier than any character he played in various movies. But "Buck Benny Rides Again" (1940) is different. Here Benny is playing himself along with many members of his radio show like Phil Harris, "Rochester", Don Wilson and Dennis Day, all playing themselves. With this set-up Benny can play his character and expand upon what he was doing on his radio program. In fact "Buck Benny Rides Again" feels like one long radio sketch. That is not a bad thing however, especially if you find yourself laughing. And I do.

Jack Benny is actually one of my favorite comedians. I regard him as one of the kings of comic timing. He knew perfectly how to play an audience. They were wrapped around his finger. Though he often played the "straight man" in routines, you still couldn't help but laugh at him. He could milk a gag with the best of them. His delivery was pitch perfect. He made terrific use of pauses and body gestures. You would laugh at Benny before he said anything. He could time a laugh. Him standing there with his arms cross or his two fingers pressed against his cheeks would cause laughter as the audience waited for his comeback to an insult. I should admit, whenever I perform in a movie I think of Benny. I've tried to copy his delivery and make use of pauses and stares. I can't do it as well as Benny but I like to pay my respects to him.

Besides his comic timing he also had one of the best comedic personas. His character was a penny pincher. Always looking to save a dollar despite being considered quite wealthy. He could recite the serial numbers on every bill he owned (he once did a routine involving this on Ed Sullivan's show). He kept his money in a vault in his basement. He was also vain and egotistical, believing himself to be a ladies man when women barely noticed him. He also prided himself on being a master violin player though his musical ability was often the punchline to many jokes. In short it was a perfect character for comedy. It had all the basic essentials. A deeply flawed character whom the audience couldn't help but cheer for.

As I said "Buck Benny Rides Again" is an expansion of Benny's radio program. The film continues upon Benny's "radio feud" with fellow comedian Fred Allen. It all started when Allen had a child prodigy on his program and complimented the boy's violin playing as well as throwing an insult aimed at Benny's playing, without ever mentioning his name. The next day on Benny radio program he responded to Allen's comment thus starting the feud (it has been repeatedly reported in real life the two men were good friends).

In this movie Benny's bandleader, Phil Harris, wants to go to Nevada to meet up with an old flame but Benny doesn't want to leave New York, insisting he and Harris have much work to do in preparation for next season's radio shows.

One day, while getting ready to go to the recording studio, Rochester hits a taxi and inside the taxi is Joan Cameron (Ellen Drew). Benny immediately falls for her but she is annoyed with him. Joan is a singer, part of a trio with two of her sisters; Virginia (Virginia Dale) and Peggy (Lillian Cornell). She is on her way to the same recording studio where she is going to audition for a commercial. She has no idea who Jack Benny is.

The main reason Joan wants nothing to do with Benny is because Joan is from out west, Arizona, and feels the only real men come from out west not a "city slicker" so to speak like Jack from New York. Joan likes the cowboy type. This gives Phil Harris the opening to tell Joan and her sisters that Benny actually has a cattle ranch out in Nevada and he and Benny are headed there soon. But of course none of it is true. Events become further complicated when Fred Allen's press agent, Charlie Graham (Charles Lane) over hears this conversation and relays it to Allen, whom comments on it on his radio program. This puts Benny in a spot as now he has to actually head out to Nevada to impress Joan and to hush up Fred Allen's rumors.

"Buck Benny Rides Again" feels like two movies in one. The first one, which takes up nearly 40 minutes of the 82 minute comedy, deals with Benny in New York working on his radio program and trying to get Joan to like him. The second half of the film becomes a western comedy (the film's very title is a direct reference to the 1939 film "Destry Rides Again") as Benny is now confronted by Joan in Nevada and must produce a cattle ranch and pretend he is really a cowboy. Of the two stories I prefer the first one. It plays with the Benny persona a bit more like his cheapness. In an attempt to apologize to Joan for the car accident he sends her some candy. But we find out it is chocolates which he and Rochester made. We gets remarks on his vanity, Rochester has a date for the evening and would like to wear Benny's tails but Benny plans on wearing it himself. Rochester wants to convince Benny to wear a tuxedo instead and does after he tells Benny he looks younger in tux.

The second half of the movie doesn't work as well because now it becomes more of a predictable formula situation comedy. As a result doesn't build on Benny's established persona but makes him play another "character". That's not to say it isn't funny, it still is, but I think the material allowing Jack to be Jack is what works best.

Though this is one of a few movies which allows Benny to play "himself", "Love Thy Neighbor" (1940) with Fred Allen is another, most people actually don't consider this Benny's best movie. That honor is usually given to "To Be Or Not To Be" (1942) directed by Ernst Lubitsch. I suspect a lot of that praise comes from the fact Lubitsch directed the movie. It is a funny movie however. Another of his most popular titles is "The Horn Blows At Midnight" (1945) which was a box-office flop. Benny joked about the film for years. It was the last film he had a starring role in. But don't let Benny's jokes fool you. The movie actually has some funny material and should not be avoided.

"Buck Benny Rides Again" could also be described as a musical comedy. There are a couple of songs in the film, like "My My" which Rochester sings. The movie has a lot of solo moments of him singing and dancing. I was never aware of his dancing skills. He wasn't much of a singer, but I was surprised how much time was given to him. The only decent song in the film is "Say It Over & Over Again". There is also a very impressive dance sequence to the song "Drums in the Night".

The film was directed by Mark Sandrich, who is probably best known for directing several Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers musicals; "Top Hat" (1935), "Follow the Fleet" (1936) and "Carefree" (1938) as well as some Wheeler & Woolsey comedies such as "Hips, Hips, Hooray!" (1934) and the WW2 sentimental drama "So Proudly We Hail" (1943). Sandrich I get the feeling would have liked more musical numbers. From a technical standpoint the film is shot fairly conventional. There are no elaborate dance sequence and no battle scene for Sandrich to shoot. The important thing here was to get the actors in frame.

If the film's humor appeals to you one of the reasons has to be Edmund Beloin, one of the co-writers. He worked a lot with Bob Hope, writing "The Great Lover" (1949), "My Favorite Brunette" (1947) and "Paris Holiday" (1958) and wrote the Jack Benny comedy "Love Thy Neighbor".

So is this the best way to become familiar with Jack Benny? No. I'd still say watch the television show. If you really enjoy those then I'd say watch the movies. Sadly this movie is out of print. You might be able to find it if you search hard enough and find a movie website which deals with rare movies. In the meantime though watch "To Be Or Not To Be", "The Horn Blows At Midnight" and "George Washington Slept Here" (1942). "Buck Benny Rides Again" is fun to watch and does have some humorous moments. A lot of the material shows Benny in a very favorable light since it feels like an extension of his radio program and carries that sense of spontaneity allowing some viewers the chance to understand his comedic persona if not familiar with him. In the end "Buck Benny Rides Again" is worth watching.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Film Review: White Christmas

"White Christmas" *** (out of ****)

What kind of person would I be if I didn't review "White Christmas" (1954) during the Christmas season?

Sometimes I ride against the wave of public opinion; I'm the guy that didn't like "Spider-Man" (2002), didn't think "Slum-dog Millionaire" (2008) should have won any Oscars, thought "Titanic" (1997) was a bad movie and felt the public was over selling "The Dark Knight" (2008). But sometimes you have to ride with the wave and let it wash over you. Case in point, "White Christmas". I really don't consider this a "Christmas movie". It takes place in December, the final scene falls on Christmas Eve. There is mention of Santa and snow in the dialogue, but, this has no real Christmas moral. This isn't a Christmas fable where we learn what the holiday is about and why we are celebrating it. However, somehow it has become a holiday tradition for many families to watch this film. I'm just going to go with it.

"White Christmas" is really a pleasant romantic/musical/comedy starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as army buddies. Crosby is Bob Wallace and Kaye plays Phil Davies. On Christmas Eve 1944, getting ready for a big battle the next day, the two men put on a Christmas show for their unit. But the area turns dangerous when bombs start to land near them, causing a wall to collapse. Just before it does Phil pushes Bob out of the way, saving his life, breaking his arm in the process.

Bob is actually a well known singer and Phil takes advantage of this. Trying to incite sympathy for his broken arm and saving Bob's life, he asks Bob what would he think of taking him on as his singing and dancing partner. Bob agrees and the two find great fame after the war.

Getting ready for a big television show appearance in New York, the boys head to a nightclub where an old army buddy has asked them if they will check out his sisters' act, a couple of singers. The sisters are Judy (Vera-Ellen) and Betty (Rosemary Clooney). And it is love at first sight, for the boys anyway. But Phil has a scheme going on in his head. Phil doesn't like working so hard as Bob is a workaholic. But if Bob was in love he might take some time off. So Phil wants to get Betty and Bob together.

The four seem to hit it off and before you known it they are all headed to Vermont, where the sisters are engaged at an inn. Phil suggest he and Bob go, just so they can be close to the ladies. The inn the ladies will be performing at is run by the boys' former general, who is facing hard times since there hasn't been any snow since Thanksgiving and his inn is empty.

Some have suggested "White Christmas" is a remake of "Holiday Inn" (1942), which I have reviewed. That film starred Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, it is originally where the song "White Christmas" was heard. The only similarity between both movies is the inn facing hard times. Neither Astaire of Cosby were in the army and Crosby actually does want to settle down.

Both movies features a score by Irving Berlin. In this movie we hear some familiar tunes, songs Berlin wrote for other movies or plays. The songs include "Blue Skies", "Heatwave", "Sisters", the Oscar nominated "Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep", "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing", "Choreography" and a big production number for "Mandy", a tune first heard in "Kid Millions" (1934), an Eddie Cantor musical/comedy which I reviewed. Compare the two dance numbers and despite the presence of Vera-Ellen I think most will find the original number more charming. Both are big a splashy but I felt the number this time around was just trying to copy the original and came off as stale.

The best performances are probably given by the women I would argue. Vera-Ellen, whom I've always liked, gets several good opportunities to show off her dance skills. Check out the "Mandy" number and the "Choreography" sequence, a criticism of modern dance interpretation. Vera-Ellen actually got her film start appearing in movies with her co-star here, Danny Kaye. The two appeared in "Wonder Man" (1945), one of Kaye's best and "The Kid From Brooklyn" (1946). Ellen is also very good in "On the Town" (1949) which I have reviewed and the Fred Astaire musical "Three Little Words" (1950). In "White Christmas" there are moments when Ellen's performance suggest all sort of things. First of all I feel she had a "cute" appeal. She seemed like your kid sister, sweet and innocent. Yet, at the same time there was no way to deny her stunning beauty and could make her looks the center of a scene.

This has to be Rosemary Clooney's most popular performance. She didn't act in many films. She has to go to more dramatic depths than Ellen. Though the role doesn't get too serious, this is a musical/comedy after all.

During this period I feel Crosby was giving lesser performances. First and foremost Crosby was a singer who had a charm which he just seemed to ooze. It was effortless. He was an absolute natural on-screen. And that was, I think, his greatest strength. Though there were times he could give a very good performance, watch him in "The Country Girl" (1954) with Grace Kelly. That might be his best performance in the 50s. All of his performances from this time period seem to suggest Crosby was merely getting by on his charm. He really wasn't giving it his all. He does the same thing in "High Society" (1956). It is as if he wants to do an imitation of the Crosby of old in those great movies he did with Bob Hope. He wants to get by on his reputation alone. The performance is hardly a disaster but it could have used more emotion.

Danny Kaye holds his own with these singers and dancers. I've usually always thought of Kaye as a comedian. But he did have a musical skill. And could "fake" his way through a dance sequence with Vera-Ellen and do a duet with Crosby and not embarrass himself. I wouldn't say this is his best performance, for that watch the comedies; "Wonder Man", "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1947) and the movie I first saw him in as a boy "Hans Christen Andersen" (1952).

The movie was directed by the very talented Hungarian filmmaker Michael Curtiz who directed such classics as "Casablanca" (1942), "Mildred Pierce" (1945) and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942). Some readers might not known that Curtiz actually got his start in Hungary making films dating as far back as 1916. Here the movie almost seems to direct itself. It is all pretty conventional.

The script is what makes the movie and it was written by three top talents; Norman Krasna, who wrote the charming Carole Lombard comedy "Hands Across the Table" (1935), the entertaining Clark Gable, Jean Harlow comedy "Wife vs Secretary" (1936) and one of Fritz Lang's best movies "Fury" (1936). The other writers were the team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, who wrote a couple of movies for Bob Hope and Danny Kaye; "Monsieur Beaucaire" (1946) often regarded as one of Hope's best (I have reviewed it), "Road to Utopia" (1946) and "The Court Jester" (1955) with Kaye. Frank was also a director and direct Hope in one of his best later films "The Facts of Life" (1960) and directed the multiple Oscar nominated "A Touch of Class" (1973).

As a musical comedy "White Christmas" is a pretty decent effort. The script and talented cast really make the movie worth watching. As holiday entertainment, I'm really not so sure. You could watch "White Christmas" any time of the year so don't just wait until Christmas to watch it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Film Review: True Confession

"True Confession" *** 1\2 (out of ****)
One of the things I love most is discovering forgotten gems. Movies which sadly weren't given the proper respect they deserved upon their initial released. "True Confession" (1937) is one of those movies. I hadn't even heard of this wildly wonderful silly comedy until a few days ago. It was part of the Carole Lombard Glamour Collection (which I strongly suggest film buffs check out).

Carole Lombard is one of my favorite actresses. She had an amazing ability for comedy. Her timing is impeccable. Her speech pattern is remarkable. She has a way of saying ordinary lines and making them funny due to the tone of her voice and her use of pauses. She gained her greatest fame playing eccentric wealthy ditsy ladies. Her most popular role might be in "My Man Godfrey" (1936). Though she is equally good in any number of films including Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be Or Not To Be" (1942), Alfred Hitchcock's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (1941), Hitchcock's only pure comedy, and "Nothing Sacred" (1937). I'm not quite sure I would put her in that iconic status among such ladies as Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo but her work deserves to be seen and appreciated by movie lovers.

In "True Confession" Lombard plays the kind of character we like best; the ditsy, in over her head lady. Here she is a novelist; Helen Bartlett who is married to a struggling lawyer Kenneth Bartlett (Fred MacMurray). They are having finical problems and can't pay their rent or the money they owe to the butcher. A break comes Kenneth's way when a friend of the butcher's family's son gets in trouble for stealing a shipment of ham. If Kenneth would be willing to defend he young man the butcher might forget their debt. But, Kenneth is one of those pesky "honest lawyers", if such a thing exist. He refuses to defend guilty people and when he learns the young man did steal the ham he must refuse the case despite offending the butcher. This causes Helen to consider getting a job. But Kenneth doesn't approve of that either. If his wife gets a job Kenneth views that as a sign that he is a failure and unable to support his wife. Some female audiences might be offended by that notion, but, sadly you are thinking with a "modern" mind. You have to remember this was a different time. Helen however proceeds to search for a job behind Kenneth's back. A friend of her father's has agreed to give her a job as a secretary despite the fact she can't take short-hand or type. The man turns out to be a playboy and didn't really want Helen for a job at all. Helen, being the decent woman she is, runs out of the office leaving behind her belongings. When she returns for them the man's body is found dead. And guess who the main suspect is?

Helen has a reputation of being a liar. She tells various stories to help get her out of trouble usually at the expense of her husband, whom she tells people is either insane, just released from prison or in one case, even dead (!). Kenneth doesn't approve of her lies or lying in general. But the only way to get Helen out of trouble is to lie. What will Helen and Kenneth do?

It would seem the Helen character was some sort of inspiration for Lucille Ball when she created for character on the radio program "My Favorite Husband" and later the television show "I Love Story". In both cases we have a well meaning wife, here Helen only wants to help advance her husband's career, but through their lying just manage to get into more and more trouble. Helen may face life in prison. And finally both need the help of their husband to get them out of trouble.
Watching this court trial with get excitement is a criminologist Charles Jasper (John Barrymore). He feels convince Helen will get the electric chair. It is so strange to see Barrymore in this role. Not because it is a comedic role. Barrymore was actually good at comedy. He, along with Lombard appeared in another comedy together, the Howard Hawks film "Twentieth Century" (1934) which I would also recommend seeing. But you can tell the years of partying and drinking (he and W.C. Fields were old drinking buddies) were catching up to him. He looks in very bad shape. Gone are the days when he was known for his distinguished profile. Amazing for me is only before seeing this that I was watching him in the entertaining silent adventure film "The Beloved Rogue" (1927), where we see him fit doing Douglas Fairbanks like stunts.

In some ways Barrymore gives the least convincing performance yet it is one of the most fun and goofy. There is nothing remotely real about the performance. It is a complete cliche caricature. You sort of feel Barrymore is being silly just for the sake of being silly, because he thinks it will get a laugh. First rule of comedy is always play it straight. Doing silly things for no purpose at all is not funny. But Barrymore's performance doesn't hurt the movie because it is more of a co-starring role (he actually gets third billing) and because nothing else really makes sense in the movie, why should any of the performances?

MacMurray plays one of his typical good natured honest respectable guys. Most younger viewers might know MacMurray for his Disney, family oriented roles. But MacMurray was more than that. He was actually a very good actor. He and Lombard appeared in a few movies together. The best of them may very well be "Hands Across The Table" (1935) a sparkling romantic comedy. MacMurray was also very good in the Marlene Dietrich comedy "The Lady Is Willing" (1942) which I have reviewed. In all these movies he plays the same kind of character with the same moral code. He creates a nice balance to Lombard's more exaggerated performance by being more subtle. But many times his calmness is actually funny. One of he biggest laughs I had watching the movie came from him.

The movie also has a terrific supporting cast starting with Una Merkle as Helen's best friend Daisy, think Ethel Merz. Daisy knows Helen is crazy and is fully aware one of these days Helen's lies are going to get her in serious trouble, but, Daisy is a true friend and goes along with Helen's lies. Movie lovers will recall Merkle from a variety of comedies including W.C. Fields' most popular film "The Bank Dick" (1940) which I have also reviewed. As well as the Harold Lloyd comedy "The Cat's Paw" (1934), the very funny Jean Harlow comedy "Bombshell" (1933), I'd strongly recommend seeing that and the great musical "42nd Street" (1933) which was included in my "Masterpiece Film Series". She even won an Oscar for "Best Supporting Actress" for her performance in "Summer and Smoke" (1961). The rest of the supporting cast includes Edgar Kennedy, Porter Hall (a familiar face in numerous Preston Sturges comedies), Fritz Feld (who later in his career appeared in some Mel Brooks comedies) and Hattie McDaniel has a very small role at the end of the picture. Amazing two years later she'd win an Academy Award for her performance in "Gone With The Wind" (1939).

The film was directed by Wesley Ruggles. His best film in my opinion is the Mae West comedy "I'm No Angel" (1933) my favorite Mae West film in fact. He also directed the only film with Lombard and Clark Gable appeared in "No Man Of Her Own" (1932), not a great movie but worth seeing. In case you didn't know Ms. Lombard and Gable were married which is what makes "No Man" so special. The only other Ruggles comedy I have seen is "Too Many Husbands" (1940) with Jean Arthur, another great actresses who sometimes played ditsy ladies.
It is hard to say why "True Confession" didn't appeal to audiences back in the 1930s. God knows there were a lot of other great comedies made during that time competing for audiences' attention, like "The Awful Truth" (1937), but there should have been some room for "True Confession". Was the story really too"wild" for audiences? Did it make too make of a sham out of our law system? It couldn't have been because of Lombard. Even though this may not be one of her better known movies I'd have to say this one ranks up with her best.

The movie has some loose ends to be sure. We never quite figure out how exactly did the man Helen is accused of killing did die. One explanation is giving but it is hard to believe if it is really the truth. Still "True Confession" put me such a good mood I simply could care less. This is really a great example of how a star (Lombard) could elevate material to the next level. If the actors weren't as good as they are here I might not be recommending the film. "True Confession" is a real treat film buffs should check out. And if you are unfamiliar with the great Ms. Lombard it might serve as an example of what made her so likable and special.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Film Review: Husbands

"Husbands" ** 1\2 (out of ****)
The first time I saw "Husbands" (1970) was in college for a class I took on the films of John Cassavetes and Robert Altman. The instructor had shown us a clip of the film and the clip seemed very powerful. I became instantly hooked and because it was a relatively short clip I was fascinated to learn more about the movie and the characters. That was nearly three years ago (where has the time gone?). I never got the chance to watch "Husbands" in its entirety until now. I think I was better off being left in suspense.

Have you ever thought what is the state of the American male? What is his role in our new world? What role does masculinity play in our society? What happens to men when they reach their mid-life crisis? Do men worry about immortality? I honestly never really thought about such things but, I suppose it could make for an interesting film. And these are the type of themes which float around in Cassavetes' film. On paper I must admit, it actually sounds right up his alley. Although I'm not a great admirer of his work, these issues, if dealt with properly, could have made for a very interesting film.

The main problem I have with "Husbands" is Cassavetes doesn't seem to understand these characters. What does Cassavetes think about these men and what I am, as the viewer, suppose to think about them? What message does Cassvetes want to leave us with. The movie doesn't have to answer any big universal questions. If that was Cassavetes prerogative I'm fine with them. But, at least throw out some questions and give me something to think about. Make me believe you know what you're doing. The film resembles a jazz musician. We start off with the melody (the film's theme) and then start to improvise around that melody and finally return to the theme. The problem is Cassavetes gets too caught up in the improvisation. The film steers off track too much. He goes away from his main focal point for too long a period of time. I suppose ultimately I wouldn't care if those "flights of fancy" were a little more interesting. But here they feel like dead weight, drowning the movie.

Cassavetes has always been a challenging filmmaker. He doesn't make movies in a tradition style. This is a blessing and a curse. I admire him personally. By that I mean he can be an inspirational story for young filmmakers. He found a way to work outside the Hollywood system. He made the films he wanted to make the way he wanted to make them. Deep down we should all admire that. But it is a curse because he seems too overwhelmed. He wants his movies to be about everything and not pass up a good idea. A movie can't be about everything. It becomes too chaotic. You need a little more discipline. More control as a filmmaker. Once you try to do everything you are left with nothing. His best films in my opinion are "Faces" (1968), which I actually had to watch three times before I was ready to say I liked it and "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974) which I had to watch twice. Everything else he has made; "Killing Of A Chinese Bookie" (1976), "Opening Night" (1977) and his debut film, "Shadows" (1959) among them, which I have reviewed, have been mid-level to me.

"Husbands" has moments which seem to work but as a whole it doesn't amount to much. That is what makes my opening story such a symbol for the movie overall. If you watch clips here and there you can capture the best moments of the film. If you sit through it and watch the entire thing you might find it jarring.

The film takes place on the day of a funeral. Harry (Ben Gazzara), Archie (Peter Falk) and Gus (Cassavetes) have lost their best friend. The three of them go on a 48 hour binge. They stay out drinking, playing sports and eventually decide to fly to London to pick up some girls. Their friend's death as opened questions concerning their own life. Have they let too much pass? What happened to their dreams? Did they settle? Gus for instance loves basketball, and was an athlete in school but nothing became of it. Harry is married to a woman he says he hates. They have a violent fight which is one of the most startling things I have ever seen. Not because it is violent, you can see more violence in a Michael Myers movie, but because of its realistic nature it startled me. Think of Bergman's "Scenes From A Marriage" (1974). "Husbands", at times, has that same level of intensity.

The flying to London bit struck me as a false note. Would three married men just decide on a whim to fly to another country leaving their wives and children behind? Keep in mind they have not been home in days and probably have no money. Not too mention they have no idea when the flight leaves, no hotel and no clean clothes. But I digress. This is a movie and I shouldn't take such things serious I guess.

When in London they head out to a casino where they win big at craps (another thing hard to believe. Who wins in a casino?) and pick up three very pretty ladies, who may or not be prostitutes. Honestly I couldn't tell. Though I never heard an exchange of dialogue dealing with money. But I just can't think of how easy it was for these guys to pick up women without paying for them. But again I digress. Its a movie and I shouldn't take such things serious.

The scenes with the women don't seem to be about sex. The men just seem to want to talk, to communicate with someone. Of course they can talk to each other but that misses the point I think. The idea is to communicate with women to prove they are still masculine. Pay attention to the photo I've chosen. They are all flexing their muscles. Showing their strength and dominance. The film's credits are shown over that image. Immediately establishing the film's theme. They have to prove they can still get someone besides their wives.

Cassavetes' films are not known for their great dialogue. Many people believe his films are heavily improvised. Cassavetes says no. He dealt with a script. No offense to Mr. Cassavetes, but, he has not been known for his honesty. And, if I were him I wouldn't want to take responsibility for the dialogue here. Better to let himself off the hook and say it was improvised. Very little of the dialogue here sounds real. At times it has a natural flow to it, it sounds like ordinary dialogue, but too often characters go off on tangents. Take for example a scene where Archie is kissing the woman he picked up in London. I guess she slips him the tongue and he takes immediate offense to this. He wonders how could she have ordered a coca-cola and then slip him the tongue while kissing. He assumes it must be an Oriental custom. What the heck does that even mean? And Archie gets really upset about this. He lectures the poor girl about this. It is not just a passing line. Then we have a sequence where a group of people are drinking singing songs, having some sort of contest. One elderly women starts to sing when the three men tell her she is terrible and begin to give her singing lessons. This must have gone on for a minimum of 10 minutes. If the film had an actual script by Cassavetes I think the movie would flow better and would only stick to dialogue which is informative and provides insight into the characters. Strangely enough the screenplay was actually nominated for a Golden Globe. It lost to Erich Segal's script for "Love Story" (1970).

There is an audience for "Husbands" I'm sure. Maybe if I watch the film when I'm 40 it might resonate with me. Maybe I need to live more, get married and face the disappointment of married life to really comprehend the movie. But I don't think I want to suffer that much just to enjoy a movie. But it is bound to happen regardless. Of course maybe all I need to do is watch "Husbands" a few more times. Though I still feel Cassavetes message isn't explicitly defined. Even the first time I watched "Faces" I knew what Cassavetes was going for. His dialogue reflected that. It felt like a meatier subject. "Husbands", like the men in the movie, seems to drift

Friday, December 11, 2009

Best Films Of The 2000s!

As 2009 comes to an end we also find ourselves closing another decade and so many film fans will debate over what exactly were the best films of the 2000s.

This list comes at a bittersweet time for me. The current films of 2009 have been so utterly pathetic to me that they have sucked all the joy of cinema out of me, causing me to contemplate ending this blog. The decade on a whole I would argue was a disaster. It started off to wide spread disappointment. The films of 2000 were considered by and large to be vastly disappointing. Only a selected few films from the year have managed to last.

At the time I was very critical of the following years. Now, knowing what I know now, I wish I could take back some of those remarks. In hindsight, the first half of the decade wasn't as bad as I originally thought. It was from 2006 onwards that the decade went into a horrific slump which it hasn't been able to get out of. But these last two years in particular have been disgusting.

Going over my ratings and reviews for the decade I believe 2001-2005 were the high points. In fact the films on this list were made in between those years. Only two films were made after. Nothing from 2007, 2008 or this year is on the list. The years 2002 and 2001 were the most honored with three films apiece.

Just to give readers a sense of how disappointing these last two years have been take this into consideration. In 2004 I gave 15 films a four star rating compared to 2005 were I gave 18. In 2008 I only gave 8 films and this year (though not over) I have only given 6 films four stars. Even in a pathetic year like 2006 I still managed to give 13 films four star ratings. And 14 films in 2007.

So sadly I can't honor the decade in the way some might like me to. The films as of late have been simply terrible. No longer, does it seem, that Hollywood can make lasting, important films. Films which I believe will be remembered 10 years from now. You'll hear me repeat that cry in my year end list, which so far looks like I won't make an official "top ten" list.

Still I did manage to come up with some titles which I think have proven themselves. The films on this list were films which have stood with me these past 10 years. I never forgot about them. My mind kept going back to them over and over again. And hopefully they had the same effect on you. At the time when I first saw many of these films I honestly didn't realize I was going to remember them so many years later. But they had a lasting power. I think a majority of movie films will recall some of these titles. There is one title I'm fairly certain no one will recall, but it is still a modern masterpiece. Surprisingly, for me anyway, a majority of the films are American. I tried to expand the list to include international titles but I couldn't think of many which truly touched me and inspired me. The films in this list will be listed alphabetically. I honestly couldn't pick one over the other. They are all important to me one way or another.

Here are the best films of the 2000s!

1. 21 GRAMS (Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu; U.S. 2003) - This was actually my choice for the best film of 2003. I remember when I saw this film in theatres. It was Inarritu's English language debut film, coming off the critically successful Mexican film "Amores perros" (2001). But as much as people praised "Perros" it was this film which blew me away. I felt it had much more of a punch to it. I can still recall how I felt watching the film. I was actually in pain. I felt so strongly for the characters on screen.

The film became the middle part of Inarritu's trilogy of films dealing with communication. It came to a conclusion with "Babel" (2006). "21 Grams"stars Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro. It was nominated for two Oscars; one for Watts and Del Toro. Unfortunately Penn wasn't nominated though did win an Oscar that year for "Mystic River" (2003). But it was his work here which touched me most.

2. BLESS YOU, PRISON (Binecuvantata fii, inchisoare, Dir. Nicolae Margineanu; Romania 2002)- Nicolae Margineanu is considered to be one of the greatest filmmakers in Romania. Of all the films I have seen by him (I have even reviewed one of them on here, "Somewhere in the East" (Undeva in Est, 1991)" this seems to be the film he was born to make. It is a powerful true story based on Nicole Valery-Grossu's life who was imprisoned in 1950s Romania for her opposition to Stalin. It was only her faith which kept her strong and gave her the courage to continue. The film is a harrowing reminder of what life was like in Eastern Europe during the dark days of communism. Maria Ploae's performance may very well be one of the best of her career.

Margineanu isn't as well known in this country as he should be. Though with the recent interest in Romanian cinema hopefully some film fans will search for his work.

3. (TIE) THE DEPARTED (Dir. Martin Scorsese; U.S. 2006)/GANGS OF NEW YORK (Dir. Martin Scorsese; U.S. 2002) - There was a time during the decade film critics were actually beating up on Scorsese. "Gangs of New York" received a lot of negative press from many, many critics, Rex Reed and Manhola Dargis among them. Many had accused Scorsese of making "Oscar bait" pictures just to quench his desire to finally win a "Best Director" Oscar. But the critics should eat crow, time was on Scorsese side. Most people probably don't remember the reception "Gangs of New York" was treated with. Now it has survived. I picked it as one of the best films of the year. I said it was one of Scorsese's most visually stunning films. I even thought it was the movie he should have won the directing Oscar for. The film won 10 Oscar nomination and Scorsese won a Golden Globe for "Best Director".

"The Departed" was a different story. It was cited as a "comeback" for Scorsese after "Gangs" and "The Aviator" (2004), another unfairly damned film. Of course it became the film which finally won Scorsese his Oscar, though many at the time, myself include, felt it was more of a "pity" Oscar. An attempt by the Academy to clear its name and give Scorsese his long overdue award. But "The Departed" has also stood the test of time. Though it was based on the Asian crime series "Infernal Affairs", Scorsese took the material and made it his own.The film was nominated for 5 Oscars winning the "Best Picture" award as well.

4. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Dir. Kar Wai Wong; Hong Kong 2001) - This marked the first time I ever saw the work of Kar Wai and it stood with me ever since. I simply could not forgot the cinematography and the musical score. Though a sequel was made "2046" (2005), which I liked, it couldn't match this film. Here was a movie which really brought me into the world of the characters, played magnificently by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. The was nominated for three awards at the Cannes Film Festival including the top prize, the Palme d'or. Tony Leung won the "Best Actor" award.

5. MATCH POINT (Dir. Woody Allen; U.K./U.S. 2005) - Prior to this film so many people had thought Allen's best days were behind. The old and frankly worn out criticism that Allen had lost his touch was and still is a fashion sentiment which all critics and the public seem to have taken on. But Allen showed them all when "Match Point" was released. It was Allen's first film in decades to be entirely shot outside of New York and began what some called his "London trilogy". The film was similar in many ways to his "Crimes & Misdemeanors" (1989) dealing with social class and murder. Though I felt Allen found a better metaphor to express his ideas here.

The film became Allen's most successful film in 20 years. Allen was even nominated for an Oscar for "Best Screenplay", nearly 10 years had pasted since his last nomination. And the film went on to earn 4 Golden Globe nominations including "Best Picture" and "Best Director". I still think it was unfair Allen's directing wasn't nominated for an Oscar.

6. MOULIN ROUGE! (Dir. Baz Lurhmann; Australia/U.S. 2001) - Here was a dazzling spectacular which seemed to move at a frantic devilish pace. I called the film at the time one of the greatest love stories to hit the screen in recent years. That might have been a bit of an over statement on my part, but, it expressed the sheer enthusiasm which I felt for the film. I thought it should have won the Oscar that year for "Best Picture" and was one of the many people who felt Lurhmann was wrongfully over looked for a "Directing" nomination. The film was nominated for 8 Oscars winning 2; "Art Direction" and "Costume Design". It was nominated for the Palme d'or at Cannes and did win the "Best Picture" award at the Golden Globes.

7. MULHOLLAND DR. (Dir. David Lynch; U.S. 2001) - This was the first David Lynch movie I had seen. The style of the film recalled Fellini and John Waters to me. But something about the film captivated me. It wasn't smartly written and some of the acting seemed amateurish, a Lynch staple in my opinion, but the performances by Naomi Watts (this is where I first discovered her) and Laura Harring blew my socks off. The weird unpredictable nature of the film was jarring but spellbinding as well. Originally intended as a pilot for a TV show (which wasn't picked up) Lynch went back to it and made it into a feature. I saw the original pilot material. All I can say is Lynch really transformed it. In that state it made no sense. "Mulholland Dr." remains one of my favorite Lynch films with only "Blue Velvet" (1986) coming close.

8. PAN'S LABYRINTH (Dir. Guillermo del Toro; Mexico 2006) - The international favorite at the time managed to be one of those rare foreign films which American audiences flocked to. It is a powerful examination of the power of imagination. A young girl living in fascist Spain is afraid of the man her mother has chosen to marry. As as escape from that cruel world the young her finds herself lost in her thoughts only to face other grim horrors. The film won 6 Oscar nominations winning three; "Cinematography", "Art Direction" and "Make-Up". The film opened the eyes of many to the cinema coming from Mexico.

9. THE PIANIST (Dir. Roman Polanski; France 2002) - Although Polanski's name has been in the news lately gossip can never take away the man's genius. And if you don't think the man is a genius try watching this film. I believe it is Polanski's greatest film and the best film dealing with WW2. I even think it is stronger and more emotionally involving than Spielberg's "Schindler's List" (1993). This, like "Bless You, Prison" and Margineanu, was the movie Polanski was born to direct. To much surprise Polanski won the "Best Director" Oscar and Adrien Brody won the "Best Actor" award for his portrayal of Wladyslaw Szpilman. The film was nominated for a total of 7 Oscars and won the Palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival.

10. SUNSHINE (Dir. Istvan Szabo; Hungary/Canada 2000) - Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo has long made films dealing with Hungary's troubled past but none of his films I felt have been as powerful as this one. It is his crowning achievement. The story deals with the 20th Century history of Hungary as seen through the eyes of a Hungarian Jewish family which tries to hide their Jewish blood but society will not let them. Raplh Fiennes gives a tour-de-force performance playing a grandfather, father and son. The film shamefully didn't receive one single Oscar nomination (becoming one of the main reasons I refuse to watch the show) though it did win three Golden Globe nominations including "Best Picture" and "Best Director".

11. TRAFFIC (Dir. Steven Soderbergh; U.S. 2000) - Here is the movie I felt should have won the "Best Picture" Oscar that year. It is my favorite Soderbergh film. This was an intense look at the war on drugs in American with some amazing performances by Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle and a young lady I honestly thought was going to become a star Erika Christensen. Sadly her career never quite lived up to the potential suggested here. Though that could be because the material never presented itself again. Still Soderbergh won the "Best Director" Oscar that year as the film was nominated for 5 Oscars.

RUNNER'S UP! (No order)

1. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (Dir. Mel Gibson; U.S. 2004)

2. CHICAGO (Dir. Rob Marshall; U.S. 2002)

3. THE WIND WILL CARRY US (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami; Iran 2000)

4. HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (Dir. Zhang Yimou; China 2004)

5. (TIE) HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki; Japan 2005)/SPIRITED AWAY (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki; Japan 2002)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Masterpiece Film Series: City Lights

"City Lights" **** (out of ****)

I would think one of the least controversial statements I could make is that Charlie Chaplin is the greatest thing to happen to the movies since the invention of the camera. But is it really? I suspect Buster Keaton fans might get mad at me. Chaplin, they would say, was too sentimental. His message was too heavy. He wanted our hearts to bleed for him. Strangely that is exactly why I consider myself a Chaplin man. But then there are D.W. Griffith devotees (of course I'm making a large assumption that people today know who Keaton, Chaplin and Griffith are. Personally I don't think they do). They might say Griffith gave us today's film language. They are right. But, I'm stubborn. I still think Chaplin is the greatest comedy filmmaker of all time.

Many critics and the public feel "City Lights" (1931) is Chaplin's greatest film. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote; "If only one of Charlie's Chaplin's films could be preserved, "City Lights" would come the closest to representing all the different notes of his genius." On the film is ranked 71 in their top 250 list. I never felt this was Chaplin's best film. My favorite has been "Modern Times" (1936), which I have already included in my "Masterpiece Film Series". I also wrote about one of his later films, the rarely seen "A King in New York" (1957), which I argued deserves a second chance.

Many people cite the Chaplin character, "The Tramp" was a loner. But I never felt that description painted an accurate portrait of the character. And I think "City Lights" proves my point. Yes, The Tramp was a loner. But, it doesn't mean he didn't like people or want to participate in society. The Tramp didn't have "Greta Garbo syndrome" (I want to be alone). Most people say it was Keaton who wanted to be an activate member of society but Chaplin was an outcast. I find this misleading. In "City Lights" The Tramp falls in love, he wants respect from his peers and he even gets a job to help the poor Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill). He even gets a job in "The Circus" (1928) and "Modern Times". It was society which shunned him because of his appearance. I feel this point hits home with the Millionaire character (Harry Myers) who only likes The Tramp when he is drunk. Once he is sober however he doesn't recognize him and wants nothing to do with him. The one person The Tramp falls in love with is a blind girl. The nicest person to The Tramp is the one who can't see him, therefore can't judge him based on looks but what is in his heart.

If you've never seen "City Lights" the movie follows The Tramp as he falls in love with a Blind Girl who sells flowers. She thinks The Tramp is rich because she mistakenly believes she heard him exits a car, while she sits on a sidewalk corner. He buys a flower but soon the real owner of the car leaves, making her think The Tramp has left. At this moment Chaplin has become smitten with her. He vows to help her restore her sight by saving enough money so she can go to Vienna where a doctor has found a cure.

Along the way he meets an eccentric millionaire whose wife has left him. This leads him to want to commit suicide, which is how he and The Tramp meet. They become quick friends and go out drinking and to parties. But once the millionaire is sober, he wants nothing to do with The Tramp.

These two scenes illustrate the importance of Chaplin and his great genius. It demonstrates why Chaplin is the greatest comedy director and what he taught all of us that want to make comedies. Chaplin had that rare gift of finding humor in serious situations. He taught us never get too serious on your audience. Even in our darkest moments there is always room for humor.

In the scene when he meets the blind flower girl Chaplin tip toes to sit down near the girl so he can sit and admire her. She gets up and walks to a water fountain, which is next to The Tramp, to clean her flower vase, she empties the vase by throwing the water from the vase in The Tramp's face. Here we have a very tender moment and just as we settle into it, Chaplin pulls the rug from underneath us and throws in a joke. Chaplin taught us the unexpected is funny.

The sequence with the millionaire committing suicide is funny because Chaplin takes a serious subject; suicide, and turns it into a very funny sequence. At first The Tramp pleads with the millionaire not to throw away his life. This of course is ironic that a poor homeless man should tell a wealthy millionaire life is worth living. "Be brave! Face life!" is The Tramps words. But the millionaire wants to continue with his plans but accidentally ties a noose around The Tramp's neck which is tied to a rock which the millionaire throws into a river causing The Tramp to fall in. But tackling serious subjects was not something new to Chaplin. Look at what he does in "The Gold Rush" (1925). What artist has made hunger appear so funny? Remember the scene where Chaplin eats a shoe? In another form that could a very, very melodramatic scene but Chaplin makes it funny. The same with this suicide routine.

The movie is probably best known for two sequences. A boxing match between The Tramp and a heavyweight. The Tramp, needless to say, is afraid to fight the much stronger man, so he uses his speed and wits to his advantage by hiding behind the referee. The sequence is a kind of comedy ballet. Pay attention to Chaplin's rhythm.

And the ending is usually cited as Chaplin's most heartfelt and emotional. Some even say it is one of the greatest endings of all time. The Tramp meets the Blind Girl, who can now see because of him. At first she doesn't recognize him but after touching his face instantly recalls who he is. We can sense a feeling of heartfelt sympathy and gratitude on her face. It is all because of this man she can know see. On his face we detect a bit of shame. He's not the man she was expecting. There is a moment where he is afraid how she will react. Will she too disregard him?

The idea of falling in love with a blind girl was actually not a new concept. Harry Langdon faced a similar situation in his comedy masterpiece "The Strong Man" (1926) directed by Frank Capra. I have reviewed that movie. Though Langdon doesn't go to the level of pathos Chaplin does. Langdon focuses on comedy. I'm willing to bet Chaplin saw that movie and became inspired by it as he saw the dramatic reach for the situation.

By the time "City Lights" was made Hollywood had converted to making all sound pictures. But Chaplin resisted. He thought sound would diminish his character and make him all too real. Though the movie does use sound, it has a musical score, actually it is one of Chaplin's best, and some sound effects. The opening sequence involved the unveiling of a statue called "Peace and Prosperity", which is where The Tramp is sleeping. So much for "prosperity" huh? The sound effects are heard from the politician's mouth as he gives a speech. This is two-fold. On one level it seems like a dig at sound movies exposing their limited appeal. English language movies can't play in other countries. But it is also a joke on politicians who really don't say anything important anyway. What was true then is true now.

For its warmth, insight into human behavior, great ability to combine comedy and pathos and for Chaplin's terrific pantomime skills "City Lights" is a treasure to behold. All movie lovers should see it. It is one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Film Reviews: Jerichow & Three Monkeys

"Jerichow" *** (out of ****)

As 2009 comes to an end I find myself in a usual predicament. I can't come up with a "top ten" list. I haven't seen 10 films this year which I felt were four stars. So I play catch-up and rent DVDs of titles I missed in theatres and often, rent movies which I never had any intention of seeing, just in case I missed something good. These two films however were ones I eagerly awaited.

"Jerichow" (2009) tells the story of a good looking woman, a drifter and a bad husband. I know, I know, you've seen this movie 48,000 times, so have I. James M. Cain wrote two novels about it; "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice", which of course were adapted into some terrific movies. "The Postman" in 1946 with Lana Turner and James Garfield and a less than stellar remake in 1981 with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Of course "Indemnity" was given the royal treatment thanks to Billy Wilder in 1944. It is one of his best films and one of the all-time great noir stories. This is nothing to say of all the films these two stories influence. The material was the basis for the first Italian neo-realist film "Ossessione" (1943) directed by the great Visconti and Claude Chabrol made "Innocents with Dirty Hands" (1975). And now to that list we can add "Jerichow".

The unfortunate thing for "Jerichow" is that I've seen all those other movies. And by comparison "Jerichow" comes in second place to all of them. But, what if you haven't seen all those movies? Ah, now we are getting somewhere. You might enjoy it because you might not be as familiar with the formula as I am.

This is not to suggest "Jerichow" is a bad movie. It has some nice performances and compared to "Three Monkeys" (2009) is an absolute breeze to sit through. But the film lacks an intensity I felt was desperately needed. There is no sexual energy here, which is unusual for a film about an affair and murder. Forget the beef, where's the heat? I didn't buy into the lured affair of the two main characters. The movie doesn't gradually hint at their desire for each other. It seems to come out of left field.

The characters in question are Thomas (Benno Furmann) an ex-soldier, who was dishonorably discharged. His mother has died and he finds himself broke searching for employment. Through a series of events he meets Ali Ozkan (Hilmi Sozer) a Turk living in East Germany (Jerichow is the name is the town). He owns a string of snack shops which are doing very well for him. He is also married to the beautiful Laura (Nina Hoss). She was a dancer in serious debt but Ali has taken responsibility for those debts making Laura feel she had been "bought".

Ali has a bit of a drinking problem and crashes his car when Thomas meets him. After the police come investigating, Ali tells them it was Thomas who was driving, since there is no alcohol on his breath. Ali has a proposal for Thomas. Why not come work for him as a driver and learn the ropes of the business. Thomas agrees.

I shouldn't really have to say too much more since I've practically given everything away merely by mentioning "The Postman Always Rings Twice". Thomas and Laura begin an affair and attempt to murder Ali.

The director is Christian Petzold, he also wrote the film. He is a new director to me. I remember when his previous film was released in the U.S., "Yella" (2008) which also starred Nina Hoss as a woman in a bad marriage. Poor lady can't find a good man. I never saw that film and as far as I'm aware has not been put on DVD yet. Petzold is talented and I suspect with a different story I might be singing his praises a bit more. The film is deliberately slow. It is meditative. Similar to another German movie released this year "Revanche" (2009). "Jerichow" though is a bit more conventional, though I don't say that as a flaw.

Of all the main actors Hoss is the only one I am familiar with. She also appeared in another film released this year, "A Woman in Berlin" (2009). She won the "Best Actress" award at the Berlin Film Festival for her performance in "Yella". She has a sympathetic face and has a way of bringing in audience in. I didn't feel the film examined her situation enough but at moments she comes across as a real person put in a dilemma in which we can see is very complex.

The film was nominated at the Venice Film Festival for the "Golden Lion". And while that may be impressive to some readers I still don't think it is a masterpiece. It is a decent film which strangely could have used more sex.

"Three Monkeys" *** (out of ****)

There were about 65 different ways "Three Monkeys" could have been filmed. The story could have lend itself to a variety of different genres and taken on different paces. I'm not sure it settles on the most satisfying one. But then again this film was directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Turkish director who gave us "Climates" (2007). Plot, I suspect, is an annoyance for him. It gets in the way. Ceylan likes to make films about mood and atmosphere. In "Climates" it worked. I was greatly impressed. With "Three Monkeys" I was nearly put to sleep.

Between "Jerichow" and this, "Three Monkeys" is clearly the more visually impressive film. And I would argue is more morally complex. But if I had to pick which one of these films I would sooner watch again, "Jerichow" wins hands down. I wouldn't even have to think about.

"Three Monkeys" though is not a bad movie if you can get under the film's spell. I think Ceylan is going to be a director who will be around for a long time. And within the span of his career I think "Three Monkeys" will be seen as a lesser attempt when compared to "Climates". It took me awhile to fully appreciate "Climates". I had to watch it twice. And the same may happen with "Three Monkeys", but I wouldn't want to dip into that water again so soon. Give me a year or two, or at least a shot of vodka.

The film has a very light plot, we meet Servet (Ercan Kesal, who co-wrote the screenplay) a politician up for an election. He was in a car accident and killed someone. Because he is a wealthy politician, naturally, he seeks a way out and doesn't want to be responsible for his actions. His plan, blame the incident on someone else. He calls his driver, Eyup (Yavuz Bingol) to take the rap. Servet will continue to pay his salary to his family and as a bonus will be given a large sum when released. He also guarantees the prison sentence will be short. No more than six months but less than a year.

Eyup leaves behind his wife, Hacer (Hatice Aslan) and a son, Ismail (Rifat Sungar). Ismail is a floundering student who can't pass his exams and just a politician seeks an easy way out. He turns to violence with a group of his friends. His mother of course doesn't want to kind of life of him. She wants to ask Servet for an advance so Ismail can be put on the right path and find a job. But Hacer and Servet begin an affair.

There sounds like a lot going on here but the way Ceylan tells a story you have about 15 - 20 minutes of material. I said before there were other ways this story could have been told. Another movie might have included some of the police investiagtion, Servet fearful of a double-cross, perhaps some scene of Eyup in prison counting down the days. But we get none of that. Ceylan won't bother us with such details. Do we need them? Not in Ceylan's story because that would involve too much plot.

Ceylan has been compared to filmmakers like Antonioni, Theo Angelopoulos and Bela Tarr for his long unbroken camera shots. Those filmmakers however are a bit out of Ceylan's league, he has to play catch-up. Ceylan is talented and could one day be considered among the best directors in the world but he is still learning his craft.

I sometimes can't understand why he frames scenes a particular way though he is a stylist. Two scenes really stick out in my head. Ismail learns of his mother's affair. He is heartbroken and disgusted. He goes to visit his father. At that moment he doesn't know what to do. He feels trapped. Should he tell his father or not? Ceylan only shows us the conversation from Ismail's side. We never see the father. All we see is Ismail behind the bars speaking to his father. But from this angle it looks like he is the one in jail. Trapped. It is clever.

I also like a scene with Servet and Hacer. Eyup has been released from jail and Servet says their affair must end. Hacer has grown attached to him however. Meanwhile a storm is brewing (the movie has terrific thunderstorm scenes). In a while expressing the violence between the characters.

"Three Monkeys" will please some viewers. Those that like their movies outside the mainstream. Those that don't mind slow, ponderous films with little plot. I do most of the time. But I still think 10 years from now "Climates" will be around with us, "Three Monkeys" will be an after thought.