Brad Anderson, 2008 (8.3*)
This is a nice surprise, a thriller in the Hitchcockian tradition, as two innocent and naive Americans encounter a mysterious young couple traveling from China to Russia on the Transsiberian railway. Emily Mortimer shines as the wife, husband Woody Harrelson is a bit puzzling and out of normal character as a young, optimistic Christian volunteer worker. The couple they encounter gives the audience a creepy feeling from the beginning. Eduardo Noriega is a bit too friendly as Carlos, a seemingly free spirited Spaniard, while Kate Mara is a nervous, shifty-eyed American girl along for the adventure, but who seems a little suspicious.
Ben Kingsley is perfect as usual, this time he's a Russian detective investigating a drug theft and murder, which is the film's opening. Kingsley ends up on the train along with the other travelers, scary enough to give a chill to viewers as well.
This plot has some small twists and turns, keeping it from becoming too clichéd; some events are surprising enough as to be emotionally disturbing, both to the characters and the viewers. Though a small indie film that was generally overlooked, it did received 11 international award nominations and two awards, most nods going to the cinematography, editing, and Emily Mortimer and Woody Harralson's performances.
All in all, a pleasing and surprising thriller that reminds us of the good old days, when Hitchcock would plunge innocent travelers into situations beyond their experience and control (often using trains), and also involve the viewer in the nightmare along with the characters, .
Friday, July 30, 2010
Brad Anderson, 2008 (8.3*)
John M. Stahl, 1945 (8.6*)
Exotic locations, the impeccable beauty of Gene Tierney, and the Oscar®-winning cinematography of Leon Shamroy (one of his four Oscars®) make this one of the most beautiful films to view in color. The film begins on a train in New Mexico, where an author, played by Cornel Wilde in an understated performance, meets a gorgeous young woman, Tierney, who's reading his latest novel.
The two fall in love amid the beautiful scenery of Rancho Jacinto in the mountains near Taos, New Mexico, with Tierney dropping her present fiance, a rising young lawyer well-played by Vincent Price, and proposing to Wilde after just a couple of days of dazzling him with her beauty. In one unforgettable scene, he witnesses her scattering her fathers ashes on horseback high up on a mountain plateau at dawn with her mother and cousin.
The marriage shifts to Warm Springs, Ga (where I work, about a mile from the location in the film!) to Wildes' polio stricken young brother David, played by Darryl Hickman of Dobie Gillis on tv fame. They then all move to Deer Lake, Maine, to Wilde's hidden fishing lodge, so the newlyweds really get little intimacy. Tierney's character grows increasingly possessive of her husband, even becoming jealous of her cousin, and half-sister, on her infrequent visits, played by Jeanne Crain, who holds her own vs. Tierney's onscreen beauty - the two actually resemble relatives.
This is really basic film noir, even if wrapped in a colorfully trimmed package. We watch major characters deteriorate as they turn lemonade into lemons, and are eventually shocked by unexpected events of mental cruelty. This was one of Shamroy's four Oscars®, and the impeccable art direction also received an Oscar® nomination, as did Tierney, who received the only Oscar® nomination of her career, losing to Joan Crawford. A must-see for fans of 40's glamour and film noir classics, from a novel by Ben Ames Williams.
Monday, July 26, 2010
George Miller, 2006 (7.6*)
From the same George Miller that directed The Road Warrior and produced Babe, this animated feature won an Oscar®, a BAFTA, and a Golden Globe. A penguin couple, played by Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, have a newborn called Mumble. While these Emperor penguins all have a song in their heart and attract mates with it, Mumble can't carry a tune but instead has Fred Astaire toe-tapping feet, which baffles the others and makes him an outcast.
The elders, led by Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, V for Vendetta), represent those who worship the "Great Wind" and leave it all up to the whims of nature, the invisible 'deity'. Mumble thinks the humanoids (called "aliens") have messed up their fisheries due to stories about them, so he sets off to find them and let them know they need to stop.
The first part of the film is almost non-stop pop and R-and-B songs, which get old fast. What saves the film is some amazing animation: the ocean, penguins underwater, long shots of thousands of them on glaciers. The story is really pro-environmental propaganda, which is ok but will likely be lost on kids, who are obviously the primary target audience for a film that is 75% pop music.
Robin Williams provides some comedy at least, as Ramon, leader of a gang of Hispanic sounding Adelie penguins, and as Lovelace (named for Linda, star of Deep Throat? now that's just bizarre..), a self-promoting guru who charges pebbles for advice and answers to questions, as these penguins use pebbles to build nests to attract females. Brittany Murphy is Gloria, who is Mumbles love interest. This would be a lot better with more dancing and less singing, but should still be quite engrossing to kids, who seem amazed that animated characters can sing and dance like people.
Happy Feet actually won 14 awards (awards page at IMDB), most for animated feature, and a sequel is due out this year.
Saturday, July 24, 2010
Laurent Tirard, 2007, France (8.5*)
This is not the story of the French playright Molière, but rather a fiction to explain his possible disappearance for two years just after being released from debtor's prison. The story surmises that Molière, played by Romain Duris, had his debt paid by a wealthy merchant, Monsieur Jordain (Fabrice Luchini), in exchange for the playright becoming his private acting tutor in order that he may woo a young widow and courtesan, Célimène (played by vivacious Ludivine Sagnier), by performing a one-act play of his own.
As Jourdain is married, with a marriable daughter he's trying to find a title for, Molière's true identity must be kept a secret, so he is brought to Jourdain's estate as an austere young priest named Tartuffe. He is immediately attracted to Jourdain's neglected wife Elmire, wonderfully played with passion by the beautiful Italian actress Laura Morante.
The entire story is told as a flashback by Molière upon his arrival in Paris some 13 years later, after touring the provinces performing comedies, finally being given a playhouse in the city by the king himself. It's mostly a comedy, yet is also a touching romance with the perfect look of a period costume drama, this one taking place in the mid 1600's. The French aristocracy is shown to be largely materialistic idlers, con artists who'd rather marry or borrow money rather than do anything productive; this is pre-revolution of course, and even though it's been done before, this is one of the better productions and stories in this genre.
Monday, July 19, 2010
Greengrass (photo rt) was ranked #56 on the list of "most influential 100 in British culture" in 2008
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Jason Matzner, 2006 (8.4*)
This is a beautifully shot, almost expressionist indie romance, set in a sun-beaten trailer park named "Dreamland" in the desert of New Mexico. Into the lives of two best female friends comes a new boy, a basketball player from Las Vegas (Jason Long in his best "David Schwimmer's little brother" look) there to rehab a knee. Agnes Brucker, a young beauty who steals this movie with some breathtaking closeups (the camera loves her, photo rt), hooks him up with her best friend, played by gorgeous Kelli Garner, a blonde with some Marilyn attributes, who dreams of being in the Miss America pageant.
Bruckner's dad, John Corbett in his best film performance, has been driven to the life of a trailer alcoholic by the death of his young wife; he hasn't left the park in two years. The cast is perfect overall, and the cinematography at times reminded me of early Antonioni.
The original music is dreamily ambient, similar to music of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. Photek wrote the score, and added a plethora of "soundtrack ready" songs, but what would be an excellent cd is not available online, apparently. I only saw it in LP format.
This is a realistic look at young romance, in a setting where there's really nothing else. Somehow it avoids feeling cliched, and Matzner manages to hold our interest while nothing unusual really happens. For this type of unpretentious film, you won't find many done this well - a must-see for fans of small indie romances.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Howard Hawks, 1940, bw (9.0*)
This remake of the Ben Hecht play The Front Page, also made as a film by Lewis Milestone in 1931, has absolutely classic comedic banter between Cary Grant and ex-wife Rosalind Russell as news reporters on a big homicide case. Apparently fearing she wasn't getting many good lines, Russell hired an outside writer to give her some lines to 'improvise' during the shooting. The result is a rapid fire, news teletype style of back and forth wisecracking that's practially the archetype for this style of comedy, often copied on tv sitcoms but never with this much energy.
The story of a convicted murderer about to be executed and escaping takes a back seat to the subliminal romantic repartee of the two stars - Cary Grant was never better, never this sharp again. It's like the Thin Man series on steroids, or a case of Red Bull to start the newsday. This is my favorite Howard Hawks film, maybe his most classic of all. It certainly had an influence on many other comedies to follow. It may be too energetic and 'relentless' to some, but to me Hawks managed this frantic pace well and showed everyone how it could be done.
Sam Wood, 1941, bw (7.9*)
Beautifully photographed melodrama of the facade behind the small American community of King's Row is easily Ronald Reagan's best role and film. However, he's about 5th best in a stellar cast, deftly handled by director Sam Wood to keep this from being overly sentimental, kind of a Booth Tarkington meets Peyton Place.
The story follows two childhood best friends, Robert Cummings (excellent here) as an upper crust kid from the scenic hills who later becomes a psychiatrist in Vienna before returning, and Reagan as a free-wheeling orphan living on a trust fund who'd rather spend time with ladies than do any real work. Beneath the town's sleepy facade lies insanity, tragedy, class prejudice, and in a brilliant bit of out-of-character acting, veteran Charles Coburn as an overbearing town doctor with a hidden sadistic streak. The terrific cast also features Betty Field, Judith Anderson, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Claude Rains - so you can see how the sometimes hammy Reagan would be about 5th best at his finest (he still reminds me of a salesman, like most politicians), and actually in his words, his 'star making' performance.
Perhaps a little predictable, but still worth seeing as a classic Hollywood era drama. Oscar® nominations for picture, director Sam Wood, and b&w cinematography.
Monday, July 12, 2010
Saturday, July 3, 2010
Michael Haneke, Germany, 2009 (8.4*)
aka Da Weisse Band
Palm D'Or, Cannes
In a small German village in 1910, a series of bizare sadistic acts begins with a doctor on his horse being thrown by a nearly invisible wire strung across his daily path, resulting in his hospitalization and the horse's destruction. While is recuperates in a nearby town, more incidents occur.
The local preacher, eerily portrayed by Burghart Klaussner, is shown to cane his six children when they are late for dinner, while other parents react similarly when their children disobey, one even attacking his son with a military sword. Meanwhile, the local teacher, played by Christian Friedel, begins to investigate the incidents on his own, suspecting that some of his students may be to blame as many children in the village seem to have the mean streak of bullies, and they congregate in gang-like groups, often acting suspicious.
Micheal Haneke has given us a mystery in classic bw that seems to imply a growing inclination towards fascism in the grassroots areas of Germany which may have resulted in full-blown Naziism as these kids grew up - they would all be young adults in the 20's and 30's. This film won't suit all tastes, but is rewarding for those willing to be patient and examine complex human motivations through cinematic art.
This understated film has won 17 international awards so far, including the Palm D'or at Cannes, a Golden Globe for foreign film, and garnered an Oscar® nomination for foreign film, and is nominated for 13 German film awards, yet to be presented.
The awards page at IMDB
Friday, July 2, 2010
Deepa Mehta, Canada-India, 1996 (8.5*)
(In English, with no subtitles)
This film caused quite a controvery in India, and even some rioting among Hindu fundamentalists on its release, who attacked and vandalized theaters that showed it and ripped down the films posters.
The story is about a family of restauranteurs headed by two brothers, the younger of which takes on a new Hindu wife, played by stunning beauty Nandita Das (Earth) after pressure from his family. He is really in love with a beautiful but independent Chinese immigrant, who rejects his proposal. His new bride Sita is thus shunned by him within the home with no affection and gains some consolation and platonic companionship from her sister-in-law, played by the veteran actress Shabana Azmi, who won one acting award for her performance.
The entire family watches over the grandmother Biji, paralyzed and mute after a stroke, but who bears silent witness to the trangressions of all around her, furiously ringing her bell or banging it on the floor to show her displeasure. Biji is wonderfully played by hotel chain owner Kuzal Rehki, in her first film performance.
The two women eventually become lovers in some very tender, natural, and non-gratuitous scenes. In fact, the Indian censorship board passed this film and allowed female kissing, bare breasts, and even male masturbation, all of which upset Hindu traditionalists. The masturbation was allowed because a character was using typical Bollywood films which treat women as vacuous sex object according to Mehta, so this was allowed as valid criticism of a major genre of popular Indian films.
The entire film shows the double-standard which exists, in which the Hindu wife is supposed to be a cook, a baby factory, and a lover and be totally domesticated, while the husbands are allowed a social life which may even include mistresses, often leaving the wives alone at home feeling lonely and rejected. The violence sparked by the film in India from Hindu traditionists, nearly all male as the women apparently 'were jubilant', caused several citizens groups to force the censorship board to re-consider the film for banning, which has never been done. The board again 'sided with the filmmakers in every scene' and refused to censor any part of the film.
Deepa Mehta (photo rt) emigrated to Canada and started her career in television before making her first feature film Sam and Me. Fire was just her third film, and she since has received death threats and cannot travel in India without armed bodyguards. Yet she still made Earth (1998) and Water (2005, and my favorite of Mehta’s due it’s beauty and grace, and Sarala’s child performance) in India, which though similarly titled are not really connected by stories, characters, or locations. The films do all show the plight of the traditional women’s roles in Indian society however, with each film having at least one character's lived ruined by social or religious injustice. In my opinion, she makes films that are not only beautifully composed, with a still photographers skill in lighting, color, and composition, but also films which expose social injustice in stories of typical everyday lives for millions of people, which feel universal as the same traditional prejudices are present in every society to some degree, especially where there is fervent religious activism. She is one of the few female directors to which the term 'genius' comes to mind.
Shabana Azmi (photo left), who plays the older sister-in-law Rahda, is the most honored actress of India and has won 14 acting awards to date. Her awards page at IMDB