Friday, January 27, 2017

Film Review: Evolution

** 1/2 (out of ****)

The sea-side village, in the French movie “Evolution” (2015), is inhabited only by young boys and women in their 30s. If there are young boys, why are there no men? If there are women, why are there no young girls? Where are the elderly? There are a lot of lingering questions in “Evolution”, few, if any, the movie has answers for 

With another movie, the ambiguous nature of “Evolution” may have detracted me more however, I don’t believe the movie is concerned with narrative plot. The movie is about mood, emotions, tone and symbolism. I can’t say I understand everything about the movie, it did have me scratching my head, wondering, where is all of this going?

 Directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic, whose previous directorial effort was “Innocence” (2004), which featured a cast of young girls at a boarding school, “Evolution” can be interpreted as a story about procreation, male adolescence and the bond between mother and son. In an interview with the film magazine, Film Comment, Hadzihalilovic says the origin of her story was about a mother that doesn’t want her child to grow up and become a teenager.  

In the first scene of the movie we are introduced to Nicolas (Max Brebant, making his screen debut) a young boy, who while swimming notices a starfish (a symbol of the movie’s reproductive theme) over the dead body of a young boy at the bottom of the ocean’s floor. When he runs home to tell his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) she doubts his story and upon her own investigation claims to have only seen the starfish. Meanwhile Nicolas is forced to eat wormlike grub and is constantly given medicine, as are all the other boys in the village. After a violent outburst, Nicolas is taken to a hospital, where he is sedated and operated on. He forms a friendship with one of the nurses, Stella (Roxane Duran) and begins to question everything around him. Is his mother really his mother? What is supposed to be wrong with his health? What is in the food he eats and the medicine he takes?

Stella becomes a surrogate mother figure for Nicolas and being a nurse (another use of symbolism), may also be Nicolas’ saving grace and help explain the world around him.

Inspired by the movies of David Cronenberg and David Lynch, “Evolution” has elements of science-fiction, mystery and horror all combined, creating a genuinely eerie mood, due in part to the movie’s soundtrack (comprised of the sound of waves from the ocean, birds and crickets) and sparse dialogue. Its hospital setting also helps establish a sense of danger always lurking around, treating the boys as if they are prey. However, the movie doesn’t follow the typical conventions of the mystery genre, especially by not offering an explanation of characters’ motives. Its subtle hints to a greater reveal of the movie’s plot are too subtle and far too reliant on symbolism making the experience feel unsatisfying, despite its many recommendable qualities.

Visually there is much to appreciate in “Evolution”. Hadzihalilovic is a talented filmmaker but plot-wise “Evolution” feels too reserved. It doesn’t make a grand statement. What does the director want the audience to think as they leave the theater? The characters in the movie aren’t people but instead plot devices. Then again, I must go back to the idea “Evolution” isn’t interested in plot or characters. It is focused on mood and symbolism. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s an evolving process.

Film Review: Little Caesar

"Little Caesar"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

There had been other crime dramas before it – D.W. Griffith directed “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” (1912), selected last year by the Library of Congress for preservation, “The Racket” (1928), nominated for best picture at the first Academy Award ceremony – but few may have been as influential as “Little Caesar” (1931).

The gangster movies of the 1930s have a special place in the history of American cinema. They are reflective of their time and comment on the public’s fascination with figures such as “Baby Face” Nelson, John Dillinger and Al Capone, who may have served as the inspiration for the characters in “Little Caesar” and “Scarface” (1932) with Paul Muni. Made during the Great Depression, when Prohibition was enforced, many believe gangster movies romanticized bank robbers and created public sympathy for characters interpreted as symbols of the American Dream gone awry. One can argue we see this in the movies of today such as “Hell or High Water” (2016).

Based on a novel written by Oscar-nominated writer W.R. Burnett, who was nominated for the war movie “Wake Island” (1942), “Little Caesar” tells of the now familiar tale of a small-time hood who works his way up the ranks of a life of crime and his eventual downfall. When we first meet Rico aka Little Caesar (Edward G. Robinson) he has just robbed a gas station and shot a man. He and his partner, Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), hide out at a diner. After reading about a famous gangster in the paper, Rico reveals he too wants to be famous, a “somebody”; he wants to strike fear in people, something he equates with respect. At that moment, he decides to go to Chicago, where big things happen.

This actually is not unlike a story of a young actor or dancer living in a small town that heads out to a major city in the hopes of finding fame and success. Once in Chicago, Rico and Joe join a gang headed by Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields, who often played opposite many of the great comedians and comedy teams of the era such as Laurel & Hardy, Eddie Cantor and Wheeler & Woolsey). It is clear however that Rico doesn’t like taking orders and a power struggle develops between the two men while Joe wants to make a clean break and start a new life as a dancer with his girlfriend, Olga (Glenda Farrell). But is it ever possible to leave a gang or will his old life always follow him? This idea would become very prominent in heist movies.

Edward G. Robinson (born Emanuel Goldenberg in 1893 in Bucharest, Romania) had acted in a few movies prior to “Little Caesar”. His first movie credit dates to 1916 but it was his performance here that is believed to have made him a star and forever identify him with tough guy roles. Robinson, at various times, plays the character with a child’s wide-eyed fascination as he looks at the expensive clothes others are wearing and marvels at their beautiful homes. Other times, Robinson plays up the character’s mean streak and cold nature and adds moments of vulnerability, especially in regards to the character’s relationship with Joe, touching on the theme of loyalty often found in gangster movies. Some even interpret their relationship as having a homosexual undercurrent. Masculinity is a theme of the movie, and the genre popularized the image of the “macho male”.

Nominated for an Academy Award in the best writing, adaptation category, the movie’s success critically and at the box office inspired the release of other gangster movies such as “Scarface” and “Public Enemy” (1931) starring James Cagney (another actor associated with tough guy roles). It has been suggested that because of the “glorified violence” in these movies, the Motion Picture Production Code (or the Hays Code) started its strict enforcement, beginning in 1934 (thus the term “pre-code”), but even prior to this Hollywood was placing a great emphasis on establishing a moral, “crime doesn’t pay” message. “Little Caesar” opens with a biblical quote taken from Matthew: 26-52, “For all then that take the sword, shall perish with the sword”. 

The influence of “Little Caesar” can be seen in the films of Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. Although “Little Caesar” may seem dated to younger movie goers the movie’s significant place in cinema cannot be debated. Perhaps “crime doesn’t pay” but watching “Little Caesar” does. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Chicago News: Things To Come & Bakery in Brooklyn Movie Reviews

In today's Chicago News newspaper, I reviewed the French drama, "Things To Come" (2016) starring Isabelle Huppert. Click here.

And the American indie romantic-comedy, "Bakery in Brooklyn" (2016), click here.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Chicago News: Claire in Motion

My review of the new indie American drama, Claire in Motion, was published today in the Chicago News newspaper. Click here.

Chicago News: Buster Keaton Comedies

Chicago News newspaper published my review of Buster Keaton comedies playing at the Music Box Theatre. Click here.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Chicago News - Notes on Blindness Review

Opening today in Chicago, at Facets, the British docu-drama Notes on Blindness. Read my review, published in today's Chicago News newspaper. Click here.