Friday, April 29, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Miracle in Milan (1951)

Miracle in Milan (1951) *** ½
Directed by: Vittorio De Sica.
Written by: Cesare Zavattini & Vittorio De Sica & Suso Cecchi d'Amico & Mario Chiari & Adolfo Franci based on the novel by Zavattini.
Starring: Francesco Golisano (Totò), Emma Gramatica (La vecchia Lolotta), aolo Stoppa (Rappi), Guglielmo Barnabò (Mobbi), Brunella Bovo (Edvige), Anna Carena (Marta, la signora altezzosa), Arturo Bragaglia (Alfredo), Erminio Spalla (Gaetano).

Vittorio De Sica was one of the pioneers of the neo-realist movement in Italy following WWII. He had actually started with the style a little earlier than that, with films like The Children Are Watching Us (1943). But his most well known films followed the war – in particular The Bicycle Thief (1948), about a father trying to support his family after the war, and my personal favorite Umberto D. (1952) about an old civil servant, who can no longer support himself, or his lovable dog, on the measly pension he receives. These films used non-professional actors, were shot on the actual locations, and represented life in Italy how it really was – hard and stricken with poverty. In many ways, Miracle in Milan (1951), which he made between his two neo-realist masterpieces, is very similar to the other two films. It certainly has the same basic concern – about poverty amongst Italians, and how no one around them seems to care. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. But while Miracle in Milan is part neo-realist film, it is also part fantasy film. The two styles, which logically should be polar opposites and not mesh together at all, works surprisingly well for most of the films running time.

The film is about Toto (Francesco Golisano), who we first meet as a baby, abandoned in an old woman’s garden. She takes him in, and raises her as her own – until she dies, and he is shipped off to the orphanage. But none of this seems to affect Toto that much – he spends the entire movie smiling, and helping people. When he is released for the orphanage, he even has his bag full of his possessions stolen. He walks after the thief, and tells him there must be some sort of misunderstanding, because that is his bag. The thief turns out to be a fairly nice guy – just down on his luck. He gives Toto his bag back, and then invites him to stay at his place – which is just a shanty in the middle of field, where many others have built shanty homes as well. Toto decides to take the lead on this, and soon they are building an entire shanty village in that field – and the downtrodden from all over show up, and Toto finds a place for them. Things seem to be going well, until the owner of the property shows up. He wants to sell it to another rich man. The two comically negotiate, with the potential buyer eventually backing out. But when oil is discovered on the property not longer after, he does buy it – and determines to kick the inhabits out. And that is when the fantasy starts.

While The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. are clearly dramatic films – tragedies really – Miracle in Milan tells a similar story almost as a comedy. We didn’t really see the rich in either of those other two films – the existed as people far removed from the poor – but here they are in the film, and De Sica portrays them as buffoons. The comic negotiation between the two rich people reaches absurdly hilarious heights, and they continue to shout numbers at each other, that seem to have little relation to reality. Later, when the rich man has sent his goon squad to throw the inhabits of the shanty town out, Toto and other leaders in the community go and see him. He allows them in, but doesn’t really listen to him – he keeps picking up the phone and screaming “Buy” into it. He humors them by listening to their song, and tells them everything will be fine – only to call the police in for an inept raid (that he will also run). The rich here are completely divorced from the reality of the situation being faced by these poor men, women and children – and they don’t much care either.

I really liked the first hour of Miracle in Milan. It is here where the satire is at its best, and it’s hard not to like the ever cheerful Toto as a hero. De Sica is essentially making the same point he made in The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. about the poor and displaced, and how the government and the rich simply do not seem to care. The last half hour of the film was slightly more troubling to me though. When things are at their bleakest, and it looks like they will be run out of their homes, Toto’s long departed mother shows up as a ghost and gives him a magical dove – that will allow him to wish for whatever he wants. It starts off amusing – and Toto wishes for all sorts of wild things, nothing for himself mind you, but for everyone else. But I think De Sica allows this segment to go on far too long. It gets repetitious, and to be honest rather dull at points, until he redeems the movie with the finale.

Overall, I quite enjoyed Miracle in Milan. I knew little of the film before watching it, and I assumed that it was going to be another of De Sica’s neo-realist movies. I was mistaken, but gladly in the first hour. De Sica would go onto to make other comedies in his career, so it shouldn’t have surprised me too much. I even think the switch to fantasy film in the final third works to a point. Had De Sica cut a little for this part, I think Miracle in Milan would probably be a masterwork. As it stands, it’s an excellent little comic film. One that deserves more of an audience.

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Brief Encounter (1945)

Brief Encounter (1945) ****
Directed by: David Lean.
Written by: David Lean & Ronald Neame & Anthony Havelock-Allan based on the play by Noel Coward.
Starring: Celia Johnson (Laura Jesson), Trevor Howard (Dr. Alec Harvey), Stanley Holloway (Albert Godby), Joyce Carey (Myrtle Bagot), Cyril Raymond (Fred Jesson), Everley Gregg (Dolly Messiter), Marjorie Mars (Mary Norton), Margaret Barton (Beryl Walters).

Why is it that the greatest screen romances always seem to have the lovers separated at the end? Think Casablanca (1943) with Rick urging Ilsa to get on that plane and leave him behind, or Gone with the Wind (1939) with Rhett telling Scarlett he doesn’t give a damn (and as any guy will tell you, despite the sequel written years later, Rhett ain’t coming back). David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) deserves comparisons to both of those films – it ranks among the greatest screen romances in history, and once again, ends with the lovers apart (before you complain about spoilers, just remember the movie is called Brief Encounter – had they ended up together, it wouldn’t have been brief).

Every Thursday, Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) takes the train from her small English town into the city to do some shopping, grab lunch and catch a matinee before heading home. It is a good way to break up her domestic routine. One evening, while waiting for the train home, she gets something in her eye – and cannot seem to get it out. The handsome Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) offers her assistance. He helps her, they take their separate trains’ home, and don’t think twice about it. The following Thursday, they run into each other at a restaurant – it is packed, he has nowhere to sit, so they have lunch together. He tells her that like her, he is happily married with two kids, and that on Thursdays, he comes into town to work at the hospital. It’s a good way to break up his calm GP practice he has the rest of the week. That day, he decides to play hooky, and come with her to the movies. After that, they are powerless to stop the attraction between them.

Brief Encounter is really a story about repressed love. Laura and Alec love each other – that is clear from that first afternoon onwards. But that doesn’t mean they don’t love their respective spouses. Since the movie is told from Laura’s point of view, we never meet Alec’s wife or kids. But with Laura, we see the kind of calm, cool affection happily married couples have with each other between her and her husband Fred (Cyril Raymond). It isn’t an exciting life, but it is a happy one. They have a marriage built on love and trust – and until Alec comes along, Laura doesn’t even know she’s missing anything. She is content.

But Alec changes that. Perhaps its nothing more than infatuation and lust – a lust that after all is never really consummated in the movie. Relationships have different stages to them – and to some, nothing beats that first little while in a relationship, where you cannot stop thinking about the other person, and want to spend all their time together. Perhaps that’s why Brief Encounter works so well – and why we get the sense that neither Laura or Alec are ever going to forget their brief time together, and may even consider each other the “love of their lives”. There is none of the messiness, the arguments that come along with real relationships – just happiness. And then when its over, it’s devastating.

David Lean was a great director, who for most people will forever be remembered for his epics. The final five films of his career - The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and A Passage to India (1984) – were all sweeping historical epics of at least three hours in running time. Here though, in his first real solo success, he proves that he was a director just as good on a small, intimate scale. Brief Encounter runs only 85 minutes, but Lean’s direction of it is just about perfect. There is something about black and white movies that is simply more romantic than color ones – and Lean uses this to his advantage. He finds the romance in everyday locations like the spacious movie theater, the little restaurant, and especially the smoky train station. He switches to soft focus for their trip to the country, giving it the feeling of a dream. Lean, who was comfortable using a large canvas, proves he is equally comfortable on a smaller scale.

They don’t really make movies like Brief Encounter anymore. Inarguably, modern audiences may find a film like this – with no sex – to be quaint and old fashioned. And in some ways, that is true. But for me, Brief Encounter is cinematic romance at its finest.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

NHL Playoff Predictions - Round 2

Western Conference Round 2

In the first round, I went 2 and 2 on my predictions - right on Vancouver and Nashville going on, wrong on Detroit and San Jose (there was some wishful thinking on my part on that one). It was a great round 1, and Round 2 should be great as well.

1. Vancouver vs. 5. Nashville
The real question in this series is what Roberto Luongo will show up. The one who was a Vezina nominee this year, and played so good in the first three games in the Chicago series, and was excellent in Game 7, or the one who couldn’t stop a beach ball for three games. If he plays well, than the Canucks should beat Nashville in round 2. Their forwards completely outmatch those of the Predators, and their defense is essentially a wash. The Sedins certainly need to step up as well, and Kesler needs to score against the much less experienced Predators, who have never been in Round 2 before. What the Predators have going for them is the best goalie in the Western conference in Pekka Rinne - who unlike Luongo is always great. On defense, they are led by Shea Weber - who was undoubtedly the best defensemen in the Western conference this season. Their forwards are workmanlike - led by Mike Fisher, who has fit in well here, and Martin Erat. In my mind, The Preds are the best coached team in the NHL - they should never make the playoffs, but always do because Barry Trotz knows how to get the most from his players. People in Vancouver probably think this is going to be a cakewalk - but they best not take Nashville lightly. This will be closer than many think.
Prediction: Vancouver in 7.

2. San Jose vs. 3. Detroit
A rematch of last year’s second round series, that the Sharks won surprisingly easily. The difference this year is that the Red Wings are not coming off of a long battle in round 1, as the swept the Coyotes, while the Sharks had to battle long and hard against the Kings. Like in the other Western series, I think this one hinges on the performance of a goalie - Annti Niemi. There were times where he downright sucked against the Kings - and that was without a legit sniper firing on him. How will be fare against Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Lidstrom, et al. These teams match up well against each other - weak on defense, question marks in net, and a group of amazing forwards. If I worry about the Sharks a little, its because even against the Kings, their fourth line couldn’t do anything right - and they had to ride their top three lines hard - and as always, there were times when Thronton, Marleau and Heatley (now a separate line as the other two) disappered. Still, I think that the Sharks are once again just too much for the Red Wings. This will be a battle though.
Prediction: San Jose in 6.

Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions
Like in the West, I was 2 and 2 in my first round predictions (proving once again why I spend more time writing about movies than hockey) - predicting Washington and Boston going on, failing on Philly and Tampa. It was a great first round out East as well, so let’s hope they keep it up in round 2.

1. Washington vs. 5. Tampa Bay
Bruce Bodreau’s transfer from all offense to a more balanced game for the Caps paid dividends in the first round, fairly easily deposing of the Rangers. This team can still out score you, but now they are also comfortable playing in close games as well. And if there is any player in the league who wants to win more than Ovechkin, I don’t know who it is. Green should be healthy, and Neuvirth has answered a questions about Washington’s goaltending. For Tampa’s part, they never said die, came back from 3-1 behind to beat the Pens. Surprisingly, Tampa was able to do it even with Stamkos underperforming. Guy Boucher has this team playing tremendously well right now, and the ageless Dwayne Roloson still has something left in the tank in net. Still however, I think it’s asking too much of Tampa, who have just won their first series since winning the cup, and has struggled mightily since then to beat the Caps, a deeper, more experienced team, in the first year of their resurgence.
Prediction: Washington in 6.

2. Philidelphia vs. 3. Boston
The round two series these two teams played last year will be forever remembered, as we saw the nearly impossible when Philly came back from 3-0 down in the series and in game 7. But make no mistake about it, this Boston team is not the same as the one that blew it last year. The biggest difference will be in net, where Tim Thomas has been the best goalie in the league this year. Yes, they fought hard in 7 games against Montreal, but then again, Philly had to fight to seven against Buffalo. The question mark for Philly is whether ANY of their goalies can find some consistency. With Pronger back, and big time playoff performers like Richards, Giroux, Lieno and Briere, you know they’ll be strong outside the crease, but I wonder just how far their goaltending will get them. Out of all the round 2 series’ this is the one that I have the hardest time picking.
Prediction: Philidelphia in 7.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

LA Kings Season Recap and Looking Ahead

So another season in officially over for my beloved LA Kings, who lost in 6 games in round 1 against the San Jose Sharks. It was a good series. No one gave the Kings a chance to win it, and they gave San Jose all they could handle. In fact, I think the Kings should have won the series. Had they not blown game 3, when they had a 4-0 lead, and could have pulled off one of three overtime games, they would have. So now it’s time to look forward to next year, and what I think the Kings need to do in order to improve.

Terry Murray

When Terry Murray was hired as the Kings head coach three seasons, he was undoubtedly the right coach at the right time. The Kings had missed the playoffs five straight seasons, and while they missed again in Murray’s first year, there was definite improvement. The Kings have made the playoffs the last two seasons, in large part due to Murray, who has provided this young team with structure and discipline. He is very good with young players, and we have definitely seen improvement from Kopitar, Doughty, Johnson, Brown, Simmonds, Quick, Clifford, Lewis, Martinez, Bernier and even Kevin Westgarth in that time. The argument for keeping Murray around is that next year, you are going to have at least one significant rookie in your line-up – Lotkinov or Schenn – and a year under Murray would help either player (or both) become more complete players. Under Murray, the Kings have become one of the best defensive teams in the league (ranked 5th in overall goals against) and penalty killing (ranked 4th, although no one allowed fewer PP goals this season, because the Kings were disciplined). In Quick, they seemed to have a found one of the best goalies in the league. If Championships are built on defense and goaltending, the Kings have that, and Murray can continue.

On the other hand (and this is the part people who know me have been waiting for, since I have been very hard on Murray all year long), you also need to score to win. The reason why the Kings finished 7th in the Conference, despite their impressive defense, is because their offense this year was at times non-existent. 24th in the league on the Powerplay, 25th in the league in overall Goals For. The reason for this is simple – Terry Murray was too conservative all year long. He was conservative when he had to choose between three rookie centers – Schenn, Lotkinov and Lewis, and picked the defensive specialist over the offensive guys. He was conservative later when they had to recall Lotkinov, and he was producing offense, but was weaker on defense, and demoted him again (where he promptly got hurt, meaning when Kopitar went down with his injury, the Kings had no offensive center to replace him). His powerplay was stagnate and didn’t move the puck well enough – and he stubbornly refused to change it. His mantra to the forwards seemed to be step up, but don’t screw up – essentially sending conflicting messages to the team by wanting them to make offensive plays, but criticizing – or benching or demoting – forwards who tried and failed to score. This in part led to the disappointing seasons by Ponikarovsky and Penner (ultimately both players should have been better, but Murray didn’t help). It seemed to me that Poni was scared all season of screwing up – so every time he had the puck he made the safe play – which is why this former 20 goal scorer only netted 5 this year. For his part, Penner simply looked confused for much of his time with the Kings since coming over at the trade deadline. He shows signs of life in the final two games of the Sharks series, but that was about it.

In the playoffs, the Kings lost however not because of the lack of offense, but because their structure fell apart. It fell apart in Games 3, 4 and 6 at times – the three at home – and that is why the Kings lost those games. The Kings were once again an inconsistent team all season – at times one of the best teams in the league (the first 15 games, the stretch from the All Star break to Kopitar’s injury) and at times one of the worst teams (November, January and after Kopitar got hurt until the end of the season). A coach’s main job, in my mind anyway, is to get consistent play out of their players. And to me, Murray failed to do this at times this season.

So ultimately, I am of two minds on Murray. On one hand, had they Kopitar in the series against the Sharks, they very easily could have won, pushed on to the second round and who knows what else. Hell, had they had Kopitar, they may have been able to get the one additional win they needed in their final 7 games to get to 4th instead of 7th. On the other hand, Murray failed to get his team to play offensively and he failed to get them to play consistently, and that ultimately is why the Kings were in 7th in the first place, and why they lost to the Sharks. If it were up to me, I’d fire Murray and bring in someone else – Ken Hitchcock and Peter DeBoer are the names that leap to mind. But when all is said and done, if Murray is back next year, I will not be too upset. But please Terry, keep one of Lotkinov or Schenn next year, and not go with four centers of Kopitar-Stoll-Richardson-Lewis. That would be a disaster.

Free Agents

The past few years, the Kings have been one of those teams with tons of Cap Space. That will not be the case next year – with the players they have added, and the Restricted Free Agents they have to sign, they will be right up against the cap next year. This is a one year thing, as after next season Penner, Smyth, Stoll and Mitchell are all UFA, and will free up a ton of cap space.

What does it mean for next season though? It means goodbye Peter Harrold (who didn’t player since January anyway), Alexi Ponikarovsky (who was a disappointment) and Michael Handzus (who is beloved in LA, but is slowing down and who they do not have the room to sign). All are UFA this year, and so, will have to be let go.

The Kings have quite a few Restricted Free Agents – this even after resigning Jonathan Bernier and Jack Johnson during the course of the season. The most important one is inarguably Drew Doughty, who will eat up quite a bit of cap space, but Wayne Simmonds is also vitally important to get under contract. They will also want to get rookies Alec Martinez and Trevor Lewis to resign as well, and given his playoff performance, Brad Richardson looks to be someone else they will try and retain. The question mark is Oscar Moller, who I do not think will ever fit in as long as Terry Murray is the coach (he is too small to play Murray brand hockey), but who is a talented guy, so I think they resign him, even if he ends up in Manchester for most of next season. From the Manchester lineup, they’ll have some to resign as well – leading scorer Bud Holloway, Richard Clune, David Meckler, Andrew Campbell, Corey Elkins, Marc-Andre Cliché, Patrick Mullen and goaltender Jeff Zatkoff are all RFA this year, and John Zeiller is UFA. I admit I don’t know much about these players (only Zeiler played any games with the Kings this season), so it will be up to Lombardi to determine what he wants to do. One thing that is clear, barring any trades, none of these guys will be on the Kings next year.

As for the free agent market of NHL players not currently on the Kings that will become available July 1st, I wouldn’t hold your breath expecting ANY signings this year. The Kings simply do not have the cap space, so any one they sign, would mean a trade would had to be made to make room. I know a lot of people thought the Kings may have interest in Brad Richards this off season, but they have nowhere near the cap space to sign him.

Potential Rookies

Next season, the Kings – who have broken in quite a few rookies in the past few seasons – will likely have a few rookies in their lineup. With the likely departure of Michael Handzus, that means there is a spot open at center – and it will undoubtedly come down to a battle of the youngsters Brayden Schenn and Andrei Loktinov. Lotki has more NHL experience, but had they been allowed to keep Schenn in the AHL this year, that might have been different. In my mind, these two guys are going to battle for a permanent spot on next year’s roster in training camp. The winner gets it; the loser has to wait for an injury or for Stoll’s departure the following year. Undoubtedly, these are the number 2 and 3 of the Kings’ future.

The other roster spot – for a winger – is likely going to be between Scott Parse and Oscar Moller. Both of these guys have played in the NHL before, but neither for a full season (this was supposed to be Parse’s chance this year, but he got injured after four games, and didn’t play again until Game 5 of the playoffs). The smart money is on Parse, as Lombardi and Murray seem to be much higher on him than on Moller, who likely has to spend another year in Manchester, and in actuality, may never get a real chance with the Kings – who have too many forwards in their lineup now, and too many promising ones coming up, meaning Moller is stuck in between and may not get his chance.

The most interesting may be on defense. The Kings will likely return with the same six d-men as this year (Doughty, Mitchell, Johnson, Scuderi, Greene and Martinez) and Davis Drewiskie as the seventh man. However, if they were trade one of them, that would make space for AHL All Star Voinov or Jake Muzzin, who played with the Kings a little at the beginning of the year. Or former first round pick Thomas Hickey. All would be significantly cheaper, so if the Kings are in cap trouble, I think they could move one of their defenseman, and still be okay.

Potential Trades

The Kings could make a trade this off season, especially if they want to free up cap space. The obvious trade candidates include impending UFA’s like Jarrett Stoll and Ryan Smyth, or defenseman Matt Greene. Of those three, I think Greene is the most likely to be moved – he wasn’t good in the playoffs, and with the Kings depth in defensive prospects, all of whom are much cheaper than Greene, it could be done. Least likely is Ryan Smyth, who has a huge salary, so unless there is a team who wants veteran leadership, and is trying to get the cap floor (and who Smyth will agree to go to), he’s a King next year – and I’m fine with that. There has been a lot of talk about trading Stoll in order to free up spots for both Schenn and Lotkinov, and while that is an option, it would mean two rookie centers and a sophomore center in Lewis down the middle – and I don’t think that’s a good idea.

If the Kings want to make a blockbuster, they have the tools to do so as well. Make no mistake, sooner or later they will have to deal either Jonathan Quick or Jonathan Bernier, as neither wants to spend his career as a backup. Quick looks like the man right now and teams are high on Bernier because he’s young, got loads of potential and is cheap. I don’t think it happens this year, but it will at some point. Other young players like Wayne Simmonds, Dustin Brown or even Jack Johnson could be used as trade bait, but that doesn’t seem like Lombardi’s style. So overall, while the potential is there for a trade, I really don’t see it happening.

Projected 2011-2012 Lineup

So because I don’t think there is going to be any free agent signings or trades, this is who I think the Kings lineup looks next year.

Smyth-Schenn OR Loktinov- Brown



In this lineup, Parse and Richardson are your “accordion” players, who can move up or down your lineup if need be. Westgarth you throw in when you want more toughness. Whoever doesn’t make the team – Schenn or Loktinov is your go to call up from Manchester on the forward lines. Drewiskie I doubt will play much – in the case of a serious injury, they recall someone from Manchester. The big IF here is if the Kings decide to move a contract this offseason, and not get much in return. If they do that, Moller is one the team as well – but if he’s sent down to Manchester, he will no longer be waiver exempt, meaning recalling him would be a risk.

Future Outlook

I said at the beginning of the year that I thought the Kings would win the Stanley Cup within Five Years. I still believe that. Did I believe this was their year? No, and the reason was simple – this season the Kings essentially played with one first line center (Kopitar) and two third line centers (Stoll, Handzus). They are moving towards playing with one first line center and two second line centers (Schenn, Loktinov) or, if Schenn turns out, eventually two first line type centers. This is a good thing. But it is also something that takes time. Perhaps Schenn or Loktinov come in next year and become a Logan Couture – a 30 goal scorer out of the gate – but probably not. They will need a few years to grow. The Kings are still heading in the right direction – even if that is so hard to admit right now, a day after another devastating playoff loss.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Movie Review: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants ***
Directed by: Francis Lawrence.
Written by: Richard LaGravenese based on the novel by Sara Gruen.
Starring: Reese Witherspoon (Marlena), Robert Pattinson (Jacob), Christoph Waltz (August), Paul Schneider (Charlie), Jim Norton (Camel), Hal Holbrook (Old Jacob), Mark Povinelli (Kinko / Walter), Richard Brake (Grady), Stephen Taylor (Wade), Ken Foree (Earl), Scott MacDonald (Blackie).

I have been fairly hard on Robert Pattinson’s previous film work. Sure, he was okay in his installment of Harry Potter, but it was a fairly minor role. In the Twilight movies, and then last year’s dreadful Remember Me, Pattinson has so far been awful, and I long for the day when his 15 minutes are up, and I no longer have to see him in movies. But in his new film, Water for Elephants, Pattinson is actually fairly good – he plays his role the way it is meant to be played. He is the passive, fairly uninteresting center of a movie that it quite literally a circus. Pattinson may well be able to have a longer career if he plays these types of roles in the future – hell, it’s pretty much how Kevin Costner has survived as long as he has.

Water for Elephants is a nostalgic look back at the circus’ of yesteryear. It begins in the early 1930s, as the Depression is just starting to grip America in poverty. We first meet Jacob (Pattinson) as he is about to take his final exams at Cornell, and become a Vet, just like his Polish immigrant father. But then a car accident kills both his parents, and reveals unknown amounts of debt to Jacob. He has lost his only family and his means of support. He decides to ride the rails to get a job – and ends up jumping on a train for a travelling circus. The Ringmaster, August (Christoph Waltz), wants to throw Jacob off but when he learns he is an Ivy League trained vet, he decides to keep him on.

What follows that is a movie that is fairly hard to believe, and has heaping doses of melodrama and soap opera theatrics. Jacob falls in love with August’s wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) – the two bonding over their love of animals. August turns out to be cruel, and perhaps a little mentally deranged, as he beats the animals, red lights his men when he cannot afford to pay them (that is throwing them out of a moving train), and treats Jacob alternately like a friend, and a cruel abuser. All of this is set against the backdrop of the “Most Spectacular Show on Earth”, the Barzini brothers circus (don’t mention Ringling brothers – August hates Ringling brothers).

The film, based on the bestseller by Sara Gruen (of which it is surprisingly faithful, especially when you consider they dropped a major character – in the book, August was just in charge of the animals, not the whole show, but the Ringmaster is not here) is not a great film, but it is an involving one. It holds your interest from beginning to end. In a way, a movie like this needs a calm center, and that is what Pattinson’s Jacob provides the audience – a newbie to this world that acts as out conduit into it. Witherspoon is also quite good as Marlena – beautiful and charming, but really just a young woman (younger than Witherspoon is in real life), who has been caught over her head. It is Waltz that commands our attention – just like he did in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (although, this role is nowhere near that one – how could it be?). He has crazed eyes at times in this movie, but is also capable of being charming – at times even likable – which makes his cruelty all the more painful. And Rosie the Elephant adds a great deal to the proceedings as well.

Directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), Water for Elephants is not a great movie. It is too predictable for that, and a little too sudsy for my taste, but it is a movie that is involving and interesting throughout. Even though I knew the story beforehand (having read the book), the movie held my interest and entertained me. No, it’s not great. But it’s pretty darn good.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: The Pilgrim (1923)

The Pilgrim (1923) *** ½
Directed by: Charles Chaplin.
Written by: Charles Chaplin.
Starring: Charles Chaplin (The Pilgrim), Edna Purviance (Miss Brown), Kitty Bradbury (Mrs. Brown, Edna's Mother), Syd Chaplin (Eloper / Train Conductor / Little Boy's Father), Mack Swain (Deacon), Mai Wells (Little Boy's Mother), Dinky Riesner (Little Boy), Loyal Underwood (Elder), Charles Reisner (Howard Huntington, Crook), Tom Murray (Sheriff Bryan), Henry Bergman (Sheriff on Train / Man In Railroad Station).

Those of you who read my last entry in this series, about Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925), know that in the never ending debate between silent movie fans about that is better – Keaton or Chaplin – that I fall firmly on the Keaton side of things. But saying that no way implies that Chaplin is somehow overrated or not very good. Despite my preference for Keaton, I have to admit that I don’t think he ever made a film quite as good as City Lights (1931), and of course while Keaton’s career fizzled in the sound era, Chaplin continued to produce great or near great films like The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952). Chaplin was smart enough to maintain his artistic independence, and because of it, was able to continue to make the types of films he wanted to for his entire career as a director.

His 1923 film, The Pilgrim, is one of Chaplin’s lesser known features. At only 55 minutes, it can barely be called a feature at all, which is why in the 1950s, Chaplin bundled it up with a couple of shorter films and reissued it as The Chaplin Revue (however since it wasn't The Chaplin Revue that made the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? Top 1000 list, but The Pilgrim, I’m reviewing it as a stand alone film).

In The Pilgrim, Chaplin surprisingly doesn’t pay his patented Little Tramp character that he made famous in his shorts, and continued on through films like The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times and The Great Dictator. The difference however is fairly unnoticeable. Chaplin plays an escaped convict, who steals a Pastor’s clothes, and bounds a train for Texas. When he gets off the train, he is mistaken by the local congregation as their new pastor (the real one has been delayed). Since it’s a Sunday, they drag poor Chaplin to church, and have him perform a service for them (complete with a hilarious sermon about David and Goliath), and then off to the house where he will be boarding, where, in the films best sequence, he clashes with a small boy. But Chaplin is recognized by an old cell mate, who threatens to foil his disguise – and steal the mortgage money the family has saved.

As I said, Chaplin isn’t technically the Little Tramp in The Pilgrim, but he might as well be. The Little Tramp was always a character who didn’t really like to work – he was somewhat lazy and shiftless, but so damn lovable, you couldn’t help but forgive him. And that pretty much describes Chaplin in this movie as well – we don’t know what Chaplin was in jail for, and it hardly matters. He is a nice guy, despite his criminal past. He willingly sacrifices himself at the end of the movie.

What surprised me about The Pilgrim is how it is devoid of many of the things we have come to expect from a movie. There is no sappy romance to clog up the procedures (there is a innocent flirtation between Chaplin and his long time co-star Edna Purviance, making her last appearance in a Chaplin film), but its hardly a romantic subplot. The film is also not as sentimental as many of Chaplin’s films are. I have never minded his romances, nor his sentimentality, but I know a lot of Chaplin’s detractors felt he laid these elements on too thickly in some of his movies. It is simply not the case here – he doesn’t even sentimentalize the kid, who is such a brat that when Chaplin kicks him, you cheer.

The Pilgrim is minor Chaplin – of that there is little doubt. It in no way can compare with his films like The Gold Rush, City Lights or Modern Times, his three silent feature masterpieces, and is perhaps even a notch or two below The Circus (1927) and The Kid (1921). Yet even minor Chaplin is better than most film comedies today. Chaplin packs more laughs into the brief sequences where he gives his sermon and when he fights with the kid, than most modern comedies do in their entire running times. Howard Hawks once said to make a great movie you needed to have three great scenes and no bad ones. Chaplin has no bad scenes in The Pilgrim, and two great scenes. I guess that means he made a near great film with The Pilgrim.

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Seven Chances (1925)

Seven Chances (1925) ****
Directed by: Buster Keaton
Written by: Clyde Bruckman and Jean C. Havez and Joseph A. Mitchell based on the play by Roi Cooper Megrue and David Belasco.
Starring: Buster Keaton (James 'Jimmie' Shannon), T. Roy Barnes (His partner Billy Meekin), Snitz Edwards (His lawyer), Ruth Dwyer (His girl Mary Jones), Frances Raymond (Her mother Mrs Jones), Erwin Connelly (The clergyman), Jules Cowles (The hired hand), Jean Arthur (Receptionist at Country Club).

Roger Ebert wrote that no filmmaker in history has had a better decade than Buster Keaton did in the 1920s. I can think of nothing better to support that claim than by saying that his 1925 film Seven Chances isn’t nearly as good as Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The General (1927), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) or The Cameraman (1928) and is still is a comic masterpiece. Buster Keaton, the greatest of all silent film stars (yes, greater than Chaplin) was on a role in the 1920s, and could essentially do no wrong. Even when his producing partner bought the rights to a B grade Broadway play, Keaton found a way to make it into a magnificent, hilarious film.

Seven Chances stars Keaton as James Shannon, who along with his partner, was swindled in a business deal, and now needs to come up with money quickly, or face jail time. His luck seems to change when a lawyer shows up at his office, and after a series of hilarious gags where Keaton avoids him, informs him that he stands to inherit $7 million from his dead grandfather. The lone catch is to get the money, he needs to get married by 7 pm on his 27th birthday – which happens to be the same day. James has long been in love with Mary, and she with him, although he has been too shy to admit it. With the money on the line, he finally professes her love, and she agrees to marry him – until she finds out about the money. She doesn’t want to get married if it’s just for that, and throws James out. She quickly changes her mind however, but cannot track James down. He has been convinced by his partner to find someone else. There are moments of hilarity throughout the film (and one sequence, where Keaton blows off a Jew, a black woman and a female impersonator, which is in bad taste – but this was 1925, and you sometimes have to accept a little casual racism and anti-Semitism in movies from this period) but it all culminates in one of the greatest chase sequences in movie history. His partner has put an add in the paper asking for any woman who is willing to marry Keaton for his money to show up at a certain church at 5pm. Keaton is there, but when he discovers Mary will marry him, he takes off for her house – leaving hundreds of angry women in dresses furious at him – who then give chase. The stunt work and the physical comedy on display during this chase scene – which makes up about a third of the films 56 minute running time – is among the greatest sustained comic set pieces in cinema history.

Keaton was known as the great stone face of silent comedy, and he shows why in this movie. He always thought it was funnier if his character bared his many humiliations, will trying so hard to maintain his dignity. He is humiliated multiple times during the course of Seven Chances, but each time, he picks himself up and keeps going. Chaplin by contrast, worked hard to get the audience to love his character – and often added in sentimental subplots to achieve this goal. Keaton had no need to do either. His characters were always men who worked hard to try and get what they wanted, and wouldn’t give up until they had it.

Keaton’s career will go down in movie history as one of the best an actor/director ever had. He easily fits alongside the best that category has ever produced – Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Chaplin etc. In fact, he is better than most of them. Yet, it is also one of the tragedies of screen history that Keaton essentially shot himself in the foot when the sound era came along. He signed a long-term contract with MGM in 1928 – a mistake he regretted the rest of his life. He lost all creative control over his films, stopped directing entirely, and was forced to use a stunt double for his films – when during the silent years Keaton not only did his own stunts, but often the stunts for the other actors in his movies if they thought they were too dangerous. The films he made in the 1930s were popular, but have faded from memory. Aside from a wordless, but memorable cameo in Sunset Blvd (1950) and a great supporting performance in Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) (where Chaplin apparently cut Keaton’s part down when it appeared that he was stealing the movie from him), Keaton didn’t much great film work after the 1920s. The film he left behind from that era though still stand up as some of the greatest comedies ever made – and Seven Chances is one of them. But the world will always have to wonder what Keaton could have done in the sound era, had he not signed that damned contract.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Movie Review: Certified Copy

Certified Copy ****
Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami.
Written by: Abbas Kiarostami.
Starring: Juliette Binoche (She), William Shimell (James Miller), Jean-Claude Carrière (The Man at the Square), Agathe Natanson (The Woman at the Square), Gianna Giachetti (The Café Owner), Adrian Moore (The Son).

Perhaps it is time for me to reevaluate my feelings of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. I had judged him on the basis of two films (admittedly, never a smart thing to do) Taste of Cherry, which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1997, and which I found to be a thudding bore and 10, which was one of his "experimental films" which I found to be even more boring, and so I have avoided his films since. But his latest film, Certified Copy, is one of the most fascinating films of the year so far. It has been compared to everything for Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby to Rosselini’s Voyage in Italy to Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad to Antonini’s L’Aventurra to Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love to Linklater’s twin films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset to the late work of Luis Bunuel. The strange thing about Certified Copy is that all of those comparisons are apt, and at the same time none of them are. This is a film unto itself – wholly original and unique.

The film stars Juliette Binoche and William Shimell as two people who may or may not be married. We first meet them as he is late to his own lecture about his new book, which argues that copies are just as good as originals in art. She arrives even later, and leaves before the lecture is over. We see her argue with her young son, who wonders why if she hated the man’s book so much, why does she want to meet him, and get him to sign copies of the book for everyone she knows? Then the two characters do meet, they argue, and eventually they get into a car to travel to another town close by in Tuscany where there is something she wants to show him. In these scenes, the two do genuinely seem to be going throw the typical getting to know each other romantic conversations we have seen before. But everything shifts during a scene in a café they stop at to have coffee. He leaves to take a cell phone call, and the owner of the café says she can tell the two of them are fighting, but they generally, he is a good husband. Binoche doesn’t correct her, but instead tells a long story about their marriage and their wedding day. When Shimell comes back to the table, she reveals that the café manager “mistook” them for a married couple, and she didn’t correct her. From then on, the two behave as a married couple – arguing about the past and the present in scenes that feel real as well. We are left with the interpretation that in one of the two halves of the movie, the characters are play acting. Either in the first half, they are a married couple pretending to have just met each other, or in the second half, they have just met each other but are pretending to be a married couple. Or are they? If they were genuinely married, why does the son question her about the man they just met? Is he playacting as well? But if they had just met, how does Shimell know the personal details of their marriage that she revealed only to the café owner when he was away taking the phone call?

There are a few way you can take Certified Copy. You can either drive yourself mad, trying to figure it all out, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together as many have done. Or you can simply go with the film, and accept that you will never know. Many critics have taken the first approach, and the explanations have run from the simple (that in one part or the other they are playacting) to the complex – that the character have become lost in time, and that both are real, but don’t happen the way we as an audience experience them, but there are really years in between the two halves of the movie or that the young couple we see getting married in the background is really these same two characters years before, and the old couple at the fountain (including a cameo by Bunuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere) are them as an older couple. There are other interpretations, and no one can seem to agree on which one is real, and which one isn’t.

And I think, that’s precisely the point. That at the same time everything we see in Certified Copy is real, and everything we see is not real. The scenes as they play out in front of us are real at the time we are watching them – the characters are precisely who they seem to be at all times. And yet, because this is a movie and Binoche and Shimell are actors playing these characters, they are also always a fake – a copy of real people if you will. The line between cinematic reality and fantasy has been blurred to point where it is indistinguishable in this film. This was true of Taste of Cherry to a certain extent as well – where Kiarostami takes great pains to remind the audience again and again that we are watching a movie. This time, he doesn’t need to do that, because right from the beginning of the movie, he tells us what the film is going to be about. You just need to pay attention.

All of this will likely sound like a pretentious bore to many people – and to those who hate the film, I can’t really argue. You could easily hate the film because Shimell plays his characters as a somewhat arrogant twat and Binoche becomes an annoying nag as the film goes along. Both of their performances however, especially Binoche’s (who proves once again, she is one of the biggest risk takers out there right now) fit into the world that Kiarostami has established here, and they fit in perfectly (those who complain that Shimell is wooden miss the point that he is supposed to be wooden).

Some of Kiarostami’s more adamant admirers didn’t really like Certified Copy, which to them represented him selling out, or simply him goofing off. Perhaps they are right about either of those things. But to me, Certified Copy is a film that makes me want to go back and see more Kiarostami films, which I didn’t think possible after seeing Taste of Cherry. The fact that Kiarostami cast an Oscar winning French actress, and a well known British opera singer in his leads is not Kiarostami selling out – but rather, I believe was necessary for him to make Certified Copy the success it is. After all, with this film, isn’t Kiarostami making a certified copy of the European art films of the past? While Certified Copy may not be the masterpiece that some of the films I mentioned at the lead of this review are, it is as close as we are likely to get in this day of age. Certified Copy deserves to be seen, discussed and seen again.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Movie Review: Your Highness

Your Highness *
Directed by: David Gordon Green.
Written by: Danny McBride & Ben Best.
Starring: Danny McBride (Thadeous), James Franco (Fabious), Natalie Portman (Isabel), Zooey Deschanel (Belladonna), Rasmus Hardiker (Courtney), Toby Jones (Julie), Justin Theroux (Leezar), Charles Dance (King Tallious), Damian Lewis (Boremont), Simon Farnaby (Manious the Bold), Deobia Oparei (Thundarian).

From 2000 to 2008, director David Gordon Green made four excellent films that almost no one saw. Starting with his haunting debut George Washington about kids growing up poor in the rural South, and moving onto his romance All the Real Girls, his Night of the Hunter inspired thriller Undertow and his tragic marriage drama Snow Angels, Green was establishing a signature style that drew comparisons to Terrence Malick, who produced some of his films. He was a director that I loved, even if no one else seemed to notice. But in 2008, I suppose, Green decided it was time to make some money, so he ventured into studio filmmaking. His first foray, the stoner-action-comedy Pineapple Express was an ingenious send-up of buddy action movie clichés, that gave James Franco one of his best roles, and really is a high water mark for recent, American, mainstream comedies. Now, he’s back at making a studio comedy – and the result is the almost painfully unfunny Your Highness. How the hell Green got to this point is anyone’s guess.

The movie stars and was co-written by Danny McBride, who was so good in his supporting role in Pineapple Express, as a drug dealer who is beaten, shot repeatedly, gets into a major car accident, and yet somehow keeps on coming back from the brink of death. McBride has been good in other supporting roles – in Tropic Thunder, Due Date, Up in the Air and Observe and Report for example. But every time I see him in a lead – as he was in the awful comedy The Foot Fist Way – I can’t help but think that a little McBride goes a long way.

Your Highness is a send-up of historical epics, with knights and sorcerers and Kings, damsels in distress, etc. It clearly takes the King Arthur legend as its jumping off point. The film tries to marry that type of story to a stoner comedy (the title for example can be taken two ways – har har). The movie really though is just a series of cock jokes – complete with a child molesting Muppet like creature (again I say har har sarcastically). A movie built on little more than cock jokes can work, I suppose, if those jokes are funny. When they’re not, and they are not in Your Highness, the result can be painful to watch.

Aside from McBride, who plays the slacker “hero” of the movie, the second son of a powerful King, jealous of his older brother, the movie makes some seemingly inspired casting choices. James Franco is his older brother, the Golden Boy, as it were who sets a standard that McBride cannot match. Natalie Portman is a woman they meet while on their “quest”. Zooey Deschannel, who is the only one in the movie who gives a decent performance, is the insanely naïve damsel in distress (she was kidnapped by an evil wizard as a child and kept in a tower her whole life, making her lacking in all social skills – she spends the movie with a hilariously blank look on her face). David Lynch regular Justin Theroux is that evil wizard. The supporting roles are played by independent mainstays like Toby Jones and Damien Lewis. This is a very good ensemble cast – that is completely wasted at the service of this awful screenplay.

I can see why Green directed this movie. He has a long history with McBride – going back to the later’s supporting role in All the Real Girls, and going through not just Pineapple Express, but also McBride’s well regarded TV show Eastbound and Down (which I have never seen), where Green is both a producer and sometimes director. But somewhere along the way someone had to step up and tell both Green and McBride that this screenplay was terrible, and should never be made. No one did. And sadly, it appears that Green is more than happy to keep churning out Hollywood comedies. His next film, due in August called The Sitter, stars Jonah Hill as a college student who gets talked into babysitting the kids next door – and gets more than he bargained for. Let’s hope it’s less Daddy Day Care than it sounds.

Movie Review: Daydream Nation

Daydream Nation ** ½
Directed by: Michael Goldbach.
Written by: Michael Goldbach.
Starring: Kat Dennings (Caroline Wexler), Reece Thompson (Thurston), Josh Lucas (Barry Anderson), Andie MacDowell (Enid Goldberg), Rachel Blanchard (Ms. Budge), Natasha Calis (Lily Goldberg), Quinn Lord (Thomas), Calum Worthy (Craig), Katie Boland (Jenny), Genevieve Buechner (Tina), Luke Camilleri (Rolly).

I found much to admire about Canadian filmmaker Michael Goldbach’s debut film Daydream Nation, even if ultimately I think the film doesn’t quite succeed. Goldbach crafts some interesting characters, has some snappy dialogue, gets good performances from most of his cast, and has a definite visual style. But like many first time filmmakers, he simply tries to do too much. Cross Juno with Donnie Darko, and you have an idea of what Goldbach wanted to achieve, but ultimately fails to. His movie about small town life is just too jam packed for its own good.

The movie stars the talented Kat Dennings as Caroline Wexler, who in her senior year in high school is horrified to find that her widowed father is moving, yet again, from the city to a small town. She walks into a high school where half the students are cruel beyond belief and the other half are stoned out of their minds at all hours of the day. What’s more is that their small town is beset by two different crisis – one is an industrial fire on the outskirts of town, pouring god know what chemicals into the atmosphere and which no one can put out, and the other is a serial killer in a white suit, who is killing beautiful young women in the area. Caroline, like all the other teenagers in the movie, don’t seem to care much about these events though (and neither, it seems, does Goldbach who I think was just trying to give the film a colorful backdrop).

The reason to see the film is mainly Kat Dennings, who is funny, witty, charming and sexy as Caroline, a teenage girl who plays different roles for different people because she’s still trying to figure out who she really is. She is drawn first to stoner Thurston (Reece Thompson), and plays the part of stoner chick with him to a certain extent – although she gets annoyed when he doesn’t get his Atom Egoyan joke (and we’ve all been there right?). She decides to seduce her English teacher, Barry (Josh Lucas), at first because she thinks he is smarter and more sophisticated than the high school boys. As their affairs moves along however, it becomes clear that he really is just a shallow, superficial man child – no more mature than the boys in school at all. He doesn’t see her – the real her – perhaps because she never actually puts that out there. But gradually, as she starts falling for Thurston, I think the real Caroline comes out.

This all sounds interesting, and to a certain extent it is. Dennings is a joy to watch, and the supporting cast for the most part fills out the movie nicely. It’s just that as I was watching Daydream Nation, I felt the movie never really settled down – never really stopped trying so hard, and became whatever it is Goldbach wanted it to be. There’s just so much on the edges of the story that it threatens to take over the whole movie. And as good as Lucas is in parts of the movie, as he degenerates into the pathetic man he really always was in front of our eyes, the movie starts to strain credibility.

Another curious thing that happened to me as I was watching the movie is that I really wanted it to be about a minor character – Jenny (Katie Boland), who doesn’t even show up until the end of the second act. The minute she comes on screen, in the bathroom of the school were she calls Caroline a slut under her breath, she becomes the most interesting character in the film. She is the type of sad, lonely high school girl that movies like Daydream Nation love to make fun of – Dennings certainly rips into her in the bathroom – but she points out the real flaw in Daydream Nation. She seems real – a flawed, but real character that gets lost in the films shuffle to try to be hip and cool. That first scene in the bathroom is harsh and cruel towards Jenny – who somewhat deserves it for calling Caroline a slut anyway – but given what comes after, I don’t think she would have said to Caroline in the first place. Jenny is that high school girl that no one notices, who puts her head down and walks through the halls like a ghost. Her scenes after that moment – the joy when the boy she likes (Thurston) of course agrees to come to her party, her sad quasi-seduction of Thurston at the party, and then the outright anguish as she looks at what has been done to her house because of that party add up to a heartbreaking character. Boland with her sad, puppy dog face is the actress I keep thinking about when I think back to Daydream Nation. In a movie that spends most of its time trying to be hipper than thou, she breaks through the artifice to create a real character.

Overall, I think Daydream Nation is a promising debut for Goldbach. Hell, perhaps I even would have liked it more without Boland, because she points out what is wrong with the rest of the film. I look forward to seeing what Goldbach, and Boland, do next.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Movie Review: In a Better World

In a Better World ** ½
Directed by: Susanne Bier.
Written by: Anders Thomas Jensen.
Starring: Mikael Persbrandt (Anton), William Jøhnk Jues Nielsen (Christian), Markus Rygaard (Elias), Ulrich Thomsen (Claus), Trine Dyrholm (Marianne), Camilla Gottlieb (Eva), Simon Maagaard Holm (Sofus), Toke Lars Bjarke (Morten), Kim Bodnia (Lars), Odiege Matthew (Big Man).

I have been an admirer of the films of Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier for a while now. Her original film Brothers (which was remade with Tobey Maquire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman), was a tragedy about two very different brothers, who love the same women, and how we all play the roles we were given. Her Oscar nominated After the Wedding, was a film about a man trying to reconnect with the child he never knew he had. Her underrated American debut, Things We Lost in the Fire, gave Benicio Del Toro one of his greatest roles. Her films edge over towards melodrama at times, but they work – tying together the third world and the first world, and throwing her characters into situations they are not sure they can handle because of tragedy. But her new film, In a Better World, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film back in February, is her weakest to date in my mind. It is the type of film that had it been American, critics would have ripped it to shreds for being built too much on coincidences, for being too full of its own importance to actually be a great film. The film reminded me in ways of Paul Haggis’s Oscar winning Crash – except this film makes that one appear subtle by comparison.

As in her previous films, In a Better World plays like a moral puzzle – a kind of what would you do scenario placed in front of the audience, in which there may be no right answer, but there is a certainly a wrong one. The film involves two families, who undergo crises before the movie begins. In one, Claus’ (Ulrich Thomsen) wife dies of cancer, leaving him to raise their adolescent son Christian (William Johnk Juels Nielsen) by himself – although he is a busy businessman who spends most of his time in London, leaving his son in Denmark with his grandmother. In the other, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) has cheated on his wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), and they are going through a divorce, which is hard on their son Elias (Markus Rygaard). Making it harder, is the fact that Anton runs a clinic in an unnamed African country, and is away much of the time.

Elias is picked on mercilessly at his school by a bully named Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm). As the new kid, Christian doesn’t fare much better with Sofus, but unlike Elias, he is determined not to simply sit back and take it. After an ugly incident, where Sofus gets the best of both Elias and Christian, Christian vows revenge. When he sees Sofus follow Elias into the bathroom, he sees his opportunity – jumping Sofus from behind, beating him mercilessly with a bike pump, and threatening him with a knife. After that – although the school is not thrilled with what happened (but cannot prove Christian had a knife), Sofus leaves them both alone – and the two boys bond. Hence, violence seems to have acted as a solution to their problem.

But things are never that simple – as seen in the two other plot threads in the movie. One involves Anton getting into a confrontation with another father – in front of Christian and Elias – whether the other man, a bully named Lars, slaps Anton and instead of fighting back he walks away. Pressured by his son, and his son’s friend, for being a wimp, he takes the boys to see Lars at his garage to try and talk things out – but that doesn’t appear to be Lars’ strong suit. Christian, having gotten revenge once through violence, decides to try it again on Lars – this time on a larger scale. Elias is a mixed up kid, who doesn’t really want to get involved – but on the other hand, he doesn’t want to lose his one friend. The other plot thread takes place in Africa, where the area around Anton’s clinic is run by a psychopath known as Big Man – who when he sees a pregnant woman, enjoys betting with his men over what the sex of the baby is, and then cutting open the mother to see whose right. When he comes to the clinic, in need of medical attention, Anton has to decide whether or not to let him die, which undoubtedly would save lives, or following his oath as a doctor.

All of this sounds much more fascinating that it actually plays however. In a Better World, for the most part, is a muddled film that is weighed down by its own thudding sense of importance. It is a film that tries to speak out against the violence in which it portrays, but in doing so leaves the viewer with a sense of futility. After all, Sofus would not leave Christian and Elias alone had it not been for violence. Lars learns absolutely nothing for his conflict with Anton. And the world is a better place without the Big Man around. The authority figures in the movies – the teachers, the police – seem impotent and unable to do anything to curb the violence. The fathers, although they are well meaning and love their kids, are absent and do not really know how to get through to them. Christian and Elias are the lone characters in the movie that feel somewhat real – Elias especially, since he is a conflicted kid expertly played by Rygaard. Christian is a more complex character, and Nielsen is terrific in the role, which is all the more impressive, since the screenplay can never really decide on who Christian is. Is he a budding young psychopath, just one step removed from becoming a school shooter, or is he a sad, bitter kid because his mother died, just going through some preadolescent anger and rebellion? Bier goes to great lengths to draw parallels between the third world and the first world – something she accomplished much better in both Brothers and After the Wedding – but here, it comes across and preachy and somewhat pretentious. As the movie goes along, it starts to manipulate the audience’s emotions more and more – manipulations that feel like the filmmakers are simply trying to extract tears for us, rather than earning those tears.

All of this isn’t to say that In a Better World is an awful movie. It isn’t. A lot of the movie works, and it kept me fascinated throughout. But I walked away from In a Better World not knowing what Bier thought about her subject and feeling anger at the blatant manipulation on display in the movie. For me, Bier remains a talented filmmaker – one whose next film I will look forward to – but Oscar win or not, this feels like a misstep to me.

Movie Review: Scream 4

Scream 4 ***
Directed by: Wes Craven.
Written by: Kevin Williamson.
Starring: Neve Campbell (Sidney Prescott), David Arquette (Dewey Riley), Courteney Cox (Gale Weathers-Riley), Hayden Panettiere (Kirby Reed), Emma Roberts (Jill Roberts), Marley Shelton (Deputy Judy Hicks), Erik Knudsen (Robbie Mercer), Rory Culkin (Charlie Walker), Nico Tortorella (Trevor Sheldon), Marielle Jaffe (Olivia Morris), Anthony Anderson (Deputy Perkins), Adam Brody (Detective Hoss), Alison Brie (Rebecca Walters), Mary McDonnell (Kate Roberts), Lucy Hale (Sherrie), Shenae Grimes (Trudie), Dane Farwell (Ghostface), Anna Paquin (Rachel), Kristen Bell (Chloe), Aimee Teegarden (Jenny Randall), Brittany Robertson (Marnie Cooper), Roger Jackson (The Voice).

I was 15 when the first Scream movie came out – and I loved it. At the time, I hadn’t even seen many of the movies they were referencing, but I had seen enough horror movies to get the clichés that Scream was poking fun at. This was a movie that managed to be funny and scary at the same time. As a genre, horror seems to be constantly going through phases, recycling itself over and over again. Scream started a brief period of self conscious and hip horror films – most of which were crap. Scream, and then Scream 2, which played on the idea of horror sequels, were really the only ones to do it that successfully. Even Scream 3, which tried to poke fun at “trilogies” didn’t really work. With that movies failure, the self conscious horror movie was pretty much over – and it wasn’t until Saw came around, and started the whole “torture porn” phase that we got into another cycle. Now that phase has pretty much died (thankfully), the horror genre in many ways has grown stagnate – simply remaking the hits from the past, and while some of these movies are good (Dawn of the Dead, The Hills Have Eyes), most of them suck. Scream 4 plays with the idea of remakes – it isn’t a remake, but of course so much time has passed, that Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) can no longer be the innocent teenager, so the film has the killer in the movie essentially remaking the first movie himself – with new victims, while drawing Sidney – along with Deputy, now Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette) and his wife Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) back into the fray. I wouldn’t argue that Scream 4 is a great movie – or that it does anything all that original given what this series has done in the past – but as a blast of ‘90s nostalgia (and it makes me feel old just typing that phrase), Scream 4 is extremely entertaining.

The film opens with Sidney coming back to Woodsboro for the first time in years. She has written a best seller about her decision to take her life back and stop being a victim, and Woodsboro is the final stop on her book tour. Before she even arrives though, two teenage girls are brutally murdered (in a clever opening sequence that plays with the audience repeatedly), and the whole cycle seems to beginning again. All Sidney wants to do is get out of town as quick as possible, but because some evidence has been found in the trunk of the rental car, they tell her she cannot leave (which is probably not the smartest decision in the world, but after all, this is a movie where Dewey is the Sheriff), so Sidney is stuck staying at her Aunt’s house. Sidney’s teenage cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) and her friends – Kirby (Hayden Panttiere), Olivia (Marielle Jaffe) and Trevor (Nico Tortorella), along with film geeks Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin) seem to be the teenagers at the center of these new crimes – as victims and potential suspects. The bodies start piling up fast and furious.

The film is fun in the way the first two Scream movies were fun. Writer Kevin Williamson (who wrote the first two films) and director Wes Craven (who made all three) are back, and they obviously like playing with our expectations, and throwing in twists and turns along the way. Craven, who in the past has fought his horror movie master status a little bit (he never planned on making a career at just horror films), now at 71 seems to have accepted it – and decides to go at it with gusto. This could easily be the bloodiest of the Scream movies, the deaths more violent than ever before, even as they play with the deaths from the first film. Campbell, like Jamie Lee Curtis before her, will always be associated with this franchise, and I think made the wise decision to simply embrace it. The role of Sidney fits her like a glove, and once again, she does a fine job with it – as do the other returning cast members Arquette, still a lovable doofus, and Cox, still a raging bitch. The new cast members – especially Panttiere, Roberts and Culkin – have fun in their roles as well – bringing Scream to a new generation.

As I mentioned off the top, Scream 4 doesn’t really add anything new to mix as to what this series has done in the past. But the decade between movies adds to the charm of this one. The film knows what is expected of it, and delivers in spades.

Note: One of the things that I, as a film buff, have always admired about the Scream movies is the references the movies throws in, as well as the trivia questions that the killer asks his victims over the phone. One caught my attention this time when Ghostface asked what film started the slasher movie trend – Friday the 13th, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Psycho. The would be victim answers Psycho, which is the generally accepted answer, only to have Ghostface tell her she’s wrong, that it was a trick question and the real answer was Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Technically, the killer is correct in that Peeping Tom was released in May 1960, and Psycho was released in June 1960. However, Peeping Tom, although considered a masterpiece today (and I would argue, is perhaps even a greater film than Psycho), was reviled when it was released in 1960 and was barely released, pretty much ruining the career of one of cinema’s greatest directors. The film didn’t start to gain any recognition – in fact was barely seen at all – until much later. So while Peeping Tom came out a month before Psycho, so like I said technically Ghostface is correct, I think the victim would have a very good case for arguing for Psycho actually starting it – as it is the film that I would think most of the directors who truly embraced the slasher genre, and starting making them in the 1970s (Craven, Carpenter, Hooper, etc) would have likely been inspired by. Unfortunately, of course, you cannot really file an appeal to a mad man with a knife.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: The Life of Oharu (1952)

The Life of Oharu (1952) ****
Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi.
Written by: Kenji Mizoguchi & Yoshikata Yoda based on the novel by Saikaku Ihara.
Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka (Oharu), Tsukie Matsuura (Tomo, Oharu's Mother), Ichirô Sugai (Shinzaemon, Oharu's Father), Toshirô Mifune (Katsunosuke), Toshiaki Konoe (Lord Harutaka Matsudaira), Kiyoko Tsuji (Landlady), Hisako Yamane (Lady Matsudaira), Hiroshi Oizumi (Bunkichi), Takashi Shimura (Old Man), Benkei Shiganoya (Jihei).

Akira Kurosawa, Yashujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizogichi are widely regarded as the three greatest filmmakers in Japanese history. Of these three, Mizoguchi is the least well known in North America, mainly because his films are the hardest to find. While almost the entire careers of Kurosawa and Ozu are widely available, there are still gaping holes in what you can find for Mizoguchi (I had to look long and hard to find this film, and there are others that I want to screen for this series that so far I have had little luck in finding). Fortunately, this gradually seems to be changing, and Mizoguchi is taking his rightful place alongside those other two master filmmakers.

Mizoguchi is regarded by some as the first feminist filmmaker – and watching the The Life of Oharu it is easy to see why. The movie takes place in the 1700s, and watches as Oharu’s life is destroyed by the men she meets. Her struggle is all because she makes one mistake as a teenager – that is she falls in love with a man (Toshiro Mifune) below her social standing. When their affair is discovered, she and her parents are banished from the city – which is better treatment than Mifune gets, as he is beheaded. Her father talks of the shame she has brought down on their house, and can barely speak to his daughter. Then she is sent off to be the concubine of Lord Matsudaira, as his wife is sick, and he has no heir. The hope is that she will produce a son – which she does. However, while she (and especially her father) thinks this sets her up for life, it isn’t long before the Lord’s underlings think she is too much of a distraction for their leader, and she is sent home with only a few dollars – not to see her son again for years.

On and on it goes. Oharu is sold as a courtesan, but sent home once again in shame. She is sent to be the servant of another family, who adores her and looks to find her husband, until they discover her past. The husband of this family, who previously had seemed so nice, thinks that if she was once and concubine and a courtesan, than he should have the right to have sex with her as well. The wife, upon discovering them, doesn’t blame her lecherous husband, but Oharu. When she finally meets a man who knows her past, but doesn’t care, things seem to finally be changing for her – but then he is murdered, and she is once again on her own, ending up a street prostitute. When Lord Matsudaira dies, and his (and Oharu’s) son takes over, he sends for her and wants to make her life easier. But once again, the underlings step in – how could she let herself become a prostitute. She is the mother of the Lord, and she has once again brought shame on herself and her family.

Mizoguchi considered The Life of Oharu his greatest film. Although I haven’t seen all of his films, I would say it does rank behind the films he made just after this one – Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954) – yet when the films are this good, it is hard to really complain. His upbringing greatly influenced Mizoguchi – his father was unable to support his family, and both his mother and sister were sold to a geisha house as a result of this. His films often deal with oppressed women, and class struggle, two themes that The Life of Oharu certainly deals with. Oharu has no power over her own fate – she is just a woman, and as such, her decisions are made by the men around her. The only decision she made for herself was to fall in love with Mifune early in the film – and it is this decision that would be her downfall. Everything that happens to her after that is beyond her control. She is a woman, she thought for herself, and she is punished for it.

In the lead role Kinuyo Tanaka gives a remarkable, yet subtle performance. Oharu is a woman who tries not to get down herself, not to become depressed with what has happened to her, but who nevertheless gets everything stripped away from her. Eventually, she will throw up her hands and proclaim that she no longer desires anything earthly – that all she wants is to become a nun and be close to Buddha. But even this, it seems, is too much to ask for Oharu.

As a director, Mizoguchi favored long takes, and here is camera glides effortlessly throughout the villages, cramped houses and the palace, where the movie takes place. The film was underfinanced, and much of it had to be shot in an old warehouse instead of a soundstage – which made things difficult since the warehouse was close to train tracks, and every time a train came by, it would ruin Mizoguchi’s shot. Undaunted, he pushed on, and created one of his best films. It feels like a personal project – one that Mizoguchi had to make, and that passion is on display in every frame.

The final shot in the movie is haunting – and one that I simply cannot get out of my head. What does it really mean? I like to think that Oharu is at peace in that final shot – that despite the humiliations visited upon her throughout the course of the movie, now that she has once again seen her son, that she can now rest – perhaps die – and be happy. There was certainly little happiness in her life – perhaps in there will be in death.

Movie Review: The Conspirator

The Conspirator ***
Directed by: Robert Redford.
Written By: James D. Solomon.
Starring: James McAvoy (Frederick Aiken), Robin Wright (Mary Surratt), Kevin Kline (Edwin Stanton), Tom Wilkinson (Reverdy Johnson), Evan Rachel Wood (Anna Surratt), Danny Huston (Joseph Holt), Justin Long (Nicholas Baker), Alexis Bledel (Sarah Weston), Johnny Simmons (John Surratt), Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth), James Badge Dale (William Hamilton), Jonathan Groff (Louis Weichmann), Norman Reedus (Lewis Payne), Stephen Root (John Lloyd), Chris Bauer (Major Smith), Colm Meaney (David Hunter).

Filmmakers often use incidents in the past to comment on the present. Robert Redford’s The Conspirator is about the Lincoln assassination and its aftermath, but it is impossible not to think about the War on Terror when watching it. His uses the past to illuminate the present – and he has also crafted a finely made historical drama to boot.

The film stars James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, a hero for the Union during the Civil War, who returns injured from the war, and wanting to resume his career as a lawyer. Like everyone else in the North, he is shocked and sickened when John Wilkes Booth assassinates Abraham Lincoln, and is among the many calling for the blood of not only Booth, but on those who helped him. The Lincoln assassination was only one part of a multi-pronged plan by Booth and his co-conspirators, who also wanted to murder the Vice President, and the Secretary of State, among others. Booth was the only one who succeeded. So it is with great reluctance that Aiken agrees to defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the only woman charged with conspiring to carry out the plot. He only does it because his boss, Senator Revedy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), forces him to do it. Johnson believes in the rule of law, and is horrified that the conspirators will not be tried in civilian court, but by a military tribunal, handpicked by the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), and will not even be allowed to testify in their own defense. But Johnson is also smart enough to know that Surratt has no chance if he were to defend her himself – he is an old time Southerner, who although he was loyal to the Union during the Civil War, will be seen as too sympathetic to her and perhaps even her cause. If she has any chance, she has to be defended by someone like Aiken – someone whose loyalty could never be questioned – or so he thinks anyway.

Aiken doesn’t want the case. Like everyone else, he thinks she is guilty and deserves whatever punishment she has coming to her, but he really doesn’t have a choice. It’s only gradually as he gets to know Surratt, and see how paltry the State’s case against her really is. It is essentially built upon the testimony of two men – neither of whom seems to be an overly reliable witness. But Surratt refuses to help Aiken put on the defense that he wants to – which is essentially to blame her son John for all the things they say Mary did. John is the one conspirator who has slipped through the grasp of the Union, who now desperate to hold someone responsible, has turned to Mary – whose only crime that they can really prove is that he is a Southerner, who while running a boarding house in Washington, allowed Booth to stay there.

Watching the film, it is impossible not to think of the current situation, in which suspected terrorists are held without trial, and many want them tried by military tribunals instead of civilian courts. There is a lot of talk in the film about what they were fighting the Civil War for, if it was not to protect the Constitution, and the citizens rights – even during times of war, and when it is hard to do so. It is clear where Redford comes down on this issue.

The film is impeccably made, with a wonderful eye for period detail – the costumes, production design and cinematography certainly add to the period feel. Although Redford’s goal was to obviously make a film relating to the policies of today, he hasn’t strayed too far from the historical record in making his film. The performances are strong as well, but to a certain extent, all the characters other than McAvoy’s are fairly one note – they establish their characters early, and do not change. That isn’t to say that Wright doesn’t deliver an emotional performance as the ever loyal mother, or that Kevin Kline shouldn’t be praised for taking what could have the villain of the piece, and making him, if not sympathetic, than at least understandable (he truly does believe in what he is doing), just that they don’t really develop much per se. Redford is more interested in the story, and the modern parallels to do much on that front.

Overall though, The Conspirator is a smart historical drama – the type of film that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make. It is intelligent, well directed and well acted, and really, what else could you want?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Cannes Film Festival Lineup

The Cannes Film Festival is still the most pretigious film festival in the world, and likely always will be. The Palme D'Or is, along with the Oscar, the most sought after cinema prize in the world - and outside of America, where filmmakers know they do not have a shot at winning an Oscar, probably the most sought after. They have annouced their 20 film lineup for the Competition this year, and for better or for worse, in many ways, these 20 films will come to define 2011 for the crowd of people who care about film. The films are:

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen) - It's not unusual for Allen to premiere his yearly film at Cannes - what is unusual is it to be in competition - as this is the first time it has happened. It is a romantic comedy set in Paris, starring Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, Owen Wilson. Marion Cottillard and Adrian Brody. I just hope it's better than You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar) - Almodvoar is a Cannes favorite, and this is his fourth film in competition over the years, although strangely, he has never won the Palme. Is this his year? The film reunites him with his one time frequent star Antonio Banderas, as is a revenge tale about a plastic surgeon looking for vengeance from the men who raped his daughter.

House of Tolerance (Bertand Bonello) - I have to claim ignorance on Bonello and his work, as I have never seen one of his films. He was in competition back in 2003 for Tieresia. I cannot find any information out about what this may be about.

Footnote (Joseph Cedar) - Another filmmaker I know nothing about, except that he is Israeli, and made the acclaimed Beaufort a few years ago, that I somehow managed to miss. This film is apparently about a rivalry between a father and son, both of whom are professors at a University in Israel. This is his first time in competition at Cannes.

Pater (Alain Cavalier) - Yet another filmmaker I don't know. He has a long list of credits, stretching back to 1958. This is his third time in competition - he won the Jury Prize back in 1986 for Therese. I can find nothing about this film anywhere.

Once Upon a Time in Anatlia (Nuri Bilge Ceylon) - A favorite in recent years at the festival, this will be his fourth time in comeptition since 2002. He has was the Grand Prize of the Jury for Distant in 2002 and Best Director for Three Monkeys in 2008, but has yet to win the Palme. Will this be the year for the Turkish filmmaker?

Boy with a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) - Among the most acclaimed filmmakers in recent years, the Dardenne brothers return to competition for the the fifth time - already have won the Palme twice (for Rosetta and L'Enfant). I can only assume that they will be in play again this year - and that their film will be neo-realist, like the rest of their oeuvre.

Hanezu no Tsuki (Naomi Kawase) - This is Kawase third time in competition, although I missed her other two films, including The Mourning Forest which won the Grand Prize of the Jury back in 2007. She could be a factor this year - although I have no idea what her film is about.

Le Harve (Aki Kaurismaki) - The enigmatic Finnish director Kaurismaki is back in Cannes competition for the third time - having already won the Grand Prize of the Jury for The Man Without a Past. The bigger news, since this is a French festival afterall, is that this film stars Truffaut's old buddy Jean Pierre Leaud. Could the French cinema legend win the Best Actor prize?

Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh) - Novelist Julia Leigh makes her directing debut in this strange sounding film, described as an "erotic fairy tale" starring Sucker Punch's Emily Browning drawn into a mysterious world. Sound interesting.

Polisse (Maiwenn) - French actress turned filmmaker (best known for her work with Luc Besson) makes her Cannes debut with this film about a social worker who works with juveniles, who becomes more involved with one than she should.

Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) - Inarguably the biggest title to debut at this year's festival will be Terrence Malick's long awaited Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. Malick is one of the most beloved filmmakers in history, despite the fact he has only made 4 films over the span of 40 years. He has only been in competition at Cannes once - winning the best director prize for Days of Heaven (1978). Sight unseen, this is the favorite to win this year.

The Source (Radu Mihaileanu) - This Romanian filmmaker, whose films I have never seen, is making his first apperance at Cannes this year this is apparently a comedy about the war of the sexes in a remote village.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Takashi Miike) - Personally, I stopped paying much attention of Miike a few years ago - he seems to make 3 or 4 films every year, and I felt they were devolving into ridicilousness fairly rapidly when I stopped. Still, he has some adament admirers. Who knows, perhaps I should start paying attention again.

Habemus Papam (Nanni Morretti) - The acclaimed Italian filmmaker Nanni Morretti returns to the Cannes for the fifth time - already having won the Best Director prize for Caro Diaro and the Palme D'Or for The Son's Room. His last film, The Caiman, was generally considered a flop, but it will be interesting to see this film - which is apparently about the relationship with the new Pope and his therapist.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay) - Other than Tree of Life, this is my most aniticpated film of the festival. Lynne Ramsay comes the official competition for the first time (two of her shorts won here before), with her film based on Lionel Shriver's brilliantly novel starring the incomparable Tilda Swinton. This should be a homerun - I could easily see Swinton winning the best actress prize.

Michael (Markus Schleinzer) - This is apparently Schleinzer's first film as a director, and I can find now information on it anywhere.

This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino) - Sorrentino is back in competition for the fourth time - his most recent being for Il Divo which won the Jury prize three years ago. This film also stars Sean Penn, this time as a bored rock star, who goes looking for the ex-Nazi who killed his father, now living in America as a refugee. Sounds interesting.

Melancholia (Lars von Trier) - Von Trier is back in competition for the ninth time with this film - having already won the Technical Grand Prize (for The Element of Crime), three prizes for Europa, the Grand Jury Prize for Breaking the Waves and Palme for Dancer in the Dark. This film is apparently a dark sci-fi film starring Charlotte Gainsbourg (who won Best Actress here for Von Trier's last film Antichrist) and Kristen Dunset as sisters, whose relationship is threatened as the earth is on collision course with another planet. I'm sure it will be among the most talked about film at the festival.

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn) - A surprising inclusion, considering it does not sound much like a Cannes film. This marks Refn's first time at Cannes - this Danish filmmaker best known for the violent films like the Pusher trilogy, Bronson and Valhalla Rising, returns with this film about a heist gone wrong starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. I must say, I'm looking forward to it.

So those are the 20 films in the official competition this year. Who knows what will join the ranks of Palme D'Or winners this time. Last year's jury headed up by Tim Burton, went off the map with the offbeat, art film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. I thought it was a daring, brilliant choice. This year's jury will be headed by Robert DeNiro, a favorite of mine, so I'm looking forward to what they come up with.