Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Jakob the Liar


Dir: Peter Kassovitz (Make Room For Tomorrow)

I stand corrected.

As Omri informed me, there has been a bad movie about the Holocaust. Not bad because it accidently argues the wrong side or slips into denial. Not bad because the production values are low or it was hastily put together. Not bad for lack of talent in front of the camera. But bad in the way that most bad movies are bad. It is very poorly written. And it also fails to have anything meaningful to say about the Holocaust.

The story involves Jews in a ghetto waiting out the final weeks of the war but cut-off from news outside. Robin Williams plays Jakob, who hears a snippet of news on a radio outside the ghetto that the Russians are coming. His news quickly hits the grapevine, and soon everyone thinks he has a radio. Since spirits are low, he decides to play along, making up stories to give people hope. Suddenly, folks are falling in love, a pretty tepid resistance begins, and suicides vanish.

The movie wants to argue that false hope is better than despair, that the power of positive thought can overcome horrors, that refusing to give in is itself resistance. And those are all prefectly acceptable themes for a film. But Jakob the Liar chooses as its setting the Holocaust, and as a result has to say something beyond "keep your chin up, kiddo." This film could have been set in any place or time where access to information is restricted. Put this movie in a high school, and the basic themes could be exactly the same. But the Holocaust, to my mind, requires more reflection that this film wants to give it. For an example of how to do this well, I recommend to you the sublime "Life is Beautiful." There, the indefatigable nature of humor as a defense mechanism is able to overcome even the most brutal of contexts. At the forefront of that film's second act are the horrors of the concentration camps, a juxtaposition with the idyllic narture of the first half and Benigni's attempts to recreate that in the interests of protecting his son. "Jakob the Liar" does not come off nearly as comtemplative, the ghetto is essentially window dressing, and as such fails to rise to its own subject matter.

On top of that, the film's cardinal sin is that the characters stubbornly fail to grow or develop. Apparently, several years of ghetto life makes you stupid. The news that Jakob has a radio is some thunderbolt to all of these people, when at the same time newspapers just blow over the wall and guards use them for T.P. These folks leave the ghetto everyday for work, how could they possibly be so ignorant of the progress of the war? And why is it that no one had thought of resistance until the radio story appears? The actual Warsaw ghetto uprising was a full scale assault, months in planning and a year before this film is supposed to take place. But its a big deal here for 10 guys to get together in a room! Either the situation must have been so bleak that some fanciful news stories would change nothing, or the human spirit is capable of resistance all on its own (hint: the latter was the case). The sum total of movement for most of the characters is from mild indifference (if we keep quiet and do what we are told we might live another day) to mild resistance (why, I am going to marry that girl, even if we might die tomorrow, thanks Jakob!). Um, I gotta think that by the END of the war people might be more strongly effected by the most evil half decade in the history of humanity than this.

The result is that the film has characters acting in certain ways because that is what the message of the film requires, not because it would make sense to do such things. Williams has to pretend there is a radio, Alan Arkin has to think its a bad idea. No reason given for why they do this, and none of those actions make sense out of the context of this film. But they do it anyway. And since this plot driven characterization isn't even in the service of an meaningful take on the Holocaust itself, the upshot is an unintersting movie about gossip and white lies.

That's a bad Holocaust movie. So I must revise my claim. There have been no bad movies about the Holocaust that actually were about the Holocaust.


Sunday, April 23, 2006

Y tu mama tambien


Dir: Alfonso Cuaron (Great Expectations [1998]; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)

This movie really fooled me. I have seen a few contemporary Mexican films lately, many of them heavily influenced by an uber-cool Tarantino-esque celebration of bad behavior and the underworld. And when this movie began telling the story of two cocky teenage boys, I began to have a strong reaction against them, hoping that their ealry plot to seduce an older married woman would fail and that the film would resist glamourzing their aggressiveness. But then, this movie suprised me by presenting a very complex study of sex and honesty. Its depth is the exact opposite of a hip and highly stylized celebration of cruelty and excess, and is quite a good movie.

Tenoch and Julio are two boys whose girlfriends have left for the summer. In their quest to get laid, they encouter Ana, the wife of Tenoch's cousin. Ana has been betrayed by her husband, and agrees to accompany the boys to the beach in a bid for sexual revenge. Along the way, it becomes increasingly clear that the aggressive and self-confident boys are really just boys, all sizzle and no steak and unable to understand sexuality at an adult or emotional level. As the triangle unfolds, the movie explores all angles of a sexual relationship including jealousy, honesty, promiscuity and commitment, and performance of the act itself. The facade of casual sex grows increasingly complicated as the characters search deeper and deeper into each others' unstated feelings.

I will not give the ending of the movie, but I recommend that you watch it. As the layers of subterfuge and the masks of persona are lifted, this movie is not afraid to face the logical conclusion of its unflichingly honest portrayal of sexuality. The ending is believable, welcome, and quite poingant.

I have metioned honesty several times, and it is certainly the main point of the film. The narrator, in a device I found rather effective, stops a scene and tells us things that no one else in the film would know about the past or the future. For example, when the protagonists pass a cross painted on a stone by the side of the road, the narrator comes in to explain the details of the accident ten years ago that led to that symbol of morning. When another cross by the road is foregrounded in a later scene, we are reminded of the theme of unspoken truths. We can never understand the people around us, even our closest friends or lovers. And sex is maybe the most hidden and chaotic of human experiences (death being the other candidate). So much intersects at that moment, in that motion, that no one can ever really understand it.

There is also a poilitical message working here, but I think much is lost on a gringo like me. The father of one of the boys works for the then PRI government (never named but obviously implied), and the Zapatistas get a few scenes as well. The connections between sexual honesty and political honesty is never drawn out. The power of the metaphor, no doubt, relies on an insider's knowledge of Mexican politics.

This film is intellectually engaging and quite fun to watch unfold. There is also lots of nudity, for those more vulgar than your humble critic.


Saturday, April 22, 2006

Soul Plane


Dir: Jessy Terrero (Some 50 cent videos)

Morbid curiosity led me to take a peak at Soul Plane. From the previews, I had chalked it up to "Homeboys in Outer Space" on a plane. Part of me hoped that I would test my political views against a funny satire. But the funny part never happened, so my self assured rejection of dangerous stereotypes is preserved.

The plot, for what its worth, involves a black man who wins a 100 million dollar suit againt an airline and uses the money to start his own outfit that caters to urban travelers. There's something about a crash, but the movie is all about a series of comedic reflections on race.

Blazing Saddles is subversive because the racists are ridiculed. Soul Plane is offensive because the targets of oppression are ridiculed. Even though both movies pivot on poking fun at race, it is not on that issue that Soul Plane is blameworthy. Much of the racial humor is self-reflexive and benefits from the "we get to make fun of ourselves, but you all don't" truth of comedy. The few laughs that the film offers up are on this subject. The seating is divided into high class and low class, with Krystal and lobster in the former and 40's and Popeye's chicken in the latter. A series of jokes revolve around a one white family one the plane, and sometimes those bring a brief smile. If this aspect of the film was funnier, then I would be more gentle with my comments to follow. Being funny is a get out of jail free card for being offensive. And there is potential in this subject matter to really offer up some intersting reflections.

But while it is trying to reclaim humor directed at race, Soul Plane is debilitatingly offensive to gender and sexual orientation. The "ho" culture surrounding so much contemporary music, oversexed women who serve the pleasure of men, is so incessant in this film that one wonders if the writers are capable of writing anything else. I am had pressed to name five scenes that did not involve the objectification of women. It's not sex comedy that I reject, but rather the lazy and completely one-sided approach that is taken here. I get it, already; all women can't enough of that powerful man action. There is only so many times that I can laugh at that. One side character, a flight attendant names "Flame" (that is indicative of the sophistication of the script) troublingly imposes that same hypersexuality onto gays as well. White women in particular are at the mercy of every handsome black man (with many references to their anatomical superiority to white men), powerless to resist the dominant man who will take his pleasure. Compare Lili von Shtupp with Heather Hunkee to see the very same subject matter handled with humor and the other with crass offensiveness.

It could be that I am a prude or oversensitive, but this rank sexism prevents me from interfacing this movie, or the entire culture that supports it. It makes money, enough people out there disagree with me to ensure the same product is put out for some time to come. But then, people loved Amos 'n Andy as well. History will judge.


Friday, April 21, 2006

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg


Dir: Jacques Demy (Donkey Skin)

Here at I Just Saw, we (0r I) are all about combatting irrational prejudices. Personal growth and the development of tolerance compell us to confront our dislikes and put them to the test in the Millian sense. For me, watching The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is no such exercise; I find it sublime. But watching this film may shatter some of the prejudices of this blog's faithful readers.

It is a simple and sweet (#1) operetta (#2) in French (#3). Most of you are OK with 3, but are you ready for 1 & 2?

1. The film tells the story of two young lovers, Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). Their bid to break free of poverty and her protecrtive mother and start a life is put on hold when Guy is drafted to fight in Algeria. In the second act, Genevieve struggles with another suitor while reconsidering her love for Guy. The story is free of artifice or cynicism, no quirks or tricks, almost workaday. But in the heartbreaking third act, the film touchingly explores the fact that life goes on after any trauma. It is one of my favorite endings in film. I know that we have all been taught to roll our eyes at such a narrative, that the writer must dazzle us with tricks or the characters all have to be quirky. Our great love stories are now about the bizarre or criminals or the outcast. I challenge movie watchers today to reconnect with the archetypal, and yet still learn something beautiful about the human condition.

2. But of course, this film does have a quirk, a glorious one. Every word is sung. This blog has recently gone on a run of French films influenced by American detective and gangster movies. Here, Demy is trying to recreate the spirit and freedom of the American musical. Unlike an opera, where the dialgoue is often heavy and poetic, here the lines are really no different than if it was a spoken film. After work, men sing to each other about their dates for the evening. A customer walks into a store, and he sings about how is looking for an umbrella. This natural, relaxed dialogue saves the book from being overwrought. The score is jazzy and briskly paced. A descending tonal pattern provides the thematic link between the different scenes, but it is not nearly as "song" oriented as other operettas. Often, the fact that they are singing can be forgotten, as this is just spoken word put to music. The effect is exhilirating, as the combination of melodic expression heigtens both the climactic and the banal moments. See especially the parting of the two characters at the end of the first act. So many people nowadays reject musicals, but this film is a great example of what I love about them. If you can give the characters the freedom to express themselves in song, then you have an entire new medium in which to understand them.

#3. Not to mention the fact that the French sounds very beautiful sung like that.

Earlier in my life I would have ranked this among my favorite movies of all time. I now count the fact that the lead actors do not do their own singing againt it. But The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a completely refreshing, engaging spectacle, one of the most original and pretty films you will ever see.

And before you post nasty comments, fellow bloggers, you may not personally feel you have these prejudices, I still think you do. So don't argue against me.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006



Dir: Bennett Miller (first freaking feature film)

One of the fun things about this blog is going back and reading something that someone write a while ago about a movie that you have just watched. So I am cam across what Ron wrote just a month ago. In reference to Capote's focus on the creative process, he said "Marcus . . . this is your film."

Um, yeah. Understatement of the Blog award goes to Ron.

Exceptional, spellbindingly good biopic. Among the most intelligent movies I have ever seen. The biggest slam dunk for best actor honors I have seen in a long time. And a vital document of the creative process, a story about telling stories that illuminates both the characters and speaks to art itself.

The writing itself is reason to love the film. Some films are able to develop complex stories or really unpack characters by jumping forward in the story and forcing the audience to fill in the details themselves. Think Godfather II here. In that film the complex political machinations are rarely spelled out, but the actions of the characters provide hints as to what happened between edits. Godfather II was very challenging as a result, and it takes several viewings to really grasp it. That makes watching it over and over so rewarding. Capote is less complicated, but no less engaging. For example, as the killers work their way through the appeals process, Truman Capote takes an increasingly ambivalent (sometimes hostile) attitude toward their fate. But it is only after we are well into a scene that we really know how much time has elapsed or how the courtroom battles are going. Looks of fear, or sighs, or furrowed brows are all the clues we get, or need. In another scene, Capote is talking on the phone to his lover and catches the eye of another man across the street. We fill in the rest. That is, to my mind, the mark of a sophsticated script, in that it respects the intelligence of its audience. The direction and editing are very sophisticated.

The most aparrant triumph of the film is Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was obviously one of the greatest of his generation before this film, but this performance is a giant step forward even from that. We have seen many imitations in film lately, actors who do their best to adopt the mannerisms of their famous subjects. Sometimes it works (Ray), sometimes it doesn't. And certainly Hoffman pulls off the distinctive affectations of Capote to a tea. But that isn't enough for this film, like is was for Ray. Few in the country, and almost no one under 40 (unless you have seen Murder By Death like me), knows how Capote spoke or acted. Hoffman also adds tremendous emotional depth and the ability to communicate the nuance of a man used to manipulating whole crowds with his wit, charm and intelligence. When those skills are trained on folks in the middle of Kanses, Hoffman makes them slightly sinister. And as the film progresses, and Capote's motives become more complicated, so too does this manipuation. Small but essential shifts in face, voice, posture, gesture, all of the tools of an actor, the product of what must have been obsessive attention to detail. It is an absolute tour de force.

And I haven't even gotten to my favorite part of the film. Paul asked earlier about the relationship between Capote and In Cold Blood. That is the whole movie! A focused, insightful, fascinating examination of how great works come to be. The answer is through pain and deceit and compassion and talent and sacrifice. Having seen the film In Cold Blood several times, it was particuarly rewarding for me to see its creation story told. Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George" is another example. Both works focus on the aesthetic process, a challenging subject that once again asks much of the audience. And both argue that the creation of great works can have devastating consequences on the artist. This focus on craft elevates Capote beyond just life story. In Walk the Line, overcoming childhood trauma is the whole point, an easy story line that everyone can intuitively grasp. In Capote, that is just subtext to understand Truman's work, a far more interesting subject matter.

I loved the film. It may have been better than Crash (have to see it again to know). Watch in tandem with In Cold Blood and you have one hell of a movie night.


American Psycho

Director: Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol)

I'd appreciate feedback on this review and other interpretations of this movie, because I am writing a paper on it sometime soon and am very, very confused about how to interpret it.

This controversial adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' novel stars Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street power player leading a disturbing second life. The film introduces us to Bateman's yuppie, coke addicted broker friends who compare business card quality the way the less economically blessed of us would compare phallus sizes in the locker room. We learn quickly that Bateman is engaged to Evelyn (an always well dressed Reese Witherspoon), and that neither is terribly faithful in their relationship.

Early on one of the movie's strengths is also revealed as one of its weaknesses. Remember how in middle school our English teachers told us "Show, Don't Tell"? Instead of saying a character had unhealthy eating habits, one should show them devouring five pizzas and ice cream sundaes. This movie includes an awful lot of narration in the beginning and end by Bateman. Part of this is a strength, especially near the end when we begin to question what contained within the narrative "really" exists or happened. In some sense is Bateman talks to much than this performs the film's critique of overcoked yuppies operating in the Reagan era- Bateman is too self-absorbed to realize that viewers of the movie might be able to pick up on contextual clues and make inflections. The heavy narration could be considered a negative given the following read of the movie: IF we believe the movie is aimed toward us not by Bateman but by the third part filmmaker, then Bateman's discussions could be superfluous if the critique is effectively deployed by the rest of the film's content. But if we view the movie as some Doystoyefskian Notes from the Aboveground of Yuppie Capitalism (as Ellis' novel does) then I think the narration makes sense and helps.

The movie goes on, after introducing us to the aesthetic existence of Bateman, to his existence after hours. This existence is one of pure sexual violence. Bateman picks up and humiliates hookers with a creeping sexual violence. He sleeps with his friend's fiance, misogynistically discounting any attempt she makes at conversation. Much of the violence during these sequences is only implied, but it continues to escalate over the course of the movie as bodies and limbs pile up in Bateman's apartment.

One scene in particular that stood out to me was one in which Bateman invites two prostitutes up to his room and while filming sexual acts they all commit looks at his own reflection in the mirror and flexes his well toned muscles in response. This is a fascinating move because while in the short term it feeds his own narccisistic tendencies while he peers at himself in the mirror, but later if he watches the film of the act the strutting and flexing will not look at all like the pornographic images that Bateman consumes earlier in the film because those movies operate by creating the illusion of pleasure- not of a self-indulgent preening disconnected from the sexual act.

As the movie draws on, Bateman is investigated in the disappearance of one of his colleagues (whom he murdered while delivering a soliloquy on the symbolic relevance of some Huey Lewis and the News). The detective, played by Willem Dafoe, has a series of basically meaningless interviews with Bateman that I think represent how authorities do not care about the underlying violence of successful big business transactions. The movie's critique of the "greed is good" mantra of the 80's is scathing, and even though I think the movie is more about misogny, its clearly saying something about what a focus on profit and status does to our human relations. I think its at its most devastating when characters try to read deep meaning into Phil Collins' Invisible Touch, and they look totally ludicrous.

But what to make of the end of the movie? After a killing spree, Bateman calls his lawyer to confess that he has committed a host of fiendish murders. When he then sees his lawyer at a bar, the lawyer brushes it off as a joke, because the people Bateman claims to have killed have been seen alive and well. Here I think the movie turns- either you read the violence and rape as Bateman's daydreams driven by his disaffection from the world at large, and take the film as a cautionary tale about what could happen if we allow for a narcissistic profit driven society to form, or we see the violence as real and representing what the profit centric 80's and 90's have already done to us. I find the latter read more persuasive- Bateman comes to his realization in front of a door which reads "This is not an exit", I think telling the viewer that there is no easy way out from the violence the movie has brutally depicted, that what happened is "true" and that we need to be careful about it.

A very provocative movie. Worth discussing.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Au revoir, les enfants


Dir: Louis Malle (Damage, My Dinner with Andre)

Let me add another exceptional film that engages the horrors of the Holocaust. This semi-autobiographical film examines Malle's experience as a child growing up in occupied France. The film is set in a sequestered Catholic school run by caring monks who shelter French children (of all religious persuasions) from Nazi rule. Julien, a precocious and popular child, is soon rivaled by the new kid in school, Jean Bonnett. Although Julien leads the playground taunts, he remains fascinated by Jean: his intellect, his artistic prowess, and his odd prayers in an unfamiliar language. The kindly priests implore Julien to embrace Jean as a friend, and treat him with respect, knowing the other kids will follow his lead.

The two develop a growing kinship until Julien discovers Jean's secret identity. Hurt that complete honesty was not part of their friendship, Julien attacks Jean in a typical schoolyard brawl. However, Julien quickly understands the necessity for secrecy when he witnesses first-hand the devastation, and pervasiveness, of anti-semitism. This revelation spawns from complete ignorance; Julien is previously unaware of what it means to be Jewish, let alone who the Jews are. All he knows is that there are people who are subjected to a discrimination that he understands as baseless and arbitrary.

The film offers a child's perspective on the Holocaust that is both poignant and moving. In a very ETesque move, most of the film is shot from a child's height. Malle apparently made the film as a coping mechanism, exorcising a guilt that haunted him for years. He did nothing intentionally wrong, or even remotely morally suspect. But even the most innocent of actions can have devastating consequences. This Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winner is essential viewing for those who wish to be acquainted with the films that chronicle one of the darkest times in human history. In addition to a touching script, wonderful cinematography and solid acting, especially for children, recommend this film.

Blazing Saddles


Dir: Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs)

It was Josh's choice, and who am I to deny a young man's wish. He was curious as to what all the fuss was about, you know, that movie Marcus and Ron always quote. And what a quotable film it is; witty dialogue and superb comedic timing makes this Mel Brooks' send up of the Western one of the most enjoyable and timeless parodies in American cinema (yet another film to suggest the 1970s as the pinnacle of Hollywood). The Oscars don't always get it right, but a comedy, especially a farcical comedy, that gets three Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Supporting Actress-Madeline Kahn, in a year of excellent films, can not be all that bad. The film is full of quality comedic performances, notably Wilder and Kahn (it's ta-woo, it's ta-woo) shine as virtuosos of their humorous craft.

Marcus argues, and rightfully so, that Blazing Saddles is one of the most scathing indictments of racism. The absurdity of racist thought is in full display as the dazzling young urbanite, Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little), finds himself in the rustic setting of Rock Ridge, attempting to stave off Hedy, sorry, Hedley Lemarr's fiendish plot to run a railroad through the town of morons, who don't want the Irish. Brooks masterfully balances physical comedy and silly generic parody with insight cultural references and scatological humor...may high-browed humor be damned.

For all that I love about Blazing Saddles, I have never been too keen on the ending. Although Brooks has a penchant for breaking the Fourth Wall for comedic effect (and to some degree offer a Brechtian criticism), I find the ending a tadbit lazy. I understand that exposing the facade of Hollywood (and the Western) and the artificiality of stereotypes has critical merit, the absurdity of the ending becomes such a self-parody that some of that criticism becomes lost.

Wait, did I just say something negative about Blazing Saddles. Sorry, I take it all back. We all need to give the film a harrumph.

Odds Against Tomorrow


Dir: Robert Wise ( West Side Story ; The Haunting )

Ron has recently mentioned that the heist film is a genre with few poor entries. This race allegory from Robert Wise is certainly no exception. Much of it is quite good. Yet it also quite dated, the product of a time when the study of race in film often lacked spohsitication or complexity. Crash this movie is not.

I came across the film after reading that Melville was a fan. Having recently seen two of his movies (see also Ron's review) I was curious about his influences, and I of course love Robert Wise. The uniqueness comes from the fact that the job is not really the point of the film; it only occupies the last twenty minutes of so. Rather, the clashing personalities of the hoods , and how they are forced to participate, are the point of the film.

Robert Ryan plays a bitter ex-con loved by a decent but hoplessly naive woman. He yearns for financial independence and a reclamation of his manhood. He is also a viscious racist. Harry Belafonte is a womanizing lounge singer with a gambling problem. He needs the job to pay off debts and protect his ex-wife and daughter. The racial tension between the two hangs over the job, creating enjoyable tension and adding interesting wrinkles to the plot.

While both of the male characters are very well done, the movie suffers from a lack of depth from the women. They are there merely as plot points, a reason for the men to do what they do. No reason is given why they love these very bad men. Shelly Winters in particular is very talented, but wasted. When the most intersting woman is nothing but a sex object (played very well by Gloria Grahame in classic noir style), then the script is lacking.

The racial message does get a bit over-the-top at the end, a sledge hammer that clubs the audience into recognizing that all of this fighting is going to tear us apart! We have to work together or we are going to blow ourselves up! Literally, as it turns out.

The dialogue is very good, and Belafonte's performance is exceedingly inspired at times. His acting is much better than many people who might have taken this role, and he brings an anger and intensity to the story that makes it worth your time. And he gets beat up with a string of pearls, so there's something new!

Dated, and somewhat awkward. But intersting, with lots to redeem it. Wise as always has filmed and edited the thing very nicely. I recommend it for a Saturday afternoon. You don't have to see it before you die, but you could certainly spend your time in worse ways.


Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Bad Sleep Well


Dir: Akira Kurosawa ( Kagemusha ; Red Beard ; High and Low ; Ikiru )

Very engaging and original corporate corruption drama. Toshiro Mifune is the secretary and son-in-law to the head of a company involved in illegal public contracts. As the press and the law close in on the scheme, it becomes clear that another party is also tormenting the businessmen, one with darker motives and who intends to toy with his enemies. Imagine "The Firm" meets "Gaslight."

This is the darkest Kurosawa film I have ever seen. Its indictment of Japanese corporate culture is unflinching and devastating. A particular theme is fidelity to superiors and the shame that comes with failure. The movie presents a "thin pinstriped line" view of these organizations, where the worst possible thing is to bring embarassment to the company or one's bosses. The oddly translated title gives a hint as to how the story resolves, a fatalistic reaffirmation of the power of the system.

As one might expect from AK, there are a host of well drawn characters interacting here. The love story, what would in a lesser movie simply be a foil to test the allegiances of people in the story, is here noteworthy as a compelling exploration of the reasons for marriage and the power of pity. All of the major players have compelling motives for doing what they do, and that base allows the story to explore the fringes of obsessive revenge without ever feeling contrived.

Given the current state of business ethics in the United States and throughout the world, the movie also remains impressively relevant. The message of how the public good, and the lives of the pawns in this game, are always ignored in the pursuit of money and power has a bevy of contemporary examples proving its timelessness.

As a window into Japanese themes of duty and shame, as a warning against the unchecked power of corporations, and as a very exciting and original political thriller, I highly recommend The Bad Sleep Well. Yet another testament to Kurosawa's power in a variety of genres.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

In Cold Blood

Dir: Richard Brooks (Looking for Mr. Goodbar)

Had the opportunity to watch this movie and while I have not yet seen Capote, I did recently read In Cold Blood. I was looking forward to seeing this movie in light of the extreme fascination I had with the novel. What is it about a story whose ending we know that still compels us to watch? And I do not mean Titanic, but rather the way in which the psychological explanation present in this movie has become relatively commonplace in the years since the book was written and the movie was made.
What drew me to the book was that the story was so emotionally gripping and fascinating, and I think the movie mostly attempts to transpose the book onto the screen. With subject matter like this, where the source material is so rich and well done, this seems the best strategy. The movie is seriously frightening, creepy despite that we know whats coming. The horror we feel as the killers creep into the Clutter household with rope to tie their victims is palpable. Like the novel it is also effective at generating sympathy for the killers althought the flashback techniques are one of the more dated technical elements of the film.
An interesting note: Capote is represented in this film as a "liberal journalist" who talks to the prisoners in their cells. Interesting for someone who has seen both to speak on the differences involved. But a fine film. I have never been scared so much during a movie since i saw The Exorcist.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Scenes from a Marriage (TV version)


Dir: Ingmar Bergman ( The Virgin Spring ; Cries and Whispers ; Fanny and Alexander ; Wild Strawberries )

On its face, this movie should be very, very boring. It is a six part miniseries examing the contours of one marriage. The film almost exclusively features two people talking in a room, forty minute conversations shot largely in close-ups. It reads like a five and half hour play all about one subject, with just two actors. Pulling that off requires an unbelievebale script and incredibly nuanced acting.

Blissfully, Scenes from a Marriage has both. As a result, it is a stunning, thought provoking, challenging and brilliant work from one of the great artistic minds of any time period. Bergman has taken the risk of stripping his film of all movement, all of the heavy symbolism that made his others so dense, no plot points or external events that come in to provide somewhere for the story to go. This is just a married couple talking.

But oh what they say! The early episodes involve the performance of what seems to be a cheerful, model relationship. But when the husband announces out of the blue that he is leaving his wife for another woman, the hidden suffering of both slowly emerges. In a less ambitious film, many of these complex emotions would be articulated in one big scene, with lots of crying and throwing things around; seven minutes and then we move on to something else. But Bergman has here devoted huge swaths of time to the reactions of his characters, allowing their ideas to come to the surface over thirty minutes, and across entire episodes. The scene where Marianne first learns of the breakup is a case in point. She is dumbfounded, unable to react. For the entire episode she struggles with what to say, only breaking down the next morning as Johan is heading out the door. It a a brilliant commitment to genuine emotional reactions at moments when we literally "don't know how to react", impossible to describe here. It is almost inconceivable how you act that sort of subtle moment.

And the acting from these two giants of Swedish cinema is always up to the task. Erland Josephson is diabolic and charming as the philandering and selfish Johan. But Liv Ullman is an absolute miracle as Marianne, who uses her pain to grow and discover herself. Her transformation is mercurial, and is another testament to Bergman's tremendous ability to write parts for women. Ullman's journey from emotional repression to genuine (if limited) liberation is also one of the most compelling feminist narratives I have ever seen. Sex is a constant theme of their conversations, and using it not as a tool of power but instead as personal self expression is handled here better than I have ever seen it done.

All of this is a consequence of the freedom Bergman enjoyed for this Swedish television production. I cannot imagine even Spielberg going to NBC and pitching five hours of two people talking about their sex lives in a room. But the low budget and the willingness of the actors to pariticipate, somehow got this film made. There is shorter, theatrical version out there, but I would dissuade you from it. This is not the sort of thing you tighten up, because it is in its extention that its genius lies.

The movie is very difficult to watch. The characters are so honest, and express the modern condition so well, that you will find yourself questioning your own life and your own happiness. But it is also essential. When true talent comes together, and all other considerations are removed but commitment to art, truly magical things can be produced. I find Scenes from a Marriage to be such a document.


Sunday, April 09, 2006

Talk to Her


Dir: Pedro Almodovar (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!; Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; All About My Mother)

Another triumph from Almodovar. I would want to show this film to all of the young, hip, "indy" filmmakers who want to take an "offbeat look at contemporary relationships." Rather than substitute novelty for effective writing, Almodovar has used quirk as ornament for a very solid and compassionate script (it won the Oscar). I love a movie that gets me to empathize with the bad guy, to make me rethink why someone would do something horrible from his perspective.

The story involves two women in comas, and the men with complicated relationships to them. One is a dancer who was admired/stalked from afar by a man who would later become her nurse after an accident. The second woman is a matador who had an ambiguous relationship with a reporter. The two men come to be friends while visiting their vegetative lovers.

The clever scenario is buffeted by a tender examination of the flaws of the men that lead them to project their loneliness onto the comatose. Distant and dissafected, Almodovar's characters are also insightful and interesting. I really enjoyed watching the story unfold.

Two scenes are worth noting. One is an actual bullfight, both beautiful and cruel, yet very important to the story. It is one of humanity's most disgusting and dramatic pass times, one that I condemn and yet attracts me. But viewers should be warned of its presence.

The second is a surrealistic silent film sequence. The subject matter is Freud meets Dali and Brunuel. Let's just say that the set design calls for a ten foot vagina. It borders on the silly, but does good metaphorical work for the character who relates the story. The scene, for its imagination and risk, is worth the price of admission itself, as it could easily have derailed the whole movie. Instead, it is an odd digression that adds tension and ambiguity to the script.

Very sensitive. Very fascinating. I really liked the film.


Saturday, April 08, 2006

Inside Man


Dir: Spike Lee (School Daze, Girl 6)

Here is a another genre that has very few poor entries: the heist film. And this is one of the better ones produced in quite some time. Mr. Lee, in an expected turn as a socially-conscious director, uses the heist as a backdrop for playing out broader social critiques of institutional law-enforcement (homeland security as NYPD), racial profiling, and complicity as the instrument of evil (further elaboration requires unveiling plot twists). In a refreshing take on the heist film, Lee humanizes both the law-enforcement agents (in particular, Denzel Washington, in an uncharacteristically subdued performance as the lead hostage negotiator) and the criminals (lead by Clive Owen). Both serve complex yet noble ends, unlike the institutionalized power that profits off the misfortunes of others (a very Lee-type theme). Given Lee's history as a director, one can easily, and justifiably, read this film as a provocative, perhaps controversial, metaphor of the American response to terrorism. The cops-robbers-bank owner relationship is strangely familiar to the military/homeland security footsoldiers-terrorists-Bush White House triangle (the robbers-terrorists analogy is by far the most debatable). Spike's message, Support our Troops but not the Government (and given Hersh breaking the story on the Bush Administration's possible plan for a nuclear strike on Iran, he's got a point).

The movie reminded me a lot of Riffifi, an outstanding film that uses realism to build tension instead of cheap narrative tricks. Inside Man is one of the most realistic heist/hostage films I have seen: a lot of waiting around, a battle of wills and patience between cops and robbers. Washington spends a substantial amount of time in the diner around the corner from the bank, discussing strategy and interviewing released hostages.

What bothered me most about Inside Man had nothing to do with the film itself, but the discourse of the film critic community. I read countless reviews that lauded Spike Lee for using his directorial acumen to bring new life into a well-worn, but durable, genre. Yes, Lee is a bit preachy at points, and some of his films are clunkers, but I could not help but reading some of these reviews as possessing a subtext of, "thank goodness that uppity black director has used his immeasurable talent to create a film we white folks can really sink our teeth into." It may be a safer film, but it still has bite. Loved the soundtrack. Solid film that is a joy to watch.

Friday, April 07, 2006

East of Eden


Dir: Elia Kazan

James Dean was a genius. A genius at 24 years old. Had he lived, he might have become a caricature of himself Brando or faded like Welles. But for three movies he was the greatest actor ever.

East of Eden was the first. The Steinbeck novel is perfectly suited to his talents. A single pious father has two sons, one straightlaced and the other wild and unpredictable. Dean's talents are at their peak when he acts completely in character but in a way we could not have expected. Suddent bursts of emotion, walking away from other actors out of the blue, even the way he gets out of a car or plays with something on a table are all so charged with energy. It is method acting at its finest, the complete freedom to act as the character might because the actor has become the character. Since his character in this film, like Rebel Without a Cause, is troubled and unpredictable to begin with, Dean is given a blank canvas on which to paint a masterpiece.

The latent anger and power in his performance makes the moments of tenderness and compassion between father and son all the more rewarding. Steinbeck's story explored sibling rivalry and family almost melodramatically. But Dean and Kazan make the melodrama real. I would normally praise the direction in this sort of movie more, but Dean so totally dominates every scene that the review has to be about him.

I am not overstating this. James Dean was everything that is right about acting. East of Eden is a tour de force example of how allowing the on-screen talent to work their magic can often be the best direction. Only a handful of actors are able to pull that off on their own. Dean was one, maybe the one, and is a true icon of American art.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck


Dir: George Clooney

What an intruiging little film. And I mean little; it's short and so narrowly focused. It has one, and only one, point to make. It makes it and then goes home. Watching the film made me reflect more on its genre category than on the story itself. I am just thinking aloud here, but Clooney may have made the next generation of the political documentary, the evolution of Michael Moore.

The subject matter is the rivalry between Ed Murrow and Joe McCarthy near the end of the HUAC travesty. In response to Paul's review of this film, Omri posted an article by Jack Shafer at Slate critiquing the hero worship of Murrow and the glossing over of historical details by Clooney. From what little I know of the affair, Shafer has a strong point. And were this a movie about that episode, I would come down on it, hard. But this movie is clearly about today, a message to the contemporary media that they fail to live up to their own image, an image embodied by the romanticized Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck. Speaking truth to power, that is what a free press is supposed to do (goes this argument). Resisting coportate or government pressure to remain neutral, to improve ratings and not to elevate minds, is what is needed right now. Clooney has used a myth to make a presentist argument, perhaps best evidenced by the obscure clip of Eisenhower decrying suspensions of Habeas Corpus and unlawful detentions at the very end.

And at that level, I find the movie very effective. Most interesting to me were the admonishments about telling both sides of the story when there really are not two sides. Clooney accomplished his goal when I thought about domestic reporting on torture at that moment. Also intersting was the construction of censorship, not as spiking a story, but as dissuading reporters for provactively searching for the truth. It is not enough to allow investigative reporting, one has to always be actively encouraging it, sacrificing government relations and profits in the process. These journalistc ethics questions were refreshing to see taken up.

The film itself is less interesting, but still fine. The economy of the story requires a trade off in character development. Can anyone tell me what the point of the marriage thing was? Little background is given on the red scare or the major players, and since this movie is not really about the controversy that does not matter much. The film has essentially two sets, five or six actors, a script completely dedicated to the task at hand, and little else. I think there is room for more exploration of the subject in the script than Clooney permits.

What struck me was how persuasive the message was. Of course, McCarthyism is a slam dunk example for him. And the movie avoids the Moore pitfall of reaching too far and then getting slammed for inferential excess. No kites over Baghdad here. The audience infers its own connection to the present day. And as all students of enthymeme's know, the argument is more persuasive when the audience participates in drawing the conclusions with the rhetor.

This is political film making at its less hyperbolic, more sophisticated, and more rewarding. It could have been a brilliant film, but I think Good Night, and Good Luck points to a more engaged yet cinematic approach to interventionist film making.


Schindler's List


Dir: Steven Speilberg

It was this movie that broke through my irrational Speilberg prejudice some years ago. I was mesmerized then, and yet had not seen the film since. Revisiting it now, I am even more enthralled with its sophistication and depth. The Holocuast is the most important of all stories; every single aspect of the human condition can be read through it. What fascinates here is the shifting attitude of Schindler himself, a transformation from selfish and charming backslapper to righteous man. He is flanked by less ambiguous portrayals of evil and good, Ralph Fiennes' Goeth and Ben Kinglsey's Stern. Schindler's enlightenment is hugely insightful and beautiful, finding salvation in the midst of the most evil act the world has ever seen. It alone makes this movie a masterpiece.

Neeson's performance is expertly crafted, but it is actually Fiennes who dazzles most. Ron mentioned in his earlier review of this film that SS had never directed an Academy award winning performance. That is only because of the unending stupidity of the Academy voters. You know who won that year over Ralph? Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. One day, go back and watch this movie with that in mind. Fiennes is so bonechilling as the camp director, so undeniably powerful and cruel, that his performance can in many ways be seen as the best personification of the Holocuast ever put on film.

Ron also mentions the way people die. How odd that such a phenomenon could become the signature of a film! And yet, it is undeniable that the actions of corpses, shot with callousness and often without their foreknowledge, is among the most haunting images I have ever seen. Immediately the victims transform from normal activity to collapsing rag dolls, piles of limbs on the ground; only their spilling blood reminds us of the movements they performed seconds before.

The whole effect is aided by the unbelievable lighting. The performances are dramatically enhanced by huge pools of light on faces, showcasing every expression with a clarity that I have never seen rivaled in a black and white film. Objects pop off the screen as Speilberg compensates for the lack of definition that is possible from color contrasts by enhancing light and dark. It makes the shadows all the more shadowy, and lends womderful crispness to all things in the light.

I cannot think of a bad Holocaust film (I have had this discussion before with some of you). That is because (1) the subject matter is so rich and (2) no director brings less than her A game to such a film. And Schindler's List ranks near the top of this esteemed genre. This is without a doubt His best film, without a doubt better than the best films of almost everyone that has ever made films. It is an essential contribution to the most important thing art can do: it makes us look at ourselves in new ways.


Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Color Purple


Dir: Him

Somehow, this one had slipped through the cracks for me. It was my first viewing, and I had no idea what to expect. What I saw was well put together, very well acted, yet manipulative and dated. A very good movie, politically very important, but not an essential film.

Spielberg did this film and Empire of the Sun sandwiched between Temple of Doom and Last Crusade. It is nice to see his talents applied to more story- driven and socially relevant pictures than he tends to put out. Throughout Spielberg uses his camera to add meaning, framing his actors and lingering on important artifacts in the film. Almost too much so (yes I get it, the lemonade, all right), but the Senor was never one to let subtlty get in the way of communicating his message.

The acting is what really shines here. Danny Glover is the best I have ever seen him (not saying much, I guess) as the brutal Albert. Margaret Avery is also dazzling as the confident but troubled singer Shug Avery. Whoppi Goldberg, as the deeply reserved Celie, is fine but not much is required of her than to look awkward and afraid. Goldberg would of course use this role to launch her incomparable movie career; in just two years after The Color Purple she would put out Jumpin' Jack Flash AND Burglar! That is incomparable!

But the true revelation is Oprah Winfrey as the fiesty Sophia. Her strength is so natural on the screen, her character dominating every scene, that I thought it a shame that the talk show turned out so well. I could have taken many more movies from this woman. My loss is Dr. Phil's gain.

The character of Sofia also highlights some of the flaws of The Color Purple. After her spirit is broken, Winfrey is directed to turn the character inward so far that she literally rocks back and forth in her chair, almost insane with disconnection from the world. One outburst from Celie, and suddenly woman is rejuvenated. This sort of broad and obvious emotional development of the characters is no doubt why the book and film were so popular, but also why it had me rolling my eyes at times.

The politics are also oddly dated. The critique of power differentials between race and gender are of course spot on and compelling. But the positive move, a sort of African utopianism, is hard to place. The reclamation of black identity as African was very much in vogue at the time (less widespread now, I think, but still there of course). The move to place African history in schools, T shirts proclaiming "I am descended from Kings," even Cosby was inserting very low key African identity claims into his sitcom (I am thinking of the tuxedos here).

The movie seems to imply that such a move is not just personal identity exploration, tracing one's roots, but actually could serve as a political model in the long term. Returning home has cleansed the characters of American oppression, something the system prohibited for those unable to make that journey. Spielberg is too populist to really lay that argument on the line (perhaps the book does?), but it was interesting to note the political moment from which this text was produced.

Illuminating performances, capabale if obvious direction, a storyline that grabs its audience by the shoulders and forces it to march along the narrative's emotional path, all make for a good and intersting film. I recommend it, more for its historical importance that as a great film in its own right.