Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Pride & Prejudice - Movie Review

Pride & Prejudice 2005

First, a history lesson. Relax, you mooks, it won’t take long. When we first heard there was to be a new film version of Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice” we too jumped the gun and thought, oh dearest us, not another one! Well, we must take that back, ‘cause in our research – you do realize we do research, we’re not just flying by the seat of our Diesels® kinda hack entertainment journalists ya know, anywho in our research we discovered that this latest incarnation would be the first cinematic straight adaptation of “P&P” since MGM’s glittering 1940 version. What!! But what about the lovely 1995 BBC version starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth and countless others? Well, if you actually paid attention, there have been umpteen versions made strictly for television, as either a movie or mini-series. And we’re talking about the big screen, you dolts. And we’re not counting any modernized adaptations or the Wog version. As much as we love our mini-series, it would be completely ignorant and foolish of us to compare one to a big screen adaptation. The medium is entirely different. What one can do with two, three, four or seventeen episodes is radically different than choosing to adapt a piece of literature to the major motion picture screen. So there. Nyah!

Now, back to the latest version. As many Jane Austen nutjobs . . . er, fans will tell you, “Pride & Prejudice” tells the tale of a down on their shillings family, the Bennets whose father and in particular, mother are simply mad to marry off their gaggle of five daughters to decent, respectable, and hopefully filthy rich bachelors. Very pro-woman, this piece. The eldest daughter, Elizabeth is the “headstrong” (Read: uptight twat) one who fancies nothing more than enjoying the simple rustic charms of semi-poverty and an occasional good potboiler. Her sister Jane is the “pretty one” (Read: horny slut), who would like nothing better than to marry the rich, eligible new neighbor. The next two bitches are Lydia and Kitty who are basically the Paris and Nicole of their day. And then there’s the ugly lesbian daughter, Mary.

Into their drab little dilapidated country estate . . . how quaint, arrive two eligible rich bachelors (Imagine! What luck!), the eager to please Mr. Bingley, and the brooding and aloof Mr. Darcy. With some Cruella de Ville type in tow . . . (We blocked her out, she was played so “Saturday Afternoon Serial Villainess”ish.) Jane (the horny slut) falls in love with Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth (the uptight twat) is offended by Mr. Darcy, their mother is foaming at the mouth at the thought of one of her daughters finally getting hitched and the romp begins.

Now, we wouldn’t dream of spoiling the plot twists and turns and surprise ending. (Mr. Darcy turns out to be wonderful, Elizabeth was wrong about him the entire time – he was too PROUD and she was too consumed with PREJUDICE, and they get married and live happily ever after.) Except to say if that if you have either read “Bridget Jones’s Diary” or hell, any piece of literature above the “Curious George” level, you pretty much know what is going to happen. And that really isn’t the point with Jane Austen anyway. The beauty of Jane Austen is in her ability to combine romantic comedy with social satire and great character studies. One should only hope that those three simple staples of La Austen’s work will shine thru in any big screen adaptation. They did. In 1940. Starring Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier, Maureen O’Sullivan, Heather Angel, Ann Rutherford, Mary Boland, Edmund Gwenn, and Edna May Oliver. It was directed by the prolific Robert Z. Leonard and co-adapted by the great novelist Aldous Huxley. And while it may not be on par with “Citizen Kane” or “8 ½” as one of the greatest films ever made, it is justifiably regarded as a delightful cinematic soufflé.

This latest version would be better compared to a cinematic scone that one dropped on the floor and dusted off and laid back on the dirty plate. There is nothing hideously wrong with this adaptation, if you don’t count half the casting, the screenplay and the horrendous cinematography. We have to pause and say that it has been years since the cinematography alone has ruined a movie for us, but the work done here by one Roman Osin is unworthy of being labeled “lazy” or “horrendous”. That would be too kind.

On the plus side, the casting scores high marks for the brooding charms of Matthew MacFadyen as Mr. Darcy (God! What a voice!), the comic timing of Tom Hollander as Mr. Collins, and the polished and touchingly effective work done by three veterans: Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet, Judi Dench as Lady Catherine de Bourg, and the brilliant Brenda Blethyn as Mrs. Bennet. They almost saved the movie for us. Almost. If we could have seen them thru the muddy and hideously lit cinematography. The screenplay by one Deborah Moggach is pedestrian at best, and cloyingly attempts at some degree of modernity when it would have been better to emulate the Oscar winning screenplay by Emma Thompson for the fabulous Ang Lee adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense & Sensibility.” Rumor has it that the great Emma did a rewrite on this latest flick but refused any credit for it. She was right in not allowing her name to be besmirched. We can credit her for the good lines. Because we’re generous.

But the real problem lies in the casting of the kewpie doll Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet. While Keira may have appeared in some successful films like “Bend It Like Beckham” “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” and “Love Actually” she is not exactly known for her gifted handling of period dialogue. And boy howdy, does it show. While her tomboyish attitude may be slightly in synch with Elizabeth Bennet’s headstrong character traits, her inability to utter “Good Day, Mr. Darcy” without coming across as a twenty year old tart from Middlesex is not. We grant you that Miss Knightley is a lovely young bint, but one could hardly tell with THE FUCKING HIDEOUS CINEMATOGRAPHY!!!

Jesus H. Christ on a bed of arugula! What the fuck was director Joe Wright thinking of? And by the way, who the fuck is Joe Wright? Yo Wrong is more like it. What truly angered us with this piece is that we actually enjoyed several of the scene set-ups and we thought that the two ball sequences were staged with a graceful ingenuity we found quite refreshing. If we could only have SEEN THE FUCKING ACTORS!!!! This film should be taught in all film schools to demonstrate how bad cinematography can ruin interesting camerawork. Apparently, Roman Osin believes in lighting a scene in only one fashion. Harshly. Now we don’t expect every film, let alone every period film to be “Barry Lyndon”, we just would like to be able to think of Keira Knightley as something other that “Fat Face.” There, that got you, didn’t it? Obviously anybody who has ever seen Miss Knightley onscreen can tell you that she is anything but “Fat.” In fact, with her whippet thin frame and the clunky boots she sports under her empire waisted nightgown, she resembles one of the Olsen twins jotting out to the nearest Starbucks® for some Grade A Columbian finest, and a cup of coffee.

You don’t get thinner than that, kids. The close-ups of Keira were the deal breaker for us. If this wog can’t light a beautiful young lady like Keira, what hope do they have of establishing any kind of atmosphere or mood? None. That’s what.

So, in closing – despite our yearning to be entertained by an intelligent romantic comedy, all we got for our money was eye-strain and a desire to go rent “Sense & Sensibility.” Now, THAT film has good lighting. Bless you all!

(Closing History Lesson: We were recently in our salle de bain, pinching a loaf when we happened to read this quote from the November 18th edition of EW (Perfectly named - we might add) magazine. They were attempting to compare the 1940, 1995 BBC, and current versions. (What did we tell you about that! Read the opening paragraph again.) Anywho, this moron goes on to comment on our beloved 1940 MGM version, and we quote: “The costumes look off by several decades, as if they were swiped from the set of 1939’s “Gone With the Wind”. Now listen, you cross eyed git, the costumes for the lovely 1940 version were by the legendary Adrian who deliberately set the film at the height of the Romantic Era circa 1830s to take full advantage of the dashing male silhouette and the flouncy charm of the Gigot de Mouton sleeves. “Gone With the Wind” was brilliantly designed by Walter Plunkett, who set the opening scenes in the Crinoline Era of the 1860s thru the Bustle Period of the 1870s. Get your fucking facts right, you ignorant hack! Peace, love and light!)

Directed by Joe Wright
Written by Deborah Moggach
Based on the book by Jane Austen

Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet
Matthew MacFadyen as Mr. Darcy
Judi Dench as Lady Catherine de Bourg
Rosamund Pike as Jane Bennet
Jena Malone as Lydia Bennet
Carey Mulligan as Kitty Bennet
Talulah Riley as Mary Bennet
Brenda Blethyn as Mrs. Bennet
Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet
Tom Hollander as Mr. Collins
Rupert Friend as Mr. Wickham

Cinematography by Roman Osin
Film Editing by Paul Tothill
Costume Design by Jacqueline Durran
Original Music by Darioi Marianelli
Production Design by Sarah Greenwood
Art Direction by Nick Gottschalk & Mark Swain
Set Decoration by Katie Spencer

Syriana - Movie Review

Syriana 2005

Oh, how we wanted to love this latest foray into the political by our pal George Clooney. Honest, we did. And to some extent, casting and cinematography-wise, it worked beautifully. We have always been suckers for political pseudo thrillers. Who doesn’t love ‘em? From “The Manchurian Candidate” (The original great one, you twits, not the recent one.) to “All the President’s Men” to “The Insider.” The more labyrinthine and complicated, the better in our humble opinion. We simply adore getting wrapped up in espionage, betrayal and assassination plots. So what went wrong? Well, we sadly have to report that the blame must be placed on the writer / director Stephen Gaghan. In his sophomore directorial effort, Mr. Gaghan bites off more than he can chew. While we admired his work as a screenwriter, namely his Oscar winning script to Steven Soderbergh’sTraffic”, adapted from the original British television series – “Traffik”, his first adventure into the director’s chair should best be forgotten. Mr. Gaghan is obviously capable of weaving together a collection of subplots that support a larger idea, but in this case he lost his way on the road to Syriana. (Which sounds like an old Hope & Crosby flick, but sadly is not. This flick could have used ole Dorothy Lamour in a sarong.)

Now, we don’t want to give the impression we hated “Syriana”, since that is not the case. We enjoyed many things about it. Namely the casting of George Clooney and his fuck buddy, Matt Damon!! Whew!!

We would however be remiss in our duties if we failed to mention that this is the infamous acting role in which our pal George, fueled either by some latent Method Acting impetus or sheer gluttony gained over thirty pounds to portray! George, honey. Was that necessary? You’ll ruin your health. Oops. Too late. Anyway, we couldn’t help but wonder why our ole friend would place his health on the line, but we admit it did add a certain “lived-in” look to his performance that eventually paid off during his harrowing confrontation scene with certain particular baddies. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. What the hell is “Syriana” about? For that matter, what the hell does “Syriana” mean? And why so many subplots?

Syriana” weaves a political tapestry of the under the table dealings between oil conglomerates and the Middle Eastern nations that are sitting upon the dinosaur bones that propel all those lovely SUVs throughout the hinterlands of the ole U.S. of A. From the corporate boardrooms of the suited baddies, to the desolate desert landscapes of the bedsheet draped baddies we get to drop in on all the shady dealings that help bring about coup d’etats and promote anti-American sentiments the world over. Skreeeeech!!!! Whaddya mean they hate us over there? We can’t imagine why. It’s not like the United States helps to topple governments in the name of greed or anything. Goodness knows, that the greatest country on earth has never been one to hurt innocents in the name of baseless fears or imperialism.

Now, you see what this film has done? It’s gone and got us all hot and bothered. We hate when that happens. Unless it involves George Clooney and Matt Damon. Then, we’re in. Sans weight gain. Although, our pal George is quite good in this performance. Other notable turns include the underappreciated Jeffrey Wright as the hardworking young lawyer who stumbles across the dirty underbelly of the oil conglomerate beast, the always reliable Christopher Plummer who is a treat to behold as long as he isn’t warbling to Nazi youth, Broadway veteran Jayne Atkinson as the steely eyed CIA Director, William Hurt fresh from his brilliant turn in “A History of Violence” – seen here as a “Deep Throat” wannabe, and as for the towelheads, Alexander Siddig gratefully stepping out from his “Star Trek” limbo long enough to pull of a polished performance as the heir apparent to a dynastic Oil-rich nation and Mazhar Munir as the doe-eyed Pakistani youth who succumbs to fundamentalist teachings in order to avenge his people’s plight at the hands of the evil Oily bigwigs. On the downside, despite our unabashed love affair with Matt Damon, he is woefully misused here. His storyline as the energy analyst embroiled in domestic tragedy alongside wife Amanda Peet, fails to connect emotionally or dramatically. He fairs slightly better than Amanda, who ever since delivering a kick ass monologue in the unjustly ignored “Changing Lanes” has failed to live up to our expectations.

Back to the flick in question. We will be the first to say that films can be the perfect medium for multi-character, interwoven storytelling: from “Intolerance” to “Dinner at Eight” to “Rules of the Game to works by more recent giants, Robert Altman and Pedro Almodóvar. It can be a grand canvas to play on. Or not. While we had originally admired Mr. Gaghan’s storytelling capabilities, we realize we should have been praising the Steven with a V. Soderbergh. Whatever contributions Gaghan brought to “Traffic”, it was Soderbergh who brought clarification, visual thrulines, dramatic tension, and plain ole talent to the proceedings to help make that flick work. “Syriana” ultimately doesn’t work for two reasons. One, the stories that contribute to the overall conceit are too often placed on the back burner for side stories that do little but slow down the proceedings. Will somebody please tell us why we should care about Jeffrey Wright’s alcoholic downtrodden father, since their relationship remains a stagnant one? Or for that matter, why bother to introduce George Clooney’s son, when all he can contribute is guilt over his father being a covert CIA agent. Well, duh? Nobody ever said that international espionage is a stable job environment for good parenting skills you whiny stump.

Two, Gaghan is simply not up to the task of directing. Sorry. There it is. We thank you for your hard work, and your best intentions, but please put down the megaphone and step away from the director’s chair. Your services are no longer required. Jeez. Now we sound all crotchety and angry. We hate to give that impression. In the era of dumbed down filmmaking, we appreciate any flick that attempts to address important issues in an intelligent fashion. We simply ask that they hire a talented pro, and not a screenwriter turned junior auteur that hasn’t the skills to pull it off. So, in closing while we loved many of the performances, we simply cannot encourage our legion of fans to drop some hard earned money on “Syriana.” Bless you all.

Closing note: So about that title? Here is what Stephen Gaghan had to say - "While 'Syriana' is a very real term used by Washington think tanks to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East, in the movie, it is used more abstractly. 'Syriana', the concept, the fallacious dream that you can successfully remake nation-states in your own image, is a mirage. 'Syriana' is a fitting title for a film that could exist at any time and be about any set of circumstances that deal with man's unchecked ambition, hubris, and the fantasy of empire." Okay. Aren't you glad you asked?

Written & Directed by Stephen Gaghan
Suggested by the book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism by Robert Baer

George Clooney as Bob Barnes
Matt Damon as Bryan Woodman
Amanda Peet as Julie Woodman
Mazhar Munir as Wasim Ahmed Khan
Christopher Plummer as Dean Whiting
Jeffrey Wright as Bennett Holiday
Nicky Henson as Sydney Hewitt
Alexander Siddig as Prince Nasir Al-Subaai
Akbar Kurtha as Prince Meshal Al-Subaai
Chris Cooper as Jimmy Pope
Tom McCarthy as Fred Franks
Jayne Atkinson as CIA Division Chief
Tim Blake Nelson as Danny Dalton
William Hurt as Stan Goff
Max Minghella as Robby Barnes
Robert Foxworth as Tommy Thompson

Cinematography by Robert Elswit
Film Editing by Tim Squyres
Costume Design by Louise Frogley
Original Music by Alexandre Desplat
Production Design by Dan Weil
Art Direction by Daran Fulham
Alan Hook
Andrew Menzies
Laurent Ott
Set Decoration by Olivia Block-Lainé
Jan Pascale

Friday, November 18, 2005

Walk the Line - Movie Review

Walk the Line 2005

There’s good news and bad news about the latest big budget biopic to hit the multi-screens. We’ll start with the good: Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash as the subject matter and Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as their interpreters. Plaudits and kudos all around! We have been long time fans of the Cashes, hell’s bells, the Carters too! And while we may have had our ups and downs with Joaquin and Reese over the years, we are here to tell you that they deliver the goods in two of the most complete and powerful performances of the year. And the bad? Well, we hesitate to label it . . . ‘cause that’s just not our style, but we cast a jaundiced eye at director James Mangold and co-screenwriter Gill Dennis. Tsk, tsk. It is not to say that they run completely afoul, it is merely to point out that what could have been has been done better . . . and obviously worse. The only reasons we are removing our belts and asking them to step outside for a good lashing, is that we had our hopes up too high, and in the clinch, the true moments throughout the film where we wanted to be dazzled, they let us down.

Charting the true story of any legend can be haphazard at best, or overblown, or just plain maudlin . . . and with the dual chore of attempting to parlay the great love story of musical legends Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, the filmmakers bite off a bit more than they can chew. Ever since the movies began, we have been sitting back in our seats and viewing biopics of the great men and women in history. From the biography craze in the 1930’s that brought us “The Story of Louis Pasteur”,The Life of Emile Zola”, “The Great Ziegfeld”, “Juarez”, “Marie Antoinette” and countless others to the musical biographies that range from brilliant: “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, to fine “Bound for Glory” to fair: “Sweet Dreams” and last year’s “Ray”. The difficulty in realizing a life on film should be fairly self evident. How in the hell do you portray a life’s work in two hours? Well, you don’t. Either you focus on an important chapter in a famous life: (See our recent “Capote” review.) or you paint an awfully big canvas – see: “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Patton” or “Gandhi”. While the epic length drama may perfectly suit the world leaders and great men and women of our time, a musical biography is usually painted on a smaller scale. Sadly, by now we are used to the clichés of a celebrity life portrait. Humble beginnings, childhood trauma, the slow crawl to acceptance, the breakthrough success, the road to excess, the dangerous pitfalls along the road, and the final purification and deification of the legend. Cue the end music and hopefully not a dry eye in the house! The problems with “Walk the Line” is that it cannot manage to wrestle itself free of any of the clichés listed above. But when the two main performances are so beautifully drawn and the chemistry is palpable, the film manages to succeed in spite of itself.

To many screengoers, Johnny Cash is the main draw with his famed “Man in Black” stage persona and litany of chart-toppers. And with his portrayal of the legend, Joaquin Phoenix banishes any doubt that he can deliver the goods as a leading man. He is simply amazing to watch. Obviously researching the hell out of the role, and practicing in front of his mirror at home, Joaquin lowers his vocal register and bravely attempts the singing chores along with the physical attributes that was the real Johnny Cash’s musical legacy. While anyone with a good ear could not be fooled into thinking that this is the real Johnny Cash singing, Joaquin manages to capture the style and delivery almost perfectly. To be able to sustain it for the many onstage musical scenes is nothing short of miraculous. All this would have meant nothing if Joaquin was not up to the dramatic and comedic moments in The Man in Black’s life. He is. Believe us, he is.

June Carter, has unfortunately been slighted by some from her deserved co-position of legendary singer/songwriter, content as she was to bask in her husbands glory throughout the years. Tis a pity. ‘Cause the story of June Carter deserves its own Silver Screen tribute, but we will have to make due with the present. And in the personification of Reese Witherspoon, we are more than happy. Reese. Reese’s pieces. Reesala! We love you . . . again! We first became enamored of Reese with her film debut when she was a mere sprout of 14 in the coming of age drama “The Man in the Moon.” We were hooked. For those of you who might have missed it . . . go out and rent it, NOW!!! We’ll wait . . .
You’re done? Didn’t you just love it? We certainly did. Now, as with many youngsters, we weren’t quite sure that Reese was the real thing until we were delighted to sit back and watch her mature as an actress in a string of interesting roles. From her psychotic take on Little Red Riding Hood in “Freeway” to her emerging comic chops in “Pleasantville” thru her perfectly timed breakthrough role as Tracy Flick in the vastly underrated “Election.” Unfortunately, her critically praised comedic skills and petite prettyiness doomed her quickly to run of the mill fodder. She became the hope of the industry dying to discover the next bright young thing. And the downhill spiral began. But we can all relax. Reese has come home to us! Her performance as June Carter is nothing short of astonishing. Whether it’s a combination of her determination to play this role, or her respect for the great lady, Reese pulls out all the stops in creating a cinematic version of June that is a powerful mixture of honesty, class, and talent. And she sings the damn gummed songs herself!

The best we can say about our lackluster response to James Mangold’s direction is that it’s pretty much what we expected from the man who helmed “Girl, Interrupted” and “Kate & Leopold.” Take that as a back handed compliment, if you must. It’s how we meant it. We will go on record as stating that even in previous endeavors, we found Mr. Mangold quite capable of keeping a story moving along, just a skootch inept in the creative visualization or atmosphere departments. Sadly, the same goes for “Walk the Line.” We do applaud his extended use of close-ups and his tight focus on the onstage musical numbers - but with Joaquin and Reese he would have been an idiot not to exploit their onscreen chemistry visually. But ultimately it matters not, not when you have Joaquin and Reese in Oscar worthy form. If ever a film cried out to be seen on the strength of the performances alone, this is it. So go ahead, you tightwads, take a crowbar to that wallet and spend some sawbucks on “Walk the Line.” You’ll be glad we done sent you, y’all. And if you don't listen to us . . . well, we believe the real Johnny Cash said it best.

Directed by James Mangold
Written by Gill Dennis & James Mangold
Based on “The Man in Black” and “Cash: An Autobiography” by Johnny Cash

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash
Reese Witherspoon as June Carter
Ginnifer Goodwin as Vivian Cash
Robert Patrick as Ray Cash
Dallas Roberts as Sam Phillips
Shelby Lynne as Carrie Cash
Tyler Hilton as Elvis Presley
Waylon Malloy Payne as Jerry Lee Lewis
Shooter Jennings as Waylon Jennings
Sandra Ellis Lafferty as Maybelle Carter
Johnathan Rice as Roy Orbison
Ridge Canipe as Young J.R. Cash

Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael
Film Editing by Michael McCusker
Costume Design by Arianne Phillips
Original Music and Music Supervision by T-Bone Burnett
Production Design by David J. Bomba
Art Direction by John R. Jensen and Rob Simons
Set Decoration by Carla Curry

Classe tous risques - Movie Review

Classe tous risques 1960

What if they made a great film and nobody got a chance to see it? Well, similar things have happened in this nutty business. While Hollywood history is filled with: “What ifs?” and “Should Have Wons” – there must be few things less frustrating than having to watch your great film fail to find an audience. Even worse when that audience is barely allowed a chance to view it. Case in point. Claude Sautet’sClasse tous risques” originally made in 1960, at the very dawn of the Nouvelle Vague when young French filmmakers were about to change the landscape irrevocably.

The only problem was that “Classe tous risques” didn’t fit into the Nouvelle Vague category, it seemed more a leftover from the 1950s. Or a breakthrough from the 1940s. It has been labeled so many things over the years, that we will attempt to get to the bottom of its success. But first you must understand that “Classe tous risques” was never officially released in this country. It played the second rate movie houses, never obtaining the luster and respect of “À bout de souffle” or “Tirez sur le pianiste” – two other 1960 French films that benefited greatly from their Vaguiste directors – Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.
Without that particular cinematic blessing bestowed upon it, it lingered in limbo – never really obtaining an audience stateside. In Europe it was a different case. Building a Class “A” reputation over the decades to become respected wildly by many filmmakers. Finally, it earned enough respect to be completely restored, dusted off, set up with new subtitles and officially released this year! It is a gem. The film discovery of the year. We left the theatre on a cloud and still cannot believe that for over four decades it had languished in the celluloid dustbin.

Classe tous risques” is certainly in the tradition of such great French crime flicks as “Rififi” and “Bob le flambeur.” While we greatly admire those gems of the genre courtesy of Jules Dassin and Jean-Pierre Melville, we doff our hat at the sublime brilliance of director Claude Sautet. This is far more than a caper flick, or examination of the seedy underbelly of the French crime world. This film is so slick in its entertainment values, rich in its characterizations, and so wonderfully complete in its storytelling abilities that it leaves other crime noirs in the dust.

Telling the tale of petty thief Abel Davos and his return to Paris after a self imposed exiled abroad, Sautet paints a portrait of the anti-hero as thug, father, teacher and saint. Lino Ventura is absolutely riveting in the lead role of Abel Davos. Determined to return to the City of Lights despite the risk involved, he dares the unthinkable by dragging his wife and two young sons along for the ride. When his plans meet a less than desirable end, he finds himself a desperate fugitive holed up in a cold water flat – barely managing to keep one step ahead of the police.
In his labyrinthine cat-and-mouse game with le flic, he is abetted by a young tough Eric Stark, played with a full out deadpan sexiness by the very definition of Gallic virility – Jean-Paul Belmondo. The eventual dénouement is not so very difficult to guess, but Good Lord the ride is pure cinematic joy! We have always believed that the plot to any great film is secondary to the visual storytelling capabilities of the director in charge, and this film is no exception. Claude Sautet starts the film on a wondrous note of mortal danger and expository slight of hand by depicting the day to day petty thievery of Abel and his current partner in crime. It is practically a silent half hour of pure cinema. The two thugs pull off a caper in bright daylight that not only exposes them to the Italian police, but perfectly encapsulates their small time crook lifestyle and the lengths they are willing to go to in order to score a heist.

By saddling Abel with a wife and two sons, the severity of the situation is highlighted and humanized. While we are familiar with the anti-hero glorification of thieves and murderers in cinema lore, from “Scarface” to “Bonnie and Clyde” – here we encounter a rarity. A family man whose only outlet is crime, and whose choices while dangerous are always made with his children front of mind. The beautifully modulated direction by Sautet and “in-the-know” screenplay by José Giovanni reflect the total human experience in risking your life daily by breaking the law. This is no “Shoot-em-in-da-head-and-ask-questions-later” type of crime flick.
When we were absorbed watching this great film, we kept thinking to ourselves: “Selves, have we ever seen a crime neo-noir tell such a rich character study?” Not that we can recall. From the no-nonsense hardened career criminal that is Abel Davos to the young turk Eric Stark who aspires to help and continually risks his own life in the defense of his newfound pal, to the two young boys who play at the outskirts of the Asphalt Jungle – knowing full well that there time with their father may be limited. The seemingly casual scenes between Abel and a neighbor girl in his cold water hideaway play beautifully as a flirtation scene and pay off exquisitely when the slapdown comes and she subtly helps him pull off his escape.

The fence, who has history with Abel and his crew is played in a marvelously brittle fashion by that old Continental character actor Marcel Dalio of “Casablanca” fame, with his shrewish daughter eavesdropping into the conversations and making the worst out of the situation.

Abel’s former friends and colleagues in crime slowly begin to distance themselves in order to protect their own dens of inequity. But at what price? It is left to the protégée Erik Stark to fill in the missing role of reluctant right hand man, especially as his attention has of late been drawn to their roadside saviour, Liliane, as played by a young Sandra Milo who barely guesses at their real story but is enamored enough by Eric’s manliness and seductive lips to give it a try. The enormous attributes and sensual charms of Sandra Milo would be put to fame enhancing effect with her later work on Fellini’s “8 ½ and Juliet of the Spirits.”

The manner in which Claude Sautet manages to bridge all the stories, tie them in thematically and use the various characters brilliantly for their own rewards is the very success of this film. Apparently it was a very slapdash, or shall we say difficult shoot. Even without knowing the backstory – we can’t help but feel that it contributes to the overall feel of dread and time and the police closing in on our anti-heros. When the end comes, it blindsides you with its emotional power.

Which in many ways is all that you can ask for a film. One that draws you in from the very beginning, captures your heart and mind for a spell, and leaves you feeling weak from the totality of the experience. A great film. And a joy to have been brought back to us in such a classy restored edition. One for the ages. Bless you all!!

Directed by Claude Sautet
Written by Claude Sautet, José Giovanni and Pascal Jardin
Based on the novel by José Giovanni

Lino Ventura as Abel Davos
Jean-Paul Belmondo as Eric Stark
Sandra Milo as Liliane
Marcel Dalio as Arthur Gibelin
Michel Ardan as Riton Vintran
Simone France as Therese Davos
Robert Desnoux as Pierrot
Thierry Lavoye as Daniel

Cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet
Film Editing by Albert Jurgenson
Original Music by Georges Delerue
Production Design by Rino Mondellini

Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire - Movie Review

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 2005

Well, by now if we have to start explaining the Harry Potter franchise – from books to movies to lunchboxes, we feel we have the right to come to your home and slap the shit out of you. Either you’ve read the books, seen the movies, or you are just a complete waste of oxygen and should kindly put a bullet through your foreheads and save us the trouble. Thanks. Now that we are entering the final phase of J.K. Rowling’s magnum magical opus, and viewing the fourth in a series of increasingly delightful children’s fantasy flicks, we must pause to rewind the clock (Twice should do it, we think.) and gaze back at the first Philosopher’s stones laid upon the wallets of parents the world over. Chris Columbus, noted auteur of such cinema drivel as “Home Alone” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” either fellated or was chosen by producer David Heyman to help start the launch of what would quickly become the most reliable money maker at Warner Bros. since Bette Davis was in her supreme Bitch Goddess mode in the early war years. While he didn’t completely embarrass himself, and accomplished the near impossible by finding three little tykes to portray our trio of sleuthing wizards, neither did he achieve any degree of cinematic genius.

That would come with HPIII – “Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban”, helmed by a true auteur, Señor Alfonso Cuarón, whose previous foray into the world of children’s literature brought forth the sublimely magical “The Little Princess” – go rent it NOW!!!! But Alfonso had even bigger fish to deep fry, and captured our hearts and minds with such adult fare as the modern day adaptation of Dickens “Great Expectations” and his international breakthrough hit “Y tu mamá también”, which of course featured our future husband Gael Garcia Bernal. Don’t worry, we won’t throw in a gratuitous shot of Gael . . . .

Now, how did that happen? Anyway, back to the little wizards. Harry Potter is in his fourth year of his magical training at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with his main bitches, Ron and Hermione close to his side. Looming in the distance is his mortal enemy, Lord Voldemort, the evil wizard who murdered Harry’s parents and has been tormenting the young mage ever since. Fortunately for Harry, when last we saw Voldemort he was literally half the man he used to be. In fact he bore an uncanny resemblance to the monster child in the 1970’s camp classic “It’s Alive”, or Terry Schiavo. Take your pick. Most unfortunately for the entire wizard world, Lord Voldemort’s followers – the “Death Eaters” (which makes them sound like some sort of crazed Marilyn Manson fans.) have finally pulled their act together and are taking Voldey on the road. We know all this because we actually wasted 20 minutes of our lives reading the original children’s book. (And sidenote to all you crazed Potter-heads over the age of 14 . . . grow the fuck up.)

Now before we start detailing the plot, please keep in mind that this latest HP installment was derived from a book that outweighed War & Peace and Don Quixote combined. (Sidenote to author J.K. Rowling – your books should not outweigh their reader, luv.) It is a tribute to the screenwriter, Steve Kloves who has managed to whittle down the oversized tomes to a filmable length. Now while we have respected director Mike Newell’s work on “Dance With a Stranger”, “Enchanted April” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral”; his recent work on “Mona Lisa Smile” prepared us for the worst. Thankfully he does an admirable job in maintaining the revamped look and feel that Señor Cuarón worked so diligently at establishing. While he may have not brought the same degree of artistry or freshness to the formula, he at least maintains the momentum. As most Potter-heads can tell you, the series gets progressively darker and deadlier.

Hogwarts has been chosen as the host school for the Triwizard Tournament, a contest and gathering of the “three largest European schools of wizardry: Hogwarts, Beauxbatons, and Durmstrang.” And here is where the story really gets interesting. The Beauxbatons students arrive in a winged horse drawn carriage, overseen by a giantess named Madame Olympe Maxime. They scamper thru the great hall at Hogwarts resembling the porcine chorus girls of Busby Berkeley fame. The Durmstrang contingency arrives via the lake aboard a majestic galleon which floats wonderfully up thru the waters. And here is where we come to the best thing in “Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire.” In a curious blend of mid 20th century mockery, the Durmstrang students are all burly boys decked in pseudo Russian Cossack uniforms. Their star pupil is played by one Stanislav Ianevski as the international Quidditch champion Viktor Krum. Well, girls and boys, he is one hunk of piroshki! We instantly lathered up. (And honestly, every other review we read of this moment compares them to young Nazis. Good lord people, don’t you know the difference between a Neo-Nazi and a Crypto-Commie? Go read a book. One meant for adults.) With the arrival of the French Rockettes and the Slavic Hunks the Triwizard Tournament kicks into gear when it reveals the three names of the students who will represent their schools as their best. From Beauxbatons, we get Fleur Delacour portrayed by Clémence Poésy. From Durmstrang, our new boyfriend Stanislav. And from Hogwarts, we get newcomer to the franchise, Robert Pattinson as Cedric Diggory. BUT WAIT!!!! The Goblet of Fire also spits up the name of . . . . bum, bum, BUM!!! Harry Potter! WHAT? A murmur goes thru the crowd, fellow students are shocked, teachers are concerned and friendships are shattered. And we think you are dumber than we thought if you didn’t expect the lead in the film to be competing. It ain’t called “Cedric Diggory & The Goblet of Fire” people. Although Robert Pattinson ain’t too hard on the eyes, but he’s no Stanislav Ianevski. (Words we thought we’d never type.)

The rest of the film details the tournament in a series of challenges that allows Mike Newell to test his new CGI domain, and for the most part he succeeds. (For the record, we believe this might be Mike Newell's first time working extensively with CGI, unless you count the performances of Andie MacDowell in "Four Weddings" and Julia Roberts work in "Mona Lisa Smile", but we digress.) We loved the aerial chase scenes with Harry facing off a particularly thorny dragon, the underwater rescue assignment that introduces us to a Merpeople that disturbingly resemble Anna Wintour . . .

. . . and the final hunt for the Goblet in a mist covered maze that stretches as far as the eye can see. Into this mystical Battle of the Network Wizards, is plopped a side story involving the Yule Ball which allows us to witness all of the uncomfortable adolescent yearnings, rejections and fumbling tortures of procuring a date for the homecoming dance. And while the tournament fulfills the necessary action shots and digital effects quota of the franchise, the ball sequence is a charming interruption. Our three young leads are growing up to be fine actors in their own right. Daniel Radcliffe has grown into his own as the bespectacled child of fate, while Emma Watson is allowed her moment to shine in a scene straight out of “My Fair Lady.” Thankfully Rupert Grint as the bravely goofy Ron Weasley is beginning to emerge from his shtick as the befuddled sidekick to Harry Potter. We had little hope based on the first two films, where with usual Chris Columbus non-restraint he was allowed to mug unmercifully to middling comic effect. We have hope as the series develops into darker material that Rupert will be sufficiently challenged enough to stop with the double takes and actually deliver a performance.

As for the adults, most of the familiar faces have returned albeit in truncated scenes. Michael Gambon as the endearingly kind and addled headmaster Dumbledore, the great Maggie Smith as the steely and matriarchal Professor McGonagall, the brilliant comic timing of Robbie Coltrane as the oversized gameskeeper Hagrid who finds true love with the Beauxbatons giantess, the scene stealing Alan Rickman as the duplicitous Severus Snape and Gary Oldman in a fiery performance as Harry’s misjudged godfather Sirius Black. Three of Britain’s finest acting alums are brought in freshly for this flick. Miranda Richardson who is sadly wasted in what could have been a choice role as the gossip maven Rita Skeeter, Brendan Gleeson who scores some choicer scenes as Mad-Eye Moody and Ralph Fiennes who hams it up and scores a bullseye with his portrayal as Harry’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort. He manages to overcome the makeup and special effects to provide a true feeling of menace to the kiddie proceedings.

By now, this series is fairly impenetrable to critics’ arguments, but thankfully it need not fear any backlash if it continues to entertain and dazzle us with imagination, heart and cinematic storytelling. Kudos to the producers, directors and cast for keeping Harry Potter firmly astride his Firebolt. Now, if they could only convince Peter Jackson to helm the future episodes. Well, a gal can wish can’t she? (Sidenote to Stanislav, you can penetrate our arguments any time you wish you naughty little bit of blini.)

Directed by Mike Newell
Written by Steve Kloves
Based on the book by J.K. Rowling

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter
Emma Watson as Hermione Granger
Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley
Ralph Fiennes Lord Voldemort
Brendan Gleeson as Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody
Miranda Richardson as Rita Skeeter
Stanislav Ianevski as Viktor Krum
Robert Pattinson as Cedric Diggory
Clémence Poésy as Fleur Delacour
Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore
Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid
Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall
Alan Rickman as Severus Snape
Gary Oldman as Sirius Black
Frances de la Tour as Madame Olympe Maxime
Katie Leung as Cho Chang
Matthew Lewis as Neville Longbottom
Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley
Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy
Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy
Robert Hardy as Cornelius Fudge
Timothy Spall as Wormtail
David Tennant as Barty Crouch Junior
Shirley Henderson as Moaning Myrtle

Cinematography by Roger Pratt
Costume Design by Jany Temime
Film Editing by Mick Audsley
Production Design by Stuart Craig
Art Direction by Mark Bartholomew
Alastair Bullock
Alan Gilmore
Neil Lamont
Gary Tomkins
Original Music by Patrick Doyle
Themes by John Williams

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Jarhead - Movie Review (In praise of Peter Sarsgaard, Pt. 2)

Jarhead 2005

We have to admit a guilty pleasure to you all. We love War Movies. Now, calm down. We’re not talking about the Flag-waiving-blow-the-enemy-to-smithereens type of Rambo filmmaking that most mouthbreathers are so fond of. We have no desire to sit and watch explosions going off in Dolby Digital® around our delicate features while some Bruce Willis type alpha male glorifies xenophobia and captures a hill. But, then why do you love the War Movies, you ask? Well, we’ll tell you. If we look back to some of our favorite films, we cannot deny the simple fact that War Movies can make for great cinema.

Some of the best moments in movie history in fact. John Gilbert hobbling home after the Great War in The Big Parade, Lew Ayres shattering the illusions of eager young Germans in All Quiet on the Western Front, Errol Flynn holding his abandoned troop together - mentally and physically in Objective Burma!”, the powerhouse duo of Robert Montgomery and John Wayne in the vastly underratedThey Were Expendable”, Alec Guinness embodying the best and worst of militarism in The Bridge on the River Kwai”, director Robert Altman inventing a new film language with M*A*S*H, the cold brilliance of Full Metal Jacket, to the dizzying camerawork and glorious pacing of The Thin Red LineWar Movies can capture the ridiculousness of the human experience in purely visual terms and after all, what else are Movies but Moving Pictures.

Jarhead” has many things going for it. Namely one. Jake Gyllenhaal. Our future husband, so relax ladies and boys, he’s off the market. Since his prepubescent toothy turn as Billy Crystal’s son in “Cityslickers”, thru “October Sky, Donnie Darko, Lovely & Amazing, “The Good Girl”, Proof to his upcoming Brokeback Mountain – we’ve been fans of Jakey. Even sitting thru “The Day After Tomorrow.” If that’s not love, we don’t know what is. If we were forced to numerate other pluses for this latest War Movie, we would have to name supporting cast members Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black and director Sam Mendes, who most of you will remember for his Academy Award winning black comedy about suburbia – “American Beauty”. Sadly, most of you will not remember him for his overlooked “The Road to Perdition”. Quite a lovely little depression era mobster flick. Go rent it now.

Back to “Jarhead.” Based on the best selling memoir by former marine, Anthony Swofford, “Jarhead” tells the tale of a young idealistic marine who goes to war. But fails to find one. For those of you too young to remember, there was once an American president named George Bush who went to war against Iraq over oil. In 1991. Go look it up. And clearly, the more things change, the more they stay the same. But like a good U.S. Supreme Court nominee, we’re going to side-step any political issues. The strength of “Jarhead” is clearly in the central casting and the jaundiced camera-eye of Sam Mendes. While we are not on the record as being his biggest fan, we can appreciate Mr. Mendes’ sincerity and his instinctual visual feel. He knows his way around a soundstage, or in this case, location shot. There were two stunning moments that we were quite impressed with. The moment of realization for Jake, as the war finally reaches his ragtag crew – and more importantly, the drunken party scene where Jake wears nothing more than a Santa Claus cap over his cock. Movies don’t get much better than that. [Well, we kinda hope “Brokeback Mountaingets a little better . . . time will tell.]

Supporting cast members Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper and Dennis Haysbert are all well cast as the local brass – but with the exception of Jamie Foxx are not allowed any moment to shine. Unfortunately Jamie Foxx’s moment to shine, while played convincingly falls short of the high water marks he is capable of. [See his wonderfully nuanced role in Collateral” – and yes, we know he won the Best Actor Oscar for the bloated “Ray”, but he was infinitely better in his Supporting Actor nominated role in the former. And by the way, “Supporting?” Supporting who? The car?] Back to “Jarhead”, the real supporting honors here go the increasingly brilliant Peter Sarsgaard. Who is having quite the year so far. We’ve always enjoyed his droopy eyed charms, from his Midwestern thug in “Boys Don’t Cry” to his fantastic turn as the beleaguered editor in “Shattered Glass.” Despite the ineptitude of “Flightplan”, he gave a solid spin to his role and he is simply fantastic in the current “The Dying Gaul.” [Go see our review!] With his role as Jake’s sniper scout, Peter gets to cut loose in an explosive scene wherein the pent up partners are forced to confront the bitter power struggles and realities of war. Petey, honey – we love you!

We must also pause to profess our undying love for young Lucas Black - who can do no wrong in our opinion. It’s not that he’s that great an actor, he’s just so damn cute! Okay, he is a good actor – but honestly he hasn’t been put to the test since he was a young nipper – opposite Billy Bob Thornton in the Oscar winningSling Blade” and later directed by BBT himself in the vastly underrated “All the Pretty Horses.” Here, Lucky Lucas does a fine job of playing the downhome hunk that is actually capable of questioning authority more than any of his fellow marines. This may or may not be a good thing.

This film is all about military authority. The physical stress and psychological damage that comes hand in rifle with their training. From “Birth of a Nation” till now, the imagery of war in cinema has always come down to whose side are you on? Not the winning or losing side, but the hawks or the doves. While it is not true that the only great war film is an anti-war film, it would be difficult to agree with any claim that perishing on the battlefields is the only true test of heroism. Just don’t try telling that to the young trainees in “Jarhead.” One of the most brilliant scenes shows them grouped together in an orgy of testosterone frenzy watching Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and cheering frantically at the now classic “Ride of the Valkyries” battle scene. At first we were shocked. “Apocalypse Now” is one of our favorite movies, due mainly to its incredible power of showing in purely cinematic terms the devastation of warfare. Apparently, this power is lost on the Jarheads themselves. And some of the audience members. We have heard grumblings that this film failed to meet some people’s expectations based solely on its lack of bloodshed. Foregoing the fact that they have never heard of the bestselling memoir, or couldn’t be bothered to read a review – are some folks so starved for relentless violence that they aren’t able to sit and watch an intelligent examination on the emotional price of war? Don’t bother answering. We know.

Whatever the physical cost of warfare, “Jarhead” focuses on the long and lazy moments in between gunfire barrages – and allows its characters to question their leaders and more importantly their own actions. This is where the film succeeds best. It takes the time to allow us to invest emotionally in the characters, so when the war finally arrives we are as nervous and edgy as they are. We must commend director Sam Mendes in casting our future husband Jake Gyllenhaal who rises to the occasion brilliantly. His breakdown scene with a fellow marine is excruciating to watch and never less than completely gripping. We know of a few other things we’d like to be gripping, but we’ll wait for “Brokeback Mountain” for that.

Bravo to Mr. Mendes, Sarsgaard and Black. And Mr. Gyllenhaal . . . CALL US!!! Bless you all!

Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by William Broyles Jr.
Based on the book by Anthony Swofford

Jake Gyllenhaal as Swoff
Peter Sarsgaard as Troy
Lucas Black as Kruger
Jamie Foxx as Staff Sgt. Sykes
Brian Geraghty as Fergus
Chris Cooper as Lt. Col. Kazinski
Dennis Haysbert as Major Lincoln

Cinematography by Roger Deakins
Costume Design by Albert Wolsky
Film Editing by Walter Murch
Production Design by Dennis Gassner
Art Direction by Stefan Dechant & Christina Wilson
Set Decoration by Nancy Haigh
Original Music by Thomas Newman