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Aanrijding in Moscou (2008)
Solid Sleeper From Abroad
If you want a little foreign flavor added to your usual movie-going experience, consider seeing "Moscow Belgium|" in the near future. It is one of the best small films to come along so far this year.
The movie begins simply enough a harried mother (Barbara Sarafian as Matty) backs into a truck in the supermarket parking lot. The owner of the truck (Jurgen Delnaet as Johnny) steps down. Fingerpointing and verbal abuse of course follows; only the eventual arrival of the police keeps the situation from becoming any uglier than it is.
Later that day we see Matty bathing; her daughter interrupts her to say there is a phone call from Johnny. Matty blows this off, and despite the continued advances of Johnny Matty remains stoically immune to his attentions.
We find that Matty's art-professor husband has moved out to carry on an affair with one of his students. Matty would like a normal life; her kids, her husband and her lack of funds frustrates her. And now there is this persistent guy whom she tells she doesn't need any more things in her life.
But we can see that Johnny will not be shaken off as easily as that. So the balance of the movie essentially prances about the central theme; should she accept Johnny in her life or have her husband come back into her life?
Barbara Sarafian is a wonderful actress, playing straight-faced to all her colleague at work, her suitors and her children. She convincingly conveys Matty's worn-down attitude; and according to her (interview at buzzine.com/2009/01/christophe-van-rompaey-interview) "you suspect that there is a bomb inside of her".
And so I leave it to you to see how Matty handles all her concerns and decides which is the best course for what probably be the rest of her life. I don't think you will for a second be disappointed with the outcome.
Angels & Demons (2009)
Factchecking Aside, A Pretty Good Thriller
Being neither a fan of conspiracy tales or particularly of the earlier novel "The Davinci Code", I was less than optimistic that I would become a big fan of this new effort by Ron Howard and Tom Hanks. So it was a bit of a surprise to find "Angels and Demons" is not a bad film at all. But it surely stretches credibility with its quasi- and at times pseudo-historic underpinnings. This is story-telling at warp speed; sometimes you want to have the film rewound for a few frames to verify what has been said by Tom Hanks' (as Roger Langdon).
Langdon's frenetic pace to prevent killings of high priests in the Vatican is the meat of the story(s). Thrown in to crank up the action a little further is the theft of antimatter, of course of much interest to all. And there are outward and internal tensions caused by the Swiss guard, Vatican figures gathered to select a new pope also have in- and external issues. And then of course there are the Illuminati.
With all these characters embroiled in catching a serial killer (who focuses on highly-placed priests) working for who-knows-who, we have the makings of a pretty good thriller. And if you can decipher Langdon's rapid-fire explanations as to why the pursuit should be conducted his way, you are ahead of his law enforcement colleagues.
There are two exceptions, naturally. Langdon's physics-oriented partner involved initially with the theft of antimatter she had a hand in developing (Ayelet Zurer as Vittoria Vetra)- quickly demonstrates a remarkable knowledge of Church history. Ewan Mc Gregor, who is acting essentially as the acting Pope, also understands seems to understand what is going on.
The fun is in listening to Langdon's rapid delivery of his analysis of the crime scenes and the criminal, and how and why it is all tied together. There are a number of so-called facts spouted that may or may not be true; but that is to be expected in both the novels of Dan Brown and the subsequent films.
The opening shots of the film are right on the money, conveying a real sense of the inner workings of a lab specializing in quantum physics. Credit this work to the director; Ron Howard does know how to make a film.
Star Trek (2009)
Good Followup On The Original Premise
Having never been a Trekkie, I approached the latest in the long line of films and television shows with no real love for the genre. I was hoping that at least the special effects might be good; they generally are nowadays. With a story of some interest and intriguing cinematography there's little wonder that is a box office hit.
What we have for a plot is an almost bewildering blending of the past, the present and the future, all stitched together in a satisfying manner. But unlike the concurrently running "Angels and Demons", this plot is actually believable, even though this is science fiction. The difference is the pacing and "Stat Trek" has no trace of conspiracy; the enemy is well defined right from the beginning.
What is definitely fun is that we meet the main characters of the film early on in their formative years; James Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and even Dr. McCoy all reveal something of themselves. We now know a little more of how they came to be the crew of the Enterprise.
The effects are quite remarkable, and any fan of space adventures will be satisfied with them. There is a plot point involving time travel that is the only blemish on the narrative; this seems to be like the use of magic in movies. Contrive a difficult situation and have characters saved by supernatural imposition. The artful dodge of movie making.
This is probably the smartest of the summer blockbusters.
Sin nombre (2009)
Another Strong Central American Tale
I previously said the two best movies of 2009 thus far are "Sunshine Cleaning" and "State of Play". But this newest entry, "Sin Nombre", makes me move this one into the top spot, easily. It is a meaningful contemporary statement made by a writer/director newcomer with guts.
The story(ies) begin in Honduras, a bit later on in Mexico. We first meet Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), who is to accompany her father from Honduras to America their sights are set on New Jersey. Sayra has not seen her father in a long time, so theirs is an uneasy alliance. He shows her a crudely drawn map, and he traces their route; theirs is a long journey.
We next meet Casper (aka Willy played by Edgar Flores), a member of a Mexican gang from whom he is hiding his girlfriend; he lies to the gang leader about his whereabouts, but this fearsome leader has his suspicions. We also meet Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) who has just been initiated into the gang. Both Casper and Smiley are put to an additional test to prove their loyalty. They are now thoroughly enmeshed in a world of violence and considerable darkness. This is an edgy world, one in which the overwhelming sensation is constant threat.
Eventually the two separate threads become entwined both Casper and Smiley have headed north on a train headed north through Mexico, and Sayra and her father have climbed aboard the same train. How all these characters meet and how their itineraries merge is the heart of the narrative.
The shots of train yards and of the illegal train passengers enroute sitting on top of cars mostly - are very engaging and have a authentic look. The cinematography in the movie is terrific. There are great shots of border crossings and always the trains. According to director Cary Fukunaga the train scenes were difficult to shoot (http://www.popmatters.com):
"We had to maximize those few days we could actually shoot on a train to make it all real," Fukunaga says. "We ended up building a prop train on flatbed trailers, pulling them on country roads around Mexico. You use extras on the set to block the horizon line. If they're in the way, you can't see how far the train goes off into the distance. Definitely something they don't teach you in film school."
All really good movies have a surprise, and there is one here that made me lean forward as if I could see a little better; it was a case of - Did I just see what I think I saw? And that reminds me that this was the first picture in a long time where people walked out fairly early on. That always makes me wonder what a movie about gangsters would have attracted them in the first place.
I am reminded of "City of God" and "Amores Perros", two films that also portray the darker sides of Central America. For anyone needing a fix of smart storytelling with social commentary woven throughout should seek this one out. This is my favorite kind of movie, one where the director leads you through a shadowy other-world full of realistic characters and situations.
Brief But Historic
If you had not read the original novel or at least read up on the film "Ramona", I don't think you'd have much of a notion of what is transpiring. Though this is only a seventeen minute movie, the whole of a novel is presented to us. If it wasn't for its landmark status as representative of early silent films it wouldn't pass muster.
This is a tale of the inequitable treatment of Southern California Native Americans. Ramona is smitten by a member of the local tribe, and they eventually are wed despite the objections of her sort-of foster mother. The couple are run out of their home by land-grabbing white settlers. All this ends badly.
Consider that the novel "Ramona" was published in 1884 and that it achieved enormous popularity, so D. W. Griffith's film was destined to be a success. But besides its place in film history for the almost overwhelming interest of the story to the public it was one of the many pieces of work D. W. Griffith was churning out, making history just in the doing.
According to Darling Kindersley's "Chronicle of the Cinema", Griffith went on a "working vacation" one in which he shot 25 films in four months as he and his ensemble toured California. One of the films made was this, "Ramona."
Paul Spehr drives home the importance of "Ramona" and other Griffith efforts around this time:
it is camera work and editing that make the most startling advances during this period. Griffith "publicly laid claim to the introduction of 'large or close-up figures, distant views as represented first in 'Ramona', the 'switchback' (cross cutting gc), sustained suspense, the 'fade out', and restraint in expression', raising motion picture acting to the higher plane which has won for it recognition as a genuine art.'
One quite noticeable aspect of this film is the lack of dialogue frames. Instead there are graphic text frames inserted occasionally to detail what is transpiring. But in no sense is the filmed footage tied to the actual dialogue we see. But as mentioned above without prior knowledge of the subject the movie is so abbreviated that it doesn't come close to conveying the whole story.
It has taken me far longer to write this review than to see the movie.
Rio Bravo (1959)
Duke Doing What H Does Best
Of all the westerns John Wayne made, some of his later work was pretty high on the entertainment scale, but not necessarily having much substance. "Rio Bravo" may be the best example of the Duke standing vigourously, surrounded by a group of likable cronies, against the odds. I say standing because that is all that was required of him by this point in his career, and that is almost exactly what we see.
As to the story, Sheriff John Chance (Wayne) has the task of seeing a murder suspect well, not really much of a suspect, we see him do it is held until a trial can be held. His accomplices are Dude (Dean Martin), a souse that was once a solid citizen and handy with a gun; a rookie called Colorado (Ricky Nelson) who is quick on the draw and coolly capable; an old-timer going by the name of Stumpy (Walter Brennan) and what seems an afterthought, the stage passenger that stayed in town Feathers (Angie Dickinson).
The trials and tribulations this ensemble sallies against is formidable. The prisoner is the brother of a powerful local rancher, so there is every possibility of an abetted escape attempt. To that end hired guns begin to cause mayhem in town, so there is never a peaceful moment.
This is all western fun at its best. No one would expect high art here, but there is plenty of action (not compared to the latest chase movies, honest) but there is a story that one want to see through.
I have heard and read that this movie was Howard Hawks' answer to "High Noon". There is much documentation to the effect that Wayne hated "High Noon" as well. Well, I like this movie much better than the overrated "High Noon" - there's are an awful lot of uneventful moments with only some pretty good action at the end. At least in "Rio Bravo" situations occur with some regularity.
At this point in his career Wayne was commanding big salaries and darned if he didn't deserve it. His mere presence was box office gold, and the studios knew it. The Duke worked quite hard to preserve his image and this is another example of how he carefully nurtured "the brand" he may even have been king of the G-rated movies.
The Mysterious Lady (1928)
Garbo At Her Most Seductive
I don't think any silent screen female star came close to exhibiting the pure sensual sexuality Greta Garbo conveyed. I offer her role in "The Mysterious Lady" as proof of that contention.
The plot is simple enough. Tania Federova (the aforementioned G. Garbo) has set up a military officer (Conrad Nagel as Captain Karl von Rader) in Vienna to gather what information she might. They have met conveniently at the opera, and when she shares that she has brought no money, he offers her a ride home. He is already smitten, and she agrees to see him the next day.
I know it is a movie and that there are time constraints within which the writers must work, but theirs is a whirlwind affair. They are in love within hours. As Von Rader is preparing to leave for Berlin, he is told she is a spy. Their meeting on the train doesn't go well, and she steals the documents he is carrying to boot.
What follows is that the Captain must clear his name due to his misfortune and we must see what will become of these two, and I'm not telling what happens. But what I would like to share is how well Garbo comes across.
She was only 23 years old at the time of the film's release. But she had already the look of one much older and certainly the style of an experienced woman of the world. And the cinematography perfectly heightens her allure.
There is a brief shot early in the movie when she turns out the light as she prepares to retire for the evening. She is leaning against a wall and switches off the light; the light that remains perfectly casts her in a striking pose. There are a number of nearly equal elegant shots throughout, and in my view she wore a clingy gown as well as any Hollywood actress ever did.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Haunting Story Of The First Magnitude
I have read somewhere, sometime that Robert Mitchum never considered himself an actor. If you check Roger Ebert (rogerebert.com) he interviewed him many times. In one Mitchum tells Ebert about acting; "One of the greatest movie stars was Rin Tin Tin. What the hell. It can't be too much of a trick." In these and other snippets about him you might find there is always the self-deprecating delivery, along with smart Alec answers to many questions. But I think many of us would argue Mitchum was one of the best actors of his generation. One measure of acting abilities is the willingness to stretch out into roles others would shun. I say this by way of introduction to my thoughts on a very good movie, "The Night Of The Hunter".
The film is shot in black and white, which lends much to its tone. The score is pitch perfect, and this is one of the few movies in which Mitchum sings. I have never known exactly where Laughton shot it, but I would love to see how they did the river scenes when the children have escaped. Much is made of the fact that this was Charles Laughton's only foray into directing. Whatever the reason for his failure to repeat the experiment, this is a wonderful movie to have as a signature. It is unique; try and find another like it.
The movie begins with a father (Peter Graves as Ben Harper), on the lam from the police, entrusting the cash he has stolen to the care of his children. He makes them promise to not reveal where the money is hidden. He is arrested and, we see quickly convicted and sentenced to hang. But during his incarceration he reveals unintentionally to Robert Mitchum (Harry Powell) a hint that his children might know the whereabouts of the money.
We skip ahead; Harry is now out of prison and makes a beeline to the town where his ex-cell mate hailed from a town along the river in West Virginia. Incredibly, through his smarmy talk and sermonizing, he weds the widow of Ben Harper. He is seriously intent on gathering information about the money.
After relentless pressure from Powell, the children at one point escape from him, commandeer a small boat and float away down the river. But Powell is never far behind and trails them for weeks. He wants that money.
One of the strangers that befriends the children on their adventure is Lillian Gish (as Rachel Cooper). Her role turns out to be quite important, and it has always been difficult to envision a better choice for her part.
How this all turns out I leave you to enjoy. Suffice it to say you will be left thinking about what you saw. Which is a sure sign of a good movie.
In the same interview noted above, Mitchum shares that working with Charles Laughton was, essentially, a joy. "Honest to God, you know, you did your really best to try to enchant him and of course it was effective." Effective it was I will never forget, have not forgotten since I first heard and saw it many years ago, the haunting, chilling scene of him singing and trailing the children along the river.
Dr. No (1962)
As Important To The Spy Genre As Metropolis Is To Science Fiction
"Dr. No" is without question the finest Ian Fleming novel put on film. No only was the James Bond brand established but the machinations of nearly every spy movie since has drawn on "Dr. No" for what has come to be a standard plot outline; besides all this Sean Connery became established as a star.
If you read early Fleming you will find he originally cast Bond in thoroughly believable stories. His attention to detail, the play of other characters against him and exotic and varied locations made him a hit before the movie was even considered. Fleming himself is an interesting character; his early life in the military and particularly intelligence gave him ample opportunity to invent James Bond.
The movie begins with the assassination of an intelligence officer and his secretary; a file is taken from his office, labeled Dr. No. James Bond (Sean Connery) is dispatched to Jamaica to find out what led to the deaths. From the moment he arrives he is plunged into intrigue; his car is tailed, and almost as quickly bedded by a beautiful but questionably-motived woman. Clad nearly always in tailored suits, sipping his martinis and giving off the air of a man intensely confident in his ability, a new screen persona (type) is invented right before our eyes.
As Bond's probing unearths more questions than answers, the common thread leads him to put together a clandestine late-night visit to Dr. No's mysterious Crab Key with the colorful Quarrel as guide. After a few hours sleep, a stunning figure emerges from the surf; Honey Ryder's entrance has never been equaled by any woman in any subsequent Bond flick.
Bond, Ryder and Quarrel evade the private patrols for a while, but eventually their luck turns bad and they are captured by Dr. No's henchmen. From the time they in the hands of the island police the adventure takes a decidedly high-tech turn. The effects are a little dated in this, our new digital age, but don't seriously detract from the film.
The rest of the story is pure Fleming. As he wrote more over the years his plots got less believable and Bond himself became something of a stuntman whose missions were set in a technologically advanced society. I cannot stress enough how this The use of Jamaica as a setting is a master stroke; there are dazzling shots that convey the beauty of the island. There are a couple of spots that you would love to find on your own.
Three and a half stars.
State of Play (2009)
There aren't many conspiracy films or books that I have ever really liked. I find such conjecture exhausting. Regarding movies, the best of the bunch in recent years is "L.A. Confidential", and I measure anything being released against it. "State of Play" stacks up reasonably well. It happens to have a hint of plausibility, has some good actors delivering good performances and (unlike the former) it is about a contemporary predicament.
The movie opens in full action sequence mode; a man on the run is cornered and essentially murdered, as is a witness. Within a few minutes the seemingly unrelated but equally brutal death at a train station of a woman also occurs. Soon thereafter reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) begins to put together these and a few other threads that lead him to believe there is more to these stories than anyone suspects.
Representative Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), a friend of McAffrey's, has been investigating a security corporation deeply profiting from government contracts. It turns out that the woman killed at the train station is not only an assistant to Collins but was his love as well. McAffrey, now reluctantly teamed with fellow reporter Dell Frye (Rachel McAdams) is now in full investigative mode.
The twists and turns of the plot are, refreshingly, able to be followed. The director (Kevin MacDonald, noted for "The Last King of Scotland") leads us handily through the web of deceit, money, sex and even emotional highs and lows of the characters involved. There is a relentless pace to the film; the only real cliché being the deadline the reporters are pitched against.
Ben Affleck seems to be paralleling George Clooney's career path to a degree; both have been successful actors and both have stints behind the camera with good results. He is well cast as the congressman with an agenda. Affleck is doing smart films (witness "Gone Baby Gone") and we the audience can appreciate both his substance and style.
Russell Crowe's performance is pretty engrossing as he portrays a veteran reporter not particularly in the favor of Editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren). Perhaps some will find his squalid life and unkempt appearance a bit of an anachronism in what is now a corporate world (Lynne repeatedly brings this to his attention) but it doesn't detract from the overall story.
At least a solid attempt is made in this film to present a story that can be followed. And way to its credit very little is made of the more and more prevalent method of filming is such darkness that the actual goings-on are virtually impossible to follow.