Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Film Review: I'm Going Home

"I'm Going Home" *** (out of ****)

I have a little known rule but whenever a movie starts off with "Sous le Ciel de Paris (AKA Under Paris Skies)" playing over the opening credits, I know the movie has to be good.

"I'm Going Home" (2001) was directed by Manoel de Oliveira, considered to be the greatest Portuguese filmmaker of all-time and the oldest living filmmaker in the world at the ripe old age of 104. At the time when he made this film Oliveira was 93.

Like so many great filmmakers on the world stage Oliveira is not well known in America. Here, sadly, audiences like to watch movies with men in tights (AKA comic book adaptations). Movies have become a business which is preoccupied with the 18-29 demographic (which I am a part of but clearly I do not think the same way as my peers). That group is not interested in the work of great filmmakers such as Oliveira or Theo Angelopoulos (one of the giants of cinema we sadly lost this year). These men make movies about adults confronting adult problems while not wearing a mask or flying.

In my own attempt I have tried to fight the good fight and introduce readers to the work of directors like Oliveira. I have already reviewed his "Belle Toujours" (2006) a sequel of sorts to Louis Malle's classic "Belle de Jour" (1967). Also I have written about "The Convent" (1996) and "The Strange Case of Angelica" (2011). It must be noted these movies will be radically different compared to the average mainstream Hollywood movie. The pacing is different here. There is more dialogue and less action. Not a winning endorsement for some. Better to watch car chases and superheroes fight supervillains.

The first scene in "I'm Going Home" follows a stage production of Ionesco's "Exit the King", where Gilbert (Michel Piccoli) plays a dying, some might say absent minded king being told he must die and give up the throne. He gives grand speeches about life and death. About his place in the world and what a world without him would be like.

At this moment we are thinking about the actor playing the part and the director. Piccoli is a veteran of French cinema. Born in 1925 he has been directed by some of the greatest directors in cinema. With Jacques Rivette he was in "La Belle Noiseuse" (1991), one of Rivette's greatest films. Piccoli worked with Claude Chabrol, the father of the French New Wave movement, in "Wedding in Blood" (1973), with Hitchcock in "Topaz" (1969), with Louis Malle in "May Fools" (1990) and Angelopoulos in "The Dust of Time" (2008). What would cinema be like in a world without Piccoli and Oliveira? These men have left a big footprint on cinema. They are older and we should be thankful for the wonderful art they have supplied us with.

After Gilbert's performance he is informed of a terrible accident. His wife, daughter and son-in-law have been killed in a car accident. The only family he has left is his grandson.

Now before readers start to jump to conclusion let me take a guess and predict you think the movie will now be about Gilbert and his grandson, Serge (Jean Koeltgen). How they will start to bond and become closer in the face of this awful tragedy. It will become a film about age and death. Gilbert will notice his own immortality. He will look at his grandson and realize his days are numbered. The film will deal with grief and the process we go through when our love ones die. Raise your hand if that's what you thought.

It gives me great pleasure and joy to tell you, you are wrong. And put your hand down, I can't see you anway!

I wouldn't have mind seeing the movie I just described but what I came away with watching "I'm Going Home" is a movie about habits and routines. The movie does not concern itself with the grieving process. Instead it is about how do we continue our life when our routine has been broken? When the things we count on are no longer there.

Being an actor Gilbert's life is pretty standard. He acts. He understands the theatre and the life an actor leads. He prepares the same way for each new role. He likes to go to a cafe and sit in his favorite seat near the door, have a cup of coffee and read his paper. Every morning, before going to school, his grandson walks into his bedroom and tells him hello. Gilbert then stands up and stares outside the window to see his grandson off to school while his nanny packs his lunch.

Life is simple. We fall into rountines and are sometimes unable to function if the routine is broken. It is as if our safety net has collapsed. One day Gilbert goes to his cafe when another man enters. A man who usually arrives after Gilbert and sits in the same seat near the door and has his own cup of coffee. But, oh no, he has arrived earlier and there is Gilbert. What will this poor man do? Now he must sit in a different seat. He stares at Gilbert. Who is this stranger sitting in "his" seat? He wants the world to know the discomfort this is causing him. He has been taken out of his comfort zone. Gilbert soon leaves the cafe and when the man notices this and runs to his old seat and to find someone else has beaten him too it. Is there no justice in the world?

But Gilbert's world will begin to change to. An American director, John Crawford (John Malkovich) needs to find an actor for his production of "Ulysses" by Joyce. Shooting starts in three days and the role requires to be spoken in English. What will Gilbert do? He needs time to think over the role, study his lines in English. But an answer is needed immediately. Gilbert agrees. He faces new challenges in the role.

In one scene I like very much, the director is watching a dress rehearsal. Oliveira keeps the camera on the director as we hear the performances in the background. At first I thought what is Oliveira up to. Then a thought occured to me. We are watching someone, watch a performance. Just as we the viewer watch a performance. Oliveira has added another layer to the dynamic of film viewing.

For me "I'm Going Home" is one of Oliveira's best films. I like the themes and I enjoy watching Piccoli, who was in Oliveira's "Belle Toujours" and "Party" (1996). Piccoli makes us care about the character. We understand who he is, what his intentions are and what he expects out of life.

Some viewers may not like the ending. It ends too soon, nothing is resolved. But that is an old compliant when it comes to Oliveira's work. What more do you need to know? Life goes on. Each day brings us the same events. Nothing changes.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Film Review: The Dust of Time

"The Dust of Time" *** (out of ****)

Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos, whom I refer to as "the master of imagery", died earlier this year. "The Dust of Time" (2008) has turned out to be the filmmaker's last achievement.

Today would have been Angelopoulos' birthday. Born in Athens, Greece in 1935, the iconic filmmaker was killed in a car accident, on January 24, 2012, when an off duty police officer, riding a motorcycle, hit him.

In America, among the film community, this hardly made news. Critics such as A.O. Scott, Roger Ebert, Rex Reed, Michael Wilmington and Manohla Dargis were silent. No retrospective look at his career. A pity and a shame. Roger Ebert, who only reviewed one of Angelopoulos' films in print, "Ulysses' Gaze" (1997), called the masterpiece "a bore" and gave the film one star! That's the reception Theo Angelopoulos was met with in America.

The tragic news of this event only came to my attention earlier last week. Three whole months went by. If Angelopoulos had directed a spider-man movie, his death may have made front page news. But alas Angelopoulos was a filmmaker who liked to deal with adult themes; redemption, youth, death, memories, the history of his beloved Greece and cinema itself.

I've reviewed some of the master's films in the past. Here's what I wrote when I discussed "Landscape in the Mist" (1990), a film which many consider his finest:

"Landscape in the Mist" is one of filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos' masterpieces. How sad to consider than that the name Angelopoulos means so little to so many people. Unless you are a film critic or a cinephile, you've probably never heard of him or seen one of his films.

Angelopoulos will never be a mainstream director. He has gained great international fame, but, in the United States, his name draws a blank. He is the master of imagery as far as I am concerned. "

Unfortunately my words ring so true. Even in his death American film critics couldn't pay respect to the visionairy director.

Here's what I wrote when I reviewed his "The Suspended Step of the Stork" (1992) regarding his reputation in America:

"Theo Angelopoulos is not very well known in America. In Europe his name is known all over. Five of his films have been nominated for the palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival. One of his films won, "Eternity and A Day" (1999). Another, "Ulysses' Gaze" (1997) came in second place. His "Alexander the Great" (1980) won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. But in America he has never once been nominated for an Oscar. Several American critics throw out adjectives such as tedious and portentous when describing his work. They claim he has a big ego and his films often fall under the heavy weight of his confidence. I won't do these mean-spirited critics the justice of mentioning their names but read reviews of his work and you'll see what I mean."

Of course in Europe it is a different story. Our friends in the U.K. for instance have released the Theo Angelopoulos Collection on DVD. A three volume set featuring every film the director has made. In the newspaper The Guardian they actually took time to celebrate him. Contrast that to America, where his films are out-of-print on DVD.

In fact, in order to see "The Dust of Time" I had to buy the movie from "The Dust of Time" has not been distributed in the U.S. on DVD. I don't even remember if it had a limited theatrical run.

Like any great filmmaker Angelopoulos had a distinct style. He was known for his extreme long shots, hoping an audience would soak in every aspect of the frame. Scenes were done in one, long unbroken camera shot. His camera would linger on objects long after the "message" of a scene was made. On average his films would clock in around the three hour or so mark. You could compare his films to Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr or Antonioni.

You see some of that in "The Dust of Time". Not enough though in my opinion. The film was to be the second part of a trilogy Angelopoulos was working on concerning the history of Greece.

William Defoe stars as "A", an American filmmaker of Greek descent, who wants to film the story of his mother, Eleni (Irene Jacob). A woman whose journey to reunite with her husband, Spyros (Michel Piccoli), took her to Stalin's Russia, Germany and America.

But "A" has his known problems. His marriage to Helga (Christiane Paul) is over. His daughter, also named Eleni (Tiziana Pfiffner) appears to be mentally unstable.

"The Dust of Time" is a story about the past, memories, death, family, love and Greece. We can interpret the character "A" for Angelopoulos. In "Ulysses' Gaze", the film followed another filmmaker named "A", that time played by Harvey Keitel. Both filmmakers, the fictious and the real one, are directors staring immortality in the face.

At one point in the film "A" says "nothing ever ends". Stories keep being told. He's right. The oral tradition of telling stories will continue for as long as people are around. But the people telling those stories will forever change. Is that why "A" wants to tell his parents' story? To have their voice and his, forever recorded.

In cinema, some filmmakers say, we shall find the truth, but neither the truth or cinema can prevent death or erase our painful memories. "A" is going through that challenge as he tries to finish his film.

"The Dust of Time" is actually a more conventional film for Angelopoulos. It is two hours long, pretty short by his standards, and as a result doesn't display his normal camera traits. Angelopoulos' films are more an experience than a viewing. His works revolves around mood and emotion. That's why I find his camera so insightful. Here though he holds back.

Of course there are some great moments. Villagers gather with the military as Stalin's death is annouced. We see an huge crowd stand in the town's square. It is an over head, extreme long shot. This helps the viewer see the vastness of the area. The camera never breaks as each person leaves after the announcement. The scene also shows the power of the communist party to collect so many to create a spectacle to honor Stalin's death.

Another memorable scene comes when Spyros and his granddaughter are out running in the snow as a voice-over is done by "A". The combination of the image and voice create a moment of cinematic poetry. The words compliment the scene so well.

I only wished however there would have been more moments like this in "The Dust of Time". I was greatly impressed with the first part of the trilogy, "Weeping Meadow" (2004) for its startling imagery but here Angelopoulos isn't functioning at his normal high level.

William Defoe is a nice alter-ego for Angelopoulos. Defoe may appear a little stiff and restricted to a first time Angelopoulos viewer but Defoe's acting is in synch with Angelopoulos' style. Some people complain the acting and dialogue are not natural in an Angelopoulos film. But, they are missing the point in my opinion. Angelopoulos puts subtle demands on his actors. He is not interested in showing everyday, naturalistic life. He wants to make poetry, create social commentaries by introducing abstract concepts. Once you accept that, Defoe's performance will catch your eye and hold your attention.

It is not clear just how much was completed on the final part of this trilogy Angelopoulos was working on. Were their notes which another filmmaker could follow? A possible replacement that has been floating around is Bela Tarr. Though I doubt he would take over the project since he claims he has retired from filmmaker after the release of "The Turin Horse" (2011, which I have reviewed).

I'll miss Theo Angelopoulos. I always looked forward to seeing his films. I never tired of the experience. The world of cinema has lost a giant.

Here are my ratings for the Theo Angelopoulos films I have seen:

1. Eternity and A Day (1999) **** (out of ****)

2. Landscape in the Mist (1990) **** (out of ****)

3. The Suspended Step of the Stork (1992) *** 1\2 (out of ****)

4. The Travelling Players (1975) *** 1\2 (out of ****)

5. Ulysses' Gaze (1997) **** (out of ****)

6. Weeping Meadow (2004) *** 1\2 (out of ****)

For more information on Angelopoulos' death I have provided the following link:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Film Review: The Deep Blue Sea

"The Deep Blue Sea" *** (out of ****)

"I want to cross you off my list/ But every time you come back knocking at my door/ Fate seems to give my heart a twist/ And I come crawling back for more"
lyrics to the song "Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea" by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler

Love is a funny thing. People can discuss it in clear and rational ways but then comes the moment when you fall in love and all that rational and logical thinking goes flying out the window. Who can truly say why we fall in love with the people we do? When you love someone you simply love them. That person may be all wrong for you. You might even know deep down inside it won't last but you are over come by an emotion.

This is at the center of Terence Davies new film "The Deep Blue Sea" (2012) based on a play by Terence Rattigan and a remake of a 1955 version starring Vivien Leigh with a screenplay adaptation by Rattigan.

Rachel Weisz plays Hester Collyer a woman married to an "important" man, a judge (Simon Russell Beale). With her husband, Hester leads a very comfortable and respectable life. But Hester finds herself having an affair with a pilot, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). A man who is not able to offer Hester financially what her husband can. But Hester loves him even though Freddie claims, as they have a heated argument, that he can never love her as much as she loves him.

The movie takes place in London in the 1950s. William Collyer, the husband, refuses to give Hester a divorce. This however won't stop her from continuing her relationship with Freddie as the two move into an apartment together. In the 1950s women did not behave in such ways. It was considered immoral. A married woman did not live with another man.

"The Deep Blue Sea" takes place in a single day. The relationship between Hester and Freddie is about to hit a confrontional point. Emotions are going to fly. Resentments are going to be revealed. But love (for one of the characters) will not die.

One of the things which I like about "The Deep Blue Sea" is the screenplay by Davies. It feels like a literary British tragic love story. The movie has a blue hue casting over it in every seen. We can sense the despair between the lovers. We have all been in their situation. We have all been the person who loves someone who cannot love us the way we love them. We know the feeling of hurt inside you feel. In one sense this is the kind of material the movies has trained us to view as romantic. A story of a love that cannot be.

The other great thing about the movie is Rachel Weisz. So much of the film is on her shoulders. Tom Hiddleston is very good. What an amazing year he had in 2011. He appeared in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" (2011) as Scott Fitzgerald, was in the comic book adaptation "Thor" (2011) and Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" (2011) but this is Weisz's show all the way. The look in her eyes, the tone of her voice, her every gesture reveals a woman deeply entranced. She looks at Freddie with awe and I gather desperation. As if she would do anything to keep her man. I would love it if Weisz were nominated for an Academy Award. It might be too early in the year for the Academy to be paying attention to this movie but Weisz performance commands your attention. She is a force on-screen.

I've liked Weisz in other movies; "The Constant Gardener" (2005) for which she won an Oscar, "The Fountain" (2006), "My Blueberry Nights" (2007) and the great Istvan Szabo film "Sunshine" (2000). But her performance here in "The Deep Blue Sea" may rank among her best.

Still there are things about the movie I didn't like. I wished we would have learned more about Freddie's and Hester's relationship. I wish we could have understood the mind-set of the Freddie character. Why is he not able to love her fully?

As I left the movie theatre I heard people chattering. A lot of people disliked the movie. As far as I could tell people had two reasons for not liking the movie 1) the movie is too depressing. 2) nothing happens.

When I hear people say "nothing happens in a movie" it usually irks me. Full disclosure, yes movie fans, "The Deep Blue Sea" has no dinosaurs chasing people, no alien invasion, no car chases. In that sense nothing happens. I've noticed when movies are emotion driven audiences describe them as "nothing happens". A lot is happening though. The characters are going on an emotional journey.

If you are the type of person who sometimes describes a movie has "nothing happens" "The Deep Blue Sea" won't be for you. Otherwise, those looking for an acting driven movie "The Deep Blue Sea" should work for you.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Film Reviews: The Three Musketeers & Straight Place and Show

"The Three Musketeers" *** (out of ****)

Today we are going to discuss the comedy of the Ritz Brothers. This is the first time I've written about the largely forgotten comedy team. I've name dropped them a few times in other reviews but I've neglected to discuss any of their films.

Readers of this blog know I have a great appreciation for comedy and a great interest in the forgotten comedians and comedy teams. I love learning about the history of cinema and discovering new films and comedians.

I've known who the Ritz Brothers are for many many years. At first I strictly knew them by name only. Their comedies rarely play on TV anymore. The brothers first came to my attention when I saw their two reeler comedy, "Hotel Anchovy" (1934), which marked their first on-screen appearance. Initially my reaction towards the brothers was negative. My feeling was like that of many others who are critical of the team. I felt there was no great distinction between the brothers so one basically cancelled the other out. They have been regularly compared to another famous brother comedy team, the Marx Brothers, though, if I had to describe the Ritz Brothers I would say think of three Harpo Marx brothers in one movie.

But as I got older I rewatched the Ritz Brothers. I saw them in musical comedies such as "The Goldwyn Follies" (1938) and "On the Avenue" (1937) with Alice Faye and Dick Powell. Suddenly my opinion was starting to change. Then I saw what might be their most easily accessible comedy, "The Gorilla" (1939). It is generally dismissed by film critics and movie fans but, believe it or not, I liked it. The comedy style of the Ritz Brothers was starting to grow on me.

And that leads us to "The Three Musketeers" (1939) and "Straight Place and Show" (1938). I've been thinking about the Ritz Brothers often lately. I've been watching some Wheeler & Woolsey comedies as well as Olsen & Johnson, two other largely forgotten comedy teams and it made me realize it's time to review a Ritz Brothers comedy. Why hadn't I done so before? Well, my answer my not satisfy some people but the reason is simple. I just didn't want to.

The Ritz Brothers, like the Marx Brothers, started off in vaudeville where their humor was deeply rooted in typical Jewish humor. From the stage they found their way in films. Their humor can be off-the-wall and zany though most people consider their strength in musical farce. Think Danny Kaye.

Though the brothers are largely forgotten you will find the team does have their strong supporters. Comedy filmmaker Mel Brooks has called Harry Ritz (the "leader" of the team) the funniest man in the world. Other devoted fans include Soupy Sales, Sid Caesar and Jerry Lewis. Some say they are funnier than the Marx Brothers.

"The Three Musketeers" is often considered the team's best comedy. It has the best production value and perhaps the best storyline they ever worked with. It is of course a musical comedy adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' story. It was directed by Allan Dwan and stars Don Ameche. Not bad.

The brothers play three tavern workers who are mistaken for Musketeers. They meet D' Artagnan (Ameche) a young man who claims to be a great swordfighter. It is his one ambition to serve the king and become a Musketeer himself. It is he who mistakens the brothers for Musketeers.

Together they learn of a terrible plot concerning the Queen (Gloria Stuart) and the Duke of Buckingham (Lester Matthews). They are lovers. This is not acceptable since France and England are about to be at war. Cardinal Richelieu (Miles Mander) and De Rochefort (Lionel Atwill) are plotting against the Queen. It is up to our Musketeers to retrive a brouche and hand it to Lady Constance (Pauline Moore) who will hand it to the Queen. D'Artagnan has also fallen in love with Constance.

The plot may not sound like much and the film is relatively short, 72 minutes, but there is just enough going on here to make the film thoroughly enjoyable. Don Ameche does some singing and the Ritz Brothers have some good routines. One centers around them trying to make as much noise as possible to protect D'Artagnan, who is snooping around the royal palace. Another has the boys hiding in a trunk where Harry has been flattened by the other two (Jimmy and Al).

If Ritz Brothers fans have a problem with this film it would be the same problem they would have with any one of their pictures. The team is primarily used as comic relief. They don't take up all of the screen time here but when they are on-sceen they are funny and brighten up the movie.

Many people believe this was the last worthwhile film the team appeared in. It was their second to last film made at 20th Century Fox ("The Gorilla" was their last) before they went to Universal Studios where their film careers went into further decline.

A word about film director Allan Dwan. I never really paid much attention to him. In fact I wasn't even aware of him until I heard filmmaker and historian Peter Bogdanovich speak about him. He was one of the subjects in Bogdanovich's book "Who The Devil Made It".

Dwan's career goes back to the silent era, Bogdanovich credits Dwan in his film "Nickelodeon" (1976, which I have reviewed). I personally never thought highly of Dwan as a director. He did direct "The Gorilla" as well. Other films include "Around the World" (1943) a goofy WW2 comedy with bandleader Kay Kaiser and Joan Davis. I don't recommend it. Plus he directed "Escape to Burma" (1955) and "Sands of Iwo Jima" (1949).

If you are unfamiliar with the Ritz Brothers "The Three Musketeers" is not a bad place to start.

"Straight Place and Show" *** (out of ****)

"Straight Place and Show" is a film adaptation of a Damon Runyon/ Irving Caesar story directed by comedy director David Butler and starring the Ritz Brothers.

Whenever I hear a movie is based on a Damon Runyon story I generally have a hunch it will be a good movie. Other Runyon film adaptations include the Frank Capra film " Lady For A Day" (1933), the Joe E. Brown comedy "A Very Honorable Guy" (1934), one of Brown's best, Bob Hope in "The Lemon Drop Kid" (1951) and perhaps the most popular Runyon adaptation the musical "Guys & Dolls" (1955).

Runyon generally liked to write stories about gangsters and gamblers. They took place on race tracks sometimes and often involved a small time crook getting involved in over his head.

"Straight Place and Show" is a bit different but familar at the same time. The Ritz Brothers play a variation of themselves (they usually do). They run a kiddie pony show. Ten cents a ride or they have a special ride twice for only twenty cents.

They meet Barbara Drake (Phyllis Brooks). A rich socialite and avid horse lover. She owns a race horse, Playboy, who is the love of her life. In fact the horse is so much a part of her life, her soon-to-be husband, Denny (Richard Arlen) is starting to get jealous. All of Barbara's time goes to Playboy leaving Denny alone with Linda (Ethel Merman) who also has her eye on Denny.

Denny and Barbara have an agreement. If Playboy doesn't win a race Denny will take control of Playboy and they must set a date for their wedding. Playboy loses every race he is entered in and Denny decides to give Playboy away to the Ritz Brothers for free. Without Barbara's knowledge.

Now that the Ritz Brothers own a race horse they decide they have to race it and make some money off of it with Harry as the jockey. Things don't really work out as planned.

What I like about "Straight Place and Show" is it is really a Ritz Brothers comedy. The boys have a lot of screen time and are given freedom to do their comedy. When we first see them they are doing a singing cowboy routine which finds them making fun of Cab Calloway and his signature tune "Minnie the Moocher". The question is how many younger viewers will catch that reference?

Still I enjoyed watching the movie. Some people might complain the Ritz Brothers are dated. Their comedy is too old-fashion. But I grew up with this style of comedy. I like it.

In "Straight Place and Show" I would describe the team as three well intentioned losers looking to hit it big. Some viewers say it is hard to tell the brothers apart. I think it is easy. Harry Ritz is the leader and the one that does all the comedy. Jimmy and Al Ritz are the goofballs that follow Harry because they actually think he's smart. If that doesn't help you, Harry is usually the one standing in the middle.

Director David Butler directed another Ritz Brother comedy, "Kentucky Moonshine" (1938). He directed several Bob Hope comedies including "Road to Morocco" (1942) often cited as the best of the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope "road" pictures and the delightful Will Rogers comedy "Down to Earth" (1932, which I have reviewed).

Both "Three Musketeers" and Straight Place and Show" feature the Ritz Brothers in good form. And despite what you may have heard I'd even recommend "The Gorilla".