Saturday, April 27, 2013

Film Review: Blancanieves

"Blancanieves"  **** (out of ****)

I never thought I'd live to see it, but, we have had two silent movies released theatrically in the past two years.

The first silent film to come our way was "The Artist" (2011, which I have reviewed), the French film directed by Michel Hazanavicius. It won the Academy Award for "best picture" and Hazanavicius "best director". It was a great thrill for me to be able to watch that movie in a theatre as the film was a wonderful throwback to an era of Hollywood filmmaking which I enjoy most (it made my "top ten" list in 2011). And now here we are with the Spanish film directed by Pablo Berger, "Blancanieves" (2013). It is the best film I have seen so far this year. A masterpiece!

Why are we getting silent movies in 2013? I'm sure there are people who are wondering the same thing. Movies have been "talking" since 1927. Audiences want "talking pictures". We are used to them. To make a silent film, is to take a giant step backwards. But, aside from technology, why is this so? What if certain movies simply lend themselves to the tradition of silent movies? I'm not opposed to having more silent films released in our "modern age". The more the merrier I say.

To make a silent movie is to go back to the fundamentals of filmmaking. Movies are about images. Cinema is a visual medium. Unlike music or books, the audience is actually capable of seeing images. Yes, when you read a book you are creating your own images but with cinema we are seeing someone else's vision, and if the movie is any good, we take delight in their vision.

When I was a student at Columbia College in Chicago, we were required to make movies. They had to be black&white, silent and one reel long. Everyone grumbled. But the instructors wanted us to be able to tell a story visually. To create images which would strike the viewer.

"Blancanieves" is undoubtedly going to be compared to "The Artist", which was perhaps the first silent film several modern "movie critics" have seen. Because of that comparison the "gimmick" of a modern day silent film isn't as fresh. And because "The Artist" won the Academy Award for "best picture" several are going to say "Blancanieves" fails in comparison. Don't listen to such non-sense! Both "The Artist" and "Blancanieves" are masterpieces. There is no need to compare the films. Yes, they are both silent. But they have nothing else in common. Would you compare "Metropolis" (1927) to the Harold Lloyd comedy "The Freshmen" (1925)? Why not? They are both silent movies. Would you compare "The Godfather" (1972) to "The King's Speech" (2010)? Why not? Both are "talking pictures".

What is so wonderful about "Blancanieves" is it doesn't use silent film as a gimmick. This is straightforward storytelling. First and foremost "Blancanieves" has a story to tell. It chooses to tell it silently but it doesn't exploit this technique for laughs or cheap sentiment. It takes its story serious. That story is an adaptation of the Grimm Brothers' "Snow White". Only this time the story is set in Seville and deals with bullfighting.

We meet Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) a famous and well respected bullfighter. His wife, Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta), is a singer and dancer. She is expecting a child. Antonio is injured by a bull. On this day, Carmen dies while giving birth to her daughter. Antonio wants nothing to do with the child, since it reminds me of his wife. So the child's grandmother (Angela Molina) takes care of her. Meanwhile, Antonio's nurse, Encarna (Maribel Verdu) smells an opportunity to chance to take advantage of the situation. Antonio is famous and wealthy. If Encarna marries him, she will be able to live on easy street.

I don't want to reveal more of the plot, but, if you are familiar with the Snow White story you can probably guess what happens next and who is what character in this adaptation.

This is director Berger's second film. His first was "Torremolinos 73" (2003). The story of a middle-class couple which become porn stars. Nothing about that movie would have made me guess Berger had it in him to direct a film of such skill. This is truly accomplished filmmaking. The cinematography, the acting, the musical score, everything adds a level of depth to the story. It is simply a beautiful movie to look at.

Will audiences flock to see this film in the same way they did "The Artist"? Who knows. I would imagine those that liked "The Artist" may want to see this movie. Though the marketing isn't the same. "Blancanieves" is going under the radar. Several movie critics haven't even reviewed it in the newspapers. Audiences are going to have to seek this movie out but that is difficult when you don't know it exist.

Already the movie has enjoyed some critical success. It won several prizes at the Goya Awards and the Cinema Writers Circle Awards.

It is interesting that this is the third Snow White adaptation we have had in the past year. We had "Snow White and the Huntsmen" (2012) and "Mirror Mirror" (2012) last year. "Blancanieves" however is the best of the modern tellings of this story. I hope audiences are able to find this movie. It is one of the best films of the year!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Film Review: The Great Dictator

"The Great Dictator" 
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Watching Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" (1940) again I'm reminded of the sentiment, the best way to combat evil in the world, is to make fun of it. To laugh at it and show evil people to be the clowns they really are. Whether it was Adolph Hitler or Osama Bin Laden, we often tried to belittle these people by making fun of them.

I'm writing about the "Great Dictator" at a curious time. Initially I wanted to review it two days ago for Chaplin's birthday on April 16th. Of course we are also dealing with a terrible, alleged terrorist attack which happened at the Boston marathon. And again the question is asked. How do we as a society deal with tragedy? In Chaplin's film of course he was taking aim at Hitler and the Nazis. In today's world we are dealing with terrorism.

Then again there are those who say we should not laugh at people like Hitler or Bin Laden. They were evil people. The crimes they committed are not funny. There was nothing to laugh about. To take what they did and turn it into comedy is disrespectful. But, satire is usually the weapon of choice for the oppressed. "The Great Dictator" is an example but also look at cinema from Eastern Europe during  the Communist era. Many films were an attack on the system and party leaders. It's not so much laughing at the crimes as it is laughing at the individuals. Thus showing the world, do not fear these people. They are human and ignorant.

These are quite serious thoughts to have when discussing Charlie Chaplin. You wouldn't normally equate such a conversation with Chaplin. Yet, these are the kind of ideas "The Great Dictator" inspires. This is what the movie does.

The film was Chaplin's first full talking picture. Both "City Lights" (1932) and "Modern Times" (1936), I have reviewed both, did have sound effects. And in "Modern Times" there are moments of dialogue, just not from Chaplin's Tramp character. Here though, we hear the comedy genius speak. He plays dual roles; Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomania and a Jewish barber, who is a dead ringer for the dictator.

The movie begins with a credit which tells us our story takes place during a time when "Insanity cut loose. Liberty took a nose dive, and Humanity was kicked around somewhat." The opening sequence is set during a battle scene at World War 1. Chaplin, as the Jewish barber, is fighting on the side of Tomania with Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner), who has been badly injured and requires the barber's help to fly a plane and deliver special letters which will lead Tomania to win the war.

In this sequence Chaplin gets in some laughs as we see a "super gun", which resembles a tank, as a missile is about to be fired. It has a defective shell which simply drips out of the gun. The barber also has difficulty operating some military machinery. This feels like a left over theme of Chaplin's previous film, "Modern Times" and the limitation of technology. Technology is just big, complicated machines which are faulty.

The barber and Schultz are not able to deliver the papers in time, thus causing Tomania to lose the war. The two men however are brought to a military hospital, where the barber has lost consciousness. Years have past but for him it is only a few days. When released from the hospital he is unaware for all the changes which have occurred.

Tomania is now ruled by a dictator, Hynkel (Chaplin). When we first meet Hynkel he is giving a radio address. Here Chaplin has some fun speaking with a gibberish German accent. It almost reminds me of Sid Caesar's "double talk" back in the "Your Show of Shows" days. While you won't be able to understand everything Hynkel says, you'll notice a few words stand out in his speeches like "sauerkraut" and "wiener schnitzel", though they take on different meanings then we are used to. There is also some fun with the names are characters. Hynkel's head of propaganda is Garbitsch (pronounce garbage) played by Henry Daniell and another associate is Herring (Billy Gilbert).

Chaplin splits "The Great Dictator" in half. One half deals with Hynkel wanting to invade another country before another dictator does, Napaloni, the dictator of Bacteria (Jack Oakie, in an Oscar nominated performance). And the story of the persecution of the Jewish people in a Tomanian ghetto. Here we meet Hannah (Paulette Goddard) and her caretaker, Mr. Jaeckel (Maurice Moscovitch).

The movie is filled with several memorable moments such as Hynkel's "globe dance", where Hynkel plays with a balloon globe throwing it in the air. All of the world is a toy for Hynkel. Another moment showcases a brilliant example of Chaplin's great pantomime gifts where he gives a man a shave to the rhythm of Braham's "Hungarian Dance No. 5". Other sequences deal with Napaloni and Hynkel in a power struggle.

 But perhaps the most famous moment is the ending speech the barber character gives. It is a call for peace. By this time in the film the barber has been mistaken for Hynkel. Hynkel is to address the world on their latest conquest. But, as the barber, Chaplin gives a crying call for peace uttering lines like "we think too much and feel too little". We live in a world in which "Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want". He uses the term "universal brotherhood". He states all men are equal and should band together in the name of peace declaring "More than machinery we need humanity".

Many people feel this speech is out of character and an editorial. You're damn right it is an editorial. It is the very message of the film. The speech is the film's conscience. Society's conscience. A country's conscience. Chaplin is no longer playing a character. He breaks free. He looks directly into the camera, staring the audience in the eye, making his case for a more united world. It is probably the reason he made the movie. He wanted that message heard loud and clear. He wanted the world to know his thoughts. To persuade people.

Could the movie have worked without this speech? Yes, probably. The film visually shows what the speech verbally implies but the words have a sting to them. It is a final rallying call.

I've written about Chaplin on here several times. I reviewed "The Kid" (1921), "The Circus" (1928), "City Lights", "Modern Times" and "A King In New York" (1957). Chaplin is my favorite comedy filmmaker. In my opinion his work is the foundation of screen comedy. He established the standard. In "The Great Dictator" Chaplin gives us the combined pathos and humor we expect from him. It doesn't quite hit me as hard on an emotional level as "The Kid" or "Modern Times" does but the movie is still powerful.

With Chaplin's birthday past, my hope is his comedy will never go out of style. His work will never be forgotten. That younger generations will continue to discover his genius. That he will inspired countless filmmakers. I'm not too concerned this won't happen but I fear with the passing years that number will shrink a little year after year. Chaplin's movies will always be around and in circulation but only for those who seek him out. How many people do you think currently seek him out?

"The Great Dictator" was nominated for five Academy Awards including "best picture", "best screenplay" (Chaplin), "best actor" (Chaplin) and "best supporting actor" (Oakie). It lost in every category but it is still a great film. It doesn't need an award to prove its worth.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Roger Ebert Article - Milwaukee Shepherd Express

The following is an article I wrote on the death of film critic Roger Ebert. It was published by the Milwaukee Shepherd Express.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Film Review: From Up On Poppy Hill

"From Up On Poppy Hill"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Like father, like son.

"From Up On Poppy Hill" (2013) is the latest film to come to us from the Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli. If you are somewhat familiar with this style of animation there is a very good chance you are aware of the work that comes from Ghibli. And you are probably familiar with the screenwriter of this movie, Hayao Miyazaki, the creator of animated masterpieces such as "Howl's Moving Castle" (2005) and "Spirited Away" (2002). This time around Hayao Miyazaki has left directing duties to his son, Goro Miyazaki.

I've come a long way in my feelings towards animation. Ten years ago I wouldn't have dreamed of walking into a movie theatre to watch an animated film. I just simply didn't see the point. Animation is for children, not adults. What type of story was an animated film going to tell that would interest me? Mickey looking for Pluto? The appeal of an animated film was never going to go beyond the interest of a child. And then I saw what Pixar and Miyazaki were up to.

It was exactly ten years ago I put my first animated film on one of my "top ten" list. The movie was Pixar's "Finding Nemo" (2003). Since that time I believe, with the exception of one or two years inbetween, an animated movie has been on each of my annual lists; there was "Howl's Moving Castle", the French movie, "Fear (s) of the Dark" (2008), the Israeli movie, "Waltz with Bashir" (2008), in 2011 I placed both, Pixar's "Cars 2" (2011) and the Oscar winner, "Rango" (2011) on my list and last year the Oscar winning "Brave" (2012) was on my list. That's quite the switch for a guy like me.

What caused this change was I now saw animation is capable of being used as a tool to tell emotional, serious stories. Stories which can have broad appeal for both adults and children. Sometimes, animation can do things a live-action film just can't. There is no such thing as a topic being off limits to animation. "From Up On Poppy Hill" is an example.

Here is a movie about Japan's role in the 1964 Summer Olympics, which would be held in Tokyo. Japan sees this as its opportunity to shed the images of the past. Forget about both world wars and the "forgotten war" in Korea. Forget about the political conflicts between Japan and the United States and dropping the bomb. Japan will be front and center. It will be on the world stage. People will notice this country again. It has the special chance to make a first impression all over again. You don't want to waste these kind of moments.

And so the country has a conversation with itself. How do you shed the past? People have memories. You can't erase them. You can't destroy buildings and replace them. People will notice. A country cannot completely remove itself from its own history. This national conversation is mirrored at a school where Umi (voiced in the English language version by Sarah Bolger) and Shun (Anton Yelchin) attend. The school wants to tear down a building called "The Latin Quarter". This is where the school's newspaper is written and where most of the other academic clubs are held. But, the building is a remnant of the past. So the school wants to replace it. Though some of the students disagree. Only by confronting our past, acknowledging where we come from and who we are can we then grow and change. By knowing the past we can move forward.

This theme is one which really resonates with me. I explained to readers before, my grandparents passed away recently. They were the anchors of my family. They always told us to keep our culture, never forget who we are, where we come from, keep our traditions alive and pass them down. I've always been someone with a deep respect for the past. Whether it concerns my culture or films. Anyone who reads me on a regular basis, knows I've championed classic Hollywood cinema. I've spent hours writing about it. I'm always on the hunt for forgotten gems. Always hoping to discover new treasures from the past. So, you can see why such a story would hit me.

But you see how animation has no bounds. Could you have told this story without animation? Most certainly. And it may very well have turned out to be a well made film. But there is such pleasure in seeing the traditional hand drawn animation we find from master Miyazaki and his son. There is something so beautiful about these images. If you were to freeze the frame, you would see they are wonderful postcards. Works of art. The detail that goes into every frame. Everything has a purpose.

I've often said the work of Miyazaki can appeal to adults more than children. He writes stories about people facing real issues and deal with them in a mature way, even if magical things happen in the movie. His characters are people we can relate to.

This was something I felt was missing from "Ponyo" (2009), which I reviewed, the last film Hayao Miyazaki directed. His screenplay for "The Secret World of Arrietty" (2012) was a nice rebound. But in "From Up On Poppy Hill" Miyazaki is near the top of his game.

Goro Miyazaki has only directed one other movie, "Tales from Earthsea" (2006), it is currently available on netflix. Goro has much in common with his father. "From Up On Poppy Hill" has a strong, young female character at the center of its story in the Umi character. She is a little older than most characters in Hayao's films, but, I like that we have an older character. She can more fully comprehend the world around here and understand the challenges which face society. This film deals more with the sea, (look again at the title of Goro's previous film) than Hayao's films do. Hayao's work usually deals with aviation. Still, it doesn't bother me in the slightest, nor should it bother anyone else for that matter. Everything is perfectly suited for this story.

Yet there was one thing about "From Up On Poppy Hill" which I didn't like. It prevents me from giving the movie a slightly higher rating and calling it a masterpiece. It deals with incest. It was an element of the story which could (and should) have been completely avoided. On some level I can understand what Hayao and Goro were going for. This is a story of self-discovery. Learning who we are as individuals, where we come from. But there were other ways to get this theme across. I can only further discuss this issues by revealing plot points. So.....


Shen discovers he was adopted. He was left at the door of Akio (Chris Noth). He and his wife and just left a child. But what Shen doesn't realize is, the man who dropped him off at Akio's door, was Umi's father. Shen and Umi slowly start to have feelings for one another. But when Shen learns Umi have in fact be his sister, he must fight his temptations and keep his distance until he can fully learn the truth about where he comes from.

Why do Shen and Umi have to be related is my question? You see Umi's father was killed in a boating accident. Why couldn't Shen's father worked on the same boat? There's your conflict. Shen loves Umi. Discovers who her father is and has blamed him for his father's death. You can get the same themes across without bringing up themes of incest.


Despite this plot point, there is so much in "From Up On Poppy Hill" to enjoy. I couldn't in good faith tell people to avoid this movie. It is a very entertaining film. A near masterpiece. Goro Miyazaki will do a fine job carrying on the high standards and tradition of his father. Just keep your eye out for incest themes.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Roger & Me

The balcony has closed.

Legendary Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert has died. He was 70 years old.

Roger Ebert started as the newspaper's film critic in 1967 and held that position until his death, Thursday April 4, 2013. Forty-six years to the day.

I would imagine most people became aware of Mr. Ebert due to his association with another legendary Chicago film critic, Gene Siskel (who wrote for rival newspaper, the Chicago Tribune) and their movie review TV show "Siskel & Ebert" which debuted in 1975 under title "Coming Soon To A Theatre Near You".

In addition to the TV show Ebert wrote several books and was the first film critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize.

When I was in my teens and was starting to look at movies in a more serious way, Roger Ebert was someone who guided me on my wonderful cinematic journey. He introduced me to the work of French filmmaker Jean Cocteau, Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and Powell & Pressburger.

There was a time when I would see any movie Ebert gave a four star review. It didn't matter if I initially had any interest in the movie, merely knowing that Ebert liked it, was good enough reason for me.

Over the years Ebert and I differed in our views. Like a young child who has been nurtured by his parents, I set off on my own. I became more confident in my taste. I had discovered themes which became meaningful to me. I discovered filmmakers who inspired me. And, yes, often it was at odds with Mr. Ebert's taste. But, it was because of him I took my first step. That I can never forget. And to be honest, every now and then, I'd still check what Mr. Ebert had to say about a movie. If it was a movie I enjoyed and I found out Mr. Ebert liked it, it served as a kind of validation. It was a way of saying " see, I have good taste in movies. I know what I'm talking about. Roger Ebert liked it too."

Watching Siskel & Ebert, even now, thanks to youtube, truly inspired me and motivated me. It made me want to write about movies. To discuss them in a different way. Not simply saying "I liked this and didn't like that". You could have a serious, intelligent conversation about movies. Movies are important. They are windows. They allows us to look at society and explore themes. Siskel & Ebert taught all of us that. And they made it seem fun.

Secretly I always hoped what people said about Ebert, they would say about me; there's a guy that loves movies. To be thought of that way, would have been the highest compliment a person could pay me. Sadly, it never was. It was the whole reason I started this blog years ago. So I could write about the movies I wanted to. New and old. And Ebert inspired that.

What will happen to the world of film criticism now? Who knows. There is a great void though. Ebert represented the end of an era. Especially here in Chicago. At one time we had two great critics. Now we have nothing.

At one time there was a man who loved movies. And now he is gone.