"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

9 Posts from January 2009

MUST SEE DVDS

WOODY'S WINNING WOMEN

Penélope Cruz ~ Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008)   

Penélope Cruz's performance as the sexy and volatile ex-wife of Javier Bardem's smouldering Spanish artist (is there any other kind of Spanish artist?) in Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona has earned the Madrid-born movie star an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress in the 2009 Academy Awards competition. 

Penélope Cruz in "Vicky Christina Barcelona"

Cruz has been soaring high with much praise and acting award nominations for her role as the tempestuous artist, Maria Elena, the intensely neurotic, manic-depressive and slightly psychotic beauty who insinuates herself into a ménage à trois relationship with Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson.   As Maria Elena, Penélope Cruz is on fire conveying a capricious woman who is intelligent, erotic and really freakin' scary! 

Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson

Vicky Christina Barcelona, Woody Allen's paean to the sultry seduction of the titular Spanish city, has garnered the 73-year-old director his best reviews in several years.  Allen's romantic comedy won the 2009 Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy and Penélope Cruz was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.   It's no surprise that Cruz is another of Woody's actresses nominated for the Academy Award.  He has been frequently acknowledged as a filmmaker who has an uncanny instinct for writing sharp, witty, and perceptive roles for women.  From a remarkable career of nearly forty feature-length motion pictures, Woody's films have garnered a collective total of forty-one Oscar nominations.  Penélope Cruz is now the eleventh member of an exclusive club of exceptional actresses Woody has guided to Oscar nomination with four of them taking home the golden statuette.  So, for your consideration, here is a glance at Woody's Women at the Oscars:

Diane Keaton ~ Annie Hall (1977)

After writing, directing and starring in a string of popular, zany comedies during the first half of the 1970s, Woody Allen surprised audiences and critics with his groundbreaking romantic comedy, Annie Hall

Released in 1977, Annie Hall stars Woody as Jewish New York stand-up comic and blue-ribbon neurotic, Alvy Singer.  Into Alvy's life enters Annie Hall, a naive and quirky young WASP woman from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin (Alvy to Annie:  "What did you do?  Grow-up in a Norman Rockwell painting?").  An erratic love affair blooms between the kvetching Alvy and the genial Annie. 

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in "Annie Hall"

With Annie Hall, Woody Allen reinvented the adult romantic comedy for a new and nervous era.  The love story is told as Alvy's reminiscence which allows for the film's narrative to jump forward and backward, complete with touches of surrealism, existential humour and the best (and only) Marshall McLuhan gag in cinema history.  The movie was a hit with audiences, earned glowing accolades, and won the 1977 Best Picture Oscar over the interstellar box-office champ, Star Wars.  It also won Oscars for Woody's direction, for the original screenplay he co-wrote with Marshall Brickman, and for Diane Keaton as Best Actress.  Keaton is endearingly sweet as Annie; her relaxed "la-de-da" demeanor, natural sexiness and sharp comic-timing not only make Annie Hall one of Woody's most engaging films, but gave the world one of the most famous screen couples in movie history.


Geraldine Page and Maureen Stapleton ~ Interiors (1978)

If the mature tone and the sophisticated wit of Annie Hall came as a welcome surprise from a director who specialized in wacky, non sequitur style comedies, then Woody Allen positively flummoxed his fans with his follow-up film.  Interiors is a brooding drama about three sisters and the mental anguish they continue to suffer in adulthood as engendered by their callous, manipulative mother.

Mary Beth Hurt and Geraldine Page in "Interiors"

Interiors is no romantic comedy, but a heavy drama; solemn and austere in mood and style influenced by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman - one of Woody's favourite filmmakers.  The reviews were wildly mixed and this was the start of Woody's original audience admonishing him for not making movies like his "earlier, funnier ones".  However, Interiors is not without merit - it certainly wasn't made for mass audience appeal - but Woody should be given credit for this artistic reach and for not just making Annie Hall II

Maureen Stapleton in "Interiors"

Interiors strength derives from incisive performances.  E.G. Marshall displays a quiet strength as the father who nonchalantly leaves his long marriage to Geraldine Page's Eve, the mother to Kristin Griffith, Diane Keaton, and Mary Beth Hurt who are dealing with their mother's suicide attempt and her lingering contamination of their psyches.  Keaton and Hurt are in exceptional form - revealing troubling layers of guilt and anger, respectively.  Geraldine Page's icy performance as the mother was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar along with her co-star, Maureen Stapleton, who plays Marshall's new lady friend, the vibrant and earthy Pearl.   Stapleton could have easily slipped into parody of a boisterous and fun-loving broad, but she displays intelligent restraint in her role as the spirited and nurturing Pearl.  Stapleton's finely balanced performance is also a tribute to Woody's direction, which earned him an Oscar nod for the film's direction and screenplay.


Mariel Hemingway ~ Manhattan (1979)

Woody Allen returned to angst-ridden romantic comedy in 1979 with Manhattan, a Valentine card to his beloved city.  Shot in anamorphic wide-screen and beautiful black & white, Manhattan is a character study of intellectual, professional New Yorkers whose sexual peccadilloes distract them from more meaningful relationships.  Mariel Hemingway plays the 17-year-old Tracy who is in a precarious relationship with Woody Allen's 42-year-old T.V sitcom writer, Isaac.  Tracy is truly in love with Isaac, but his attention drifts to Mary, a self-important and highly neurotic writer played by a very non-Annie Hall Diane Keaton. 

Mariel Hemingway in "Manhattan"

Mariel Hemingway is a heart-breaker as the young Tracy. She is delicate, touching and completely unaffected by manners or technique, yet her character's youth belies a presence of maturity that counterpoises the older characters.   It is one of the sweetest and unassuming performances I have ever seen in the movies and it earned Mariel Hemingway an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Dianne Wiest ~ Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Dianne Wiest was a favourite actress of Woody Allen, appearing in five of his films from 1985 to 1994 and winning two Oscars under his direction.  Wiest's first Oscar win was for Best Supporting Actress in Woody's 1986 episodic comedy-drama, Hannah and Her Sisters, playing Holly, the neurotic and flighty sister to Mia Farrow and Barbara Hershey.  Wiest's performance is a nice blend of humour, sympathy and frustration; at one moment you feel compassion for her character's insecurities, then suddenly you want to strangle her for being so damn self-deprecating. 

Mia Farrow and Dianne Wiest in "Hannah and Her Sisters"

Dianne Wiest imbues Holly's anxiety with heart and compassion, and the conclusion of her character's story, which ends the entire film, is the warmest conclusion to any Woody Allen film.   The other Oscar wins for Hannah and Her Sisters include Michael Caine as Best Supporting Actor for his role as Mia Farrow's husband and Woody Allen for Best Original Screenplay.

Judy Davis ~ Husbands and Wives (1992)

The Australian-born Judy Davis made four films with Woody Allen and she proved to be his most powerful actress in her role as Sally, the tightly-wound and solicitous wife of Sydney Pollack in Husbands and Wives.  Woody's scathing examination of two marriages co-stars the director and Mia Farrow as the other married couple.  The film is jarringly, but effectively shot with a hand-held camera - creating a cinéma-vérité spontaneity - imposed with an agitated, jump-cut editing style that denotes the character's fragmentary relationships.  The film contains many scenes of raw character dynamics suffused with such reality that viewers may feel like heedless voyeurs as they witness someone else's very private moment.

Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack in "Husbands and Wives"

Judy Davis was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Husbands and Wives.  Her performance is a live-wire of hot nerves and she steals the picture as an A-1 anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsive upper-middle class New Yorker. (On her first date with Michael, played by Liam Neeson, Sally comments on why her marriage failed: "It's the second law of thermodynamics.  Sooner of later, everything turns to shit.")  Woody Allen's screenplay for Husbands and Wives was also in the running for the Oscar.
 

Dianne Wiest & Jennifer Tilly ~ Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

Bullets Over Broadway is Woody's period comedy set on The Great White Way in the early 1920s.  John Cusack plays David Shayne, a pretentious and not-so-talented young playwright who is mounting a socially-themed play starring the dim-witted moll (Jennifer Tilly) of an underworld gangster who's underwriting the theatrical production.  David discovers that the moll's bodyguard (Chazz Palminteri) is a naturally gifted playwright.  David furtively allows the tough-guy to rewrite his play.  Meanwhile, David is being seduced away from his wife by the play's real actress; the martini-swilling and grandiloquent grande-dame of Broadway, Helen Sinclair ("Don't speak!  Don't speak!), played with stylish pomposity by Dianne Wiest.

Dianne Wiest in "Bullets Over Broadway"

Wiest won her much deserved second Oscar for Bullets Over Broadway.  Her characterization of an ostentatious Broadway diva is one of cinema's great comedy performances.  And Jennifer Tilly was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress as Olive, the clueless and arrogant tart with a banshee's voice who is forced on David to star in his play.  Tilly is hilariously unhinged.  It takes an extremely confident actress to portray a character as flagrantly dumb and irritating as Olive, yet make her so deliciously amusing. 

Jennifer Tilly in "Bullets Over Broadway"

Additional Bullets Over Broadway Oscar nominations include Chazz Palminteri for Best Supporting Actor as Cheech, the mobster who moonlights as a playwright, and Woody Allen for Best Director and for Best Original Screenplay with co-writer Douglas McGrath.


Mira Sorvino ~ Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

Mighty Aphrodite possesses one of the funniest breakout roles by a young actress - Mia Sorvino.  Lenny (Woody Allen) and his wife Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter) are unable to conceive a child, so they adopt a baby who turns out to be a bright, smart kid.  This gets Lenny wondering about the kid's biological parents.  Through some amateur sleuthing, Lenny shockingly discovers his adoptive son was born by a young woman named Linda Ash, a.k.a. Judy Cum, a ditsy New York prostitute and porn star.

Mira Sorvino and Woody Allen in "Mighty Aphrodite"

Mira Sorvino won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar as the, cute 'n' carnal airhead, Judy Cum; a synthesis of Jean Harlow, Judy Holliday and Jenna Jameson. The character as written is ludicrous, but Sorvino's affection for this winsome whore keeps her from falling into pure burlesque.  And Sorvino's falsetto, semi-monotone voice is a riot, like hearing Minnie Mouse talk dirty.  Woody Allen's very funny screenplay was nominated for the Golden Guy.

Samantha Morton ~ Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

Woody Allen's lifelong love for jazz keeps him busy as an active musician when he's not making his usual one film per year.  One of Woody's trademarks is utilizing old jazz and pop standards for the soundtrack for his films.  With Sweet and Lowdown, Woody was finally able to make his favourite musical genre the subject of a movie. 

Sweet and Lowdown is told by real-life jazz historians about a "real-life" jazz guitarist in the 1930s, the fictional Emmet Ray (Sean Penn).  Ray can make women swoon and grown men weep when they hear him play guitar. He is considered the second-greatest jazz guitarist in the world, bested only by the real-life gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who causes Ray to faint whenever he is in Reinhardt's presence.  Away from his guitar, Ray is an arrogant, boorish, womanizing drunkard and degenerate gambler.  A young mute woman named Hattie (Samantha Morton) falls in love with Ray because his music touches and moves her so deeply that she is blind to his beastly behaviour.

Sean Penn and Samantha Morton in "Sweet and Lowdown"

The amazing Sean Penn paints the mercurial Emmet Ray with equal shades of humour, bombast, pain and sadness.  Penn's performance was recognized by the Academy with a nomination for Best Actor.

Samantha Morton received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her portrayal of the sweetly innocent Hattie.  Though she cannot speak, Hattie's feelings are indisputably clear.  The projection of her thoughts through sublime pantomime elicits the kind of rich pathos that evokes the immortal silent film comedian, Charlie Chaplin. (Woody Allen suggested to Morton that she study the pantomime of Harpo Marx, to which she apparently asked, "Who's Harpo Marx?")  Hattie's tolerance for Emmet's loutishness is understandable given she senses the buried goodness of the man surface through his music.  Her humanity actually makes you root for Emmet's unlikely redemption.  Samantha Morton is the tender heart to Sean Penn's tortured soul - the sweet to the lowdown.

MUST SEE DVD & THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES

 RICARDO MONTALBAN, 1920 - 2009

 Actor Ricardo Montalban passed away on January 14th, 2009 at the age of 88-years-old.  The virile, suave and charming Mexican-born actor with the "Corinthian Leather" voice started his Hollywood acting career in the early 1940s.  Montalban appeared in a variety of genres: film noirs, westerns, musicals, war movies and he performed on the stage. 

Montalban also maintained a very active career in television, most famously portraying the enigmatic Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island.  He made a series of famous T.V. commercials in the mid 1970s plugging the Chrysler Cordoba and extolling the virtues of the car's "soft Corinthian leather" upholstery.  

In 1982, Montalban co-starred with William Shatner in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn as the movie's titular bad guy, reprising his one-shot role he originated in the "Space Seed" episode from the original Star Trek television series.  Montalban's outrageous performance as Kahn cemented him as one of the great movie villains.  More recently, Montalban had a recurring role in Robert Rodriquez's Spy Kids movie series and did voice-over work for various animated television shows.

In honour of Ricardo Montalban, I have posted my review of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn that was first published in the April 2008 issue of Vancouver View Magazine:

 

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN directed by Nicholas Meyer

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is considered one of the best movies in Gene Roddenberry’s space franchise.  It takes the best element of the original series—space exploration as a metaphor for exploring the human condition—and forges that noble voyage to a rousing, battle-of-the-wits adventure.

The old space jockey, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), is now a desk jockey as a Starfleet administrator.  During Kirk’s ceremonial inspection of the USS Enterprise, now crewed by young cadets supervised by Spock (Leonard Nimoy), he is thrown back into command to confront an old, treacherous enemy—the genetically engineered superhuman, Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban).  Khan demands vengeance on Kirk for exiling him and his crew to a barren planet years ago and blames the death of his wife on the Admiral. The hunt for Kirk is on when Khan comes into possession of the Starship Reliant and the stolen Genesis Device: a super bomb that when detonated creates the matrix of life on a dead planet or devastate a living one.

Star Trek II champions expertise and instinct over regimented regulations, pure logic and superior intellect.  The aging Kirk boldly takes on the “genetically superior” Khan in what amounts to a war of wills. This is what makes Star Trek II so entertaining.  Kirk and Khan are never physically together in the same room; they only see and hear one another through communication links, yet their fierce engagements are palpable.  The excitement in these and other scenes comes from succinct, spot-on dramatic writing peppered with low-key, self-deprecating humour.  Nothing fancy is going on with the camera; the movie doesn’t need it.  The sharp editing keeps everything on edge and moving at warp speed.

The best scenes are when Kirk's and Kahn's wounded starships are hunting each other in the Mutara Nebula. The action is subdued, but the suspense builds as they hide and manoeuvre through enormous clouds of vibrantly coloured interstellar gas. These scenes evoke World War II submarine thrillers and they’re wonderfully stirring.  Writer/director Nicholas Meyer applied apt nautical touches to this film that continued with the Trek franchise.

William Shatner gets spoofed a lot for his supposedly staccato delivery and wooden acting, but it’s really not accurate.  In Star Trek II, Shatner’s performance is subtle and sly, sharply contrasted by Montalban’s dynamic, operatic fury in a character he originated in “Space Seed,” an episode from the original television series. Montalban’s villainy is juicy and his look is impressive; with his chest exposed for most of the film, he displays bulging pectorals the size of two small planets that must exert their own gravitational field and he sports a magnificent mullet that only the manly Montalban can pull off.  The rest of his crew looks like a 1980s heavy metal hair band.

Being familiar with the famous Trek characters certainly adds to the value of the film, but it works even if one is not a devout Trekkie.  Certainly, Star Trek II exhibits moments of corniness, but they’re forgivable as the characters are written warmly, the drama moves briskly, the classically produced visual effects are beautiful (a scene demonstrating the power of the Genesis Device was one of the first digital special-effects sequences in movies) and the unexpected death of a major character is touchingly reverent without resorting to sloppy sentiment.

SPECIAL SCREENINGS

 

SPECIAL SCREENING OF SPECIAL-EFFECTS FILMS AT THE VANCITY THEATRE: 21 JAN to 26 JAN, 2009

Aficionados of fantasy and science fiction cinema who live in the Greater Vancouver area are in for a special treat as the Vancity Theatre is screening a selection of stunning special-effects movies as part of the Spark FX '09 festival from 21 January to 26 January.  This is a celebration of wondrous special effects in the service of timeless tales of the imagination. The screenings will be augmented by forums and panels on the techniques of special-effects production.  

Most of the films being screened are classics of their genre that sweep audiences away into worlds filled with amazing sights; from the classic stop-motion effects of Ray Harryhausen in 1958's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad to the modern works of wonder in Weta Digital's amazing creations for Peter Jackson's interpretation of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.  All the diverse effects films on this program share one thing in common: groundbreaking and sensational visuals by some of Hollywood's top movie magicians.   

Many of the films will be introduced by historians and industry leaders.  Notable amongst the guest speakers is Dennis Muren, a legend in the effects industry, who is one of the key effects directors of George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic.  Mr. Muren will be at the festival to present the original Star War trilogy: Episode IV - A New Hope, Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI - Return of the Jedi are all being screened on one night, Saturday 24 January. 

This is a rare chance to see these films again - or for the first time - on a big screen.  The Vancity Theatre is projecting most of these films in the 35mm format, including the original Star Wars trilogy.  That's the way to do it, Vancity!!  And, if you truly love movies, that's the way to see these films-of-the-fantastic as they were meant to be experienced.  Here is a list of the other special-effects saturated films on the program:

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Alien (1979)

Pan's Labyrinth (2001)

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

Pleasantville (1998)

The Abyss (1989)

The City of Lost Children (1995)

The Vancity Theatre is located in the Vancouver International Film Centre at 1181 Seymour Street, Vancouver, BC.  For more information about Spark FX '09, and for showtimes, visit the Vancity Theatre website at http://www.vifc.org/films/special.htmAnd by the way - the Vancity Theatre has the best movie seats in town - extra wide, lots of leg room, and comfy enough not to sprain your ass after hours of movie watching. 

IN THEATRES

DEFIANCE directed by Edward Zwick

Cinema's long history with the war genre has produced so many films about global conflicts that a form of audience battle fatigue sets in and begs the question: are there any more war stories to film that we haven't seen in the past?  With Defiance, director Edward Zwick's new World War II picture about Jewish partisans who escape persecution by hiding in a forest - fighting the elements, their doubts, starvation, and the Nazis - proves there are unknown and unique war experiences to film.  Regrettably, Zwick and screenwriter Clayton Froham's interpretation of this incredible true story is ultimately superficial.

In 1941 the Bielski brothers flee into the Belarusian forest immediately after the Nazi's kill their family and other members of their small Jewish-Polish community.  The Bieslski brothers, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell) are eventually joined by waves of Jews escaping the Nazi infiltration of their towns.  Zus contests Tuvia's decision to take on all Jews seeking refuge with their group in the forest.  Zus believes that attempts to care for and protect such a massive and desperate group will be impossible without the enemy's eventual knowledge.

The film details the Bielski partisans' organization and how they govern themselves.  Every person is put to work based on their trade skills to serve this nomadic ragtag community.  There are amusing scenes regarding one educated young man arguing over lofty ideals with an elder teacher, but when he states his profession as "intellectual", the young idealist is given the job of nailing logs together to help build shelters.  When you are living in the deep woods, the ability to engage in dialectical discourse won't keep you warm, fed, and out of the way from the business end of a Nazi bullet.

Dangerous missions must be taken to insure the partisan's survival.  Small groups of the band carefully leave the fragile safety of the woods to acquire food, supplies and ammunition from sympathetic supporters in surrounding towns and engage in surprise attacks on Nazis and their local supporters.  The frustrated Zus leaves camp to join a Soviet partisan army as the German army escalates their attacks to crush this Jewish resistance.  At wars end, about 1,200 of Bielski's group survived their astonishing ordeal.

Edward Zwick's (Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond) direction of the drama is functional at best while the battle scenes are shot and edited with workman like competence.  Though the directorial approach is generic, Zwick occasionally attempts to ramp up sequences with stylized effects.  For example, Tuvia, his brother Zus, and other partisans conduct a raid on a Nazi radio station to steal much needed medicine and to destroy the transmitter.  Tuvia is sick, so Zus insists he remain at the wheel of the getaway truck while he heads the operation.  Director Zwick employs a form of blurry slow-motion for the attack shots in the station as he intercuts to clean close-ups of Tuvia.  This sudden emergence of a heightened visual style for this one scene is distracting and out of place with the film's more conventional visual approach.  I believe what Zwick wanted to convey is how Tuvia imagines the attack from what he hears, hence the cross-cuts to Tuvia's close-ups.  I understand this technique, but I don't think it works here because its sudden appearance is jarring.  Are we to think this particular attack is upsetting to Tuvia?  Is the attack itself supposed to be more sensational than others?  The intent of the scene is confused.  Even though Tuvia is our main protagonist throughout the movie, Zwick never established the film's point-of-view as being subjective to Tuvia; from the picture's start, Zwick established an objective approach to the film.  In Saving Private Ryan, director Steven Spielberg establishes Tom Hanks point-of-view early in that picture, so when Spielberg switches to stylized subjective techniques they don't feel as tacked on as it does in Zwick's radio station attack sequence.

 

Later in the picture, Zwick is more successful with an audio technique he borrows from Saving Private Ryan: when Tuvia is stunned by an exploding bomb and cannot move as the attack rages, Zwick dampens the sound track so all voices are smothered and the sound effects, such as the artillery explosions, are muffled.  This subjective conceit is effective in this scene because the focus is strongly on Tuvia and how the attack disorients the leader, potentially cataclysmic to the unit.  Tuvia's facilities are momentarily debilitated: a concussion of the senses.  

Defiance was shot on location in forests of Lithuania.  Eduardo Serra's cinematography captures the ethereal beauty of the forest; you can almost feel the dampness of the woods, the bitter cold of winter, and the rare moments of warm sunlight slicing through the forest giving respite to this clan of exiles.

 

The actors are uniformly first-rate.  No one seems incongruous, or out of period.  Thankfully, there is no relating James Bond to Daniel Craig in this picture.  (It is a pleasure to see Craig emote after his strictly action-figure role in the lacklustre Quantum of Solace).  His Tuvia is a natural leader, one who is in the overwhelming position of wrestling with impossible questions and decisions that truly mean life or death from minute to minute for a thousand people.  Craig effectively conveys strength and vulnerability.

Liev Schreiber is sturdy as the contentious brother Zus, leavening his performance with shades of welcome humour.  There is believable chemistry between Schreiber and Craig.  Given the two actors don't look like brothers, their sibling dynamics feel right and their disagreements and violent outbursts against each other never come off as a dramatic contrivance.  These are two strong willed, determined brothers, but what Zus lacks is what makes Tuvia the better leader: a vision of hope and triumph. 

 

Remarkable true story, good acting and expert tech credits aside, Defiance is more a dramatic history lesson than a compelling and moving film.  The fight scenes push the balance of the film into the action picture territory, distracting from whatever intimate battles of endurance the partisan's faced.  And the climax unfortunately resorts to a cliché of the "posse-saving-the-day" before it all just peters out by the time the credits roll.

Undoubtedly, the story of these brave people is inherently awesome, but I felt emotionally distant from this film.  Perhaps after decades of movies about the war with Germany and the Holocaust, which hit its pinnacle - so far -with Spielberg's Schindler's List and Polanski's The Pianist, I've become indifferent to conventional film treatments on the subject.  Edward Zwick missed a deeper vision that this story deserves; a more personal, soulful approach was needed to elevate Defiance to a resonant expression of the human spirit's ability to defy an unmitigated evil. 

Must See DVD

TO CATCH A THIEF  (1955) directed by Alfred Hitchcock, costumes by Edith Head

Under a good director’s guidance, costumes are as creatively important as the script, the photography and the music. Under a great director’s vision, costumes define a character’s emotional temperament or allude to psychological underpinnings of behavior. The savviest sartorial partnership ever to hem the fabrics of character and wardrobe came with the teaming of director Alfred Hitchcock and costume designer Edith Head.

 

8-time Oscar-winner Edith Head designed fabulous frocks for many of Hitchcock’s femme fatales, including Ingrid Bergman, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak and the exquisite Grace Kelly. Hitchcock worked with Kelly three times, including Hitch’s lightest yet giddiest entertainment, To Catch a Thief (1955), wherein she and Cary Grant are co-stars with Head’s stunning costume designs.

 

Cary Grant plays John Robie, a.k.a. “The Cat,” a retired jewelry thief living peacefully in the French Riviera who is falsely accused of a string of recent high-society robberies. He sets out to clear his name by snaring the real thief, all the while being seduced by Francie (Grace Kelly), an elegant American heiress who believes Robie is the furtive feline felon. 

 

When Robie meets the sexy Francie, she comes off as distant and aloof; in other words, she’s the classic cool blonde type that Hitchcock favoured. For this scene, Edith Head drapes Kelly in a sapphire-blue chiffon evening gown that reflects Francie’s gem-like radiance and icy poise; a demeanor which cracks when Robie escorts her to her hotel room, where she calmly seizes him and surprises him with a lustful kiss.

 

In the famous fireworks scene, Francie first tempts Robie to take her diamond necklace and then herself, while wearing a brilliant white chiffon evening gown that is nothing more than a veneer of purity, barely concealing her simmering passions.

 

Midway through the movie, Francie and Robie are pursued by police along the curvy roads of the Grand Corniche. After evading the authorities, Francie parks her convertible overlooking the French coastal village of Eze, where our two impossibly good-looking leads picnic on cold chicken and exchange heated bons mots. Here, Kelly dons a sleeveless coral blouse and matching skirt that complement the contrasting colour of her sapphire-blue Sunbeam Alpine sports car and the azure Mediterranean Sea in the background. Francie’s sporty attire stylishly reveals her adventurous side while encompassing her undeniable femininity.

 

The movie’s apex of apparel, however, appears in the third-act climax. Hitchcock instructed Head, prophetically, that Kelly should look like a princess for the gala ball sequence. She emerges resplendent in a dazzling gold lamé gown that will mesmerize you in all its Technicolor glory.

 

To Catch a Thief is devoid of Hitchcock’s darker themes; he’s on vacation with this romantic comedy-thriller that is brisk in pace and sparkling with sultry innuendos by screenwriter John Michael Hayes. The chemistry between Grant and Kelly is the fire in this diamond of a movie, set off in a brilliant bezel of Edith Head’s fashions that would come to define the class, style, and sensuality of the soon-to-be Princess of Monaco.

Must See DVD

 

THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG  (1964) directed by Jacques Demy

“The engine still knocks when it’s cold . . .” is not a lyrical line, but it’s a line of dialogue actually sung by an auto mechanic at the beginning of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a 1964 French musical that’s indubitably the most unique film of its genre and one of the most off-beat narrative films because every single line of dialogue is sung.

  

Catherine Deneuve plays 17-year-old Geneviève who works at her mother’s umbrella shop in Cherbourg, France.  Geneviève and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), her auto mechanic boyfriend, are deeply in love and decide to marry against her mother’s admonishment, but the wedding plans are scuttled when Guy’s drafted into the Algerian war.  After a night of passion, the lovers achingly separate at a train station as Guy departs for his army duties.  Soon after, the grieving Geneviève discovers she’s pregnant.  Needing to sell her pearl necklace to cover a tax debt, Geneviève’s mother meets Roland, a handsome jewelry dealer who takes a shine to Geneviève.  Mother pushes reluctant daughter to marry wealthy Roland; fearing Guy will forget her, and succumbing to her mother’s will, Geneviève marries Roland who accepts his bride’s baby as his own.  Inevitably, after his military tour, Guy returns to Cherbourg to painfully discover his loss.

  

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was a star-making film for the 20-year-old Catherine Deneuve; her fresh beauty is radiant.  She imbues her character with a delicate exquisiteness, like a drifting snowflake, before first love’s emotional avalanche smothers her dream into lamentable compromise.

 

Umbrellas’ stunning visual design is awash with bold, striking colours reflecting the story's primary emotions.  The camera movement is choreographed to suggest dance in lieu of such traditional musical sequences.  At one point, early in their relationship, Geneviève and Guy appear to be floating down a sidewalk.  Demy's trick was to have his actors stand on a dolly, which was out of camera frame, and have them pulled along the sidewalk as the camera follows the actors in a medium shot.  This gliding effect (often used by American director Spike Lee) creates a slightly dreamlike mood that enhances the lover's feelings for each other.

 

The sole convention of the musical genre is for song and dance to express feelings and emotions.  Umbrellas’ writer-director Jacques Demy fashioned a prosaic story into screen poetry by designing the entire film as a grand opera of the common people: everyday talk is lightly set to a tune, like melodic spoken word.  The big themes of love, separation, and fidelity are taken to glorious heights as the lovers express their resonant feelings by way of song, engendering an emotional profundity that spoken words cannot touch.

 

Michel Legrand wrote the lyrics and music, annotating his score with unapologetic references to how many “hankies” each scene should require for wiping away tears.  It is a wonderful, unabashedly sentimental score and if you allow yourself to be totally immersed in the film’s heightened style, it will likely move you to empty a tissue box.  This poignancy is especially evident in the film's emotional centerpiece: Geneviève and Guy sing “I Will Wait For You” during their anguished farewell at the train station.  Their sadness rings so true, their sorrow is so palpable, and the mournful, sweeping score is so romantic that if it doesn’t wrench your heart then its time to call the undertaker.  

IN THEATRES

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE directed by Danny Boyle and co-directed by Loveleen Tandan

This is the finest feel-good movie you'll ever see involving destitute Indian children, heinous child abuse, organized panhandling, gangsters, and police torture tied into a real life T.V. game show.  It is also one of the best love stories to hit movie screens in years.  Slumdog Millionaire is British director Danny Boyle's (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) exuberant and thrilling Indian underdog tale told in an edgy, contemporary visual style, but at heart it is an old-fashioned movie about the power of love.

The "dog" of the title is Jamal (Dev Patel), a sweet, desperate young man who, as the movie opens, has amazingly won millions of rupees on the Indian version of the American television game show, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire".  The smarmy game show host does not believe this slumdog from the streets can consistently answer the game's questions correctly without cheating in some way, so after Jamal's first big winning night, the host turns him over to the police who brutally interrogate him.  This is where Jamal's story is revealed;  through flashbacks on his life growing up on the mean streets of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), with his now gangster brother Salim and Latika, a lost girl who completes the trifecta of Jamal's "Three Musketeers" and with whom he comes to deeply love. 

Danny Boyle immediately engulfs the audience in Jamal's unmerciful existence in what must be the poorest sections of Mumbai.  Hope is erroneously delivered by a man who saves Jamal, his brother Salim, Latika and other lost orphans, but this saviour of the streets turns out to be the ringleader of an organized crew of beggar children.  Jamal's brother's dog-like survival instincts catches the eye of the boss, thrusting Salim into training as a thug, but after witnessing the physical damage inflicted on a child to make him a more pathetically and sympathetically profitable panhandler, Salim realizes Jamal is next in line for this treatment and manages to escape with him, but leaving Latika behind to face a degrading life. 

Jamal's love for Latika keeps him strong as he finds ways to survive while his brother makes choices that will lead him into a gangster organization.   Jamal's hopes are pinned on finding Latika which leads Jamal to his astonishing luck (or was it "written" by God?) on the "Millionaire" show.  Jamal's remarkable story of survival clearly explains how he knows the answers to the game show's questions: through luck or some divinity, the correct answers directly relate to very specific pieces of information that came up at critical moments in Jamal's life.

Although we witness scenes of horrible passages in Jamal's story, Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day) maintain an exceptional balance of humour, hope and exhilaration that doesn't allow the movie to sink into despair and morbidity.  If anything, this picture, with its obvious influence from Dickens's "Oliver Twist", has the same uplift and moral sensibility as a Frank Capra movie.  Jamal is a Capra-esque hero in the sense that he is seemingly an ordinary person caught in profound and near impossible social conditions, and is relentlessly intimidated to be untrue to himself, but he never loses his resolve.  Jamal proves himself to be one of the most extraordinary characters in recent cinema.

Visually, the film is rich and lush; resplendent in saturated colours, the heightened cinematography intensifies the wild drama.  Boyle's camera is constantly in motion and many shots are framed in the oblique angle, canted so as to emphasize the tumult and chaos in Jamal's world that is always on the move.  Along with this visual strategy, the editing is kinetic without blurring into a mess of confusing shots, keeping the film at a highly charged level.  Boyle nicely uses simple, yet creative visual transition effects to dovetail the intricacies of Jamal's life into the present-day interrogation scenes.  And the hip-hop Indian music score drives the picture at a high pulse rate.

The overall feeling of suspense never sags as we genuinely become concerned and vested in Jamal's plights to prove his honesty, in his journey to save Latika (there are also hints of John Ford's The Searchers here) and in his playing of the "Millionaire" game, which, by the nature of this type of game show, possesses its own fleeting suspense; but when the outcome of the game is so intertwined with saving the woman he loves, the suspense resonates less about monetary gain than it does about reaching for a greater humanity.  Boyle and his crew do a superb job of keeping all this melodrama not only probable, but wonderfully moving and stunningly entertaining.

All of Slumdog's unknown actors - outside of India, that is - are believable and engaging.  Three different actors portrayed Jamal, Salim and Latika at three stages of their young lives, and all the child actors are unforced and strong.  But it is the two young male leads that impress: Dev Patel as the unwavering Jamal and Madhur Mittal as the charismatic and tragic Salim.  These two excellent actors tell a melancholy story about brothers sadly divided that can stand close to similar brotherly stories in Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil and Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull.  Feida Pinto as Latika, Jamal's soul mate, is good, but her role lacks the dimension of the two brothers.  Prem Kamur as the condescending game show host is at once amusing and annoying as hell - and I mean that as a good thing.

I do have quibbles about a few plot points that were either brushed over or just muddled in the execution leaving me with some minor confusion about story trajectory and motivation.  And I don't quite believe that Jamal's reaction to his final "Millionaire" question is entirely believable based on information presented early in the film regarding his interest in the Alexander Dumas novel, "The Three Musketeers".  However, I was able to look past those issues because Danny Boyle's love for these characters and his stylized sense of cinema carried me away into what movies can do so well, plunge me into a world I know nothing about, unveil it from a unique perspective, and leave me feeling as if I had been transported.  Slumdog Millionaire does so while being entertaining, visceral and not shy about allowing a wee bit of sentiment to unexpectedly spring forth.  Stick around after the movie for the end credits as you'll be entertained by the cast indulging in a little bit of infectious Bollywoodism. 

Must See DVD

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) directed by Christian Nyby (and Howard Hawks)

The modern science fiction film first blasted onto movie screens at the beginning of the 1950s, with Destination Moon and Rocketship XM. Those films were straightforward stories about man’s first voyages into outer space. From 1951, however, sci-fi films began to deepen in meaning, emerging as parables of the socio-political atmosphere of the post-war era; redolent with paranoid themes of atomic annihilation or simmering with warnings of communist infiltration in the guise of alien attacks. The same year saw the first mutated combination of the sci-fi and monster genre in Howard Hawks’s highly influential The Thing from Another World.

 

This monster-on-the-loose story with a space-age twist was based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novel Who Goes There? A small group of military men and research scientists discover a crashed space ship and its lone occupant frozen in an Alaskan ice field. At a remote research facility, the spaceman is accidentally thawed and it terrorizes the trapped earthlings. Lead scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) insists the creature should be captured and studied while Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) orders the “Super Carrot” (its molecular structure is akin to vegetable matter, allowing it to regenerate its damaged parts) destroyed, as it has begun killing individuals to survive off their blood.

 

If the nut of this story sounds familiar—a band of people confined in a small space and vulnerable to a rampaging killer—that’s because The Thing is clearly a precursor to Alien (1979), Predator (1987) and almost every boogeyman/slasher movie such as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing is actually more faithful to the original story and, in keeping with more explicit times, far more violent and gory. I like Carpenter’s version of The Thing; it ramps up the inherent claustrophobic paranoia in the story, and contains imaginative shape-shifting and mutation special effects by the talented Rob Bottin.  I find the original movie more entertaining, however, and much brisker in pace, clocking in at a tight 87 minutes.

 

The terse script by Charles Lederer and the uncredited Ben Hecht is propelled by logical action and sparked by punchy dialogue and the kind of amusing, unaffected quips that usually feel forced in most contemporary action pictures.   

 

Christian Nyby is credited as The Thing’s director; however, by all accounts the key director was its producer, Howard Hawks. Hawks is undeniably in the pantheon of great American directors—he worked in every major film genre and continues to influence directors like Quentin Tarantino to this day. Nyby was Hawks’s editor and it was Hawks who gave Nyby the chance to direct this sci-fi tale that Hawks discovered, developed, co-wrote and personally cast.  So although The Thing is not technically a Hawks-directed

film, like other Hawks pictures it is filled with groups of professional men who must perform under intense duress, and features the kind of long and medium shots producing an energized mise-en-scène that Hawks was masterful at, and that Nyby was unpracticed in executing. These and other Hawksian attributes permeate The Thing from Another World, a picture that lent its genre this ominous admonition: “Watch the skies, everywhere!” 

 

Book Review

 

SCORSESE BY EBERT by Roger Ebert  (The University of Chicago Press)        

Take note of the title of this book: it is not "Scorsese" by Roger Ebert - it is "Scorsese by Ebert", an accurate title for this highly enlightening and immensely accessible compilation of reviews, interviews and reassessments of films made by America's greatest living director written by one of America's most important, respected and beloved film critics.  This book is as much about Martin Scorsese's cinema as it is about Roger Ebert's love for cinema.

Roger Ebert considers Martin Scorsese to be America's greatest living director.  I couldn't agree more.  Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Gangs of New YorkThe Aviator and The Departed are but a few of Scorsese's titles - films that have elicited prodigious praise, courted controversy and inspired legions of new filmmakers. 

Martin Scorsese specializes in uncompromisingly tough stories about the loners and the dreamers, the privileged and the disenfranchised who wrestle with morality and battle the black dogs that gnash at their souls; characters who dance on the edge of humanity and struggle for attainment of not just peace and harmony, but redemption for sins of the heart, sins of the flesh, sins against man and sins against God. 

Roger Ebert nails another recurring theme in Scorsese's work, this from Ebert's opening paragraph of his review on Scorsese's 1980 masterpiece, Raging Bull:

Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull is a movie about brute force, anger, and grief.  It is also, like several of Scorsese's other movies, about a man's inability to understand a woman except in terms of the only two roles he knows how to assign her: virgin and whore.

This explanation of a consistent Scorsese thematic motif is one small example of Ebert's ability to keenly examine and sharply convey a film's meaning or connotation.  There is arguably no better living film critic than Roger Ebert who can dissect and express the workings of a film and present it in an accessible fashion to the general public.

Martin Scorsese's and Roger Ebert's career - as filmmaker and film critic, respectively - began 41 years ago.  Ebert reviewed Scorsese's first film, Who's That Knocking at My Door, when he started reviewing films in 1967.  Ebert met the budding director at this time and started a professional friendship with him that continues today.

This long-term relationship with Scorsese - giving Ebert ease of access to the director for lengthy discussions about Scorsese's films and film in general - and Ebert's venerable career in which he has screened and reviewed each of the director's films upon their original release, puts Ebert in the position akin to a Scorsese scholar.  Film-by-film, Ebert has studied the professional growth of Scorsese and reported on not only the artistic value if each film as a singular piece, but, after 40 years, has written what ultimately amounts to a dissertation of Scorsese's body of work that the average filmgoer can effortlessly comprehend.

Every Ebert review of every Scorsese film, up to and including his Oscar-winning 2006 cops-and-gangster picture, The Departed, and his music documentaries: The Last Waltz; No Direction Home: Bob Dylan; Shine a Light (the 2008 Rolling Stones concert film), is reprinted in this book.  Each chapter - with illuminating introductions - relate to the various phases of Scorsese's career as Ebert defines them. 

Interspersed through the book are various interviews Ebert conducted with the director, dating back to 1970 when Scorsese was fresh from finishing his editing chores on the groundbreaking rock documentary, Woodstock.  Ebert revisits some of Scorsese's films by writing new commentary in what he calls "Reconsiderations", and he concludes the book with essays on his five choices for Scorsese's "Masterpieces", which were originally written for his Great Movies series published in the Chicago Sun-Times.  It's fascinating to regard how a film critic reconsiders films that he first wrote about many years prior. 

Ebert's interviews also touch on Scorsese as film historian, teacher and preservationist.  Those who know about Scorsese are aware that his love for movies began when he was sickly child.  Not able to indulge in kid's play, Scorsese lost himself in the movies his father took him to see during the 1940s and 1950s.  The young Scorsese also immersed himself in the movies broadcasted on a New York City television program called "Million-Dollar Movie".  On his small black-and-white T.V., Scorsese was transfixed by Hollywood gangster films, B-westerns, glossy MGM musicals, British director Michael Powell's emotional fantasias, and the international works of Fellini and Kurosawa.

Scorsese absorbed all styles and genres of films and studied the great directors: Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Minnelli, Rossellini, Antonioni, Renoir, and on and on.  He became a walking encyclopedia of film; Scorsese's brain is a repository of movie history that he constantly draws from for inspiration.  Scorsese was the first important director to spearhead the film preservation movement when, in the 1970s, he became aware that movie prints and film negatives were literally fading away.  To this day, he continues to be instrumental in saving film history for future generations.  His DVD audio commentaries and his personal journey documentaries on American and Italian films are the most intelligent and heartfelt expressions about the movies: each one worth more than two years in any film school.  Roger Ebert's writings about Scorsese ensure the reader understands Scorsese's dedication to the preservation and history of the motion picture medium.

Roger Ebert's reviews also reveal his understanding of the film language.  He writes with this knowledge, lending his reviews clarity on how the director is utilizing technique.  Ebert has said that the best movies are not what they are about, but how they are about their subjects.  This assessment is astute, and is, I believe, the key to analyzing movies in general and it perfectly encapsulates Scorsese's method to his cinema.  Like one of Scorsese's director idols, Alfred Hitchcock's cinema embodies this approach: style can be about the content, and it should be when it comes to visual storytelling.  Like Hitchcock - and American cinema's other great stylist, Orson Welles - Scorsese designs all his films in a stylistic manner appropriate for their emotional and psychological dynamics as well as the subjectiveness of the film's characters.  Style can be the content, and it should when it comes to visual storytelling.  This power is conveyed with the thoughtful, creative use of camera, light, editing and sound.  Martin Scorsese, like Hitchcock and Welles before him, is a true master of the cinematic language and Roger Ebert is a savvy interpreter of the director's dialects.

Not all of Ebert's Scorsese reviews are raves: this book is not the writings of a fawning fan.  Ebert feels Scorsese didn't gel with The King of Comedy, The Color of Money, Cape Fear, Kundun and Gangs of New York.  Granted, other critics did pan these movies as well (not all of it deserved).  Ebert's criticisms of those pictures display careful consideration of the film's faults and weigh them in relation to Scorsese's perceived intentions.  Ebert doesn't superficially dismiss Scorsese's problem pictures; his review and reconsideration of New York, New York is a good example of Ebert's perceptive analysis.  New York, New York, Scorsese's ode to the classic Arthur Freed-MGM musicals, was savaged by the critics upon its release in 1977.  Ebert's review was "thumbs down", yet he doesn't disregard the picture; he carefully deliberates its shortcomings and precisely articulates his conclusions to deliver an engrossing evaluation.  Ebert's differential, intelligent scrutiny of New York, New York actually piques the reader's interest in viewing this flawed film.

Ebert champions Scorsese pictures that received mixed to negative reviews from other critics.  The black comedy After Hours and the gritty noir Bringing Out the Dead, starring Nicholas Cage as a N.Y.C. paramedic on the cusp of a physical and spiritual meltdown, were not well received, but Ebert firmly believes that these films rank among Scorsese's best works.  Ebert acknowledges a seething intensity in both films, made by a director firing on all creative cylinders; a director not afraid to expand on the moral quagmire explored in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

"Scorsese by Ebert" is exemplary film writing.  It is intelligent without being academic, witty without being cute, clever without being smug, and a warm tribute to a master director by a master critic who, like his subject, possesses an infinite, unbridled passion for the movies.