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Empty music, empty movie, empty Euro-lives
There's something precious and decadent about hiring real professional musicians to portray aspiring street musicians. OF COURSE they are going to succeed. No lip synching required.
It's not a bad movie, just petty and irritating. And the music, though heartfelt and technically proficient, is very bad. If you like this music, first check to see if you have a pulse; second, check to see if you really want to go on living. It is distilled essence of depression and futility. Blues is sad, but it celebrates life, perseverance. This stuff just curls up and whines.
I love small intimate movies, and really wanted to like this one. But the director didn't allow his characters to be real people -- they don't even have names. They are types, ethnic abstractions with musical talent. It should be a big hit in the retro tribal world of identity politics. Bah humbug.
One element I did like: The young folks don't rebel against the old folks. Instead the old folks have to prod the young sloughers to get out and live.
The Golden Compass (2007)
Dakota Blue Richards IS Lyra
I love Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials, and have read it 3 times. I saw the movie opening day, and I love it, too. Sure the story has been changed in many ways -- think of it as The Golden Compass in Yet Another Universe -- but it works just fine as a 2-hour film. If you want a word accurate dramatization, get the superb audio CD boxed set, of Pullman and a full cast reading for 36 hours.
In the film, the characters and conflicts are true to Pullman's creation. The visuals are brilliant, especially the transforming daemons and the strangely propelled vehicles. The grownup performances are all solid, both energetic and respectful of the material.
But the story is all about young Lyra, and Dakota Blue Richards is simply perfect. If the Oscars mean anything at all (occasionally they do) she will at least be nominated for Best Actress, and deserves to win. Lyra is a little girl like no other (this is the heart of the story) and Miss Richards makes us believe.
No, the movie is not perfect. It might be hard to follow if you don't know the books, and disorienting if you do. Also it seems rushed. I sure hope New Line will offer an extended DVD version -- and then go on to make the next 2 (or 3, or 4) Lyra movies.
The very opposite of what we are supposed to think.
Volker Schlöndorff is either a diabolically brilliant dissembler, or a gifted idiot savant. His public persona of hapless twittering political correctness (see the extras on this DVD) comforts the intellectual and critical elite, while his terse well-crafted movies give the lie to the bloody nonsense those elites espouse.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) is an excellent example of this. The official plot line of the film, mindlessly parroted here on IMDb and elsewhere, describes the young Mrs. Blum as an earnest innocent, a simple housemaid unwittingly caught up in the toils of the vicious capitalist news media and Germany's crypto-Nazi police bureaucracy. This summary neatly fits the pink-tinged world view of Criterion, creator of the DVD version. It does not fit the movie itself.
If you actually watch the movie, rather than just read what you are supposed to think about it, you will realize about three- quarters of the way through, that although the police may be bumbling wretches, they were right all along about Mrs. Blum. She really is a cool and calculating agent of subversion, not just the passing plaything of a terrorist on the run. She is not cool enough, however. Her casual contempt for everyone around her -- for the lawyer and architect who employ and befriend her, for her shady financier lover, for her ex-husband, even for her own terrorist network -- is expressed in her sloppy tradecraft. She drops a damning clue which leads the police directly to her terrorist contact. Oh well, she shrugs, he was a loser anyway, just an army deserter. There are plenty more where he came from.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is not Volker Schlöndorff's best film -- The Legend of Rita (2000), The Ogre (1996), and Homo Faber (1991), are all better movies -- but it is not bad.
What IS bad is an insipid documentary on this Criterion DVD. It is a 1977 amateurish interview with Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), who wrote the 1974 novel which inspired Schlöndorff's movie.
Heinrich Böll was a Wehrmacht soldier in the 1940s, turned Movement philosopher in the 1960s. In his stories and novels he shared with a younger generation, including director Schlöndorff, a profound wartime insight.
On the battlefield, Böll had realized that the true enemy of Hitler's National Socialism had not been Stalin's International Socialism; he was old enough to remember the nineteen happy years 1922-1941 when the USSR and Germany had been allied against the West, until Hitler's jealousy had spoiled the grand Socialist coalition. No, what had ultimately defeated Heinrich Böll and his fellow German National Socialists in 1945 had been America and her twin evils, liberty and free enterprise.
Two decades later, in the 1960s, America was on the way to defeating the International Socialists, too, starting in Viet Nam, unless the American military could somehow be stopped there. Böll was a leading orator of the West European branch of the worldwide "Youth Movement," organized from Moscow to resist the advance of America and liberty. "The Movement," as it self-consciously styled itself, did defeat America in the early 1970s - - not in Viet Nam, but in Washington -- leaving much of the world to languish under Communism for another decade and a half, and leaving tens of millions of Asian, African, and East European people to be butchered, their blood spilled on the altar of Marxism. (Leftists are strange people. Rather than bragging of their butchery, they primly deny it ever happened -- while planning the next round.)
Heinrich Böll was a celebrated intellectual hero of The Movement, a "Freedom Fighter" who had fought against freedom all his life, fighting with pen and sword, with typewriter and assault rifle. Böll capped his career with the 1972 Nobel Prize in Literature, its gold medal outshining his by then tarnished Iron Cross. Böll died with Communist global dominion still seemingly on the rise -- expiring four years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, where his books had long been Party-subsidized bestsellers.
Böll's no longer youthful Movement lives on today, metastasized throughout the West. Because Moscow is now in remission, for the moment, anyway, The Movement has allied itself with the Islamic Jihadists to struggle against their common enemies, America and liberty, private property and freedom, as well as against Israel and the Jews. Anti-Semitism is back in fashion among the intellectual elite. Perhaps it never left.
So, if you buy or rent this DVD, enjoy the movie as it was actually made, not as it has been described. And unless you have either a strong stomach, or a weak mind, skip the hagiographic Heinrich Böll documentary.
Aerosmith: You Gotta Move (2004)
Watch the longer version!
Aerosmith is as much a force of nature as it is a band. If you like them you will like this documentary DVD. If you don't... well you still might find it interesting, even enjoyable, as long as you follow the technical advice below.
The DVD is set up so you can watch just the songs, with no breaks between them, or so you can watch the whole movie, with documentary bridge segments leading into each live performance. CHOOSE THE SECOND OPTION! (It is the first option on the menu.)
I made the mistake of choosing to watch just the songs first. I had never seen Aerosmith perform, and had not heard their music in years, so it all seemed to be a jumbled frenetic blur.
But I felt that I must have missed something, and I did have the DVD for the weekend... so the next night I watched the whole movie, as it was meant to be viewed.
Suddenly it all made sense. Each song worked on its own, like pictures in a frame instead of a busy collage, and the pace was perfect. I began to understand what this band is about, and why it has endured for three decades. I liked the movie so much that I watched the whole thing again.
I still cannot grasp exactly how three guitar players and one drummer can build up and sustain such a rich and complex wall of sound behind Steven Tyler's stupendous vocals (and 20,000 screaming fans) -- although seeing them rehearse and record in the the studio -- working up the various parts, then pulling them together -- did help me begin to understand. Other bands need to add keyboards and a horn section, or a fiddle section, plus a few extra percussionists and backup singers, to achieve that sort of high intensity.
* A curious footnote. On the "Willie Nelson & Friends..." concert DVD, noteworthy for its many badly mixed and evidently unrehearsed performances, the very best thing on it, inserted at the end to leave the viewer with a good last impression, is a pair of improbable but brilliant duets sung by Willie Nelson and Steven Tyler, the first in Willie's style, the second in Aerosmith's. Shows what great vocalists both men are (in case you didn't already know).
Orions belte (1985)
First-rate drama that is also a great documentary
I bought the 2-disk special edition DVD of this 1985 Norwegian movie mainly because it was filmed in and around Svalbard, site of the northernmost settlements in the world. For this alone it was well worth the price. Not only does the movie show more of the natural beauty of Svalbard than any of the many documentaries I have seen, with lingering perspectives from land, sea, and air, it also shows something that nature documentaries leave out: the gritty life in the Norwegian and Russian coal-mining towns of Svalbard, before the collapse of the Soviet Union changed everything in the Arctic (not to mention the rest of the world).
But Orions Belte also turned out to be an excellent dramatic movie, with the story making full use of its unique location. The direction and acting are so good that I forgot it was a drama, until about halfway through, taking it as a slice-of-life documentary. All the characters look and act as if they belong in the Arctic, and their misadventures are much more like the many firsthand narratives I have read about the real North, than any of the tarted up novels that purport to be set there. The film won the Norwegian Academy Award for best film of the year, and several review sites call it the best Norwegian film ever -- not that it would have had a huge amount of competition. But it really is a good and realistic action movie.
Orions Belte was a joint British - Norwegian production, and Norwegian and English language versions were filmed simultaneously. Both versions are included on disk 1, and both include optional subtitles. Disk 2 includes an excellent 'making-of' documentary, a clip of the Norwegian Academy Awards presentation, and several other brief features. These are only in Norwegian, without subtitles (except a few comments in English by the British producer), but are easy enough to follow, despite this. Plus these short features include even more documentary footage of Svalbard, which needs no narration.
One of the short features on disk 2 details the creation of this 20th anniversary DVD, which involved first a complete frame-by frame restoration of the film (4:3 aspect ratio), followed by digitization, and then color-grading. All this work paid off, as the look and color of the whole movie is terrific, with even the subtle colors of arctic ice rendered accurately. There is only one brief interior scene where the highlights were too far gone to be restored.
This movie was never released in the USA, as far as I can tell, and it does not seem to have gotten much traction in Britain. Even though the English language version is included on this 2-disk PAL Region-2 set, I could not find it for sale on any British websites. Two Norwegian sites offer it for sale, but neither will ship overseas. Happily an Amazon US Marketplace seller who specializes in obscure European movies does stock it, and he ships DVDs quickly at US postage rates (search Amazon for the Norwegian spelling, Orions Belte). You will need a region-free DVD player to view this movie anywhere outside of Europe. Amazon does not sell these, but several eBay sellers do.
Rated 8/10 (comparable to The Bourne Identity).
The Russia House (1990)
Le Carre blithers, but Connery and Pfeiffer light up Moscow
Despite certain divergences in character and plot, this movie version of "The Russia House" does do justice to John Le Carre's twisted tale. Perhaps this is because so much of Hollywood shares Le Carre's own moral obtuseness -- wishing bureaucratic tyranny upon the rest of the world, while insulating itself with money.
Le Carre cannot tell the difference between West and East, between the bumbling mediocrity of western bureaucracies, and the unremitting evil of the Soviet bureaus, which owned everything in the evil empire, right down to peoples' souls. "The Russia House" was the first of his many post Cold War novels to make it clear that he could not, or would not.
Yet the man does write brilliantly. Le Carre is one of the great masters of English prose. Therefore one can almost forgive his blockheadedness, while one enjoys his rich descriptions, his twisted characters, and his sharp storytelling. It's only the morning after finishing one of his novels, or the hour after watching a movie adaptation such as this, that one's head begins to throb with the bitter, pointless, imbecility of his world view.
The cast of "The Russia House," headlined by Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, is superb, with one glaring exception -- Roy Scheider in pancake makeup is simply not plausible as a CIA manager, even mid level. By contrast James Woods does an excellent job as his opposite number in British Intelligence (with support from a young Michael Kitchen, now the graying star of "Foyle's War"). But this movie is mainly worth watching for the engaging lead performances by Connery and Pfeiffer, even though (or perhaps because) they play their characters quite differently than they were drawn in the book.
The location photography is excellent, with nice views of Lisbon, and many long sequences shot in Moscow and Leningrad. Moscow looks nearly deserted, a graphic reminder that the official Soviet population figure, 5 million, was overstated by at least a factor of seven (according to Robert Heinlein).
There are interludes of wistful jazz woven seamlessly into the story, but much of the rest of the musical score is loud and distracting, especially toward the end. I suppose it was intended to induce anxiety in viewers who could not follow what was happening in the complicated plot. The director should have stuck with the jazz.
By far the best screen adaptation of a Le Carre novel is "The Little Drummer Girl" directed by George Roy Hill. It is one of the best movies ever made.
A very good movie that shows an intimate slice of life in the Soviet Union is the French film "East-West" (Est-Ouest).
Pump Up the Volume (1990)
Set in Arizona, echoes of River Phoenix
This is an engaging and original take on the "High School is Hell" theme. But for me the most striking element was the performances of the two lead characters, Christian Slater as Mark, and Samantha Mattis as Nora -- not just for themselves, but for what they reminded me of.
My all-time favorite movie is "Running on Empty," by Sidney Lumet (1988). The story, style, tone, and production scale of that film is entirely different than "Pump Up the Volume." But...
But the two teen characters of "Running on Empty," River Phoenix as Danny Pope, and Martha Plimpton as Lorna Phillips, were evidently the inspiration for Slater and Mattis in PUTV, so much so that I wonder if "Pump Up the Volume" was originally written for River Phoenix.
Slater is a fine actor in his own right, yet his Mark is an echo of -- or tribute to -- Phoenix's Danny. This is true on a broad scale, both characters' isolation as the new kid in high school, with lots of profound secrets; both characters' pursuit by, attraction to, and turning away from, the alienated pretty but crazy girl in the class -- who yet proves to be the woman who makes a man out of each of these boys.
Vaudeville quote: "Life has a way of evening things up. For every woman who makes a fool out of some man, there's another who makes a man out of some fool."
It's even more true in detail: Mark's manner of walking and talking, his self-effacing modesty around his peers, even the way he flips his hair and fidgets with his eyeglasses, all echo Phoenix's Danny.
Mattis's Nora is a stronger character than Plimpton's Lorna. Her role in the story is more active, and so her performance is more dynamic -- not better, just different. Her look is also very different, unlike the uncanny physical resemblance of Mark and Danny, but this mainly reflects differences in the stories and their settings. Mattis's Nora does seem to have borrowed many of her mannerisms, and her articulate manner of speaking, from Plimpton's Lorna.
Is this character emulation a bad thing? Not at all, at least not here, because it works. Of course when you have a seen "Running On Empty" as many dozen times as I have (hmm, I think I'll go watch it again -- yup, still great), it is more than a little distracting.
This sort of character emulation is not unique in Hollywood. Another example that leaps to mind is Jeff Bridges in "Arlington Road," playing a sort of downbeat Harrison Ford. I expect you can think of others.
As to the movie itself, "Pump Up the Volume" is no more realistic a depiction of high school than most of the movies in its genre -- for the very good reason that a realistic movie about high school would be too boring and too depressing to watch. The best high school movies (e.g. "Dazed and Confused" "Bring It On" "Foxfire") don't show more than a few moments of classes, because no one cares about or remembers most of their high school classes. This is a good thing -- my high school biology teacher said in 1960: everything we are teaching you here will be obsolete in three years (she was overly sanguine. "Facts" were either already obsolete by the time they sifted down to high school, or were wrong to begin with).
If anything, PUTV's vision of high school is even darker than most, and to me this is a plus. Are there really high school administrators out there who are as vicious and depraved as the characters in this movie? Sadly, yes, quite a few, and some even worse. So although this movie is a fantasy, its message should resonate for anyone who was, or is, a teenager.
If you have dug this deep into the website, you probably have a pretty good idea what this movie is about, so I won't recap. I am both picky and eccentric in what I like in movies. PUTV is no classic, but I liked it a lot. If you find you like it, too (or even if you don't), by all means take a look at "Running on Empty," which is certainly a classic. Both films' DVDs can be found in Walmart's $5.50 bins.
Is Europe really one big theme park?
I recently bought both DVD box sets of "Travels in Europe," 1991-1999, and 2000-2003, plus the 2004-2005 supplement to the latter. I've always enjoyed this half-hour show when it aired on PBS, and the DVDs don't disappoint -- especially the 21st century series, which is of even higher technical quality than the 20th century set. All boast crystal-clear video, even though they are full-screen. Mr. Steves is an excellent presenter on camera -- friendly, low-key, sensible, informative -- quite a contrast to the smug self-importance and smarmy political correctness he brings to personal appearances, and to the multi-million dollar travel empire this show has spawned.
But as much as I enjoy the individual segments, after watching a bunch of the shows in a row, I now realize that Mr. Steves does look for the same sorts of experiences in every country: the little Bed & Breakfast; the neighborhood café, pub, or bakery; the antiseptically restored old city center; the castle; the museum; the street musicians. Not only does this make all European countries seem similar, like a chain of franchised "Olde World Theme Parks" modeled after Colonial Williamsburg (perhaps they are), it makes me wonder: is there also a real Europe out there somewhere, where real people live, work, commute, study, play soccer, and so on? I suppose there must be. Maybe it just isn't very telegenic. Every once in a while Mr. Steves does show a few seconds of mundane life -- ticket lines, airports, college dorms, subways, slums, traffic jams, suburbs -- then it's back to "The Best of Europe."
In part I had bought these "Travels in Europe" DVDs as sort of an antidote to romantic cinematic views of modern Europe, such as "Amelie" and "Notting Hill" (which are both excellent movies). Yet these "Travels" segments in fact reinforce that romantic view, so I suppose the real antidote might better be found in European slice-of-life fiction films, shot on location.
One does see hints of the real Europe (or at least a slightly more real Europe) in some fictional films. Recent ones I've liked include "Mostly Martha," set in Hamburg, with a brief freeway side trip to Italy; "Bread and Tulips," which offers a vivid contrast between romantic Venice and modern suburban Italy; "Besieged," set in a dreary corner of Rome; "The Spanish Apartment," mainly set in bustling Barcelona, with hilarious bookend segments inside the French bureaucracy; "The Legend of Rita," with its poignant view of East Germany during and after reunification; "The Bourne Identity," much of it filmed on the streets of Paris; Tavernier's "L.627," with its gritty view of Parisian slums; and "Wonderland," with its bleak view of contemporary London.
Of course I mainly bought these "Travels in Europe" DVDs, and several other travel documentaries, as an alternative to actually going to Europe. They offer all the high points neatly packaged, with none of the dreariness, weariness, and dyspepsia. Eternal sunshine for the spotless minded traveler, or what the photographer Jeanloup Sieff called "Imaginary Memories." This aspect does work just fine, and all for less than the price of one sleepless night in a Paris hotel.
If IMDb let us rate TV series, I would give "Travels in Europe" a 9 out of 10.
One big party for the cast; an oddity for viewers
In the large and immensely distinguished cast of actors, singers, couture designers, fashion models, and lap dogs that Robert Altman assembled for this mad Parisian romp, only one of the participants actually does more than the most perfunctory acting. That one star is Kim Basinger. With her spirited portrayal of FAD-TV anchor Kitty Potter, she is the ringmaster of Altman's circus of multiple twisted and interlocking rings.
Is "Ready-to-Wear" a great movie, or what? What! No, it's not great, nor even very good.
Is it entertaining? Not really, not in any coherent sense. If you try to get involved in the plot, you will only get dog-doo on your shoe.
But it can be fun to watch, if nothing else to play the game called, "Come on, who IS that?" Robert Altman enjoys such godlike status among the Holloywood elite, that he was able to enlist some of the most sought-after A-list players of three generations to perform for him in Paris, or at least to show up for cameos. To play this game, print out the IMDb full cast list, then try to spot each one of the listed players in the movie.
Finally, even if you decide to fast-forward through "Ready-to-Wear," do slow down for the climactic runway scene. It is well worth the price of a rental, not that this scene has very much to do with the rest of the story (such story as there is). This scene does prove that if you are Robert Altman in 1994 (or Walerian Borowczyk in 1974) you can stage an extended scene of naked supermodels for a feature film, merely because you wish to. Rating: 7/10.
Somehow, the one movie that "Ready-to-Wear" most reminds me of is "And the Ship Sails on" ("E la nave va"), 1983, by Federico Fellini -- despite Fellini's cast of unknowns, and its low-budget operatic staging.
Le jupon rouge (1987)
The Outline of a Good Movie
Three excellent actresses starred in this film, but it is more radio play than cinema. "Le Jupon Rouge" is not a bad movie, but it is just a shadow of what it might have been. The story is too sketchy to really engage the viewer. The characters are not developed enough in the course of the action for us really to care about them.
The story hinges on the inner brittle fragility of an outwardly tough Holocaust survivor (Alida Valli). Her character is a political writer and activist, while Marie-Christine Barrault portrays her long-time secretary and aide.
Their story had real potential for drama and emotion. But most of the drama played out off screen, with the characters talking about what was happening, or had just happened, or had happened in the past, rather than depicting any of it happen. Most of the emotion was off camera, too, with only an episodic sampling shown on the screen.
The director, who also co-wrote and produced, needed help and advice from someone who better understood cinema. She had assembled a fine cast. She had a good eye for dark low-key settings and locations. But she did not seem to grasp that a story on the screen must be shown, not just told, and that dialog must be part of action and emotions, not merely talk about action and emotions.
"Le Jupon Rouge" is disappointing -- especially because the wonderful Marie-Christine Barrault has made so few movies (she chose family life over stardom). She starred in "Cousin Cousine," one of my favorite romantic comedies (it's better than the American version, "Cousins"), but "Cousin Cousine," too, like "Le Jupon Rouge," is not available on DVD, only VHS. She is at her most radiant in Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories;" indeed she is the main reason to watch that film.