Friday, September 11, 2009

Summer Movies : Looking Back

When the economy is bad, you can bet on movies as being the one thing that makes money. It's no surprise then that it was a big summer at the cinema.

The season's biggest money-maker was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the follow-up to the 2007 box office smash. This time, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is off to college. His hopes of living a normal life are shattered when he discovers the "Matrix of Leadership," a powerful device used for destroying stars and worlds. Now the Decepticons are after him, and it's up to the Autobots to save his life and the world.

Transformers 2 is pretty much the same as the first movie, except even longer and, therefore, more boring. Besides some nifty special effects, Revenge of the Fallen is like a Decepticon; big and shiny but, in the end, soulless and empty.

Up was Pixar's latest fare. The tale of an old curmudgeon who ties balloons to his house and drifts away to the land of his dreams, Paradise Falls, dazzled critics and audiences alike. Like most of Pixar's films, Up has been hailed as an animated masterpiece. An early lock for a Best Animated Feature win at this year's Oscars, it's Pixar's second highest grossing film of all-time, just behind Finding Nemo.
It takes a really special film to make its audience tear up within the first ten minutes, but Up is a really special film. The characters, story and themes are really easy to get invested in. It's a great film that's sure to entertain kids as well as adults.

Unfortunately, the 3-D aspect of the film isn't so special. The gimmicky tool, which seems to have overtaken substance in favor of style in the case of so many animated features, is not even used to its full potential. Nothing seems to pop right out of the screen. One has to wonder if Pixar chose to make the film in 3-D just to keep up with the zeitgeist of multi-dimensional entertainment. The glasses are just an annoyance, and do little more than impair sight of the screen. There is always the option of seeing the film in 2-D. In fact, that would probably bring the film closer to perfection.

The latest "Harry Potter" film came as a welcome addition to the long-running (and huge grossing) family franchise. Whereas the last film in the series, The Order of the Phoenix, fell flat due to its lack of plot and focus on filler, The Half-Blood Prince finds Harry and the gang going on more fantastical adventures, and accomplishing tasks that feel like they'll actually mean something in the long run.

The Half-Blood Prince isn't the best in the series, however. Far from it. That title still belongs to 2004's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. That film was the perfect blend of fantasy and reality; fantastical places, real characters. Of course, anyone who has seen the other films will need to see The Half-Blood Prince in order to be set up for the last two films in the series. It's a wonderful time at the movies; a little slice of magic any filmgoer would be doing themselves a disservice to miss.

The last huge film of the summer would have to be District 9, a part-mockumentary, part-action flick about what might happen if aliens came to Earth and lived in government-supervised slums in South Africa. A fascinating premise, and one that works about one-third of the time. That one-third comes at the beginning of the film. For that half-hour, District 9 is a masterpiece, a creative, brilliant study of human/alien interaction, and a biting metaphor for the rampantly hate-fueled race relations between South Africans and their government officials.

Then the film takes a turn for the worse. It turns itself into a run-of-the-mill action movie and never looks back. It starts to take itself less seriously, although that type of self-depreciation is unwarranted. It's an odd and unnatural change, and a shameful one for a film whose premise and first half hour are so intriguing.
With that being said, however, District 9 is an interesting sci-fi popcorn flick, though it could have been so much more.

Like always, there were some diamonds in the rough of the summer movie season. Here's to hoping the rest of the year shines a bit more.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Au Revoir Les Enfants

Au Revoir Les Enfants could probably be considered among the best non-combat war films to ever be made. It is at once bleak and sad, yet at the same time hopeful, the latter from the friendship between the two main characters, Julien Quentin and Jean Bonnet (Gaspard Manesse and Raphael Fejto, respectivly, give two of the greatest performances by young people ever.)

Julien has recently returned to the all-male boarding school he attends when he meets a new student, Jean. Seemingly polar opposites, Julien an apathetic schoolyard tough and Jean a quiet bookworm, the two become friends after a game of treasure hunt in which they become lost in the woods. They are found and returned to school by two Nazis, who are unaware that Jean is secretly Jewish, in only one of the many tense scenes in the film.

And the intensity comes naturally. It is never forced. It comes from the plot, not overbearing music or shadowy camera work. Not to say those are necessarily bad tools for developing suspense, but with a film like Au Revoir Les Enfants, the tension doesn't call for anything other than what the story allows it.

This is the first Louis Malle film I've seen. Although I know who he is and that he's considered one of the finest filmmakers of all-time, I simply haven't gotten around to seeing his films. I certainly will now. My fellow Cineaste, in his review of the film, said, "Thank you, Ted ,for selecting this film, because it is certainly the greatest movie yet seen on The Cineastes," in reference to Edouard Hill, whose selection this film was. I would certainly agree with his statement.

AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS : A

This month's CINEASTES review has been hosted by Edouard Hill at Allan Gray's Imagination (http://allangraysimagination.wordpress.com/)

About Posts

Sorry that these posts have been so few and far between, but its been a bit crazy as of late. School just started up again and so its been a bit hectic, but if you'll just bear with me I'll start posting more and eventually try to get up to 4or 5 posts a month, about one a week is what I'm hoping for.

In the meantime, my Cineastes review for this month is coming up here in a bit (Au Revoir Les Enfants, sorry its late too), so please check that out. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Best Films of 2009 (So Far...)

I obviously haven't been able to catch every flick released thus far this year, but I have seen most of the major ones. Here are my five favorites, in ABC order:

Bruno
Sacha Baron Cohen's controversial follow-up to Borat is even funnier and more subversive than its predecessor.

Drag Me To Hell
Everything you've heard about this movie is true. Drag Me To Hell is a return to form for Sam Raimi; it's funny, scary, and a helluva lot of fun.

Knowing
Wrongfully bashed upon its release, Knowing is smart, dark, and boasts a few awe-inspiring F/X moments. It just came out on DVD, so you don't have a reason to avoid it anymore.

Two Lovers
James Gray (We Own the Night) has crafted a romantic, heart-breaking masterpiece with Two Lovers. Joaquin Phoenix has stated that this will be his last film. Let's hope not, though, because he gives a great performance here as a suicidal man caught in a love triangle with Gwyneth Paltrow and Vanessa Shaw.

Watchmen
Watchmen is one of the darkest superhero films I've seen. It's big and explosive, sure, but underneath all that it's unrelentingly bleak and intelligent. You can read my review of it elsewhere on this blog.

It's been a strong year for films so far. Let's hope it keeps up and surpasses last year's weak showing.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Big Trouble In Little China


I was quite pleased to hear that The Cineastes would be reviewing Big Trouble In Little China this month. Not because I had seen it before, because I hadn't. The movie had been on my queue for a while, though. I was happy to review the film because I knew I would like it. I'm a sucker for cheesey, dumb, corny 80's flicks, and this one seemed to have it all.

Kurt Russell stars as Jack Burton, a truck driver caught in the middle of 2,000-year old Chinese black-magic sorcerer's plan to kidnap and marry a girl with green eyes so he can become young again. That girl just so happens to be Jack's buddy's fiancee. So Jack and his friend, along with the lovely Kim Cattrall as lawyer Gracie Law (because why wouldn't that be her name) set out to rescue her.

This leads them to an underground world of ancient Chinese mysticism and monsters. They fight street gangs, wizards, demonic creatures, etc. The point of the film is fun, and Big Trouble succeeds. From the corny dialogue to the B-movie set pieces to the cheesey plot and characters, everything about the film is a barrel of monkeys.Kurt Russell is perfectly over-the-top as Jack Burton. Almost every line he utters is eminently quotable in its cheesiness.

Unfortunatly, though, the film is sometimes too dumb. Unlike some of director John Carpenter's other movies, Big Trouble In Little China doesn't really have any social value. They Live was about the economy at that time. Halloween was about young sexuality. Big Trouble is about...ancient Chinese secrets. The film exists for the purpose of having a good time at the theater.

And there's nothing wrong with that. You just probably won't remember much about it in a few weeks. But that's ok. Enjoy it while it lasts.

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA : B

This month's CINEASTES review has been hosted by Crap Monster at YGG'noise (http://www.yggnoise.com/)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Che

Last year, one of my most anticipated films was Steven Soderbergh's Che. Being a fan of Soderbergh, I was very interested in seeing what he would do with a biopic. Would he make it unconventional, and turn it in to one of his "stranger" indie flicks (Schizopolis, Bubble)? Or would he turn in a normal film and go for a large distribution (the Ocean's series, although none of his films are really "traditional.")

Considering Che's length (the film clocks in at around 4 hours) the latter seemed somewhat impossible, and the film's audience was shifted to the arthouse when it was picked up by IFC, one of the few distributors with any balls out there (it was, after all, the only one to consider Lars von Trier's Antichrist.)
But now that the film is on DVD, anyone can see it, not just those living in New York or LA. Che lands somewhere in the middle of Soderbergh's "weird" and "normal" films. It's the best film thus far to be made about Che Guavara. The first part of the film, The Argentine, shifts between Che's and Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution and their brief time in America. Part two, Guerilla, documents Che's involvement in the Bolivian Revolution. Both parts are essential to each other, and should be watched and considered as a whole, not two separate films.

Benicio del Toro had some early Oscar buzz for his portrayal of the revolutionary. He's magnificent in the title role, the rare performance that fully embodies such a well-known and polarizing figure. His performance, as well as Soderbergh's direction, are not biased in or out of favor with the man. The film remains neutral, unlike the living Che-boner The Motorcycle Diaries (which is actually a really good film.)

Unfortunately, del Toro's performance went unnoticed by the Academy when Che shot completely under the radar. If you've got 4 hours to spend, give Che a watch. But if not, at least check out The Girlfriend Experience. If you live in New York or LA, that is...

CHE : A-

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Gambler


"You're crazy!" says Axel Freed's girlfriend in one scene of The Gambler. "But I'm blessed," he responds. He is about to make a risky move in a high stakes game of blackjack. The tension builds. Sweat drips down Freed's brow. The dealer lays down the card and... 21. A lucky draw, something Freed isn't used to.

It's this attitude of needing risks to feel alive that has Axel Freed in over his head in debt, $44,000 to be exact. If he can't come up with the money soon, the dangerous loan sharks he's gotten himself entangled with might kill him, or worse go after his family.

James Caan plays Axel Freed, a troubled teacher and gambling addict in Karel Reisz's 1974 drama The Gambler. Caan appears in every scene, every frame almost, of the film. His performance is amazing and made even more so considering the fact that Caan was battling a cocaine addiction during shooting.

The film was one of the many forgotten gems of the New Hollywood era. Soon after the Hayes Code was dissolved, American filmgoers were eager for more raw films with tougher subject matter than they were used to. Films like Easy rider and Bonnie & Clyde satisfied their thirst, while many films, The Gambler included, got pushed aside in the process.

Karel Reisz, who also directed The French Lieutenant's Wife and the excellent Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, keeps a steady eye on Axel Freed. The film is dark and gritty, yet entertaining, and Caan's performance is eminently watchable.

The Gambler is a character study above all else. The battle against gambling Axel Freed deals with on-screen is mirrored by Caan's off-screen personal demons. Another sad case of art imitating life.

The fake character, however, doesn't really want to give up gambling. Although he acknowledges that it's a problem, he loves the risk. He only truly feels alive when his livlihood is at stake. He's not in it for the game. In his eyes, everything in life is a game. He gambles for the rush of it, just to feel something. He's willing to take the risk to get that rush, unfortunatly hurting everyone around him and the ones he loves in the process.

THE GAMBLER : A-

This month's CINEASTES review has been hosted by Josh Wiebe at Octopus Cinema (http://octopuscinema.blogspot.com/)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Wendy & Lucy


Wendy and Lucy is American neo-realist filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s latest addition to the movement, and her follow up to the acclaimed Old Joy. Wendy and Lucy stars Michelle Williams as Wendy Carroll, a young woman traveling to Alaska in search of work. Her only companion is her dog Lucy. Wendy faces challenges along the way (lack of money, broken car, etc.), but the worst of her setbacks is the loss of Lucy, who disappears somewhere along their journey.

Lucy’s disappearance is the main point of the purposefully simple plot. The film is not plot-driven; it’s a character film that’s really about the infinite search for the American dream.

Michelle Williams is amazing as Wendy. Her performance was one of last year’s best: naturalistic, youthful. She’s an easy actress to fall in love with.

Wendy and Lucy is, like Old Joy, a meditative and thoughtful film. Unlike Old Joy, however, this one never really meanders. There’s always something going on. I think that with time, Wendy and Lucy will be looked back on as a key film in the American Neorealist movement.

WENDY & LUCY : B

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Doubt

**SPOILERS**

Last year’s Oscar-nominated film Doubt stars Meryl Streep as a nun who accuses a pastor (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) of molesting a child at their Catholic parish. Quite the taboo topic, and one not spoken about enough in movies. Doubt is one of last year’s most thought-provoking films. It left me thinking about it long after I left the theater.

John Patrick Shanley, the director of the film, adapted it to the screen from his own stage production. The movie, at times, feels like it would be a bit more adept for the stage, but that’s not necessarily a detrimental remark. I just mean that its dialogue drives it. At last year’s Oscars, it was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. I think it should’ve won.


The script wouldn’t have worked, however, if it were not for the performances. Oh, the performances. What a glorious cast! Meryl Streep is, as always, brilliant as the suspicious Sister Aloysius. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is, as always, stunning and natural as the accused Father Flynn. Amy Adams is, as always, wonderful as Sister James, the one caught in the middle of the two. All three of them were nominated for Oscars for their performances here, as was Viola Davis for her great but brief role as the boy’s mother.

I don’t only love the film for its script and acting, though. I love it for its ambiguousness. At the end of the film, we are never told whether Father Flynn committed the evil acts he has been accused of or not. We are left with a broken sister Aloysius crying on the shoulder of Sister James, questioning her own suspicions. Was Flynn guilty? Was Aloysius right to accuse him? Was she right to destroy his life and have him removed from the parish? We don’t know. We must decide for ourselves.

DOUBT : A-

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Neo-Neo-Realism


I’d like to write about the milieu of current American independent cinema. Right now, a growing trend has appeared that many critics have dubbed neo-neo-realism; that is, a new film realism movement that employs many of the same techniques of the Italian neo-realism movement of the 1940’s headed by filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rosselini and screenwriter/theorist Cesare Zavattini, among others. The films of this time and place, like Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D. and Open City were hugely influential.

These films were a reflection of post-World War II Italy. The poverty rate was high. Filmmakers created movies not as escapism, but as a way to reflect the times and the changes that had destroyed the Italian economy.

The first neo-realist movement has never been as influential as it is right now. Filmmakers like Ramin Bahrani and Kelly Reichardt are making films today that are basically just the next step for neorealism. Bahrani’s movies like Man Push Cart and Chop Shop (and now Goodbye Solo, which I haven’t seen but look forward to) take advantage of certain aspects of the previous movement. They use nonprofessional actors, a documentary-like visual style and conversational dialogue. Kelly Reichardt’s films, on the other hand, like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, are very naturalistic and political. Every single one of these films has been critically acclaimed, and much discussed on the arthouse circuit. Although Bahrani has only directed three films, Roger Ebert has already declared him one of the most important filmmakers working today.

I wanted to write about this current movement because I feel like we’re in the middle of something big happening right now. The American cinema needs a break from all the high-priced action extravaganzas. The neo-neo-realism movement (and I don’t care for that title, so I’ll dub it American neo-realism) is an answer to the politics and condition of our country. It’s been a while since American cinema has faced a new wave of change this swift. I think it’s just what we need.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Top Twenty : Films of 2008

This is the final Year End Top Ten (Twenty) until the end of '09. I hope you've enjoyed reading these as much as I have making them.

2008

1. Let the Right One In
2. Milk
3. Dear Zachary : A Letter to a Son About His Father
4. Revolutionary Road
5. Slumdog Millionaire
6. Doubt
7. Wall-E
8. Happy-Go-Lucky
9. Synecdoche, New York
10. The Band’s Visit
11. In Bruges
12. Frost / Nixon
13. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
14. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
15. Wanted
16. Shotgun Stories
17. Gran Torino
18. The Visitor
19. Iron Man
20. Man On Wire

Angels & Demons

Ron Howard’s latest flick is an adaptation of the sequel to Dan Brown’s controversial novel The Da Vinci Code. This film, Angels and Demons, introduces us once again to the character of symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks). This time, he must uncover the mystery behind the recent resurgence of the Illuminati, an ancient group of Atheist philosophers and intellectuals who were banished and tortured by the Catholic Church many, many years ago. Now they’re back, and they’ve stolen a bomb capable of destroying Vatican City and everyone in it.

I can’t say I was a fan of the film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code. It was dull, boring and preposterous, but while Angels and Demons is definitely preposterous, it is anything but dull and boring. Ron Howard has replaced the previous film’s long, monotonous talk sequences with action scenes. When Code needed to run, it stood still. That’s not a problem here. Angels and Demons is loaded with some really nifty special effects. It’s not convoluted like its predecessor, and it’s far from boring.

The whole film, however, is supported by its performances. Ewan McGregor is great as a priest who takes over rule of the Catholic Church after the Pope’s death while they find a new, permanent Pope. Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (who is often considered Israel’s best actress) holds her own against Tom Hanks (who is great here too, and not in enough stuff anymore).

Ron Howard is often considered by cineastes to be a mediocre director, the epitome of a journeyman who always turns in OK work, but never anything great. I’ve always defended his films. While he has had plenty of missteps in the past (like How the Grinch Stole Christmas), he has also directed A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13 and Cinderella Man, all films that I love. Plus, let’s not forget that this is one of the guys behind the greatest TV show of all-time (you read that right) Arrested Development.

But back to the film. If Angels and Demons is any kind of a sign, this is going to be a good summer for movies.

ANGELS & DEMONS : B+

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Star Trek


I’ve been a bit skeptical of J.J. Abrams as of late. Although Lost is probably my favorite show on television right now, and I loved Cloverfield more than most people, J.J. only produces those things. Sure he co-created Lost, but he doesn’t really do much hands-on stuff with the show anymore, and Matt Reeves is the one who directed Cloverfield.

But my doubts have all but vanished with Star Trek, J.J. Abrams second foray into actual director mode. With the film, Abrams proves himself to be a man full of more than just ideas. Star Trek is a bravura piece of blockbuster filmmaking, a phaser blast to the gut of the science fiction genre. Every action scene (and there are plenty) is thrilling, every shot bright and inventive and every line of dialogue delivered with the perfect blend of Shatner-era nostalgia and modern sarcastic wit.

The film looks flashy and bright. Vivid streams of light cross each scene. The special effects are among the best I’ve seen. The Enterprise looks at once sleek and modern, yet instantly recognizable (a great metaphor the film itself). The film is ingeniously cast. Zachary Quinto is especially notable for his performance as Spock. He’s as brash and confident as you could imagine a young Spock would be.

When the Romulan Nero, who killed Kirk’s father, confronts the Enterprise and takes its captain hostage, Kirk, Spock and everyone else go on a mission to rescue him. The film, a prequel to the original series, concerns the assemblage of the crew we all know and love. It describes the manner of how they all became a part of the Enterprise. It’s a very human story. Everyone’s motives are made clear; Kirk wants to avenge his father’s death and Spock wants to prove that a half-Vulcan, half-human like himself is capable of accomplishing all that a full-blooded Vulcan can.

As you’ve probably heard, Star Trek has something to appeal to Trekkies (Trekkers?) and casual fans alike. Don’t miss out on this one.

STAR TREK : A-

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Top Twenty : Films of 2007

2007 was a particularly great year for films, so I decided to start making top twenties instead of just top tens from this year forward.



1. No Country for Old Men
2. Once
3. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
4. I’m Not There
5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
6. Michael Clayton
7. No End In Sight
8. Into the Wild
9. Zodiac
10. Starting Out in the Evening
11. There Will Be Blood
12. Ratatouille
13. The Savages
14. Paprika
15. Inland Empire
16. Sicko
17. Away From Her
18. Control
19. Black Book
20. Atonement

Thursday, May 14, 2009

JCVD


Jean-Claude Van Damme may be the LAST person in the world you’d expect to be a superlative model of postmodernity, but in JCVD he goes all John Malkovich with a swift kick to his critics and a respectful nod to his fans.

Van Damme plays himself, or at least a bitterer version of himself. He stars in mindless action movies just for the paycheck, acknowledging how bad they are while still depending on the roles for the money. While visiting his hometown of Brussels, Van Damme stumbles into the middle of a bank heist. Confused police officers outside the bank mistake him as one of the robbers and insist he release his hostages. Onlookers outside the bank who still consider Van Damme a hometown hero, however, cheer him on.

Inside the bank, Van Damme appeases the robbers by to showing them roundhouse kicks and signing autographs for them while his fellow hostages expect him to be more like the action star he is in all his movies; a brave martial arts master who can easily dismantle the thieves and save the day. Van Damme is more like them, though. He’s afraid of what the thieves may do to him. They force Van Damme to make phone calls as the real robber to the police with their demands.

Van Damme, however, remains generally calm throughout the robbery. In fact, he doesn’t seem to mind the scenario all that much. With a broken marriage, a downtrodden career, a nasty custody battle and an American reputation overshadowed by Steven Seagal, what does he really have waiting for him outside the bank? At least here the people view him as a hero, and the people outside seem to be on his team. All this is topped off by a self-loathing, self-aware monologue he delivers straight to the camera that makes Charlie Kaufman look like Alain Badiou.

While this final speech seems a bit contrived, the film is overall funny, heartfelt and surprisingly touching, and I don’t think Steven Seagal has ever made anything like that.

JCVD : B

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Three Monkeys

Three Monkeys is Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest effort. It has already won numerous awards, including Best Director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and made the shortlist at last year’s Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. I was lucky enough to view the film on theauteurs.com (The Auteurs) shortly before its American theatrical release.

When wealthy businessman Servet accidentally hits someone with his car, he enlists his driver Eyup to take the blame and go to prison in his place. Eyup accepts with the promise of money to take care of his wife, Hacer, and son, Ismail. While he’s away, Hacer has an affair with Servet and ends up falling in love with him, much to the chagrin of Ismail.



Ceylan proves himself to be a master of his craft following his equally stunning films Distant and Climates. Although the plot is a tangled web of regret, hate and betrayal, Ceylan keeps a steady eye on the events at play and things never feel convoluted.

The film is also one of the most visually lush in recent memory. Credit should go to cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki, who lets the camera breath when it needs to, but keeps the film’s blood flowing all the time.

Three Monkeys is visually beautiful, emotionally challenging and vastly haunting(all in the vain of Ceylan’s previous films), and certainly not a film to be missed.

THREE MONKEYS : B+

Top Ten : Films of 2006

2006

1. Children of Men
2. Babel
3. Pan’s Labyrinth
4. Little Miss Sunshine
5. Half Nelson
6. Little Children
7. Stranger Than Fiction
8. The Painted Veil & The Good Shepard (tie)
9. The Queen & Marie Antoinette (tie)
10. Apocalypto

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ugetsu



**SPOILERS**

Watching Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 masterpiece Ugetsu Monogatari, I was reminded not only of the obviously similar Kurosawa films of the same decade, specifically Rashomon, or of the analogous themes of Onibaba, but of films that came later, like the wonderful Werckmeister Harmonies. I remembered that glorious, artistic four minute shot when Janos, the protagonist, walked through the dark streets of his small town when he knew everything was slowly falling apart within himself and his town. I compared it to the opening of Ugetsu, with Mizoguchi’s signature “scroll” shot revealing the houses and buldings and shops, almost dilapidated from the weather and wear. I remembered Sven Nykvist’s cinematography from Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice when the philosophical writer Alexander burns his and his family’s own home in order to save the world. The house burns majestically over the course of about seven minutes.

Ugetsu’s influence is as far reaching as most of Akira Kurosawa’s most influential work.It is among the most important films ever made, its influence felt through cinema across the globe. I consider it one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen; the images in this film linger in my mind even while I write this. The stark black and white cinematography is soft, haunting, and ghost-like.

It is about two poor couples; Genjuro and Miyagi, and Tobei and Ohama. Genjuro and Tobei, the husbands, travel to the city of Omizo to sell the pots Genjuro crafts to make a living. They become successful as it is a time of war and the army needs the pots to carry supplies. Tobei dreams of becoming a samurai but is refused from the army as he doesn’t have armor or a spear.



Once they return home, Miyagi begs them not to travel anymore during wartime, but they decide to go anyway, this time with their families to Nagama. Before they leave, however, their home village of Nakanogo is raided. They decide to escape into the forest, but Tobei decides to stay behind to try and steal some of the soldiers’ armor. Genjuro returns to try and find him, and Miyagi follows. They are able to salvage some pottery, which they try and sell at a town across the river. They meet up with Tobei, who has failed to retrieve any weapons or armor. Miyagi is left behind at the shore with her and Genjuro’s child.

Eventually, however, they escape into the woods, only to be encountered by two hungry soldiers. In an attempt to salvage her food for the child, Miyagi is killed by one of them.

At the town across the lake, Genjuro’s pottery sells very well. Tobei uses his share of the fortune to purchase a suit of samurai armor, which he uses to sneak into a samurai clan. Genjuro, meanwhile, is approached by a noblewoman who tells him to take some of his pottery to Wakasa Manor. There, he is seduced by Lady Wakasa who, along with her servant, is the only survivor in the manor after it was attacked by soldiers. The two are then married.

Ohama, now alienated and traveling by herself, is raped by soldiers who leave her tattered and broken. She curses them and her husband. Tobei, meanwhile, kills a high-ranking enemy officer to show his head to a commander who, although suspicious, gives Tobei the armaments he seeks. Ohama becomes a prostitute and works in a rough brothel. Tobei later learns this and, distraught by the fact, gives up his life as a soldier to return home with his wife.



Genjuro, now afraid after learning the noblewoman who approached him earlier was a ghost and that Wakasa Manor is haunted, asks Lady Wakasa to let him return to his family. She refuses at first, but then admits that she and her servant are spirits, and she only returned to Earth to experience love. Genjuro leaves the manor and sees it as it truly is; destroyed by fire. Genjuro, exhausted and weary, returns home to find his son and, unaware she is deceased, his wife’s spirit. He is woken up the next morning by his neighbor, who reveals to him what happened to his wife.

Ugetsu is a fable about the cost of greed. It is about what one must sacrifice to get what they want, and if personal happiness is truly matters as opposed to love and family.

Another film I was reminded of while watching Ugetsu was Ghost with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. The infamous pottery scene in that film was certainly inspired by the closing scene in Ugetsu in which Miyagi’s spirit spins her beau’s pottery wheel for him while he works. “I am always with you,” she says.

UGETSU : A

This month's CINEASTES review has been hosted by Matthias Galvin at Framed (http://matthiasgalvin.blogspot.com/)

Monday, May 4, 2009

Cannes '09

By common consensus, the Cannes Film Festival is the granddaddy of all film festivals. It’s where everyone who is anyone in the film industry gathers to celebrate the best in the year’s upcoming films.


This year’s festival features some of the most celebrated filmmakers in the business today, not the least of whom is Quentin Tarantino, whose entry this year, the WWII epic Inglorious Basterds, looks more like Kill Bill than Saving Private Ryan. Brad Pitt stars as Aldo Raine, a redneck American soldier who brings together a team of eight Jewish Americans to hunt down and kill Nazis. Their story intersects with that of Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish girl on the run from the Nazis. The supporting cast includes Eli Roth, The Office’s B.J. Novak, Samuel L. Jackson and Mike Myers. If Tarantino’s past filmography is any indication, Inglorious Basterds will be an over-the-top, rough and tumble delight for film geeks and mainstream audiences alike.

Ken Loach is no stranger to Cannes. In 2006, his The Wind That Shakes the Barley was awarded the festival’s most prestigious prize, the Palme d’Or. He’s looking to nab the award again this year with Looking For Eric, the tale of a troubled soccer fan who receives some life help from his idle, the famed French soccer player Eric Cantona. Although the plot sounds a bit high-concept, director Loach is known for his realism and natural characters. If anyone can ground the film in reality, it’s him.

One filmmaker who never shies away from controversy is the Danish auteur Lars Von Trier, and controversy is just what he seems to be intent on stirring up with Antichrist, a psychological horror film about a couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who retreat into a cabin in the woods, only to find it is possessed by Satan. The sexually explicit film is, like all of Von Trier’s earlier efforts, not for the weak of heart, but with a mystifying trailer and two great actors in the lead roles, it’s assured to be a rewarding experience.


Speaking of challenging directors, Michael Haneke’s new film The White Ribbon, about the influence of fascism on the school system and the other way around in 1913 Germany, is sure to cause some gasps. Haneke’s filmography reads like a list of films that would be banned from the local theater: Funny Games, The Piano Teacher and Benny’s Video, just to name a few. Haneke’s films are, however, very rewarding in the long run. The White Ribbon doesn’t look any different.


It isn’t all sex and Nazis at Cannes however; Pixar’s latest effort Up, about an old codger who ties balloons to his home and floats off into a world of adventure, is sure to be an audience favorite. The film, Pixar’s first in 3-D, opens the festival on May 13th , proving there’s a little something for everyone at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Top Ten : Films of 2005

2005

1. Old Boy

2. Crash

3. Cache

4. The Squid and the Whale

5. Capote & Walk the Line (tie)

6. King Kong

7. The Constant Gardner

8. Good Night, and Good Luck

9. The Aristocrats

10. North Country & The Weather Man (tie)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Top Ten : Films of 2004

2004

1. The Aviator
2. Spider-Man 2
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
4. The Incredibles
5. Ray
6. Shaun of the Dead
7. Sideways
8. Collateral
9. The Sea Inside
10. Million Dollar Baby

Top Ten : Films of 2003

2003

1. The Lord of the Rings : The Return of the King
2. American Splendor & City of God (tie)
3. Kill Bill Vol. 1
4. Finding Nemo
5. Lost In Translation & Mystic River (tie)
6. The Barbarian Invasions
7. The Return
8. The Best of Youth
9. 28 Days Later
10. School of Rock

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Cineastes

A group of internet buddies and myself recently came up with the idea to pick a film, view it, and then write a review of it on our respective blogs each month. We are calling it The Cineastes, and you can find a link to each members blog on the side of this one.

Our first film is Ugetsu. I'll have a review of it soon.

Watchmen


In the comic world, Watchmen is considered to be one of the seminal works in defining the medium. The collected 12 issues are highly regarded not only by fans, but also by critics and literary figures. It’s one of the few graphic novels that are considered to have any merit in the literary world.

It becomes clear why when you read the novel. The tale of a group of disbanded superheroes that reunite to solve the murder of one of their own tackles more heavy themes than most actual literary novels.

Politics, for example, play a major part in the plot of the film and the book, as they take place in an alternate 1985 where the U.S. has won the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon is still president. This is all due to the Watchmen, the renegade superhero collective. Their existence has drastically altered the course of the world.

To call them superheroes, though, is inaccurate. They are more like antiheroes, especially the murdered Comedian, a ruthless, right-wing vigilante who cares only for himself, not barring the rest of the Watchmen. His death sets off a string of events that bring the group back together; Nite Owl, a Batman-like hero who utilizes tools in place of powers, Ozymandias, a now successful entrepreneur who is described in the film as the “smartest man in the world,” Silk Spectre, the only female in the group who took over her mother’s position, Doctor Manhattan, the only member of the Watchmen with actual superpowers and Rorschach, a vigilante “justice-bringer” and extremely right-wing thinker who has constantly worked outside the Watchmen to deal brutal justice to criminals.

The film stays very true to the comic, recounting every last detail until the finished product itself has the look and feel of a graphic novel. This is partly due to the direction of Zack Snyder, who previously helmed the inferior 300, another visually stunning comic book movie.

Unlike 300, though, Watchmen is a film that isn’t just pretty to look at. It’s a relevant and substantial masterpiece that looks at the dark side of the superhero world, and asks “What if these ‘superheroes’ were real? What if they actually had to keep the world safe?,” and by seeking out the answers, Alan Moore (the writer of the original graphic novel who wanted nothing to do with the film) creates an amazing parallel to the current state of the American nation. These superheroes, which are normally thought of as indestructible, invincible super humans are, in the face of Armageddon, forced to make human decisions, and stripped bare of anything resembling superhuman.

The comic’s relevance at this time is fascinating, considering the first issue was originally released in 1986. The film, which has been in the works since the late 90’s, could not have come at a better time. It’s uncanny.

WATCHMEN : A-

Tell No One

The critically acclaimed Tell No One is a 2008 French thriller about a widower whose wife was murdered. Originally implemented as a prime suspect, the case resurfaces when two bodies are found at the site of the original murder, and he finds himself a suspect once again. His world is further turned upside down when he receives an e-mail that leads him to believe his wife may still be alive.

It would be hard to describe the plot anymore than that without revealing anything; Tell No One is one of the twistiest films in recent memory. It’s an unpredictable mind game, intricate with each move, yet thrilling every step of the way.

French star Francois Cluzet turns in a taut performance as Alexander Beck, the man out to find his wife’s real killer, all the while evading the police. Cluzet’s performance is natural and heartfelt, and his character a believable hero; kind-hearted and gentle, yet tough and unrelenting when he needs to be. He’s surrounded by a myriad of strong characters, some on his side and some not, but all of who have more information to offer him than it would seem.
With so many characters and such a tangled web of a plot, the film often comes off as convoluted, so much so that it often draws the viewer out of the overall experience the film offers. It’s certainly a film that gets better with repeated viewings, if not just to get every last detail. The final reveal, although gripping, is done a bit lazily with a character literally explaining to

Alexander what happened to his wife.
Still, Tell No One is smart and stylish in ways most thrillers aren’t, and that’s saying something.
Tell No One is now available on DVD.

TELL NO ONE : C+

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Auteurs and Gotz Spielmann


The great people over on The Auteurs.com (and if you don't know what that is, you should go there right now) will interview Austrian director/writer/producer Gotz Spielmann this Thursday. Spielmann has directed such films as Antares and last year's Oscar-nominated Revanche. There's a link to the official Auteurs Notebook (blog) right beside here, so don't miss out.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Top Ten : Films of 2002


2002

1. Spirited Away
2. Adaptation & The Hours (tie)
3. The Pianist
4. Bowling For Columbine
5. Solaris
6. Russian Ark
7. About a Boy
8. 25th Hour & Talk to Her & Ripley’s Game (tie)
9. Spider-Man
10. Signs & The Lord of the Rings : The Two Towers (tie)

Razzies 2008

The Razzies are an annual mirror to the Oscars in that they are the awards for the worst films of the year. This year’s nominees certainly deserve to be a part of the ceremony.

No Razzie award year would be complete without a film by Uwe Boll, the director of such video game adaptations as Alone In the Dark, Bloodrayne and House of the Dead. This year he directed both Postal and In the Name of the King. Not exactly masterpieces.

Leading the nominations this year is the Mike Myers vehicle The Love Guru, with seven nods, including one for worst picture along with In the Name of the King, The Hottie and the Nottie, The Happening and Disaster Movie and Meet the Spartans, which are nominated together (as it says on the official Razzie Awards website “Two Movies-One Badly Beaten Dead Horse of a Concept!”)

In this particularly weak movie year, it was certainly hard to pick the worst of the worst, but the Razzies is one awards program that always seems to get it right. The official ceremony will be held on February 21st, one night before the Oscars.

Oscars 2008

To be blunt, the Academy blew it this year. The 2008 Oscar ballot is plagued by undeserving nominees and glaring omissions.

Although this was Kate Winslet’s year, the actress was snubbed in the best actress category for her performance in Revolutionary Road, her first film with costar Leonardo DiCaprio in eleven years since 1997’s Titanic. The Academy chose instead to nominate her for The Reader, in which she plays an illiterate Nazi who has an affair with a fifteen year-old boy. Not to say her performance is bad, it’s quite the opposite in fact. She gives a subtle, stunning air to the deceptive character, but to nominate her in the lead actress category is a joke. She is barely even onscreen in the last half of the film.

The Reader also racked up nominations for best cinematography, directing, adapted screenplay and best picture, the latter of which being the least deserved. The film brings nothing new to the category of World War II drama. The film lacks emotional power. It’s simply a fairly solid retread of an overused subgenre.

Another undeserving best picture nominee is David Fincher’s overblown The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a long, melancholy epic about a man who ages backwards. The movie was practically a shoe-in for a best picture nomination from the moment the trailer first appeared. It’s has everything the Academy loves; a long running time, big-name stars, a period piece romance and a huge budget. In the end though, the plot-hole filled film is just a Forrest Gump retread (the two films were both written by Eric Roth) that shares many of the same plot-points and themes as that movie.

Brad Pitt gives a wooden performance in the film, which is why it’s a shame to see him get nominated for best actor. The usually great actor plays the title character like a robot, muttering his lines in a solidly dry pitch with no emotions visible. His nomination is clearly a cheap attempt by the Academy to draw more viewers to the Oscar broadcast by including a big name on the ballot.

The most obvious snub of all this year was The Dark Knight, which was missing from almost all of the major categories. Many thought TDK was a shoe-in for best picture, but in the end the Academy refused to recognize the film as one of the year’s best.

The nominations weren’t all bad though. It’s good to see no-name actress Melissa Leo get recognized for her stunning portrayal of a woman smuggling illegal immigrants from Canada into the States in Frozen River. The film was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, at which it took home the Special Jury Prize.

Maybe this year’s nominees are a sign that the Academy is sticking to its roots and nominating the same clich├ęd types of movies it always has, but hopefully not. At least there’s always next year.

Jake’s Picks :
BEST PICTURE – MILK
BEST ACTOR – Sean Penn in MILK
BEST ACTRESS – Meryl Streep in DOUBT
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Phillip Seymour Hoffman in DOUBT
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Marisa Tomei in THE WRESTLER
BEST DIRECTOR – Danny Boyle for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Top Ten : Films of 2001


2001
1. In the Mood For Love
2. Donnie Darko & Vanilla Sky (tie)
3. The Lord of the Rings : The Fellowship of the Ring
4. A Beautiful Mind
5. Mulholland Drive
6. Waking Life
7. The Piano Teacher
8. Zoolander
9. Moulin Rouge
10. Monsters, Inc.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I'll go ahead and say it; David Fincher is one of the best filmmakers working today. The modern epitome of the auteur theory, Fincher is one-of-a-kind. His films are dark, provocative and somewhat quirky (Fight Club was pretty cute), and unlike anything else you're likely to see from recent American cinema.

That's why it pains me so much to say that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a huge misstep in director's otherwise blemish free filmography. And it stings even more when you realize that TCCBB was probably supposed to be his masterpiece.

This odd tale of a man who ages backwards from an old man into a baby tries hard to be a robust, heart-breaking love story. Overwhelmingly so. It ends up feeling overblown, overlong and at times just plain dull.

This is due in part to Brad Pitt's wooden performance. He mutters his lines off robotically, like a half-awake Forrest Gump (a fine film by any account, but one TCCBB shares too many plot-points with, both having been written by Eric Roth.)

To be honest, I think this film would be more enjoyable were it not for the gapingly obvious plotholes concerning the way Benjamin ages. He starts his life off in a baby-sized body with wrinkled skin and a baby's brain, but ends it in a baby-sized body with baby's skin and brain disorders that only affect the elderly. He goes from tiny to big to tiny again. For the plot to make any sense he would have to be born at adult size. This and his muscles are the only things that truly age backwards.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button received 13 Academy Award nominations, including nods for Best Picture, Director and Actor. While it doesn't deserve these, it certainly deserves its technical nominations. The film is a visual wonder, from the superb special effects right down to the costume design. Not to mention Benjamin's aging effects, which are unlike anything we've seen in movies thus far.

The visuals are really the only element of the film which are worth paying the $9 ticket price to see it in theaters. Otherwise, skip it if you want to view David Fincher as a filmmaker that can do no wrong.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON : C-

Top Ten : Films of 2000

I've been a cinephile for quite some time now. To catch up on lost time I'll be posting my top ten favorite films from each year from the year 2000 to 2007, leading up to my top ten for 2008. So lets get started, shall we...





2000

1. Traffic
2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
3. Shadow of the Vampire
4. Meet the Parents & Best in Show (tie)
5. Werckmeister Harmonies
6. High Fidelity
7. Cast Away
8. The Emperor’s New Groove
9. Billy Elliot
10. O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Wrestler

Myself, I'm not a fan of one Mr. Darren Aronofsky. Requiem For a Dream? Nah. Pi? No thank you sir. The Fountain? Are you kidding me?
But I found myself strangely drawn to his latest film, The Wrestler. Maybe it was the violence. I sure have an insatiable thirst for spilt blood. Aw, who am I kidding. It was probably the super foxy Marisa Tomei. Mmm mmm mmm.

But maybe, just maybe, it was the idea that a film could mean more to an actor than just a paycheck. This was after all, Mickey Rourke's comeback performance. He is, in fact, just basically playing himself in this film; a broken, beaten old bull just trying to get by on his own.

Rourke is Oscar-worthy in his role. He may just win come the 22nd, and for good reason.

Besides him though, the film is not much that we haven't seen before. It truly thinks it's more inspiring than it really is. It is, however, a step-up for the director. You're on your way kid.

THE WRESTLER : C