Friday, July 31, 2009

Movie Review: Il Divo

Il Divo *** 1/2
Directed By:
Paolo Sorrentino.
Written By: Paolo Sorrentino.
Starring: Toni Servillo (Giulio Andreotti), Anna Bonaiuto (Livia Danese), Piera Degli Esposti (Signora Enea), Paolo Graziosi (Aldo Moro), Giulio Bosetti (Eugenio Scalfari), Flavio Bucci (Franco Evangelisti), Carlo Buccirosso (Paolo Cirino Pomicino), Giorgio Colangeli (Salvo Lima), Alberto Cracco (Don Mario), Lorenzo Gioielli (Mino Pecorelli), Gianfelice Imparato (Vincenzo Scotti), Massimo Popolizio (Vittorio Sbardella), Aldo Ralli (Giuseppe Ciarrapico).

Over more than a 20 year span, Giulio Andreotti was elected Prime Minister of Italy seven times, embroiled in countless scandals and may have played a role in the deaths of over 200 people. Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo, just one of the many nicknames Andreotti gathered over the years (the others include The Black Pope, Beelzebub, and The Hunchback), tells his story, mainly focusing on Andreotti in the early 1990s, as he looks back on his life in politics, as some of scandals of his past may finally be catching up to him.

If, like me, you only have a vague understanding of Italy’s political landscape, you may at times find yourself lost in the labyrtine plot. The bodies start to pile up early in the film, and never really slows down throughout the film. It seems like almost every other scene, we are witnessing another murder or suicide, or some political or mafia player with ties to Andreotti. But even if you do not know every one of the players who wind up dead, or even necessarily understand why they are being killed, that really is not Sorrentino’s purpose in showing these bodies piling up. His point is to try to show the enormous scale that Andreotti’s corruption and violence spread over his decades in power.

The most amazing part of the movie though is Andreotti himself, played brilliantly by Toni Servillo. As first glance Andreotti seems like an unlikely gangster or politician for the that matter. He is short, he is hunchbacked, he has ears that stick out and glasses that look big even on his overly large head. He is a quiet man who never raises his voice, never seems to say more than a few words in a row. He is a master at sardonic comments, but oddly for a movie about a politician, there is not one point in the film where he makes a speech. The closet he comes in a fantasy sequence where Andreotti finally confesses to his beloved wife all of his crimes. As he suddenly starts talking quicker and louder, he finally starts some genuine emotion, and dare I say it, remorse. And yet, this is also the scene that shows the most insight into Andreotti and why he did what he did - not just for to meet his own ambitions, and stroke his ego, but because he actually believes

Sorrentino’s film never slows down to take a breath - it moves headlong from one sequence to the another with a restless energy. Like Scorsese, Sorrentino’s camera is restless, constantly moving, and probing, placing us inside the characters world. The violence when it comes it quick, harsh and bloody. This is not stylized movie violence, but shocking real violence. Like City of God, it immerses us not just into the entire world of the characters and shows us that while this story is about Andrreotti, it is actually about something much bigger than he is - that is the entire system that is so rotten to the core that it allows someone like Andreotti to become Prime Minister in the first place - and then stay there for 20 years. You would think that the Italian people would have gotten sick of all the corruption and greed, but they moved from Andreotti to Bersolucci - hardly an improvement (the movie is also critical of him, but more from the outside then from the inside). There is something rotten about politics in Italy, and Il Divo shows us some of the shocking reasons as to why.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Movie Review: 50 Dead Men Walking

Fifty Dead Men Walking ***
Directed by:
Kari Skogland.
Written By: Kari Skogland based on the book by Nicholas Davies & Martin McGartland.
Starring: Jim Sturgess (Martin McGartland), Ben Kingsley (Fergus), Nathalie Press (Lara), Kevin Zegers (Sean), Rose McGowan (Rosena Brown).

Capsule Review

Fifty Dead Men Walking tells a different type of story about the “troubles” in Ireland. Most of the movies I have seen have been more sympathetic to the Irish, but Fifty Dead Men Walking takes a more balanced view. This is a film without real “good guys” and “bad guys”, just people who are trying to do their best in the situation that they are in. Jim Sturgis stars as Martin McGartland, a young Irish kid in the late 1980s. He is fairly apolitical. He doesn’t like the British occupying his country, but he isn’t about to let them get in the way of his making money. He is a low level street hustler. A British Intelligence agent, code named Fergus (Ben Kingsley) recruits him. Martin’s best friend Sean (Kevin Zegers) is a bomb maker for the IRA, and Fergus wants Martin to report on his activities. Soon, Martin is drafted into the IRA himself, and is able to start feeding more and more useful information. Of course, if he gets caught it means instant death for him. But with a pregnant girlfriend (Natalie Press), he finds he needs the money. Directed by Kari Skogland, the film is fast paced and entertaining. Although there isn’t a lot of action in the film, the film is intense, with a constant sense of danger hanging over it. Sturgis and Kingsley are both excellent in the film, but in different ways. Sturgis is energetic and charming, whereas Kingsley is much more subdued and still. They sell the uncommonly close bond they two share together. Nathalie Press is also quite good as in the normally nothing role of the “wife”. Perhaps it’s because the film was written and directed by a woman, but the film takes the family issues at the center of the film much more seriously than most movies do. The film does have a few flaws, including a subplot involving Rosena Brown (Rose McGowan, doing a very bad Irish accent), an IRA intelligence operator who wants Martin. And Kevin Zegers also never quite nails the Irish accent, and his labored performance hurts the relationship between Martin and Sean. But overall, the film is quite entertaining and well made.

Weekly Top Ten: Top Ten Computer Movies

Computers play an important role in pretty much everyone's life, so this week, I decided to look at the best computer movies ever made. I must say, that I do not think any of them are all that fond of computers - viewing them as a threat to humanity in way form or another. But let's just get to the list.

10. Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995)
One of the most famous anime films is also one of the very best. The plot is way too complex to try and describe here, except to say that in the future, hackers are no longer simply hacking into computers, but directly into people’s brains, and using this to control them. The ghost is essentially a person’s soul, and the body has simply become the shell that houses this “ghost”. When a robot shows up, that is completely inorganic, but seems to still have a “ghost”; it raises strange, scary questions. Ghost in the Shell is really about the dangers of relying too heavily on technology, and how if we do, we stand to lose ourselves – our souls, our identities, into a vast network of computers. After all, in order to hack into someone’s brain, we all have to be on a vast network ourselves, right?

9. Tron (Steve Lisberger, 1982)
Okay, so by today’s standards, Tron may seem pretty corny, and the special effects are no longer revolutionary, but when you consider that the film was made in 1982, the films achievement is pretty impressive. A gifted programmer, who makes great videogames, is double crossed by his friend who presents the work as his own, and then tries to cover his tracks by making a program to keep hackers out. But the program becomes too powerful to control, as it decides on its own to try and hack into government computers to run things, because it will be more effective. Then the good guy gets digitized and sent into the computer to try and bring down the program. Tron is cheesy, sure, but it is also quite entertaining – even viewed today. The film is a cult favorite, and soon we can look forward to a sequel!

8. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is about a future society that is being slowly crushed by a senseless bureaucracy, and an overdependence on unreliable technology. Henry Buttle is arrested because the bureaucracy of the computer system has mistaken him for Henry Tuttle, a renegade air conditioner repairman played by Robert DeNiro. Sam (Jonathan Pryce), is the film’s main character who tries to help the girl of his dreams (literally), as she gets identified as a terrorist for point out the system’s mistake in arresting Buttle. Meanwhile, Sam’s mother undergoes countless plastic surgeries to try and make herself appear younger and younger. The film, about technology’s increasing role in the running of the world, is a cautionary tale in the vein on 1984, but told in Gilliam’s characteristic surreal, goofy style. Yet the film as the film progresses, it grows much darker. Brazil is a forerunner to films like The Matrix, and is every bit as brilliant.

7. Wargames (John Badham, 1983)
Wargames tells the story of what could happen if nuclear missile codes were turned over to a computer system instead of a human being. Matthew Broderick plays a young computer hacker, who in the search for new computer games, accidentally hacks his way into NORAD’s new WOPR system, which to him looks much like a computer game, and sets in motion a sequence of events that could lead to a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union. The computer, who now has the power to launch the missiles itself, does not understand the difference between the game, and reality, and all it wants to do is win. Wargames is an intelligent thriller, well made, well written and well acted, and it ends on perhaps the most logical note of any film on this list.

6. The Matrix (Andy & Larry Wachowski, 1999)
What if reality is just a giant computer program, and really, human beings are being grown and harvested by giant machines as their fuel source? That is the reality that computer hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) is awoken to by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), another hacker. They need Neo to help overcome the machines, as he could in fact be the “chosen one”. The movie starts out as uncommonly intelligent science fiction, and even if it devolves into an action movie by the end, it is at least a great action movie. Like many of the films on this list, The Matrix is really a cautionary tale, wrapped up in special effects and bullets.

5. eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)
David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ came out the same year as The Matrix, dealt with similar issues and was superior to the other film, but has almost been completely forgotten about. In the film, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Geller, a game designer, who has just finished her latest game that requires an “umbrycord” to be inserted into a “bioport” that has been drilled into the small of the game players back. Yes, Cronenberg once again has made a movie full of weird sex (the MPAA cannot really object when Jude Law licks Leigh’s bioport, and then sticks the “umbrycord” inside, because really, there is no nudity, but we all know what is going on – genius). Once you are inside Geller’s game, you cannot tell the game from reality. Cronenberg’s film is filled with gooey special effects, where organic material is mixed with machines, to form some sort of weird, sexual hybrid of reality. This film is one of the most interesting science fiction films of recent years, one that makes you squirm at the melding of human and technology.

4. Office Space (Mike Judge, 1999)
Unlike the other films on this list, Office Space is not really about computers, but instead is about the soul crushing, endless drudgery that comes along with working on computers all day. Ron Livingstone plays an office drone whose job is to convert thousands of lines of code before Y2K comes along, and he is miserable. His two friends, in the programming department, are just as miserable, and in perhaps the films most memorable scene, the three of them take out their aggression on a printer that has been a thorn in their sides for years. My job, and most likely yours, is not as soul crushingly Kafkaesque as the drones in Office Space, but likely you have felt the same way as these do sometimes.

3. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day was essentially The Matrix, before The Matrix was. Like that film, this is a film about machines created by humans to help humanity, who eventually rebel against their makers, and try to wipe them off the face of the year. Skynet, the computer system created by programmer Joe Morton, is the real villain of the movie, as it is becoming increasingly powerful, even before the war has been declared. But Terminator 2 is superior to The Matrix, and the original Terminator for that matter, because the characters in the film feel like real people. Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is both tough as nails, and yet fragilely human, and Edward Furlogh remains the best John Connor, the smart kid who uses technology, yet still loves humanity. The cyborg characters – played by Arnold Schwarzenegger as the “good robot” and Robert Patrick as the “bad robot” feel just like they are supposed – unfeeling, logical machines (unlike say the Agents in the Matrix who feel too human at times). I do not think I would ever use this word to describe any other action movie sequel, but Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a masterpiece.

2. Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
In a very real way, the computer who runs the spaceship in Wall-E, Pixar’s best film, is not all that unlike The Matrix or Skynet. All of these powerful computers seek to enslave humanity, but the computer in Wall-E comes the closest to succeeding, solely because it does not try to do so by killing humans. Instead, it makes human irrelevant by giving them everything they could ever want. Trapped on a huge spaceship, humans have gradually become fatter and lazier over several hundred years, to the point where they do nothing anymore. They stay in their chairs, interact solely with computers and grow fatter and fatter. The computer is even responsible for human reproduction. Even the Captain of the ship is a mere figurehead with no actual power. Ironically, technology created to make human’s life easier has done its job too well – life is not so easy, you can hardly even describe it as life anymore. Even more ironic, is that it is too robots – the title character and his “girlfriend” Eve – who are the most “human” characters in the film – and they save the humans not only from the computer, but themselves. For an animated film aimed at children, Wall-E is amazingly intelligent.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
How could I possibly choose anything other than 2001 as the greatest computer movie of all time? Kubrick’s masterpiece is undoubtedly the greatest science fiction of all time, and arguably one of the 10 best films ever made. A large reason for that (although certainly not the only one), is HAL 9000, the onboard computer in the spaceship taking the astronauts to Mars and beyond. Like many of the other computers on this list, HAL was designed to make life for the astronauts easily, but HAL is unfortunately too much like his makers – humans. HAL grows paranoid and insecure, and starts plotting on ways to save himself, even if that means killing the crew members he was designed to help. With little more than a blinking red light and Douglas Rain creepily calm voice, Kubrick created one of cinema’s greatest, yet somehow most sympathetic, screen villains. The scene were Dave has to “kill” HAL is among the most memorable “death” scenes ever recorded on film. A true masterwork.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Movie Review: The Boat That Rocked

The Boat That Rocked ***
Directed By: Richard Curtis.
Written By: Richard Curtis.
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Count), Tom Sturridge ('Young' Carl), Bill Nighy (Quentin), Kenneth Branagh (Sir Alistair Dormandy), Nick Frost ('Doctor' Dave), Rhys Ifans (Gavin), Rhys Darby (Angus 'The Nut' Nutsford), Tom Brooke (Thick Kevin), Gemma Arterton (Desiree), Ike Hamilton (Harold), Chris O'Dowd ('Simple' Simon Swafford), Talulah Riley (Marianne), Tom Wisdom ('Midnight' Mark), Will Adamsdale ('On-The-Hour' John), Ralph Brown (Bob Silver 'the Dawn Treader'), Olivia Llewellyn (Wee Small Hours Margaret), Jack Davenport (Dominic Twatt), January Jones (Elenore), Katherine Parkinson (Felicity), Emma Thompson (Charlotte).

In the late 1960s, a golden age for British Rock N’ Roll, the BBC still held a dominance over British radio, and they barely played any popular music at all. So a few people set up “pirate” radio stations on boats in the North Sea, and broadcast 24 hours a day with the music that everyone wanted to hear. These radio stations were hugely popular, and were not technically doing anything illegal. But certain forces within the British government didn’t like them – they felt they promoted a hedonistic lifestyle – and were determined to shut them down. Richard Curtis’ The Boat That Rocked tells the story of one such boat.

Curtis, the writer behind Four Weddings and Funeral and the writer/director of Love, Actually, is talented is at gathering a large cast of mainly British actors, and weaving their stories together. The Boat That Rocked is similar in that that regard, as the vast is huge, and impressive, and is really the reason to watch the movie. Curtis’s writing of dialogue is as always keen, but his storytelling instincts fail at times in this film – as key character motivations are left unexplained, and things seem to get shunted to the side almost as quickly as they are introduced. One of the problems is that there are so many characters, that few are able to become three dimensional. And yet, I would be lying if I said that The Boat That Rocked is not an entertaining movie from start to finish.

The film centers on “Young” Carl (Tom Sturridge), recently thrown out of high school who has nowhere to go, but through family connections ends up on the boat that broadcasts “Radio Rock”. The owner of the station is Quentin (Bill Nighy), an old friend of Carl’s mother, who quickly introduces Carl into the ways of the boat. There are no women on board – save for the lesbian cook – but that does not stop the entire crew of DJ’s from partying non-stop – indulging in pretty much every sort of indecent behavior you can think of. Once in a while, woman are allowed on board, and then the whole thing turns into a sort of orgy. Carl quickly makes friends with Doctor Dave (Nick Frost), a overweight guy that the girls still loves, Simple Simon (Chris O’Dowd), who is holding out from true love and the station’s premier DJ, The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an American transplant who rules over most of the boat’s activity. There are other characters who filter throughout the boat, most notably Rhys Ifans as Gavin, who comes in a challenges The Count’s position as top dog. Although there are complications and heartbreak, life on the boat is good.

But Sir Alistar Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), hates Radio Rock and all other stations like it. It technically falls under his jurisdiction in the government, and he is determined to shut it down at all costs. Branagh plays Dormandy as a dowdy, uppity, stick in the mud, and he delivers what is without a doubt the best performance in the movie. In every scene he is in, you cannot help but laugh.

The rest of the cast it must be said is also good. True, Philip Seymour Hoffman is doing a version of his much better performance as a rock journalist in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, but he does it so well, that you do not care. The cast around them, made up mostly of familiar faces even if they are not huge stars, all fit together nicely. You believe them as this strange surrogate family.

Curtis at times lays it on a little too thick. I’m not sure we really needed the boat sinking, and multiple people risking their lives for the sake of the “music”, and we certainly did not need Bill Nighy pumping his fist at the camera near the end of the movie, nor Curtis’ cursory history of rock n’ roll since the late 1960s. But all of these are rather small quibbles. Overall, The Boat That Rocked is an entertaining movie from start to finish – one that I think audiences are going to embrace when it opens in North America later this summer.

Video Views: Tuesday July 28

The video views column is a new one that I will be doing every Tuesday from now on, where I run down the releases on DVD that week, with links to the reviews of movies that I have already posted, and a few thoughts on older movies getting a DVD release. So with that said, let's get on with this week's releases, which are pretty slim.

New Releases:

Fast and Furious ** ½
By no means a very good movie, but an entertaining action movie for people who want to see a bunch of fast cars driving around really fast. Vin Diesal is good as always, and the rest of the cast in merely average. But let’s be honest - this is the fourth film in this franchise, and it was never all that original in the first place, and this is just more of the same. See below for my original review published in April.

Older Movies:

Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara, 1992) ****
Without a doubt Harvey Keitel's best performance - he finally got the role DeNiro always did in the Scorsese movies. He plays a cop, strung out on drugs, corrupt to his core, who is obsessing over his most recent case involving the rape of a nun - who refuses to name her attacker. Director Ferrara has always been a provocateur - sometimes it has made for some terrible movies - but this is his best. The scenes where Keitel verbally rapes two teenage girls in a car is one of the most unforgettable scenes I can recall in a movie.

Ichi the Killer (Takahasi Miike, 2001) *** ½
Miike is the most extreme of all of Japan’s current directors, and Ichi the Killer is as good of a place to start as any I suppose. The film is about a psychotic young man named Ichi, who is normally weak willed and cowardly, but becomes dangerous when he becomes enraged. He has been “programmed” to confuse sexual arousal with homicidal lust, and is being manipulated into killing a will. The other major character is Kakihara, a sadomasochist Yakuza enforcer, who is searching for Ichi – at first to solve a mystery, and later, because he thinks Ichi maybe able to inflict the proper pain on him. The film is extremely violent, but also entertaining in the extreme, and has a strange power over the audience. This is not mere exploitation cinema.

Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965) ****
Roman Polanski’s masterpiece about a young woman (brilliantly played by Catherine Denueve), who is both repulsed and turned on by the idea of sex. She is left alone in her apartment, and is slowly driven insane by her repressed memories and paranoia, eventually becomes a murderer, as her hallucinations make it impossible for her to tell fantasy and reality. One of the best films of Polanski’s career, and also one of the best performances Denueve, one of cinema’s greatest actresses, ever gave, this Criterion release is definitely the DVD release of the week.

Movie Review: (500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer ****
Directed By: Marc Webb.
Written By: Scott Neustadter & Michael C. Weber.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Tom Hansen), Zooey Deschanel (Summer Finn), Geoffrey Arend (McKenzie), Chloe Moretz (Rachel Hansen), Matthew Gray Gubler (Paul), Clark Gregg (Vance),Patricia Belcher (Millie), Rachel Boston (Alison), Minka Kelly (Autumn).

(500) Days of Summer is the rarest of romantic comedies in that it is original, funny and honest. Most romantic comedies follow the same cookie cutter like plot of boy meets girl, boy and girl hate each other, boy and girl fall in love and live happily ever after. They all end with the couple getting together and having some great romantic kiss in the rain as people cheer, and never really deal with the difficulty of actually being in a relationship. Relationships are hard – they require work, love and understanding. (500) Days of Summer is not a movie that ends happily ever after, but it holds out hope that happily ever after is at least possible.

The film opens with Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a worker drone at a greeting card company churning out mindless cards for mass consumption. His heart is not into it. He studied to be an architect, but somewhere along the way got lost, and is now stuck in a rut. He believes in true love, and wants to find his soul mate. When he meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a new girl in his office, he feels that she could be it. He tries desparately to get her attention and fails repeatably, until finally he doesn’t. She tells him that she doesn’t want anything serious, but he ignores that. We know early in the film – as it flashes back and forth through time from the period after they broke up to scenes from their relationship – that the relationship is doomed for failure. But poor Tom doesn’t know that.

(500) Days of Summer is like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall updated for a new generation. The cultural references may have changed from Marshall McLuhan and The Sorrow and the Pity to The Smiths and The Pixies (although both films share an affinity for Ingmar Bergman films, as witnessed in an hilarious sequence where first Gordon-Levitt imagines him and Summer as the women in Persona, and then imagines himself as the Crusader from The Seventh Seal), but the end result is the same. A funny, touching look at modern day relationships, and how you can’t always get what you want.

The director of the film is Marc Webb, making his debut from a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael C. Weber, also doing their first screenplay. The result is a film that is gleefully fun and funny, that is not afraid to get sometimes downright, gloriously cheesy (Gordon-Levitt’s dance sequence, complete with animated birds, after the first time he and Summer have sex is a highlight of the film). At times the films teeters dangerously close to giving into indie movie clichés, but somehow manages to skirt them all, even while including a smart alecky kid full of wise advise, and Gordon-Levitt’s two friends – one a pathetic hound dog, and the other who has been with his wife since the 7th Grade (this second character is played by Mattew Gray Gubler, who does a great job selling his character, even making the line “My wife is better than my dream girl. She’s real” into a truly touching moment).

The movie is elevated by the performances of Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel, two of the best young actors working in Hollywood right now. Gordon Levitt is particular is quietly building up an outstanding body of work, where each performance is different from the last. Since 2004’s Mysterious Skin, where he played a gay hustler to the following year’s high school noir Brick, where he was a modern day Bogart, to The Lookout, where he was a criminal with a brain injury to Stop-Loss where he was a Iraq veteran struggling with suicidal thoughts, to his mild mannered reported in Miracle at St. Anna to his crazed killer in Killshot, and two vastly different performances in Uncertainty (which is still waiting for a release date), Gordon-Levitt cane seem to do just about anything they throw at him. Here, playing a romantic lead for the first time in years, he brilliantly carries it off. As the movie is told from his point of view, he’s got the most growth to do, and Deschanel’s Summer is more of an idealized beauty that he cannot contain. Again, since the movie is filtered through his point of view, she is less complex, but Deschanel does a remarkable job with her big doe eyes, making you fall hard for her, right alongside Gordon-Levitt.

(500) Days of Summer is quite simply a joy to watch. I do not often get won over by movies like this, but when I see one that is this good, I cannot help but fall in love with it. It is smart, it is funny, it is extremely well made and amazingly well acted. In short, it’s easily one of the best films of the year so far.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Movie Review: Bruno

Bruno *** ½
Directed By: Larry Charles.
Written By: Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Dan Mazer & Jeff Schaffer based on the character created by Sacha Baron Cohen.
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen (Brüno), Gustaf Hammarsten (Lutz), Clifford Bañagale (Diesel).

I never cease to be amazing by the brazen genius of Sacha Baron Cohen. Whether he’s playing a gay racecar driver in Talladega Nights, a faux Italian barber in Sweeney Todd or one of his own outrageous characters, Baron Cohen seems to have absolutely no fear. In 2006’s brilliant Borat he played a reporter from Kazaksthan who through his own Anti-Semitism and racism exposed America’s value system as well. Now he’s back with Bruno, playing the most extreme version of the gay stereotype you can imagine to once again pokes fun at America’s value system. And while the result is certainly more scattershot than its predecessor, it is even more daring. You cannot help but wonder how Baron Cohen made it through this film without being killed – or at least having the crap kicked out of him.

Bruno is, like Borat, a character from Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show. He is an Austrian TV host of a show about fashion, where his extreme homosexuality pokes fun at America’s vapid celebrity obsessed culture, as well as its barely veiled homophobia. Watching Bruno, pretty much everyone is likely to be offended, but you have to hand it to Baron Cohen – the man is willing to do just about anything.

Take for example a scene in which Bruno walks down the street is Israel in a Jewish school boy outfit, cut to make him it look incredibly gay. Or when he tells an admitted terrorist that his leader looks like “a dirty wizard or a homeless Santa Claus”. Or when he goes on a talk show in Dallas, with a primarily African American audience, calls them all racist and says that he adopted his African son by “swapping him for an Ipod” and gave him a traditional African name – OJ. Or when he tries to get into the tent of a Southern hunter completely naked at 3 am. Or when he tries to seduce Texas Republican Ron Paul. Or when he crashes a “God Hates Fags” rally while literally strapped to his gay lover in a weird bondage position. But none of that compares to the finale of the film where Bruno, who has now become “straight” whips up a white trash crowds intense homophobia until it’s about to explode, then strips down and makes out with another man, prompting angry screaming, tears and chairs been thrown onto the mat – all the while, Baron Cohen never blinks – never breaks character. You are amazed that he never seems to get seriously hurt either.

As I mentioned before, Bruno is more scattershot than Borat was. While in the previous film, Baron Cohen set out to expose America’s inherent racism and Anti-Semitism, and did a brilliant job of it; in Bruno he tries to attack too many things. In the beginning of the film, he briefly attacks the vapidity of the fashion world, telling a model that she has the hardest job in the world. “You have to move your right leg forward, then your left, and then remember which leg to put forward again, and then you have to turn”. He makes a fool of himself at fashion week in Milan, before being kicked out, and heading to America to become the biggest gay Austrian celebrity since Arnold Schwarzenegger.

His attempts at becoming famous in America are pitiful. He makes a TV show pilot, which he somehow gets a test audience for, which essentially consists of him dancing around (often completely naked – yes you see more penis in this movie than in most porn films), trying to interview Paula Abdul while sitting on his “Mexican Chair People”, insulting Jamie Lynn Spears unborn child, saying that on the ultrasound he looks “retarded” and confronting Harrison Ford as he comes out of a store. He tries to solve the Middle East Peace Project, and fails. He adopts an African baby, and sets out photo shoots with the baby being crucified like Jesus, and then determines that like “Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kevin Spacey”, he needs to be straight, so he heads off to two counselors who say they can “cure” his homosexuality – and then proceeds to humiliate both of them. While you may wonder if some of Baron Cohen’s real life targets in his film deserve the treatment they receive, these two jackasses get exactly what they deserve.

What is brilliant about Bruno is the same thing that was brilliant about Borat. The character is so far over the top that he appears ridiculous to most people, but to some they accept him at face value. Bruno does not really resemble any actual homosexual person that I have ever met, but instead he represents the most extreme stereotypical fear that people who never actually met a gay person harbor about them. He confirms their worst fears, and then rubs their faces in it. Perhaps the most unforgettable image from the movie (yes, more unforgettable than the talking penis) is a man at that final wrestling match who is literally crying as he watches Bruno and his lover make out. He wanted to see some good old fashioned man on man wrestling, not what he got.

Bruno is not the film that Borat was, but perhaps that’s because Baron Cohen cannot surprise us twice. When I watched Borat, I felt like I was watching something completely new a different – it is literally one of the most original movies of the decade and it marked Baron Cohen as a comedic genius on the level of Andy Kaufman or Peter Sellers. Bruno confirms that genius, but cannot quite shock us in the same way.

I realize that this review was more summarizing the action in the film than anything else, but that’s because that is about all you can do with a film like Bruno. I suspect that many audiences have been uncomfortable with the film – which is why it made $30 million in its opening weekend and only $25 million in the two weeks since. Many straight men seem uncomfortable looking at penises (why I’m not sure, don’t they ever look down in the shower?) and I suspect that women are as well. But Bruno is one of the most interesting films of the year, even if Baron Cohen doesn’t quite hit the level he was going for. American prides itself on being open and tolerant – but at the end of the day, it still has a long way to go. Baron Cohen looks this prejudice in the eye, and doesn’t back down. Yes, you can insult the film for being juvenile or silly, and making too many jokes about penises, and oral sex, and that the sex scene between Baron Cohen, but that’s kind of the point. You are likely to be uncomfortable at times watching Bruno, and that’s how it should be. It is that level of discomfort that Baron Cohen creates in his audience that makes him a genius.

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince *** ½
Directed By: David Yates.
Written By: Steve Kloves based on the book by JK Rowling.
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Michael Gambon (Professor Albus Dumbledore), Alan Rickman (Professor Severus Snape), Jim Broadbent (Professor Horace Slughorn), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), Freddie Stroma (Cormac McLaggen), Jessie Cave (Lavender Brown), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Maggie Smith (Professor Minerva McGonagall), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Hero Fiennes-Tiffin (Tom Riddle - Age 11), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Dave Legeno (Fenrir Greyback), Natalia Tena (Nymphadora Tonks), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Timothy Spall (Wormtail), Oliver Phelps (George Weasley), James Phelps (Fred Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Frank Dillane (Tom Riddle - Age 16).

The Harry Potter series, in book form, got darker and more complex as the series went along. Out of all seven books, I think that book six, The Half Blood Prince, was my favorite. It had the best structure, flashing back in time between Lord Voldemort’s past, and Harry’s present. It brought to mind The Godfather Part II, where we saw the rise and fall of the Corleone family in one movie. It was the best book by far I thought, and although I still highly enjoyed it, book Seven was somewhat disappointing coming on the heels of six.

In movie form, Harry Potter has had a somewhat rougher ride. The first two movies were able to be extremely faithful to the source material, because the books were much shorter. Although I enjoyed both of those movies, they never have seemed all that cinematic to me. Director Chris Columbus was perhaps TOO faithful. When Alfonso Cuaron took the reins for the third movie, he had to cut more out from the book, but succeeded brilliantly in making Harry Potter a more cinematic experience. The film was more alive visually than ever before, and the performances seemed richer. Director Mike Newell continued this is movie 4, which is perhaps my favorite of the movies, cutting more, but brilliantly bringing the spirit of the book to life. TV veteran David Yates took over for film 5, and although I enjoyed the movie, he seemed to struggle at times with the material. That book was SO big and so much had to be cut, that at times he seemed to be rushing from plot point to plot point, and the movie never really got a chance to breathe.

Which brings us to film number 6, also directed by Yates. It is a definite improvement over the last film, which felt more like a TV movie (with high production values) than a feature film. Here, Yates has improved the visual look and feel of the film – bringing it more in line with films 3 and 4. As an adaptation of the book, I was slightly disappointed. The flashbacks, which enriched the narrative of the book, and made Voldemort into more than just a snarling villain, and into a truly evil, menacing creation, have all but been eliminated. And as was the case with the rest of the series, many of the character details about the teachers have been discarded in favor of making room for more details about the students.

And yet, I am a realist. This movie is already two and half hours long, and had they included the flashbacks and the teacher details, then the easily could have run four hours or more – a realistically no one really wanted that. Once I got past my reservations and disappointment over the decisions to cut certain details, and focuses on the movie itself, I found that I highly enjoyed the film.

Once again, they have made excellent casting choices. In addition to the three stars – Daniel Radcliffe as Potter, Emma Watson as Hermonie and Rupert Grint as Ron who just keep improving in each and every film (I especially like Radcliffe’s flair for comedy he shows at a few points in this film) – and the old cast members like Michael Gambon as Dumbledore and especially Alan Rickman as Snape, the characters introduced in this book are excellent. Jim Broadbent is the major addition, as old potions master Horace Slughorn, brought out of retirement by Dumbledore with ulterior motives. Broadbent is a remarkable addition to the cast. He captures Slughorn just about perfectly, mixing his bumbling humor, with a slightly darker, egomaniacal side as well. In the entire series they have never seemed to step wrong in the casting department.

The movie still does jump from one plot point to another with perhaps too much speed, just like in number 5, but this time the pacing seemed more natural. It was not just rushing through with little care or patience. The tone of the movie is darker than perhaps it has ever been, but that is appropriate given the material. This is after all perhaps the darkest novel of the entire series (and don’t hand me the line that book seven is darker – just because more people die, does not make it darker). I enjoyed the interplay between the main actors, as the series continues to deepen their relationships, and fill them with heartbreak and sorrow. Director David Yates has grown, and seems to have a firmer grasp on the material. While I would have preferred bringing back Cuaron or Newell for the final film, I think he’ll do a fine job. I cannot wait to see the finale of the series in movie form.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Going Away

I will away from two weeks starting today, and not getting back until July 25th. I find it very hard to believe that I will be able to update the blog at any point during that time, as I will be on my honeymoon in Italy without a computer. So the blog will be silent until my return from the land of Fellini, Visconti, Rossellini, De Sica and Antonnini among many other great Italian filmmakers. So please come back in a couple of weeks, as the blog will once again be in full swing!

Weekly Top Tens: Top Ten Movie Serial Killers

How many movies with a serial killer have there been over the years? I'm not sure, but I think there maybe more movie serial killers than actual serial killers in the past 50 years or so. But the ten listed below are the ones that I remember the most. Yes, the number one choice is as cliched as it gets, but sometimes things are cliched for a reason.

10. David Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) in Summer of Sam (1999)
I seemed to be the only person in 1999 who loved Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, and a decade later, it hasn’t won over too many other admirers. The thing I love about Badalucco’s performance in this film is that for most of the running time of the movie, we are seeing nothing but paranoia from the main characters, as they wonder who the Son of Sam killer is, and slowly degenerate and start accusing Adrien Brody’s punk rocker, simply because he has changed from what he used to be. But every time we see Badalucco as Berkowitz, he is a pathetic figure, huddled on the floor of his apartment moaning, or yelling at the dog across the street who won’t stop barking, and talks to him telling him who to kill. Many serial killers in the movies – including most on this list – are portrayed as almost impossibly brilliant. Badalucco’s is a pathetic, lonely, loser.

9. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) in Grindhouse: Death Proof
Kurt Russell gives one of his best performances as Stuntman Mike, a man who used to do stunts for the movies and TV, and now hangs out in bars hitting on gorgeous young women, before killing them with his “death proof” car. Russell gets the rhythms of Quentin Tarantino’s speech just about perfectly, and for much of the movie is wonderful and menacing. In the finale though, he becomes as pathetic and whiny as Badalucco in Summer of Sam. A great performance in an underrated movie.

8. Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis) in The Boston Strangler
We do not see Albert DeSalvo until almost half of the movie has gone by. Up until that point, we have followed the police investigation, trying to figure out who is killing all of these women. But when Tony Curtis finally does make a screen appearance, he is unforgettable. Normally, when I think of Tony Curtis, I think of either his slimy agent in the Sweet Smell of Success or his cross dressing musician in Some Like it Hot, and similar roles. But here, as an evil man, who gets himself inside woman’s apartments and stranglers them to death, he is bone chillingly good.

7. Jeffrey Dahmer (Jeremy Renner) in Dahmer
This is the first movie I can recall seeing Jeremy Renner in. Since this movie, he has become one of my favorite actors working right now. Dahmer is the first in a low rent series of “real life” serial killer movies - most of whom are nothing but exploitation films. But Dahmer was different. For one thing, it focuses more on the psychology behind Dahmer, not on the grisly nature of his crimes. Renner completely gives himself over to the role creating one of the most chilling screen villains in recent memory. This is a film that not a lot of people saw, but it certainly deserved a wider audience.

6. Henry (Michael Rooker) in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Loosely based on the real life case of Henry Lee Lucas, John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of the intense portrayals of a killer I have ever seen on screen. Henry kills without feeling or remorse, seemingly at random, using different weapons at different times on different victims, making him impossible to track. Henry is a man incapable of any real human emotion. We see the result of his crimes at the beginning of the film, but we do not see any actual murders until much later on. The other two characters in the movie – Henry’s roommate Otis, and Otis’s sister Becky, are drawn into Henry’s world slowly. Otis starts to like killing people as much as Henry does, and the two commit several murders together – we do see – until Otis tries to rape Becky, and Henry kills him. Henry and Becky set off together, Becky thinks to drive off into the sunset and they stop at a motel. The next day, Henry leaves the motel himself, and drops a bloody suitcase off on the side of the road. Rooker’s performance in the film is powerful – he would never again get a role this good – and he makes the most of it.

5. John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in Seven
When he uses it effectively, Kevin Spacey has one of the most chilling voices of any actor in history. Never has he used it better than in Seven, where his John Doe is a psychopath killing people who have committed one of the seven deadly sins. When he shows up late in the movie, he is all calm serenity, yet underneath that calmness lurks an insanity that only reveals itself slowly, a little more scene by scene, until the films shattering climax. Although this is a small role, it is absolutely unforgettable.

4. Patrick Bateman (Christain Bale) in American Psycho
Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman is one of the most unforgettable performances of the decade. He is a man who is obsessive in his competiveness with the other stock brokers - who has the best business card, who has the best credit card, etc. His release comes in the form of his sexual forays with prostitutes, who he then proceeds to kill in gruesome ways. But it’s not prostitutes - he’ll kill just about anyone for any reason. He needs that release, and if he cannot get that release, then he will go insane. Despite all the satire in the film, which is pitch perfect, Bale makes Bateman into a real person - we still do not like him, but at least we understand him.

3. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was daring in a lot of ways - from it’s abrupt shift in focus from Marion (Janet Leigh) to Norman at about the half way point, to essentially inventing the slasher genre. But all of it would be useless without Perkins amazing performance as the ultimate mama’s boy. From his first scene inside the parlor with Marion, full of stuffed birds mounted on the walls, you know that something is not quite right with Norman. As he starts killing people, dressed as his mother, things get really strange. Bates is the model of many modern day serial killers in the movies, and amazingly the psychology used to explain him, would be relevant to many actual serial killers. The movie is a masterpiece, and Perkins performance is one of the iconic in cinema history.

2. Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) in Peeping Tom
Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is one of the best films ever made. His protagonist is Mark Lewis, played in an unforgettable performance by Carl Boehm. Mark is a frustrated filmmaker, who was warped as a child by being used as a guinea pig in his father’s experiments. Now, he wants to capture the look of absolute terror on his victims faces. He murders them using a knife on his camera’s tripod, and a mirror so that they can watch themselves die. Lewis is one of the most obsessive examples of a serial killer ever put on screen – he needs to kill, and he needs the girls to die in the right way – getting angry with them if they do not. It is not a film that a lot of people have seen, but it should be.

1. Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs
Sometimes the most clichéd choice in a top ten list is also the best. In The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins created what is possibly the best screen villain in history. He is charming and chilling at the same time, playing with Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) like a cat plays with a mouse, deciding whether or not to kill her. But he cannot - he grows to love her too much. But that does not stop him from killing everyone else he can. There is not a scene in the film that has Hopkins in it that is not pitch perfect and chilling. This is truly one of the best performances in history, and the only possible choice for the number 1 spot on this list.

DVD Views: The Unborn

The Unborn *
Directed By:
David S. Goyer.
Written By: David S. Goyer.
Starring: Odette Yustman (Casey Beldon), Gary Oldman (Rabbi Sendak), Cam Gigandet (Mark Hardigan), Meagan Good (Romy), Idris Elba (Arthur Wyndham), Jane Alexander (Sofi Kozma), Atticus Shaffer (Matty Newton), James Remar (Gordon Beldon), Carla Gugino (Janet Beldon).

The Unborn is a series of “Boo!” moments in search of a story. Almost every scene in The Unborn contains one of those cheap scare moments, where something jumps out at the audience from off camera to try and scare us. When you combine that with all the dream sequences, the movie is made up of pretty much one cliché after another.

The movie stars Odette Yustman (no, I have never heard of her either and judging on her performance here, I may never hear of her again) as Casey Beldon, a young college student who strange things start happening to. While baby sitting, a young boy attacks her with a mirror, cutting her eye. When she goes to the eye doctor to get it checked out, she finds out that she has a genetic disorder. It turns out, that she had a twin brother that died in utereo, that she never knew about. More strange things happen to her - people around her keep getting possessed by some sort of demon who really wants Casey. Her brother, it seems wants to be born.

Jane Alexander, that great actress from the 1970s, is stuck in the thankless role of the old woman who knows all the secrets, and imparts them to Casey, before of course, being attacked herself. Gary Oldman plays a Rabbi who thinks he can help Casey perform an exorcism and get rid of the demon once and for all. Then there is Cam Gigander as Casey’s boyfriend and Meagan Good as her best friend, and various other characters including Idris Elba as a priest, who just seem to be around to raise the body count.

Perhaps I would have liked The Unborn more - not enough to recommend it, but at least more than I did, had I seen it in the theaters when it came out in January instead of waiting for video. In the intervening months, Sam Raimi’s similarly plotted Drag Me to Hell has been released, and that is just about a pitch perfect horror movie in this vein. The writing, the filmmaking and most importantly the performance by the lead actress (Alison Lohman) were all great in that movie, and makes The Unborn look like amateur hour. There is not a moment in this movie that is scary. Not even all those Boo moments, as after the first couple we start to completely mistrust the movie. Writer/director David S. Goyer, who is a good writer sometimes, but always an awful director, just has no idea how to make an effective horror movie.

The film’s final scene (and in case you have not figured it out I will add a SPOILER warning) is meant to be shocking, and perhaps had the film been made 50 years ago it would have. But nowadays there are clinics that you can go to and get your demon spawn sucked out of you. I doubt even the pro-life crowd would object to killing a demon.

Movie Review: Moon

Moon *** ½
Directed by: Duncan Jones
Written By: Duncan Jones & Nathan Parker.
Starring: Sam Rockwell (Sam Bell), Kevin Spacey (Gerty), Dominique McElligott (Tess Bell), Kaya Scodelario (Eve Bell).

Sam Rockwell is one of the most interesting actors working today. Whether he’s doing offbeat comedies like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or dramas like Snow Angels, or even a strange, flawed movie like Choke, Rockwell is always fascinating screen presence. In Moon, he gets perhaps his best role and has to carry the entire movie on his shoulders. For most the movie, Rockwell has no one but himself, and a very strange robot with the voice of Kevin Spacey, to play off of. And he pulls it off brilliantly. Without him, this movie would fail miserably. But because he is so great, the entire movie is elevated.

Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut stationed on the moon by himself for three years. His job is to over the harvest of the hydrogen - or some other gas, I cannot really remember - which in the near future is the earth biggest supplier of energy. He only has two weeks to go, and he is going slightly stir crazy. The communication satellite is down, which does not allow for direct communication with earth. All messages have to be sent through an elaborate system, so the only way he was to talk to his wife is through videotaped messages. His only contact with anything resembling a human is with Gerty, a robot who roams the ship, and has a computer screen with a smiley face on it, that changes expressions depending on what information he is conveying. Gerty does everything for Sam - from cutting his hair to preparing his meals. As much as a machine like Gerty is capable of loving a human, Gerty loves Sam.

One day Sam goes out in his lunar car to check on a problem with one of the harvesters, and ends up in an accident, that almost kills him. When he wakes up, he is in the infirmary, and Gerty tells him what happened. Sam does not remember how he got back to base, but Gerty will not let him leave. Eventually Sam does leave, and sneaks off to the scene of the accident. There he finds his own body - except he is not dead. He brings himself back to the base, where once again Gerty insists on putting this other Sam in the infirmary. The question is why are there now two Sam’s, and which, if either, is the real one. The one who was in the accident knows he has been there for neary 3 years, while the other one claims to have been there only a week. What follows is strange, intelligent science fiction, with more emphasis on its character than special effects.

Moon was co-written and directed by Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, and unlike most current science fiction movies, it is not just an action movie or horror film in sci-fi dressing. It is a movie that takes its science fiction premise seriously, and follows it through to its most logical conclusion. It does feel the need to dress it up with anything unnecessary. The special effects are low key, but just about perfect. You never doubt that you are on the moon. The score by Clint Mansell is wonderfully trippy. For people raised on modern day science fiction, they may think that Moon is too slow - they’ll keep waiting for the action or the horror that never comes. But for fans of real science fiction, Moon is one of the best in years.

One of the best things about the movie, aside from Sam Rockwell’s amazing dual performance which carries the film, is the portrayal of Gerty, the robot. I have seen countless movies about robots that are programmed with artificial intelligence who eventually snap and look to kill the human characters. But Gerty is different - he is actually a nice robot. He has grown to love Sam, and he helps him, even when that help goes against the wishes of the company that made him. Kevin Spacey does a great job with the voice of Gerty, making him sound slightly untrustworthy at first, but soon becomes actually quite comforting.

Moon is intelligent science fiction, well written, well acted, well directed. It is a film that trusts it audience to come along for its slow burn of a ride. It is one of the best science fiction in the last few years.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: The Ten Most Memorable Movie Prostitutes

Over the years, there have been countless prostitutes in the movies. Often, it has been a good way for actresses to win, or at least be nominated for, Oscars. But out of all the movie prostitutes I have ever seen, these are the ten they stick out in my mind the most.

10. Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) in Monster (2004)
If nothing else, Theron’s portrayal of real life prostitute and female serial killer proved that not every hooker in the movies has a heart of gold. Theron portrayed a woman who had been beaten down by life, desperate for any sort of love and companionship, and when she finally found it in her lesbian lover (played brilliantly by Christina Ricci in a very underrated performance); she was willing to do anything to hold onto it. The movie does not forgive Wuornos her actions, but rather just looks to explain them. Theron gave a truly excellent performance in a great little movie.

9. Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) in LA Confidential (1997)
Sometimes an actress like Basinger, who normally is not exactly the best in the world, gets a role that is perfect for them. Such was the case with Lynn Bracken in LA Confidential, the hooker who has been cut to look like Veronica Lake, who both lead cops in the movie – Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce – fall for. Basinger is not quite the hooker with the heart of gold here, but she is certainly soft. She is a realist, who knows what is going on, and begins to care for Crowe, despite her better judgment. It is far and away the most memorable performance of Basinger’s career.

8. Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in Last Exit to Brooklyn (1990)
There is no romanticism is Leigh’s performance as Tralala, a prostitute who makes her living having sex with sailors in her small neighborhood. Tralala is not exactly the most sympathetic character in movie history, and Leigh’s no nonsense performance was an absolute stunner, as she fearlessly captured the character, warts and all. And yet, in the conclusion of her segment, you do feel sympathy for her. After a night of heavy drinker, she passes out, and then is passed around and raped repeatably by just about every guy around. It is a harrowing performance in an harrowing movie.

7. Lulu (Louise Brooks) in Pandora’s Box (1929)
G. W. Pabst’s epic melodrama is one of my favorite silent films of all times, and contains a brilliant performance by Louise Brooks as Lulu. Lulu starts out as a prostitute, and a sexually frank vaudeville performer, who marries a respectable man, murders him, goes on the run, falls back into prostitution, and ends up being murdered by Jack the Ripper. Brooks was one of the most interesting of all silent actresses, had a wonderful face, an iconic haircut, and an undeniable sexuality, that would go missing from the screen for decades after the production code came in a few years later. As they did the year before, with Diary of a Lost Girl, Pabst and Brooks made a gothic, sexual masterpiece in Pandora’s Box.

6. Cabiria Ceccarelli (Giuletta Masina) in Nights of Cabiria (1957)
Cabiria is an almost impossibly naïve prostitute in post War Rome, that you cannot help but fall head over heels for. She searches in vain for love, and finds nothing but heartbreak. When she finally meets a man who promises her a respectable future, she falls in love with instantly, although what follows is essentially one humiliation after another. And yet no matter what Cabiria goes through, she never allows herself to be completely broken, completely ripped apart. She keeps her head held high no matter what. This was a transitional movie for director Federico Fellini, who was moving away from realism into more fantastic areas, and this movie has a mixture of both elements. He gives his wife Masina the best role of her career here, and that’s saying something considering all the great work she has done.

5. Constance Miller (Julie Christie) in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
Much like the movie itself, Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller is an unconventional movie prostitute. She shows up in the small mining town of Presbyterian Church, and immediately sets her sites on newcomer McCabe, who has set up a small, low class brothel. She convinces him that she can the run the place better than he can – as a prostitute, she understands the girls and clients better – and she’s right, as the business starts to thrive. She also understands when men from the mining company come and offer to buy the place, that they should take the money and run, or else they’ll get killed. Christie’s Mrs. Miller is a businesswoman more than anything else, and although she does in fact love McCabe, when the climatic shootout arrives (which is different from just about every other Western ever made), she has slipped back into an opium induced haze, and has no idea what is going on. It’s one of the best performances of Christie’s career, in one of the very best films ever made.

4. Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve) in Belle De Jour (1967)
Luis Bunuel’s Belle De Jour is about bored housewife Severine who has masochistic sexual fantasies that help her get through her idyllic, but dull life with her husband. She loves him, but they are not sexually compatible. She finds release by working as a prostitute in a high end brothel every weekday afternoon for a few hours. There she is drawn into a dangerous game with two men. One, is a friend who has been in love with her for years. The other is a gangster, with whom she is able to live out her sexual fantasies, but who becomes too obsessed with her. She tries to leave, but the gangster tracks her down, and shoots her husband – leaving him in a coma. In the end, Severine once again escapes into a fantasy world – this time not a sexual one, but one where she and her husband are once again happy and healthy. No matter what she has, she seems to want the opposite. This is one of Bunuel’s masterpieces, and perhaps the best performance of Deneuve’s wonderful career. A truly great film in every way.

3. Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) in Klute (1971)
While the movie itself is not as good as most of the others on this list, Jane Fonda’s performance as call girl Bree Daniels is an absolute stunner. She plays an aspiring actress, who turns tricks for money, and also because she doesn’t want to become dependent on any man. She meets Klute (Donald Sutherland), a PI looking for his friend, and gets drawn into his case – he is searching for a friend, who addressed an obscene letter to Bree than disappeared. The thriller plot of the movie is intense and involving, if a little predictable. But what really makes the movie work is its total immersion into Bree’s world, and Fonda’s complete commitment to playing this woman without judgment or condemnation. This is one of the best screen performances of the 1970s.

2. Sera (Elisabeth Shue) in Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
I realize now that Nicolas Cage’s performance as Ben in Leaving Las Vegas has made a few of my top ten lists in the past, but for me, the really stunning performance in Leaving Las Vegas has always been Shue’s. Ben is an alcoholic stumbling towards his death, and as such, he never really changes, Shue’s Sera is the more complex character. She starts out the movie in a sadomasochistic relationship with her pimp, who gets killed, then she falls for Ben. At first, the two have an easy way with each other – she accepts his drinking, he accepts her profession. But as they grow to love each other, things become more complicated and difficult. Shue is one of those actresses who for some reason only ever got one perfect role – and the performance she gives in the movie is one for the ages.

1. Iris Steensma (Jodie Foster) in Taxi Driver (1976)
What makes Jodie Foster’s performance in Taxi Driver the most memorable of any prostitute in screen history for me is the fact that she was just a kid when she delivered it, and yet she is so completely convincing it is scary. We see her almost exclusively through Travis’ eyes, the poor girl he wants to help get off the street, but there are other scenes in the movie that make us question her motives, as well as his. When he picks her up, she tries futilely to seduce him, and later in a diner, she explains why she does what she does. There is also a rather tender scene between her and her pimp that makes us question everything. Out of all the movie prostitutes in history, Foster’s Iris is the one that sticks out most in my mind.