Tuesday, June 30, 2009

DVD Views: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971)

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971) *** ½
Directed By: Vitorrio De Sica.
Written By: Vittorio Bonicelli & Ugo Pirro based on the novel by Giorgio Bassani.
Starring: Lino Capolicchio (Giorgio), Dominique Sanda (Micòl Finzi Contini), Fabio Testi (Bruno Malnate), Romolo Valli (Giorgio's Father), Helmut Berger (Alberto), Camillo Cesarei (Micol's Father), Inna Alexeievna (Micol's Grandmother), Katina Morisani (Micol's Mother), Barbara Pilavin (Giorgio's Mother).

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis opens in Italy in 1938. Mussolini has already risen to power, and he is started to put more and more restrictions on the Jews in the area. The latest offence is that Jews are no longer allowed to marry non-Jews, have non-Jewish servants, attend public schools and other offences. It is strange to watch how the two Jewish families at the heart of the movie react to what is going on.

The middle class family debates what is going on, leading to arguments. Giorgio is enraged by what is happening, and does not want to accept it. When he is kicked out of the library at his school, he demands to see the director, who apologizes for kicking him out, but he has to. He doesn’t make the rules, and he has a family. “All of Italy has a family”, Giorgio replies before storming out. His father tries to rationalize things. No, he does not really like the restrictions, but the Fascists here are not nearly as bad as the Nazis, he says. They still have their fundamental freedoms. They are still Italian after all.

But the Finzi-Continis don’t even seem to notice what is happening. They are exceedingly wealthy, live in a gorgeous estate in their small town of Ferraro, where they are the wealthiest, most influential people in town. If they aren’t allowed at the tennis club anymore, who cares? They have their own court where their adult children Micol (Dominique Sanda) and Alberto (Helmut Berger) can have their friends over. Only Giorgio is Jewish, but the rest like them anyway. They stay locked away in their big house, and their vast garden, and ignore the world outside. It cannot possibly effect them.

At the heart of the movie is the relationship between Giorgio and Micol. He has been in love with her since they were kids, even though back then he didn’t get to see her very often. She and her brother were homeschooled, but they had to come out once in awhile. At the time, Micol seemed to like him as well, always smiling and laughing and waving when they saw each other. Now that they are older, Giorgio wants to move forward with their relationship, but Micol rebuffs him time and again. Why? They obviously like each other – we can see that in scene after scene. She does not like the guy she is having an affair with very much, but she does it anyway. Micol is trying so hard to hold onto the past – hold onto the image she has of Giorgio when they were kids, that she will not allow herself to move forward. This is also why she never leaves the estate her family owns. Outside of those walls, that garden, is an outside world where she doesn’t know what is going to happen. Inside, she is safe. Right?

The film was directed by Vittorio De Sica, who is best known for his neo-realist works of the 1940s and 1950s. This film is not like those ones at all. Those films, that all took place in postwar Italy, had a reality so harsh for its characters that they could not hide from it. They were poor, they had nothing, and they worked constantly to try and survive. The characters in this movie are different as they have everything, and even though storm clouds are on the horizon, they choose to ignore them. Only Giorgio seems to fully grasp what is going on, everyone else seems to want to rationalize what is happening or ignore it. They do so at their own peril.

DVD Views: Shoeshine (1946)

Shoeshine (1946) ****
Directed By:
Vittorio De Sica.
Written By: Sergio Amidei & Adolfo Franci & Cesare Giulio Viola & Cesare Zavattini.
Starring: Franco Interlenghi (Pasquale Maggi), Rinaldo Smordoni (Giuseppe Filippucci), Annielo Mele (Raffaele), Bruno Ortenzi (Arcangeli), Emilio Cigoli (Staffera).

Like the best of his films, Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine tells an incredibly simple story with powerful emotions at its core. The story is not complicated, the characters not difficult to read, yet the emotional power the film has over its audience is stunning. Like he would later do in The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D., De Sica’s film is a neo-realist classic in the best sense.

It is post war Italy, and Pasquale and Giuseppe are two poor boys in Rome, who no longer attend school, but work as shoeshine boys, and doing whatever other odd jobs they can find. Pasquale’s family is dead, and he stays with Giuseppe, whose family is poor and needs him to earn money, because no one else in the family can. Theirs is a hard life, and the only joy they take in it is by going to the stables and riding a horse they have their heart set on buying. They do not really need to own the horse, but in a sense they do. It’s their dream, and without it, they may cease to be able to continue on.

Giuseppe’s brother comes to them one day with a job. Take two American army blankets to an old fortune teller who will pay good money for them. They do this, and they’ll make 500 lire, which they really need since they are only 3000 lire short of buying the horse. They agree to the job, but it doesn’t go quite how they think it will. After they sell the blankets, Giuseppe’s brother and some friends arrive posing as police, and rob the woman blind. Pasquale and Giuseppe get a bonus for not saying anything – enough to buy the horse, which they ride through town and feel like kings for a day.

But the fortune teller is able to tell the police who the kids who sold her the blanket were. They are arrested and thrown into a juvenile jail, which they are told they will stay in until they give up their adult accomplices. They steadfastly refuse to say anything, but then the guards play a trick on Pasquale, pretending to beat Giuseppe with a belt, until Pasquale confesses to get them to stop hurting his friend. When Giuseppe finds out, he feels like Pasquale has betrayed him and his family, and the former best friends become enemies.

De Sica was one of the founding members of Italy’s neo-realist movement – a style which can still be seen today in the films of the Dardenne brothers and the great Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. At the time, there was very little money to make films in Italy, so directors like De Sica made films on the streets, instead of in studios, and used non-professional actors, to save on money. The result were films like Shoeshine that have a simple power to them, because they seem so real. Unlike the German filmmakers at the time, who seemed to stick their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge their countries sins (something that to a certain extent is just now being corrected), the Italian masters wanted to show their country, warts and all. De Sica’s later film, Umberto D, led to a reformation of pensions for civil servants, even while the Minister of Culture decried the film saying things were not quite that bleak.

In Shoeshine, De Sica has progressed from his earlier films – like the little seen The Children Are Watching Us – to make a genuinely great film about post war Italy. His affinity with children would remain throughout his career, and his ability to drawn natural performances from them remains unrivaled. Perhaps the kids in this movie were so natural because the reality of their lives wasn’t so different from that being portrayed on screen. But whatever the reason, Shoeshine remains a great film – a film that draws us in to a world full of children who are forced to grow up too fast, who stubbornly hold onto to childish dreams, because really, that’s all they have. Reality has encroached their lives far too early.

DVD Views: L'Eclisse (1962)

L’Eclisse (1962) ****
Directed By: Michelangelo Antonioni.
Written By: Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra.
Starring: Monica Vitti (Vittoria), Alain Delon (Piero), Francisco Rabal (Riccardo), Lilla Brignone (Vittoria’s mother).

I was going to start out this review by saying that they don’t make movies like L’Eclisse anymore, but the honest truth is that they never did make very many movies like L’Eclisse at any time. For a few years in the early 1960s, filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Bunuel, Alain Resnais and Federico Fellini among others seemed to be pushing each other in their explorations of the modern world, and its effects of humanity and sexuality. But most of these filmmakers – with the exception of Godard, who and let the cinema Gods forgive me for saying this, whose provocations have simply become more juvenile over the last 40 or 50 years – either matured into another style, or else said all they needed to say in their first few films on the subject. Watching L’Eclisse you can already see that maturation in Antonioni, whose film differs highly from his 1960 masterpiece L’Aventurra, although they share similar thematic elements.

L’Aventurra was about the idle rich, who waste their hollow, empty existence away going on fancy trips, staying in fancy hotels and fucking, because all they have is time and money, and nothing to do with either one. When one of their friends goes missing on a deserted island, her lover and best friend start to search for her – first on the island, then all over Italy. Their search is half hearted – they do not expect to find her, and they don’t much care either. They have started sleeping together themselves, because, well, what else is there for them to do? In that film, capitalism and Eros were diseases that affected the upper classes, who looked down on those beneath them. The male lead once had dreams of being a great architect, but that would require work and ambition, so now he punishes those who have either of those things. The movie ends without a resolution to its central mystery, because it doesn’t need one. The missing girl was never the point in the first place.

But L’Eclisse takes a gentler view of many of these things. Sure the lovers at the center of this movie are still rich – but at least they have jobs this time that they use to support themselves – she as a translator and he as a stockbroker. If capitalism is still a corrupt institution, Antonioni still finds a strange beauty and fascinating in the workings of the stock market, which is why he spends so much time there, watching fortunes made and lost in the blink of an eye. And if Eros is still an illness, at least the couple is not fucking simply to fill the void in their lives, but because there is a genuine erotic attraction between them. The performances by Monica Vitti and Alain Delon in the main roles seem more human, and real here than in any of Antonioni’s other films. They are not just symbols for the corruption of the world, but flesh and blood people with needs and desires. The modern world still may be hollow and empty, but at least it’s not quite so depressing.

But the film shares some things in common with its predecessor as well. Landscapes seem to be displacing the characters in the movie. The setting and the surroundings of the characters seem to be more for grounded here, dwarfing the characters. When by the end of the film, the two lovers fail to meet at their favorite spot, Antonioni doesn’t simply end the film here, but continues for seven minutes, showing us the places that they have been, and we feel their physical absence. The modern world has encroached on them, and in a sense has made them irrelevant.

Even if a film like L’Eclisse was possible today, it is hard to imagine a filmmaker capable of pulling a film like this off. While standards have loosened, making it possible to show more sexuality in film than ever before, filmmakers has become less ambitious in their exploration of it. The films by Catherine Briellent are a perfect example. She fills her films with nudity and sex – some simulated, some real – but she really does not take it all that seriously. In her films, sex is reduced to simple friction and fluids, devoid of any real meaning or insight into what it all means.

I realize now that as I end this review, I didn’t actually talk all that much about the film itself, or what it is like to watch it. That’s because the effect of a film like L’Eclisse is pretty much impossible to put into words that mean anything. I’m sure most modern audiences would complain that the film is either pretentious, or worse yet that “nothing happens” in it. It is certainly true that the entire “story” of the movie seems to be a narrative drift. And yet to say that nothing happens is to simply be guilty of not paying attention. Everything happens in L’Eclisse in scenes where seemingly nothing does. Antonioni’s control of the medium is complete – his gorgeous, deep focus black and white imagery has a hypnotic power to them if you can allow yourself to give into them. L’Eclisse is not a film for modern audiences because it requires that you pay attention, and think for yourselves. It does not spoon feed you everything you need to know about it, but trusts the audience to be intelligent to get understand.

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XXXI: The Blues: Feels Like Going Home

The Blues: Feel Like Going Home (2003) ***
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.

Martin Scorsese loves music. You can tell that by watching any one of his films which contain almost wall to wall music. He has made several documentaries – The Last Waltz, No Direction Home and Shine a Light – about rock music. In 2003, he produced a documentary series about The Blues, and recruited some of the best directors in the world – Clint Eastwood, Wim Wenders, Charles Burnett, Mike Figgis etc – to direct segments of it. But Scorsese chose to direct the first part of the documentary himself. The result was The Blues: Feels Like Going Home, an interesting little documentary.

Feels Life Going Home seems to want to be an all encompassing look at the origins of blues music. Throughout the film, Scorsese looks at the earliest recordings of the blues made in the American south by Alan Lomax, and the artists who recorded them. He also looks at modern blues musicians who were inspired by the music, as well as any surviving old masters that are still around. Eventually, Scorsese will travel to Africa to see where the origins of the music all began.

The Blues: Feels Like Going Home is an interesting, if not altogether involving documentary. I cannot say that I was bored by the movie, because I wasn’t. The music in the film is great and inspiring (not just to me but also to Scorsese, as we hear where he got that music he used throughout Gangs of New York played live in this movie). The musicians themselves are an interesting cast of characters, and their stories are never less than fascinating. Some of these old timers are people whose grandparents were slaves, where playing music like this would get them into trouble, yet somehow the music survived all the trials and tribulations and generations to make it all the way to the present day.

And yet, I was never really involved in the movie either. Perhaps it’s because I am not a big fan of the Blues. In Scorsese’s other documentaries about music, I was either a fan of the artists in question, or became a fan of them through the movie. Because of the rather episodic nature of this documentary however, that never really happened. I enjoyed the music, without ever really being swept in it. I was not a fan of the blues before this documentary, and I’m not one after it either. While I enjoyed the movie, it does not exactly make me want to go out and rent the rest of this long series. It’s a fine documentary, and for people who love the blues, they will probably love it. For me though, it was an interesting distraction.

July Month Preview

July Month Preview
July is when they unleash a number of blockbusters, but truth be told, with the exception of Harry Potter, I do not see any huge moneymakers coming out this one. Sure, a few of these will hit $100, but will anything hit $200? I’m not sure. I will be away for a few weeks, missing the opening weekends of Bruno and Harry Potter, so I’ll have to catch up when I get back. For now, here are the wide release films for July.

July 1st
Public Enemies
When I did my list of my most anticipated films of the year, Michael Mann’s Public Enemies was my number 1 choice, and I stand by that. The reviews so far have been mostly great. Mann is the best action movie director working today – and one of the best all around directors period. Working with a great cast including Johnny Depp, Christain Bale, Marion Cottliard and Billy Crudup, and telling the great true life story of John Dillinger – whose story has yet to be made into a great movie (my respect for the version with Lawrence Tierny and Warren Oates notwithstanding), this is still the movie that has got me more excited than anything else this year. Anticipation Level: 10.

Ice Age: The Meltdown
I have to admit I enjoyed the first Ice Age quite a bit, and if the second one wasn’t quite up to snuff, it was still better than a lot of animated sequels. I enjoy the voicework of Ray Romono, John Leguizamo and Denis Leary quite a bit, and how can anyone dislike Scrat? This is not a film I’m dying to see, but I do want to see it. Anticipation Level: 6.

July 10th
Bruno
Borat was an absolutely brilliant, and viewed a few years later – with the hype far in the past – it still holds up remarkably well. The preview for this one has me laughing every time I see it. Sacha Baron Cohen is a one of a kind comedic talent – no one does what he does in quite the same way, so I cannot wait to see what he does this time around (although I’m going to have to, since I leave for my honeymoon the day this one opens). Anticipation Level: 10.

I Love You Beth Cooper
Sure, Hayden Pantierre is a cutie, and who knows, maybe this will be a surprisingly good comedy. But the preview for this one just is not funny at all, and that’s usually a bad sign for a comedy. If you can’t find a couple of good moments to put in the trailer, can you imagine what the rest of the movie will be like. Anticipation Level: 3.

July 15th
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
The sixth book in the series is far and away my favorite. It was, to be, the most well structured of the novels, the most intense, the most surprising, the best written one in the series by a mile. I loved that the book dove back into Voldemort’s past, and for my money, this book had the most intense, and scary, sequences in the series. Although I may not be a Potter fanatic, I cannot wait to see this one. Anticipation Level: 10.

July 24th
G-Force

Talking guinea pigs who are also secret agents trying to stop an evil billionaire (Bill Nighy, who must be trying to put his kids through college or something) from taking over the world, all in 3-D. I’ll pass thank you. Anticipation Level: 1

Orphan
The preview for this movie looks downright creepy. Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga as parents who adopt a strange little girl, who of course turns out to be evil. With those two actors in the film (Even if Farmiga seems to be repeating her role in the underrated Joshua a little), you know that this will be a notch or two above most horror movies. And although it had Paris Hilton, the director’s House of Wax was really not that bad of a horror film, so I’m looking forward to this one. Anticipation Level: 7.

The Ugly Truth
Katherine Heigl was born to make romantic comedies, as she proved in the wonderful Knocked Up, and the not so wonderful 27 Dresses, which she nevertheless kept afloat. The preview for this one, with her and Gerard Butler as two people who hate each other, who will of course fall in love, is actually kind of amusing. Sure it will be silly romcom fun, but I don’t mind that. Anticipation Level: 6.

July 31
Aliens in the Attacks

A group of kids have to fight off an evil Alien race who is coming to take over the world, starting with their attic? Their only aid is a cute little alien who doesn’t fit in with the rest of them. The preview looks stupid. I’m sure kids will enjoy it, but I’m not a kid anymore. Anticipation Level: 1.

Funny People
I love Judd Apatow movies, and the ones he directs are usually better than the one he simply produces. The trailer for this one has had me laughing for months. Adam Sandler can be quite good given the right role, and this one seems to be up his alley. Seth Rogen won’t be stretching himself too much, but what he does he does well. Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman all also get laughes in the preview. My one question is this: doesn’t the preview give away the entire movie? Anticipation Level: 9.

Weekly Top Ten: The Ten Best Films of 2009 So Far

It’s the half way point of the year, so I figured I’d put together a list of the ten best films of 2009 so far. I must say, that so far it’s been a disappointing year. Aside for the top 2 films on this list, I would be disappointed if any of the other films here ended up on my top ten list at the end of the year. Not only that, but after seeing 77 films so far this year, I am still in a situation where I would not recommend more films than I would – something that I’m not sure has ever been the case at this point in the year before. Not only that, but because I have been busier than normal, I have skipped a lot of the films I knew I would hate! So while 2009 has not got off to a great start, here are the 10 films this year that I would recommend over everything else.

10. Star Trek (JJ Abrams)
Beyond the most rudimentary knowledge of the show and the characters, I know very little about Star Trek. I haven’t watched an episode of any of the shows in years. To be honest, Star Trek, and Trekkies, always seemed kind of pathetic to me. But I do love a good space opera, and that is precisely what JJ Abrahms new version delivers. The writing, the performances, the special effects are all top notch, and I found myself drawn into the movie in spite of myself. Yes, you can still tell that Abrams is more of a TV guy than a movie guy – the film does have a certain look and feel of a TV pilot blown up on the big screen, but with a movie this entertaining, it hardly matters. This one is just pure fun.

9. I Love You, Man (James Hamburg)
This spot on my list came down between this film, and The Hangover, two similar films in a lot of ways, about men who kind of refuse to grow up. While I think The Hangover is more laugh out loud funny, I Love You, Man is a better, deeper film than that one – and it also touched me much more personally. Anchored by two great performances from Paul Rudd, as a guy with no guy friends who is getting married, and Jason Segal, the irresponsible guy he finally befriends, the movie is about how that friendship grows, and fulfills a need for both of them. My only complaint is that Rudd’s fiancée is not as well fleshed out as the male characters, but that’s a small complaint about a wonderful comedy.

8. Whatever Works (Woody Allen)
While this is not one of Woody’s masterpieces, it is probably his out and out funniest film is more than a decade. Larry David makes a perfect Woody surrogate as an aging intellectual who throws away his upper class life, to become a lonely misanthrope – and that’s just what he wants. Into his life comes Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) a young, poor, dimwitted Southern Belle, who for some reason is smitten with him. The performances are great – not just by the two leads but also by Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr. as Melodie’s parents, who are corrupted by the big city and love it – and Allen’s message is quite good – forget whatever anyone else tells you is normal – just try to be happy on your own terms.

7. Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi)
Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell is a pretty much perfect little horror movie. Alison Lohman plays a lone officier who has a curse put on her, and is tormented by a demon who will literally drag her to hell in three days. Not a film that concentrates on blood and gore, but one that concentrates on building suspense slowly, to an almost unbearable degree, Raimi’s filmmaking is impeccable, and in Lohman he found the perfect horror movie heroine. She seems so bright and innocent, and she screams with the best of them. A must for horror fans.

6. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani)
Perhaps the best film yet by Ramin Bahrani, this film concentrates on the strange relationship between a taxi driver original from Senegal who dreams of being a flight attendant, and an aging man whose life is full of regret. They meet because the old man calls to go to the movies all the time, and slowly a friendship between these two develops. This is not a film that follows a screenwriters formula, but rather it grows organically out of the characters and their lives together. Nothing is really solved in the movie, and yet, in its own way, the film is quietly inspiring.

5. Observe and Report (Jody Hill)
Overshadowed at the box office by the vastly inferior Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Jody Hill’s Observe and Report is about Ronnie (Seth Rogen), a mall security guard with delusions of grandeur, who is in fact, a psychopath. He has mental issues, and doesn’t seem to get that everyone else in the movie is mocking him constantly, and thinks of him as a loser. He is in love with Anna Farris, who reluctantly goes on a date with him, and gets so drunk that she allows him to have sex with her, with just fuels his delusions even more. Eventually, when the truth occurs to Ronnie, he snaps. Although I have probably made this film sound like a dark drama, it is actually a pitch black comedy in the vein of Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy. Rogen shows he can do more than his usual comic persona, and Farris is brilliant playing a certain kind of woman. The most underrated film of the year so far.

4. Away We Go (Sam Mendes)
After making four dark films in a row – including last year’s great Revolutionary Road which was the darkest yet – director Sam Mendes made this light comedy, about a couple (John Krasinki and Maya Rudolph) who go on a cross country odyessy to try and find where they should live and raise their first child. They meet one dysfunctional family after another – one set of parents doing damage to their kids in one way or another – until they start to feel a little helpless. But Krasinki and Rudolph aren’t like the rest of the people in the movie. While some have complained that their characters feel too superior to the rest of the people in the movie, I say that even if that is true, then they have a reason to feel that way. This is delightful little comedy/drama that is quietly moving. I hope this finds a wider audience when it expands this summer.

3. Watchmen (Zack Snyder)
Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is without a doubt the year’s most ambitious film so far. It attempts to put Alan Moore’s large, epic graphic novel on the screen in a faithful rendition, and mainly succeeds. For two and half hours, Snyder weaves the elaborate storyline, twisiting and turning itself through its alternative history. Filled with great performances – by Jackie Earle Haley as the insane Rorstach, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the demented Comedian, Patrick Wilson as the upstanding, but impotent, Nite Owl and especially Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, a human God, this movie comes about as close as you can get to the source material. Perhaps it was just too dark, too weird for mainstream audiences, but I loved it.

2. Up (Pete Doctor)
Pixar can do no wrong in my book, and their latest film, Up, is an emotionally wrenching comic fantasy about an aging widow (with the voice of Ed Asner) and a little boy who take a journey in the old man’s house held aloft by balloons to a paradise where he always wanted to go and take his wife. This is the second Pixar film in a row, following last year’s Wall-E, where I am not ashamed to admit that I cried like a baby while watching the film. The film is intelligent, amazingly well animated and quietly insightful. Pixar trusts that kids will be able to follow their stories, and don’t dumb them down. This is another great film from them – the most consistent studio in Hollywood.

1. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
Perhaps I am cheating a little bit, because this film has not actually opened in Canada yet, but I saw at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, and it’s better than anything else I have seen this year, so I decided to include it anyway. Bigelow’s film is far and away the best film made about the Iraq war so far – and is because it almost completely takes politics out of the equation. To the grunts over there, it doesn’t matter WHY they are fighting, they are just trying to make it through their tours and go home. The film concentrates on a three man unit, whose job it is to defuse bombs found along the roadside. They get a new leader in with just 39 days to go, because their previous one is killed in the films opening scene. Jeremy Renner gives the year’s best performance so far as the new guy – an unhinged young man who gets off on putting himself in danger when defusing the bombs. As the days tick down, he takes more and more chances, and we realize two things. The first is that he probably shouldn’t be in the army. And the second is that the army needs him whether or not he should be there. The film is almost unbearably intense in moments, and Bigelow, continues her study of wounded masculinity that she has explored her whole career. This is her best film to date, and the best film of 2009 so far.

Movie Review: Cheri

Cheri **
Directed By:
Stephen Frears.
Written By: Christopher Hampton based on the novels by Colette.
Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer (Lea de Lonval), Kathy Bates (Madame Peloux), Rupert Friend (Cheri), Felicity Jones (Edmee), Frances Tomelty (Rose), Anita Pallenberg (La Copine), Harriet Walter (La Loupiote), Iben Hjejle (Marie Laure).

Stephen Frear’s Cheri should be an enjoyable little romp of a film, but instead it’s a rather depressing experience. It is a film in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays Lea de Lonval, an aging courtesan in 1800s France, who takes on a much younger lover, who she dubs Cheri (Rupert Friend), and against her better judgment actually falls in love with him. When, after six years, Cheri’s mother (Kathy Bates), a retired colleague of Lea’s, and one of her best friends, decides that Cheri has had enough time fooling around, she arranges a marriage for him, devastating both Lea and Cheri.

The film is one of those costume dramas/comedies, in which people sit around in opulent splendor, trading barbed remarks under the guise of friendliness, but is really meant to cut to the bone. I’m not sure anyone in this film actually likes any of the other characters – except for Lea and Cheri of course – but they continue to get together out of force of habit, and because it seems like no one else is willing to spend time with them. Every conversation is calculated to inflict the most amount of damage on the other person, all the while the characters claim to only to be thinking of each other’s well being.

The film has a number of problems with it, that prevented me from enjoying it all that much. For one thing, the scenes in the film do not seem to play out naturally. Some are over just when they seem to be warming up, and others drag on well past the point of relevance. For a film that is short – just under 90 minutes – you would think that they could at least fill the scenes out properly. But the even more serious problem in the film is that we never really feel any connection between Lea and Cheri. They are characters who are constantly required to play a role in public, yet even in their private scenes they seem to be doing the same thing. You never feel the sexual attraction between the two of them, or even the more tender feelings of love. Cheri is such a little prick, you can’t help but wonder why any woman would love him at all – especially someone with Lea’s experience. The rest of the cast is given not much to do at all. At least Kathy Bates seems to be having fun playing a bitch as Cheri’s mother, but poor, beautiful Felicity Jones as Edme, the girl who gets stuck with Cheri as a husband, is given nothing to do at all.

Watching the film, I was reminded of two other, much better films. The first was Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, which is broad strokes seems similar to Cheri. A man (Daniel Day Lewis) is stuck marrying the prime and proper girl (Winona Ryder), when he really wants the more exciting woman (Pfeiffer). That movie proved that Pfeiffer can play this type of role to perfection – a role where feelings must remain buried under the surface, and yet Pfieffer’s performance was so delicate and perfect in that film, you always knew how she felt. The same was true of Daniel Day Lewis and Winona Ryder. The other film was last year’s The Last Mistress by Catherine Breilliant, where a young man marries the proper girl again, but cannot give up his lover, the sexually exciting Asia Argento. That was a film where the sexual chemistry between the leads felt real – where you could tell why he could not give up his mistress – she had a sexual pull over him he could not control. But the relationship in Cheri between Pfeiffer and Friend feels almost chaste. You do not understand why these two cannot give each other up.

It must be said that the movie is not really as terrible as I have made it sound, it’s just that it isn’t really good either. I liked Pfieffer, even if I didn’t quite believe her in the role, but I think that’s more the fault of Christopher Hampton’s screenplay then hers. The costume and the sets are also delightful, but you know you’re in trouble when you spend part of a review talking about them in the first place, and not the story. One final flaw I feel I need to bring up though is the ending. Why after a movie where little of consequence actually happened, did we need a voiceover telling us the most dramatic aspects of the story? I think it’s because what is described in that voiceover would have required actual human emotions to be played out on screen – something this movie never really does.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Movie Review: Whatever Works

Whatever Works *** ½
Directed By:
Woody Allen.
Written By: Woody Allen.
Starring: Larry David (Boris Yellnikoff), Evan Rachel Wood (Melodie St. Ann Celestine), Patricia Clarkson (Marietta), Conleth Hill (Leo Brockman), Henry Cavill (Randy James), Olek Krupa (Morgenstern), Ed Begley Jr. (John), Michael McKean (Joe), Christopher Evan Welch (Howard), Jessica Hecht (Helena).

It’s nice to have Woody Allen home in New York again after a number of years abroad. I know Allen has said that he made his most recent films – Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream and Vicky, Cristina Barcelona – abroad because of money concerns, and although with the exception of Scoop, I have really like all of them, there is something unnatural about watching a Woody Allen film set somewhere else. Like Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee, Allen is a New York filmmaker, whose films bring the city to life in a way that few others have been able to do.

Whatever Works is a throwback to the films of Allen’s past. Apparently, he wrote this screenplay around the time of Annie Hall and Manhattan – 30 years ago – and the movie certainly does fit in with the films Allen was making in that period. He has updated the film some to make it relevant and timely in 2009, but this still has all the hallmarks of those late ‘70s classics. Perhaps Allen did not make it back then, because he wasn’t sure if he was up to playing the role of Boris Yellnikoff, the brilliant (at least in his own mind) physicist, who looks down on the rest of the world as intellectual “inchworms” and “cretins”. But Larry David, who he casts as his surrogate in this film, was made for this role. He plays it better than Allen could have ever done. He is perhaps the best of all the Woody surrogates over the years, because he is enough like Allen, that he doesn’t feel the need to try and do an impression, but different enough that you feel you are watching someone else playing the role, instead of watching someone play Allen playing the role.

Boris is a depressed hypochondriac who has left his rich wife, and his job teaching physics at Columbia, and now teaches chess to children in the park, who he berates with insults when they make a dumb move – and according to Boris pretty much everything is a dumb move. He is a misanthrope, but somewhat happy being one – or at least as happy as Boris is capable of being. He is not happy at all, unless he is miserable.

Into his life appears Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood, proving at least that Allen doesn’t have to cast Scarlett Johansson in every damn movie he makes). She is a poor girl from Mississippi, who has run away from home, and now finds herself on the street. Against his better judgment, Boris invites her inside, and allows her to sleep on his couch until she can find a job. Melodie’s sunny disposition is at first annoying to him, and she is certainly not very smart. But she grows a little crush on him, and eventually he is worn down. They get married. Then Melodie’s born again Christian mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) arrives, and she hates her new son in law.

The movie, it must be said, is a comic fantasy. Is there any real way that a girl like Melodie would fall in love with a guy like Boris and vice versa? Not really. But if they didn’t, then there wouldn’t be a plot to the movie. And to be fair to Allen, I don’t think he really believes it either, hence where the movie ends up when everything is wrapped up. The basic premise of the movie is summed up perfectly by the title. Screw what society, what religion, what anyone else says is normal behavior and relationships. You’re only responsible for trying to make yourself, and the people in your life happy. And if you find something that works, hang onto it, no matter what anyone else says.

The film’s cast is pretty much perfect. In addition to David, who is essentially playing a version of himself that he has perfected on Curb Your Enthusiasm over the years, mixed with some of Woody’s comic persona, every other role is filled out perfectly. Evan Rachel Wood is a comic delight as Melodie – chipper and cheerful, and delightfully dimwitted, you cannot help falling for her. Allen has written this type of role before – most notably for Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose and Mia Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite – but I think Wood plays the role better than either of them did. Patricia Clarkson is perfect as the born again Christian woman, who finds that New York really does have a corrupting influence on her – and she couldn’t be happier about it. And I loved Ed Begeley Jr. when he shows up late in the film as Melodie’s father, spewing bible passages, before making his confession.
So while Whatever Works is not going to be counted among Allen’s masterpieces – like Annie Hall and Manhattan surely are – and it doesn’t seem quite as fresh and daring as those film did (how could it? It was written 30 years ago), it is also one of the most enjoyable, and funny, films I have seen so far this year.

Movie Review: My Sister's Keeper

My Sister’s Keeper ***
Directed By:
Nick Cassavetes.
Written By: Jeremy Leven and Nick Cassavetes based on the novel by Jodi Picoult.
Starring: Abigail Breslin (Andromeda 'Anna' Fitzgerald), Cameron Diaz (Sara Fitzgerald), Sofia Vassilieva (Kate Fitzgerald), Jason Patric (Brian Fitzgerald), Evan Ellingson (Jesse Fitzgerald), Alec Baldwin (Campbell Alexander), Joan Cusack (Judge De Salvo), Heather Wahlquist (Aunt Kelly), Thomas Dekker (Taylor Ambrose), Jeffrey Markle (Dr. Wayne), Emily Deschanel (Dr. Farquad).

My Sister’s Keeper is an emotionally manipulative tear jerker of a movie, and yet somehow it works. I am under no delusions that this movie was made for any other reason that to try to illicit tears from its audience, but My Sister’s Keeper works better than most of the films like that, because it feels honest. It earns those tears that it manipulates out of the audience. Yes the film is riddled with clichés, but the performances in the film feel honest and real, so we follow the characters wherever the story leads them.

The film is about Anna (Abigail Breslin), an 11 year old girl who was conceived by her parents to be an exact genetic match for her sister Kate (Sofia Vassilieva), who at two was diagnosed with leukemia. They did not expect her to live past the age of 15, but know she’s 14, and still alive. Yes, her life has been one procedure after another, one round of chemo after another, but she’s still alive. Every time Kate has needed anything, Anna has been there to donate it to her. But now, Kate needs a kidney, and Anna doesn’t want to give it. She goes so far as hiring a lawyer, Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin) to sue her parents to the rights to her own body. Her mother Sara (Cameron Diaz) is furious, but her dad Brian (Jason Patric) is more understanding. Her older brother Jesse (Evan Ellingson) is essentially ignored. The Judge (Joan Cusack), who just lost a 12 year old to a car accident, has no idea what to think.

My Sister’s Keeper is a good movie because it concentrates more on its characters than anything else. In the opening scenes of the movie, we feel like the movie is going to present us with cookie cutter, one dimensional characters, but over the course of the movie, we get to know these people, and understand them. They are brought to life by vivid, realistic performances by the entire cast. Abigail Breslin is especially good as the sister who just wants a normal life back, and is willing to do whatever is necessary to get it. It’s not that she does not love her sister – she loves her more than anything else in the world – but she also wants to be a normal kid. We initially think that Sara is just a harpy of a wife and mother, but Diaz brings unsuspected depths to her character, and fleshes her out. She is real. And Sofia Vassileva is quite good as the dying sister. It’s hard to play a role like this, because you run the risk of either being seen as overly whiny, or too much of a martyr, but Vassileva finds the right notes. Alec Baldwin is good in support as always, as is Jason Patric, Evan Ellingson and Thomas Dekker, as another cancer patient who Kate falls for. And I loved Joan Cusack as the Judge, who at one point, when everyone in the family is talking at once, is asked if she wants to remove anyone and replies “No, this is interesting”. Not proper courtroom decorum sure, but entertaining.

The film was directed by Nick Cassavetes, who also directed The Notebook, another tearjerker. He knows just the right strings to pull to get under the audiences skin, yet not turn them off by being too shamefaced about trying to illicit tears. Fans of the novel by Jodi Picoult will be surprised, in my case pleasantly, by some of the changes made in the story. It now ends on a more logical, less out of left field note, that feel appropriate for the story. So while My Sister’s Keeper may not be a great movie, it is a good one. After sitting through Transformer: Revenge of the Fallen earlier that day, this movie, with its concentration of character, story and acting, was a breath of fresh air.

Movie Review: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen *
Directed By: Michael Bay.
Written By: Ehren Kruger & Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman.
Starring: Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky), Megan Fox (Mikaela Banes), Josh Duhamel (Major Lennox), Tyrese Gibson (USAF Master Sergeant Epps), John Turturro (Agent Simmons), Ramon Rodriguez (Leo Spitz), Kevin Dunn (Ron Witwicky), Julie White (Judy Witwicky), Isabel Lucas (Alice), John Benjamin Hickey (Galloway), Michael Papajohn (Cal), Glenn Morshower (General Morshower), Rainn Wilson (Professor Colan).

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is the biggest, loudest, dumbest movie that Michael Bay has ever made. And when you consider then even his good movie (and I think the original Transformers is one of his best) are big, loud and dumb, that is saying something. Everything that Bay and company got right in the first movie, they get wrong here. The plot is borderline incomprehensible, the dialogue inane even by action movie standards, and the performances are either shrill and annoying, or else so bland that you forget the actors are even there. Yes, Michael Bay still knows how to blow crap up real good, but after two and half hours of this crap, I doubt anyone will care.

The plot of the movie involves an ancient Tranformer known only as the Fallen. He has been waiting millennia to come back to earth to destroy it. He counts as his most loyal subject Megatron, who is still being guarded at the bottom of the ocean following the last movie. The Fallen needs information that was only available on that cube that was destroyed at the end of the last movie. But Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) unknowing still has a piece of that cube, and when he touches it, his mind is flooded with all of its secrets. He starts seeing strange symbols everywhere, and this is annoying since he has just started university, and is trying to maintain a long distance relationship with Mikaela (Megan Fox). This, of course, starts at around the world odyssey is search of answers, which leads to one fight after another between giant robots.

Don’t get me wrong – I do not really expect logic in a movie like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The films basic premise after all is about two warring races of giant alien robots. You have to kind of give yourself over to a movie like this, and roll with the punches, because trying to get the movie to make logical sense is an impossibility. But the problem with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in terms of its plot is that it is so overstuffed with plot points and characters, and yet moves so rapidly from one to another, that the movie never makes sense even on its chosen level. This is a movie that introduces major plot points in one scene, only to completely disregard them a scene later. Even worse, the movie is so busy getting from one big action sequence to the next that all the characters get lost in the shuffle. In the first film, you liked Sam and Mikaela, not to mention his parents, but here they are hollow and empty. Sam and Mikaela spend most of the movie arguing over a supposed infidelity, and it gets old quickly. LaBeof, who can be a charming actor, here is annoying. Fox is not very good either, but then again the screenplay requires nothing from here except to run in slow motion for most of her scenes – which, it must be said, she does rather well. Kevin Dunn, as Sam’s father, gets a couple of one liners and that’s it. And poor Julie White, who may have had the most memorable character in the original as Sam’s mother, is so shrill and disagreeable here, you almost hope a Deceptacon will kill her. John Turturro at least seems to know that his character is in a stupid movie, so he has some fun with his role. The less said about the other major character Ramon Rodriguez as Sam’s new roommate, the better.

Hell, even the robots in this film are not interesting. In the first film, you grew genuinely attached to Bumblebee and Optimus Prime, and Megatron was a menacing villain. Here, they are thoroughly uninteresting, and worse yet interchangeable. I often could not tell what robot was who, and didn’t really care either. The most annoying additions to the robots this time are twins, who talk like two guys straight out of the hood – or at least what screenwriters think they talk like. After killing off Jazz, who let’s face facts was a pretty racist character in the original film, it’s like the screenwriters decided to come up with two characters even more offensive.

But even with all of those flaws, I still have not mentioned the films biggest one. It’s boring. One reviewer said the film was like watching paint dry while getting hit in the head with a frying pan, and that’s a pretty good description. The film is big and loud, and the camera never slows down for a moment the entire film. They fill the screen with so many special effects and explosions, and action and gunfire and fights, but the film never engages us. It’s the same damn thing in scene after scene after scene. Michael Bay has made some bad films before – some utterly terrible films truth be told – but he has never made one that was this boring before. I never thought I’d say this but – Michael Bay can do better than this.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The FIlms of Martin Scorsese Part XXX: Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York (2002) ****
Directed By: Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Jay Cocks & Steven Zallian & Kenneth Lonergan.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio (Amsterdam Vallon), Daniel Day-Lewis (Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting), Cameron Diaz (Jenny Everdeane), Jim Broadbent (William 'Boss' Tweed), John C. Reilly (Happy Jack Mulraney), Henry Thomas (Johnny Sirocco), Liam Neeson ('Priest' Vallon), Brendan Gleeson (Walter 'Monk' McGinn), Gary Lewis (McGloin), Stephen Graham (Shang), Eddie Marsan (Killoran).

When Gangs of New York opened in December 2002, I went to see it at least four times in the theaters – more times than I believe I’ve seen any other movie in its first run. Here was one of those grand old Hollywood epics that they had stopped making before I was even born. There was not a scene in the film that didn’t bursting with ambition, where the scope of the film didn’t seem to be huge. I heard some critics complain that the film was flawed, but I ignored them. I loved every inch of Gangs of New York. Now, returning to the film several years later, I find that it is easier to see the flaws in the film then it was at the time. Perhaps shrunken down to a television screen, they seem more glaring. But I hardly care. I still love every inch of Gangs of New York. Flaws and all, the film is a masterpiece.

The film opens in New York in the 1840s. The Dead Rabbits, a gang of Irish immigrants, are preparing to go to battle with The Natives, a gang of American born men who want to drive the immigrants, who are defiling their homeland, out. Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) leads the Dead Rabbits, and in the final moments before the battle, he tries to teach his young son Amsterdam valuable life lessons. Then the group sets off, through a maze of underground passages, quickly gathering men, before bursting out onto the square where the battle will take place. This is when we get our first look at Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, leader of the Natives. His face is grotesque, with one glass eye, and huge mustache, as he yells ugly epitaphs at his rivals. What follows is one of the bloodiest battles in cinematic history. Men are beaten, stabbed and hacked to death, as the snow beneath their feet slowly turns red with all the blood. Cutting kills Vallon, and thus has power know over the Five Points, the most crime infested area of New York. It will be 16 years before anyone challenges Bill the Butcher again.

That is when Amsterdam (now played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is finally released from the orphanage he was raised in after the death of his father, and returns to the Five Points. His rough upbringing has trained him well, and he soon falls in with a small gang of thieves. But if you want to operate in the Five Points, you have to ensure that you give Bill a piece of everything that you make. It isn’t long before Bill becomes enamored with this young kid, who is smart and ambitious, and draws him under his wing. Amsterdam, who came with the express purpose of killing Bill, and so was simply playing a part to get close to him (obviously never revealing his real identity) has mixed feelings. He even kind of grows to like Bill, and surely grows to like the money he makes working for him. But as always, the truth is bound to come out, and then all hell will break loose.

The focus of the movie remains on Bill and Amsterdam throughout, but there are other characters that swirl around them. Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket who used to be Bill’s, and now maybe Amsterdam’s, if only he doesn’t let his pride get in the way. Boss Tweed (a delightful Jim Broadbent, playing broad amazingly well), a local politician for Tammany Hall, who shifts alliances with the breeze. Monk (Brendan Gleeson), a former Dead Rabbit now turned barber, who exchanges weird glances with Bill and Amsterdam. Constable Mulraney (John C. Reilly), another former Dead Rabbit, now a corrupt cop who gets away with what he does only because Bill allows him to. And McGloin (Gary Lewis), yet another former Dead Rabbit, who has sold out even more and is now one of Bill’s right hand men. These characters and more fill out Scorsese’s vast tapestry, and make the film come alive.

The filmmaking on display in the film is incredible. Shot entirely in the legendary Cinecitta Studio in Rome – where everything from La Dolce Vita to Ben-Hur was shot – it is to the films credit that it never feels like it’s on a soundstage. The entire Five Points Area of New York has been recreated, and makes up one of the distinctive environments in cinema history. The dirt, the grim, the blood, the wooden buildings, everything in the film is just about pitch perfect. Michael Ballhaus makes tremendous use of the location in his cinematography – the camera never stops moving, sweeping around often in 360 degrees in one shot, as it probes the dark corners of the area. There are a number of terrific, memorable images – Diaz’s introduction in slow motion through a dirty window (Scorsese loves to introduce his female characters in slow motion, and if he had to make Diaz a redhead instead of his preferred blonde, the effect is the same), Bill the Butcher throwing knives at Jenny, or the scene when Amsterdam awakes to find Bill sitting over his bed, an American flag draped over his soldiers. This doesn’t even mention the battles that open and close the film, which are visually stunning, and unlike so many modern action sequences, are not over edited to death. The whole film is a visual knockout.

But standing over every other element in the film is Daniel Day-Lewis’ towering performance as Bill the Butcher – a performance that would still be the best of the decade had Day-Lewis not topped it himself in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Bill the Butcher is one of the most memorable screen villains in history, and although Day-Lewis plays the character as larger than life most of the time, its to his credit that will still always believe his character would act like this. When the rare quiet moment comes – like when he teaches DiCaprio what the difference between a kill and a wound is using the carcass of a pig, or the aforementioned scene when he is draped in the American flag – Day-Lewis hits just the right notes. He is the villain of the film, but he towers over its hero, and everyone else in the film. When you walk away from the film, he is element you most remember.

Now, let’s get back to the films flaws, as they did stick out to me more this time then at any time previous to this. While I think DiCaprio and Diaz worked well together (I love this exchange for example: DiCaprio “Is there anyone is New York you haven’t fucked?” , Diaz “Yeah, you”) the romance still does feel a little tacked on, and perhaps unnecessary, accept for the fact that without it, the film would have no female characters at all. Also, there supposedly Irish accents come and go a little too often – sometimes they are both spot on, sometimes they sound no different than they normally do. Scorsese is also never quite able to fully integrate the subplots involving the people from “Uptown”, who look at the Five Points with a mixture of pity, fascinating and disgust. The same goes for the Draft Riots, which seem to come along a little too abruptly at the films climax. But more glaring, at least to me, than all of them is Amsterdam’s religious conversion which is never fully explained. He is a Catholic from beginning to end in the film, yet when he is given a bible when he leaves the orphanage, he dramatically throws it over the side of a bridge. Later, he will tell a Priest to “Go to Hell” when he asks him to attend services. But by the end of the film, he seems to have gone back to being a practicing Catholic, praying to Michael the Archangel, and the conversion back into the fold is never really explained. For Scorsese, for whom his own Catholicism has always played a role in his films, this seems odd.

And yet, while I acknowledge that Gangs of New York is a flawed film, I also have to admit that I don’t care. I love it now just as much as I did then. Who is interested in cinematic perfection anyway? Look at many of those old school Hollywood epics, and you find just as many, if not more, flaws than you will in Gangs of New York. And besides, when Gangs of New York works – and I would say that roughly 95% of the movie does – it is better than practically anything else out there. This is filmmaking at its most daring, most exciting, most ambitious. So if Scorsese was not quite able to pull off the film he had in his head for 30 years (he wanted to make the film every since 1978), we should be glad that he was able to make this film. Flaws and all, Gangs of New York is a masterpiece.

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XXIV: The Neighborhood and My Life, My Card: Robert DeNiro

The Neighborhood (2001) ***
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.

My Life My Card: Robert DeNiro (2004) ***
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.

These two short films, one a segment for the Concert for New York, and one an ad for American Express run seven minutes in total, and yet express Scorsese’s deep love for the City of New York beautifully. They act as a reminder that sometimes, the short form can be powerful, and even TV commercials can have a deeper meaning.

The Neighborhood is a six minute piece that Scorsese did for the Concert for New York in 2001 after the attacks of 9/11. In it, Scorsese returns to Elizabeth Street in Lower Manhattan, the street he grew up on, and in a very brief amount of time traces the progression of the neighborhood – both what came before him, during his time there, and afterwards. His neighborhood has changed – what was once almost all Italian families are now almost all Chinese families. But the progression is natural. Before the Italians moved in, it was an Irish neighborhood.

While who lives there may have changed, there are some things that never do. When Scorsese was a kid, he wondered why the Cathedral in the neighborhood was named after St. Patrick, since it was an Italian neighborhood, not realizing the Irish were there before them. Now, some kids ask a local Italian cheese merchant, why he set up shop in a Chinese neighborhood, not realizing the store has been there for 75 years. Kids are never able to see the area they grow up as a changing environment.

Scorsese walks the streets of the old neighborhood, and still finds some people he knew growing up. They are all hugs and smiles – they adore his young daughter who he has brought with them, and it’s like he never left. One of the most quietly profound statements Scorsese says in the film is about how people’s perceptions of themselves change through the generations. His grandparents, who were born and raised is Sicily, considered themselves Italian, even though they spent many more years in America than in Italy. His parents considered themselves Italian-American. He considers himself American-Italian (switching the emphasis to the more important, dominant identity), and he suspects his kids will simply consider themselves American.

To Scorsese, New York represents all that is great about America. The America who flung their doors open to immigrants, who came here and built a better life for themselves, and for their children. New York is America, and America is New York.

In a strange way, Scorsese’s ad for American Express, featuring Robert DeNiro both in the commercial and narrating, does exactly what The Neighborhood does, but almost entirely through images and in only a minute. Juxtaposing images of New York’s past and present, together with DeNiro’s simple narration; the film is a hauntingly beautiful little piece that also expresses love for New York. In a minute, it becomes clear that the city means everything to Robert DeNiro – everything he cares about and loves is right here in this city. Although this is an ad, like so many other of American Express ads, it is one whose emphasis is not on the product, but on the city. It’s one of the best TV spots you will probably ever see.

Note: I’m doing these two short “films” together, even though it means breaking chronology slightly, because neither are really short films unto themselves. The Neighborhood was a segment that Scorsese did for The Concert for New York in 2001, and My Life, My Card was an American Express ad Scorsese did in 2004 for his friend Robert DeNiro, who was putting on the Tribecca Film Festival, in part to try and revive the city after 9/11. They are connected in that way, so I put them together. Also, neither is really worth a post by themselves. I did not include the several ads Scorsese has done for American Express since then, because I am not sure he actually directed them. But the one where he picks up his photos at the drugstore, and rants and raves about the framing is hilarious, as are his spots with Tina Fey, where she thinks he is going to offer her a role, but he wants to sell her a timeshare. There is also a great ad with Scorsese by the way, for a phone company where a little boy is saying goodnight to his father over the phone because he’s away on a business trip, and Scorsese barges in because he doesn’t believe the boys performance. All of them are great, but I left them out of this series for obvious reasons.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Oscars Moving to 10 Best Picture Nominees!

The shocking news of the day for all of us Oscar watchers was that the Academy issued a press release saying that this year, for the first time since 1943, the Academy is going to nominate 10 films for the Best Picture Oscar instead of the usual 5. Personally, I think is a great movie on the Academy’s part – one that I have been suggesting for years.

I think in the other categories that five nominees is a good number. Also, I do not think they should change that, because the Oscar stats will get all messed up. How many more nominations would say Katherine Hepburn or Paul Newman or Marlon Brando have gotten had they nominated 10 actors every year instead of five? But for Best Picture, no such concern really exists, and by going to 10 nominations, it allows the Academy to celebrate more films of a wider variety than they have done in years past.

I think the change came this year because of all the grief the Academy took last year for being out of touch by not nominating The Dark Knight and Wall-E. Here were the two most critically acclaimed films of the year that racked up numerous nominations, but both failed to crack the Best Picture line-up because of snobbery pure and simple. The Dark Knight was viewed as nothing more than another superhero movie. Wall-E was stuck in the animation ghetto, which also prevented films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Ratatouille from getting nominations as well. Last year was by all accounts a weak year in movies, and they still could not find room in the top five for those two films. Instead, they went with The Reader and Frost/Nixon, two very safe choices that received mixed reviews from critics, and general apathy for viewers.

But opening the nominations for best picture up to 10 would not just assure that more blockbusters will get into the mix, although surely Up and Star Trek have a better chance now of cracking the lineup then they did before. It also allows more offbeat films a chance to compete. The Academy is mainly made up of older, more conservative voters, hence why things like Frost/Nixon and The Reader get nominated in the first place. But remember 2005 when all the critics awards ended up coming down between Brokeback Mountain and A History of Violence, and then at the Oscars Violence did not even get nominated? How about other critically adored films this decade like Far From Heaven, The Wrestler, Zodiac, Children of Men, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, American Splendor, Adaptation, About Schmidt, Mulholland Drive, Memento, You Can Count on Me and Almost Famous. All loved by the critics, but none were able to break into the best picture race at the Oscars, perhaps because their subject matter did not quite fit in with what the older members of the Academy liked. At 10 nominations in the Best Picture category, these offbeat films would stand a much better chance at being nominated, and as such, have a better chance to find a wider audience.

And then there is the matter of foreign films and documentaries. You can count the number of foreign films that have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar over the years on two hands, and have some fingers left over. A documentary has never been nominated in the top category. The Academy’s membership is mainly American, so that explains why so few foreign language films make the cut, but sometimes they deserve to. Would The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Pan’s Labyrinth, Cache, Bad Education, City of God, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Amelie have been nominated this decade had they had 10 spots to give out instead of 5? Perhaps, perhaps not, but some of them would have been. Would Bowling for Columbine, An Inconvenient Truth, March of the Penguins or Fahrenheit 9/11 have been able to break through the documentary barrier given the excess spots? Perhaps.

The bottom line as far as I am concerned is that the Oscars should be about awarding the BEST films of the year, regardless of genre and language. Right now the Academy does a good job at nominating one genre – the prestige, American made drama (I know it's weird to say this considering that this year, a British film about life in India won, and the two years before crime dramas won, but my point still holds). And while upping the number of nominees to 10 will likely result in even more of those films getting in (Doubt, for example, would have been a gimme had they had 10 nominees last year), it would also expand the types of films that got in. And that is a good thing.