Saturday, September 27, 2014

Film Review: Batman - Mask of the Phantasm

"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm"  *** (out of ****)

Warner Brothers gives Batman the animated treatment with their feature length film release, "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" (1993).

After the critical acclaim and box-office success of the first two live action Tim Burton Batman pictures; "Batman" (1989) and "Batman Returns" (1992) a renewed interest emerged in all things Batman. Warner Brothers, seizing the opportunity to capitalize on this success, created "Batman: The Animated Series", which aired from 1992 - 1995. The show was an instant hit and after the first season a feature length movie was designed. Originally it was set to be a direct-to-video movie but late in 1993 the movie was theatrically distributed. Initially critics avoided or neglected to review the movie (Siskel & Ebert included) but after its release on VHS (remember those?) the movie found a new audience. An audience which greatly appreciated it. Even Siskel & Ebert, two years later, would review the movie on their show and give it two thumbs up.

It is not hard to see why the movie has enjoyed success all these years later. There are some who feel the movie is the best Batman movie made, surpassing the original Tim Burton films and the two Joel Schumacher pictures which followed. I've even read some say it is better or equal to the Christopher Nolan "Batman Trilogy".  A lot of that is just audience enthusiasm and appreciation but don't thumb your nose at "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm".

Yes, this is a Batman movie and yes it is animated but one shouldn't automatically equate that as meaning this is a slight children's picture. I am here to tell you this is an adult picture. The writers; Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reeves have given us a picture which deals with adults working their way through emotionally complex issues. It handles its material in a mature fashion. It does not, let me repeat that, it does not dumb its ideas down to the kiddie level. It treats these characters as real people.

You don't normally find that in American animation. Animation is perfectly capable of dealing with adult issues, you see it in the work of Hayao Miyazaki and films like "Spirited Away" (2002) and "The Wind Rises" (2014). You see it in the amazing Israeli film "Waltz with Bashir" (2009) about the Lebanon-Israeli conflict in the 1980s (pretty heavy material for an animated film, right?). It just isn't often American animation is willing to tackle adult issues. We still think of animation as for children. Even, what some consider the best American animation, still plays to children.

In "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" someone in a cape (though never directly referred to as "The Phantasm") is going around killing members of a local mob. A city councilman; Arthur Reeves (voiced by Hart Bochner) wants to put the blame on Batman, even while Commissioner Gordon (voiced by Bob Hastings) protest, knowing full well Batman would not behave that way. Now, Batman must clear his name and figure out who is behind these murders.

As the murders pile on, Batman / Bruce Wayne (voiced by Kevin Conroy) finds himself distracted when an old fame, Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delany) returns to Gotham City. She may have been "the one". Through a series of flashbacks we learn Bruce Wayne was going to marry her and give up his alter-ego Batman. With her return, Bruce Wayne is now faced with those same feelings.

With the gangsters being killed off one by one, the mob boss, Salvatore Valestra (voiced by Abe Vigoda) begins to worry it is a matter of time until Batman finds him. Not sure where to turn he seeks the help of the only man he believes can stop Batman, his old friend, The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill).

The aspect that I enjoyed most about "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" is the way it deals with this inner conflict within Bruce Wayne. I actually believe this animated movie does a better job illustrating the emotional toll this life has on Bruce Wayne than the other live action movies. It shows Wayne's struggle and desire to lead a normal life but feels conflicted because of a vow he made after the death of his parents to pursue a life of crime fighting and stop injustice when it is found in Gotham City.

The movie also does a wonderful job describing the Batman origins: showing us how the batman costume came to be and what Bruce Wayne was thinking when he chose it. In fact, once again I must make a comparison to the two original Tim Burton Batman movies and say, this movie does a better job explaining the origins of Batman. Tim Burton's movies focused a little too much on the villains. This time around Batman is given his screen time. His story is allowed to be told. The villains may be interesting here but so is Batman.

As I watched "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" I also began to think Bruce Wayne is really no longer a man. Bruce Wayne is now the alter-ego and Batman is his true identity. Bruce Wayne sees himself as a crime fighter first, average man second. He cannot give up the Batman character. It has become too much a part of his life. I can't say I had the same feeling watching any of the original Batman movies.

To give some examples of how this movie is not a typical "children's movie", one scene involves a gangster being killed in a cemetery. The animators create a lot of suspense, put the characters in shadows and aren't shy about being direct in showing the gangster get killed. We also have an opening scene, again, not bashful about showing violence. This time the character is driving in their car, loses control and flies out of a parking garage window, dying in the crash.

There are also the scenes between Bruce Wayne and Andrea. The movie treats their story-line just as it would a live action romance. We know how these people feel towards each other. We know they love each other and understand their past demons. Just as in showing Bruce Wayne's personality conflict, here, with this relationship, the movie is working on a psychological level. As in the live action Batman movies, there is always one character presented as being similar to Bruce Wayne. Andrea is that character this time around and it adds a whole new dimension to the story. And the fact that it is an animated movie makes it even more impressive.

Finally I have to mention the animation itself. The movie is wonderfully drawn. It has a visual style clearly inspired by noir films of the 1940s. Gotham City draws some visual references to "Metropolis" (1927) and looks most closely like the Gotham City of Burton's first Batman movie. Also, keep your eye out for a Marlon Brando reference from the movie "The Wild One" (1953).

"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" is an impressive piece of animation. It is a mature, complex, psychological take on the batman character. It does some wonderful things that even the live action movies didn't do. The only fault I find with the movie is its final showdown which I feel goes on too long. They could have used this added time to give a bit more character development or end the picture 15 minutes earlier. Either way, I strongly recommend "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm".

Friday, September 26, 2014

Film Review: Scarface

"Scarface"  **** (out of ****)

Brian De Palma's "Scarface" (1983) is a scathing critique of the "American Dream" and America.

"Scarface" is a "loose" adaptation of a Howard Hawks 1932 gangster film of the same title starring Paul Muni as Tony Camonte with a career defining performance given by George Raft, as a coin flipping villain (the Batman character "Two-Face" was given this same trait because of this movie).

This time around our story takes place in 1980, when Cuban refugees arrive in Miami, Florida with Castro's permission. One of those refugees was Tony Montana (Al Pacino).

One of the first images we see on-screen is of what seems to be archival footage of Cubans coming to America. We see images of the American flag cut with shots of the refugees. And we are reminded, while we say America is "the home of the brave and the land of the free" it is also "the land of opportunity", the place where anyone can become rich and "make it". That's what Tony Montana wants now that he is in America. The "America Dream" to him represents money, power, a beautiful home and an attractive wife.

When Tony arrives in America there is an interrogation scene, to question him if he is a communist. Tony is asked how did he learn to speak English. He responds saying by watching movies. He mentions James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, two actors known for playing gangsters in movies. What does that say about the American image abroad? We are known for gangsters and violence. Tony didn't say he was watching Fred Astaire musicals and Shirley Temple movies.

Upon its initial release many "critics" focused their attention on the movie's violence, drug use, foul language and what was considered an "over the top" performance by Al Pacino. But, for as much as some may think the film is a commentary on criminals, drugs and violence, it is also as much a criticism of the American Dream and the United States' drug policy. At one point in the movie a character says, the United States spends hundreds of millions of dollars on a "war on drugs" yet America is the number one buyer of cocaine. Even though I support the "war on drug" and believe drugs should not be legal, I can see the hypocrisy of the situation.

What I enjoy most about "Scarface" is the screenplay by Oliver Stone. He throws in these social commentaries. When this movie was released Stone didn't have a significant body of work behind him but now, looking back on the movie, we can hear Stone's voice more prominently. The screenplay is sharp and observant. "Scarface" says a lot of important things about American culture.

In one scene Montana says he wants what is coming to him - the world and everything in it. This remark resembles the sentiment "greed is good" spoken in Stone's "Wall Street" (1987). Nothing is ever enough. We always need more. More money, more power, more fame, more food, more sex. The difference is one movie involved the corporate world and the other involves gangsters, but, is there really a difference? We would see these ideas appear again in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013). The politicians, the stock brokers, the bankers, they are all criminals but their practices are considered "legal". Not "moral" mind you, but "legal". They hide behind phony concepts like "capitalism" and "a free market" while stealing money from hard working people. When you are the person giving away your money, does it really matter what side of the law the other person is on? I'm reminded of something I was once told, when someone is pointing a gun at you, it doesn't matter if it is a crook or a cop at the other end of that gun, it is still scary.

You have the remember the times in which this movie was made, 1980s Ronald Reagan America. A time when "greed is good" was more than just a line from a movie, it was a way of living. It was a time of "trickle down" economics. Give the rich more money so they can invest and start businesses and their good fortune will "trickle down" to the rest of us. The system works best of course for those that begin the trickle. When you are an outsider in America, like Tony Montana, you quickly learn the rules. "In this country you gotta get the money and when you get the money, you get the power" observes Montana. Is he wrong?

Of course because it is a Hollywood movie, director Brian De Palma and writer Stone must give us a "crime doesn't pay" ending. The movie can't endorse violence and gangsters. So in order to offer a rebuttal we see Montana's mother and sister. They aren't rich. They work hard, struggle. This is how people are suppose to pursue the "American Dream". Isn't that what we have been told? It is all an even playing field. You have to struggle a little bit but eventually you'll become rich. Hard work pays off.

Over the years the movie has become associated with "hip hop culture". Most of the major rappers have embraced this movie and you can see why. How do people who are from the gutter, have no education, no talent to speak of (I think rappers have no talent) , achieve the American Dream? We all want to become rich and famous but when you feel trapped by society due to social and economic reasons, what are your options? Sure, things may not end well for Tony Montana, but, when he was at the top, the lifestyle sure seems tempting.

It shouldn't go without mentioning that Tony Montana is played by the same man who played Michael Corleone in "The Godfather" (1972). Both movies are about gangsters and present a twisted view of American life. In "The Godfather" there were traces of humanity in Michael. He was a war hero and was not involved in "the family business". In that same vein, Montana has to be presented as having some human qualities. He is shown as being loyal to his family. He loves his sister. And has a gangsters code of ethics - he won't kill women and children.

As I watched "Scarface", for the third time, I never felt Pacino's performance was "over the top". The character seemed like someone you might meet in real life. I don't think it is one of Pacino's greatest performances on par with his work in "The Godfather", "The Godfather Part II" (1974), "Serpico" (1973) or even "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975). But it is an interesting one in what it accomplishes. It walks a tight rope in an attempt to make us see ourselves in the character. The viewer has the same aspirations and can understand Montana's logic while at the same time it makes us judge him.

Director Brian De Palma is often accused (mostly by me) of putting "camp" in his movies. To one extent or another nearly every movie he has made has elements of it but "Scarface" feels more "grounded" to me. The movie stays on message, it is focused. De Palma gets the most out of all of his actors. Every performance is watchable. Michelle Pfeiffer broke out into the mainstream as Elvira, the woman Montana falls in love with. Robert Loggia plays Frank Lopez, a drug dealer who gives Montana his first break, Steven Bauer as his best friend, Manny and finally Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his kid sister Gina.

The most interesting of these relationships I feel is between Montana and Elvira. They are really two sides of the same coin. Elvira doesn't kill people but she wants the same things Montana wants, a comfortable life. A life filled with money and power. She pretends she is a "respectable" women, because she hides behind nice clothes and her beauty, but she is a drug addict. Both characters come from the same place place. How respectable could Elvira be living with men like Lopez and Montana?

The movie ends on a very violent note. For audiences in 1983 it was a bit too much. The 80s saw an emergence of violent slasher films which the public protested and look where it has lead us now. I won't explain how, but, everything ends badly and we are left with a hopeless message. The system doesn't work because people like Tony Montana still exist, but, some of them die. Still, this only makes room for new faces. 

So what's the final message of "Scarface"? Violence breeds more violence. The system is corrupt. And only the strong survive.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

100 Greatest Movies Of All Time

One of the things movie lovers absolutely enjoy doing is making list and ranking their favorite films. Every year I create a "top ten" list of the best films of the year and I have creates "top ten" list of the best films of the decades going back to the 1920s but, the one thing I never did was create a list of the 100 greatest films I have ever seen. Why? It would take too long and secondly, I wouldn't know where to begin. There are so many movies I love, many of which I have review, but, while 100 movies may sound like a lot to some, I can assure you, it isn't. I know I left some favorites off this list. But, which one of these movies could I remove? Every movie on this list is special to me.

What is going to separate this list from other lists? First of all, there are Hungarian films included. American movie goers don't appreciate Hungarian films, so, when I wrote, which of these films could I remove to make way for something else, the vast majority of my readers will say; the Hungarian movies! But, you have to remember, I'm Hungarian! Those movies are important to me. I wouldn't want to exclude them.

Readers that remember when I first started writing this blog, back in 2008, might remember I had a series called "masterpiece film series". The original idea I had was the include 100 movies as part of that series and then compile them in one list. But, I discontinued the series. If you remember the "rules" I created though for films that could be included as part of the series applied to this list as well. The rule was, no film made after 1979 could be included. However, I made one exception, the 1986 film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, "The Sacrifice". It is one of my all time favorite films. That will be the most modern film on the list.

I tried my best to put this list in order of preference but I will admit, as I got further and further down the list, it was difficult to say what was my 71st favorite or my 72nd favorite? Or what was my 83rd favorite or my 92nd favorite? After a while it didn't seem to matter it honestly didn't seem to matter.

There will be some who will complain how dare I leave such and such film off the list. I'm sorry if I didn't include your favorite film. Perhaps you can make your own list. This is my list. Also, you have to remember, no films made past 1979. I just have a feeling someone will say, you didn't you include "Raging Bull" (1980), "Schindler's List" (1993) or "GoodFellas" (1990). That's right. I didn't include those movies because they were made after 1979. Please try to remember that.

Some interesting notes about the list; the decade most represented? To my surprise, the 1950s. Twenty-three films made in the 50s are on the list. The 1930s has the second most films represented with 18, followed by 17 from the 40s and the 60s. There are eight silent movies on the list. Forty-four films on the list are spoken in another language. There are some international silent films included, but, I only counted those with the silent movies.

Here now are my top 100 favorite movies of all time!

 1. The Bicycle Thieves (1947; Dir. Vittorio De Sica)
 2. Wild Strawberries (1957; Dir. Ingmar Bergman)
 3. The Godfather (1972; Dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
 4. Modern Times (1936; Dir. Charlie Chaplin)
 5. Rear Window (1954; Dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
 6. Gone with the Wind (1939; Dir. Victor Fleming)
 7. Metropolis (1927; Dir. Fritz Lang)
 8. Top Hat (1935; Dir. Mark Sandrich)
 9. The Sacrifice (1986; Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
10. Germany Year Zero (1947; Dir. Roberto Rosellini)
11. 400 Blows (1959; Dir. Francois Truffaut)
12. Nights of Cabiria (1957; Dir. Federico Fellini)
13. Rashomon (1950; Dir. Akiria Kurosawa)
14. The Conformist (1971; Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci)
15. My Night At Maud's (1970; Dir. Eric Rohmer)
16. Ludwig (1973; Dir. Luchino Visconti)
17. Les Biches (1968; Dir. Claude Chabrol)
18. The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971; Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
19. Port of Shadows (1938; Dir. Marcel Carne)
20. Annie Hall (1977; Dir. Woody Allen)
21. Grand Hotel (1932; Dir. Edmund Goulding)
22. Mrs. Miniver (1942; Dir. William Wyler)
23. Casablanca (1942; Dir. Michael Curtiz)
24. Citizen Kane (1941; Dir. Orson Welles)
25. Singin' in the Rain (1952; Dir. Stanley Donen)
26. The Crowd (1928; Dir. King Vidor)
27. My Name Is Ivan (1962; Dir. A. Tarkovsky)
28. Seven Samurai (1954; Dir. A. Kurosawa)
29. Taxi Driver (1976; Dir. Martin Scorsese)
30. The Browning Version (1951; Dir. Anthony Asquith)
31. Fury (1936; Dir. F. Lang)
32. Random Harvest (1942; Dir. Melvin LeRoy)
33. The Godfather Part II (1974; Dir. F. Coppola)
34. It's A Wonderful Life (1946; Dir. Frank Capra)
35. A Gentleman's Agreement (1947; Dir. Elia Kazan)
36. The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946; Dir. W. Wyler)
37. Wuthering Heights (1939; Dir. W. Wyler)
38. Battleship Potemkin (1925; Dir. Sergei M. Eisenstein)
39. M (1931; Dir. F. Lang)
40. Sunrise (1927; Dir. F.W. Murnau)
41. L' Atalante (1934; Dir. Jean Vigo)
42. Paths of Glory (1957; Dir. Stanley Kubrick)
43. Two Women (1960; Dir. V. De Sica)
43. Trouble In Paradise (1932; Dir. Ernst Lubitsch)
44. The Awful Truth (1937; Dir. Leo McCarey)
45. It's A Gift (1934; Dir. Norman McLeod)
46. Ben-Hur (1927; Dir. Fred Niblo)
47. Rules of the Game (1939; Dir. Jean Renoir)
48. Greed (1924; Dir. Erich von Stroheim)
49. Children of Paradise (1946; Dir. M. Carne)
50. Double Indemnity (1944; Dir. Billy Wilder)
51. Daybreak (1939; Dir. M. Carne)
52. Persona (1967; Dir. I. Bergman)
53. Straw Dogs (1971; Dir. Sam Peckinpah)
54. A Man Escaped (1956; Dir. Robert Bresson)
55. Scenes From A Marriage (1974; I. Bergman)
56. Cries & Whispers (1973; I. Bergman)
57. The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964; Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini)
58. Ugetsu (1953; Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi)
59. Breathless (1959; Jean-Luc Godard)
60. Doctor Zhivago (1965; Dir. David Lean)
61. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939; Dir. F. Capra)
62. All Quiet On The Western Front (1930; Dir. Lewis Milestone)
63. Bridge On The River Kwai (1957; Dir. D. Lean)
64. Lion in Winter (1968; Anthony Harvey)
65. Psycho (1960; Dir. A. Hitchcock)
66. City Lights (1932; Dir. C. Chaplin)
67. Anatomy of A Murder (1959; Dir. Otto Preminger)
68. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951; Dir. E. Kazan)
69. The Seventh Seal (1957; Dir. I. Bergman)
70. La Strada (1954; Dir. F. Fellini)
71. La Notte (1961; Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni)
72. The Killing (1956; Dir. S. Kubrick)
73. Unfaithfully Yours (1948; Dir. Preston Sturges)
74. Late Spring (1949; Dir. Yasujiro Ozu)
75. Rocco & His Brothers (1960; Dir. L. Visconti)
76. Day For Night (1974; Dir. F. Truffaut)
77. Rififi (1955; Dir. Jules Dassin)
78. High Noon (1952; Dir. Fred Zinneman)
79. Mildred Pierce (1945; Dir. M. Curtiz)
80. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962; Dir. John Ford)
81. The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948; Dir. John Huston)
82. The Asphalt Jungle (1950; Dir. J. Huston)
83. Mama Roma (1962; Dir. P. Pasolini)
84. Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966; Jean-Pierre Melville)
85. Horse Feathers (1932; Dir. L. McCarey)
86. The Round-Up (1966; Dir. Miklos Jancso)
87. Day Of Wrath (1943; Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer)
88. The Exorcist (1973; William Friedkin)
89. The Shop On Main Street (1965; Jan Kadar)
90. Father (1967; Dir. Istvan Szabo)
91. Kanal (1957; Dir. Andrzej Wajda)
92. The Big Sleep (1946; Dir. Howard Hawks)
93. Korhinta (1956; Dir. Zoltan Fabri)
94. Barry Lyndon (1975; Dir. S. Kubrick)
95. The General (1926; Dirs. Clyde Bruckman / Buster Keaton)
96. The Big Parade (1925; Dir. K. Vidor)
97. The Freshman (1925; Dirs. Fred C. Newmeyer / Sam Taylor)
98. The Bad Sleep Well (1960; Dir. A. Kurosawa)
99. The Birth Of A Nation (1915; Dir. D.W. Griffith)
100. The Innocent (1979; Dir. L. Visconti)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Film Review: Saving Private Ryan

"Saving Private Ryan"  **** (out of ****)

Director Steven Spielberg honors the brave in the World War II drama, "Saving Private Ryan" (1998).

As I began watching Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" again, I noticed it is a different war film than the war movies that had been previously released at that time. Many of the war films released prior to Spielberg's film dealt with Vietnam, movies such as Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), Oliver Stone's "Platoon" (1986) and "Born on the 4th of July" (1989) and Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979). Those movies were anti-war. They showed the psychological trauma associated with war. The effects war had on the men; both mentally and physically. Those movies told us war is bad. The government lied to us. War is/was a political action. But, pay attention to how Spielberg presents World War II and how he treats the soldiers.

There is no talk in "Saving Private Ryan" about the government lying to its people or about WW2 being an unnecessary war. Yes, the movie shows startling images. At its time of release the buzz surrounding the picture was the first 25 minutes of the movie as we see soldiers hit the beaches of Normandy on D-Day as they are under fierce attack. We see limbs flying off bodies. We see soldiers on fire. Men getting hit with bullets. Spielberg has his camera move at a frantic pace all in an attempt to show the chaos of war. But Spielberg presents these men as heroes. What they did was honorable. World War II was seen as a moral war. The last "good war" this country fought. It was necessary to stop the spread of Fascism and Communism. Remember, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill never said the war was about protecting Jews. It was a war of ideology.

That is the underlying theme of "Saving Private Ryan"; heroism. Spielberg is not interested in controversy. He doesn't want to rock the boat and make a political commentary. He plays it safe, down the middle. The movie has the same attitude, the same spirit as American films made in the 1940s. The American soldier is the guy good. The moral authority. We do the right thing. The American soldier is brave, trustworthy and honorable. Contrast this movie with Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket". Kubrick says war takes away a man's humanity. None of the soldiers in "Saving Private Ryan" are shown as having a lust for blood. None of them are morally corrupt.

I wondered how the opening sequence would affect me seeing this movie a second time. Sixteen years have passed since I last it. Would those images still be as gritty and realistic as I remembered? They were. Spielberg packs a punch. Especially, now that I am older the image of men dying strikes me more. It has a greater emotional effect on me.

These scenes do show the harsh nature of war, it does show what hell these men had to endure but the underlying message beneath showing us these gritty scenes is to make us say or feel, look how brave these men were. Look at what they had to endure. The viewer may watch these scenes and turn their head away because of the violence but it is not showing us these images to push an anti-war agenda. War is tough and these men were brave, that is the message.

When I first saw "Saving Private Ryan" I was 15 years old. At that point in time I was fiercely anti-Spielberg. I had not been a fan of any movie he had made prior to this one. I hadn't seen "Schindler's List" (1993) by 1998, but I never liked any of the old audience favorites; "E.T." (1982), "Jaws" (1975), "Jurassic Park" (1993) or "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc" (1981). Spielberg was nothing more than a hit-maker in my opinion. He was not a "personal" filmmaker. He didn't make stories which injected his personality the way Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen or Ingmar Bergman did. Spielberg seemed to specialize in childhood fantasy pictures and that's fine, but it didn't interest me. "Saving Private Ryan" was the first movie that Spielberg made that caught my attention. I thought here is a director that had something personal to say. It wasn't autobiographical (clearly) but it had a message Spielberg wanted "out there" and I appreciated that and responded to it.

With five years between "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan", Spielberg was positioning himself  to become the filmmaker that brought WW2 to a younger generation. He was going to keep the memory of it alive. He and Tom Hanks would go on to produce a HBO mini-series called "Band of Brothers" (2001) and, not to mention he is the founder of the Shoah Foundation.

Tom Hanks stars in "Saving Private Ryan" as Captain Miller. After leading men to the Normandy Landings, Miller is given his next assignment, straight from Gen. Marshall, assemble a unit to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon). Private Ryan had three brothers enlisted in the war. All three died during the Normandy Landings. All three letters will be mailed to their mother on the same day. In order to spare the woman some grief, it is decided the army cannot kill all of her children and must at least allow one of them to return home alive.

Captain Miller and his men; Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Private Reiben (Edward Burns), Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Private Carparzo (Vin Diesel) and Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) are not happy about the mission. Why should they risk their lives to find a man they don't even know. They all have mothers too. Why can't they go home and spare their mother's some grief?

The structure of the film is a bit episodic as they travel from town to town searching for Ryan and encounter other infantries and help out when needed, demonstrating their courage under fire.

One of the most interesting things that happens along the way is they capture a German soldier that has just killed an American. The initial reaction of the unit is to kill the German until one of the soldiers, Corporal Upham, stops the men, telling them it is not right. He surrendered and should be treated as a prisoner of war. They must follow the law. This presents Upham as a Liberal coward. He is acting as the conscience of the group. Trying to make them do the right thing. However, in films and perhaps in society, whenever someone talks about due process, you can pretty much guess they are a Liberal, and here Spielberg, also a Liberal, gets to subtly inject some politics about Americans having the higher moral authority. Although, if you have ever seen a movie before you know the cowardly Liberal will have to be transformed. There must be a scene where he is allowed to "redeem" himself, "act like a man" and kill someone. Don't believe me? Okay, watch "Straw Dogs" (1971), "Full Metal Jacket" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962)  as some examples.

Some criticisms I have for the movie is the beginning and end. Spielberg can't help himself and gives us unnecessary schmaltz. The first image we see is of an older Private Ryan visiting the grave of Captain Miller. Why is this necessary? The movie could have easily started off with the beach landing. But Spielberg must make every attempt to pull at our heartstrings. The last image of the movie is also of Private Ryan, staring at Miller's grave and we see the tombstone of other soldiers. Again, this isn't necessary. If Spielberg felt compelled to add the schmaltz, all he had to do was leave us with the image of the graves of all those dead soldiers and fade to the credits. You didn't need Private Ryan standing there.

My only other complaint, the "last mission" of the movie goes on too long especially since we don't understand the stakes involved. How important is it to secure this territory? This sequence goes on for roughly 40 minutes. Not needed. You could have easily cut it in half.

Still, you have to admit "Saving Private Ryan" is a strong film. It has some good performances but not just from Hanks (who was nominated for an Academy Award) but everyone is given an opportunity to shine. Vin Diesel has a nice moment, Edward Burns has his spotlight moment and Jeremy Davies gets to challenge the viewer with his cowardly, Liberal ways.

What is best about the performances though are they seem sincere. Yes, they are "movie soldiers", so they are a bit more "lively" than you may expect and make smart alec remarks but they aren't reduced to cliches. These characters have individual spirits.

Upon its release the movie was a box-office success grossing more than $400 million dollars. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won five including best director for Spielberg. Some felt it should have won the best picture Oscar as well, but, it lost that year to "Shakespeare in Love" (1998). Although it did win the Golden Globe for best motion picture drama that year and was nominated in four other categories. I even put in on my top ten films of 1998 list, in the number two spot.

If "Schindler's List" didn't prove it, "Saving Private Ryan" helped cement the idea Spielberg is a serious filmmaker. He is capable of tackling serious subject matters and will do them justice. He is not just a childhood fantasy director. "Saving Private Ryan" is a strong film with some very gritty battle scenes and a nice, non-controversial message. It is one of Spielberg's masterpieces and one that seems to have a "timeless" quality to it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Film Review: Quintet

"Quintet"  **** (out of ****)

All of life is a game in Robert Altman's "Quintet" (1979).

When "Quintet" was first released in theatres in 1979 the critics and the general public were not receptive to it. Some considered it the worst movie of all time and others declared it the worst movie Robert Altman had directed, at that point in time. To put things in a bit of perspective, you have to remember the 1970s was when Altman hit the mainstream with the release of "M*A*S*H" (1970). His other accomplishments throughout the decade included "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971), "Nashville" (1975) and "3 Women" (1977). So expectations were always high when Altman released a picture.

"Quintet" was a picture no one expected from Robert Altman. It doesn't neatly fit into his catalog of films. Sure, "Images" (1972) and "3 Women" were a bit bizarre and surreal at times but you could get a handle on the plot. There were strong characters to follow and a beginning, middle and end. "Quintet" simply baffled audiences. They didn't know what to make of it. What was it about? If, in fact, it was about anything. Did Altman have a message lurking around somewhere?

To be fair, when I first saw "Quintet" a few years ago, I enjoyed it but wasn't completely sold on it. Overall I felt the movie worked but it wasn't great. Not a complete success. I have now seen it again and after a few viewings the movie has a lyrical, hypnotic charm to it. I now believe it is a successful film. Does it have something to say about life? Yes. Nothing positive mind you but it does make a commentary.

The film takes place some time in the future. A second ice age has hit earth. Everything, as far as the eye can see, is covered in snow. We learn the world has stopped pro-creating. Only the middle aged and the elderly exist. The world as we know it has ceased to function. There are no movies, no books, no restaurants, no jobs. A stranger, named Essex (Paul Newman), has traveled a long distance with a young woman, Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), who may very well be the last person born. She is also pregnant, we suspect, with Essex's child. They have come in search of Essex's brother, Francha (Tom Hill).

The population amuses itself with a board game called quintet, the rules to the game are never explained, but, to bring excitement to their lives, there are some who have decided to play the game in real life with the objective of killing your opponents. Francha was part of this game and when another player kills him, Essex finds himself unknowingly involved in the game with the other players; St. Christopher (Vittorio Gassman), Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson), Goldstar (David Langton) and Deuca (Nina Van Pallandt).

To call the movie a thriller wouldn't be fair. Characters are dying around Essex as he tries to understand the meaning of it all and there is the possibility he may die too but the movie lacks the thrills you would associate with a action picture. Instead, "Quintet" is an existential film about life. It is an Ingmar Bergman-esque, Bibi Andersson is in the movie after all, study on the meaning of our existence. What is the purpose of life? What pleasure should we take from the daily chore of living?

The movie is very bleak. It is called "slow moving" by some. In David Thompson's book, "Altman on Altman", Altman described the setting as such, "we asked ourselves, what would people live on in these conditions? The only food would come from the sea; anything that gave warmth would be extremely precious. Then, as in any community surviving under extreme conditions, there would be a game they would play, taking the place of religion."

When I first saw the movie I thought it was a parable on religion. The people have lost all hope. They turn to a game for comfort. They live by it. There is one called Grigor (Fernando Rey) who is the adjudicator. He stands by as others play the game. He makes judgement calls when needed, making sure players follow the rules correctly, almost serving as a high priest. In fact, he dresses like one.

Having seen the movie a second and third time, I no longer see it in that light. I feel the movie is more straight forward about its intentions. There is a scene when St. Christopher discusses the five stages of life. He points out, five is not enough. There is a sixth space. The center. The center is the void. It represents bleakness. Emptiness. And that is life. Once you recognize that you are truly able to understand life. You should be grateful you lead a miserable life because that is as good as it gets. Otherwise madness awaits you because then you are faced with nothing. Life has no purpose, so amuse yourself as a distraction.

Altman admits in the same book the bleak tone of the picture may have been the result of the death of his parents. "My father died from cancer" Altman says, before they began shooting in Montreal and adds "my mother had died two years before. I'm sure that influenced the tone of Quintet." And you can understand why someone who has experienced the pain of losing a loved one would feel life has no meaning. It is all a game. A series of random acts.

Still, I suppose there is another way to interpret "Quintet". At the beginning of the movie we see Essex and Vivia walking in the snow towards their destination. They stop to rest. Just as they begin to nap the movie begins. Is everything that happens in "Quintet" a dream? Throughout the picture, in the four corners of the frame, there is a blurriness to the image. One can interpret this to be frost, serving as a visual reminder of the cold world these characters inhabit. But, what if it isn't suppose to represent frost but instead a dream?

In the same opening sequence the two see a goose flying north. Later on the in picture one of the characters says they will travel north. We see images of geese in the picture as well. Is this because this was one of the last images Essex had before he went to sleep? Altman says the movie could be viewed as a western but he really sees it as a fairy tale. A fairy tale is the stuff dreams are made of.

Some of the interesting touches Altman adds to the picture is the way the characters dress. The characters in this movie dress as if they are in the medieval period. They speak that way too. We notice two of the female characters suck their thumb when they are sleeping. As if they are children. One of the characters to do this is Vivia. She is young and innocent perhaps like a child. The other character is Ambrosia. She sucks her thumb in a moment of happiness. When she has hope for life. Does having hope make you a child? Do only the foolish have hope and believe their is meaning to life? Oddly, we never see male characters suck their thumbs. Are women more hopeful than men?

At other times in the picture we see photos on the wall of various people. The photos are usually of minorities yet throughout the picture no one in the cast is a minority. Only white Europeans are alive during this ice age.

Unlike others I enjoy Paul Newman's performance here. It is the most sensitive I think I have ever seen him. He is an innocent man in a confusing world, trying to make sense of it. Everything he had has been taken away from him. He is caught in a situation where he does not understand the rules. Newman isn't really a hero, at least not in the terms we identify a hero as being. He is not macho, killing everyone in sight. Fighting desperately for his life. And that may be why people didn't like him or the movie. It doesn't give audiences what they were expecting. It doesn't play by the rules of a conventional genre piece. Altman bends the rules a bit. Throws the audience a curve ball. But, that was always Altman's style. He always played by his own rules and made the picture he wanted to make.

I'm not sure I truly understand the meaning of "Quintet". There may be more to the movie that I am not picking up on. But, even if there is more to it, I am content to view the movie as a metaphor for life. The bleak tone and message doesn't bother me because it reflects my own feelings towards life. I enjoy trying to discover new things about the movie and trying to understand it. I like the minimalist musical score. I like the slow pacing of the movie. And I like Newman's performance. In short, I like everything about this movie that everyone else hates. All of the so-called "faults" of the movie I find to be "strengths".

"Quintet" is clearly not one of Altman's most popular pictures. It had been out of print for years on VHS and was not properly given a DVD release. It was released as part of a collection of Altman films but not released on its own. It is still difficult to come by. Plus, there is still so much negative word of mouth, that it prevents others from even trying to find the movie. But, I enjoy it. It is not the place to start if you haven't seen any of Altman's other films but it is worth seeing. You have to be in the right mood to appreciate it.  The movie has positive qualities, you just have to be willing to meet it half way.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Film Review: GoodFellas

"GoodFellas"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

The movie starts off with a bloody body inside the trunk of a car. The man is still alive though. As the trunk is opened, one man stabs the body repeatedly and then another man shoots him. A voice over tells us "as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster."

And that's one of the interesting things about Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" (1990). So often in the movie the narration doesn't match the images we see on screen. The narration and the images represent a different reality. Why would a man witness someone being stabbed and shot say they've always wanted to be a gangster? Through this one shot Scorsese immediately establishes the twisted world view of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his regret in leaving organized crime.

Another interesting combination of voice over and images occurs when we hear Henry talking about his early beginnings with the mob and the "respect" his family received when people in the neighborhood knew he had associations with the mob. While this voice over about respect is going on the image is of a young Henry setting cars on fire. You are talking about respect while you are destroying other people's property.

All of these little touches are important in "GoodFellas" because it instantly brings the audience into Henry Hill's mind, which is what the best Scorsese films do, take us inside the head of bizarre men. We try to understand his logic. He and other members of the mob live by a different set of standards. At one point we hear Henry talk about the appeal of joining the mob because "it meant being somebody in a neighborhood that was full of nobodies." And then you contrast those words with the actions it took to achieve his goals.

To a young child the lifestyle is alluring because they run the neighborhood. They have freedom to do what they want. Henry even says, how could I go back to school and pledge allegiance to the flag when he is experiencing a different world. Here is a world where you make the rules. You follow your own laws, a different code of ethnics.

"GoodFellas" is based on a 1986 novel called "Wise Guy" written by Nicholas Pileggi, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Martin Scorsese. The book is based on the life of Henry Hill and his time with the mob between 1955 - 1980. He later left the mob and joined the witness protection program.

Much like "Mean Streets" (1973) the characters in the "GoodFellas" to me are small potatoes. The insignificant stuff impresses them. They place importance on the unimportant. To the Harvey Keitel character in "Mean Streets" owning a restaurant means everything. Making good in the neighborhood is important. To the characters in "GoodFellas" everything is also about the neighborhood and getting the respect of the neighborhood is important. So, they can walk into a busy restaurant and quickly get a table. Big deal. Outside of their small world, where they only associate with one another, they mean nothing to the rest of the world.

Still there are times when "GoodFellas" makes the lifestyle tempting. When the lifestyle is almost glamorized. Henry has a closet full of beautiful suits, walks around with a wad of cash, drives a new car, lives in a nice house. We all admire the material things. We would all like to possess these things. The question is, is the lifestyle worth it to achieve it?

We feel this way watching the picture because Henry is our narrator. He finds the lifestyle exciting, so he tells his story with enthusiasm. He is trying to make us excited about this world. He is trying to make us understand its appeal and benefits. All the killing and murder is nothing more than business. It is part of a routine. You don't think twice about it.

When "GoodFellas" was first released there was some comparisons being made to "The Godfather" (1972) because both films showed life in the mob. Some prefer "GoodFellas" because they say this is a more realistic look at the life of these people. Coppola takes the characters in "The Godfather" and turns them into tragic figures like in a Shakespeare play. That may be true but it is also why I prefer "The Godfather". As far as a movie goes, trying to humanize these people and showing their gradual downfall in a more dramatic, yes, tragic terms makes for better drama. It is more cinematic.

"GoodFellas" also portrays these characters as if they are in a family too. Henry has two brother figures in Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). There is father figure too, Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) who runs things. And this makes everything seem normal. They all have the same ethnics so no one will challenge their world view.

The movie switches from the mob, a little bit to tell us about how Henry met his wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), an attractibe Jewish, whose mother would go crazy if she found out Henry wasn't Jewish.

What I find interesting, all these years later, watching the movie is, both of them are outsiders. Henry isn't pure Italian. His mother's family comes from Sicily, which allows him to enter their world, but his father is Irish. For as long as Henry is with these people he can never become a "made man", a boss of his own family, because he is not "pure". It is a coincidence Henry should then marry someone who also is not "pure", a Jewish girl. He certainly meets enough Italian women he could have married, but no.

"GoodFellas" came around at a good time for Scorsese. Today we think of Martin Scorsese as one of the greatest American filmmakers we have today but during the 1980s believe it or not Scorsese struggled. True, he started the decade off with "Raging Bull" (1980), a film many consider one of, if not the best film of the 80s but he followed that movie up with box-office flops; "The King of Comedy" (1982), "After Hours" (1985) and the wrongly condemned "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988). Thrown in between was "The Color of Money" (1986) but Paul Newman mostly got all the attention for that movie and won an Academy Award for his performance. But "GoodFellas" was in a way a "comeback" picture and does recall his earlier efforts such as "Mean Streets". "GoodFellas" is told with that same amount of energy. It makes its camera dance with excitement. Visually this is a very entertaining picture.

One of the things which makes "GoodFellas" so interesting to watch is the "insider" feel you get as you watch it. Nothing feels phony. The movie understands its characters. It understands how they talk and how they think. It really establishes a sense of community but then it also shows the downside. It shows how this world is not always glamorous. You may spend time in jail. You may get involved with drugs. There is a fear of what if you are next. What if someone kills you.

I also noticed there really isn't a singular narrative story in "GoodFellas". It feels like a bunch of incidents thrown together. It is an over view of life in the mob. Here is what happened one day, here is something else that happened afterwards. It does all the things any other movie does. It does have three acts. It has a lead character we follow. But, if you ask me what "GoodFellas" is about, there is no single plot line I can tell you. It is a look at life in the mob is the best I can tell you. That is also what makes the movie so interesting. It is difficult to write this kind of movie. You have to juggle so much. Keep track of a lot of characters. Keep events moving along while not having a strong narrative to completely follow through on.

The movie was nominated for six Academy Awards including best picture and best director. It won one award for best supporting actor (Pesci). A lot of people feel it was a huge mistake when it lost to "Dances with Wolves" (1990) for best picture. It was also nominated for five Golden Globe nominations including best picture and best director but again lost to "Dances with Wolves". Now "GoodFellas" is largely considered to be one of the best films of the 90s.

Scorsese made another film about the mob after this, "Casino" (1995) which I feel some wrongly criticized. That movie is equally entertaining. "GoodFellas" though is a classic and has become a quintessential Scorsese picture. Definitely among his all time best.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Film Review: Duck Soup

"Duck Soup" *** 1\2  (out of ****)

It's war in the Marx Brothers comedy "Duck Soup" (1933) directed by Leo McCarey.

The great comedies are ferocious. They attack society's conventional morals. They aren't afraid to get messy and show society the error of its ways. This is one of the reasons comedy is my favorite genre. Comedies, social satires, believe it or not, tackle important issues. They actually have something to say but because you are laughing you don't realize the subtly of the message. Because you are laughing you don't find the movie threatening for challenging convention.

"Duck Soup" is such a movie. Here is a movie released by Paramount Pictures in 1933 when "war was brewing in Europe". Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany. Many Americans may not have known it at the time but we would be drawn into the conflict too. War is a serious issue. But "Duck Soup" dares to tell us, war is dumb. And, you know what? It's fought over stupid reasons, such as the reason in this movie when one character calls another an "upstart". After that war is declared. One stupid reason is just as good as another stupid reason to start war between countries.

The movie starts off with government officials of the fictitious country Freedonia pleading with its most wealthy backer, Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) to loan them $20 million dollars. But, Mrs. Teasdale will not. She has already loan the country $20 million and now has little faith in the country's current leader. She will only donate the money if leadership is changed. She wants to see Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) put in as the country's new leader. And so it is done.

Here we see two social points being made. One, money dominates politics. If you have money you can buy a government. Secondly, how can leadership change without an election? How can a new person be named the leader of a country? It is called Freedonia after all. Isn't there any freedom? Democracy?

Once Firefly is appointed the new leader he is asked what the public may expect during his administration. He sings his response in a song with lyrics such as "no ones allowed to smoke/or tell a dirty joke" and "if any form of pleasure is exhibited/ report to me and it will be prohibited" but then ends the verse with "this is the land of the free". Thus another comment on society. We say we are living in a free country with independence but there are so many rules, so many laws prohibiting us how can we call ourselves free?

What Firefly doesn't know is there is someone that wants to overthrow the Freedonia government, Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) of the neighboring country Sylvania. He wants to lead both countries. His original plan was to start a revolution but soon he believes he can reach his same goal by marrying Mrs. Teasdale, plus he will have her wealth. The only problem is Mrs. Teasdale may have feelings for Firefly.

Events escalate when Trentino calls Firefly an upstart. Outraged Firefly slaps Trentino with a glove across his face and declares "this means war"! And that's the plot to "Duck Soup".

Trentino hires two spies; Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) to try and collect dirt on Firefly. They create a popcorn stand in front up Firefly's mansion but instead of gathering information always find themselves fighting with another vendor selling lemonade (Edgar Kennedy).

What is most impressive about "Duck Soup" is the speed of the jokes. The movie never takes a breather. It is like a machine gun firing off rounds. Jokes just keep coming at you. Think of "Airplane" (1980) but then multiple it by five. Here is one example. An exchange between Firefly and Mrs. Teasdale:

Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he's dead.
Firefly: I bet he's just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Firefly: Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.

Did you notice how every bit of dialogue Groucho has is a wise-crack? And it is like that for the entire length of the picture, which is 68 minutes. It is a collection of verbal wise-cracks and visual gags, from Chico and Harpo fighting with the vendor and leading to the famous "mirror" gag where Harpo is dressed as Groucho in a nightgown and is spotted by Groucho. Stuck, Hapro pretends he is a reflection in a mirror. Groucho knows it is no reflection so he tries to fake him out with a serious of wild gestures.

This is actually a famous comedy routine that Abbott & Costello, The Three Stooges and even Charlie Chaplin did. In fact Chaplin may have been the first to put it on-screen in his comedy "The Floorwalker" (1916).

"Duck Soup" has other inspired moments such was when Harpo dresses up as Paul Revere, riding through town to get help, when he notices a pretty blonde undressing, about to take a bath. Naturally Hapro forgets all about the war and chases down the lady. A running gag in the movie involves Harpo as Groucho's driver. Harpo sits on a motorcycle with a side car, which is where Groucho sits. Every time Harpo drives off the side car stays behind.

In the movie's last sequence, a battle scene, we see Groucho change costumes within a scene. One moment he is wearing a Confederate Civil War uniform, the camera cuts away and then he is wearing a British palace guard uniform and this happens a few more times within the sequence. While it is physically impossible thus making it funny it is also serving as a commentary. Through out history there has always been wars even "wars to end all wars" but wars continue to come. The only difference is the costumes.

Although the movie is now a critical and audience favorite, many feel it is the best movie the Marx Brothers were ever in, it was not their most successful film at the box-office. It failed in comparison to their previous movie, "Horse Feathers" (1932). This was also the last movie the brothers made for Paramount Pictures. And finally it is the last movie the four Marx Brothers would appear in together. Zeppo would leave the act feeling there wasn't much for him to do. He was suppose to be the straight man of the team.

I always wonder how much control a director would have had working on a Marx Brothers movie. I can imagine the brothers feeling they don't need a director. They had their routines, they know what was funny and weren't going to have some outsider tell them what to do or what was funny. Their ego would get in the way of having a director direct them.

But with Leo McCarey, the director of this movie, that would be a mistake. McCarey was a funny guy and worked with the best in the business. He got his first major break working for Hal Roach, who had his own comedy studio. McCarey is credited as being the man who brought Laurel & Hardy together, both worked for Hal Roach. He would go on to win two Academy Awards for best director and win an Academy Award for his writing. His other credits include "The Awful Truth" (1937), "Going My Way" (1944), "My Favorite Wife" (1940) and "The Milky Way" (1936) with Harold Lloyd.

It may seem hard to believe for a younger audience watching the movie, but, this picture was considered such a threat Mussolini took the film as a personal insult and banned the movie in Italy.

"Duck Soup" is a classic political satire. It obliterates the political system showing it to be run by a bunch of children who really have no idea what they are doing. What was true in 1933 is still true today.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Film Review: The Leopard

"The Leopard" *** (out of ****)

The times are a changing in Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard" (1963) starring Burt Lancaster.

The time is 1860. The setting is Sicily. It is the beginning of what is known as the Expedition of the Thousand, a revolt led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, a general, during the Italian Unification process to make Sicily part of Italy.

I tell you this information because the movie doesn't. It is important to know these details, as this is the backdrop of Visconti's film. These historical moments linger in the background of the movie. Characters are responding and reacting to these events. In fact, it takes the movie one hour and 16 minutes to even tell us we are in Sicily and the year is 1860. Luchino, my friend, you should have known better. You are a wonderful filmmaker. One of favorites but sir, you should have known better. I expect more from you.

The movie, as I mentioned already, was directed by Luchino Visconti. It was based on a novel written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, which had the same title.

Giuseppe was born in Palermo, where the film takes place, to the Prince of Lampedusa, Giulio Maria Tomasi and Beatrice Mastrogiovanni Tasca di Cuto. Visconti was also born into a family of nobility. His father was a Duke and Luchino was formally known as a Count.

The reason I mention any of this information is because it shows these men understood their subject matter. The film follows the Prince of Salina (Lancaster), a man who represents the old establishment in a changing world. The Prince and his kind are on their way out. There will be a new Italy ruled by a new generation with new ideas, a fresh perspective. Their "change" may lead Italy to ruin, no one can tell at this point, but, either way Italy has turned a new chapter. Men like the Prince can either resist at every turn or accept events as they occur. The Prince tries to accept the changing tide while also accepting he will not change with it. He is a man who knows who he is, understands the way the new world views him and accepts his ways are now old-fashion. He doesn't have much of a say anymore.

The Prince has a nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), who wants to help fight for change and joins Garibaldi army, putting him at odds with his uncle, but, being family, the Prince doesn't allow the issue to divide them.

At the beginning of the movie, The Prince, known as Don Fabrizio, spends most of his time with a priest, Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli). There time together and conversations, for me are some of the best moments of the film. The priest is not a member of the nobility, and while he will admit, the rich aren't bad people, they are merely, well, different. What is important to the rich, he says, he not important to everyday people. Their concerns, to normal people, are irrelevant to the concerns of others.

For the first hour or so of this three hour movie, the story centers on politics, not directly but indirectly. Some of these scenes work, like the scene I described with the priest, but much of it doesn't. The problem is the entire movie is told from the perspective of the rich there is no counter arguement being made. No one would dare speak back to Don Fabrizio. The priest could have been this character so could have Tancredi, but no.

This would have been important to the story because it would help set up the time period better. It would help put things into perspective. It would have helped me care more about the story.

Other scenes involve Don Fabrizio arranging a marriage between Tancredi and Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale), after Fabrizio has learned his own daughter is in love with Tancredi.

Soon the story centers on the theme of immortality. This concept is illustrated in various lines of dialogue but most prominently in the movie's final sequence, which last 45 minutes, at a ball. It all starts when Fabrizio, feeling tired and restless, goes off in a study to be by himself and notices a picture on the wall of a man on his deathbed and his family surrounding him. Is this what it will be like when he dies Fabrizio wonders? There is nothing left for him to do but die.

Moments of his youth come rushing back to him when Angelica asks him for a dance at the ball. Their waltz together is one of the most sensual dance sequences put to film, forget about the Al Pacino sequence in "Scent of A Woman" (1992).

On a technical level "The Leopard" is beautifully made. The movie simply looks gorgeous. The costume and production designs, the cinematography, the music, the performance by Lancaster, it is all first rate. But, emotionally I wasn't really drawn into this story. I wasn't as involved in this film as I have been in other Visconti films such as "The Damned" (1969), "The Innocent" (1979) and "Ludwig" (1973) . Visconti is an absolute craftsmen and I can't deny the quality of the work, I was just left feeling the movie needed more of an emotional pull. I wish the movie would have told us more about the politics of the time, giving the working class a voice, establish the time period better. But, I can wish and hope from now until doomsday. It won't change a thing. As it stands "The Leopard" is worth seeing.

The movie won the palm d'or at the Cannes Film Festival but opened to mixed reviews in America when first release. Now, the movie is regarded as one of Visconti's best. If you do chose to watch the movie know there are currently two versions in circulation. There is the original Italian version which runs three hours and five minutes and a shorter English dubbed version. I have seen both. This review however comes after seeing the Italian version. This is the version I recommend seeing even though you will not hear Lancaster deliver his lines (a shame).

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Film Review: Full Metal Jacket

"Full Metal Jacket"  **** (out of ****)

Stanley Kubrick shows us war is hell in his masterpiece "Full Metal Jacket" (1987).

"Full Metal Jacket" is a war film about ideas. It is not the battle scenes that matter most when watching this picture instead what is most important is the psychological implications war has on the soldier. The film is about the slow destruction of a man's mind. The Marines, in the case of this movie, reduce a man to nothing. They strip him of all emotion. All humanity. They turn innocent men into killing machines. The film is fiercely anti-war and stands as one of the greatest Vietnam anti-war films of all-time in a class with Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979) and Oliver Stone's "Platoon" (1986).

Kubrick divides "Full Metal Jacket" in two halves. The first half of the movie takes place in 1967 at a boot camp where new recruits meet their drill instructor Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) who will prepare them to go to Vietnam. The recruits consist of "Joker" (Matthew Modine), Eightball (Dorian Harewood), Cowboy (Arliss Howard) and Lawrence (Vincent D' Onofrio) who is un-affectionately called "Gomer Pyle" by Sergeant Hartman.

During the training sequences we see how hard Sgt. Hartman pushes the men. He verbally abuses them. He tells them they are worthless. He refers to them as "ladies". But, he assures all of them, he will turn them into "men" and by "men" he means someone able to kill.

We watch these scenes and we think to ourselves, is this what it is like? Is this what it is like to join the Marines? Is this how America treats those who want to serve for their country? We systematically take everything good about people and corrupt them with a desire to kill. It is within these scenes the viewer sees the collapse of men's souls. And Kubrick gets this point across through one of the recruits, Lawrence. Lawrence is a bit overweight and is shown to be dim-witted. The drill instructor is merciless in his attack on him. He degrades him to the point Lawrence snaps. You can only push a man so far. I refuse to believe this is one of those "only in the movies" situations. I am convinced people who join the army or the Marines or whatever, eventually snap.

The second half of the movie now takes us to the front lines of the Vietnam war as we follow "Joker" who writes for the Marines newspaper, "Stars & Stripes". The journalism scenes are interesting in the way the military deludes itself from reality and the way the war is going. It is another form of brainwashing, hiding the truth from the soldiers.

"Joker" is sent to the city of Hue, where he meets up with his old friend Cowboy to do a story on him and his squad.

Here "Joker" will meet an interesting character nicknamed "Animal" (Adam Baldwin). He is a man who enjoys killing and brags about how many people he has taken down. And soon we say to ourselves, the men who made it through boot camp, were seen as "fit" are not mentally fit. They will never be "normal" again. They ae not able to function in civilized society again. You can't go around bragging about how many people you have killed. You can't find satisfaction in killing another human being. But, by the standards of the Marines that is a commendable trait to have.

The "Joker" character is suppose to serve as the movie's conscience, mocking military protocol. Trying to bring attention to the destructive nature of war. At every turn from his higher ups he is criticize. These people don't have a sense of humor and don't care much for his constant John Wayne impersonation. Interesting he should chose John Wayne, a heroic, masculine figure. What does that tell us about the message we send to people about fighting? We almost romanticize it with these iconic figures and movies. Young men, growing up, see someone like John Wayne and believe the idea of holding a gun and/or killing someone is masculine, The act of killing someone makes you a man.

Three of the most effective performances in the movie I feel are given by Matthew Modine, Vincent D' Onofrio and Adam Baldwin. Though I also believe the film is not about individual characters. No one character is more important than another. This is a collective piece, a collaborative acting effort.

The movie ends with a thrilling sequence involving Cowboy's squad under attack from a sniper. We are on the edge of our seats. Kubrick never shows the audience where the sniper is located. We are like those men out in the field unsure when a bullet will hit them.

One of the film's last images presents the idea of is there such a thing as a "humanity" kill? Killing someone to take them out of their misery. When you are the one pulling trigger what is the difference? The psychological effects of the act, whatever the motivation, will stay with you. No matter how you look at it, you are taking a life.

The one thing I am not sure if I like about the movie is the music. Kubrick seems to purposely use music which doesn't fit in with the scene. It is all pop songs like "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'", "Chapel of Love" and "Surfin' Bird". Martin Scorsese, to name another great filmmaker, also uses pop songs in his movies, but in that case the song will compliment the scene. In "Full Metal Jacket" the music really stands out in contrast to the scenes. Maybe that was the point. The film is about duality in a way. Still I am not sure it was a necessary move on Kubrick's part.

"Full Metal Jacket" was based on a novel by Gustav Hasford, who co-wrote the film's screenplay, called "The Short-Timers".  Michael Herr was another co-writer, who wrote his own Vietnam memoir called "Dispatches" working with Kubrick. The three of them were nominated for an Academy Award in the best adapted screenplay category. It was the film's sole nomination.

Seven years passed between Kubrick's last picture, "The Shining" (1980) and this movie. "The Shining" was also about a man who is brainwashed, who has all his humanity taken away from him. The movie is also comparable to "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) showing the effects violence has on the mind. And finally like "Paths of Glory" (1957) it is strongly anti-war.

When the movie was first released it generated a lot of support being herald as a strong anti- war film. I am glad "Platoon" didn't stop people from recommending this movie suggesting that it may fail in comparison.

I personally had to watch the movie twice before I enjoyed it. I have now seen it three times and each time I watch it I like it more and more. I keep picking up on something new. I can't wait to watch it again and this time focus even more on the words and not so much on the themes and fighting scenes. There is great intelligence to this movie.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Film Review: 1900

"1900"  *** (out of ****)

"1900" (1977) directed by Bernardo Bertolucci was suppose to work. It was suppose to be a masterpiece. An epic, ambitious story showing us the first half of Italy's history in the 20th century. It was suppose to be a sprawling, lyrical, emotional tale. But it's not. Well, not completely.

There will be a part of you that feels you should like this movie. It's important. It's about something. It's tempting to look past the movie's flaws and cave in. To call it a great film because you don't want to be judged harshly. You don't want people to say you are someone that is not capable of appreciating high art. But be strong. Stand up for yourself. The truth shall set you free.

Bertolucci premiered "1900" at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, where it was shown out of competition. It originally ran five-and-a-half hours. The film was met with a lot of controversy at the festival and afterwards. There was also an issue with the movie's running time which became an issue for discussion. In his review for the New York Times, film critic Vincent Canby wrote the following:

This 245-minute version of 1900 is not to be confused with the five-and-one half hour version that was shown at the 1976 Cannes festival, nor with the five-hour, ten-minute version that was later released in Europe, nor with the four-and-one half-hour version that Mr. Bertolucci once said was as short as the film could possibly be, before giving his full approval to this even shorter version.

Prior to releasing this movie Bernardo Bertolucci directed "Last Tango in Paris" (1972), "The Spider's Stratagem" (1971) and "The Conformist" (1971). When he emerged on the world scene with his debut film "The Grim Reaper" (1962), at the age of 25, he was in awe of one of the leading directors of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard. All of Bertolucci's early films were Godard-lite. Bertolucci seemed to share Godard's left-wing views. He too wanted to make films which served not only to entertain but to make political and social commentaries.

That may have been the hope Bertolucci had with "1900". On the day of Verdi's death two children will be born on the Berlinghieri plantation; Alfredo (played as an adult by Robert De Niro), the grandson of the plantation's padrone (master) Alfredo (Burt Lancaster) and Olmo (played as an adult by Gerard Depardieu), an illegitimate peasant, who will grow up to be a communist.

The movie explores their friendship as young children. They instantly understand the differences between  their social class. The world represents different things to them. One day young Alfredo will become the padrone while Olmo will always be a worker.

The years go by and WW1 begins. Olmo enlists in the army while Alfredo is lucky enough to have his father buy his way out of serving. When Olmo returns to the planation, Alfredo expects a joyous reunion but Olmo has just seen war. He has seen men die. He has outgrown the childish games of his youth. Alfredo has been sheltered. He hasn't experienced life's hardships. Olmo has developed his political ideas. He is a communist. The workers should unionize. They have all the power. The landowners need them. It is the workers that take care of the land but reap none of the benefits. Alfredo hasn't had much time to think about such things.

And there lies one of the problems with "1900". Only one character is actively participating in the events of history, the other character serves no purpose to the story. The movie becomes a clash of ideologues; communism v.s. fascism. The workers v.s. the landowners. Alfredo stands for nothing. He is not a fascist. He is not a communist. Olmo is his friend. He sympathizes with him but he is not political. This type of character can only serve one function. If he is not going to participate in the plot than he must serve as an outsider looking at the two sides. He must represent the audience. He then becomes the narrator, the movie's conscience. But Alfredo is not that character.

Now, if Olmo represents the workers; the communist, there must be a character representing the opposite, the fascist. That character is Attila Mellanchini (Donald Sutherland) a foreman on the plantation, a man with a sadistic nature. It is with this character Olmo will clash. This is the character Alfredo should have been thus giving him a purpose to exist in this story.

Love finds both men however when Alfredo meets Ada (Dominique Sanda) and Olmo meets Anita (Stefania Sandrelli). Ada is a beautiful woman who has lead a privileged life. Anita believes in worker's rights. On the surface it would seem these men found their perfect counterparts.

Another problem with "1900" is Bertolucci doesn't give us enough history. "1990" doesn't put events in a historical context. How are the issues these characters are talking about reflective of where the world was? At more than five hours Bertolucci could have told a lot of history. But he doesn't. The only other option would have been to limit the movie's scope. Deal with a smaller piece of history instead of the first half of the 20th century. A better example would be the 2005 Italian movie "The Best of Youth".

And finally the last problem with the movie; it is too damn long! Five hours is too much to sit through when you don't have a story that needed all that time to be told. When I first saw "1900" I saw a three hour version on VHS. At three hours the movie felt a bit choppy. At five-and-a-half hours the movie feels too long. It is an obligation to watch.

But it sounds like I am being very critical of Bertolucci and his movie. Why am I recommending it? Well, "1900" does have some good moments. When the movie works, it works well. The sum isn't greater than the whole but I would want audiences to see the worthwhile moments in the movie rather than skip the whole thing.

The best parts of the movie are in the beginning when we see Alfredo and Olmo as children. The movie goes into great detail building character development. It does a wonderful job establishing what life is like on this plantation. Burt Lancaster is very effective in his role. Later on in the movie I like the political discussion. Bertolucci being a leftist himself makes us sympathize with the plight of the workers.

The last issue with the movie is the language. Because there is an international all-star cast the movie has been dubbed. If you listen to the movie in the English dub you will hear De Niro and Lancaster's voices but everyone else sounds awful, since it is not their real voice. If you listen to it in Italian (another option on the DVD) everyone is dubbed. What is the point in assembling this magnificent cast if you can't hear the actors deliver their lines? If you believe none of this matters, you are mistaken. Listening to the original actors deliver their lines makes all the difference in the world. Their words are part of their performance. To have someone else deliver the lines will affect your feelings of the movie, whether or not you realize it at the time.

I wish "1900" would have worked better. I wish Bertolucci would have been able to show more restraint. Limit the story a bit. Define certain characters better, giving them more depth. I wish he would have originally shorten the running time and not release so many different versions. I wish he would have had something to say in this movie. But, it is too late for that. "1900" is a missed opportunity with some interesting moments.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Film Review: The Godfather Part II

"The Godfather Part II"  **** (out of ****)

Director Francis Ford Coppola continues the Corleone crime saga with "The Godfather Part II" (1974).

"The Godfather Part II" starts off where the first film left off. We see Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) being made the new Godfather, with his hand being kissed.

The next scene takes us back to Michael's father, Vito Corleone's (played as an adult by Robert De Niro), youth. It is the day of his father's funeral. His father was killed for insulting a local Mafia boss, Don Ciccio (Giuseppe Sillato). Don Ciccio has also killed Vito's brother and now young Vito is next. The Mafia boss is afraid the sons will come back one day for revenge. So young Vito must go into hiding and leaves for America.

At this point I am reminded of the first line of dialogue heard in "The Godfather" (1972), "I believe in America". And so here we see the story of the American dream. The down trodden coming to this country in the hopes of a better future.

These two scenes also set up the structure for the rest of the movie. We will alternate between modern day, with Michael as the head of the Corleone family and cut to the past where we learn about Vito Corleone and how he came to this country and what lead him to become the Godfather.

This helps set up one of the film's themes. Watching "The Godfather Part II" again, I see the story of a man (Michael) caught in conflict. We see how this whole world started with Vito and what it has become with Michael. But is Michael starting to slip? Can he keep his family (in any sense of the word) together? Is he able to tell who his friends and enemies are?

The very last scene of the movie has Michael sitting in a chair in a garden. He is reflecting on what has lead him to this exact moment. How the times have changed. Seeing this scene again as I am older I noticed a sadness on Michael's face I hadn't notice before. "The Godfather Part II" for me is the story of how the choices we make define us. They lead us to become who we are. Once the wheels are set in motion sometimes we can't stop them and so a cycle continues. Michael made a promise to his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) in the first movie, that within five years the Corleone family will be in legitimate business. More than five years have passed between these two films and it seems Michael can't stop the wheels set in motion. At least not yet.

As Michael sits in that chair we get a flashback scene where we see the family; Sonny (James Caan) , Tessio (Abe Vigoda), Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Fredo (John Cazale) and Connie (Talia Shire) waiting to celebrate their father's birthday and Michael reveals he has enlisted in the Marines. This scene helps re-enforce the theme of how times have changed. What has life turned us into? Why can't we go back to the better times?

These moments with Michael are countered with the scenes with Vito Corleone. Vito didn't want to become a Mafia man himself. He didn't want to get involved with crime. He came to America and made an honest living. He was married and had a child but circumstances being with they are, he has his own problems with a neighborhood boss and is pushed into a corner and makes a decision. A decision that will change his life forever and the life of his family for the years to come. And we see the effects, through Michael, it has had on the Corleone family decades afterwards.

Through "The Godfather Trilogy" Francis Ford Coppola has giving American audiences the closet thing we will get to Italian opera on film. In fact, I would even go as far as saying that Coppola has in fact given us the great American novel on film. It wasn't given to us by Fitzgerald, Steinbeck or Hemingway, as one might expect, but it was given to us by Mario Puzo, the author of the 1969 novel and co-writer of the film's screenplay.

"The Godfather Part II" deals with issues involving family, loyalty, life, death, power, corruption and sibling rivalry among other issues. Coppola and Puzo take these universal themes and have put them into a story about a Mafia family. These are issues which we can all relate to and are presented to us in a story about a group of killers and yet we watch and we are fascinated by this world and these characters. There are even moments, brief moments, when we see ourselves in them. In a twisted way the American dream is being presented on-screen.

Michael Corleone has always been the glue holding this trilogy together. The first film showed a man being thrust into this life. He too was innocent at first. He was not part of the family business but he became involved. This second film shows a man in conflict. The third film has a man trying to redeem himself. The way Coppola and Al Pacino present this character is as a tragic figure. Here we had a man of great potential and we slowly watch his decline, as a crime boss and more importantly as a man. What has he finally become? What has he given up in life? What happened to his soul?

Al Pacino doesn't play Michael Corleone as a gangster say the way he played Tony Montana in "Scarface" (1983). It was that potential of a decent human being that makes Michael Corleone an interesting figure and that is what Pacino taps into when playing this role. There are scenes when Pacino gives a very quiet performance. He is subtle and deliberate, much like Michael Corleone's thinking process. This is why we sympathize with these individuals. Pacino is able to humanize this character.

While the Vito Corleone portion of the movie deals with his problems with a local boss, the Michael Corleone portion of the movie deals with his relationship with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) as the two plan on a business deal in Cuba. But Michael is not sure if he can trust Hyman, whom he suspects was behind an assassination attempt in his home in Nevada.

There have been some, the late Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert among them, that feel this narrative structure of going back and forth hurts the movie. It causes a shift in tone which may take an audience a while to get used to. I completely disagree. I feel the parallel storylines compliment each other and as I have suggested hit on the theme of inner conflict and dealing with the choices we make in life.

I don't however like this movie more than "The Godfather". Some feel it is the greatest sequel ever made and surpasses the original film. I am willing to go along with the greatest sequel sentiment but for me, no American film surpasses the original Godfather film. I prefer these movies in the order they were released.

"The Godfather Part II" was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. It won six including best picture, best supporting actor (De Niro) and best director (Coppola). It was also one of the highest grossing movies released that year and opened to generally positive reviews.

Unfortunately the public seems to have turned their back on Coppola ever since "Apocalypse Now" (1979). A shame. Sometimes his work has not lived up to the high standards audiences have for him but other times he is unfairly damned because it is a fashionable thing to do. The man should not be discarded. He is a brilliant filmmaker as "The Godfather Part II" shows us.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Film Review: Stagecoach

*** 1\2 (out of ****)

All the old western cliches fill up the wagon in John Ford's "Stagecoach" (1939).

A stagecoach is headed to Lordsburg, New Mexico from Tonto, Arizona, where the law (George Bancroft), the gambler (John Carradine), the drunk (Thomas Mitchell), the lady (Louise Platt), the whore (Claire Trevor) and the gunfighter (John Wayne) all meet.

Geronimo and Apaches are on the war path and there is a good chance while on the trail to New Mexico the stagecoach may run into them. What should these group of characters do? Will they be able to work together or will their differences divide them?

Although the movie is filled with western cliche characters I did enjoy "Stagecoach". There isn't much to these characters. All I need tell you is who the drunk is, who the lady is, who the whore is and your imagination can take care of the rest. The characters aren't really defined past their stereotypes yet it was the interaction between the characters that I enjoyed most about the picture.

"Stagecoach" is primarily known for being the first major film John Wayne and John Ford worked on together and the one that made John Wayne a star. Wayne had been an extra in some of Ford's early silent films. They would work on 15 more movies. It was also Ford's first sound western and was nominated for seven Academy Awards including best picture and best director. It won two awards; best supporting actor (Mitchell) and best music.

Wayne plays the Ringo Kid, whose father and brother were shot by Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler). Ringo vows revenge. Plummer is considered a good shot and Marshall Wilcox (Bancroft) is worried Ringo will also be killed. The Marshall's plan is to lock Ringo up, so he'll be safe.

Claire Trevor, who gets top billing, stars as Dallas, a woman who is thrown out of town for being a whore. While on the stagecoach a romance blossoms between Ringo and her. Ringo doesn't know about her past and she doesn't offer any information.

This is kind of a weak point of the film. Wayne wasn't much of a romantic leading man. I guess he does a better job of that in Ford's "The Quiet Man" (1952). Here we simply don't believe the two could have fallen so deeply in love so fast.

The movie doesn't have those grand landscape shots of the open plains one expects in a John Ford movie. I felt something like "My Darling Clementine" (1946) had more beautiful shots but I must admit overall I prefer "Stagecoach" for its story.

One of the interesting ideas behind the movie is destiny. Some of these characters have their fate decided for them by other characters and some characters try to fight their fate. For example, it is decided Doc Boone (Mitchell) is nothing more than a vulgar drunk, thus his fate is decided for him. He is an outcast and is forced to leave town. Dallas (Trevor) is a whore. No honorable man would ever want to be with her. The same town has decided her fate. Her reputation will follow her wherever she goes. The town also forces her to leave. The Ringo Kid has decided the fate of Luke Plummber. He will kill him for what he did to his family.

But some characters like Dallas want to change their fate. When the Ringo Kid treats Dallas as a lady, she begins to feel maybe she is a lady, maybe she deserves a better life. Maybe she is more than her reputation and can change her future.

In some ways "Stagecoach" reminds me of flying an airplane, which I guess would be the modern day equivalent. On the stagecoach, traveling for days with other passengers, who begin to learn about people, you discover who they are and who knows, maybe a romance may start. There are people who still believe there is a chance they might find the love of their life while on an airplane. The person sitting next to them may be "the one". Studies have shown this.

That concept is what is suppose to give "Stagecoach" its appeal. A group of different personalities confined to this small space, having to deal with one another. The men don't treat the whore with respect, others look down on the drunk..ect But through the course of the ride the individuals all learn something about themselves.

If you've never seen a John Ford movie before, this is actually a great place to start. I wish this would have been the first movie I ever saw him direct. After watching this movie see his other westerns such as "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962), "My Darling Clementine" (1946), "The Searchers" (1956) and "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" (1949). Then you will see how this movie set everything else in gear. This movie put Ford and John Wayne on a new path.

"Stagecoach" is a very good movie, I like the way the movie mixes humor with drama and action. It has a terrific cast of supporting actors who you will recognize from countless other movies. And it is interesting looking back on the movie and see how John Wayne became John Wayne.