Friday, December 30, 2011

Top Ten Films Of 2011!

Well as 2011 comes to an end we look back to celebrate the best films of the year.

Movies, in my opinion, are a reflection of society. Movies can comfort us, scare us, show us other countries and bring into focus the world around us. This year though the movies did this for me more so than other years.

This year has been a tough one for me on a personal level. The two biggest events of the year for me centered on a romantic relationship ending, with a person I thought would be the one and the death of my grandmother, the woman who shared her love of movies with me and turned me into a devoted film buff.

So for me 2011 was a year filled with death, loss, longing for the past and the hope of second chances. And so, in my despair I turned to the movies and wouldn't you know it, that's exactly what the films of 2011 were all about! All of the films which touched me on a personal level, which struck an emotional cord with me dealt with the very issues I was going through.

Death reared its ugly head in films such as "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt.2", where either Harry or Lord Voldemort was going to die. The French film "Sarah's Key" dealt with the Vel d' Hiv round-up in 1942. Another French film "The Princess of Montpensier" centered on the Catholic/ Protestant wars of the 16th Century. The indie film "Another Earth" not only dealt with death but second chances. Martin Scorsese's "Hugo", another look back at the past had a young boy who loses his father. The charming Mexican film "Nora's Will" focuses on death and memories of the past. And I could go on and on with films such as "Beginners","13 Assassins","Dream House","Contagion", "50/50", "Midnight In Paris", "The Artist" and "Cave of Forgotten Dreams". All of these movies were about death and the past, characters which hoped for second chances.

I wouldn't call 2011 a bad year for movies, it wasn't. I don't think it was as good as last year but certainly it was better than 2008 or 2009. Absolute low-points for cinema. Years which I was barely able to make a list of ten films I liked. This year I saw roughly 90 movies and 12 of them I gave four stars. I still have some catch up to do so that number could go higher or remain the same. Either way, 2011 gave us a lot of good movies even if our personal lives didn't always leave us with the best memories.

Here now is my list of the ten best films of 2011 and a runner's up list.

1. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (Dir. Woody Allen; U.S.) - In a year where nostalgia ruled at the box-office with movies like "Hugo", "The Artist" and "The Adventures of Tintin" to name a few, here is a movie which I feel best represents the year.

In many ways I am like the main character in Woody Allen's charming, insightful comedy. Owen Wilson plays a man with a great affection for the past. A man who wishes he could live in Paris in the 1920s, where he could chat with his heroes; Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali and Cole Porter. Through the magic of movies, he gets his chance or does he really?

I too have a great fondness for the past. I grew up with the films of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. I wish I was around then instead of now.

But one of the real reasons "Midnight in Paris" is so special for me, is because it was the last movie I saw with my ex. And how fitting. Here is a movie about longing for the past. A time when things made sense. A time when we feel we had it better. Such a theme resonates with me. It's not so much that "Midnight in Paris" was as emotionally hard-hitting as some of my past choices for "best film of the year" like "The Passion of the Christ" (2004), "United 93" (2006) or "Hunger" (2009) but it was what the movie represents, it's ideas which touched me.

2. THE ARTIST (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius; France) - Since 2011 was a year for celebrating the past, I'd have to include this brilliant film directed by Michel Hazanavicius and starring Jean Dujardin. It is a modern day silent film about the early days of talking pictures and what that meant to silent movie stars.

Last year, at the top of my best of the year list, I placed the restored version of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis"(1927). Here is a movie which could have also been made in 1927. "The Artist" has the look and feel of most classic silent films. It is not a gimmick picture to me. It presents itself in a straightforward way. This is a lovely tribute to the early days of cinema. I hope the film wins a lot of Oscar nominations.

3. THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER (Dir. Bertrand Tavernier; France) - Here is a movie which might have went under the radar for most movie goers but this Bertrand Tavernier (director of such films as "Life and Nothing But" (1990) which I also placed on my top ten list and "Daddy Nostalgia" (1991) is one of the best of his career.

4. SARAH'S KEY (Dir. Gilles Paquet-Brenner; France) - One of the more emotionally draining films of the year. Kristin Scott Thomas stars as a reporter trying to uncover unpleasant truths about the Vel d' Hiv round-up in France. She hopes her actions will bring some clarity to the past and give a family a second chance to move on.

5. CERTIFIED COPY (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami; France/ Italy) - I saw this film back at last year's Chicago International Film Festival where it quickly became my favorite at the fest. I've long been a fan of Iranian filmmaker Kiarostami. This is one of his best films.

6. POINT BLANK (Dir. Fred Cavaye; France) - A roller coaster of a movie. I haven't been on the end of my seat watching a movie this much since I saw "Just Another Love Story" (2009). This is a fast-paced exciting action/thriller movie.

7. THE DESCENDANTS (Dir. Alexander Payne; U.S.) - Here we have a movie about family honor, loyalty and yes, death and second chances. George Clooney has rarely been better. The entire cast shines. Alexander Payne, one of my favorite modern filmmakers, has given us a rich movie. A movie filled with smart characters with distinct personalities. We believe in these people and their problems.

8. 50/50 (Dir. Jonathan Levine; U.S.) - A young boy is told he has cancer and is given a 50/50 chance of living. What to do?

A movie such as this could have go wrong. It could have become a predictable, trite, sentimental weeper. But instead the movie is alive. It deals with its topic with respect. Like "The Descendants" we believe in what we see on-screen. The movie has a wonderful way of balancing comedy and drama.

9. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2 (Dir. David Yates; UK/U.S.) - I haven't enjoyed a "Harry Potter" movie this much since the first one. Here is a movie which takes us to another world. It is endlessly creative and magical. I was delighted the entire time watching this movie. Taking every step with Harry.

10. (TIE) CARS 2 (Dir. John Lasseter; U.S.) / RANGO (Dir. Gore Verbinski; U.S.) - Two of the best animated movies of the year. I'm deeply shocked critics are not placing this wonderful Pixar film on their top ten list. Many critics liked "Cars" (2006) also directed by Lasseter, but they were pretty harsh on this one. In all fairness a sequel wasn't really needed. And this story could have been told with different characters, allowing Pixar the chance to create something entirely new. Still I had a great time watching this.

"Rango" on the other hand, is a funny, creative spoof on western which just left me giddy watching it. I love all the movie references and the edge it has. Much different kind of entertainment when compared to "Cars 2" but still entertaining all the way.

RUNNER'S UP!

1. HUGO (Dir. Martin Scorsese; U.S.)

2. TUESDAY, AFTER CHRISTMAS (Marti, Dupa Craciun, Dir. Radu Muntean; Romania)

3. CHILDREN OF GLORY (Szabadsag, Szerelem, Dir. Krisztina Goda; Hungary)

4. EVEN THE RAIN (Dir. Iciar Bollain; Mexico)

5. MARGIN CALL (Dir. J.C. Chandor; U.S.)

6. THE CONSPIRATOR (Dir. Robert Redford; U.S.)

7. MYSTERIES OF LISBON (Dir. Raoul Ruiz; Portugal)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Film Reviews: The Artist & The Adventures of Tintin

"The Artist" **** (out of ****)

First of all, my apologizes to my dear readers. I have neglected writing for a while. To make up for lost time, I'm going to write about two movies I've recently seen. The wonderful, silent French film "The Artist" (2011) and Steven Spielberg's animated adventure "The Adventures of Tintin" (2011).

Lets be honest, there are people who, after hearing "The Artist" is a silent film will simply not want to see it. And, who can blame modern audiences for not wanting to? This is, unfortunately, the modern age and people like movies where people talk. But, I would imagine there are those who will see this movie precisely because it is silent. This is after all 2011. How often will audiences get to see a silent film in theatres?

The problem I think with the second group is they might expect a gimmick movie. "The Artist" is not a gimmick movie. It is a straight forward silent film. It could have been made in 1927 (the year the movie takes place) and outside of a few minor changes, it is no different then any other film of that time.

The movie has the look and feel of silent cinema. The music is perfect, the cinematography beautiful, and the acting, impeccable. And let us not forget the production and costume design. All of these elements added together give the film the immense amount of charm which it has.

The story is really no different than any other silent film where a young nobody wants to become a celebrity, think of "The Extra Girl" (1923) or "Exit Smiling" (1926) or even "Kiki" (1926). Some audience members may even draw comparisons to the musical "Singin' in the Rain" (1952).

"The Artist" tells duel stories. One is of a young woman, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, an unknown actress to me, who managed to steal my heart). She wants to become a famous actress and after a chance encounter, she accidentally bumps into major motion picture star George Valentin (a name I suppose is might to remind us of Rudolph Valentino. Played by Jean Dujardin). He is kind of a ham actor, whom, as posing for photographers, meets Peppy and is taken by her beauty, despite being a married man.

The newspapers start buzzing about who is this young woman who bumped into Valentin. Her photo is even on the front page of Variety.

Now, as any film lover or film student will tell you, 1927 is the year the first film with sound, "The Jazz Singer", was released (some people, whom have never seen the movie, mistakenly believe the film is a complete "talkie", it isn't. It is largely a silent film but with musical numbers.) Valentin soon discovers that the head producer at Kinograph Studios (I guess a reference to Biograph Studios, where D.W. Griffith worked) wants to make only sound pictures (he is played by John Goodman). Valentin, like many people at the time, thought sound pictures would be a fade. Talking would turn films into a gimmick. It would de-legitimize cinema as an art form. Valentin laughs at the producer and as a result, is released from his contract. Ironically though, Peppy Miller is signed and becomes a big star.

The film was directed by Michel Hazanavicius and is the third film he has worked on with Dujardin, which I know of. Their previous collaborations were for the spy spoof, OSS 117 films; "Cairo, Nest of Spies" (2006) and "Lost in Rio" (2009) which had a 1960s, "Pink Panther" feel to them. Hazanavicius seems to draw on the past for inspiration. Not a bad idea.

I am however a bit surprised to find him as the director and Dujardin as the star. When I first heard about this film I thought it was going to be a drama. It has serious moments, but there are tongue-in-cheek moments as well. Dujardin has a lot of fun with the character, which is suppose to be an Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks sort but with an ego problem.

Dujardin is perfect in the role. He managed to express all the emotions required for the role. After seeing him in this I cannot think of anyone else doing it. There are elements of pathos here in the character contrasted with a bit of coolness. Dujardin balances things quite well. He won the "Best Actor" award at Cannes for his performance and there is talk he may win an Oscar as well. At the very least, he will be nominated.

I can't kid myself or readers. A movie like "The Artist" is made for people like myself. Old timers who actually watch silent cinema. Someone who yearns for the past. Has a growing interest in the history of cinema. Someone who has actually seen movies with actors like Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, Conrad Nagel, Valentino, Louise Brooks and John Barrymore.

"The Artist" is one of the year's best films. It should not be missed!

"The Adventures of Tintin" *** (out of ****)

For some reason the idea of Steven Spielberg directing an animated film seemed a bit odd to me. Better to leave this sort of thing to Pixar or Dreamworks. But then as I watched the opening minutes of "Tintin" a thought occured to me. Why the heck shouldn't Spielberg direct an animated film?! He's a filmmaker who has never lost touch with his inner child. He should have made an animated film a long time ago. Remember, this is the man who made films such as "E.T." (1982), "Raiders of the Lost Arc" (1981) and "Hook" (1991).

Much like other films released this year, "The Artist" or Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" (2011), "The Adventures of Tintin" is a nostalgic throw-back to an earlier time. The film, based on a comic book series by Herge, recalls 1930s serials. Much like "Indiana Jones".

Tintin (voices by Jamie Bell) is a famous reporter who stumbles upon a great mystery after buying a miniature boat. The actual boat which the model was based on, has a long history Tintin discovers. A great secret is hidden somewhere in the model and only one man can help Tintin solve the mystery, Capt. Haddock (Andy Serkis) a descendant of the original captain of the boat in question.

Tintin and Haddock find themselves on the run from Rackham (Daniel Craig) who knows all about the boat's history and has his own sinister motives.

The film was written by Steven Moffat, whom I know as the creator of one of my favorite TV shows, the BBC comedy "Coupling". And was co-written by Edgar Wright, director of the endlessly creative "Scott Pilgrim vs the World" (2010) and Joe Cornish.

The most amazing thing about "The Adventures of Tintin" was how involved I was. I was actually caught up in the adventure. I found a lot of it suspenseful. I could see how this could have been made into a live-action film (Spielberg's original intention). The film has moments of action, comedy and lite-seriousness.

I really enjoyed the look of the film as well. It is much different, to my eye at least, than what Pixar releases. This looked more "real". I found the animation quite impressive. Still I preferred animated films like "Cars 2" (2011) and "Rango" (2011) over this one. Those movies had a bit more heart. Which is normally something a Spielberg film doesn't lack.

Still, Spielberg puts on a good show for us. I think this makes for a pretty good family film. Most audiences should enjoy it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Film Review: Creature From The Black Lagoon

"Creature From The Black Lagoon" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Creature From The Black Lagoon" (1954) was a science-fiction/horror film made at Universal Studios. At one time Universal Studios was known as a successful studio which produced some of the most memorable horror films of all time. It was at this studio "Dracula" (1931), "Frankenstein" (1931), "The Mummy" (1932) and "The Wolf Man" (1941) was made.

Those movies were quite ambitious. "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" borrowed a visual style from German Expressionism and the work of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murneau. "The Wolf Man" borrowed from noir films, which were quite popular at the time. But with "Creature From The Black Lagoon" Universal Studios seems to have lost its ambition. "Creature From The Black Lagoon" seems to be borrowing from Ed Wood. This is an almost campy "B" film. Their is great potential here but the film's execution is slightly off.

It is largely believed "Creature From The Black Lagoon" signaled the end of Universal's monster reign. "The Gill Man", as he is known, was the last successful horror film character the studio created.

The film takes place along the Amazon river. A marine biologist, Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) finds the hand of what appears to be a prehistoric creature among some rocks. He takes the hand to some fellow colleagues; Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) and Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) all of whom are intrigue by the hand and what he may represent for their studies. Dr. Williams is also interested in the fame and financial rewards such scientific find may bring. So, they all agree to head at to the site where the hand was found and explore.

"Creature From The Black Lagoon" is a relatively short film but it makes a lot of mistakes. The biggest mistake is the way the villain, The Gill Man, is treated. I feel the character is seen too soon into the picture, roughly 24 minutes into the movie. This takes away a lot of suspense which could have been created as an audience prepares itself for what this creature may look like. But Universal Studios went all out pushing the character out on the public through its advertising. The creature was the main selling point to the studio and they were going to exploit the look of the monster at all cost in their attempt to generate excitement over the movie.

What also hurts "Creature From The Black Lagoon" is the "B" quality of the film. The acting is under-par. The performers are rather stiff, the dialogue somewhat clumsy. The film lacks suspense not just because of the way the creature is presented but because we are never fully engaged in the story. We don't come to fear for these characters.

I wasn't born in 1950s America. In fact I wasn't in the 1950s but, I suspect, from what I know about other films from the period, "Creature From The Black Lagoon" is a good representation of the times. The 1950s saw a time of great interest in science-fiction. Particularly "B" pictures. Think of Ed Wood titles such as "Night of the Ghouls" (1959), "Plan 9 From Outer Space" (1959) and Roger Corman's "The Beast With A Million Eyes" (1955).

The movie also has an interesting message. Yes readers, a movie called "Creature From The Black Lagoon" has a message. The way I interpret it "Creature From The Black Lagoon" tells us, mind your own damn business. The 1950s, as I said, were a time of great interest in exploration. Going into outer space and alien invasions, discovering the world around us. In "Creature From The Black Lagoon" the characters feel by understanding the past we can understand the future but, like it says in the bible, "seek and ye shall find". And that is the point of the movie. If you go looking for something, you just might find it, and that may not be a good thing. Better to leave nature alone. Better to mind your own business and let things remain as they are. Trouble may be on the horizon.

Some also say the film has that old "King Kong" (1933) element going for it. That of a beast falling in love with a beautiful woman. The Gill Man (played on land by Ben Chapman and in water by Ricou Browning) actually falls in love with Kay. That is why he begins to attack the group so he can get his hands on Kay. This is of course an old theme in movies and literature. Presenting the beautiful woman as an object of affection for a deformed being whether it is in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", "Beauty & The Beast" or "King Kong". Look at what Peter Jackson did in his 2005 remake. He made the woman (played by Naomi Watts) actually feel for Kong.

"Creature From The Black Lagoon" could actually benefit from a remake (God, I can't believe I just said that). It has been something which has been rumored from time to time in Hollywood but the project keeps falling through. But a good movie is lurking here if someone would give it another shot. Put in a little more money, better acting and better dialogue. Also, take that old "Jaws" (1974) approach of delaying the on-screen appearance of the creature.

Will "Creature From The Black Lagoon" work on today's younger audience? I doubt it. Should you watch it anyway? Sure, why not. "Creature From The Black Lagoon" has some qualities worth recommending and it has clearly left an influence on horror films and inspired many films. Just don't expect a masterpiece something on par with Universal Studios earlier horror films.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Film Review: The Raven

"The Raven" *** (out of ****)

To some people "campy" is a dirty word when describing a movie. I believe when people think of a movie as being campy the films of Ed Wood or something similar comes to mind. They think of movies that are amateurish and unintentionally funny. But Roger Corman's "The Raven" (1963) while campy is a different example.

Every Halloween I review at least one movie directed by Roger Corman and every Halloween I complain that I only review his movies in October. Corman deserves more attention especially from moviebuffs. I don't think Corman is one of cinema's great filmmakers, in a class with Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini or Orson Welles, but I do admire his spirit and what he represents. That indie, non-Hollywood, non-conformist style.

Roger Corman, while often thought of as a "B" filmmaker, has directed a few worthwhile films. The movies which I enjoy watching the films and the ones which I review are his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. These films I believe show Corman at his highest artistic merit. The films have his best production designs, his best plots and his best acting. In the past I have reviewed "The Pit & the Pendulum" (1961), "The Masque of the Red Death" (1964) and "The House of Usher" (1960). Now comes "The Raven".

"The Raven" is a bit different compared to the other Poe adaptations. "The Raven" is more of a campy comedy. Not a comedy in a laugh-out-loud kind of way (at least I never laughed-out-loud) but in an amusing, lighthearted sort of way. The reason I think the movie works, to the extent it does, is because it knows it is campy. The cast, consisting of all horror movie pros; Vincent Price (a Corman regular), Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, give the audience a wink and a nod. They know what sort of movie this is and the best way to approach this material.

For an adaptation "The Raven" is pretty loose. Outside of naming the film the same as Poe's most famous story, having a raven in the movie and a female character named Lenore, very little is the same. This movie deals with magicians and magic and a power struggle between two of them. It is also a simple story of good vs evil.

Vincent Price stars as Dr. Erasmus Craven. A sometimes absent minded magician. His wife, Lenore (Hazel Court) has passed away two years ago. With her death his world has come to an end. Nevermore, to quote the raven, will he see or hear her voice.

One day a raven (voiced by Peter Lorre) flies into his window. It explains that he is really a man who has had a curse put on him by Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff). The raven requires Dr. Craven to make a potion which will convert the raven back to his human form, Dr. Bedlo.

Once Dr. Craven helps Dr. Bedlo, Bedlo explains that he has seen Lenore at Dr. Scarabus' castle. Bedlo suggest Craven follow him to Scarabus' castle, where Bedlo hopes to get revenge on Scarabus for turning him into a raven.

As you can tell little resembles the Poe story and there isn't much here that is scary. The film never goes for a creepy, mystic tone. The interplay between Price and Lorre is comical. They bicker like a married couple. Each throwing insults at the other. Lorre tries to get a lot of laughs presenting his character as a drunk.

For a Roger Corman film, the movie actually has a very talented cast. Price, Lorre and Karloff are experienced actors. You'll also see a young Jack Nicholson play Rexford Bedlo (Lorre's son). This might surprise some viewers who are use to seeing Nicholson act in higher caliber films. But Nicholson actually was given a big opportunity by Corman. He would act in other Corman films including "Little Shop of Horrors" (1960) and "The Terror" (1963). In Nicholson's performance you'll see him play the wannabe hero whom no one will listen to.

Will "The Raven" be a suitable film to watch on Halloween night? Probably not, depending on what you're looking for. If you are looking for a lot of scares, blood and guts, then no. If you are looking for a silly, playful story dealing with magic and Edgar Allan Poe, "The Raven" will work for you. The question is, how many people are looking for that?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Film Review: The Turin Horse

"The Turin Horse" **** (out of ****)

One of the most anticipated films at the 47th annual Chicago International Film Festival, for me, was the Hungarian film directed by Bela Tarr, "The Turin Horse" (2011).

Bela Tarr is one of the great and perhaps one of the most uncompromising filmmakers to come out of Central & Eastern Europe. His work can be compared to Michelangelo Antonioni, Theo Angelopoulos or Andrei Tarkovsky. But, like any great artist he is unique. He has his own vision. And is not to be compared to someone else. However, in an effort to help you understand what to expect in one of his films, I've made the comparisons.

Tarr's films are known for long, unbroken camera shots. When I reviewed his film, "Satantango" (1994), his most popular work, I wrote Tarr's films are filled with moments other directors would put on the cutting room floor. What I mean by that is, Tarr will keep his camera on his subjects long after the "message" of the scene has been conveyed. His films are not so much about conventional narrative as they are about abstract ideas. Tarr's films are more about pace and tone and emotion. His work may in fact put you in a trance. It can have a hypnotic quality. The films are also shot in black & white, something Tarr has been doing since his film "Damnation" (Karhozat, 1988). And they are sparse on dialogue. Clearly from my description of his work, you may be able to sense he is not a mainstream director. His films are not for everyone. Strangely, in my opinion anyway, the screening last night for this film was filled with young male college age film students. I say strange because I was expecting an older, Hungarian audience. Not so.

The reason I was so eager to see this particular Tarr film, besides the fact I have seen all of his films and I take a certain pride watching his films, as I am Hungarian myself, had to do with Tarr has said this will be his final film. If he holds true to that, it shall be a major loss for world cinema. Tarr is a distinct voice. His lost in cinema will be felt by film lovers all over.

But what about "The Turin Horse"? Well, I can't tell you much about it. Not because I don't want to spoil anything for you, but, because this is one of those movies some audience members would describe as a film where "nothing happens". Any time you walk into a Bela Tarr screening expect a divided audience. I remember the last time I saw a Tarr film at the festival, "The Man From London" (A London Ferfi, 2007), it was a packed house but people did walk out. They sighed and complained. They left the theatre baffled. "The Turn Horse" was no different. I saw people walk out of the theatre and never return. I heard an elderly woman tell her companion, "I simply didn't like it."

The film revolves around Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bok, whom Tarr first introduced in his film "Satantango" and has casted her in films since). Ohlsdorfer, whose job is never quite made clear, drives a horse and carriage. The horse is sick and is unable to make the journey into the city. These characters live lonely, dull lives. They live in a deserted village. We do not see another house for miles. There is a terrible wind storm, the sound of blowing wind fills the soundtrack. The characters rarely speak to each other, they rarely have guest. Their existence follows a routine. They eat at the same time, dress and undress at the same time and only eat potatoes.

That is not going to sound interesting to a large number of viewers. But you have to understand Tarr is a different kind of storyteller. Tarr is revealing character traits. The film has ideas. Only, this is an intellectual exercise. I personally was involved throughout the film. My mind was constantly going. Trying to understand the significance of certain scenes, certain images. I have not been this actively involved in a Bela Tarr film since "Almanac of the Fall" (Oszi almanach, 1984). "The Turin Horse" is probably Tarr's best film since "Satantango".

One image which Tarr keeps going back to, time and again, is their eating ritual. When we first see them eat Tarr keeps the camera on Ohlsdorfer. It is a medium close-up. We see him peel the skin off the potato and practically devour it. Tarr never breaks away to show the daughter. Why show us a man eat? You know you're going to ask yourself that question. But, wait a minute. Tarr is revealing character traits here. Lets dissect this scene. First, lets start with the obvious. The man is hungry. He scarfs down that potato as if there is no tomorrow. We can see the steam coming out of the food. He blows on his hands and the potato consistently, yet, he never allows the food to cool off. What does this tell us? He has no patience. He'd rather burn his mouth then wait. Also revealed in this scene is he never speaks. His main focus is on the food. Most people take pleasure when they eat. They sit down, have a conversation and relish their meal. Not this man. Eating is not a pleasurable experience.

Tarr goes back to this scene four more times in the film. Each time taking a different approach. The next time he shows them eating it is the daughter who is our focus. She takes her time eating. She slowly peels the potato and waits for it to cool off. An immediate contrast to the father. This reveals much about her. She has assumed the role of caretaker. She helps her father dress, cooks and cleans. Never complains or talks back. She has accepted her role.

Another sequence Tarr devotes much time to is the daughter dressing the father. One of his arms is broken. He is unable to move it. As a result he requires assistance. These moments enforce the concept of the daily routine of their life. The daughter knows the drill. And again we have to notice the lack of communication between father and daughter. Not a "hello", "good morning" or even a "thank you" from the father.

Now, at this point readers have to be asking themselves what does any of this have to do with the movie as a whole? An hour into the film a guest arrives, Bernhard (Mihaly Kormos). He starts to complain to Ohlsdorfer how life is meaningless. Society manages to debase everything. Our existence is filled with nothing more than victory and defeat. Life has an order to it but it is of a mundane existence. There is even mention of God in this conversation as the character explains, God's hand only makes things worst. This I believe is the message of the film. Bernhard is the heart and soul of the film. The movie's conscience if you will. We are all living our lives in expectations to the role that has been designed for us. The daughter's job is to take care of her father. The horse serves the man. The man serves God.

The film has that old Hungarian communist mentality that all of life is meaningless. Nothing good will ever happen. And we must remember this message is coming from a director who made a movie called "Damnation". The bleakness of society has always been a constant theme in Tarr's work.

Watching "The Turin Horse" I couldn't help but feel this is Tarr's most "pure" film. Tarr is simply being Tarr. He is not even going to attempt to get us a narrative. A character to root for. A beginning, middle and end. He is just going to do what he wants. Engage us through his images.

If this truly turns out to be Tarr's last film, it is a fitting conclusion to his career. It is a film which captures everything Tarr has stood for. It is the work of a bold, confident filmmaker with a unique vision. Tarr is stamped all over this film. It remains my favorite film at the Chicago International Film Festival. An uncompromising masterpiece. The work of a visionairy.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Film Review: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

"Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" *** (out of ****)

As I review horror films in the month of October in celebration of Halloween, I want to pay attention to a sub-genre of comedy which combines these two elements together.

Comedy/horror is nothing new. One of the earliest cinematic examples which I can instantly think of is the Harold Lloyd two-reeler, "Haunted Spooks" (1920) but no comedian or comedy team enaged in this mash-up combo more than Bud Abbott & Lou Costello. They first ventured into this genre in their comedy "Hold That Ghost" (1941) but the film that is often cited as their best example of this genre is "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948).

It is difficult to say why this is such a popular genre. One theory I have is, if we can laugh at what scares us, it is no longer scary. Comedy/horror films demonstrate the formula of most horror films then turns those movies on their head by making fun of them. Showing us, the audience, how silly it is to find these predictable movies scary.

The cross genre has been so popular over the years that nearly all the great comedians and comedy teams have attempted to delve into this terriority at least once. I've already given you the Harold Lloyd example. Other examples include Bob Hope in "The Ghost Breakers" (1940), the comedy team Olsen & Johnson in "Ghost Catchers" (1944), the team Wheeler & Woolsey in "Mummy's Boys" (1936) and Laurel & Hardy in "The Laurel & Hardy Murder Case" (1930). For a more modern example look at what Wes Craven did with the "Scream" series of films.

By the time "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" was made both "the boys" and the Universal Studio Monsters had fallen on hard times. Viewers were no longer interested in Dracula or Frankenstein's Monster. And Abbott & Costello were starting to show signs of aging. The team had unofficially split-up at one point. In their comedy "The Time of Their Lives" (1946) the team wasn't even on speaking terms. In that movie they do not have any scenes together (!). So, this film was an attempt to rejuvenate both properties; Abbott & Costello comedies and Universal horror films.

One of the reasons I think this film works as well as it does is because the film does a good job keeping the horror part serious. Lon Chaney Jr., the original Wolf Man and Bela Lugosi, the original Dracula are in this movie. The background story involving these characters could have honestly worked on its own. But the movie does an amazing balancing act and incorporates an "Abbott & Costello" comedy into the mix. The film does a great job splitting the movie in half. Those that want to watch the movie to see their favorite Universal Horror characters may enjoy the scenes involving those characters. Those who want to watch an Abbott & Costello comedy will find many gags and the team's famous wordplay to enjoy. In almost effortless fashion the film can easily go from comedy to horror within the same scene.

In the movie Abbott & Costello play a couple of baggage handlers; Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Costello). They are ordered to deliver two crates to a wax museum. Inside those crates are Dracula's coffin and Frankenstein's Monster, played by Glenn Strange (while not the original Monster, of course Boris Karloff was, Strange did play the Monster in previous films; "House of Dracula" (1945) and "House of Frankenstein" (1944). Naturally Chick doesn't believe in such nonsense. Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster were made up characters. But Wilbur is not so sure. One gag involves the team reprising their moving candle gag, seen in "Hold That Ghost". I wonder if it inspired Mel Brooks for his "put the candle back" routine in "Young Frankenstein" (1974).

From there the boys learn, from Larry Talbot (Chaney) that in fact Dracula and the Monster are real. Talbot has traveled from London to destroy them, once and for all. But will he be able to stop them? You see, Talbot has his own problem. Many years ago he was biten by a werewolf and when the moon is full...well, you know the story.

"Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" has a lot of fun with this set-up. As I said, the film never makes fun of the monsters. Their storylines are pretty much intact. You can describe the movie really as a horror film with Abbott & Costello thrown in. Not the other way around. Abbott & Costello are almost comic relief. The film is comparable to previous attempts by Universal Studios to combine all of these famous characters into one film. The "House" movies are an example of this as well as "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" (1943).

Unfortunately the following Abbott & Costello films which followed, where the team would meet various monsters, changed the formula a bit. Now the films would be Abbott & Costello comedies first, altering the movies to adjust to their style of comedy. That's why this movie is the best of all the films the team did in this genre.

Some interesting facts concerning the film are Boris Karloff doesn't make an appearance. As I understand it, he was in fact approached to play the role but declined fearing the film would make fun of the characters. However, Karloff would appear in a comedy with Abbott & Costello in "Abbott & Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff" (1949). Bela Lugosi would never again play "Dracula" in a movie. Lugosi was actually in "The Wolf Man" (1941) with Chaney. Lugosi's character was the one which turned Chaney into the Wolf Man.

If your looking for a good laugh on Halloween night, honestly "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" should please most viewers with its unique blend of comedy and horror.

Film Review: Dream House

"Dream House"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

Many times a studio will have a fine film on their hands but they won't know how to market it. They will make changes to the film against the director's wishes in an attempt to "sell" the film to a certain demographic. To have a wider commercial appeal. I have a feeling that's what happened to Jim Sheridan's "Dream House" (2011).

If you've happened to see the trailer for this film there is a good chance you were expecting a haunted house story. According to the trailer the film is about a family which moves into a new home, we assume this is where the film gets its title, it was their dream house, only to find out some disturbing secrets, like a family which was murdered in the house. It would seem the spirits of the house are trying to contact the living. Perhaps in an attempt to guard what they still feel is their home.

Well, I don't want to spoil anything for those that haven't seen this film yet, but, "Dream House" is and isn't about that. The film actually goes a little deeper than that. It is about the demons we keep inside us. Our inability to let go of the past. Not being able to fight our own skeletons in our closets. But the film has the look of a major Hollywood slasher film. A big-budget, brain dead production. Certainly that is how the film was marketed.

Daniel Craig plays Will Atenton. He and his family, Libby (Rachel Weisz) and their two daughters; Trish (Taylor Geare) and Dee Dee (Claire Geare) have left the city to move into their new suburban home. Will has even quit his job as an editor to spend more time with his family.

At first the film has the usual set-up we expect in a film such as this. The happy, well-adjusted family is excited about their new home. Everything seems perfect until one day the house starts to make noises and figures are seen outside the window and the neighbors don't seem so nice, in this film's case that would be Ann Patterson (Naomi Watts). What is going on?

Soon Will and Libby discover the house was the setting for a terrible murder. It is believed a man named Peter Ward killed his wife and two children. Peter is now going to be released from prison, where he was never found guilty of the crime. The fifth anniversary of the event is approaching making people in the community nervous. Will and Libby fear Peter is coming after their home.

The film has a terrific cast but no one really seems put to good use. Naomi Watts is wasted. A majority of the film has absolutely nothing to do with her. Her second billing is not deserved. Rachel Weisz has much more screen time. Watts is one of my favorite actresses working today. I believe she has extraordinary skills but "Dream House" does not allow her to display her acting range at all. An actress with the caliber of talent at Watt's level was not required of this role. It could have been a nice opportunity for an unknown actress to strike out. My guess is Watts was cast to remind people of her role in the horror film, "The Ring" (2002) which I never liked, including its sequel.

Craig fares a little better, because the role requires more of him but it just doesn't feel like Craig is giving his all in this movie. Everyone in the cast looks drained. Is director Jim Sheridan that difficult to work with?

For readers unaware Sheridan has actually directed some very good movies. He may be best known for "My Left Foot" (1989). He also directed "In the Name of the Father" (1993) and "In America" (2002), all of which were nominated for Academy Awards. So Sheridan has a pretty impressive track record. He is respected in the business. And one gets the feeling he wanted "Dream House" to be something more than your typical horror film. "Dream House" is really a psychological film. A kind of brain teaser. But the structure of the film felt a bit off. Somewhat underdeveloped. The movie's big twist felt a little too rushed for me.

I personally wouldn't call "Dream House" a scary movie. There isn't any blood or guts on-screen. No extreme violence. So, if after watching the trailer, you are expecting something along those lines, consider this your warning. You will be disappointed.

There's a good movie lurking around somewhere in "Dream House". I can most definitely see the possibilities. Sadly the final product doesn't live up to the film's potential. Too bad. This is a missed opportunity.

Film Review: His Mother's Eyes

"His Mother's Eyes"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

As the 47th annual Chicago International Film Festival continues, I managed to attend a screening for this somewhat interesting French film, "His Mother's Eyes" (2011), a film which was under the radar at the festival. Just what I like. I enjoy attending the films which others aren't seeking out. You never know, you might discover a gem. "His Mother's Eyes" isn't a gem in my opinion, but, it was a risk I was willing to take.

"His Mother's Eyes" stars the great French cinematic icon Catherine Deneuve. I hate to say it, but, Deneuve has not been in a film which I feel deserves her. I think very highly of Deneuve as an actress. Gone are the days when this beauty appeared in "important" films in which she would give stirring performances. No more "Repulsion" (1965), "Belle de Jour" (1967) or "Tristana" (1970) in her future. Now she appears in movies like "Potiche" (2011), "8 Women" (2002), "The Girl On The Train" (2009, which I also saw at the film festival) and "Apres lui" (2007). Mind you, none of these films are bad. I enjoyed "The Girl On The Train" by Andre Techine quite a bit. I thought it was one of the best films of the year. But, my appreciation for that movie and others had nothing to do with Deneuve. Films and directors don't seem to be using her properly anymore. Or are they simply not making films like they use to? Films which demanded more of her.

On paper "His Mother's Eyes" sounds like an interesting concept. The film centers on Mathieu Roussel (Nicolas Duvauchelle, who appeared with Deneuve in "The Girl On The Train" and other highly celebrated French films such as "White Material" (2010) and "Wild Grass" (2010) by Alain Resnais). He is a celebrity journalist. One of those people who hunts down the rich and famous and writes "tell all" books exposing old family secrets and scandalous sex stories and gossip. Mathieu has now set his sights on TV anchorwoman, Lena Weber (Deneuve).

In preparation for his new book Mathieu lands a job as a personal assistant to Lena thereby giving his access to her daily routine. He also manages to meet Lena's estrange daughter, Maria (Geraldine Pailhas) a famous ballet dancer. He never reveals to Maria he knows her mother and never reveals to Lena he has contacted Maria.

There are many secrets hidden in these people's lives. Why exactly does Lena and Maria have such a strained relationship. What exactly his the relationship between Maria and Judit (Marisa Paredes), an elderly Spainish women who acts as Maria's mother. We also learn Maria had a child, Bruno (Jean-Baptiste Lafarge) whom she gave up for adoption and now would like to contact.

Mathieu learns all of these family secrets. It is a goldmine for his new book. But after spending so much time with these people can Mathieu go through with his deceitful behavior?

Walking into "His Mother's Eyes" I was expected a suspense film. I felt the plot called for that tone. But "His Mother's Eyes" doesn't fall into that genre. It plays its material more heartfelt. It goes for drama. That was kind of a mistake in my opinion. "His Mother's Eyes" could have been a Claude Chabrol type thriller. In fact the great French master of suspense did make a film about a journalist interviewing a celebrity where sinister family secrets were learned. The film was called "Masques" (1987, I have reviewed it). That film had a tongue-in-cheek tone though. Still, I enjoyed that film a bit more.

For what it does, "His Mother's Eyes" has some nice moments. Unfortunately, once again, I wasn't impressed by Deneuve, the film doesn't really give her much to do. There aren't many scenes which require a great range of emotion, but, everyone else does a nice job. Geraldine Pailhas seems sincere in her scenes where she tries to reach out to her son. We can sense her optimism and defeat. Duvauchelle plays the creep, no morals character quite well. We can never quite tell which side of the fence he is on. Is he showing emotion or just playing a part, trying to manipulate these people?

The film was written and directed by Thierry Klifa. Unfortunately I'm not familiar with this director's work. But Klifa does have a fine eye and is more than capable of stringing a film together. I just couldn't get over the feeling that the movie was playing against what should have been a more natural tone and pace for this type of story.

I'm skeptical if this movie will find distribution in the United States, still, I'm glad I saw the movie.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Film Reviews: Bedlam & Isle of the Dead



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

Since starting this blog some years ago I have always devoted the month of October to horror films in honor of Halloween. This year will be no different. In the past I have usually written about classic horror films such as "Dracula" (1931) and "Frankenstein" (1931). I have also spent a great deal of time reviewing the films made by producer Val Lewton. And here we have two more films produced by the great horror/suspense master; "Bedlam" (1946) and Isle of the Dead" (1945).

Both films were directed by Mark Robson and star Boris Karloff. Of the two films I would say "Bedlam" is the better one, though not the best collaboration between Karloff and Lewton, who worked on three films together. My favorite is "The Body Snatcher" (1945), which I have already reviewed.

"Bedlam" plays around with some religious themes, as most horror films do, and themes of nature vs nurture. What makes people bad? What brings about violence? Is it something simply within humans or does environment play a role? How are we suppose to treat the less fortunate, like animals or with kindness?

Boris Karloff plays Master George Sims. He runs an insane asylum. A fatal accident, of a sane man, has allowed Master Sims to fall out of favor with Lord Mortimer (Billy House). The man who died was a friend of his Lordship. Sims has explained that is was all an accident and in order to win good favor once again with his Lordship as invited him and his protege, Nell Bowen (Anna Lee), to his asylum where they may laugh at these people as they attempt to put on a play. His Lordship loves the idea but Ms. Bowen isn't sold on the idea.

At the asylum Sims regards these people as less than animals. He beats them, steals their food and does not provide stable living conditions. No beds or treatment. You see, they are violent, uneducated people. They do not deserve proper treatment. They wouldn't be able to appreciate it anyway, they are too ignorant to know any better. You mustn't treat them the way you would a civilize person.

Ms. Bowen arrives at the asylum to see exactly what goes on there. Sims, who doesn't like her, agrees to show her and explain his views. Though Ms. Bowen has a cold exterior, inside she is deeply affected by what she sees. Sims' views disgust her. She vows to reform this asylum with the help of Lord Mortimer. But this doesn't meet the approval of Sims. Ms. Bowen must be gotten rid of. Sims decides to have her locked up in his asylum. Then we shall see if she still regards these less fortunate individuals as "people". If they are worthy of kindness.

When we watch a Val Lewton production you expect a lot of shadows, danger lurking in the darkness. Lewton's films are more about atmosphere than say screen violence. In fact, violence is never shown on-screen in any of his films. If you walk into any of these films with a slasher mentality you will be gravely disappointed.

However, "Bedlam" misses a few golden opportunities. It required more scenes inside the asylum. At first Ms. Bowen is scared to be there. She wants to leave. Here Lewton and Robson should have shown us what type of place this asylum is. What exactly goes on there. How are the people treated? How do they react to Ms. Bowen. The setting is a perfect backdrop for a suspense/horror film. We aren't in the darkness so much. And we never come to fully understand what exactly happened to his Lordship's friend. Was he on to Sims? Was he about to expose him?

When compared to "Isle of the Dead", Karloff gives a much better performance here. He is more animated. More entertaining to watch.

The director, Robson, worked with Lewton on a few movies. He replaced Lewton's best director, Jacques Tourner, who directed "The Cat People" (1943) and "I Walked with A Zombie" (1943). Robson seems to have lacked Tourner's vision and understanding of what makes a Lewton film work. Robson directed "The Seventh Victim" (1943) and "The Ghost Ship" (1943) with Lewton and would go on, after Lewton, to direct the Frank Sinatra vehicle "Von Ryan's Express" (1965) and "Earthquake" (1974). Nothing he would work on suggested a man who understood horror.

Still "Bedlam" is perhaps Robson's best film with Lewton. He doesn't take full advantage of the film's setting, which would have worked nicely with this genre, still the film has some nice moments and interesting ideas.

"Isle of the Dead" *** (out of ****)

On paper I suppose "Isle of the Dead" should have worked but the final product is a bit weak. Once again we have a wonderful setting which isn't taken full advantage of.

We are in the midst of the war of 1912 on a Greek island. The plague has struck. A group of people are stranded on an island together for fear of spreading the disease. There is also the threat of an evil spirit, the vorvolaka, which may live inside a young woman, Thea (Ellen Drew).

The premise sounds creepy enough to get a few scares. It reminds me a bit of Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None", where one by one each character will die off due to the plague. Who will be the last person standing? It also reminds me of other Val Lewton films like "The Cat People" also a story about an evil force within a young woman. And "I Walked with A Zombie" which takes place on an island where evil lurks. All three works are better.

Karloff stars once again as Gen. Pherides who arrives on the island to visit the grave of his wife. He along with an American war correspondent, Oliver (Marc Cramer) discover that the bodies are no longer in the graves. They notice a house on the island and pay a visit. A gentlemen named Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr.) has been living on the islands for years and knows all about the grave robbers. But there is nothing he can do. He suggest the general and Oliver spend the night with him and his guest; Mr. and Mrs. St. Aubyn (Alan Napier, best known for playing Alfred on the 1960s TV show "Batman" and Katherine Emery) and Thea.

When one of these characters dies the general believes it is the plague and everyone must stay on the island. But could it be something else? Could it be the evil spirit called the vorvolaka? Thought originally to be an ancient Greek myth perhaps it is true.

Once again Robson doesn't fully understand what makes a Lewton film work. The movie should be drenched in atmosphere. Isolated island, dead bodies, evil spirits, it doesn't get much better than this for a horror film. And Boris Karloff is it. It should all add up but it doesn't. Karloff in particular is quite stiff in this movie. Almost everyone seems in a bit of a trance. I guess in theory still goes along with the title, "Isle of the Dead", why should these actors be acting "alive"?

I'd put "Isle of the Dead" pretty low on Lewton's scale. Better to watch "Bedlam", "The Cat People", "The Leopard Man" (1943) and "I Walked with A Zombie".

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Film Review: What Love May Bring

"What Love May Bring" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

The 47th annual Chicago International Film Festival has begun and for my first night attending the festival I was at a special screening for Claude Lelouch's latest film, "What Love May Bring" (2011). Mr. Lelouch graced the audience with his presence, where he was also given an award.

I have long been a fan of Mr. Lelouch, a filmmaker perhaps best known for the film "A Man & A Woman" (1966). For which he won an Academy Award for the film's screenplay. When I found out his newest film was going to be screened, I knew I had to attend. The last film Mr. Lelouch directed, which was distributed in this country was "Roman de Gare" (2008). So I was due for another Lelouch film. Plus, there was the chance this film might not get picked up. Another film Mr. Lelouch had screened at the festival, "Le Courage d'aimer" (2005) never found American distribution. Sadly the name Claude Lelouch doesn't mean much to today's movie audience. Those in attendance at yesterday's screening were of the older variety.

"What Love May Bring" tells us the story of Ilva Lemoine (Audrey Dana), a woman on trial for killing her husband, the very wealthy Jim (Gilles Lemaire). Her attorney, Simon (Laurent Couson) tells the court Ilva's life story as well as his own life story (why are all lawyers such ego maniacs?).

The film takes us back to the 1920s where Ilva's mother, an actress in porn films, finally meets a nice man, Maurice (Dominique Pinon, who was in "Roman de Gare"). Next it is the beginning of WW2. This Jewish family is now being watched by the Nazis. Maurice, unknown to his step-daughter, is part of the resistance. But, no matter, because Ilva has fallen in love with a German soldier. Soon the Americans enter the war, where Ilva's meets two American soldiers, Jim and his best friend, a black soldier, Bob (Jacky Ido). Both men are in love with her and she may very well be in love with both of them.

For the first 90 minutues of this two hour film, I was intensely hooked. Claude Lelouch has given us a valentine, a celebration of life, love and that glorious thing called cinema. I found myself captivated by Ilva and Simon's story. Simon, also a Jew, is sent to a concentration camp, where in order to survive he keeps himself glued to the piano. He longs for a woman he meet on one of the trains to the camp. One who has now vanished.

But then sadly Mr. Lelouch gets a little self-reflective in the last act. A little too self-congraditatory. There is actually a character based on Mr. Lelouch in the film. There is a brief montage of Mr. Lelouch's films. Then the movie becomes a movie within a movie. We see an audience attend a screening of this movie. These moments serve no function. There aren't needed and completely go against the tone the previous 90 minutues had established. It was here the movie started to lose me.

If Mr. Leouch, who co-wrote the film with long time collaborator, Pierre Uytterhoven, who wrote "A Man & A Woman", along with its sequel, "A Man & A Woman: 20 Years Later" (1986), should have edited these finally minutes and just keep the film as the story of Simon and Ilva. Why turn the movie and the audience on its head with all this tapping himself on the back. Yes, Mr. Leouch is a great filmmaker. No question. I even wouldn't have mind the character who is suppose to be him in the movie but when you start showing a montage of your own films in the middle of one of your films, in an attempt to celebrate your own career, I believe you have gone a bit too far. A great talent deserves to be celebrated but not by the filmmaker himself. It comes off a little too forced.

Still I cannot deny the amazing effect the first 90 minutes had on me. It is a lovely period piece filled with great music, mostly "Stormy Weather" and the wonderful French song, "I Wish You Love" and a lot of emotion. You begin to feel for these characters and their stories. Their struggles, their search for love.

As I walked out of the theatre I over heard many people say how great the movie was. Their was a big applause at the end of the film. No one wanted to leave the theatre after the credits, I assume because they wanted to hear what Mr. Leouch was going to say. I mention this because clearly their is an audience for the film. There are people who are going to enjoy it greatly. I myself love many, many things about the movie too. But, will it be distributed in this country? Will a wider audience gain access to see this film? I'm not too sure.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Film Review: Midnight in Paris

"Midnight in Paris" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" (2011) starts off with images of the streets of Paris as the great New Orleans jazz musician, Sidney Bechet (who lived in Paris in his last years) plays "Si tu vois ma mere" on the soundtrack.

It is a moment not unlike the opening montage in Allen's "Manhattan" (1979) where Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" plays over a collection of iconic New York images as Allen gives us a narration. Both films are a valentine to a city. Both films deal with men who idolize a city all out of proportion.

In "Midnight in Paris" Owen Wilson plays Gil, an American who has traveled to Paris with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Gil is a bit of an old soul. A man who wonders what Paris in the 1920s must have been like. A time when Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald rubbed elbows with Ernest Hemingway. A time when Cole Porter was writing songs like "Lets Fall in Love", "You've Got That Thing" and "You Do Something To Me". A time when Picasso and Salvador Dali painted masterpieces. All of this amazing culture in one city, in one time.

But not everyone shares in Gil's pleasure. For instance Inez thinks it is foolish to romanticize the past. Better to leave the past behind and live in the present. Though Gil is unable to. He wants to live in Paris and emulate his heroes, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He wants to write a great American novel, whereas Inez wants to live in Malibu and demands Gil keep his job as a Hollywood screenwriter.

I'm not sure how much of a spoiler this will be, but just in case. If you have not heard about this film, if you have not seen it yet; SPOILER ALERT:

One night, while alone, and walking the street of Paris at midnight, Gil magically finds himself transported to 1920s Paris where he meets all of his idols. He has Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) read his novel. Discusses literature with Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston). He meets Dali (Adrian Brody) and speaks of love. And he meets Adriana (a fictitious character played by Marion Cotillard) a woman who serves as a muse to these great artist. She no doubt captures Gil's heart and inspires him. END SPOILER

The film plays with themes which have often been central in a Woody Allen film. Themes of fantasy vs reality and a longing for the past. Allen of course has given us such films as "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994) a valentine to 1920s America, and "Radio Days" (1987) a look back at Allen's childhood in the 1940s. But here Allen is his most forthcoming with this theme. And his offers a surprising message. Surprising because Allen contradicts his own message. That being, every generation perceives the past as being better than current times. Woody Allen makes films where characters discuss Hemingway and Cole Porter and classic jazz music plays in his films. Isn't Allen also living in the past?

I have now seen "Midnight in Paris" twice. The first time I saw it was opening day, several months ago. I liked the film, thought it was okay with some minor problems. Since that time many people have told me how much they enjoyed the movie. People who normally don't like Allen or see his films have sung the film's praises. What was wrong with me I thought. On paper the film sounds right up my alley. I too am an old soul. I idolize the past and feel I was born in the wrong times. I can very much so relate to the Gil character, but, "Midnight in Paris" didn't connect as strongly with me as I thought it would.

The film has turned out to be Allen's greatest achievement, in box-office terms, grossing more than $50 million dollars in the U.S. alone. It is still in theatres and so I thought I would check it out again. Make sure I hadn't missed something. Perhaps I was in the wrong mood the first time I saw the film. It turns out I was.

"Midnight in Paris" has grown on me after a second viewing. Much in my life has changed since I first saw this film. The idea of longing for the past, a time when things made sense, now strongly resonates with me. Within these past few months death and failed relationships have occupied my thoughts and filled my days. My grandmother passed away and a romantic relationship ended. In fact "Midnight in Paris" was the last film we saw together before our break-up. I thought about these things watching the film again.

In every Woody Allen film, which Allen has not casted himself, there is usually a character Allen himself would have played if he where younger and audiences didn't have a hostile attitude towards seeing him on-screen. Here it is the Gil character of course. Most actors who play this character usually do a Woody Allen impersonation. Wilson does this on a small scale with similar hand gestures and speech patterns but it is not annoying. A majority of critics have claimed Wilson gives the best performance of his career. Who knew he was capable of more than silly, gross out humor?

One of the problems I originally had with "Midnight in Paris" was I felt Allen didn't romanticize the time period. It felt like Allen wasn't sentimental towards the 1920s. The film didn't really feel magical in those moments. Another problem was I thought Allen is asking a lot of his audience. He is making some pretty big assumptions that today's audience knows who Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali and Cole Porter are. Those who know who these people are will get a kick out of the film, but, what about those who have never read Fitzgerald? Or those who have never heard a Cole Porter song? Will they like this movie? They might, they will clearly understand the basic concept of the film, but, will it tickle their fancy the same way it does for those of us who know who these people are?

I'm glad I saw "Midnight in Paris" again. In what has been a pretty good year for movies, Allen's film, is a standout. A wonderfully, rich experience. A film full of charm and tidbits of wisdom.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Film Review: Bitter Sugar

"Bitter Sugar" *** (out of ****)

It has been my opinion that the majority of Cuban films suffer from the same problem. The films of Cuba are made strickly for Cubans to see and no one else. Of the handful of Cuban films I have seen nearly none of them portray the political climate of the country correctly. Most of the Cuban films I have seen have revolved around the Castro revolution. All of them have been pro-Castro. What I've never been able to figure out is what was wrong with the Batista regime? What was the country like? What lead to Castro?

The Cuban film "Bitter Sugar (Azucar Amarga 1997) doesn't answer any of these questions but it is a remarkable film none-the-less. The film deals with, at the time, modern day Cuba. Castro has been in power for decades. His grip is firmly felt throughout the country. But "Bitter Sugar" does something few Cuban films have done. First it shows us what Cubans are feeling. It truly gives us a sense of the country and what the people of Cuba think and feel. Secondly, it is anti-Castro (I assume because of this the film was not shot in Cuba but rather Santo Domingo).

Of the more modern films from Cuba I have seen, they seem to suggest everything is not okay in their homeland. The film, Nada (2001) disguised itself as a quirky romance, but, beneath its surface was the story of a woman who wanted to escape a repressed country. Here too in "Bitter Sugar" we are dealing with characters who want to escape a repressed country, only this film makes it its center theme. And that's what I admire most about "Bitter Sugar". The film displays a level of frustration and despair. We can almost sense how hopeless things are in Cuba. There is no social advancement.

The hero of the film is Gustavo (Rene Lavan) a bright young college student who has the chance to leave Cuba and study in Prague. But, you see, Rene and his family are Communist. Devoted communist in fact. They even have pictures of Fidel hanging on their wall. They believe in what Castro stands for. Gustavo's father, Dr. Valdez (Miguel Gutierrez) remembers well when Castro took power. He felt it was going to be a great moment of change. A new beginning. But Cuba is still facing hard times. Still, one can't abandon the great leader. At least that is what Gustavo believes.

Gustavo's brother, Bobby (Larry Villanueva) does not share his family's political views. He is a musician who embraces American music. Gustavo soon meets a beautiful woman, Yolando (Mayte Vilan). She also does not support Castro. Can these two people change Gustavo and his father's mind?

Without spoiling much, the majority of the characters in "Bitter Sugar" learn the bitter truth about Cuba. They each face hardships and disappointments. Maybe the great leader isn't so great after all. In Hungarian cinema, which was also at one time a Communist country, there is a filmmaker named Istvan Szabo. He usually makes films which concern the theme, with great power comes great corruption. I always think of Szabo when I watch Cuban films and that particular theme. Isn't that exactly what happened with Castro? Here was a man people put faith in. A man who said he would end the corruption which plagued his beloved country. But as soon as he gained power he realized he liked it and would not reliquish it. With his great power came great corruption.

I have a hunch "Bitter Sugar" shows us what Cuba is really like. What the people are really experiencing. Other Cuban films like "Guaguasi" (1983), "Hello Hemingway" (1990) and "Clandestinos" (1988) did not present us with an accurate portrait of Cuba and the issues which the country faces. They didn't give us a feeling of the times. That was their downfall. "Bitter Sugar" has some emotionally strong and powerful moments. Moments when character make grand speeches but their words ring true. Their feelings seem sincere. We are drawn into their despair.

The film was directed by Leon Ichaso. He has worked on some American TV shows like "Miami Vice" and even directed "Saturday Night Live" back in the early eighties. He says the film is based on his own experiences and the experiences of most Cuban-Americans. I believe him. In fact, if someone is Cuban and decides to watch this movie, I'm almost not sure if that is a good idea. I would imagine that person would become so sad to see what their country has become.

For the rest of us though, it is a compelling and disturbing look inside Cuba.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Film Review: Queen of the Lot

"Queen of the Lot"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Queen of the Lot" (2010) is another quirky, off-beat Henry Jaglom film, starring his latest muse, the actress Tanna Frederick. This is their third film together and are already working on a fourth.

"Queen of the Lot" is a sequel to Jaglom's and Frederick's first film together, "Hollywood Dreams" (2007). In that film, Maggie Chase (Frederick) as she is now called, was a young novice actress from Iowa (where Frederick is really from) who dreamed of becoming a Hollywood actress. The film also had a subplot dealing with sexual identity. In "Queen of the Lot" Maggie is a big star. She is best known for her roles in action films.

Sadly for Maggie, Hollywood has not turned out to be all she thought it would. Maggie she gained a reputation as a "bad girl". In the beginning moments of the film the camera wants to make sure that the viewer knows Ms. Chase is wearing an electronic ankle bracelet due to a DUI.

Unable to deal with the public scrutiny Maggie decides she and her boyfriend, Dov Lambert (Christoher Rydell) head out to her agents; Kaz (Zack Norman) and Caesar (David Proval) a homosexual couple. After a few night there, where Maggie even has the gaul to ask to sleep in the master bedroom, Dov thinks its best he and Maggie head out to his father's (Jack Heller) estate, where they can spend the Christmas holiday together. It is there Maggie meets Dov's brother, Aaron (Noah Wyle, who actually gets second billing!) and a romance begins to blossom.

At first I thought "Queen of the Lot" was going to be a satirical look at Hollywood. A critique on the state of today's actors, whom once they achieve fame give up on all artistic merit. I thought the film was going to show us the phony nature of Hollywood and all the wheeling and dealing which goes on behind the scenes to get a picture made. And finally I simply thought the film was going to show an actress headed towards a downward spiral as the Hollywood culture takes her down and she yearns for her old life in Iowa again.

Sadly "Queen of the Lot" is none of those things. Maggie doesn't shy away from the limelight, she places herself in the middle of attention. She google's her name and reads what others say about her. She wants to achieve greater success. She wants people to notice her when she walks on the sidewalk or sits down at a cafe. She wants her face on a cup.

The film doesn't take many shots at Hollywood either. Henry Jaglom has been making films for forty years. Like John Cassevettes or Mike Leigh, he has been a force in the independent film circuit. If anyone can dish the dirt on Hollywood and back room deals, I would have thought it would have been Jaglom. I would have thought he would relish the opportunity to expose these people. I'm sure he has some good stories to tell. But he doesn't tell any of them in this film.

But there are some good moments in the film. Some of my favorites involve Peter Bogdanovich. He plays a nearly washed-up filmmaker, Pedja (where the heck did they get that name from?) who is being ordered to remake Ernst Lubitsch's classic romantic comedy, "Trouble in Paradise" (1932, my personal favorite Lubitsch comedy). Pedja is against it and begins to explain why he nor anyone else should ever remake any Lubitsch film.

Bogdanovich is always a pleasure to watch on-screen. Whether he is giving an interview or acting in a movie he lights up the screen. He always has good stories to tell and is an encyclopedia on the subject of the history of film.

I also think Noah Wyle probably gives the best performance in the film. Compare his style of acting to some of the others in the film. Wyle comes off much more realistic. He doesn't seem to be over-acting. His behavior and speech reflects that of a normal, everyday person. You can relate to him. Watching him on-screen acting opposite some of the other actors shows you why he is a professional and the others simply have a lot to learn.

I was though disappointed there wasn't more for Zack Norman. Norman is one of my favorite Jaglom regulars. He has a great comic style of acting and a persona which always reminds me of Woody Allen, a fast-talking, wild hand gesturing, dreamer. It is also too bad Bogdanovich isn't given enough time.

But while those moments are good, it isn't always enough. "Queen of the Lot" doesn't focus on its original theme of an actress' personal life spinning out of control. Many times the film's dialogue comes out of left field, like a moment when Maggie talks about masturbating pigs (!). Or mention of a subplot concerning one of the characters about to lose their home, or the marital status of some of the characters. The film just goes into directions it never should have. The plot structure is too loose.

New York Daily News film critic, Elizabeth Weitzman wrote in her review of this film, "if Henry Jaglom is determined to push muse Tanna Frederick on us, he really ought to give her more than the self-congratulatory vanity projects they keep churning out together." I actually wrote something similar in my review for Jaglom's last film, "Irene in Time" (2009). In "Queen of the Lot" I didn't feel that way but I could see Weitzman's point. Almost all of the male characters fall for Maggie. It reminds me a bit of the film "Pandora's Box" (1929) with Louise Brooks, where Brooks brings out lust in every man she meets. But Frederick is no Louise Brooks.

"Queen of the Lot" I guess is the best film Jaglom and Frederick have worked on together but unfortunately that's not saying much since I haven't been greatly impressed with Jaglom's work of late. When will Jaglom give us more movies like "Sitting Ducks" (1980), "Deja Vu" (1998) and his much better film looking at the movies and movie stars, "Festival in Cannes" (2002)?

Since "Queen of the Lot" invokes classic Hollywood, by name dropping Norma Shearer, Louis B. Mayer and Ernst Lubitsch maybe Jaglom should have rewatched some classics like "Bombshell" (1933) a great Jean Harlow comedy about an actress who wants a normal life or the funny Howard Hawks comedy "Twentieth Century" (1934).

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Film Review: Cowboys & Aliens

"Cowboys & Aliens" ** 1\2 (out of ****)


When you hear about a movie called "Cowboys & Aliens" (2011) you tend to review the movie before you even see it. Lets face it, the movie sounds goofy. People are going to judge the quality of the movie based on the title alone. It may in fact work in the film's favor. Some might think "what the heck kind of movie is this going to be" and then they'll head out to see it. Others, will hear this title and say it sounds horrible. I'm somewhere in the middle.

"Cowboys & Aliens" might not be the movie some people are expecting. I don't think this is a spoiler but "Cowboys & Aliens" is not a campy, broad comedy. The film is a western first and foremost, second a science fiction adventure. The film has a set-up and a cast of characters you would find in a typical western film. Director Jon Favreau, his screenwriters and this cast take this material serious. In my opinion that serves as a plus. Still there are those who criticize that move, among them, Wall Street Journal movie critic Joe Morgenstern who wrote, "cowboys versus aliens is a concept that may make you smile in anticipation, but wipe that smile off your face before buying your ticket, because the film takes its subject seriously - deadly seriously".

And you have to hand it to this cast. No one is winking at the camera, no one has a smirk on their face. This cast, starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, actually give engaging performances. Their characters are as believable as characters can be in movie called "Cowboys & Aliens". These are characters with a background story. Characters with an objective. They are motivated by emotions. This isn't a shoot 'em up, brain dead action film. There is acting required. That is another plus in the film's favor.

Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan. A mysterious man who roams into a town called Absolution. He wakes up one day in an empty field. He has a metal brace attached to his arm. He doesn't know what it is, how it was put on him, where he is or who he is.

He finds himself in trouble after an encounter with the son of a big cattle rancher, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and when the local sheriff (Keith Carradine) figures out who he is. A wanted criminal with a reward on his head.

Here we have the set-up of most western. The mysterious stranger who rides into town and confronts the town's local villain. The beautiful woman who brings out the softer side of our anti-hero, in this film's case, Ella (Olivia Wilde). And then these two men must join together when a dangerous gang rides into town. Only in this film's case that dangerous gang is aliens and they ride into town in flying saucers not horses.

Once the aliens start rounding up the townsfolk, in order to study humans, a posse is formed to attack the aliens and get the townsfolk back.

The film is based on a comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg and was adapted by a gang of writers consisting of Roberto Orci and his partner Alex Kurtzman. Together they wrote "Star Trek" (2009) and "Mission:Impossible III" (2006). And the writing team of Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby who worked on Favreau's "Iron Man" (2008), also a comic book adaptation, and "Children of Men" (2006). These men took this project serious and must have studied the western genre. Still Joe Morgenstern may have been on to something when he said the film could have used some light-heartedness.

Jon Favreau is proving himself to be an accomplished mainstream filmmaker. His first "Iron Man" was accepted by fan boys as a worth-while comic book movie and its sequel, while it didn't receive the same glowing reviews, did make a lot of money. And now with "Cowboys & Aliens" which is positioning itself for the number one spot this weekend, with the children's film "Smurfs" (2011) giving it a run for its money ("Smurfs" is not worth watching) Favreau has another hit on his hands.

But part of me just couldn't get over the goofy, absurd nature of the film. Yes, I appreciate the acting and the look of the film but, I couldn't quite accept the blending of these two genres. Though you have to admit the filmmaker and the actors sure give it the ol' college try. But could a film, which blends these two genres have actually worked in the first place? Was the deck stacked against it to begin with? It is difficult to find the right tone for a project such as this.

In a rather smart move, the movie avoids all discussion of how this came to be. The cowboys don't know these are "aliens" at least they never call them that by name. There is no scientific explanation for how these aliens came to invade the old west. The only mis-step is with the Ella character and explanations of her origins, which are never properly explained. I still don't know where she comes from. And I'm not sure it matters.

If it sounds like I'm on the fence about "Cowboys & Aliens" that's because I am. Should you see this movie? Maybe. I will say this is probably going to be the best alien invasion movie of the old west we will see for a while.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Film Review: The Company Men

"The Company Men" *** (out of ****)

In a strange twist of fate I saw "The Company Men" (2011) on the same day the U.S. Labor report for the month of June was released. According to the report only 18,000 jobs were created last month. The employment rate rose to 9.2% which equals more than 14 millions Americans who are out of work.

I mention all of this for a reason, believe it or not. This is what John Wells' "The Company Men" is about. The film deals which our current recession (though some would call it a depression) and our economic downturn. Millions of people are out of work as companies downsize. Meanwhile, CEOs are getting paid bonuses and the disparity between workers and their employers grows.

"The Company Men" centers on a shipbuilding company, GTX, run by James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson). The company's stocks are down, there is a threat of outsiders buying the company, taking control of the company which Salinger and his best friend, Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) started from scratch. In order to deal with this problem Salinger and his board decide the best thing to do is downsize. More than 5,000 people are let go. Among that number is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper).

In a bizarre way "The Company Men" reminds me of "The Best Years Of Our Lives" (1946) the "Best Picture" Oscar winner, which dealt with post-WW2 America, and how soldiers reacted to returning home. In "The Company Men", just like "The Best Years" we follow three men; McClary, Walker and Woodward. Each man represents a different job-market reality. Walker is a young man, who put in 12 years at the company. He has an impressive resume and because of that he believes he will rapidedly find another job. The true nature of how bad the economy is hasn't hit him. He suspects it will only take a couple of days until he finds something else. Woodward represents an older generation. He is pushing 60 years old. He and his family are use to a certain way of life. This isn't the America he was taught about. There was a time you put in x amount of years with a company and you had job security. You saved some money on the side, had a nest egg, bought a home, put your kids through college. Woodward has done most of those things but isn't ready to retire. McClary is the company head with a conscience. He doesn't want to see these jobs go but, even with the company downsizing, he still makes money from his shares.

A lot of people compared "The Company Men" to the George Clooney vehicle "Up in the Air" (2009). There is however a big difference. "Up in the Air" was really a romantic/comedy/drama about a man who learns the value of his life. In that film we followed a man who fired people (this film has a character like that played by Maria Bello). In "The Company Men" who follow the people Clooney fired. This in some ways makes "The Company Men" a more relatable film. It might not be as good as "Up in the Air" but that is only because it isn't written as sharply and some of the performances didn't strike me the way they did in "Air".

Watching "The Company Men" though made me think about my own life. At the start of 2011 I was out of a job (unlike these characters and most of Americans, my situation was different, I quit my job. Yes, you read that right. In this economy I actually quit my job). For three months I was unemployed. Sure, I had some money saved up, but I wanted to work again. I needed to find something better than what I had. Luckily I did find something better, well, kind of. I don't have any benefits but I get a paycheck. "The Company Men" made me take a moment and pause. I'm blessed to have a job in this economy. I can pay my bills, put money in the bank and buy things I don't really need.

That is probably the strength of a film like "The Company Men". It isn't about the acting, though Cooper and Jones are good in their roles. The film is timely. We can see ourselves in these characters. We've been in this situation or you currently are. It feels realistic. The characters here face problems and make decisions which we have all had to make. Selling a home, selling a car, stop eating out, looking for a job which pays less than the one you just had. But hey, you gotta do what you gotta do to get by. As one character says in the film, "just be thankful you have a job."

Friday, May 6, 2011

Film Review: Hello Hemingway

"Hello Hemingway" ** (out of ****)

"Hello Hemingway" (1990) is a Cuban drama set in 1956 revolving around a young girl's dream of making a better life for herself. She wants to study in America and when great difficulty comes her way she finds inspiration in Ernst Hemingway and his novel "The Old Man & The Sea".

On some level I can relate to and admire Fernado Perez's film. But good intentions don't always translate into a good film. "Hello Hemingway" has some good moments and is in some ways a technically well made piece of work but the film doesn't do enough in creating a proper political environment, has a truly awful score and sometimes I felt introduced plot twist which were never needed and/or properly explained.

I have been watching quite a few Cuban movies these past several months. Largely in part because my girlfriend is half-Cuban. One can immediate notice certain themes prevalent throughout the country's cinema. From what I have seen they are largely political. Or at the very least have politics in the background.

I have yet to see a Cuban film, including "Hello Hemingway", which has fully explained what was wrong with the Batista regime (which was backed by the United States) and how people knew Castro was going to be a problem. In fact, I haven't seen any Cuban movie which was made shortly after the revolution that was critical of Castro.

The American film "The Lost City" (2005) tried to tell us the story of Cuba. While one can argue the film was somewhat successful, and I can completely understand why someone who is Cuban would be able to appreciate that film, I felt it didn't give us an accurate depiction of what Cuba was like. Instead I prefer the Cuban film, "A Successful Man" (1987).

I mention all of this because "Hello Hemingway" throws politics into its story. It ends on a heavy handed political message. A group of college students want to see the Batista regime crumble. But why? The movie never explains why the people turned against him. What kind of corruption was going on? I know, from doing my own research, that Batista suspended the 1940 constitution (which Castro said he would reinstate) for example. But the movie itself never tells us that. A good movie should explain the environment in which it takes place.

In "Hello Hemingway" Larita (Laura De La Uz) wants to study philosophy and literature in America, if she can qualify for a scholarship. The problem is Larita comes from a poor family. Her family doesn't want her to travel to America. They would prefer she give up these fancy dreams and get a job and help out the family. What does a woman need with an education anyway?

As someone who was the first in my family to go to college I can understand the struggles Larita goes through to prove herself and what it means to her to embark on this endeavor.

Larita has a boyfriend, Victor (Raul Paz) who also doesn't want her to study in America because of what it would mean to their relationship. Also, Victor is very political and wouldn't want to turn his back on Cuba in its moment of need. He wants to work hard to see Batista overthrown.

"Hello Hemingway" does not offer us any insight into Cuba and her politics. The film kind of, sort of works as a piece of teen angst however and shows the difficulty in which the working poor had to endure in Cuba. It clearly is a country with a class system and one which makes it very hard for those on the lower end to improve themselves.

The film won two awards at the Havana Film Festival, one of which was for Laura De la Uz in the "Best Actress" category. "Hello Hemingway" has its fine points but the film doesn't do enough.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Film Review: Giallo

"Giallo" *** (out of ****)

After watching "Scream 4" (2011), which I think is over-all a good, entertaining movie, I suddenly had an urge to watch a Dario Argento film. Because I've seen nearly all of his classic, earlier works, I decided to watch his latest film "Giallo" (2009).

Argento and "Giallo" have been taking a beating from fans and critics. I can kind of, sort of, understand. Dario Argento's more recent works have become very campy. He also no longer makes truly effective horror or supernatural films. Instead he has turned into a thriller filmmaker. "Giallo" has been called another weak attempt by a filmmaker who has lost his touch. Not so fast I say.

"Giallo" was anticipated as a "comeback" film for the famed Italian director. Giallo is not only the name of this particular film but is also a sub-genre in horror films. A sub-genre Argento was at one time considered to be a master of. Giallo (the Italian word for yellow) refers to cheap paperback suspense novels which had yellow covers. The novels combined horror with supernatural elements.

I'm happy to say I feel "Giallo" is somewhat an improvement over other more recent Argento films such as "Mother of Tears" (2008) and his version of "The Phantom of the Opera" (1998). Those movies were extremely campy and lacked any suspense. "The Phantom of the Opera" may very well be my least favorite Argento film. It is almost an embarrassment. "Giallo" does not suffer from this problem. The story here is taken much more serious. No ham acting. The dialogue is slightly better.

Still there are problems. The acting is wooden here. And Argento has a difficult time creating any suspense and anticipation. The film doesn't have a proper pace. But, when compared to Agento's other recent films, "Giallo" is a step in the right direction. For that reason we should offer some support and encouragement.

Adrien Brody stars in "Giallo" as Inspector Enzo Avolfi, a homicide detective who has been having a hard time capturing a serial killer, who goes after pretty women (don't they all?). Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner) fears her sister, Celine (Elsa Pataky) may be the killer's latest victim. So, this hard as nails cop teams up with the vulnerable lady to track down the killer.

The film tries to offer some insight into the Enzo character by giving us flashbacks of his troubled youth. He witnessed the murder of his mother. Is that why Enzo has become a police officer? Is that why Enzo has a hard shell and doesn't allow people to get close to him? Is that why he has an anti-social personality? Or is it because the screenwriters; Jim Agnew and Sean Keller didn't know how to write better, more convincing dialogue? It is a bit of both I think.

One of the major downfalls of "Giallo" is we lack a clear understanding of Enzo. I wonder what was Brody thinking when he read this script? What was his motivation? What kind of conversations did he and Argento have? I find it hard to believe neither man could see the character lacked dimension. The flashbacks aren't enough.

Another problem Argento fans are going to have with this film is there are no elaborate, stylized death scenes. This is a bit of a shock coming from a man who seemed to have had a fetish for blood. His camera would linger on it like an animal going after its prey. Of course in Argento's earliest films like "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" (1970) and "The Cat O' Nine Tails" (1971) he kept the violence mostly off screen. But in later films Argento earned a reputation for his startling death scenes (mostly of pretty girls). The best examples of his work are "Suspiria" (1977), "Deep Red" (1975), "Opera" (1987) and "Tenebre" (1982).

But once again, "Giallo" is still worth watching. It falls more into Argento's thriller period rather than a horror film. It has more in common with "The Stendhal Syndrome" (1996) than "Suspiria". Despite all of its flaws, like a weird ending, it is a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately the film has been caught in legal troubles. Actor Adrien Brody has sued the film's producers and has tried to stop the film from being released on DVD (it did not received a theatrical release in America). He says he was not fully paid. Because of this a limited amount of people have seen the film. Brody is hurting the film by having its reputation proceed it. Thus viewers are walking into the film with a bad attitude and not giving the film a chance.