14 November 2008

"The Class" or Entre les Murs

The first French film to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes since 1987, this raw tale of a school year in Paris' inner city pulls no punches.  Francois Begaudeau penned the novel, the screenplay and played "himself" as the teacher, under the direction of Laurent Cantet.  
Filmed with real students, not actors, it exposes with frankness the day-to-day challenges, and successes, of life within the walls.  It also managed to show a wider view of Paris that enamored foreigners rarely see -- racial division, Muslim populations, and formerly colonized African descendants all in the same room.  Kids will be kids, but these kids have it tough and are fighting tooth and nail to be heard over the din of street violence, iPods and aggressive parents.  
Lengthy scenes add to the realistic feel, letting the audience feel like it is sitting in on class.  Interjections and giggling seem spontaneous.  Interruptions remind us how hard it is for the teacher to keep things on a single track.  What makes this teacher so endearing is his willingness to let them drive the direction.  He winds up their curiosity and lets them go, almost so they won't know that they are learning. 
There is much to glean from the few scenes with administration as well.  Their callousness toward the students we have spent class with is cold and shortsighted. We feel the urge to yell at the screen, "But you weren't there!  You don't understand! If you would just listen!"
Somehow, the story comes full circle.  It's neither happy nor sad. It's Sisyphus. Another school year is over.  People move on.  He'll have a new class next year.  And maybe these kids will be the ones to get something out of it. 
Certainly he will.

30 October 2008

The Burning Plain

Guillermo Arriaga's last project was the highly acclaimed "Babel".  On that, he was the screenwriter.  His latest foray (after public disputes with "Babel"'s director) was his directorial debut --  "The Burning Plain."  Much in the style of his other works, this one plays more with time and linear storytelling than with disparate tales. 
Set alternately in Seattle, Albequrque and Mexico, it marries the meandering tales of a cropduster and his daughter, a young teenage girl and her adulterous mother, and a beautiful young woman overcome by depression and self-loathing.  Told in a parallel manner (and therefore concealing everyone's connection until later), it explores how deeply we affect others and the ripples of consequences we cause.  
The interweaving lines are well connected and repeating symbology (scars, for example) are carried out.  Arriaga's weakness, or at least not his strength just yet, is getting great, vibrant performances from his actors.  Kim Basinger plays the mother of three who is stepping out on her trucker husband with a handsome Mexican who makes her feel like a woman again.  Basinger's performance is good, but there is no strength behind it.  The same is true of Charlize Theron's lead.  She does a perfectly fine job -- dark set eyes, emptiness behind them -- but there is no soul.  It is because the characters are well-written and played that it all hangs together.
All in all, this is a fine, well-crafted debut for Arriaga behind the camera.  Ultimately, he needs to find a verve, an energy that propels the film to add to his other obvious assets.

28 October 2008

Never Apologize

The younger generation probably knows Malcolm McDowell from his villainous roles in the last 10 years - Star Trek, Heroes, Superman and Rob Zombie's Halloween. A handful might know he was in the freaky classic, A Clockwork Orange. But before all that, McDowell was the it-boy of English film, starring in Cannes Palme d'Or winners and charming the pants of his audience. In Never Apologize, a tribute to director and dear friend Lindsay Anderson, McDowell relays stories of that experience in such a fashion that you feel as though you'd run into him at a pub. he stands, in mostly black, on a mostly dark stage with just a table set for two) and a podium with a small reading lamp. His simple tales are those of Richard Harris, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Bette davis, Lillian Gish, and John Ford. Yet they were not the tabloid fodder gossip about people we'll never meet. Instead, McDowell, through recollections, letters and diaries, convinces us they are our friends. They are humanized, real. They are funny and tragic. And a reminder of the importance of the influence, and importance, of friends in our lives.
An afternoon's luncheon with the royalty of English theatre in the 60s & 70s is a lightly sketched Shakespearean scene --- a misunderstanding among gods. A description of Lillian Gish is starkly contrasted with the riotous Bette Davis -- who is exactly what we'd all expect.
And a dying John Ford's brief conversation is only a prologue to the loss of Anderson himself.
McDowell deftly pulls us in. He reads and speaks with simultaneous vigor and tenderness. It says as much about McDowell as it does about Anderson.

10 October 2008


Based on Robert Parker novel, this Western manages to use the tropes of its genre mostly to its advantage.  Ed Harris (who also directed) stars as the no-nonsense gun-for-hire Virgil Cole, brought to town to quell the unruly Bragg clan.  His right-hand man, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) slings an 8 gauge better than anyone and the two are hired to restore peace to the fledgling town of Appaloosa -- governed by a limp mayor and council.  
None of these basic plot points fall outside the typical Western tale, nor does the appearance of the coy mistress, Mrs. French (Renee Zellweger).  
What makes Appaloosa special are the subtleties.  The partnership between the two gunmen is simple and deep.  Their trust extends beyond just "he saved my life" scenario, though there is that too.  They trust each other in life.  They give and take advice.   When Cole, an avid reader, is stuck trying to come up with a 'big word', he turns to his confidant Hitch - always solid and never failing.  When the traveling party is threatened by Apache, it is Hitch whose cool head prevails.  And when the frolicsome Mrs. French bounces between lovers, it is Hitch whose even keel directs Cole.   Indeed Mortensen steals the show.  Harris is solid but it is all about the wit in every detail Mortensen brings to the screen.   The smaller role of Jeremy Irons as the terrorizing Bragg is also strong.
But there were problems with the film as well, not the least of which was Zellweger. In addition to looking horribly puffy and unattractive, her acting fell far short -- and it was painfully noticeable among such giants.  She lacked the depth that others brought to their characters, something important in a genre film.  
There was also an unevenness of pace throughout.  It wasn't fatal, just a bit tiresome at points.  Still a good job for Harris' second attempt behind the camera.  To his credit, he did manage to find some interesting photography in a generally worn out setting.   But there was still a little too much clunk-of-the-boots-on-the-porch-with-jangle-of-the-spurs sound and the score made little sense.  Composer Jeff Beal was clearly trying for the Lalo Schifrin strains of spaghetti westerns but they fell flat.  Even his musical joke surrounded Chin the innkeeper was poorly timed and clunky.  Lastly, Harris also should have cut the bookend narration at appears only briefly at the beginning and end of the film.  It did not fit, wasn't necessary and sullied Mortensen's performance.
Ultimately, the film is perfectly enjoyable to watch.  Mortensen is particularly fun to see.  It's just a bit disappointing to see it lack a few details that could have made it a great film, instead of a good film. 

15 August 2008

Tropic Thunder

There may have been a layer of unexpectedness which enhanced my enjoyment of this film, but I must admit it was highly entertaining.  A little bit of Borat-type humor ("That is so wrong..."), Hot Shots goofiness, and well-planted dialogue combine to make a very silly movie.
Hollywood makes fun of itself, on every level, as the plot centers around big budget (and over-budget) action film shoot turned disaster. Rookie director, played by Steve Coogan, struggles to control a roster of varying personalities.  Ben Stiller is the pretty boy action star, Robert Downey, Jr. is the extreme method actor with more awards than fingers, and Jack Black is the king of fart jokes and fatty suits.  All three have an entirely skewed version of reality, which is counterbalanced by Brandon T. Jackson and Jay Baruchel, as the celebrity trying to prove his acting chops and the newbie looking for a breakthrough, respectively.  The five represent the gamut of 'types', perhaps even, the evolution of a celebrity and lead the way through film's quest for footage (literally) and maturity (figuratively).
Ben Stiller shares writing credit on this with Justin Theroux and Ethan Coen.  It quickly becomes clear which scenes were invented by whom, but the mixture works.  Stiller (think Zoolander as "stupid-funny") seems to rely on the abject absurdity of a situation and Coen infuses the repartee with smart dialogue befitting the characters.  
Much as been made of two aspects of the film which some find (or fear will be) offensive.  Downey, Jr.'s character undergoes plastic surgery so he can play an African-American character.  Much is made of this irony throughout the movie and in so doing the silliness of it comes blatant.  By taking it to the edge, it reminds the audience of how ridiculous Hollywood can be.  
A smaller stink was made of the "don't go full retard" speech.  Again, at first glance, it seems insensitive but after thinking on it for a moment it becomes clear that beneath the joke lies a truth that should embarrass the establishment.
Yet there are more subtle jabs at the likes of Mel Gibson when Downey, Jr. sheds his disguise and resumes his impossibly blue eyes and Australian accent.
Overall, Tropic Thunder is rife with "I can't believe they just said that" moments as well as a few highlights from Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise (with cringe-inducing chest hair), and Bill Hader.   It's a funny film that should be taken as satire, not as a literal version of what it mocks.

09 August 2008

Two Classic (and somewhat unknown) Gems

TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. 
Decades before Mel Brooks' "The Producers", Ernst Lubitsch directed this backstage comedy about Nazi-occupied Poland.  Not your typical idea for a light-hearted comedy, especially in 1942 (production hadn't even quite finished when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor).  But Lubitsch (a German-born Jew who came to Hollywood in 1922) brings out the inanity of it all with subtle, sly humor.  
The film is not a spoof or screwball but a quiet undermining of the ridiculousness of Fascism. 
It revolves around a theatre troupe rehearsing a play in which they mock Adolf Hitler (his entrance line is "Hail me!").  During dress rehearsal they learn the the Nazis have begun an invasion of Poland.  The government makes them halt the production of the play and they extend the run of their current offering, "Hamlet".  Lombard, a famous stage actress out of job once the theatre is bombed, takes on a little light espionage.  With Jack Benny, couple of fake mustaches and some gullible Nazis, she leads the mission to prevent information from getting into the wrong hands.  
Both stars are incredibly charming, using their talents in the art of understatement.  The last film Lombard made before dying in a plane crash, it is easy to see how she won the heart of William Powell, Clark Gable and American film goers.  

ANOTHER LANGUAGE (1933) with Helen Hayes and Robert Montgomery
TCM featured Robert Montgomery a couple of months ago and I Tivo'd several for their offerings.  I already knew I enjoyed him, having seen him in "Night Must Fall", but I did not realize the breadth of his work.  In addition to acting as the President of the Screen Actors Guild and joining the Navy to rise to the rank of Commander, he also became a successful director (and the first to use 1st person camera angles for the length of a film - Lady in the Lake 1947).  
One of the titles TCM chose to show did not display his usual whimsical self.  Another Language follows the first three years of newlyweds played by Montgomery and Lombard.  Giggly, romantic and newly-eloped the Mr. and Mrs. Victor and Stella Hallam return to everyday life the moment they disembark the ship and  Stella quickly learns about Victor's overbearing mother and snarky family. 
Over time she notices that Victor no longer stands up for her.  The give and take is gone.  rather than go quietly into oblivion, she fights for the relationship they used to have.  She refuses to let Mother Hallam guilt her, or take to heart the slicing comments of her sisters-in-law.  She even refuses the sincere advances of her new nephew - an easy escape from staid Victorian family to those butterflies-in-the-stomach courting days.  
The film was released just 6 months before the Hays Code began to be enforced.  Baby Face (1932) with Barbara Stanwyck is often credited with being the film that pushed censors over the edge but Another Language is just as pointed.  The loose lifestyle in Baby Face was shocking and lurid but this film is much more grounded in reality.  It bears great weight and the ups and downs of this marriage are expertly performed.  Montgomery manages to slough off his usual happy-go-lucky attitude and portray a basically good man who has allowed himself to be controlled by others.  His habits and attitudes are so ingrained that when his wife lands outside the boundaries he is lost.  Even his eyes look empty in this film.  Lombard plays a strong, but loving woman.  She has no hysteria and she is not of loose morals.  She loves her husband very much and makes a play to rescue the man she married from being lost in outdated, suffocating habits.    Certainly, an assertive woman who stood up to her husband's family, would have raised a few eyebrows at the MPPDA.  

04 August 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe


As a gawky teenager, with few friends and awful braces, there was little hope for me to find anything to even talk about in 8th grade.  Then the adventures of Mulder and Scully appeared on Friday nights -- when I was home.  Alone.  In the middle of nowhere.  I lived a half-an-hour away from town and I couldn't drive yet anyway.  So I settled in for an evening of Due South and X-Files. (By the way, Due South was written and produced by Paul Haggis, who went on to write/adapt such films as Million Dollar Baby, Crash, Flags of Our Fathers, and Casino Royale.  I had the nose even then...) 
My overactive imagination and photographic memory finally afforded me a chance to speak to the cool kids who also watched this show.  It wasn't much, but it was something.  I don't pretend that television is all-important, but it can give you a helping-hand from time to time.
I watched, and re-watched, regularly until Mulder left.  I tried to continue but it wasn't the same without him.  I can't say I blame Duchovny, really.  See, there are two kinds of episodes: the monster/ghoulie/phenomena of the week and the government conspiracy updates.  Early seasons kept the gov't stuff to a minimum, inserting it for occasional mysterious overtone.  It mainly focused on these to unlikely heroes checking into weird stuff.  As time went on, that balance was destabilized and it all became about secret organizations, double-crosses, and  government cover-ups  (as if this government could ever be so streamlined and efficient).  
So I was glad to see a trailer that looked as though the team had taken a more episodic approach - some mystery that warranted a bit more than TV's 42 minutes to uncover.
X-Files: I Want to Believe is along those lines.  It follows the case of a missing agent, whose last few moments were seen by a psychic with an unsavory past.  Mulder, who is essentially a recluse, and Scully, now a prominent surgeon, are called in by the special-agent-in-charge (Amanda Peet) to assist, due to their experience dealing with psychics.  Another woman goes missing, under similar circumstances and the two find themselves investigating alongside the FBI -- and still battling their own demons  (Always in the snow...).
Although somewhat limp, there was an attempt to weave themes across the simultaneous story lines.  Scully is trying reconcile her beliefs along with her desire to push science to the limits.  And how does her willingness to use radical, experimental treatments while the villains they are after do a cruder version of the same?  Does Mulder's determination to "believe" become a detriment to finding the truth?  Can a man with a sketchy past still be a harbinger of truth?  
Unfortunately this promising episodic style film leaves itself behind in the last few minutes with the "reveal."  Their attempt to create an "I didn't see that one coming" moment backfires  -- all the way back to dreadful 1950s drive-in movies now featured on MST3K.  They should have gone back to the modest budget, high-creativity, somewhat gritty early X-Files for inspiration.  Maybe they did, and they are too far beyond where they started to go back.

26 July 2008

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) ** That is how they spelled the title **

This one finally landed on the top of my Netflix list and I had a chance to watch it last night. Made during the height of the "Orientalist" craze, this must have been the Lawrence of Arabia of its time.
It begins like most silent films of the era - a downtrodden fellow looking for luck and finding love. There is great gesturing, a little comedy and some archaic phrases on the quaint title cards. But after about the first 15 minutes, the story really got rolling and the hero (Douglass Fairbanks) shows off some great athletic skill. He is like watching a cartoon character. His demonstrative gestures and bouncy demeanor seem unreal. Yet he is strangely captivating. Somehow his aggrandized characterization does not seem over-the-top or out of place.
The story follows very closely the tale of Al-addin in 1001 Arabian Nights. He is a likable scoundrel who contrives Wile E. Coyote-like pulleys and traps to climbs walls and pick pockets. Using the rope trick one night, he gains entrance to the palace and is about to make off with a great deal of treasure, when he sees the innocent and lovely princess sleeping and falls in love. When the princess announces that she will choose a suitor to marry from the princes of the East, Fairbanks must disguise himself as a royal to gain admittance. Choosing him from the lineup of stuffy rajahs and khans makes the others jealous. They expose him as a fraud and break the princess's heart. Wishing to buy time for her rescue she sends the suitors off on a quest to find her the more rare of all treasures. When they return, she will marry the one whom she finds to be the best. Fairbanks sets off on his own magical quest to beat them all.
What makes this film so special are the sets and camera tricks. The movies are still so young at this point in history that seeing this as a member of the audience must have been stunning. The sets were enormous - probably 70-80 feet tall, using the scale of a person standing at the bottom and estimating. Everything is decorated with scroll work and carved in minarets. And although it doesn't approach a sense of realism, it is one purpose. It favors a stylized version of things, making it all the more a moving picture of a storybook illustration.
The magical special effects are surprisingly good as well. They convincingly pull off the rope trick, a cloak of invisibility, underwater sea monsters, and a flying carpet. All of these are shot beautifully.
The final scene on the flying carpet is so well done that it is not immediately obvious how it was shot. Remember, there are no green screens and CGI at this time. As they leave over the palace walls and across the city, a shadow of the carpet is visible over each individual minaret - meaning that something really was suspended over the set, and each tower was separate and three-dimensional.
In addition, even though this was shot in black and white, each scene was hand-tinted - so, at night the palace has a blue hue, the princess's bedroom is rose, the garden is green, the streets are yellow.
Clocking in at about 2 hours and 15 minutes, this was truly an epic production. I highly recommend the film, especially if you want something a little different. Maybe by watching this you will see where all the fancy blockbusters of today got their ideas.

22 July 2008

The Dark Knight as Neo-Noir **Spoiler Alert**


Of all the styles in film history, film noir is one of the most far-reaching and and hard to pin down.  A few of the things critics and historians have agreed on are these:
1. Abject social degeneration which forces those who still believe in "the good" to grapple with their own alienation.
2. A tragic protagonist who must delve into the dark side to bring light back to the world - to the detriment of his own happiness.
3. Low-key lighting, and droll dialogue rife with double-entendre and life philosophies.
4. Gangster/criminal/seedy character (with a troubled past, perhaps even sympathetic) who corrupts a dark, claustrophobic cityscape.
5. Femme fatale character, with varying degrees of self-reliance and/or sexual magnetism.

Christopher Nolan's latest installment of the Batman saga, The Dark Knight, employs all of these with a new, modern layer.  Since we left him standing in the embers of Wayne Manor  at the end of Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) has had relative success cleaning up the streets of Gotham.  He now has the backing of hard-nosed D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and the under-the-table trust of Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman).  The criminal element is finding it harder to do business and they are forced to take bigger risks and seek the help of others.  Gotham's most heavyweight cri
me bosses find themselves in cahoots with The Joker (Heath Ledger), someone just crazy enough to get the job done.  
So, Points #1 & 2.  This gets moved forward to the 21st century by the fact that the social degeneration has been contained, albeit concentrated, into Batman's arch-nemesis.  And it seems that that Joker is targeting Batman alone, by threatening those he cares about.  Batman is forced to see himself as apart from the public (and apart from Bruce Wayne) and try to determine whether he should hang up his bat-cape and let Dent continue the work above-board.  In the end, Batman/Wayne gives up reputation and happiness for the betterment of Gotham.
#3. It is nearly always nighttime wen the characters are outside.  The only daytime exterior scene is an overcast afternoon.  Otherwise, it is inside with few windows or outside at night, lit by street lamps, apartment windows, and the bat signal.  Characters make witty remarks and deep observations.  The Joker's entrance scene features such a line ("Would you like to see a magic trick?") - ironic and disingenuous.  Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Alfred (Michael Caine) are ever the voices of reason, levity and wisdom.
#4. In this episode, The Joker is the villain of the hour but he is complimented by a crew 
of unsavory characters - both in henchmen and cohorts.  They are like-minded ne'er-do-wells that are inspired by the Joker's ability to get things done.  And Joker's stories of mutilation are tragic.  Even if they cannot be believed, for moment, the hearer feels sorry - horrifies that a human could go so low. After all, that is the heart and soul of Gotham's struggle.  Gotham City itself is represented by Chicago, used for its Art Deco architecture - angular, linear, chrome, glass, steel.  Cold. There is no softness, or comfort here.
#5.  This femme fatale would normally be someone like Catwoman but she is not present in The Dark Knight.  It might seem then that the task is left to A.D.A Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), as the only major female character in the film.  She does display a few of the traits.  She is quite beautiful.  She is sassy, with a mind of her own.  She is the object of affection for more than one man and her association with them puts her in harm's way.  But, unlike the femme fatale, she does not use her influence to affect the hero.  Not on purpose,  anyway.  
Instead, the Joker picks up many of the negative characteristics of the femme fatale.  He goads Batman, forces his hand and gets under his skin.  He manipulates people by finding their weaknesses, by poking and twisting.  He hides behind makeup and costuming.  He does it all in style, with something that keeps you from looking away.  Nolan pushes this fatale type even further by putting The Joker in woman's clothing for the scene in which he pushes the pure, chaste hero to the other side.  Exactly the job for the femme fatale.
This telling of the Batman tale is extraordinary.  All these fantastical themes, characters and situations are made entirely plausible.  It is taken seriously, and from there the filmmakers stitch it into a flashing reality that resembles our own.  
The very object of film noir.

The Dark Knight is well-done all around.  The acting is superb - from everyone.  It was great to see the drab Katie Holmes replaced with the extremely talented Maggie Gyllenhaal, although she is not really given a chance to show her acting chops.  As expected Heath Ledger is brilliant as the Joker.  He absolutely created a unique character that will be impossible to replace.  Any attempt will only seem to be an impression.  No complaints here.  A thoroughly enjoyable and finely crafted film.

18 July 2008

WALL-E and Pixar

Toy Story, Bug's Life, Monster's Inc., Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, Cars, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and now WALL-E. The folks at Pixar have figured something out. They have managed to recapture an audience that was starving for the simplicity and humanity found in the cartoons of 40 years ago. Cartoons had devolved into flashing whizbang, bubblegum storylines, and whining characters all aimed at selling cereal and figurines. Not that you can't buy a Mike and Sully doll at Disney World, but the story is first. Pixar has succeeded in mirroring the Warner Brother and Hanna-Barbara toons that had something for children and adults. There were always two (or three) levels one could watch Wile E. Coyote on -- sly jokes that no six year old could get. Pixar became the modern home of this wit and added technical know-how to
slicken the deal for those who are accustomed a polished product.
With WALL-E, Pixar returns to its roots by animating a mechanical, inanimate object. (Their first output was a short called Luxo, Jr., which featured a rambunctious swivel lamp.)
WALL-E is the last of a group of robots left on an abandoned earth. Hi job is to consolidate the massive heaps of trash into cubes and stacked into skyscrapers of junk. There's just one thing -- this robot has developed a personality, and he's lonely in the vastness of space. Then another robot (Eve) lands and his life changes.
It is amazing how many subtleties are entirely understandable from a little box and few squawks and chirrups. WALL-E proves to be a nice a being as there could be. He is incredibly sweet to others, generous, curious and heartfelt. He is not perfect and sometimes his remarkable sincerity gets him into trouble. But it is these pitfalls of the naive that make him all the more sympathetic. And lovable.
WALL-E manages to steer away from overt sentimentality, for the most part, and focus on the characters. The only slight weak point of the film is a somewhat overly simple plot. After WALL-E boards the Axiom spaceship in search of his love, Eve, and we learn that Earth has been abandoned there is a lag in the storytelling. The good guys run from the bad guys, then get caught, then escape and try again -- one too many times. There were a few minutes where plot movement seemed suspended before it picked up again for the adventurous ending.
They did a fine job, however, balancing the clear environmental message / warning with humor and innocence.
Pixar has also resurrected the tradition of showing animated shorts before their features. The one accompanying WALL-E, "Presto" is their best since "Birds on A Wire." It's frantic, energetic and very funny.

11 July 2008

The Power of Audrey Hepburn and "Sabrina" (1954)

I haven't made it to the theatres for a couple of weeks so I decided to review a classic - one that I found deserved revisiting.
It's true that every time we show an Audrey Hepburn film at the theatre, we get at least 100 more people to show up. It's such a drastic increase that we have considered (and only half-jokingly) making it the Audrey Hepburn Film Society instead. As it is, we are determined to include at least one of her films in each series. Not that I mind. As a girl who spent her teen years awkwardly skinny and aloof, I clung to people like her. Billy Wilder himself said, "Audrey Hepburn will single-handedly make bosoms a thing of the past." She gave us gangly things hope - an ounce to possibility that someone would find us gamine and irresistible too. All was not lost.
Though I enjoyed Sabrina (1954), it was never my favorite of her films. I detest Humphrey Bogart's acting. I think he is dry, completely non-captivating, and not enjoyable to look at or watch. His voice is grating and you have to translate his horrible speech patterns. So it was always difficult for me to understand how he got the girl, especially Hepburn. I understand they needed someone less dashing than William Holden, but I still find Bogart an irritant to watch.
I think this dynamic was my main problem with Sabrina. I loved her "ugly duckling" transformation and her dress when she enters the party is stunning (I still want to find one like it to get married in someday). John Williams, (not the composer) who plays her father, and the rest of the staff are very funny but I still didn't rank it as high as other classic films.
Then we booked it for our summer film series, and as predicted, it was the best selling film of the series so far. I didn't get to watch all of it but slipped in for a few minutes and Hepburn's magic was unmistakable. She made the film breathe. Suddenly, Bogart wasn't as annoying. Watching her, 25 feet tall, in a room with more than 300 others just as captivated, made me realize the true power of stardom. And she had it. Yes, she was beautiful, but it a way, she was a bit funny looking. Unusual. No one watched, or watches her, for her beauty. It's for something else. Something much more ethereal. It's because she's not curvaceous that we like her. We want to see her because she's kinda funny, a little self-conscious, and a bit naive.
Cary Grant said, "All I want for Christmas is another movie with Audrey Hepburn."
Me too.

30 June 2008


To be sure, the setting in which I viewed this formulaic film (a nearly sold-out stadium seating screen with teens who also managed to simultaneously carry on full-volume conversations and text absent friends) did not help my opinion of it. There were actually elements that made me think at some point a real writer had his hands on the script. (There are three credited - which could mean several more who were not). I cannot decide whether it began as a fairly good script and was stripped or if a writer was brought in to stitch some dangling pieces back together. If the former is the case, it would explain how they signed Freeman and McAvoy to the project. But it seems more likely that the latter is true, since the basis is rather silly to begin with.
In true Star Wars rip-off fashion, the audience is introduced to nihilistic father who has a son he's never known. The two lead opposite existences - The father as cutthroat assassin and son as a account management specialist with a hungry cat and an annoying girlfriend. His father is killed on a rooftop ambush and the league of assassins to which he belonged recruits his son, played by James McAvoy. The lure is his father's assets, which are quite substantial, and the sultry stare and tattooed arms of Angelina Jolie, who looks pretty much like a Gap ad the whole time (white shirt, khakis, too much eyeliner).
Morgan Freeman plays the head of this secret society, which has its roots in the ancient Weavers clans from 1000 years ago. Then the attempts to tie this story together can no longer hold. It turns out that these assassins are working on the information given to them by the "Loom of Fate", a giant machine of Industrial Revolution era that is fed by a web of strings from somewhere in the ether. This loom produces a coded message, hidden in the patterns of weave which equal 1s and 0s - a binary code - which when translated equals a person's name, who is next on the list to be killed.
There is training and heartache and distrust and learning and all the feel-good things that go along with being thrown into a new environment. The only thing that makes these standard scenes watchable is McAvoy. He stunningly manages to find footholds in the precipitous script. Yet even he cannot save the last of many Star Wars scenes badly referenced. McAvoy learns the true identity of his father too late and after dangling by one hand, chooses to fall down a massive chasm rather than face the lie. Really, we had to go to Empire Strikes Back for this? He does as the script insists, but I couldn't help but notice a hint of reluctance.

18 June 2008

The Happening *** Spoiler Alert ***

Try to forget what you already know about M. Night Shyamalan.  Forget his tropes, his types and patterns.  Look at this film on the face of it.  Like any horror movie, "the terror" is a simple, basic thing, with consequences that affect humanity.  But the presentation of the 'facts' is muddled, and the intelligence of the main characters is questionable.  Mark Wahlberg plays a high school science teacher who is among the first to deduce the source of the lethal 'happening.'
With his wits about him, he traverses the Pennsylvania countryside, managing to make correct decisions that keep him and his wife (Zooey Deschanel) and friend's daughter alive.  Yet when the three of them have survived over 24 hours in this increasingly hostile environment they throw it away for one last quick hug (they have been separated by this point, but can speak to each other) so that they die in each other's arms (they don't die, after all).  A romantic notion, perhaps, but completely unrealistic for these characters.  After fighting tooth and nail for survival, there is no way they would give up in their current circumstances.  They were safe, they had food and/or water, and they could communicate.  If it had been weeks in that situation, maybe, but not after only a couple of hours.  
As you may have guessed from the previews (like I did), or from Wahlberg's non-veiled comments on Conan O'Brien, The Happening refers to a simultaneous release of plant and tree spores with neurotoxins that are detrimental to humans.  This is in reaction to pollution and population density and is centered in the northeastern states.  Actually, this is plausible enough with scientific details based in fact.  What gets a bit out of hand is that this neurotoxin doesn't just cause brain damage or kill the inhaler.  It causes you to 1) repeat yourself; 2) halt then walk backwards a few steps; and 3) kill yourself in some horrifying and unimaginable way.  
Here is where Shyamalan's past belies this film.   He hit the jackpot, not only financially but with audiences when he told the story of a little boy who could talk to ghosts.  The scares of "The Sixth Sense" were not based in gore or cheap thrills.  Instead he took a minimal approach of suggestion.  In the first major fright of the film he has three shots in succession: a scared boy standing at the end of a hallway, a thermostat drop temperature quickly, and a housecoat flap by.  It was at this point I left my skin, and my seat, along with the two friends I was with.
"The Happening" using none of this economy of image.  Shyamalan decides to show a girl puncture her neck with her own hair stick, a man fly through a windshield and splat on the ground, and a man turn on a lawnmower and lay down in front of it.  Perhaps he was relying on the fact that these are uncommon paths to destruction and therefore more meaningful to view.  Perhaps he intended to shock the audience into the horror that awaits humanity if they refuse to alter their ways.  If so, he missed the mark.  It made the film more schlocky, unrealistic.  It took it out of the realm of believable and into the world of cheap zombie flick.  
Neither did Shyamalan get the usual performances out of his actors.  He discovered Haley Joel Osment, revived the career Bruce Willis and showcased Bryce Dallas Howard and Paul Giamatti.  Here, Mark Wahlberg is not up to snuff, and neither is Deschanel, who are both very capable actors.  Leguizamo plays a smaller role and is even more sniveling than usual.  There is some nice camerawork by veteran DP Tak Fujimoto and moments where Shyamalan's old stuff shines through (i.e. when the camera is trained on two, peaceful old trees while we hear toxin victims shooting themselves one by one).  
This is not a great film by any standard and is certainly no where near Shyamalan's best.

09 June 2008

Son of Rambow

This little gem will sit and rot out in the multiplex for a week before being swept aside for the next big blockbuster. But if it came to your town, do go see it.
It's a sweet, nostalgic tale of childhood, imagination and growing up. Set in 1980s Britain (rural, not London) two school boys become unlikely chums. Lee Carter is a clever troublemaker, and Will is quiet and helpful -- and forbidden to watch TV, along with other strictures due to his neo-Puritan upbringing. Quite by accident, Will sees Rambo: First Blood and is completely enchanted with it. Lee, who had already decided to enter something into the BBC's young filmmaker's contest, pairs up with Will and the two make their our version of the action classic, dubbing it Son of Rambow.
The film follows the ups and downs of friendship between the two unlike companions, but more impressively, it views the world from a child's perspective without reducing it to naivete. Both of these characters are dealing with very stressful situations in their family life and do so with admirable maturity. The film also weaves subtle details into the plot which surround a child's imagination. Things mentioned earlier, arrive later, in a more colorful and outrageous form. As it should, it reminds one of their own childhood and the strange things they used to do to amuse themselves.
The only shortfall is about three-quarters of the way into the film when Lee and Will's friendship is on the rocks. There are three contiguous scenes which deal with one apologizing to the other and vice versa. Theses are strung together with nothing in between where we might understand what was being apologized for, or what had transpired to induce the other to seek forgiveness. It does pick itself up and get back on track, however, for a lovely final scene.
Both young men are very good actors and the supporting cast was also very strong. If only there were more films like this, to remind us of ourselves when we had no idea how to be embarrassed or afraid of being thought silly.

24 May 2008

Indiana Jones the 4th (Spolier Alert)

** This review will contain information that you may want to preserve for the film.**

It is great to see Indy again. It is so strange to realize that at one time there was no Indy. What dark days they must have been. And so it was with relish that I looked forward to seeing the rumpled old fedora and leather coat.  Sadly, even Spielberg couldn't save this one. It opens with long crane shots of 50s drag racers in the Nevada desert, leading us to (where else?) Area 51. It is here that our government has been warehousing s
ecret treasures (we even get a glimpse of the Ark in its crate). It is also where we meet the villianess, Cate Blanchett, who could not look any more dowdy if she were in one of those mumu dresses all the girls are wearing these days.
So ensues the first action sequence as Indy escapes from the evil Commies who want American technology. It was in this fight scene that the first hint of anything like our old Indy is seen. There are those little moments of humor that sneak into the almighty battle between good and evil -- that I recognized.
Still there was FAR too much that they asked us to believe. There has always been a small element of the supernatural that Indy has to contend with, which is fine. This time it was the power of a crystal
 skull that supposedly was able to grant those who could connect to it psychically, great knowledge. This is plausible enough since it's true that both Soviet and American intelligence bureaus researched and tested the possibilities of psychic ability. They thought if they could perfect such a skill, spies would no longer need to travel abroad to gain secrets -- it could all be done at the office. But not only did we have to believe in this skull's power, we also had to believe it was alien and that the Peruvians who built the Maskelines were descended from aliens. And also, that a giant spaceship was buried in Peru.
I am sure you have guessed by now, but yes, Shia LeBeouf is Indy's son. 
His entrance into the film is enough to make you hurl. He is a talented enough kid but I am already tired of him being stuffed down my throat. I didn't like him before and I'm not going to. Stop forcing the issue. Since it's 1957, he has a lovely pompadour styling that he is always fixing with his backpocket comb (a move that is played for laughs far too many times). But when he enters, it is on his pride and joy Harley, wearing a black leather jacket and a captain's hat.  It's as if Spielberg were telling us all that he has found the next Brando and we should all be grateful.  It was arrogant, patronizing and had no place in an Indy movie.  Furthermore, we are to believe that because he can wield a switchblade and took 
a class that was barely alluded to, that he can hold his own against an army-trained Ukrainian fencer.  Then, the worst scene this summer 
(yes, worse than Susan kissing Caspian), Shia goes Tarzan in the Amazonian rainforest.  During a MUCH too long action sequence (which has more holes than the ozone), Shia is caught and tangled in some hanging vines.  While up there he sees some monkeys.  Awwww.  But then, he watches them use the vines as a means of transportation!  Eureka!  And off Shia flies and swings and floats through the jungle, just like a monkey.  I still haven't figured that one out.
It was good to see Marian again, as well (yep, she is Shia's mom).  She still had the spunk and their chemistry still came through.  It was one of those few moments when it felt like Indy again.  Which they promptly ruined by asking us to believe that the crew could tumble over a waterfall not one, not two, but three times (the last being twice as big as Niagara) and literally just walk out of the water.  Oh, and then there is the time Indy hides in a lead-lined refrigerator to survive a nuclear testing - at the epicenter.  It blew him a half a mile a way but he was fine.  Also, when they caught their flight to Peru, the familiar image of a Pan-Am plane was superimposed over the map and we watch as they make refueling stops along the way.  Guess where you can't land in 1957 if you are an American?  Cuba.  Guess where Indy had a lay-over? Havana. 
There were too many mistakes and too many things out of place.  And the good Indy quest kind of things were glossed over.  The great part about 1 & 3 was that we knew what the clues were and we were looking too.  This time, Indy mentions them once, too quickly for us to learn, and then next thing, he's opening a secret cave.  We don't really get to play along.
Occasionally it would fall into a rhythm and I would start to feel like they have caught the Indy groove, but then something would jar it back into stilted dialogue world.  I wanted so much to like it.  In fact, Im sure if it had been anything but Indy, I would have hated it.  Instead, I'm sad.  And I can't decide whether I want them to make a 5th or not.  Will they learn like they did from Temple of Doom, and make another in the line of Last Crusade?  Or was it lightning in a bottle?  They had 20 years to write #4.  They could have done better in the 7300 days we were waiting.  We didn't want whiz-bang or aliens or a snotty teenager.  We wanted our backyard friend, Indiana Jones.

20 May 2008

Prince Caspian

I am a great lover of literature. I am also a great lover of these books, these tales. They are a modern "1001 Nights", born of a war-torn society with Blitzkrieg ringing in their ears, and Coventry freshly wounded. "The Chronicles of Narnia" reflect British pride yet give away a certain sense of doubt and skepticism. These stories encourage a fight against evil, despite the odds of winning. It is the fight that is worth it.
The first cinematic installment of these fantastic tales remained greatly faithful to CS Lewis's original book (with only one fabricated scene - on the icy river escaping from the wolves). It answered to some of the current trends in blockbuster film-making but it still managed to retain some soul.
"Prince Caspian" also remains fairly faithful to the book. Some elements are glossed over or "sped through" to get to the lavish battle scenes. I would have enjoyed seeing a young Caspian with his tutor on the parapets at night as so vividly described in the book. Instead, it was only alluded to in the film.
Crossing the Fords of Beruna was also severely truncated and the fact that the non-talking bear that was slain they actually butchered and carried with them for the couple of days they trekked through the woods.
However, plenty of attention was given to the two main battles - at Miraz's castle and at the ruins of the Stone Table. Both were well rendered, if a little too long.
It's as if the producers decided that the story is only there to lead up to the battle, and the battles are what sell the movies. I have 60 years of history that say otherwise, but I am not a profit-driven entity in the art business. The greatest atrocity was saved for the last three minutes. In a flagrant disregard altogether, some genius decided that it would be a great idea to have Susan (just as she is able to jump back into England forever, never to return to Narnia ever) turn back and kiss Caspian. And as if that wasn't painful enough, their lips touching cued a trashy, t-weeny, Hanna Montana song with even worse lyrics. It was so bad that everyone in the theatre either laughed or threw up their arms in disgust.
Disney/Walden Media/Adamson need to realize that these stories are already popular. We are going to the movies to see the books we read come to life, not some numbers-crunching producer who never read them (let alone under the covers with a flashlight because you couldn't sleep without knowing what happened next) version of what will sell adjunct merchandise.
They had better be careful. If they wish to make the entire series of 7, they better not break the trust of those who love Narnian lore.
(Pictured. Reepicheep, as voiced by Eddie Izzard)

10 May 2008

The Devil Wears Prada

I finally rented this movie a couple of nights ago. I suppose that makes me behind the wave, but I think perhaps it gave me more perspective than those who raved about its fantastic clothing and fast-paced lifestyle portrayal of the fashion industry.
I found very, very little redeeming in this poorly cobbled-together script. Anne Hathaway plays a young woman who lands a highly coveted internship with a fashion magazine (like Vogue or Elle). This is despite her bookish looks and dowdy clothes. She struggles with the incessant psychic perfectionism her vindictive boss (Meryl Streep) demands, then finally decides, with the help of Stanley Tucci, to give herself a makeover and succeed in her position. Her newfound enthusiasm gains her points at the office but upsets her boyfriend and comrades.
All predictable in its own way but it fails. The friends, in the same scene, are both excited when she brings them swag from work (a $1900 purse, etc) and then they mock her. She gets mad and leaves but she never truly stands up for herself. She doesn't remind them that the whole point of this internship to gain the experience she needs to land the job of her dreams.
The characters don't make sense. They have inconsistent moralities. They are upset and react to the wrong things, and skip what they ought to be worried about. Clearly, their lines and actions are only there to move the plot to a pre-determined ending. Tucci is the only one who manages to find a character buried in there and brings it out as best he can.
And all those clothes? There aren't that many. There is one short scene at a fashion show.
Streep wears nothing particularly stunning. Hathaway's office-mate looks like a tramp who has been made over by a gang of angry raccoons. As for Hathaway's "make-over", she looks ridiculous, like she has been playing in her mother's closet. One dress, that she wears for the benefit at the end, finally looks nice. But we are so abandoned by her character that it doesn't really matter. Her supposed change of heart, too, comes far too late and is half-hearted at best.
It doesn't achieve satire. It doesn't present any extremes, good or bad. It just kinda lays there, like a thrown-together ensemble splayed on the bed.

08 May 2008

No Country for Old Men

By far, the most over-rated film of the year, this offering from the Coens brings nothing to the world of cinema worth noting.
The best I can say is that it is consistent -- consistently empty. It is devoid of all the elements that make up narrative film.
To start with, Javier Bardem's character, a ruthless bounty hunter, is supposed to be terrifying. He is creepy, I suppose, but there is nothing for us to be scared of. Anthony Perkins used his innocence, his little boy face. Anthony Hopkins was refined and cultured. This guy is...well, nothing. Fear is grounded in the unknown, but we have to be aware of what it is that we don't know. Therefore, I found little to fear, and even less, a desire to understand him.
Josh Brolin plays the quarry of Bardem's hunt and I think we are supposed to identify with him and his plight. We're supposed to wonder what we would do if we found a suitcase full of money. But we don't. Although his performance is commendable, his character is a sleazy ne'er-do-well, whose childish gyrations belie his supposed intelligence and maturity. Anyone worth their salt would have fled the country (permanently), with or without sadistic killer on their tail. I mean, you just found a suitcase full of money! You can afford the firt plane out of there, long before he knows it's gone. And there is no sub-story where Brolin is attempting to find the rightful owner or wrestling with his own conscience. No, he fully intends to keep it, but is somehow going to wear out his pursuer by bouncing for roadside motel to hovel in generic bordertown, Texas.
Tommy Lee Jones is cast as the sheriff (what else?) as the third player in the string of pressboard-door busting-down scenes. He floats in and out of the loose narrative, just missing one or the other of them, until he ends the movie with a milquetoast soliloquy. Just when someone is finally revealing a bit of humanistic character, the splicer comes down and credits roll. I can only hope that does not signal any kind of sequel.
I truly question those who found this to be the best film of the entire year. Sometimes I like a movie, sometimes I appreciate it, but I had no affinity, personal or academic, for this piece. And I tried. I have pondered what it was that made the critics rave. I fear that they were duped by a project which, from the outset, tried to make a 'deep', 'important' and 'controversial' film. Effort in any line of work is appreciated but in art there is such a thing as trying to hard -- when it creates a fabricated intent.

02 May 2008


I admit to being wary of this film. I generally find the "toast of the Oscars" films to be less than satisfactory as a complete package. That buzz coupled with the two headline actors - Keira Knightley and James McAvoy - caused yet more trepidation. And as if that wasn't enough, I was also doubtful of helmer Joe Wright, whose Pride and Prejudice was too fast and held neither of the delightfulness or the gravity of the Austen story.
Wright returns to a period piece, very definitely English, but he chooses the 1930s this time. It evokes the fragile years between the wars as its own character. Those who are to the manor born may have escaped the immediate calamity of shell-shocked, damaged population and the downward spiral of economies across the world but the devil-may-care attitude they still engender does catch up with them. Old houses and sultry summer afternoons in a quiet countryside are not innocent, and neither are their upper crust residents. This slightly Gothic, Daphne du Maurier world is paired with the point of view of a little girl. The opening act seems to use some sort of slip time mechanism that allows the viewer to see these events from alternating angles, and these scenes carry with them the immensity of spirit of each character.
Its main plot point - a precocious but angry Briony at age 13, lies about something of grave magnitude - brings to mind how easily the balance is set off-kilter, how little it takes for the entire direction of life to change.
This fragility, underscored by the delicateness of 1930s England, is expertly conveyed in Atonement.
The performances of all the characters are superb. Knightley's spoiled, privileged character is underpinned with a sympathy not easy to accomplish. McAvoy, too is able to affect the audience with more than a little puppy-dog look so often found in romance movies. This film never stoops to that level. Its power is real. Watch for a lovely but short performance by Romola Garai as Briony age 18. Stunned almost silent by her own guilt she resorts to working as a nurse in bomb-raided London, in an attempt to do penance. The last and oldest iteration of Briony is played by the eternal Vanessa Redgrave. Maybe the finest casting of an aging character I've ever seen. All three displayed incredible depth - and each carried enormous continuity through. (In this final scene, Briony's interviewer is the late Anthony Mingella.)
Also of note is the 5:30 single shot on the shores of Dunkirk. Extraordinarily effective. Gorgeous cinematography and set/costume design all around.
130 minutes. Based on the novel by Ian McEwan. Won Academy Award for Best Score. Nominated for Best Picture, Cinematography, Art Direction, Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design and Supporting Actress.

01 May 2008

The Impetus

For as long as I can remember, I've loved movies. I love their power, vision, simplicity and their complications. I wanted to direct (don't we all) but was discouraged from such a profession by others who cited it to be too cutthroat. They were probably right but I still feel like a part me got left behind that day. I've been trying to catch up ever since.
I still love movies. I love discovering old flicks or terrible camp films; so much so that in my "spare time" I curate a film series and I'm earning a Masters (very slowly) in Cinema Studies.
The latest blight on real film criticism these days are the dying newspapers and periodicals. It used to be commonplace for a publication to have at least an arts reviewer who also took the time to see some movies. The few that are left are under the guillotine daily and to answer to the pressures of a populist demand write fewer and fewer real criticisms. Their reviews consist of summaries with a comment or two about a particular performance or a costuming choice. Yes, these things are important and all go to the mise en scene of the film.
But a more thorough reading, or look at least, of some films is deserved. I hope to be able to provide a little bit of this, but have no intention of single-handedly filling the ever-increasing gap. I just want to get my thoughts out there and hope a few like-minded individuals will enjoy it and engage the conversation.