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Posted: Mon Oct 31, 2005 7:35 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Written by...Gromit

Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies is a completely fascinating film. Shot in black and white, and composed of long takes averaging about 4 to 5 minutes each, it's an allegory that explores such universal issues as meaning and order. The setting is a small Hungarian country town. A very basic circus arrives, comprised of a stuffed whale kept in a trailer, and a mysterious character called The Prince who incites rebellion and anarchy.

The main character is a naive and trusting sort who we follow around and see what he witnesses. His one uncle is a music theoretician who wrestles with order and structure in music theory. The uncle's wife has taken up with the police chief. And so a dichotomony is established between intellectuals and politicians, between art and power.

The film works as an allegory of wars everywhere. With intellectuals too weak and distracted to stop corrupt and dangerous political leaders. Pointless violence breaks out that mainly attacks the weak, as seen in the raid on the hospital. (One emaciated naked old man faced with a violent mob immediately put me in mind of the Holocaust and the Second World War, but he could also represent a universal victim of any war.

The big dead whale at the center of the town square would then represent European civilization itself. In the beginning, the whale is a mysterious and impressive object, linked with religion (the main character repeats several times that the whale demonstrates God's power and love of creation). But after the chaotic violence, the whale lies in an undignified heap, looking more defeated and tattered than grand, its housing demolished around it.

But the film aspires to a higher, more universal level. What separates order from chaos? In music? In society? How is meaning created and determined? We learn that the "Prince" was named such purely as a marketing gimmick. He is apparently some sort of sideshow freak given a dignified title to add intrigue. But because he is called The Prince, he starts acting the part, making political pronouncements. And because he is The Prince, he attracts followers.

The whale takes on various meanings in the film. For the main character it represents God's omnipotence. Although he seems a bit tentative when repeating this, apparently hoping others will agree and confirm his belief. One postal worker has an opposite interpretation: the whale represents evil and is responsible (in some way) for the chaos that ensues. It's more ambiguous how the uncle/musicologist views the whale towards the end of the film. A mixture of awe and horror it would seem.

The whale is a great metaphor. It is both grand and absurd. Both exhilirating and smelly. The whale is a creature of nature placed in an unnatural environment. Is that also man's fate: to be a fish out of water? To always be an unnatural part of nature. And so our attempts to create order and keep chaos at bay are always merely man-made attempts that can never match the harmony of nature. Therefore they can never satisfy, and will always be open to interpretation and dispute. Thus, always prone to conflict. Are order and conflict the natural cycles of man?

It's a mesmerizing film to watch. The long fluid tracking camera movements are impressive. We frequently watch actions from beginning to end, and then the camera still lingers some more. I liked how this stately pacing and minimal editing grounded the film in a time and place and made the characters seem genuinely real. I also thought the scenes of the children running rampant owed a debt to Fellini. While the musicologist uncle reminded me of Umberto D., as he struggles to maintain his dignity while things fall apart.
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Posted: Thu Dec 01, 2005 10:43 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Pride & Prejudice

Written by...Rod

Here’s a film so nice I saw it twice. Admittedly, the second time it could have been anything, I needed a place to shelter from a rainy afternoon with a full belly from a grand luncheon served up by the poetry-spouting grand-nephew of a great Australian cattle baron - but I digress. I’ve only recently become interested in Jane Austen, having viewed and enjoyed the sharp Ang Lee-Emma Thompson version of "Sense and Sensibility" last year, and tried to locate her as one of the first British realistic writers, which indeed is a point that also inspired this film’s director. If Austen lacks the sense of largesse, of epic explanation of the universe that becomes drug-like in its addictiveness from other 19th century writers - Thackery, Stendhal, Balzac, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens - it is for much the same reason that it is noted that the more accomplished female painters of the era also were forced to concentrate on scenes of domesticity; they just had no idea what the rougher parts or even the ruling rooms of town, never mind battlefields, looked like. Most talented women artists compensated by becoming hypersensitive to details, and Austen’s diagnostic brilliance over exact relations of property and character remains a counterpoint to the general thrust of Romanticism. It was D.H. Lawrence’s opinion, that Austen represented the point at which the English upper classes officially declared their divorcement from the lower, obviously a point that Austen herself could hardly be blamed for.

In any event, using the excuse that Austen wrote the first draft in the late 1790s, director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Monaggahn have revitalised this work exactly by shifting the time period back by twenty years - a move whose importance might be indicated by pointing out the difference between the devil-may-care hedonism of the 1940s and the chrome-covered conformity of the 1950s - back into the thick of the early Napoleonic era. This move is not so important in itself - there’s no lusty wenches, dashing cavaliers, or, more seriously, major textual differences - but it provides exactly the right easing of otherwise restrictions the film-makers might otherwise have felt. It is, specifically, a rejection of associations - of associations with Barbara Cartland, BBC spit-polish, and post-Waterloo imperialism. This is a milieu more reminiscent of Fielding - whom Lawrence took as the measure for how bourgeois English society had become by the time of Austen - bright and alive with the sheer sensual excitement of a rural area at work and a nation in wartime; the streets are thronged with crowds cheering with patriotic fervor columns of young men who may soon be scattered in red rows in Spain and Belgium; the estates vibrate with agricultural process as big-bollocked pigs and unpolled cattle throng in the mud-strewn grounds of the Bennett estate. It also strips away a kind of humbug prim-and-proper veneer. The great British heroes of the Napoleonic era, both military - Wellington, Nelson - and artistic - Byron, Shelley - were all infamous fornicators. This does a vital service for Austen: her slicing wit and strong sense of character at last find roots in the soil, and loses the 90s version’s unfortunate status as comfort food for Bridget Joneses, and that god-forsaken status of ‘masterpiece theatre’.

Alfred Hitchcock’s frustration with period films was, “I can never imagine anyone in them going to the toilet.” When it comes to period films that both evoke their times yet retain immediacy, the list is pretty small, and Joe Wright’s vision links with such vital works as John Schlesinger’s terrific film of “Far From The Madding Crowd” or Tony Richardson’s playful edition of “Tom Jones”, and the intense formalism of Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” and Ridley Scott’s “The Duellists”, where the emphasis is on identifying the nature of the surface drama by putting across the physical background. These tales of squires, estates, and inheritances are worthless romantic fodder unless backed by a hard sense of what this world runs on. This world of genteel farming is long gone, killed by the tractor and other machinery, which ended the need for large workforces under administrators and land-owners who gained by their dint of education and ownership a status long gone the way of the loom. Yet these are real and recognizable people, their roles, though dated, familiar, beset by fiscal worries and personal nightmares, rendering everyone either some sort of social climber if they have nothing or, ironically, isolated if they don’t. Men like D’Arcy and Bingley come across almost as trapped by their circumstances, and D’Arcy seems almost uncomfortable in his own house, paranoid over the intentions of their friends and potential partners.

Right from the get-go this “Pride & Prejudice” feels right and real, and Joe Wright‘s camera, with precision and depth of purpose, begins and remains an instrument of deft study, of both character and environment. It introduces it Lizzy Bennett, in the swan-slim, cunning-eyed form of Keira Knightley, engaged in her obsessive reading whilst walking alone on a field shortly after dawn. This shot immediately establishes much of what we need to know her character; intellectual, driven in a distinctly romantic fashion both to isolate herself yet also experience this world around her - wouldn’t it be easier to read in bed? - and most importantly, searching. Wright’s camera then, like an intimate eavesdropper, follows her into the Bennett’s charmingly creaky house, once obviously a structure of a fine family and now in dissolute ruin, moving at Lizzy’s unhurried speed - Wright’s camera retains an essential modern fluidity but at a pace in exact accord with its subjects - until it comes across her parents uttering the crucial first lines of the book. The giggling gaggle of the Bennett girls is swiftly presented, and we see who takes after who more; Lizzy is definitely her father’s daughter in her self-possessed intellect and wry wit though she still lapses into humored girlishness (and not yet soured, as he is, by wounds of an idiotic world); Lydia (the ever marvelous Jena Malone - who else at her age could claim such accomplishment? Jodie Foster only!) takes after her mother in her relentless push-and-pull of her emotions (not yet soured into perpetual worry); Jane (Rosamund Pike), the eldest, keeps herself in pristine, ever-cautious balance.

The first ball is a little miracle of style and substance; the small, wood-hewn hall where it occurs drums and vibrates overcrowded, stuffed full of every citizen to be found in a ten-mile radius, some noble, some scrappy, some with awful haircuts that look like they done by the gardener with hedge-trimmers. The action bubbles constantly, the talk is rapid. Lizzy’s cutting eye is on everything. The arrival of the Bingleys and D’Arcy brings the whole show to a dead stop. In this moment Wright does one of his brilliant little touches that gets us into the heads of the characters, when D’Arcy, whose surface is glacial, catches of sight of Lizzy’s vividly interesting face, and the arc between them even so briefly is palpable and forces Lizzy to laugh quickly and girlishly, even as she is making fun of D’Arcy’s glum expression. Inevitably, Matthew MacFadyen’s performance has been constantly compared unfavorably with Colin Firth’s characterization. So I’ll go on the record that I found this a revealing and believable D’Arcy. I have nothing against Colin Firth. He’s a good actor and if you want to see him in period pants go watch him in Milos Forman’s “Valmont”, a much dryer and wittier adaptation of de Laclos’ “Les Liaisons Dangereuse” than the Stephen Frears film, which shows off Firth’s cavalier charm at its zesty best. MacFadyen’s D’Arcy portrays a man trying to hide both his intensity of feeling, his essential nervousness, and the scars cut across his soul by his father’s death, his adoptive brother’s failure of character, and his sister’s resulting misery. This is a man maybe more in the shadow of Byron rather than Firth’s down-home Wellington. It has given him his fear of strong emotions, even as he is beset by them, and there is the clear impression his youth was burned out by this before he could enjoy it. Having quickly linked us with D’Arcy’s perceptions, the viewing audience has a privilege Lizzy for all her intelligence can only vaguely comprehend more by instinct than reason, and that is that D’Arcy is actually intensely aware of her presence, a man not clumsily, English-y oblivious to others but all too aware and trying to hide behind a wan and dolorous veneer. The smallest motions - the way D’Arcy stands rapidly to attention when she enters the Bingley’s dining room, and his flexing his hand when he has aided her into a carriage signal his fascination and carry a defined erotic quality.

The second ball is an even greater scene, both a great display of character, scenery, and technical skill, as Wright’s camera flows with the dancers and around the Bingley’s house, catching individual characters in their foibles, catching snatches of relevant conversation and indicating their immediate interrelation - Mr Bingley (Simon Woods, who plays Bingley as a charmingly gauche lad whose money is distinctly at odds with his humble, naive self) snatching at the dress of Jane, stirring the delighted vulgar confidence of Mrs Bennett, who then trips half-drunkenly around the dancers, waggling her spoon with the music; Mr Bennett (Donald Sutherland) interrupting his youngest daughter Mary’s (Talulah Riley) singing badly in recitation and then trying to console her sulking tears; Lydia and second-youngest daughter Kitty (Carey Mulligan) reeling with the flirtatious recklessness of a pair of girls who would today be happily moshing at a System of a Down concert; D’Arcy’s intimidating height looming with odd menace over Lizzy and her subsequent duel of egos with him that presses them ever deeper into a distinct and separate sphere of lovers, done by a deft piece of camera trickery that disappears the other dancers in such a way that you’re not quite sure of it - have they just drifted into the corner? And Tom Hollander’s Mr Collins, darting with a sparrow’s stature and a raven’s personality. Hollander, who won my eternal allegiance with his beautiful turn as the grieving lover in “The Lawless Heart”, excels at playing a boring, self-involved twit who is aware of his own minor power but completely unable to yield it. It’s small wonder that Lizzy can scarcely penetrate this man’s nervous self-importance without shouting at him to turn down his marriage offer.

If I emphasize Wright’s technique, it’s to explain how much of a movie he’s made, and not an excruciating Merchant-Ivory figurine. For the most part, “Pride & Prejudice” bounces along with spry, teasing elegance. Scene after scene comes back to me with enormous pleasure, including the moment when D’Arcy finally confesses his desire to marry Lizzy, only to run head-long into her abuse, staged during a pouring storm, the couple’s subterranean attraction still so powerful D’Arcy almost kisses her anyway. The tart anti-romanticism of Lizzy's plain but partner-in-sarcasm Charlotte (Claudie Blakely) becoming angry when she justifies herself to Lizzy in marrying Collins. Another telling scene has Lizzy entering D’Arcy’s home, a monumental manor that makes her laugh at first sight for knowing what she turned down without a second thought, and moving through its rococo brilliance and confronted by sculptures of classical perfection including one of D’Arcy, crystallizes her understanding of the gap between image and identity, and not long after she stumbles embarrassedly on a crucial moment of familial love between D’Arcy and his young sister. Then there’s the hilarious and bittersweet moment when Lizzy finds Lydia has eloped, D’Arcy leaping repeatedly to attention as she tries to speak through tears. Wright, who has directed many good TV serials including the impressively Loachian “Nature Boy”, proves a natural film-maker.

Two pieces of casting might have ruined this film - Brenda Blethyn as Mrs Bennett, and Judi Dench as Lady Catherine, both of whom could have turned in the sort of overcooked performances they are wont to when not properly controlled, especially in such type parts as Mrs Bennett’s clucking hen (especially in light of Alison Steadman’s caricatured performance in the serial) and Lady Catherine’s icy snob. But Blethyn gives her best performance in ages, giving a woman whose few moments of becalmed repose, reclining with a cup of tea or seated in an alcove at the ball with her feet bouncing in the air, suggesting the kid she really still is despite the weight of years and worry - are even funnier than the cry and moan moments. This is aided by Wright’s fixed, organic conception, which refuses to indulge in one actor. If there is a problem with it, it comes around the middle. The middle-act plot twists are done a touch breathlessly and jerkily, and odd shots of Bronte-esque skylines of storms and carriages overwrought; I expect Rupert Friend’s Wickham gets a touch less screen time than could be necessary to describe him (though Friend swiftly catches the kind of man who feels comfortable telling bald-faced lies because to him they describe some form of emotional truth, and thus perfectly excuses him behaving like a prick). But these are pretty minor complaints, really, for a film done as well and humanly as this. It is, first and foremost, a character-based comedy, rooted in the everyday. Also, in my first viewing, I noticed it was the scattered young people who laughed loudest. It is actually a tale of young people, facing pretty much the same problems the modern ones do when it comes to looking for a half-way decent mate.

The film is about, in the end, Lizzy, growing up and finding her future, and it’s triumphal in this regard. This Lizzy is, first and foremost, deserving. ‘ I find it hard to imagine any man deserving you,’ her father confers on her; ‘ But I find I’m over-ruled.’ And unlike her generic twin in the affections of a Mr D’Arcy, Bridget Jones, this Lizzy really is deserving, and interesting, a girl who has sharpened her tongue and mind in preparation for a life in which she anticipates difficulty, indeed, finding a man both as intelligent and individual as herself, and also in merely surviving. That she finds D’Arcy is at first disastrous but also miraculous. D’Arcy is in fact the perfect man for her, because he has no reason to fear her other than doubts within himself. Once he has set his mind on her, he does not give a damn who he offends or what feathers he ruffles; his only reason to be afraid is also his only reason for love; her character. This Lizzy subtly loses her girlishness as the film progresses until she is a tough and brave little lady. Joe Wright said it was Knightley’s tomboyish spark that convinced him she could play the part despite her undeniably gorgeous features, that she could suggest a girl slightly out of place within her world, and Knightley does do this. It’s an amusing consideration that Knightley’s roles have all to date included some edge of sexual ambiguity - from the suspected lesbian footballer of “Bend It Like Beckham”, the teenaged hooker of “Pure”, the English rose who detests her corset in “Pirates of the Caribbean”, to the full-on bi-fi of “Domino”. I’ve been unsure of her acting chops specifically until this film. She has always radiated the drop-dead charisma a young Julie Christie, whilst resembling a wan French model of the ‘60s period, and handled herself with confidence, but she blooms here with an hypnotic and delectable depth (Shannon, I’ll meet you in combat in the morning, behind the Cathedral, to see which of us marries her). Knightley's spunk and nascent skills show in her encounters with Dench, convincingly facing down one of the best actresses in the world with force. But her finest moment comes at the end, in her exchange with Sutherland, where the two actors seem really like two family members, deeply attuned, Lizzy trying to explain amidst tears and grins her feelings for D’Arcy, and an answering, mirroring smile appears on Sutherland’s; it’s a good possibility Sutherland has never been as good either as he is in this scene. If he doesn’t get a long-deserved Oscar for this film, I’ll be content to eat my head sir.
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Posted: Wed Apr 19, 2006 12:47 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Eight Below (2005)

Written by...Daffy

I saw Eight Below Saturday night, but only by default since the Munich showing was sold out. Lincoln Square has about 12 screens but since they don't put up posters for any of the movies they're showing, and no one who works the box office knows anything about them, and they no longer carry the notebook that had the movies' descriptions in them, I didn't know what several of the options were about and I wasn't interested in any of the others. I'm a dog lover and I knew Eight Below was about dogs, so there you go and there I went.

The movie starts off fairly well. Jerry (Paul Walker) and Coop (Jason Biggs) are stationed at an Antarctic research facility. Coop is a cartographer, while Jerry provides a team of sled dogs to transport scientists around the area. There is some well-written and directed exposition to show us just how special a relationship Jerry has with his critters, and who can blame him? Anybody who knows anything about sled dogs knows they are pretty amazing animals, especially the leader of the team. In this case that's Maya, who is one fine looking bitch (sorry, couldn’t resist). An annoying scientist (Bruce Greenwood) breaks his leg in an accident and we see just how good Maya is as she performs a daring rescue. Unfortunately, there is a late season storm blowing in and the powers that be decide to abandon the station for the winter and, in an emergency evacuation, fly everyone out along with the injured scientist. There is no room for the dogs, though, and they are left behind with no hope for survival (to give the writer his due, it’s all actually more complicated and involving than that). The rest of the movie goes back and forth between the dogs’ efforts to live and the guilt-ridden Jerry’s efforts to get back down and find them, alive or not.

Eight Below is a pretty good Disney movie. Not great, but overall it’s enjoyable and engrossing for the kids (if a bit long for them at one hour, fifty-one minutes) while also being interesting and touching enough to keep the parents in their seats. The parts about the dogs are quite well done with plot development, believable canine characters and interaction, and realistic perils for them to overcome. The one exception is an encounter with a leopard seal. It’s well directed and shot and would be one of the high points of the movie except for the bad special effects. CGI? Models? I think it was a bit of both, but it all looked terrible. In any event, the work with the dogs is wonderful, and plausible. Dogs are very social creatures and each has its own role to play within a pack. That’s all here, and wonderfully and simply revealed by the writer and director. You can’t help but root for them as they battle the weather and the odds, and you want to cheer whenever they make it through another day. Their relationships can be uplifting and heartbreaking.

There’s just one thing wrong here, but it’s a doozie. This could have been a movie about dogs in which the humans play a small part. There would have been a lot more screen time for the canines and a lot less for the actors, and a perfectly fine Disney movie could have been made. What has been produced, though, is a dogs and people movie. There’s nothing wrong with that idea, but if that’s the way you’re going to go, you’d better make the human element compelling because it’s about half the runtime. This isn’t like the Lassie TV series, where the whole premise depended on the people being dumber than the dog (and worse actors, too). Here we need to get involved with the people, too, and that’s where The Doozie comes in.

Ever see The Devil’s Advocate? It was a terrific movie with a big huge gaping problem in the middle: Keanu Reeves. Well, the same thing is going on here. I don’t know where Paul Walker came from, but I wish he would go back. According to the IMDb he actually got $7 million for something a while ago. If he invests well he'll be alright.

I wish he'd get some speech coaching; he's flat as a piece of paper, no vocal variety whatsoever. The guy makes Kevin Costner sound like Mel Blanc. But even more than his vocal limitations, he just doesn’t seem involved; the stakes don’t seem very high. This is pretty much a formula movie, and a Disney one at that, so aside from the details we already know pretty much what is going to happen; it’s up to the filmmakers to make us care and Walker fails miserably (For an example of an actor making us care in a formula movie where we already know what’s going to happen, go see Josh Lucas in Glory Road. Now that’s a formula flick; it’s also superb acting by Lucas). One could say that Walker’s playing a man who’s emotionally withheld, who just isn’t effusive, but all you have to do is remember what Heath Ledger did with a guy who isn’t exactly Mr. Bubbles to know that it doesn’t have to mean being blah. There’s a possible romance, but Walker makes it look more like friends with benefits instead of a real emotional attraction. Moon Bloodgood, who plays the love interest (yes, that really is her credited name) is pleasant enough and tries, but she doesn’t have a lot to work with. To be honest, she’s not exactly Kate Winslet herself. Poor Bruce Greenwood has nobody to build a relationship with. His scientist and Jerry should be butting heads from the beginning over any number of things so that he has a greater emotional journey to travel, but Walker is so static Greenwood has nowhere to go. This is also the director’s fault; there are plenty of opportunities, but he doesn’t seem to have made the effort to get anything going between the characters beyond genial cordiality. I wonder if they only had a certain amount of time to shoot in Greenland, so he just said “Print it” to all the first takes and then hopped on the plane back to L.A.

In the hands of a better director, and with a few casting changes, the human scenes could have added some weight and therefore found their place in the story, but they are never really given the chance. In a way, this movie has a (limited) similarity with The Killing Fields: A person leaves a loved one behind in a mortal situation and later tries to go back and find them; we cut back and forth between the two. The difference is that in that film you had Sam Waterston and John Malkovitch and a director who helped them do their thing. Here, you have Bruce Greenwood and... well... nobody else. Too bad, because this could have been a riveting film from beginning to end.

As it is, we only get involved with the dogs, never the people. The result is that what could have been a Disney classic, is merely pretty good. I suppose the kids will love it, but they won’t repeat when they get older.

For a good movie with sled dogs, someone should film The Cruelest Miles, a book about the race to get vaccine to Nome, Alaska during the diphtheria epidemic in the winter of 1924. This is the sled team that got its final leader, Balto, immortalized with a statue in New York's Central Park; generations of children have loved to play on it. In a just world the statue would have been of Togo, the other leader, but that's another story.
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Posted: Wed Jun 07, 2006 7:07 am Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
(Directed by Deepa Mehta)

Written by...Lady Wakasa

Water, the third of Deepa Mehta's elements series, is lyrical poetry used to describe the brutal realities of day-to-day life for Indian women in the period leading up to independence. As such, it takes on responsibility for detailing a lot: a complex community, the power dynamics of male-female relationships, and the take of ordinary Indians on Mohandas Gandhi's nascent movement. That's a pretty tall order, and it's complicated by the death threats that Mehta has received from religious and political fundamentalists while battling to get her movies on the screen. But the effort pays off quite admirably.

Water centers on the lives of windows in an Indian city in the late 1930s. "Widows" is a little more politically charged that you might think: men are allowed to marry children as young as six and seven (and the girls have no idea what?s happening), and wives are considered the properly of their husbands. If those husbands should die before their wives - and a husband with 30-40 years on his wife is likely to do just that - ownership is taken up, in his name, by the religious authorities. They in turn reinforce edicts declaring that widows (the unluckiest of the unlucky) can enter heaven only by remaining pure and true to their dead husbands. Chuyia, a newly widowed seven-year old, is brought to a "widow house" to be isolated from society, effectively robbing her of any sort of childhood and adulthood. Traditionally, there is no way to buck the system; this is the way it has been and the way it will always be, and there is no compassion for individual cases.

Chuyia makes friends with Kalyani, the second youngest widow in the house. Like Chuyia, she became a widow at an extremely young age - young enough that she can't remember exactly when. She, however, is different from the other widows: she has her own bedroom, she alone is allowed to wear her hair long, she can even sneak a dog (considered bad luck) into her room without too much of a fuss. In return, however, she acts as the house's main means of support: at the receiving end of the "concern" that many of the local Brahmin show for the plight of the impoverished widows.

At the edges of this tradition, scratching to come in and upset the status quo, is a young lawyer named Narayana. Narayana is an enlightened Brahmin; but rather than following the traditions and position that his caste would allow, or the privileges and relative freedoms that aligning with the British would allow, he's become involved with Gandhi's nonviolence movement as a way for India to better itself and all its citizens - including the widows. When a chance meeting throws him, Chuyia, and Kalyani together, he easily translates his idealism into a growing attachment to the widow (Kalyani) who by all traditional rights should be completely off-limits to him.

It's been a while since I've seen a serious, well thought out, realistic feminist film. Since the word has been distorted away from its original meaning, most film feminism is bad or a joke. And it would have been simple for the writer/director to fall into a fairy-tale, Bollywoodish ending, where the modern man "rescues" the young widow from the wickedness of society and they, with his tolerant father and easily persuaded mother, live happily ever after. But Mehta travels a much more realistic route, one which shows that the upperclass are not always so liberal and tradition not so forgiving of transgressions, and which implies that the imperfect, incremental internal change of the nonviolence movement was likely the only way for real change. The message shouldn't be solely that nonviolent tactics removed the British; those tactics should also implicitly attack ignorance at all levels of society. It's clear throughout the film that the tradition-bound society, even those members who would benefit the most from change, needs some convincing that Gandhi's message is positive change; part of Meehta's story is that society still needs some convincing today.

* * * * * * * * * *

The movie itself is beautifully shot. Although the locations are largely proscribed to the few places that the widows could go, the story isn't affected at all. The film would still be a visually astounding film even with no story. The colors come close to tactile experiences (especially in the wonderful Holi festival scene), the lighting is creative (when Kalyani and Naranaya meet, it is under the broad branches of a baobab tree, surrounded by clay lamps, with Kalyani holding one small lamp to illuminate her face and all the uncertainty in it). The story itself is told in a way so that anyone not familiar with the issues would still understand and empathize quite well. And the actors acquit themselves with only minor quibbles (although Naranaya was little else beyond idealistic).

All in all, a very good, thought-provoking movie. I'm now motivated to hunt down Deepa Mehta's Fire and Earth (and hey - I own The Republic of Love and didn't know it was the same director). Wish there was more of this caliber hitting the theaters right now.
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Posted: Tue Nov 14, 2006 7:16 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
The King and the Clown
"character is destiny"
Written by...Lady Wakasa

There's been something going on in Korean society which hasn't really shown up on American radar screens: the concept of hallyu, or "Korean Wave." This, from what I've uncovered (and yes, there's a Wikipedia entry for this), is a nationalism, a sense of Koreanness, that permeates popular culture, fuelled and funded in part by Korea's status in the world (one of the Asian Tigers) and exported to other Asian nations. This isn't a Serb or Nazi-style nationalism; it's more a pride in Korean values, family and otherwise (which have many similarities to general Asian values), a "we're here, and we're doing pretty well" that demonstrates Korea's advanced industrial status in the world - something that should be very recognizable to Westerners. Right now, in Asia, it's cool to be Korean.

One of the biggest examples of hallyu in recent years is a movie named The King and the Clown. In three short months at the beginning of this year, it came from nowhere to become the most watched film in Korean history.

Jang-Saeng and Gong-gil are itinerant minstrel-clowns in early sixteenth-century Korea. Jang-Saeng is a bit of a rebel, and a bit of a genius at both concocting skits and managing their lives; he also takes it upon himself to protect Gong-gil, much like a father, brother, or lover. Gong-gil is ethereally beautiful, somewhat shy, and a kind, gentle soul; but he derives a sort of courage from his belief in Jang-Saeng and his ability to keep them alive. (He instinctively severely injures a man to save Jang-Saeng, only to go into shock when he realizes what he has done.) They complement each other, and they survive. So it seems just bad karma that leads them to Seoul and punishment for mocking the king, then saves them from being flogged to death only to end up in the middle of insanity, court intrigue, and the king's growing attraction towards Gong-gil.

The movie was heralded as a Korean Brokeback Mountain in the western press when it came out. Part of that was timing - Brokeback Mountain opened in very late November 2005 and King and the Clown at the end of December - but most of it was subject matter. Like the Ang Lee film, the plot concerns an intense relationship between men which faces severe censure from the society around them (although for different reasons). Both movies break barriers: Brokeback Mountain presents homosexuality in a mainstream movie in a straightforward and almost Shakespearean way; King and the Clown implies homosexuality to a society which had removed it from the official government list of "socially undesirable acts" less than two years earlier. But it would be a mistake to compare the two. They're both very good, but homosexuality never rises above implication in the Korean movie, acting as one of several possible explanations. It's just not a valid comparison.

Is this the best movie I've ever seen? No. But it's a very solidly good story about class conflict and different worlds colliding. There's very good acting as well: Gam Woo-Sung, Jung Jin-Young, and Lee Joon-Gi are all strong leads. Gam as the main lead has Jang-Saeng's swagger and daredevil attitude down perfectly, while Jung's Yeosan is just the right mix of mistrust and insanity. Lee is delicate but not a completely deferential shade; Gong-gil's role is key to the story, and Lee handles it quite deftly. All three men, especially Lee, have become huge stars from their appearances, and in this particular case it's well deserved.

A major factor in the success of the story is the story, a major rewrite of a popular play, Yi. It is woven into many layers: the contrast between the nobles and the clowns (who were basically beggars); the clowns' quest to survive; the relationships between Jang-Saeng, Gong-gil, and King Yeosun; the presence of Nok-Soo the concubine. It's also a retelling of an historical tale well-known to the average Korean (the real-life King Yeosun's story is a staple of the Korean national tale; his court diaries mention a clown named Gong-gil who mocked the king and was punished and exiled for it.), presented from a new angle. Yeosan is traditionally presented as a mad tyrant; this take introduces the possibility that the behavior of the ministers and the yangbun (who in effect questioned the legitimacy of the king) may have forced some of Yeosan's actions. Symbolism hangs ominously over the story, from colors, clothing and gestures, to Gong-gil's use of hand puppets to entertain the king, fill in some major plot points, and express his own character (every puppet play he does is a reenactment of an earlier event in the story; there's an excellent explanation of this on imdb - login required). And there's just a good amount of suspense, as the story drags its characters deeper and deeper into a morass of court intrigue in which they're merely pawns. As one of the clowns says after a pivotal performance, they perform a skit and people die. This is edge-of-the-seat stuff, as you think, "this can't end well,"... "oh, this is going to end badly." The teenyboppers may be all over this movie, but there is a there there.

While it is a rich tale, it's difficult to access without understanding Korean language and culture, or finding some source of background information. Fortunately, the movie has been such a hit that there are a number of english-language sources available online; there's an especially helpful series of reviews at (see links below). Knowing the underlying information makes the story that much more poignant - and also makes repeat viewings to catch these things a must.

In addition, the translations are some of the best I've seen in a while. Once the movie became a hit, Dr. Kim Yong-Ok, one of the foremost living Korean philosophers (and whose other translation job was Im Kwon-taek's Chihwaseon, winner of the Best Director Award at Cannes in 2002) apparently volunteered to translate the dialogue into English. And he did a fine job: the clowns speak the lower-class vernacular that you'd expect; the court has a precise formal tone; and the colloquialisms are in the right place. The introduction itself includes historical context in the subtitles, explaining the real-life king and the role of the court secretaries/diarists in preserving his story (which, like those of all 27 of the Chosun kings, exists in the Korean state archives). One drawback may be that the intricacies and plays-on-words in the language haven't been preserved in the translation, but this is still a great story.

In short, there's a lot of detail here - but if you're willing to pay attention, and do a little research, you'll be more than amply rewarded. Thank you, hallyu.

Now my only wish would be for a big screen showing somewhere in the States...

* * * * * * * * * *

Links (by no mean exhaustive)

DVD sources (mostly Region 3; aim for the international version)

Twitch review (discusses the director's career - SPOILERS!)
Part 1 - Lee Joon-Ik's (Cine)World
Part 2 - Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield
Part 3a - The King and The Clown [Part 1 of 3]
Part 3b - The King and The Clown [Part 2 of 3] (includes rough translation of DVD extras)
Part 3c - The King and The Clown [Part 3 of 3]

imdb (SPOILERS!)
general listing
explanation of puppet shows (login required)
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The Queen (2006)
Written by...Lshap

If there's ever a film called, "The Earth", it's safe to assume the name will be a metaphor for some other story, and not a literal characterization of our planet. I mean, who would play the lead? So when I saw the title, "The Queen", my expectations downsized similarly. "It must be about some guy in drag", I thought. After all, the name conjures up a presence that's impossibly ineffable. Who'd be brazen enough to attempt a literal characterization of the planet's best known symbol of royalty? And besides, who would play the lead?

Turns out that with a deft touch and a sharply written screenplay there's nothing brazen at all about this film. It's a tightly woven political drama that just happens to be set against the most elegant backdrop on Earth. As for who would play the lead, watching Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth made me wonder why it took so long to bring this impossibly ineffable presence to the screen.

It's 1997, and a young Tony Blair has just been elected Britain's Prime Minister. But before he can get on with his promise of modernizing the country he has to step back a few centuries and bend political knee to the reigning Monarch, waiting for her royal assent to form the government. New meets old as the young Labour party meets the ancient Monarchy, embodied by one grey-haired little lady. We meet Blair (Michael Sheen) as he's prepping for his first meeting with Her Majesty. For him it's a heart pumping waltz of formal bobs and kissed hands. For the Queen, this is her tenth Prime Minister, the first being Winston Churchill who, by the way, Mr. Blair, sat in the very chair in which you're seated. Gulp.

All goes swimmingly, until three months later when Princess Diana is killed. Then the white gloves come off and it becomes a very British, very dignified, battle of wills between the Queen's stoic traditionalism and Tony's generation of tabloid hysteria. According to Her Majesty, Diana is a commoner, an ex-princess, who should be accorded no royal treatment whatsoever. But Blair senses the populist wave engulfing the country, transforming Diana, in death, into "The People's Princess". The rest of the film is about the backroom spin-doctoring during that difficult week of mourning, as government and monarchy struggle with public perception, prepared prose, and each other. We glimpse the quirky relationship between Crown and Government through the Queen and Blair's vaguely Mother-Son dynamic which is respectful, even while they don't quite get each other. In the end all final decisions trickle back up to the Queen, who makes it quite clear if the royal dynasty is to be dragged into the 20th century it will be with reverential awe, thank you very much.

It's hard to imagine more perfect casting than Helen Mirren as the Queen and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. Both actors manage the very difficult job of bringing two very public, and very living, figures to life. They look and sound just like them, and we can believe we're watching Britain's machinery from the inside as we eavesdrop on their private conversations. Everyone's talking Oscar for Mirren, which is understandable, although as good as she is I wouldn't call it a performance for the ages. More like a performance of a character for the ages. Sheen's performance was every bit as impressive, I thought, but Mirren's role is the focal point. Of course, when everyone is bowing around you it's impossible to NOT be the focal point. Likewise as everyone is flailing about in conflict, the Queen's tight-lipped stoicism leaves her appearing even more imperious. No question, Mirren achieves a wonderful balancing act, giving us just enough Elizabeth without it diluting the Queenly title. We watch Liz puttering around the castle, walking her dogs along her estate, driving her old 4x4 jeep across the Royal forests and streams, scolding her son the Prince, dressing down a Prime Minister, talking to an elk and squabbling with Mum. Yet whether in formal attire or bedraggled frumpiness, she is ever the Queen. This descendant of royal lineage, this living postage stamp, this 'heads' side of many a coin, knows she is way beyond having to prove anything. Mirren gets that, just as she gets that the "Less is More" approach is the only proper choice available when you're The Queen. In other words, don't hold your breath waiting for 'Liz to break out the leather 'cause she's feeling frisky. Yes, we get to see her in her study, her car and her bedroom, but she never completely lets down her guard, even when alone. After all, as her Great Grandmother might have said, "We are not a muse."
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Superman Returns (2006)

Written by...Rod

It's the most sublime joke of Richard Donner's great 1978 film Superman to play Kal-El as the most pleasantly square guy in a world that's gone extremely unsquare, but he’s not at all fazed by it. That was, in fact, a far more hip idea than giving Superman the requisite "issues" that have encumbered Batman to the point where it's no fun to watch that headcase anymore. The first two Superman films are the gold standard for comic book movies, for scripting, dramatic structure, and exact casting. How can you top the pitch-perfect performances of Brando, Hackman, Reeve, Margot Kidder, Jackie Cooper, and Donner's loving yet knowing direction?

Simple, you can't. But I didn't hate this film like others seem to have. In fact I mildly enjoyed it. Perhaps a nostalgic kick was involved.

Donner presented his Superman in an unadorned ‘70s New York, with all the attitude of the time, dashes of grunge, glam and punk decorating the background, Superman’s retro-flash appreciated by the pimped-up and pimped-out. As the prologue’s dreamy black-and-white shot of the Daily Planet’s logo globe rotating above an art-deco city gave way to this seamier yet invigorating place, so the scene was perfectly set for Superman to erupt with boy scout pitches and dashing deeds, doing it all with a twist of Errol Flynn-ish self-amusement. As much as he bumbled as Clark Kent, he flirted unembarrassed with Lois Lane. Apart from fitting out kids with cell phone cameras, Singer’s Metropolis is far less specific, far less interesting. Sam Raimi, in Spider-Man, had already stolen some of the thunder by quoting contemporary city-isms - goth chicks digging the idea of a guy with eight hands - but there was still plenty of room for Singer to move. He buys Superman too much as myth and not enough as story. Superman Whatever often feels more appropriate.

Instead of picking on the cast, I’d rather pick on Bryan Singer, an over-rated talent. He stages action scenes well, and coats his work with a sheen of icy beauty, but he treats things with a decorous gravity that mimics and yet misses the true quality of The Epic. Epics gain power and strength from repetition, telling familiar events as if never heard before. Too much of Superman Returns’ story seems by rote rather than passion. The plotting is particularly lukewarm, the story eventually runs completely out of ideas and momentum. Singer seems embarrassed by the idea of the climax. All of the last third’s twists, revelations, and catharses are thrown away. Superman is resurrected; we don’t see it. Superman discovers he has a son; his benedictory speech is addressed as the tyke sleeps. Nuance and depth are usually lacking from modern Hollywood product, but Singer’s idea of artfulness tastes of tofu when we want steak.

And in the end the nuances of fun don't seem to be Singer’s thing. His X-Men films were watchable and yet fell apart for similar reasons - clumsy plotting, dutiful but unimpassioned spectacle. A Passion of the Clark scene has kryptonite-infected Superman sadistically beaten and tossed away by Lex Luthor’s thugs. It’s perfect, a nod to the post-9/11 mood where we’re used to seeing our saviors, heroes, and believers castigated to the point of breaking. The reason why superhero films are so popular is also the reason Mel Gibson’s to-the-bone crucifixion play hit a nerve, the desire for a sense of reclaimed heroism balanced by the mood of sadism, the sense everything good about humanity has been sliding down the rabbit hole. It’s a powerful scene that deserves a comeback as powerful as the finale of Superman 2, Richard Lester’s cheekier yet even more substantial sequel, when Superman, thought to have been drained of his powers, instead crushes the hand of General Zod. That scene is still the apex of shiver-up-the-spine wish-fulfilment. Superman here tosses a big lump of rock into space, a flaccid bit of muscle-man work in comparison. Steve Reeves goes cosmic.

The attempts to channel Donner’s hip heroism and Lester’s assailed heroism do drive the film a long way, as do the well-employed moments of sly reference; particularly funny is how it works in a play on the TV show’s famous catch-cry, and has Frank Langella’s Perry White exclaim “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” at an appropriate instant. Yet except for a neat-o Jimm Olsen, most of the characters have been drained of color. Langella fares worst; he seems virtually asleep. Kate Bosworth, target of most attacks, is not, in fact, bad as a Lois who’s a post-feminist career woman, playing at family life but really dreaming of flying about with the guy in the skin-tight spandex. But it’s the most misjudged element of a misjudged movie. Lois Lane was a character strong enough to transcend girlfriend status and become her own franchise, keeping alive the spirit of the Glenda Farrell type flapper reporter. She found in Margot Kidder a brilliantly conceived modernisation, a flinty, flirtatious, overgrown high school geekette, her dirty brain immediately pondering Superman’s love life and hinting he should check her out naked with his x-ray vision. Kidder would have contemptuously thrust Bosworth down the hall to fetch her a cup of coffee whilst writing up the latest rape case. Indeed, that delicious ‘70s style black humor is another thing that’s gone missing.

It occurred to me that Parker Posey would have made a natural successor to Kidder, but she’s stuck in a completely throwaway role of Luthor’s mole, a dull shadow of Valerie Perrine’s delightful Miss Teschmacher, joined by Spacey's somewhat insipidly handled Luthor. Perrine’s part was a very ‘70s crypto-fag-hag who pined for Superman’s upright studliness whilst accepting her perverse lot; Singer has no idea what to do with this. Donner’s Luthor and company paid a nod to the Batman TV series’ baddies as cackling campy foils. This in its way made Luthor’s monstrousness more affecting. Part oily salesman, part game-show host, Hackman’s Luthor truly found the idea of sinking California and incinerating New Jersey a delightful addendum to a real estate coup. This film’s Luthor chucks whisper-to-scream tantrums but seems more Dr Evil than Lex. It’s a measure of Hollywood’s essential contemporary weaknesses, a lack of skill at storytelling. In Superman, the Man of Steel finds himself stretched to breaking point holding back apocalypse, and finally has to violate his code to put things right. Singer cannot even pretend to match such a sense of spectacle, of strain, of dizzying challenge; Metropolis is only briefly threatened by a dutiful CGI barrage.

Brandon Routh acquits himself well. He isn’t as physically perfect for the role as Chris Reeve, or as deft a comedian, but he approaches the role with a supple strength. Scenes that would have been relished by Donner and Lester coming from Reeve barely distract Singer in using Routh. Sequences that directly quote Clark’s bumbling and Lois’s bad spelling reveal the inadequacy, it’s like hearing lines read over in rehearsal.

So why did I enjoy this film? Well, there was just enough action, just enough of a sense of continuance, a grasp of some essence, to make it work. It avoids the mistakes of Batman Begins, by not overstuffing the storyline or killing the joy. Some scenes are extremely affecting, and (be still my boyish heart) John Williams’ themes still truly soar; once, Williams single-handedly reinvented Hollywood grandeur, and he’s still giving it a certain pep even when only being paid royalties. When Singer can make those strains rise in time with the daring-do, Superman Returns cuts to the heart of the fantasy.
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Samurai Rebellion (1971)

Written by...Syd

Despite its title, this isn't exactly a Japanese civil war epic or a martial arts epic, althought there is some swordplay in the last part of the film. Instead this is a drama of feudalism and sexual politics in early 18th century Japan. It shows how feudal obligations and family pressure can combine with cowardice and noble arbitrariness to betray love and produce a monstrous result. It's powerful. If Shakespeare had been Japanese, he would have written a tragedy like this. It's powerful stuff.

The Japanese title means Rebellion: Receive the Woman, and it's based on the story "Receive the Woman." Either would have been a more appropriate title. There are samurai, and they do rebel, but a lot of people will be expecting something else from the title and either avoid it or be surprised.

Here's the story (there may be spoilers, but it's hard to review this without them): Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune)is a samurai under Lord Masakata Matsudaira. Isaburo has two sons, Yogoro (Go Kato) and Bunzo (Tatsuyoshi Ehara). Yogoro, the elder son is unmarried and the heir to the fief. Despite the two sons, Isaburo has been in a loveless marriage for more than twenty years. They all belong to the Sasahara clan--for some reason the clan name follows the personal name in IMBb, when I think it should be the other way around.

One day the steward arrives with news from Lord Masakata: Yogoro is ordered to marry the Lord's discarded mistress, Lady Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa). Ichi has recently born the Lord one son, but when she returned, she found the Lord had taken another mistress, and Ichi attacked the other mistress and pulled at the Lord's clothes and slapped him. Isaburo's family is dismayed at this order, and Isaburo protests that the family is unworthy, but Yogoro finally agrees.

Ichi is nothing like described and she and Yogoro fall deeply in love, much to the joy of Isaburo, who feared that his son would be trapped in a loveless marriage like his own. Within a couple of years, there is a daughter, and Ichi has done all she can to forget the Lord and her son.

Ichi explains what happened at the castle: She was taken at the age of 19 to be the mistress of Lord Masakata to bear him additional heirs, since the lordship will pass from his family if no sons survive him. (He has one son by his wife, who I guess is dead or beyond childbearing age.) Despite her horror at the idea, she goes because of familial and feudal obligations. She determines to bear her lord many sons so no other girls will have to suffer what she's going through. But when she returns from recovering from childbirth, she finds a new mistress who is proud and smiling like the cat who ate the canary. Ichi flips out, and the rest is history. She is overjoyed to be discarded and made the wife of a kind and handsome young samurai.

So all is well until a messenger arrives from the castle: the Lord's heir has died and Ichi's son is now the heir. It will not do for the mother of the future Lord to be married to a vassal. The Sasahara must send her back to the castle and she and Yogoro must renounce their marriage, despite the recent birth of their daughter. They understandably don't want to do this, and Isaburo backs them up over the protests of his wife and their second son. The rest of the Sasahara clan, fearful that retribution from the castle may fall on them as well, try to pressure them into giving Ichi up.

The second son uses subterfuge to lure Ichi to a meeting with the second son and the chamberlain. When she learns it's a trap, she is told that she is free to return to Yogoro, but if she does, Yogoro and Isaburo will be ordered to commit seppuku. Fearful for their lives, she returns to the castle.

All would seem to be well, except for the obligations of feudalism. Isaburo is a vassal of Lord Masakata, who is a vassal of some daimyo, who is a vassal of the Shogun. Masakata has received Ichi back through kidnapping and duress, which violates the feudal code and the outrage could result in samurai rising against Masakata in revolt, or the daimyo or Shogun setting things to rights, probably violently. The only solution is for Yogoro to formally request that the castle take Ichi back, which means that not only does he renounce his marriage but he has to beg the castle to let him do so. Yogoro refuses to do this and Isaburo sends a formal protest, calling on the daimyo and Shogun to protect their rights. They are ordered to commit suicide, but they refuse to do so unless presented with the heads of Lord Masakata, his steward, and his chamberlain. Thus the final, violent confrontation, in which Yogoro, Isaburo, and Ichi defend their honor against the power of Lord Masakata.

This is all very well acted, particularly by Toshiro Mifune, Go Kato and Yoko Tsukasa. The film is directed by Masaki Kobayashi. It's in beautiful black and white, and the film is a textbook in effective film composition. The novel was by Hairyozuma Shimatsu, who wrote the story Harakiri is based on. (Harakiri is another Masaki Kobayashi film which is apparently equally good.) The outstanding screenplay is by Shinobu Hashimoto, who also wrote Rashomon, Ikuru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Harakiri, Samurai, Sword of Doom and much, much more.

[I came to this film through Roger Ebert, who for some reason rated it three stars in 1971 when he saw it, despite giving it a rave review. He has since repaid his sins by putting it on his Great Films list where it belongs.]
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The Divorcee (1930)

Written by...Syd

This film won the third best actress Oscar for Norma Shearer. She won it in 1930 and the film really needs oil because it creaks really badly. Norma Shearer plays Jerry Martin, who marries Ted Martin (Chester Morris) while young, much to the disappointment of Paul (Conrad Nagel). When Jerry and Ted announce their engagement, Paul is bitter and drives off with his date, Dorothy (Judith Wood), her sister Mary (Helene Millard) and the annoying ukelele player Hank (Tyler Brooke). Mary begs Paul to let Hank drive, but Paul insists, and drives off a bridge after some very bad back projection, sparing us what might have happened the car had been driven by Hank. Dorothy is disfigured in the accident, and Paul marries her out of guilt and because Jerry is unavailable.

Jerry and Ted's marriage is deliriously happy for three years despite Ted being a crashing bore. On their third anniversary, they have a party, and one of the guests dates is Janice, with whom Ted had a drunken one night stand. Jerry is devastated, and when Ted leaves on a business trip, she is comforted by Ted's best friend Don (Robert Montgomery), which leads to her own one night-stand with Don.

Ted comes home from his trip. What follows is the best scene in the movie and what I think won Shearer the Oscar. Ted has had his one-night stand and thinks its nothing. Shearer's still home and still talking to him, so he thinks she has forgiven him. What he doesn't notice is that she is doing all the seemingly normal things a devoted wife would be expected to do without letting him lay a finger on her. There is one kiss which lasts a second and has no passion, and he still doesn't catch on. She gets a phone call from Don begging her not to reveal their one-night stand, but she denies him. Don tells his valet to find a pass on a ship leaving New York. It doesn't matter which ship, just look for the one which goes the farthest away. When Jerry hangs up, Ted returns to the room. He asks Jerry what she was going to say before the call came. She says she settled their accounts. Long silence before Ted figures out what this means.

Naturally, Ted thinks his screwing Janice doesn't mean anything, but Jerry's screwing some unnamed person is unthinkable. (She doesn't reveal Don's name.) Thus the divorce. Jerry, now being an unmarried woman, embarks on a series of affairs. Finally she runs into Paul, who is still in love with her, is unhappily married to Dorothy, and makes plans to run off to Japan with Jerry. But when they are about to leave, Dorothy shows up in Jerry's room. Although Dorothy was willing to grant Paul a divorce when the subject first came up, she realizes that the defective marriage still gives her something to live for, and pretty please, would Paul and Jerry give Dorothy and Paul's marriage a chance. Paul doesn't care, but Jerry realizes that Dorothy is willing to abase herself for something that Jerry gave up without a fight. Jerry had started off with illusions and come to realize that everything was imperfect except her marriage, but when her marriage turned out to be imperfect she threw it away. So she leaves Paul, and runs off to London, occasionally visiting Paris, where Ted has taken refuge, until she finally runs into him and they realize that, flawed as their love is, they are still in love with each other. It is New Year's Eve, a time when the whole world has a second chance, and, even if the rest of the world may snicker at them, shouldn't they seize this second chance?

After Janet Gaynor the well-deserved first Oscar for Best Actress, there was a period when the Best Actress was awarded to a series of actresses who were important for political reasons: Mary Pickford for Coquette, Norma Shearer for The Divorcee and Marie Dressler for Min and Bill. I don't know if Helen Hayes's for The Sin of Madelon Claudet belongs to this series. Certainly Katherine Hepburn's for Morning Glory and Claudette Colbert's for It Happened One Night ended this series. Norma Shearer was a prominent actress of the time, was married to Irving Thalberg, and did have some brilliant scenes in the movie (particularly the scene where her husband returns from his business trip). Still, Greta Garbo was up for a couple of films that year, and was a much better actress.

The first half-hour of the film, which contains Ted and Jerry's courtship, has some of the worst "witty" dialog of the era. The film is much better when it veers into soap opera. It suffers greatly from Chester Morris's Ted, who is frankly a self-centered unappealing pig. Although the plot has Jerry in love with him, which makes a reunion inevitable, I still have to wonder what the appeal is. Maybe it's just that no other male in the film is all that appealing either. (I include Paul in that, who marries Dorothy, and as near as I can tell, doesn't do a damned thing to make the marriage work.)
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The Good German (2006) Dir. Stephen Soderberg
Written by...Marj

The Good German may be one of the most disappointing films I've seen this year. Not because it's a bad movie but because it promised so much. It was an ambitious undertaking and a success in certain ways. But ultimately the film can't be considered much more than the prior: an ambitious undertaking.

Stephen Soderberg with all the skills at his disposal, gave us a 1940’s post war noir intrigue which harkened back to the films of Welles and Hitchcock. He even cast two actors who can transfer to that period without missing a beat: George Clooney and Cate Blanchette. And like many of the films of that era the plot is so convoluted that as audience we are happy to go along with the ride until the dénouement in which all is explained.

The problem with The Good German is not the actors. Far from it. Much credit must be given to Cate Blanchette and also George Clooney, though it is Blanchette who truly transitions from present day to world weary yet stunning femme fatale. Clooney on the other hand, is simply present and just so right as the heroic lead. It's as though he was born to jump from era to era without so much as a bye or leave. Of course doing so is a sign of fine acting. Others such as Toby McGuire are either miscast or simply out of their league.

Many have complained of a lack of soul in the leads. I tend to agree, but this is noir and since when did noir characters possess soul? Still I hasten to add that the script gave little if any soul to its characters. And unquestionably the script had its problems. However this didn't disturb me as much as the jumping out of the 40’s lineage to present day. Which brings us to the film's real problem.

The major problem with The Good German is that Soderberg lost the point due to the use of violence, sex and language. There was a production code at the time, yet this director for all his commitment to the period either chose to ignore it, or forgot about it all together. He jumps the shark to such an extreme that we are lost between eras. And he does this so early in the film that all the craft he's infused is totally lost. To see Tully humping Lena, to hear "fuck" used over and over and to see as much blood spilled, is to say, forget the era entirely. It makes one wonder what Soderberg was really attempting. With all of his camera techniques and sound trickery he seems to have forgotten what made these older films unique. If one goes back to actual films of the 40’s they'll find a new appreciation for the machinations film makers had to use in order to get their plots across. Watch Notorious after The Good German and it all becomes crystal clear.

So this film becomes a lost enterprise. Add to that a finale that is so reminiscent of Casablanca that homage turns to ludicrousness. Also Mr. Soderberg was so committed to his experiment that he refused to allow his actors to wear body mics, so those watching the film on DVD, are forced to stop and pause in order to hear missed or swallowed dialogue. One can only imagine the confusion of theater goers.

Still, credit is due to Soderberg for the enterprise in of itself. His cinematography, lighting and sets are indeed those of the forties. Though I'm not an expert on lenses, it was clear he stayed true to the limitations of the what was available to directors of the time. According to my research, he did not allow zoom lenses, returning to the fixed focal-length lenses used during this period. Furthermore, only incandescent lights were used which provided harsh, unnatural lighting. And it worked! Blanched scenes, dissolves, cross fades, shadowy noir and so much more clearly accomplish Soderberg's commitment to the period and that is truly reason for any film aficionado to see this movie. While it lost its footing due to the aforementioned problems, it certainly clear Soderberg knows his craft. If for no other reason than Soderberg's enterprise, one which I dare other directors to attempt, The Good German, even with its problems should be seen.

So if it seems I'm conflicted about The Good German, it's because I am, The movie is one no cinamatiste should miss. Yet it is a definite failure. Not an easy review to write.
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Posted: Sun Aug 05, 2007 7:41 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Evening (2007)

Written by...Lshap

Evening is a film George Steinbrenner would appreciate - you buy the best talent money can buy, throw them onto the field together and wait for the awards. Except, like the Yankees, Evening turns out to be less than the sum of its all-star parts.

But it's a helluva' female all-star team. Vanessa Redgrave, Natasha Richardson, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Glen Close and Meryl Streep, for godsakes! All in the same batting order! Redgrave plays the part of Ann, a woman in the last stages of illness, drifting in and out of consciousness as she replays the crucial times of her life. Her moments of lucid, earnest conversation with her two daughters at bedside are interspersed with hallucinatory memories of her youth's lost love. Richardson (her real daughter) and Collete are her daughters, with Close and Streep acting as high-end trimmings at the supporting fringes.

It's a tale of wistful what-ifs, a journey of choices and mistakes that threads its way through the lives of these women. And if this sounds a little like any other chick flik, it is. We flit back and forth between past and present as Ann's younger self (Claire Danes) encounters Harris (Patrick Wilson), the man whose only role is to be every woman's Unattainable Dream. Ann's dreams take her back to the missed opportunities for both her and her best friend, and we flash to the present where, sure enough, her own daughter is struggling with the same level of emotional angst. Nobody in this film, it seems, is quite happy with their past or their present.

Taken at face value it's a nice enough story, predictable as it is, and we still get the goods from this quality cast. Plus, there's the gimmick of seeing mom and daughter act together (although Richardson seems woefully amateurish). There are some pleasant scenes and requisite weepy moments. But Evening feels like a self-empowerment lecture for women, narrated by high-priced Hollywood voices. Like one more daytime talk show, we learn life lessons, we learn to forgive ourselves, we find fulfillment. Evening is well-made, well-meaning, but its message is as disposable as the Kleenex that stayed mostly unused in your lap.
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Posted: Sun Aug 05, 2007 7:51 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Sicko (2007)
Written by...Lshap

Prepare to be moved.

There's a scene about half way into Michael Moore's Sicko where a mom tells of her sick daughter being kicked out of a hospital because it wasn't approved by her insurance. Mom and young daughter are booted out, transported elsewhere to an insurance-approved facility, the girl has a seizure along the way, her organs shut down and she dies. The mom recounts this nightmare with an almost vacant expression as she grips a scrapbook of her dead daughter. It's a blatantly manipulative moment, it's absolutely heart breaking, and, according to Sicko, this level of obscene neglect is happening all over the U.S.

Moore's documentary is filled with similarly stunning tales of heartlessness. In an escalating pyramid of head-shaking evil, we meet people whose lives are in ruin because they can't get any insurance, people who have insurance who are ducked and dodged by slippery clauses that deny them crucial treatment, and finally, at the top of evil's throne, the administrative vipers whose job it is to NOT pay their sick and dying customers.

It's impossible to remain emotionally unmoved in the face of so much avoidable human pain, just as it's impossible to remain intellectually unmoved in the face of so much raw greed. Moore makes a really good case. The consummate entertainer/filmmaker/shit-disturber, has grown up, and he's learned to shut his mouth and let the evidence speak for itself. And the evidence, targeting American HMO's and huge health insurance corporations, is damning. Health care in the U.S. is revealed to be a money-grubbing parasite, grudgingly doling out the barest crumbs of top-notch care in order to keep the money under its overstuffed mattresses. Health care, heal thyself.

Especially compared to so many other countries, including my own country, Canada. For the record, Canada's socialized medicine program is a patched up old car whose engine is as likely to run smoothly as it is to sputter and stall. ER wait times can be 30 minutes or 6 hours. But (and it's a big but) there is a triage system that whisks the most serious emergencies inside almost immediately. A heart attack or a bullet wound won't gather dust before being treated. Also, we Canadians can go anywhere, to any clinic or hospital, anytime, flash a Medicare card and be treated for free, albeit with the aforementioned waiting times. Socialized medicine seems to be working even better in England and France, although I'd love to hear the perspectives of those citizens.

Moore goes to Canada, France and England's hospitals, and talks to the doctors and the patients there. They make the central point far stronger than Moore ever could that something is very, very broken in the U.S.. Add to that the thousands of stories he received from unhappy Americans, and you get the sense that Sicko is Michael Moore's most honest documentary. There are no arcane dots being connected to Moore's own conspiracy theories, there are only the real stories of real people. Unlike the heavily personal Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko doesn't begin with the answers, but allows answers to form slowly, story by story. In fact, nobody seemed more surprised, more disgusted, and more disillusioned by what he sees than Moore himself. It's a much more palatable tone than his previous smugness.

Sicko is moving, enraging and enlightening. It also has one of the most ballsy, poignant and funny scenes I've ever seen, as Moore charters a boat filled with sick 9/11 workers and sails into Cuba to get them the treatment they've been denied in their own country. It's a highlight of a film filled with highlights.

Maybe more important than anything else, Sicko isn't designed to piss people off, it's designed to affect change. It might actually succeed.
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Posted: Fri Apr 04, 2008 5:46 am Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Dance, Fools, Dance (1931)
Written by...Syd

Dance, Fools, Dance stars Joan Crawford as Bonnie Jordan, William Bakewell as her brother Roddy, Clark Gable as the bootlegger/gangster Jake Luva, and Lester Vail as Bonnie's sort-of love interest Bob Townsend. Bonnie and Roddy are the children of a rich stock investor (William Holden--not THAT William Holden but a character acter who was mostly in films from 1928-31, a couple of credits in 1920. He died in 1932). We start off on a yacht named after Bonnie, where she is giving a party for other rich kids; she's bored, so arranges a dance then a moonlight swim. Since there aren't enough bathing suits, there is a call for everybody to take off their clothes, and they all go swimming in their skivvies (code violation #1--and #2, since the liquor is flowing freely and this is during prohibition).

Unfortunately for the siblings, this is October, 1929 and their father has invested all his money in a company that goes bust. When he realizes this, he promptly has a heart attack, and the kids discover that there is no money to inherit. They are not quite penniless--they can auction off the house and its furnishings--but they are basically thrown into the real world never having worked or thought of working a day in their life. Bob asks Bonnie to marry her (they previously wanted to live in sin--code violation #3), but he isn't sincere and she doesn't want to accept a marriage out of pity.

Bonnie, being Joan Crawford, lands on her feet, getting a job as a cub reporter, but she discovers that her rich friends, except Bob, have deserted her. Roddy, on the other hand, is quite content to drink till his money runs out, and is scandalized by the very idea of looking for a job. However, he does have one asset that he can market--his list of rich acquaintances. This attracts Luva's interest and Roddy gets a job supplying liquor to his ex-friends. Ostensibly, he's doing this in the name of Luva's front man, Wally Baxter, and Roddy quickly finds himself in over his head.

Meanwhile, Bert Scranton, one of Bonnie's friends at the paper meets Roddy at a bar, and Roddy Says Too Much. The reporter must be silenced, and Luva orders Roddy to do it. If Roddy doesn't do it, Luva's men will kill both Bert and Roddy. Roddy goes through with it.

Bonnie is sent to infiltrate Luva's gang, which she does by doing a hot dance number in a skirt cut to her crotch (code violation #4 at least). However, when she answers Luva's phone, she recognizes her brother's voice at the other end and escapes to meet her brother. She quickly realizes Roddy is the killer. Luva also quickly realizes who Bonnie is.

I should mention that Bob sees Bonnie dancing, and is shocked that she has fallen to such depths, so offers her a room where they can be his mistress. Bonnie doesn't accept this "generous" offer for some reason. However, she does not kill him at this time. (Code violation?)

Anyway, the whole thing ends with Luva and his henchmen being shot by Roddy, who then dies from his wounds, thus finally doing some good in his life. Bonnie has the story of a lifetime, and when she is done, she quits, the newspaper life no longer appealing to her. She meets Bob, who confesses his love, asks her to marry him, and ludicrously, she accepts, perhaps to complete her revenge.

This is a pretty good movie, with a good cast, except for Lester Vail, who is a non-entity. The contrast between the Jordan's lives of luxury and poverty is interesting and would have resonated very strongly in 1931. When I saw the party on the yacht, I kept thinking of the dance band on the Titanic. The three Jordans are all well-played. Gable's okay, but would soon be much better. This was his second movie with Crawford, with whom he would make a lot, and they started an affair at this time.

Crawford always impressed as a bit too scary to be sexy; I think it's the eyes that did it, although she was rather scary in her personal life as well. She was very busy in the pre-code period, so we'll be reviewing a lot of her movies.
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Posted: Fri Apr 04, 2008 5:56 am Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Bridge to Terebithia
Written by...Syd

This is a startlingly good movie directed to children in junior high school but pretty accessible to adults. I would have been less startled if I'd realized that this was a based on a Newberry award winning novel that this year celebrates it's thirtieth anniversary, and is beloved by the children of some of my friends. I'm rather embarrassed that I didn't know much about it, although I must have seen it on the poster of Newberry award winning novels at some point.

The trailer of the movie is very misleading. This is not a high fantasy in the Narnia vein. It is the story of how two children become close friends and create a fantasy world which helps them deal with the problems of their real world. The motto of their world: Nothing Crushes Us. I like the reviewer who said that if you are an adult going to a movie by yourself, see Pan's Labyrinth, but if you are taking a tweener with you, go to Bridge to Terebithia. The use of imagination is much the same, but here young Jesse has the advantage of having the wonderful Leslie to create the world with him.

Jesse is a withdrawn eleven-year-old boy in a family with five children, and his parents favor the girls and are having trouble making ends meet. Jesse takes refuge in his drawing and being the fastest boy in the fifth grade, but is humiliated when his parents throw out his worn-out sneakers and give him his sister's pink-and-white hand-me-downs. (Jesse promptly takes a magic marker to them.) He is further humiliated when the new girl in class not only enters the race but beats all the boys.

The girl is Leslie, who is his new neighbor and an only child of writer parents. The parents are loving when they are not writing, but when they are working on a book, Leslie relies on her own imagination to keep her company, which is rich and vivid, and her talent is putting her imagination into words. The two kids soon realize how well they complement each other, and the more outgoing Leslie persuades Jesse to create their own fantasy world in the woods behind their houses, where they can go to as a refuge from a difficult world. How much of this world is real, you have to decide, but it's really the story of their friendship and the power of their imaginations that matter. As the fantasy world builds, Jesse also begins to deal better with the world of classroom bullies and bewildering teachers, and catches the attention of his art teacher when she discovers his drawings.

The friends are played by Josh Hutcheson and AnnaSophia Robb. Robb is luminous as the more free-spirited Leslie, and is stunningly good. Hutcheson has the larger and more difficult role as Jesse, who is often sullen and withdrawn, although he gradually comes alive with Leslie. Seven-year-old Bailee Madison is wonderful as Jesse's little sister, who he has to share a room with. She has a major role to play in the absolutely perfect ending.

I'm probably more tolerant of children's fantasies than much of the forum, but like Holes and Millions, this is a film that makes seeking them out worthwhile.
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Posted: Tue Jun 10, 2008 6:43 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Street Angel (1928)
Written by...Syd

Street Angel (1928) is one of the three films in Janet Gaynor's Oscar trifecta, along with Sunrise and 7th Heaven, which I've reviewed before. This reunites her with her 7th Heaven co-star Charles Farrell and director Frank Borzage. It was nominated for three Oscars (or really considered--the process was less formal in those days), the Best Actress in 1927-28 and Art Direction and Cinematography in 1928-29. I don't know why it was considered in different years.

7th Heaven was very popular, and Street Angel resembles it in some ways. It also resembles Sunrise in some ways, although that was a Murnau with George O'Brien.

This time the setting is southern Italy, mostly in Naples. We see the police harrassing a wandering carnival. During an argument with the police (the barker is accused of stealing a sausage), the big bass drum's drumhead is ripped. Then we get a long tracking shot of street life in Naples, including prostitutes (the "street angels" of the title), vendors and police. Finally we visit the apartment where Angela (Gaynor) lives with her mother.

A doctor says her mother is running a high temperature and needs a medicine. Angela doesn't have money, so she is distraught. When she spies a successful streetwalker on the street outside, she decides in desperation to sell her body for the money. However, she is hopelessly inept, so she decides to steal the change from a customer at a roadside cafe. Inept at this too, she is arrested and sentenced to a workhouse. She promptly escapes, and runs home only to discover her mother is dead. The police have followed her, so she runs for it, finally encountering the carnival, where the barker allows her to take refuge inside the bass drum.

Angela joins the carnival, where she dances and performs on stilts. One day a vagabond painter is taking all their customers, so she furiously runs over there to drive him away. Instead the painter is taken with her and brings his customers to the carnival. The painter is Gino (Farrell) and we have had our meet cute.

Angela is at first reluctant to get involved with Gino, but when he does a beautiful painting of her as he sees her, she falls completely in love. But, alas, the police are after her. When she spots some policemen in the crowd, she falls off her stilts and breaks her ankle. She has to go to the nearest large city to be treated, which, unfortunately, is Naples. Gino takes her, and decides to use the opportunity to make a living as a painter. He sells the painting of Angela, which the buyer buys at a pittance although he realizes that it is a masterpiece, which, with a few retouches, can be sold as an Old Master. (Apparently oil dries quickly in Naples.) Gino has to spend the money to pay bill collectors, but also gets a big commission, so he proposes to Angela. A minute later a policeman knocks on the door.* He has finally recognized Angela and has come to take her back into custody.

Angela begs for one hour of happiness with Gino before she goes back to the work house. She doesn't tell Gino what has happened and he doesn't suspect. So she vanishes from his life without a word as to why. (This seems singularly stupid to me.) She goes to the workhouse assuming Gino is painting masterpieces. Of course Gino is broken hearted, loses his inspiration and the contract.

A neighbor streetwalker discovers Angela in jail, and tells Gino Angela was arrested for prostitution and robbery. Gino, of course, doesn't realize that this happened well before he met Angela, and that she didn't manage to sully herself despite her best efforts. Thus he is furious at Angela and decides to paint women as they really are, with the face of an angel and a heart deep as hell. The prostitute tells him that he can find many such people near the wharfs. He goes there, and one of the first people he encounters is Angela, who is still unsullied but he doesn't know that.

Half insane at this point, he chases Angela into a church where he tries to strangle her, then realizes he's at an altar. And above the altar is the painting of Angela, retouched to make her into the Madonna. Gino can't kill Angela now, but bitterly complains that he painted her like he thought she was. She tells him that she still is like that, look into her eyes. He does, happy ending. Although Angela has some tall explaining to do.

Overall, this is not quite as strong as 7th Heaven and certainly not Sunrise, but it does have a lot of strengths. The cinematography really is very good, with creative use of shadows and fog. Gaynor, once again, is excellent, Farrell is quite good, and the supporting cast is pretty good. It gets sentimental about halfway through as 7th Heaven did, but I thought it played better her. The happy ending relies on an improbable coincidence, but it is set up well, and the scene in the church is very powerful. [Coincidentally, one of the greatest scenes in Sunrise is also set in a church.]

Difficult to find, and relatively forgotten compared to Sunrise and 7th Heaven, Street Angel is flawed but well worth checking out. The three films together would make an excellent subjects for a class in film technique.

*This is an improvement from 7th Heaven, where a marriage proposal caused World War I.
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