Saturday, January 30, 2010

All About Eve (1950): A Review (Review #41)


ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)

Buckled Up And Ready To Go...

There are few things as flat-out pleasurable as seeing people at the top of their game. It is a joy to behold people who know what they are doing and do it so well. This is the case with All About Eve, a malicious yet truthful look into human nature and folly. The setting is the theatrical world of Broadway, but one aspect of the genius behind the film is that we can see that the "actors" are much closer to people we know than we might care to admit.

The film takes place at the Sarah Siddons Awards dinner with three narrations telling the backstory of how we got to this night. The primary narration is taken between theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) and Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), a playwright's wife, with Margo Channing (Bette Davis) narrating once. Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is a girl who has attended every performance of diva extraordinaire Margo but who is a shrinking violet in reality, too afraid to meet her idol. Thanks to an invite from Karen, Eve soon becomes part of this world where the theater and the theatrical are interchangeable. However, Eve is much more than the sweet, always eager-to-please war widow. You see, she's also an aspiring actress, one with burning ambition, and one who thinks she'd be PERFECT for a part written for someone else...

What makes All About Eve stand out is that everything in it just works so smoothly it looks almost effortless. Writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz creates a world where people use words as weapons and a single put-down can cut to the core. The script is one of if not the wittiest, sharpest, shrewdest one written. Mankiewicz has the patience to let the story tell itself. Rather than rush everything or worse, have everything explained to us, he allows the dialogue to carry the film and give us an insight into the characters. More important, he TRUSTS that we will be able to keep up with the story. He also has a great ear for dialogue and attention to how intelligent people speak. During a verbal fight that Lloyd and Margo have over Eve and even after he leaves, Margo continues to use the phrase "fire and music", which Lloyd used to describe what Eve had done. I find it's human nature to repeat certain words and phrases that get at people, and here, Mankiewicz makes the dialogue both intelligent and realistic.

Take, for example, the opening. We hear the cynicism of Addison and the sincerity of Karen not just by WHAT they say but HOW they say it, from their voice and choice of words. All the praise being heaped on Eve is counter-set by the reactions of DeWitt, Channing, her beau/director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), Karen, and Karen's playwright husband Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe). Here, we quickly establish that it's not what others might think about Eve that is the truth, but what this particular group knows and says about her. There are brilliant bits of dialogue throughout the film, such as when Margo confesses (albeit a bit drunkenly) about her fears on turning 40, or the fight between Margo and Lloyd, or when Margo discusses (soberly) what it's like to be a woman with a career, between the persona of Margo Channing and the person who is Margo Channing.



The meatiest dialogue goes to Addison DeWitt. His name alone explains what kind of person he is: a sharp man who is far too smart for himself and those around him. Few people have been so gleefully malicious and snide, contemptuous of people and also understanding of how people's need for applause or love can make them do all sorts of terrible things to others. He also is cynical of almost everything and everyone. When his protogé Miss Casswell (Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest roles) bombs the audition, he encourages her to go into television. "Do they have auditions in television?" she asks. "That's ALL television is. Nothing but auditions", he tells her. We all wish we were that sharp and witty. Certainly, I wish I were that sharp and witty. In fact, if you listen to all the characters speak, you find that they all have something clever to say about each other, or themselves, or their various situations.

Another aspect of All About Eve that sets it apart from most films is the acting. It's rare when you get one or two great performances in the same film, but when you get ALL the major players in the cast to be brilliant, it has to be a cinematic miracle. George Sanders brings a vocal sneer to DeWitt, someone who has a great opinion of himself because he knows who he is and is entirely unapologetic about it. Marlowe makes Lloyd the perfect dupe in Eve's machinations, and Merrill brings a realistic approach to Bill Simpson as someone who isn't impressed or taken in by the subterfuge of the theater and its world but who sees it as a job like any other.

Of course, this film is dominated by the women, and what women they cast. Karen could have come off as stupid or naive, but Holm makes her a sincere friend to everyone she meets but one unafraid to tell people what she thinks. Even she is not above a touch of cynicism, as when she assures Eve she'll get Lloyd and Bill to let her be Margo's understudy by telling her, "They'll do as they're told".

Baxter's Eve makes her metamorphosis from sincere, sweet, kind, girl to...fill in the blank (here's a hint: it rhymes with 'stitch'). She holds the audience in wait, making us wonder who Eve really is, perhaps even up to the end of the film. In her surface kindness that hides a heart of mud, Baxter holds our attention, devouring anyone who stands in her way until she meets her match in DeWitt, nobody's fool.  It's a truly pitch-perfect performance.

The highlight, however, has to be Bette Davis as Margo Channing. One can make a case that Davis was playing a version of herself: the tempermental yet vulnerable actress who fears she might lose everything and have nothing left...except a book full of clippings. However, she creates a well-written character and make her real. We know Margo as a woman who loves being an actress, who loves Bill, but who while knowing she is a great star and great actress is still a woman who wants a man she fears may leave, especially now that she's hit a critical age of 40. Her discussion about this to Lloyd is a remarkable dramatic turn, one where Davis lets her guard down and has us totally sympathize with a person as opposed to the persona she may come off as. Margo Channing, however, is no wimp. She knows how to take it, and when she says good-bye to Eve it's one of the finest kiss-offs in film.

There are a few odd bits in All About Eve. For example, there's Thelma Ritter as Margo's dresser/assistant/confidant Birdie Coonan. There is nothing wrong with her performance, but curiously she disappears completely after Bill's birthday party with no explanation for her departure. There is also the scene where Addison and Eve leave the Shubert Theater in New Haven, which is obviously fake. The latter is a minor detail, a bit of 50's film-making, while the former is something not so easily dismissed.

At the end of All About Eve, we get the sense that Eve may eventually get what she deserves, but we also get the sense that Mankiewicz is making a commentary about celebrity. Margo is an ACTUAL ACTRESS, someone who while at times difficult can always be counted to be professional where it's important and who knows it's her job to be good. Eve, on the other hand, appears to want a theatrical career for the applause serving as a substitute for love. She wants to be a star, but has the talent to back it up. As for Phoebe (and all her mirror images--you'll have to see it to have that explained), it appears that fame for fame's sake is something that didn't originate with reality television and Youtube.

You have great acting in All About Eve. You have great dialogue in All About Eve (the line, "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night", has become part of the vernacular). You have a story that has recognizable people in All About Eve. In short, you have an extraordinary film that you shouldn't be afraid of. It's well worth the ride.


DECISION: A +

1951 Best Picture: An American In Paris


There are more Essentials, as well as The Best Picture Winners Collection.

Friday, January 29, 2010

2009 Oscar Suggestions



In a few days, the nominees for the 82th Annual Academy Awards will be announced. I'd like to take a moment to make my own recommendations. Whether they will be taken or not I cannot say. However, it would be nice to hear the following names in the following categories.


BEST PICTURE

UP*

Now with the Academy opening up the Big Prize to 10 nominees (which I still think is a mistake), I can hope that the members will pick an ACTUALLY GOOD film to their ranks. To date, only one animated film has received a Best Picture nomination: Beauty & The Beast in 1990. The Pixar line has produced many excellent films, yet they are segregated to the Animated Feature category. Let my cartoons in! UP had it all: that sweet mixture of comedy and heart, and frankly, I liked it much better than No Country for Old Men.

(500) Days of Summer

True, it did bill itself as the non-love story. It also has the tough luck of being a COMEDY, a genre not generally liked by the Academy. We have to go back to Shakespeare In Love to find a comedic Best Picture, and even that is still filled with controversy. As it stands, (500) Days of Summer is the most truthful film about love/romance made in quite some time. In an age of Leap Year and When In Rome, why are people so willing to go for cookie-cutter films that don't require thinking when people make romantic comedies that are honest...even with the musical number.

District 9*

It's Avatar all the time. Yes, it's a cool-looking picture, and now it has its cult audience who think it's the Greatest Film Ever Made (damn that Citizen Kane). While these kids are moping about how terrible it is that they can't live in Pandora (here's a suggestion: try a commune), the intelligence and intensity of District 9 is being left in the dust. Cameron wants DESPERATELY to have his opus be this intelligent allegory about the destruction of the planet due to man's greed and how the military has always destroyed the beauty of the native peoples, but it doesn't work because as in almost all Cameron films, he's far too enamored of the visuals to go into a deep story. District 9, on the other hand, managed to do both: great science-fiction and great allegory, a remarkable balancing act.


BEST ACTOR
Joseph Gordon-Levitt {(500) Days of Summer}

I'll be the first to say that his turn in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra could do to any chance he has what Norbit did for Eddie Murphy's chances for Dreamgirls. However, his performance as the eternally lovelorn man was remarkably real, and in a way more challenging because we aren't accustomed to seeing MEN be vulnerable in romances. He's a star on the rise, and with a bit of luck could achieve the level of an Edward Norton or Ryan Gosling.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Zack Galifianakis (The Hangover)

No, this is not a joke. I'm being completely serious. Maybe I just have a penchant for comedy this year, but I feel that The Hangover would not have been as successful without Galifianakis' wonderful turn as Alan. Let's be frank: his "Wolf Pack" speech will be quoted by guys from now to eternity, and it takes a great amount of talent to pull off a character that could have been seen as just insane, but in his hands was both insane and endearing. Besides, just how many comedic performances have actually won? I can go back to Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, but does Roberto Benini in Life Is Beautiful count AS a comedy?

Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes)

I didn't think much of the film. In fact, I thought it a sorry disappointment. One of the few things that were good in Sherlock Holmes were the performances of Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes & Watson. Is Downey a contender for a nomination? I think so, but I'm going with Law only because it's harder to play second fiddle (no pun intended), and he, along with Downey, did it so well it almost made me give it a positive rating. Almost.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Hans Zimmer (Sherlock Holmes)*
There were few things I liked about Sherlock Holmes. I've mentioned two, now to the third. No, I'm not a Zimmer fan, but I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes' score: it was jaunty and fun--two things the film itself was not.

Michael Giacchino (UP)**

When I saw UP, the beautiful score did what all great film scores do: draw you into the film without drawing attention to itself and distracting you from the visuals. Giacchino's score was to me reminiscent of Victor Young's score for Around the World in 80 Days, which curiously also involved soaring high over the world in a balloon. Don't that beat all.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS


Yes, Avatar will WIN this category. That, I grant you, will be a deserved one. However, Star Trek did what so few visual/special effects films do nowadays: not drown you in what they can do but instead on what is necessary to the film. Imagine that: a film where the effects serve the story rather than the other way round?


Well, those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head. I encourage any other suggestions. Though I hope against hope for some of these (while others are a good bet), we'll see when the nominations are announced February 2nd.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Undertow (2004) Review (Review #40)



UNDERTOW

I've heard the phrase "Southern Gothic" but have never quite understood what it meant. I have a feeling Undertow is as close to mixing what I know to be a Gothic story (dark, violent, elements of the supernatural), within the setting of the American South.

Chris (Jamie Bell, aka Billy Elliot) is a rudderless teen, filled with anger about his life situation. He lives with his brother Tim (Devon Alan) and his father, John (Dermot Mulroney) in what I can describe as somewhere east of Deliverance. They moved there after John's wife Audrey died. Each copes with the situation in a different way: John by shutting down emotionally, Chris by being a bit of an Artful Dodger (without the singing or dancing), and Tim by not eating regular food but going for mud. THE KID ACTUALLY ATE MUD! Chris can't stay out of trouble with the law, and appears to be more like his uncle Deel (Josh Lucas) who comes to their home shortly after leaving prison. At the risk of giving a spoiler, there is a reason why Chris is more like his uncle than his father. You figure it out.

It's clear from the onset that Deel's a bad influence. As it is in these stories, Deel's not there to really get his life back on track. You see, Deel & John's father had a collection of gold Mexican coins, which he got from a mysterious ferryman many years ago. Deel now wants the coins, or at least his share. John believes the coins are cursed and refuses to hand them over to anyone. One day, while John is away, Deel goes on a frantic hunt for them--finding them behind a portrait of John & his family. John finds him and all the years of resentment between them finally come to a head. Audrey, it seems, had been Deel's girl before cheating on him with John. All right, do the math. As Cain slew Abel... Now, Deel's after the only witnesses, and the boys find themselves on the run.

 

One gets the sense while watching Undertow that director and co-writer David Gordon Green was going for something far grander than his abilities were able to pull off. What was attempted was a meditation on the nature of greed. What the result ended up being was a familiar story with a hillbilly accent. If he hadn't been too fond of unnecessary artistic touches (such as freeze-frames that added nothing to the plot) or just plain weird elements (as in Alan eating mud or Bell sucking a pig's tit) he would have had a better film.

The performances raise the enterprise considerably. Bell is desperate to be considered an ACTOR rather than just Billy Elliot, and he did a masterful job in having an extremely convincing American Southern accent...not since Vivien Leigh went to Tara has an British actor done the South proud. He was able to match Lucas' impressive turn as the bad-seed Deel. In another person's hands Deel could have become a parody of a hick ex-con, but Lucas creates both a person and the embodiment of an angry, soulless, dangerous man who will kill anyone (and I mean anyone) to get what he wants.

Even some of the smaller parts are done well. Though she appears only briefly, Shiri Appleby (whom I shall always love from Roswell) as a homeless girl gave a memorable performance. I even marvelled at Kristen Stewart as Chris' love interest--though her limited screen time makes it difficult to gauge if she is as limited an actress as Twilight and New Moon (excuse me, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) make her out to be. I even suspect that composer Phillip Glass (a genius as far as I'm concerned) had some fun writing music for the banjo.

However, there really isn't much in Undertow as a film. Though it's only about 90+ minutes it felt far, far longer. In spite of the Southern setting it came close to being a parody of the South. Undertow even came complete with Deliverance-type men...to where I wonder why they didn't comment on Lucas' pretty mouth. The plot point of the "cursed" coins was unnecessary, as if they were trying for some sort of symbolism that didn't pan out. Neither did questions about Chris' identity. And frankly yes, the eating of mud and the sucking of a pig's tit is NOT something people should be clamoring to see. Finally, not one but TWICE do we have characters making rather miraculous reappearances. That is just plain cheating.

Ultimately, Undertow has some very good performances but there really isn't enough to make it as great a film as it thought it could be. Still, I suppose it's better to literally suck on a pig than be force to squeal like one.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Independence Day: A Review

 INDEPENDENCE DAY


Science-fiction films can be one of two things: an allegory of social issues or just wild & fun entertainment. They can be both, but if they're going to be one or the other they should have the courage of their convictions and go for it. Independence Day goes for the latter in a big way, and it mostly succeeds.

ID4, as it's sometimes known, takes place over the course of three days: July 2-4. Day One has the approach of alien ships that hover over the major cities of the world, three in the United States: New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. During the course of this day, we are introduced to a vast cavalcade of characters.

In NYC, we have Julius and David Levinson (Judd Hirsh and Jeff Goldblum), a Jewish widower and his son. Washington has President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), General Grey (Robert Loggia), the President's Communications Director Constance Spano (Margaret Colin), and the First Daughter (Mae Whitman). In the California section, there is Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith), his girlfriend Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox), crop-dusting pilot (and ex-alien abductee) Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and First Lady Marilyn Whitmore (Mary McDonnell). All are living out their lives with varying degrees of success while these ships dominate the skies. Only David, an M.I.T. educated cable technician, realizes that the interruption of satellite signals worldwide is a countdown to an alien attack, but by the time he's able to inform the President, the aliens launch a massive attack, with all our characters barely escaping the onslaught....with varying degrees of success.

Day Two has the counter-attack by the humans, which fails, and with Air Force One going to Area 51. There, they are met by Area 51 Commander Major Mitchell (Adam Baldwin, who for most of the movie I confused with Bill Paxton), and Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner). Meanwhile, Capt. Hiller manages to capture one of the monsters (giving the immortal line, "Welcome to Earth" right after punching this most illegal of aliens), and gets aid in taking him to the now-not-so-secret base with the help of Casse. In another part of the country, Jasmine discovers a badly injured First Lady and thinks Hiller is dead when coming to his own base, which has been destroyed. The alien comes alive and declares through a captured Okun that there will be no peace.

Day Three has the final attack: a computer virus that David and Hiller will place inside the mother ship while on Area 51 there is a coordinated strategy that involves all the nations joining forces to defeat the extra-terrestrial menace.

 

Overall, Independence Day is extremely sprawling as it weaves vast storylines together. It does make them fit mostly well, though at times there were story elements that I found unnecessary. Having Casse's son be sick with a rare disease--a touch too much. Having Casse himself be a somewhat defeated drunk--a touch too much. Having a dying First Lady--a touch too much (though given the film was made in 1996, perhaps the fact that the First Lady at the time was Hillary Clinton might have been at the back of everyone's mind). Having Dr. Okun be a wild-haired wild-eyed wacky scientist with little clue to what's going on outside--a touch too much.

The performances were also varied, sometimes for good and other times for ill. Hirsh's Levinson came off as Jackie Mason's befuddled cousin. All I can say for the interaction between Hirsh and everyone he shared the screen with is that a little Hebraic humor goes a long way. Pullman's Whitmore was remarkably stoic throughout the film. One got the sense he had the looks of a President but not the passion of one. His speech to the fliers before their final assault is NOT one for the ages. In fact, I found it one of the worst-delivered "inspirational" speeches ever given by a world leader. It won't be remembered along with Kennedy's Inaugural or Reagan's at the Berlin Wall.

I know I'm in the minority on the Independence Day speech, for many love it and think it's among the great bits of monologue in history (and can quote it verbatim).  For me, I wasn't overwhelmed, but there it is.

A curious side-note: President Whitmore, an ex-Air Force pilot himself (what a coincidence!), would be the first President to personally lead troops into battle since Washington during the Whiskey Rebellion. Use that info any way you wish, but I digress.

You also had two major love stories playing out: between Hiller and Jasmine and between David and Connie. Smith and Fox managed to weave their story well, bringing realistic performances of two people desperately in love. Goldblum and Colin, on the other hand, played their love story in a quite detached manner. While the former said their lines as if they came from their hearts, the latter said their lines as if they came from their scripts. Smith in particular managed to be both an action star and a developing actor of depth in Independence Day, bringing his natural charm but also adding a sincerity and intelligence to the romantic aspects of the film.

There are fun parts to the film, such as how writers Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich (producer and director respectively as well) tied in the Roswell Incident, or how Morse code came back in vogue, but again, too many coincidences clutter the film. Quaid being an ex-abductee, Pullman being an ex-Air Force pilot--one wonders whether they were needed. You also have a brief moment where we are made to realize we are all one, when Israeli pilots come face to face with Iraqi pilots as they prepare to attack the true common enemy. If we could only get along...

Still, that's being nit-picky. Independence Day has one goal: to bring entertaining action and arresting visual effects. It does that well, and it is extremely entertaining with the length not being too much to take in, although it could have been trimmed. It is a great film to be entertained by, pulling the emotional strings effectively and leaving you cheering for "our" victory over the invaders who would kill us all. Whether the "our" is humanity itself or Americans in particular is irrelevant...we won! Independence Day delivers on its promise, and we do get fireworks. However, I STILL think Adam Baldwin looks like Bill Paxton.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Nine (2009): A Review



NINE

As I watched Nine, I wondered if it were possible to get anything out of it without having seen or heard of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, on which Nine is based on. I think that a musical version of any project should stand on its own and be its own creation rather than imitation of its source. For example, My Fair Lady stands independent from Pygmalion, and one doesn't have to have read or seen Oliver Twist to get anything from Oliver!. 

I don't know if Nine, however, can stand separate, at least judging from the film adaptation.

Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a brilliant Italian director who's facing a creative crisis: he doesn't know what his next movie, Italia, will be about. Bereft of ideas, he dodges reporter's questions, evades responsibilities to his crew and producers while trying to juggle his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) and mistress (Penelope Cruz). As he keeps trying to work himself up to work, his life starts floating into a series of big musical numbers revolving around the various women in his life: his wife, his mistress, his artistic muse (Nicole Kidman), his costume designer Lilli (Dame Judi Dench), an American reporter (Kate Hudson), his earliest sexual fantasy (Black Eyed Peas frontwoman Fergie), and his mother (Sophia Loren).

All of Guido's Girls float about him until he settles to make his next film, the genius finally back at work.   

Just before yet another musical number, Day-Lewis' character asks Kidman's in his determined Italian accent, "Why is everyone suddenly interested in the script?" Pity no one asked director Rob Marshall that.

Marshall, who helmed the first musical in more than thirty years to win Best Picture (Chicago), plays the same parlor tricks with Nine, but he failed to recognize what I call The Rex Rule. Named after Rex Harrison, the rule is: You can try a particular or unique approach to film once. Attempting to repeat it will fail

Rex Harrison could get away with starring in a musical film without actually singing in My Fair Lady. It helped that he originated the role on Broadway and that he was backed by the musical creative genius of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. When he tried to "talk in pitch" again in Doctor Doolittle, the results were an unhappy and excessive disaster with only Talk to the Animals being worth anything.

In the same way, Marshall was able to take a creative approach to a musical by, instead of integrating the songs into the story itself, they were all taking place inside the main character's mind. This worked in Chicago because the film never lost its focus on Roxie Hart with only two songs (All That Jazz and Nowadays) being performed in "reality". Also, it helps when you have the musical genius of John Kander and Fred Ebb behind you.

Marshall tried to do the same thing here, but it doesn't work because everyone gets to sing a song, and most of them are about Guido. When everyone sings songs almost exclusively about Guido (including Guido), it just comes off as narcissistic.

Each song is a literal showstopper in that the show literally has to stop in order to perform the song. The trick in a good musical or adaptation is to have the songs flow naturally into the dialogue, making it almost natural for characters to sing and dance. Conversely in Nine, all the songs are rammed in just to give each performer a chance to belt out a number. 

Even that could be forgiven if the songs were brilliant, but it's highly unlikely that people will be singing songs like A Call From The Vatican or Cinema Italiano.  They're not terrible songs, merely not on the same level as something from the Lerner & Lowe or Rogers & Hammerstein songbook.

The actors all have surprisingly good voices but overall they can't carry the tunes to the heights they aspire to. Guido's Song (sung by Guido) made me smile due to Day-Lewis keeping totally in character with his valiant accent while doing aerobatics. There is something pleasurable in watching someone as artistically pretentious as Daniel Day-Lewis look so utterly and completely foolish.


I admit to being taken by surprise when Dench went into a song-and-dance (Follies Bergères) but was much better than I would have imagined. While it is wonderful to see Sophia Loren again, she didn't have much to do in the film. To be fair though, Guarda La Luna (Look at the Moon) works well for her, a soft moment in the midst of overall exuberance. 

That, I think, is what is at the heart of what's wrong with Nine: all the characters exist only to give one song, then they are free to leave. None of the many, many women in Guido's life add much if anything to the overall story of a creative man's lack of creativity or work ethic. One never likes Guido because he doesn't come off as talented, let alone this genius, just as a guy with too much time on his hands and too lazy/irresponsible to do anything except go after women.

Curiously, every woman that sings to/about Guido wants Guido except Lilli and Mamma. A better title to the film would have been Guido's Girls, since we don't touch on his writer's block but go into his sexual fantasies and proclivities. 

In fact, listening to Hudson's lyrics about Contini's films in Cinema Italiano, I got the impression that a Contini film would be a shallow one, if all they could remember were "guys with skinny little ties and shades they wear at night". Contini himself comes off as shallow in the same song, when she keeps singing "Guido/Guido/Guido/Guido/Guido/Guido" (those are the actual lyrics).

Cotillard's English has improved since last we saw her in Public Enemies, and her first song (My Husband Makes Movies) was pleasant while her second (Take It All) was like an audition for Showgirls: The Musical.

Worse was Cruz, who looked as if she was in Showgirls. A Call From The Vatican was very whorish and it came off as an embarrassing stripper number. While it may fulfill many an erotic fantasy and be the cause of men performing auto-erotic exercises, it makes her look tawdry and cheap. When you had an actual song about a whore (Be Italian) sung by pop star Fergie, it crystallized what was wrong with this picture: a director more interested in the visual spectacle he was making rather than in an actual story. 

Finally, I hated the ending: everyone coming together to watch Guido return to film-making and it being a "personal/intimate" film called...Nine!

The performances are above average but not remarkable. The songs have flash but no substance and aren't memorable. The visuals are interesting but not extraordinary. Nine, in short, doesn't add up to much. It does answer the question: What would Penelope Cruz be doing if she weren't in movies? She'd be a Las Vegas stripper.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Brief Thoughts Regarding Remakes, Re-Imaginings & Reboots




I've heard it said that Hollywood is completely devoid of ideas. I still have a great hope that this is not the case. However, two new films: Nine, based on 8 1/2, and a new version of Clash of the Titans are making me revisit an aspect of this issue: the remake.

Unlike others, I have no problem with remakes. You can have great remakes of great films: the 1959 Ben-Hur is a remake of the 1925 silent version, and both Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock remade their own films (The Ten Commandments and The Man Who Knew Too Much respectively). I'm not enough of a purist to demand no one ever touch an old film and see what he/she can do with the story. 

Whether it's a good idea or whether the new film actually works is another question. The best thing to do in these cases is simply watch both versions and decide to see which one works. I don't think it should really matter which one is seen first but I leave that to individuals.

I know people who've seen the remake (or re-imagining) of Planet of the Apes first but declared the original the winner, and conversely thought Disturbia was better than Rear Window even if the former was never an "official" remake of the latter.

Now, there is a question of semantics. There are filmmakers who are afraid of the term "remake". Instead, they like to use a new term, "re-imagining". Is there really a difference? Perhaps: a remake acknowledges you are making a new version of a previously made film while a re-imagining you are taking a previously-made film and attempting to make it different in some way. In a re-imagining, one may even want others to pretend the first version doesn't exist. 

Then there is the "reboot", when you take a previously made property and start fresh by deliberately pretending the previous version/versions don't exist. 

Here are examples of each:
  • A.) Remake: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) & Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). The story is basically the same (albeit with a few changes to reflect the times), and they acknowledge the original by giving Kevin McCarthy (the star of the original) a cameo role.
  • B.) Re-imagining: Psycho (1960) and Psycho (1998). This is a curious case because the new version was made to be a shot for shot copy of the original, but we were told that we were not take into consideration Hitchcock's film. Instead, we were to treat the Gus Van Sant version as if it were an original film. Let me make this clear: they weren't denying the original version, merely presenting the new version as if it were a new film.
  • C.) Reboot: Batman (1989) and Batman Begins (2005). The first four Batman films were part of a larger story. When Batman Begins was released, we had to forget the first four ever existed. This is the same theory (in a roundabout way) between something like Star Trek: The Motion Picture and all the films up to Star Trek: Nemesis and the 2009 Star Trek. I imagine this is also how they will handle the new Spider-Man film, where we put aside the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire films and go back to Peter Parker's high school days.
Now, every so often I will muse on remakes, re-imaginings and reboots. I am a firm believer that a new version should stand on its own as an independent project. In other words, Poseidon should be a good movie and The Poseidon Adventure should be a good movie. One should be independent of the other.  You should be able to enjoy both films without having to compare one with the other. 

When we get a remake or reboot of a previously-made film I shall review the original, then review the new version without comparing one to the other. A comparison of the two or sometimes more versions will come later, at which point I will analyze how and where they fail or succeed and see which is the best version. It's only fair to the creative team of the original to acknowledge their work and to those who worked on the new version to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I will not write out a remake or insist the original is always the best. Both deserve a fair hearing, and Rick's Café Texan will do its utmost to do just that. Twice Told Tales can still be good.

Akira: A Review



AKIRA

There are few times where my jaw literally dropped open while watching a film. One time when such a thing happened was while watching Akira, one of the most revered anime films ever made. The visual elements never drown out an incredible story, one that shows that when it comes to animation, the only limits are those the artists place on themselves.

Tokyo 1988: the city is obliterated in one massive explosion. Out of the remnants of this unexplained destruction in Neo-Tokyo thirty-one years later is a biker gang led by Kaneda with his second-in-command Tetsuo. Neo-Tokyo is a mix of a successful metropolis and a world on the verge of total collapse. There are elegant dining clubs mixed with mass street protests and riots on the streets and motorcycle gangs. While out battling their rivals, Kaneda and Tetsuo narrowly avoid running over the strangest being: a person that looks like a child but has an old person's face. The child, along with Tetsuo, are picked up by the military, having been led there by another old-looking child.

We discover these children are part of a nefarious series of experiments to tap into psychic powers to conquer. Tetsuo, we discover, has great powers and the military/scientific complex attempts to take advantage, but Tetsuo is becoming more unstable, allowing his rage and confusion to overwhelm his powers to destructive ends. As Kaneda joins forces with an underground movement to end these plans and rescue his friend, Tetsuo is terrified by manifestations of the three children in the forms of a teddy bear, a toy car and plush bunny. It now becomes a race to stop Tetsuo from becoming so out-of-control that Neo-Tokyo and the world itself be destroyed by tapping into the power of Akira, recreating the beginning of creation itself.

Akira has something up on most animated films that Western audiences aren't used to: an unflinching view of violence. While primarily Westerners think of animation as a children's genre, the Japanese style of animation known as anime like Akira can sometimes be more graphic than a live-action film. It is virtually impossible to imagine that a filmmaker would show a dog being shot point blank or have a character be crushed and let the blood go all over. In animation form the various acts of violence are more shocking.

You have a great ability to create worlds and images that perhaps could be accomplished with modern CGI, but that wouldn't have as strong an impact as an animated version has. The scene where Tetsuo has visions of attacking toys might not work in live-action, but in animation, accented with Shoji Yamashiro's score it is quite terrifying. When Akira finally makes his appearance was when my jaw dropped open and was stunned by at the brilliance of it all. It is to me one of the most shocking moments in animation, as if all reality within and without the film is melting into itself. For someone who may come into anime with visions of Pokémon or Hello Kitty, something like Akira will shock and astound.

What really pushes Akira to greatness is the visual style, the look of the film. In retrospect, Akira really does show how animation frees filmmakers to create fantastical worlds. Coupled with the exceptional story, Akira is an excellent albeit bloody way to introduce people to more adult anime. 

Looking back on Akira, it seems to be a precursor to other films. It may have influenced such films as The Matrix and Children of Men, and appears to draw from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It presents a world that only appears real and one that is disintegrating beyond repair. It may not be possible to call Akira the Citizen Kane of anime, but it certainly is one of the seminal films of the genre, engrossing the viewer with a fantastical story that holds no limits.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Daybreakers: A Review


DAYBREAKERS

Being undead is just no fun. 

I've come to learn this through recent films like the Twilight series and Daybreakers. The vampire of today is one that is not only almost perpetually morose, but has no sense of style, no panache if you will. Why exist forever if all you're going to do is mope for time & eternity? 

Our world has been taken over by vampires. Humans (and their blood) are dwindling, and now the vampires themselves are degenerating into "subsiders", bat-like creatures in body and mind. There are attempts to create a blood substitute at a major corporation (giving new meaning to "bloodsucking companies"), headed by Charles Brombly (Sam Neill). He puts this project in the hands of Mr. Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), but Dalton's non-beating heart is not in it.

Mr. Dalton doesn't drink human blood. He's sensitive to the human plight and hates being a vampire. Edward's brother Frank (Michael Dorman) has no such qualms. He loves to hunt down humans and a nice glass of sangria. One night Edward has a car accident and meets real humans. They are hiding and on the run from the majority population, but human Audrey (Claudia Karvan) senses Edward's different and may be able to help with a unique situation. 

She clandestinely introduces Edward to Lionel "Elvis" Cormac (Willem Dafoe) who reveals a shocking surprise: he used to be a vampire, but is now fully human. Edward agrees or rather circumstances force him to go with them to try to reverse the effects of vampirism, and possibly stop others from becoming Subsiders. Edward discovers how to become human and potentially how to be human.

Daybreakers is written and directed by what is billed as the Spierig Brothers and already that had me worried. Not that I've heard of the Spierig Brothers or have an opinion pro/con on them, but that they chose to be billed that way. There's something slightly off-putting if not pompous about being billed as "The XYZ Brothers". The only time I've seen this was in the Satanically-awful Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem, where the creative team was billed as The Brothers Strause, as is THAT were to mean anything. Yet I digress.

Daybreakers suffers from an intense need to be profound. I am willing to accept the film's premise that vampires are now the dominant species on Earth, but must their world be so morose? Their world is so empty and downbeat. Not only is there no sunlight, but no color as well, and not just on their faces. The vampires that populate the world are so dour and humorless one wonders why they would want to continue. They saw a red door and painted it black. 

In fact, their world is quite literally dark: all the interiors are in shades of black. I wonder, is that an after-effect of having the life sucked out of you? The Brothers Spierig suffer from the same idea that plagues many modern films: they confuse stillness with suspense.

I should know in my mind that this is not a copy of the perpetually Sullen Cullen from the Twilight series but to name a sensitive, morose vampire who doesn't want to hurt humans Edward couldn't have been a worse decision. It's almost spoof at this point.

As I watched, I kept thinking that this is like The Omega Man/I Am Legend in reverse: from the mutants point of view. Like in those films, the humans are outnumbered and being hunted by the monsters, but in Daybreakers, we see the world through the mutants' eyes. Pity the mutants had no emotions of any kind. The idea itself is interesting but the overall effect isn't. 


Daybreakers also introduces plot points that aren't followed up. For example, we learn that the first step from vampire to subsider is a change in the ear structure, and we see Edward with that type of ear. However, he doesn't suffer any other effects while others I gather change rapidly. Inconsistency I say.

The performances won't be long remembered because they were all one-note. One can say that Hawke, Neill, and Dorman should be lifeless on the screen because they were playing vampires, but the humans were oddly lifeless as well. Once Hawke becomes human himself through a controlled experiment, he remains joyless and solemn, a Sullen Dalton. I figured he would have marveled at being returned to life, but nothing. I digress to state I think Hawke looked better as a vampire than as a human.

There were no emotions from any of them beyond glum except for Dafoe. He acted as though he knew what life was like on both sides, but he also had this really crazy Southern accent that just sounded so funny. Neill I gather had gone to the same Vampire Acting School that Michael Sheen went to for New Moon since both were quite campy bordering on parody. A subplot involving him and his human daughter Alison (Isabel Lucas) was particularly ugly from beginning to end.

There is blood galore, and even exploding corpses (since vampires are not living, we can't quite call them bodies). I figure the Brothers Spierig wanted to give the audience its fair share of grotesque imagery. Still, if that's your line, you may find some things to your liking. 

I also wasn't pleased with the ending. It veers extremely close to if not actually violating one of my Golden Rules of Film-Making: Never End Your Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel.

As it stands, Daybreakers has possibilities, ideas one would have hoped to build on, but they weren't pursued. Maybe it didn't want to. Maybe everyone involved just wanted to see heads cut off and humanoids being torn apart. If it merely wanted to be a bloodbath of brainlessness, Daybreakers may be mildly interesting though on the whole I found it a bloody failure.

DECISION: D+

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Doctor Who Story 001: An Unearthly Child




STORY 001: 
AN UNEARTHLY CHILD

The four-part Doctor Who story collectively titled An Unearthly Child kickstarted the longest-running science-fiction show in television history. While the succeeding episodes did not ultimately live up to the promise of the opening episode, An Unearthly Child has enough within it to make it a good though not great debut. 

Divided into four episodes (An Unearthly Child, The Cave of Skulls, The Forest of Fear, and The FiremakerAn Unearthly Child is basically two stories crammed into one. The balance between the two doesn't quite hold but doesn't fall apart to its credit. 

There is something mysterious and strange about young schoolgirl Susan Foreman (Carol Ann Ford). She is highly knowledgeable about science and history but can't figure out basic monetary systems. Her history teacher Miss Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and science teacher Ian Chesterton (William Russell) can't figure it out. Both recognize Susan is highly intelligent but is also oddly unaware of basic information. She also apparently lives in a junkyard with someone she calls her "grandfather". They follow her to the junkyard, where to their surprise they find a police box (a telephone booth which was used to call the police in case of emergencies).    

Soon, the grandfather (William Hartnell) arrives, an elegant older man in Edwardian clothing. He is slightly bemused and irritated to see them there and denies anyone else is there, until they hear Susan's voice coming from inside the box. Wright and Chesterton rush in, only to discover a room too large to fit within the walls of the police box. The inside is larger than the outside. 

The teachers are then told a fantastic story about how Susan and her grandfather, who claims to be a Doctor, are not human. They are exiles from another world, another time. Wright and Chesterton want to leave, but the Doctor refuses to let them, fearing they will reveal their secret. Susan wants to stay in "20th Century Earth" and attempts to stop her grandfather from holding them. She inadvertently starts the police box she calls the TARDIS (a name she gave the ship from the initials Time And Relative Dimension in Space), and are all launched into another time, another place. 

That place is prehistoric Earth, where the travelers find themselves caught up in a power struggle with cavemen. Whoever can build fire will be the new leader. Za (Derek Newark) wants to be the first so as to stop his rival Kal (Jeremy Young). The woman Hur (Alathea Charlton) sides with Za, but Kal will not be denied. As The Doctor can make fire via his matches, Kal sees his chance to take control. It will take all the travelers combined skills to save themselves from being human sacrifices.

In retrospect, the caveman elements were not the best ones which to launch the series. Producer Verity Lambert admitted as much, but as always two great factors (money and time), forced them to take what was available and reasonable financially. 

An Unearthly Child, the actual first episode written by C.E. Webber, is brilliant in almost every way. It sets up the premise beautifully, allowing for Doctor Who to venture through time and space. As such, it is liberated to explore both other worlds and other times. There is a mystery surrounding this young girl and junkyard, making things exciting.

The acting is first-rate in the An Unearthly Child episode. Hill and Russell are wonderful as people who come in contact with the simply unbelievable. Ford is pretty, but she has an otherworldly quality in her looks and demeanor: she is both mysterious and innocent. As for the Doctor himself, William Hartnell is brilliant as a being who is highly intelligent and pretty much used to getting his way, but who is also underneath his bluster a kind and clever personality.

The remaining three episodes by Anthony Coburn however, don't live up to the quality of the premiere. We get a story where prehistoric cavemen attempt to build fire, and whoever does so will become the new leader. What makes the succeeding episodes bad is that they are stereotypical cavemen: lots of grunting, with monosyllabic names like Kal,  Za and Hur. At times, the acting of the tribe is downright laughable, as when they grunt in unison or chase Kal out from their tribe. However, there are some great moments, as in a fight scene between Kal and Za, which is beautifully filmed.

I thought it was a wise decision to have a variety of age groups in the cast. Though only 55, Hartnell's elderly-looking Doctor made him a figure of stature, respect, and wisdom. The double-act of Russell and Hill as Chesterton and Wright gave adults and parents someone to identify with; Ford's Susan was clearly a person that embodied youth and naivete. Perhaps this was not planned, but it worked excellently. The fact that the teachers were in the subjects of history and science, which were the two topics Doctor Who would deal with, was probably planned, but it serves to have experts in these fields to guide the viewer.

An Unearthly Child and Doctor Who as a whole also has the plus of having one of the greatest title themes in television history. It quickly sets the mood for the series, letting you know there is something mysterious and otherworldly about what you are going to see. Whether it is Ron Grainer's original electronic version or Murray Gold's lush orchestral for the new series, the title theme is one that evokes adventures into the unknown.

As it stands, the first episode is one of the best to launch a science-fiction series, while the rest of the story leaves more to be desired. It gets points knocked down for a second-tier story, but it still manages to be a respectable way to start an epic television series. The first episode itself is brilliant, while the rest of the story is weak and brings the thing down. As a whole, An Unearthly Child is good but not great, showing promise in this exceptional series.

7/10


Next Doctor Who Story: The Daleks

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Happy Birthday Luise! Thoughts on Luise Rainer's Centenary



Today is a very noteworthy event in film/Oscar history. Luise Rainer, the first person to win consecutive Oscars for 1936's The Great Ziegfeld and 1937's The Good Earth, celebrates her 100th birthday. Born January 12, 1910 she now is the oldest living Oscar winner as of this writing. Turner Classic Movies was running her movies and as I knew she was 99,  I wondered one of two things: either she died or she celebrates her centenary. I'm happy for her it's the latter.

I've had my issues with Miss Rainer. I haven't seen her performance in The Good Earth (though the idea of a German playing a Chinese peasant still boggles the imagination) but did see her in The Great Ziegfeld. I thought her performance was "fluttery": very mannered and exaggerated, though I did think she was quite pretty as Anna Held, Florence Ziegfeld's first wife & star of his Follies. I question whether she should have won Best Actress for The Great Ziegfeld, especially for a relatively brief performance. 

In retrospect, I don't think this performance or win has held up well, but that's for another time. This is not the time to go after an old woman who's reached a milestone few people have achieved: both for living a century and winning two Oscars. Given she's a back-to-back winner, that puts her in a class all to herself. Only she, Spencer Tracy, Jason Robards, and Tom Hanks as of today have won their only Academy Awards in the same way.*

Curiously, she lost out her chance to appear in a genuine masterpiece when she was set to make a cameo in La Dolce Vita but withdrew before shooting her scene (she does appear briefly in a 'making-of' documentary as part of the special features on the DVD).


When she does pass, we will have lost a piece of cinema history. Those in the ranks of actors from the "Golden Age" are a dwindling lot. As of today I can think of a few: feuding sisters Joan Fontaine & Olivia de Havilland, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Kirk Douglas, Shirley Temple, Elizabeth Taylor. Soon, all will enter history, but while we have the films will modern audiences still go to their films? 

They aren't going to Rainer's. In fact, if she's remembered today (outside of her birthday commemoration) it's only because she won the two consecutive Oscars. It might be unfair, but I use Miss Rainer as an example to any "star" working today: you may be big, big, big, but you can as quickly be forgotten by the general public. Fame is a by-product of your work, not the end result.

Still, this is a time for celebration. Rick's Café Texan wishes a very Happy Birthday to Luise Rainer and congratulates her on celebrating 100 Years of Life. I hope they have been overall good and happy years and offers all the best for however long she has life.

*Katherine Hepburn also won back-to-back Oscars (1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and 1968's The Lion in Winter) but the second one was in a tie with Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl). Miss Hepburn had already won one Oscar before and would win another after. Miss Rainer won outright both times she received the Oscar.

Monday, January 11, 2010

2012: A Review (Review #35)

2012

Apocalypse Maya...

One has to admire the lunacy of 2012. As a film, it's slightly worse than most recent disaster flicks. As an experience, it's endlessly fascinating to see so many people throw themselves with impassioned abandon to something so endlessly trashy. The basis for 2012 comes from an interpretation of the Mayan calendar, which states that this era of time will end near Christmas 2012 and a new age will begin. Not wasting a time to cash in on paranoia, 2012 ends up only making a fool out of everyone involved.

Scientists have discovered that the Earth is starting to react to solar bursts, causing the temperature of the Earth's core to rise dramatically. Informed of this, the President (Danny Glover) and other world leaders start making plans to preserve humanity. By the time these events come around, we get to the story of Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), semi-successful novelist and chauffeur to a Russian billionaire. He gets to take his kids from his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and her successful plastic surgeon husband, Gordon (Tom McCarthy). Going to Yellowstone National Park, they find their favorite lake both restricted and oddly empty of water. Curtis meets radio talk show host Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), who tells him and his radio audience that the world that the government knows the Earth is going to collapse.

Soon, the world goes through cataclysm: Yellowstone explodes in volcanic fury, Los Angeles collapses in a massive earthquake. The Curtis family and Gordon escape to Las Vegas, where Jackson's employer has a plane that will allow them to go to the secret project: a collection of arks deep in the Himalayas. From here, it's a race to see who will survive the Mother of All Apocalypses.


Normally, one can and should forgive or at least not be too picky about something as schlocky as 2012. However, even for something so daft the film almost goes out of its way to be idiotic. Convenient characters and situations pop up so often you'd think screenwriters Harald Kloser and director Roland Emmerich decided to almost make a spoof. The main scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) recognizes Jackson and is a fan of his work. Jackson's employer is also in Las Vegas when they arrive and can provides them all a way out. The Russian's mistress has had plastic surgery performed by Gordon. A Buddhist monk and a worker on the arks encounter the Curtis/Russian party in the Himalayas. 

What are the odds that so much would happen at the most opportune time? How very convenient.

While it might be too much to ask for logic in a disaster film, at certain points you say, 'this is really dumb'. If it's 2012, I figure President Thomas Wilson has won re-election, since that is a Presidential election year. If he hadn't, I figure there would have been consultations with the next Administration. Yes, I might be overthinking this, but it's not something that makes sense. 

We also have to wonder, just how many times can a group escape massive disasters virtually unscathed? The Curtis group escapes not once, not twice, but at least three to four times: Los Angeles, Yellowstone, Las Vegas, the Himalayas, and all before getting to the arks. The more they managed to escape intense earthquakes and volcanic explosions, the more you wonder, "How does one outrun a gigantic cloud of smoke and ash in a small plane?" "How do you survive a crash in the Himalayas without more than a thin coat?" "How can you outrun an earthquake in a limo when said earthquake appears to be going at more than sixty to seventy miles per second?".

What would be nice would be that the characters not be "characters". Harrelson's radio talk show host is a cliché (crazy, conspiratorial minded). Wouldn't it be a change of pace to see instead a rational person who has solid proof to these plans? Still, we don't need to worry about logic; we go to 2012 to see things explode and the world collapse.

However, it's insane to think that the world would have such radical shifts in hours. Forget all that you learned about plate tectonics; the continents shift so quickly there isn't time to breathe. Still, when you look at other films such as Poseidon, Deep Impact, Armageddon, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, or Twister, (of which most weren't that good either), one couldn't help think of them and think it's just another bad disaster film.

Having said all that, I couldn't help admire the performances. No, they weren't good, but good actors like Cusack and Oliver Platt (the Chief of Staff who somehow becomes Head of State) are so COMMITTED to make this a good film that they in whole have you marveling at what they're up to. They seem so DETERMINED to the project, to make you believe that 2012 is worth your time, that part of you wants to cheer them on as they plunge further and further into this trash.

I digress to point another odd point of logic: the President elects to stay behind in the White House instead of being flown to safety. The Vice President is dead and the Speaker of the House is missing. With that, Platt's Carl Anhauser elects himself the new leader of the free world. Isn't the next in line the Secretary of State? Well, again, throw out logic: we want to see things destroyed.

2012 tries to add human elements to the story, like that of the scientist and his father, who is part of a musical duo on a cruise ship (memories of Poseidon quickly come to mind), and that of the President and First Daughter (Independence Day) and most bizarrely, the murder of the head of the Louvre who is going to reveal why great art is being replaced (The Da Vinci Code). None of that ever makes the film rise above a silly, hurried, and curiously unexciting project.

The visual effects weren't that overwhelming, the doomsday scenario slightly laughable, and worse, the reunion of the Curtis family at the end was forced and slightly ugly. What I want to know is, if Africa survived the cataclysm, why didn't the scientists know this and just send people there?

As it stands, 2012 is indistinguishable from other disaster films, some better, a few worse. In a bizarre way, the actors overselling everything makes a gonzo watch, like an unhinged experiment to see who can try and save this disaster. One thing is certain: calling 2012 a disaster movie shows there is truth in advertising.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Aguirre: The Wrath of God. A Review


AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD

Andean Insanity...

Aguirre: The Wrath of God is how Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness would have been like if it had taken place in South America, for has at its core an insane quest led by an insane man. The first collaboration between director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski, the film is a quiet journey into madness, chaos, destruction, and death.

Aguirre purports to tell the story of a doomed expedition into the Amazon. Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro sends a small group, led by Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), to search for El Dorado, a fabled city of untold riches. Over Pizarro's objection, two women join the expedition: Don Pedro's mistress, Doña Inez (Helena Rojo), and Flores (Cecilia Rivera), daughter of Ursua's second-in-command, Don Lope de Aguirre (Kinski).

It isn't long before Aguirre leads a coup against Ursua and places Don Pedro de Guzman (Peter Berling) the titled nobleman of the expedition as his puppet, naming him "Emperor of El Dorado". As they go further down the river, the members of the expedition grow more and more tired, hungry, and delusional. Yet they press on, driven by fear of Aguirre and their own gold-lust. Ultimately, the members slowly go mad and/or end up dead, with the now-totally insane Aguirre declaring himself ruler over all he surveys, with only monkeys to rule over.

The simultaneously massive and minimal nature of Aguirre, The Wrath of God is seen right at the opening. Accompanied by the brilliant music of musical group Popol Vuh. After a brief prologue, you slowly focus in on this group going down a mountain, these Spanish conquistadors and their Incan slaves, going further down the valley. 

There is no dialogue in the opening save for the voiceover from monk Brother Gaspar (Del Negro), but Herzog's visuals capture more than what is spoken. We see the smallness of man against unconquered and perhaps unconquerable nature, the prospect of vast rewards blinding the expedition to their metaphorical and literal descent into a beautiful hell. 

Aguirre, The Wrath of God showcases how a deranged drive will cause men to abandon reason. A brilliant example of this is after Don Fernando is proclaimed Emperor. Though he has no power whatsoever the expedition treats him as if he were an actual monarch. He is fed elegant food on the makeshift raft while the rest of the crew starves. Rational men would have forced a return to the main Spanish group, but greed and the fierce nature of Aguirre push them forward. This is as frightening a portrait of how men can delude themselves through a mixture of fear and in this case greed.

At the heart of Aguirre is Klaus Kinski's intense performance as the film's title character. His Aguirre is a methodical, plotting man, one who by his force of will forces everyone into line. He has a peculiar style of standing and walking which to me was reminiscent of Shakespeare's Richard III. Kinski never goes into histrionics, doesn't rave or foam at the mouth. 


In the beginning, he seems almost rational, if somewhat heartless. It's only as he forces everyone to go further downstream that he loses all grips with reality despite his belief he is the only one seeing reality. It might have been possible to have Aguirre rave like a madman, but the fact that when he's spouting dangerous nonsense he's speaking in a normal tone of voice that makes him even more terrifying.

It's doubtful director Werner Herzog would have allowed Kinski to go into hysterics. The sparse style of Aguirre gives it almost a documentary feel, as if you are really there with the expedition, bringing you into the story and almost making you a part of it as opposed to being a mere observer. In some ways, Aguirre is a calm yet intense film, one that quietly lures you in the same way Aguirre lured the men into abandoning all reason.  

Popol Vuh's score evokes otherworldly sounds that mix excellently with the Andean region and its native people. While there isn't much music in Aguirre, the music that there is provides the haunting atmosphere of men sinking into a madness of their own creation.

When I finished watching Aguirre: The Wrath of God a second time, I was reminded of Pete Seeger's Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, both telling the tale where despite all reason and chance to escape the journey goes further down into death. A haunting, dark film, anchored by a fiery performance by Klaus Kinski and the cool but sharp direction of Werner Herzog, Aguirre: The Wrath of God will continue to show us the darkness within all men.




Friday, January 8, 2010

Orson Welles' Don Quixote: A Review



DON QUIXOTE
(AKA ORSON WELLES' DON QUIXOTE)

Don Quixote was the dream project for Orson Welles, and one could see similarities between the mad would-be knight and the journeyman filmmaker. Working on his own film version on and off for fourteen years, Welles scraped what funds he could whenever he could to continue his own version of battling with windmills. He would never finish Don Quixote, nor would it be finished in the lifetime of Francisco Regueira, who played the title character. 

With the aid of assistant director Jesse Franco and Welles' longtime companion Oja Kodar, Don Quixote now has something of a shape, but it's a disformed one. The footage itself shows Welles was still an extraordinary craftsman. The film shows he was unlucky and undisciplined in planning, with the end result a dull, convoluted effort. One can cut Welles some slack given the chaotic production, but it doesn't make Don Quixote any more bearable to view.

Don Quixote makes little to no sense plot-wise. Parts of the film appear to be a straightforward narrative of the Cervantes novel. A man becomes so enthralled with tales of knights and their ladies fair that he goes mad. Believing himself to be a great knight errant, the newly-christened Don Quixote De La Mancha (Reguira) goes to pursue his dreams of glory, aided by his "squire", a fat man named Sancho Panza (Akim Tamiroff). Quixote fights windmills thinking they are giants, slaughters herds of sheep thinking they are great armies, and attacks religious processions believing the penitents are being enslaved by cruel masters.

Somewhere along the line though the film shifts hodgepodge like from Don Quixote and Sancho Panza  not in 16th Century Spain but 20th Century Spain. There, primarily Sancho Panza is shocked by what he sees: television, a parade, a running of the bulls, and a film crew, one where Orson Welles is both director and star of a film project about Don Quixote.

As Welles died long before the various pieces could come together, what we have is a confusing production where everything seems jumbled with the hope of putting something together. The sloppiness of Don Quixote I believe is a result of the fact that Welles had no script to begin with. Welles also was hampered by by shoddy financing. One gets the impression he was forced to create two films and then try to mash them into one. The end results are a bit bonkers but endlessly fascinating. 

Viewers frankly don't know what's going on. If Don Quixote and Sancho Panza both came from the past, how did they get to the present? If they are from the present, how do they not understand present-day inventions? The audience is lead both ways, one moment with Quixote and Panza clearly not understanding the world they are in during some scenes, other times with Panza recognizing people in the present world as his relatives. 

It's obvious that the footage is a mix from various sources. The quality of the prints shifts, sometimes in the same scene. Scenes involving Welles look like a cross between outtakes and vacation movie footage. The worst moment of the production chaos comes when Quixote charges a religious parade. It's obvious that Quixote is charging them in daylight but it's equally obvious that the parade is taking place in nighttime. 

In a similar vein, it soon becomes clear that there is voice dubbing all throughout Don Quixote. The words heard on the screen don't seem to come from the lips of the actors on the screen. You have much narration in an attempt to disguise the fact the film was made with no real soundtrack. 

All that isn't to take away from what good things there are in the film. Francisco Regueira is a perfect Don Quixote: his gaunt face and lean frame seemingly tailor-made for the description of the character. Some of the footage shot is absolutely marvelous to behold, the fight with the windmill especially so. Daniel J. White's score is also excellent and helps make many of the silent scenes visually splendid.

Don Quixote and Don Quixote both capture the career and vision of Orson Welles himself. They are both dreamers, seers of visions but trapped by fortune and reality, forever charging at windmills and getting knocked off their horse. 

It is a terrible loss for cinema that neither of Welles' ideas for Don Quixote either as a straight retelling or shifting the characters to the modern world, ever came to be finished. A documentary about the failed, perhaps doomed Don Quixote project would have been good, with some effort at restoration.  Ultimately, I think the final product, though given the best effort possible, will leave few satisfied. 

If you are the type to love watching incomplete projects and don't mind taking an hour or two to see some brilliant footage, Don Quixote is worth your time. However, if you want to see an actual movie, you might be better to read the book.



Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Song of Bernadette: A Review


THE SONG OF BERNADETTE

The faithful now flock to Lourdes, France in the hopes of finding cures for various physical ailments, but how did it all begin? The Song of Bernadette tells the story of the young girl whose Marion visions created controversy and religious fervor in equal measure. A moving, respectful portrait of a young girl's faith, The Song of Bernadette inspires even the strongest nonbeliever. 

Young French peasant girl Bernadette Soubinous (Jennifer Jones) sees "A Lady" in a grotto one day while waiting for her sister and a friend. The Lady, visible only to Bernadette, appears to also bring good fortune to the Soubinous family. Soon, other villagers go to the grotto, inspired by Bernadette's visions.

As her visions continue and crowds continue to grow, both government officials and the Church become worried that her visions will make her village the laughingstock of France or worse. Intense pressure is place on her to recant her story, especially by the Imperial Prosecutor (Vincent Price), but she cannot deny what she sees. Eventually, The Lady reveals her name to Bernadette. She says she doesn't understand what The Lady called herself, but repeats it: The Lady says she's The Immaculate Conception.

Ultimately, despite many hardships and physical ailments, Bernadette keeps to her faith, altering the lives and faiths of millions forever. By the end of The Song of Bernadette, Miss Soubinous has joined a convent but slowly succumbs to tuberculosis of the leg, beginning her own journey to meet her God

The Song of Bernadette is extraordinarily beautiful and respectful of the story of the town of Lourdes and the visions of this young girl. It is remarkably balanced, never once taking sides on the reality or falseness of Bernadette's visions. The doubters, primarily the government and Church, are not held out to be villains but are given reason and logic to repute the stories. In fact, one of the best points about the movie is that even though people like the Imperial Prosecutor are doubters, they are not presented as evil but as grounded in reality and thus incapable of taking anything on faith.

Near the middle of the film, Bernadette starts eating plants straight from the ground, then starts digging a hole and taking in the dirt as if it were water. The townspeople who've been following her think she has gone mad to the delight of the town officials. She is shuffled out of the area, and it becomes an emotional rollercoaster as by now you firmly believe that Bernadette believes. 

If you have a cursory knowledge about Lourdes, you know the result. However, the tension that builds as one man refuses to give up hope builds and builds until it comes to a beautiful fruition.

For myself, the most powerful moment comes a little later on. A family we've met earlier with a sickly child is told he is within hours of death. The mother will not believe this, and carries her son out of the house and runs straight to the grotto which now has water that has sprung out of nowhere. She places her child in the water as a devoted act of faith. I confess I was surprised at my reaction to this scene: I got a lump in my throat and some tears began to form.

The Song of Bernadette allows for gentle moments of comedy, such as when local officials refuse to reopen the grotto until a well-born lady, arrested along with the peasants, pays the one-franc fine and coolly informs them she's the governess of the Imperial Family. She has come by command of the Empress herself, embarrassing the village officials.   



The Song of Bernadette is filled with beautiful, haunting moments, elevated by fine acting, a credit to director Henry King. Vincent Price, primarily known for his villains, shows a greater depth as The Imperial Prosecutor. His final scene is deeply moving. Returning from an informal five-year exile, he wanders through the silent throng of believers, and in voiceover Price delivers a gentle but passionate soliloquy about how even as he knows he is dying, he cannot bring himself to believe, only to fall to his knees, asking softly out loud to Bernadette, the girl he persecuted, to pray for him. It is difficult to impossible not to become emotional at this scene, a hard man breaking to fear and hope.

Jones' performance is sublime. Her Bernadette is beautiful, one who is honest, simple, and pure. She is guileless, incapable of lying or denying what she sees and hears. Her story never changes, no matter how many times she's asked about it or how much pressure is placed on her from her family, friends, Church or State to do so. Bernadette never claims to have seen The Virgin Mary, only a beautiful Lady.

Jones invokes the grace and quiet strength of Bernadette, and that is what makes her performance all the more extraordinary and brilliant. Jones portrays Bernadette not as holy or aware of her importance to others, but instead as graceful, and that is what makes us love Bernadette: not her visions, but her true heart and noble character.

The Song of Bernadette is also highlighted by Alfred Newman's Oscar-winning score, a rich and haunting one that lends to the spirituality and reverence of the subject matter.

We can trifle over little flaws in historic accuracy or its two-and-a-half hour length, but on the whole The Song of Bernadette is a quiet, beautiful film about a gentle girl and the power of faith. 

As I saw the film, I was reminded of the words of Christ, who said to the woman who touched his garment, "Your faith has made you well" (Mark 5:34). I also thought of 1 Corinthians 1:27 where Paul states, "But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong". Bernadette had little education, let alone comprehension of such concepts of the Holy Trinity or the Immaculate Conception, but her quiet strength and dignity metaphorically overthrew the powerful forces against her. 

The Song of Bernadette begins with a familiar quote: "For those who believe, no proof is necessary; for those who do not believe, no proof is possible". It may be that you may come to The Song of Bernadette as a believer or a non-believer, but with excellent performances and an involving story, those with or without faith will find The Song of Bernadette an excellent experience.

1844-1879


DECISION: B+