Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: November 2008

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Movie Review: Australia - Spectacle for Those in Love with the Artifice of Cinema

by Tony Dayoub

Australia is a throwback to the WWII-era romantic melodramas from the hyperimaginative, and just plain hyper, Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet). It is clear that for the native Aussie, it is a labor of love. The movie is the most restrained effort in a series of progressively loopier films that culminated in the love-it-or-hate-it musical, Moulin Rouge! (2001). While still employing some of his trademark touches of magical realism, Luhrmann manages to incorporate it into the story organically. And much of the movie's charm lies in its casting of some beloved Aussie actors, both old and new.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Blu-ray Review: The Godfather Part III - Operatic Film Deserving of Reappraisal

It is inarguable that The Godfather III (1990) is inferior to the first two films in the series. What followup wouldn't be? But it is not the complete failure that many of its hyperbolic critics labelled it. In wrapping up my series of posts giving my impressions on each film, let's go over some of its good points and bad. The story arrived at is surprising. Paramount reportedly had been working on a sequel for years without the involvement of director Francis Ford Coppola and only limited involvement from Mario Puzo. Most of the screenplays took a predictable path, killing Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) off early in the script, and passing the baton to a new generation, personified in his son, Anthony. But Paramount approached Coppola at a moment when he was in need of money, convincing him to return with Puzo and cowrite a new installment. For Coppola, Michael has always been the central character, and making no bones about his intentions, the production worked for a long time under the title The Death of Michael Corleone. But Paramount which had once been skittish of calling the second film, Part II (remember, this was before sequels were in vogue), demanded this movie be called Part III. It would be interesting to see if this film would have gotten a different response had the first title been used. This is obviously a transitional film in the story, meant to address a new generation of mobster taking over from the old, that unlike the last two, has little to do with Vito, whose story had been wrapped up at the end of the second film. This would be the end of Michael's story, and perhaps the launch of a new generation represented by an unlikely hero, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), Santino Corleone's illegitimate son. Sticking with the roman-a-clef motif that worked so well for him last time, Coppola fashioned a plot revolving around the scandal-ridden Vatican of the late seventies/early eighties, entangled in financial malfeasance, and contending with the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I who was only in office for a scant 33 days before dying under mysterious circumstances. Since Michael Corleone has already achieved legitimacy for his family, he sees this as an opportunity for personal redemption, seeking to become a major shareholder in International Immobiliare, one of the Vatican's holding companies. The introduction of Vincent and his ambitious rival Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) is a reminder that Michael cannot escape the life he came from. Soon he must confront his enemies again, if only to overcome their influence on him. Vincent seems like a natural candidate to succeed him on the criminal side of things. See how he deals with the Zasa problem in this clip: Though at first seeming to operate only on the limited level of his father Sonny, with his impulsive violent outbursts and womanizing, Vincent soon reveals himself to be more than that. He is the amalgamation of the best qualities of all of Vito's sons, just as Vito was the perfect package. A combination of Sonny's ferocity, Fredo's kindness, and Michael's deviousness, it is clear that Vincent has the strength necessary to take over from his ailing uncle. Andy Garcia was a smart choice, at the time. A rising star, he smartly chose not to emulate James Caan's physical tics, since Sonny died before Vincent had a chance to meet him. Instead his physical performance is more of an impression of Robert De Niro's, using gestures and walking with De Niro's gait. This reinforces his kinship to the original Godfather. Here is a scene that illustrates the best qualities he inherited from Vito and his sons: One of the major disappointments of the film has to be the loss of Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen. Rumor has it that while Diane Keaton was offered equal pay to Al Pacino to reprise her role of Kay, Duvall's offer was pretty insulting. To say his absence is felt is an understatement. The character of Hagen brought an earthy and professional realism to the Corleone saga, particularly in scenes with the older generation capos such as Tessio (Abe Vigoda) and Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) in the respective climaxes for each film, where Duvall brought a wistfulness to his confrontation of each traitor, lamenting the end of their generation's era as underbosses for the Family. Hagen's absence is given little acknowledgement in the dialogue, but it helps spotlight two other cast members. The casting of George Hamilton as the new family consigliere, B.J. Harrison, is an inspired one. His presence brings an odd sort of weight to the throwaway character, as does his memorable look, a slick shock of white hair on his tanned physique, speaking volumes of the character as well as the direction Michael has taken his family toward. And Hamilton manages to execute the few lines he has pretty flawlessly. Talia Shire's performance as Connie really comes into its own in this film. Her character is so willing to accept the Family business, that she could almost be given the honorary title of "Godmother," as a token of respect towards the lethality she brings to the table. Here's an exchange from the film as Michael talks to her and Vincent:
Michael: You had a gun. They only had a knife. You could have talked them into surrendering. Turned them over to the police. Vincent: Hey, Uncle Mike, Zasa sent these guys I was just sending him a message that's all. Michael: Now he has to send you a message back. Vincent: Joey Zasa's gonna send me a message? Joey Zasa's gonna send me a message? Connie: Michael, he did the right thing. He got Zasa's name. Michael: What's Joey Zasa got to do this this? Joey Zasa's a patso. Joey Zasa. Alright, you are what you are. It's in your nature. From now on you stick close to me. You don't go anywhere, you don't do anything, you don't talk to anyone without checking with me first, understand? Vincent: Yeah. Michael: I've got problems with the commission, young man! Vincent: Yeah, I know. Michael: You don't make them any easier. Vincent: I know. Michael: Alright, go on. Get out of here. Connie: Michael. Michael: Yes. Connie: Now they'll fear you. Michael: Maybe they should fear you.
Connie now resembles a black widow, always dressed darkly, while her thin frame belies the power she now wields as one of brother Michael's closest advisors. The evolution of Connie's character from hapless victim to this Lady Macbeth-like figure goes a long way towards rehabilitating the Godfather series' outlook towards its stereotypical female characters. A monumental liability that the film never really is able to overcome is the casting of director Francis Ford Coppola's daughter, Sofia, as Michael's daughter, Mary. Reportedly, at various times, everyone from Julia Roberts to Madonna to Winona Ryder had to drop out of the production after being cast as Mary. Ryder, dropped out so close to the start of shooting that Coppola felt no choice but to cast his own daughter (now a major director in her own right). While that may stretch credibility somewhat, it's easy to see why he might have felt compelled to commit such a rash act. Consciously or not, Coppola has always had a kinship with Michael, both sons of Italian immigrants navigating through their respective corporate surroundings, struggling to achieve power, control, and freedom to pursue the success that escaped their fathers. For Coppola it is artistic success, and for Michael it is legitimacy for his criminal family. Though Michael achieves it before the movie's start, he continues to try to pull the puppet strings as he later accuses an enemy, Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) of doing. In this film, unlike the others, Michael is confronted with his deterioration and mortality, finally feeling remorse for his actions: Here is the crux of the story. Michael, a vampiric shadow of the man he once was, constantly hiding his evil behind his dark tinted glasses, laments that he was never loved as his father or his patron, Don Tomassino, were. And Fate keeps destroying the ones he loves in order to exact a price for Michael's sins. After Tomassino is brutally assassinated, he sits at his coffin, and offers this soliloquy:
Goodbye my old friend. You could have lived a little longer, I could be closer to my dream. You were so loved, Don Tommasino. Why was I so feared, and you so loved? What was it? I was no less honorable. I wanted to do good. What betrayed me? My mind? My heart? Why do I condemn myself so? I swear, on the lives of my children: Give me a chance to redeem myself, and I will sin, no more.
Sadly, Sofia Coppola is not cut out to hold the screen with an acting heavyweight like Pacino. Further damaging is a subplot involving a forbidden romance with her cousin Vincent. One never believes that a street tough like Vincent would find the valley girlish Mary so appealing, and definitely not enough to jeopardize his standing with Michael. But her character is integral to the film's denouement. The finale at Anthony's operatic debut is the setpiece that most evokes the grandness of the previous films. It also seems to blatantly frame the film as a grand opera. The melodrama certainly seems to be echoed in the opera being performed, Cavalleria Rusticana, and Coppola seems to be commenting on how these characters have moved away from the realism he had endowed them with in the seventies. Twenty years after Part II, Coppola is acknowledging not only how the Corleones have become American myths, as film critic Glenn Kenny writes on his blog, but caricatures in much the same way the cumulative experiences of Coppola and Pacino in particular have led them to become caricatures of their former selves. From a kinder perspective, the Corleones are now just as archetypal as the characters one usually finds in opera, with emotional dynamics writ just as large, their villains just as flamboyant, their "heroine", Mary, just as innocent, and their "heroes", Michael and Vincent, just as boorish. The Vatican roman-a-clef is also reminiscent of opera's similar use of real events as a backdrop. This all leads to an ending that is more than fitting for Michael, as his sins are visited on an innocent: The scream Pacino lets out when Mary dies is both cathartic and heartbreaking, the most expressive act of emotion we've ever seen from a previously pragmatic and cold individual. The film ends the trilogy powerfully, illustrating the sad retribution that Fate had in store for Michael, to live to see the death of his innocent daughter as a result of the life he lead. For more on the Godfather films, see: Seventies Cinema Revival: The Godfather Seventies Cinema Revival: The Godfather Part II Stills courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Seventies Cinema Revival: The Godfather Part II

It may be bold to say this, but I believe The Godfather Part II (1974) to be the best American narrative film ever made. Even among its fans, many prefer the first film. But I would hasten to point out that without the second film, The Godfather (1972) is simply a well-cast genre picture. Part II's double-pronged storyline, with Robert De Niro playing Vito Corleone in his early days, and Al Pacino continuing his portrayal of son Michael, enriches and adds complexity to the story begun in the first film. Director Francis Ford Coppola, who cowrote the screenplay, fleshes out the family's travails by bringing his own experience as an Italian American to Mario Puzo's original story. His deft ability to enhance the Corleone saga with actual historical events further frames the saga as the ultimate immigrant's tale, and adds a distinctly jaded viewpoint to what it means to be an American. Thus the film, released in the Watergate era, the height of Americans' disillusionment with their country, is both timeless and of its time. The film begins in the 1900s, with a young and near-mute Vito Andolini, of the town of Corleone, Sicily, taking flight to America after his family has been slaughtered by local Mafia chieftain, Don Ciccio. In Ellis Island, the boy is mistakenly renamed Vito Corleone, becoming first in the family line in a symbolic sense. The story then jumps to the late fifties, where his son, Michael, happily married to Kay (Diane Keaton), has moved the family to Lake Tahoe, a place he hopes will serve as the jumping point for his goal of achieving legitimacy for his family. Coppola consciously parallels events in the first film to highlight the differences between the father and son. For instance, while we meet Vito, in the first film, urgently conducting Family business in order to enjoy his daughter's wedding, in the second film, Michael is eagerly exploiting his son's communion celebration to establish political ties with the powerful Senator Geary (G.D. Spradlin). Though Vito is quick to consider the price he pays after his eldest son is murdered, calling for a truce, Michael seeks to incite infighting within his ranks, and mentor Hyman Roth's (Lee Strasberg), in order to pick through the remains and consolidate his power in the aftermath. Coppola also highlights the difference between Vito and Michael as he segues between the respective storyline for each. Vito is warm, and generally holds court with his caporegimes, Clemenza (Bruno Kirby) and Tessio (John Aprea), at his kitchen table with his wife nearby. The increasingly distant and paranoid Michael conspires, sitting as if on a throne in a darkened den at the family compound, with only his closest bodyguards, Al Neri (Richard Bright) and Rocco (Tom Rosqui), present. Kay is never privy to his dealings, and often times even the consigliere, adopted brother Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is left out of the loop. Vito's primary concern is always the protection of his family and his neighbors, as when he eliminates the neighborhood extortionist, Don Fanucci (Gaston Moschin), in this exciting setpiece that precedes the film's intermission: Michael's desire to protect his family is supplanted by his capitalistic desire to acquire power and control, vanquishing all of his enemies in the process, even if it may include his own misguided brother, Fredo (John Cazale). Coldly setting a calculated series of traps to ferret out the person in his Family who is supplying Roth with inside information, it is only on the eve of Castro's revolutionary victory in Cuba, New Year's Eve 1958, that Michael discovers who it is: After the intermission, Michael becomes embroiled in scandal, as a Senate committee starts to investigate his dealings with organized crime. He is ultimately exonerated, but his alienation from his family accelerates with the one-two-punch of Kay's request for a divorce followed by her revelation that she had an abortion. After the additional blow of his mother's death, which serves to bring his sister Connie (Talia Shire) back into the fold, the stage is set for Michael to retaliate against Fredo. Contrast that personal vendetta that propels Michael into ruthless solitude, with the one that Vito must exact to become the Corleone patriarch. Where Michael's fratricide dehumanizes him, leaving him a deteriorating husk of a man by the end of Part II, Vito's revenge on Don Ciccio is depicted as a necessary archetypal rite of passage. Vito must assassinate the man who murdered his father to truly become a man. By killing the patriarch that rules over the town of Corleone, Vito solidifies his ascension as patriarch of the Corleone family. It is said that Puzo, author of the novel on which the two films are based, said that if he knew both films would be so popular, he would have written a better novel. A lot of credit for the story's enhancement belongs to Coppola. A second generation Italian American, Coppola directed the first film as a gun-for-hire, but was sure to bring enough personal touches to give the film credibility. A pretty faithful adaptation, his influence was strongest in its strong casting of what were, until then, predominantly character actors. Choosing a decidedly ethnic looking Pacino to play the All-American boy was his coup-de-grâce. The Godfather Part II validates Coppola's instinctive auteurial talents. He was able to again cast an ethnic looking up-and-comer in a pivotal role by choosing the gifted De Niro for Vito. He was able to exercise greater artistic freedom by using a nontraditional story structure, and a roman-à-clef bent on historical events, to give texture to the story, deepening what was a commercially successful gangster story into a mythic family crime saga about power in America. For Vito, the story ends here, when we realize that the greatest price he paid is one which he won't live to see: the ironic alienation of his youngest son Michael from his precious family, the loss of his very soul, as the sins of the father visit the son. At the conclusion of The Godfather Part II, as he exacts revenge on all of his enemies, the diseased Michael looks significantly older than his years. Michael then recalls a simpler time that devastatingly foreshadows his fate in regards to his family, with his father's presence hanging over the scene like a ghost's: For more on the Godfather films, see: Seventies Cinema Revival: The Godfather DVD Review: The Godfather Part III - Operatic Film Deserving of Reappraisal Stills courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Seventies Cinema Revival: The Godfather

Last month, I had the opportunity to catch screenings of the newly restored prints of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) at the Film Forum in New York. These versions have been released on DVD and Blu-ray along with the unfairly maligned Godfather Part III (1990) in a boxed set, "The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration." If there has ever been a reason to justify upgrading to a Blu-ray player, it is the release of this classic saga in that format. I don't think the films have ever looked this good on home video. I certainly can't compare it to the original theatrical release because I was a newborn at the time of the first movie's debut. But seeing the first two parts both theatrically and at home, I can assure you, has been revelatory. While these films have been covered extensively in film journals and elsewhere in the past, I plan on sharing some of my impressions of each movie in the next three posts, and invite you to share yours. One of the most fascinating and unusual effects of art is how its meaning can differ based on the relative life experience one brings to it (there's a name for this effect and I can't quite find it, so any readers who know this please let me know). In film, it can be observed in oneself in relation to the passage of time. A film like The Godfather is one which can mean something when you are younger, then mean something very different when you are older. As a relatively new father, one of the specific chords the film strikes in me is found in the complicated relationship between the old family patriarch, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), and his unexpected successor, youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino). Don Vito is the chieftain of the Corleone Mafia Family, a role we'll later learn (in Part II) he fell into as a matter of survival in the days when new Italian immigrants had few viable options in their quest to succeed in America. He always expected his oldest son, Santino (James Caan), to be his successor, but midway through The Godfather, Sonny is mowed down by the Family's criminal rivals. Middle son Fredo (John Cazale) is too dim-witted to be considered as an alternate. And tradition precludes "adopted" brother, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the shrewd Family consigliere or lawyer, from taking the post. So when the fading Don starts firming up his legacy, the burden falls on the only son he never hoped would be involved in the nefarious enterprise, war hero Michael. By all outward appearances, Michael is the All-American son in the immigrant family, an outsider. When we first meet him, it is 1945 and he has just returned from the War. He is attending the wedding of his sister, Connie (Talia Shire), with WASPy girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton), clad in red as if further underlining her inherent incongruity. It is telling that they are not part of the wedding party, and sit apart from the rest of the Corleone family. But Michael only seems to live outside his family's violent sphere of influence. It soon becomes clear that he is not oblivious to the family's notoriety. Describing an associate of his father's, Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), to Kay while hearing a singer at the wedding:

Kay Adams: Michael, you never told me you knew Johnny Fontane! Michael: Sure, you want to meet him? Kay Adams: Well, yeah! Sure. Michael: My father helped him with his career. Kay Adams: How did he do that? Michael: Let's listen to the song. Kay Adams: [after listening to Johnny for a while] Tell me, Michael. Please. Michael: Well when Johnny was first starting out, he was signed to a personal services contract with this big-band leader. And as his career got better and better he wanted to get out of it. But the band leader wouldn't let him. Now, Johnny is my father's godson. So my father went to see this bandleader and offered him $10,000 to let Johnny go, but the bandleader said no. So the next day, my father went back, only this time with Luca Brasi. Within an hour, he had a signed release for a certified check of $1000. Kay Adams: How did he do that? Michael: My father made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Kay Adams: What was that? Michael: Luca Brasi held a gun to the bandleader's head, and my father assured him that either his signature or his brains would be on the release. Kay Adams: ... Michael: That's a true story. [cut to Johnny singing again for about 10 more seconds before going back to Michael] Michael: That's my family Kay, that's not me.

Michael's war medals also emphasize that given the right circumstances he is prepared to kill. After his father is gunned down, and with Sonny's hotheaded and ill-advised retaliations threatening the family's survival, Michael is forced to confront that he may be the last best hope for the family, and tangentially, the Family. Michael's life takes a turn when he commits to the execution of Sollozo (Al Lettieri), the man responsible for his father's attempted murder. This event leads to Michael's exile to Sicily, where fate intervenes in so many ways that he never expected. He falls in love with, and marries a local, Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli), who eventually falls victim to the Mafia war his execution of Solozzo precipitated. His brother Sonny is also executed in the States while Michael is away. The man that returns from exile is devoid of any warmth, a coldly calculating pragmatist, eager to eliminate any and all who stand in his family's way. This conversation with his father illustrates the divergent paths each patriarch has taken. Vito's motivation has been protecting his family. The death of his eldest, Sonny, coupled with Michael's increasing involvement with the Family business, drive Vito to the realization that attaining power does not afford control over his family's safety. In fact, it lays the seed for the ultimate destruction of the Corleones.
Don Corleone: So, Barzini will move against you first. He'll set up a meeting with someone that you absolutely trust guaranteeing your safety and at that meeting you'll be assassinated. I like to drink wine more than I used to. Anyway, I'm drinking more. Michael: It's good for you, Pop. Don Corleone: Ah, I don't know. Your wife and your children, are you happy with them? Michael: Very happy. Don Corleone: That's good. I hope you don't mind the way I keep going over this Barzini business. Michael: No, not at all. Don Corleone: It's an old habit. I spent my life trying not to be careless. Women and children can be careless but not men. How's your boy? Michael: He's good. Don Corleone: You know, he looks more like you everyday. Michael: He's smarter than I am. Three years old and he can already read the funny papers. Don Corleone: [laughs] Read the funny papers... Oh, I want you to arrange to have a telephone man check all the calls going in and out of here because it could be anyone... Michael: I did that already, Pop. I took care of that. Don Corleone: Oh, that's right, I forgot. Michael: What's the matter? What's bothering you? I'll handle it. I told you I can handle it, I'll handle it. Don Corleone: I knew Santino was going to have to go through all this and Fredo... well, Fredo was... But I never wanted this for you. I live my life, I don't apologize to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all of those big shots. That's my life I don't apologize for that. But I always thought that when it was your time that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone. Something. Michael: I'm not a pezzonovante. Don Corleone: Well, there wasn't enough time, Michael. There just wasn't enough time. Michael: We'll get there, Pop. We'll get there.
Michael's mistake is in modeling himself after his father in order to achieve the results Vito couldn't. Believing in the false notion that he has lost enough to stay detached in the grand chess game he is playing, Michael does not foresee how history will repeat itself, and may even exact a higher price from him than it did from his father. The climax of The Godfather has Michael consolidating his power after Vito's death facilitates his ascendancy to the Corleone throne. In the last line of Michael's earlier exchange with Kay lies the crux of Michael's identity. It is the question that hangs over all three films. Many have made the assumption that it is answered by the end of Part II, but I would offer that the first two films simply show us the similarities and differences between father and son, Vito and Michael. Part II finishes the first patriarch's story, emphasizing the final price that Vito's life of crime exacts on his family, and more specifically, his son Michael. Michael's story is not concluded until we see the retribution destiny has in store for him in Part III. For more on the Godfather films, see: Seventies Cinema Revival: The Godfather Part II DVD Review: The Godfather Part III - Operatic Film Deserving of Reappraisal Stills courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Movie Review: Quantum of Solace - Stylized and Surreal, Forster Directs a Worthy Sequel

by Tony Dayoub

It's funny how when you see a lot of movies, you start seeing parallels in some of them. In the case of Quantum of Solace, directed by Marc Forster (Monster's Ball), the 007 series' first direct sequel, the film is designed much like a memory piece. In many respects, Quantum of Solace is about as close to surreal and stylized as I bet you'll ever see a Bond flick get. And when seen as a companion to it's predecessor, Casino Royale, it reminds me of what Soderbergh achieves with his Che films, The Argentine and Guerilla.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The ABC Challenge or Another Meme to Help Me Get Out of Writing a Proper Post

Since I've been otherwise busy (birth of our son, Kyle; parents in town, etc.), I though I'd get my blogging feet wet with this Alphabet Meme going around. It originated at Blog Cabins and here are the rules:
The Rules 1. Pick one film to represent each letter of the alphabet. 2. The letter "A" and the word "The" do not count as the beginning of a film's title, unless the film is simply titled A or The, and I don't know of any films with those titles. 3. Return of the Jedi belongs under "R," not "S" as in Star Wars Episode IV: Return of the Jedi. This rule applies to all films in the original Star Wars trilogy; all that followed start with "S." Similarly, Raiders of the Lost Ark belongs under "R," not "I" as in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Conversely, all films in the LOTR series belong under "L" and all films in the Chronicles of Narnia series belong under "C," as that's what those filmmakers called their films from the start. In other words, movies are stuck with the titles their owners gave them at the time of their theatrical release. Use your better judgement to apply the above rule to any series/films not mentioned. 4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number's word. 12 Monkeys would be filed under "T." 5. Link back to Blog Cabins in your post so that I can eventually type "alphabet meme" into Google and come up #1, then make a post where I declare that I am the King of Google. 6. If you're selected, you have to then select 5 more people.
Here are mine: Apocalypse Now (1979), dir. Francis Ford Coppola Blue Velvet (1986), dir. David Lynch Conformista, Il (The Conformist) (1970), dir. Bernardo Bertolucci Days of Heaven (1978), dir. Terrence Malick Excalibur (1981), dir. John Boorman Falling Down (1993), dir. Joel Schumacher Godfather Part II, The (1974), dir. Francis Ford Coppola Hud (1963), dir. Martin Ritt Ice Storm, The (1997), dir. Ang Lee Jackie Brown (1997), dir. Quentin Tarantino Kiss Me Deadly (1955), dir. Robert Aldrich Long Goodbye, The (1973), dir. Robert Altman McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), dir. Robert Altman Night Porter, The (1974) dir. Liliana Cavani Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), dir. Sergio Leone Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) (1960), dir. René Clément Quills (2000), dir. Philip Kaufman Right Stuff, The (1983), dir. Philip Kaufman Superman: The Movie (1978), dir. Richard Donner Thief (1981), dir. Michael Mann Ultimo Tango A Parigi (The Last Tango in Paris) (1972), dir. Bernardo Bertolucci Visions of Light (1992), dirs. Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy, and Stuart Samuels Walkabout (1971), dir. Nicolas Roeg X-Files: I Want to Believe, The (2008), dir. Chris Carter You Only Live Twice (1967), dir. Lewis Gilbert Zodiac (2007), dir. David Fincher Here are the folks I chose to tag: Campaspe at Self-Styled Siren Dan at ThetaTHX1138 Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running Jeremy Richey at Moon in the Gutter The Monster at Monster Scifi Show Blog

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Movie Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - Innocence and Horror Overlap to Create a Powerful Story

Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, adapted from the 2006 book by John Boyne, is a riveting look at the Holocaust from the perspective of Bruno (Asa Butterfield), an 8-year-old German boy. Bruno's father, Ralf (David Thewlis), is a Nazi soldier who has just been promoted. His wife (Vera Farmiga), is proud of her husband's advancement, and oblivious to the horrors the Nazis are secretly perpetrating against the Jews in the name of the Fatherland. The promotion forces Bruno and his older sister to move to the country with their parents. When Bruno spies a faraway farm populated by strange workers in pajamas through his bedroom window, he asks his mother if he can go play with the kids in the pajamas. His mother and father have a quick argument, which leads to the boarding up of said window. Ralf has been given the post of commandant over a concentration camp, a fact that Bruno's mother never wants her son to find out. Bruno, intrepid explorer that he is, ends up meeting a boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), on the other side of the electrified fence surrounding the camp. He visits the boy daily, providing food and learning about Shmuel's second-class status as a Jew. While Bruno tries to reconcile the denigrating daily life his friend faces at his father's camp with the kinder image he has of his dad, Bruno's mom's sanity starts to erode as the full impact of the atrocities committed on the Jews is slowly revealed to her. Boyne's story is moving, but even though the film seems to be earning recommendations by family groups, caution should be used when taking anyone under fifteen to see it. The film's ending is strong. It does not shy away from bringing the full horror of the Nazis' campaign of terror right to the commandant's family's doorstep. Thewlis is particularly effective in this scene, as a man who has made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of a way of life that helps him repress his own feelings of inadequacy. The film's power lies in the juxtaposition of an innocent's comprehension of the horrifying events that surround him. Again and again, director Herman reminds us of these twisted overlaps. The pedestrian buildings of the camp almost look innocuous when surrounded by the beautiful countryside. It is only the dark smoke of the crematorium slicing its way across the sky, while Bruno swings on a spare tire from a tree, that signal the sickening cruelties of the camp. The kindness of Pavel (David Hayman), the family's Jewish servant, when patching up Bruno's knee after a fall, is shown in relief to the same man being beaten to death by a young Nazi soldier (Rupert Friend) after he accidentally spills the soldier's wine glass. Herman never lets you forget that the Nazi's ideology may not only have been beyond the boy's comprehension, it may be beyond most of humanity's. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas opens Friday, November 7th, in limited release in theaters across the country. Still provided courtesy of Miramax Films.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A New Era of Unity and Renewed Pride in America

America has spoken, and I am proud to say it spoke in as definitive and uniting a tone as the one Senator John McCain used in his gracious concession speech. Our dreams may exceed President-Elect Barack Obama's grasp. But the hope he has brought led to one of the most awe-inspiring scenes I have ever witnessed. The sea of diverse and beautiful faces celebrating at Grant Park last night was moving in its overwhelming emotional power. Let us hope this bodes well for the future of our country, and its place in the world.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Blu-ray Review: A Christmas Story - Missed Opportunities Abound in the New Ultimate Collector's Edition

Bob Clark's classic, A Christmas Story, is being rereleased in an Ultimate Collector's Edition on DVD and Blu-ray today, to commemorate the film's 25th anniversary. I've been greatly looking forward to this, since this film deserves a little reinvigorating, particularly in its Blu-ray version. Since this is a film that has been seen by just about everyone, I'm going to cover the technical aspects of this release. In 2003, Warner released a pretty extensive two-disc special edition for the 20th anniversary. So I was pretty disappointed to find that this is essentially a rerelease of that version with fancier packaging and collectible extras. In addition to the previously released DVD, the Ultimate Collector's Edition contains five collectible cookie cutters in iconic shapes from the film; a 48-page cookbook with recipes inspired by the film, photos, and quotes; and a chef's apron. This is all packaged in a retro holiday cookie tin. Why the focus on cooking is something I'm not too sure about. The Blu-ray is even more disappointing. While the press release indicates that the Blu-ray includes all of the DVD's extras on one disc, this is not true. It basically is the same 2006 Blu-ray with its special features ported over. Here's a list of the features that are included: Commentary by Peter Billingsley and Director/Co-Writer Bob Clark; 20th Anniversary Documentary "Another Christmas Story"; 2 Featurettes, "Daisy Red Ryder: A History," and "Get a Leg Up"; script pages for a scene that was cut; and the theatrical trailer. Gone are some of the other extras like a trivia game, and a Decoder match challenge. But what may be most missed are original readings by Jean Shepherd, the man responsible for the original story and narrator of the film. The Blu-ray is also packaged in a retro tin with a Leg Lamp holiday light strand. Some other missed opportunities? This film is badly in need of a restoration, especially since Blu-ray reveals the film's age somewhat. Though the film is meant to have a certain nostalgic, softer look, the original negative looks like it has seen some wear. Also glaring in its absence is any sort of a tribute to the film's director, the late Bob Clark (Porky's), who passed away with his son in a tragic car accident in April of last year. The bottom line is, unless you are huge fan of A Christmas Story, and must have the extras and/or packaging created for these releases, I would strongly recommend waiting for a definitive version to be released further down the line. To Blu-ray collectors especially, this is not the release you want to buy. A Christmas Story: The Ultimate Collector's Edition is available on DVD and Blu-ray today. Still provided courtesy of Warner Home Entertainment.