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Goya's Ghosts (2006)
A Film Without A Purpose
I'm just not sure what this film wants to be. A historical epic of early 19th century Spain? A political comment on torture? A philosophic meditation on religion and reason? A look at the artist's role as witness and observer? At times it seems to be each of these, but never develops one idea long enough to be truly thought-provoking. But I will say this: The wordless-scene in which Natalie Portman's inquisition victim steps out into the sunlight is an impressively realized moment in film. When I fist found out it was Milos Foreman who would be directing, I thought of his excellent 1984 film Amadeus, an unconventional and highly fictionalized biopic of Mozart which chose to focus on the notion of genius. It's a shame Foreman couldn't find a focus in this film; the result in an interesting but disappointingly muddled film.
God's Gift of Genius
We do have such preconceived notions of what a genius is, and how he or she should act. There should be dignity, reserve and a certain element of class, which is why the presentation of Mozart, amongst the greatest figures of western music, as a boisterous, twittering, womanizing, near clown-like figure by Tom Hulce in Milos Foreman's "Amadeus" might seem like a jarring concept. But next to this cartoonish Mozart stands the dignified, pious Salieri, an Italian composer played with restraint and grace by F. Murray Abraham. Salieri just seems like the real genius, so respectable and imposing. The irony is that he possesses not half of the talent of Mozart, which is to drive him quite mad. He, who has loved God his entire life, has been forsaken for this insolent boy, this Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Amadeus, Beloved by God.
The film is framed by Salieri's narration in a hospital to his confessor, several years after the premature death of Mozart. We follow his rise from provincial Italy to the court of Vienna, where he and Mozart vie for the attentions of the musically inept but keen Emperor. But while Salieri's compositions never rise above mediocrity, Mozart's "The Magic Flute" dazzles the court, and he is even able to convince the Emperor to allow him to adapt Beaumarchais' scandalous "The Marriage of Figaro" into an opera. And while Vienna does not take to his "Don Giovanni", it is Salieri's curse to be able to recognize the genius of Mozart, without ever being able to match it.
A case in point is when Salieri's cherished soprano is discovered to have slept with Mozart. How is it that a man who shows no respect for the instruments of music, and who leads a lifestyle that affronts Salieri's own religious convictions, be so blessed by God? It is a question that Salieri cannot comprehend, and which leads him to declare war on God and his chosen creature. For Salieri, it is a cruel God that toys with him so, that allows him to sacrifice so much for a blessing that He then passes onto a seemingly ignorant boy.
Peter Shaffer's adaptation of his own play has obviously toned down the more stylized elements that made its name, and the result is quite successful. His words are spoken with eloquence by a wonderful cast, with Abraham's compelling, understated performance making him the perfect Salieri. Hulce is something else, his hyena laugh (apparently based on historical accounts) sometimes comes across as a bit much, and although his is clearly the showiest role he made less of an impression on me than Abraham, beginning with his Yankee accent which wouldn't budge.
But the film has two true stars, and one of them must unquestionably be the music of Mozart. The lavish staging of "The Abduction from the Sereglio" is a knockout, while his greatest works are littered throughout the film. The other star must be Prague, Foreman's hometown, here standing in for Vienna. It is perhaps ironic that Prague claims that Mozart always loved them better; he premiered Don Giovanni at the Prague Estates Theatre to great acclaim, and Praguers mourned spectacularly on his death. The delicate 18th Century architecture of Prague still intact, it provides a perfect setting for this baroque court of music and fancy, itself the setting for this look at jealousy in its most personal of forms.
A group of backpackers from Ohio stumble through Europe under the pretext that one must leave the US to drink and have pre-marital sex (They're probably right). Much mocking of tired old Euro-stereotypes ensures, all of which wears very thin very quickly because its nothing we haven't seen before. Personally, I don't understand why some people will go so far to muse over how inferior Europe is to the US. If you don't like it, DON'T GO! This film makes it painfully obvious that Europe needs one thing: harsher visa requirements. Dumb, loud and tedious, if I was from a European nation I would be offended. My American friends, this is why France hates you.
Big Fish (2003)
Fact vs Fiction
Tim Burton's latest, "Big Fish", begs the question as to whether fiction can tell us more about a person than fact. The case in point is Ed Bloom (Albert Finney), who tells fantastic tales of his adventures as a young man (Ewan McGregor). His son (Billy Crudup) has tired of all these tall tales, and feels as if he has never really understood his father. None of this seems to stop him regaling us with accounts of his life, how he met his wife (Alison Lohman), how he survived wartime, and how he restored an entire town. Much unlike Burton's rather black films ("Sleepy Hollow", "Edward Scissorhands"), "Big Fish" is filled with vivid technicoloured imagery. There's plenty of visual symbolism afoot, which I won't give away here. All I can say is that I have to admit, I liked it.
Good Bye Lenin! (2003)
A Curious, Original, Telling Film
Spoilers may lie here-in.
Alas, I am a little young to remember the fall of Communism in East Germany. Of what I've heard and read, it was a long and torrid process staged throughout 1989, culminating in that iconic image of the fall of the wall in Berlin. It was yet another chapter in the tumultuous (to say the least) history of 20th Century Berlin, and yet the city's indomitable spirit has survived. Berlin has in a sense been a political battleground, ruled by fascists and communists in succession. Nowhere else will you find such political contrast, and as one knows, political ideology is prime target for satire.
Wolfgang Becker's wonderful film, "Goodbye, Lenin!" is satire of the highest order, in that it is able to take these historical events and inject them into a beautiful tale of filial devotion. The film begins with the dying days of communism, when young Alexander (Daniel Bruhl) takes to the streets to protest the repression of the East German government. His mother Christiane (Katrin Sass), a devoted party-member, suffers a stroke. Since her husband abandoned her for the West, the ideals of East Germany have been her greatest love, and she lies in a coma while they systematically collapse. When she awakes, Daniel is warned that another shock may kill her, and thus begins an elaborate cover-up to convince his mother that all is well in her socialist paradise.
The lengths Alexander goes to protect his beloved mother contribute most to the warmth of this film. Fake news broadcasts report that Coca Cola (tm) was a socialist invention stolen during the war, after a giant Coca Cola (tm) billboard is erected outside the window. But beyond this small bedroom that Christiane is confined to, change is rampant. The corner-store becomes a super-market chain, and Alexander's sister Ariane (beautifully played by Maria Simon) leaves university to take up a job at Burger King (tm).
The point Becker makes is that communist oppression has been over-run by tacky commercialism. Are we ever really free of the political system of our nation? Can we ever live just as we want? To Becker, is seems that the decisions once made by politicians are now made by corporate executives, the new power brokers. As Alexander's lies become more elaborate, particularly the report that refugees from the corrupt West have been welcomed to East Berlin, it becomes obvious that the real socialist paradise was a creation of Christiane, something she believed in, but which perhaps never existed beyond her own sphere of influence.
Becker's is a beautiful film, enriched with excellent performances from all involved, and a lovely score by Yann Teisan (and who will forget that image of Lenin flying down the street!). It is satire as sharp as a tack yet also subtle enough to bring these historical events down in scale to a simple German family. The figures of Christiane, who loves her ideals, and Alexander, who loves his family, merge with moving effect. This film is a kind of tribute to lost ideals, loyalty and devotion, but is does not mourn a doomed system. The loyalty and devotion here are not to systems or governments, but to who we love and what we believe in. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a comedy so much.
The Magdalene Sisters (2002)
I warn those who have not yet seen this film that the following may contain some spoilers.
I don't often rave about films, but I will make an exception for Peter Mullan's directorial debut, the magnificent "Magdalene Sisters", a slice of forgotten history of conservative Irish Catholicism. it's the story of young women who are for several reasons (relating to apparently unforgivable displays of sexuality), are shipped off to a laundry owned by the Magdalene Sisters, a group of nuns who have dedicated their lives to the ideals of Mary Magdalene, the repentant courtesan. These fallen women, abandoned by their ashamed families, would work for the nuns, and be kept in near prison-like conditions.
Chief of these nuns is the Mother Superior (Geraldine McEwan), who quickly dispels any memories of the demure little nuns of "The Sound of Music". This soft-spoken woman is a lesson in cruelty, shaving the head of a beautiful girl to rob her of her looks, and yet she is not a melodramatic villain. Religion, itself an institution of cruelty and hate, has taken such a hold of her that she believes hurting these young women is god's work. The effects of the existence here are simply fascinating to watch. One girl, presented with an opportunity to escape this prison, lets the chance pass her by, because Catholocism makes a different kind of prison, that of guilt. There is no formation of anything like sorority here, as the nuns break their spirits with dehumanizing treatment.
Mullan allows a show of humanity for the nuns, particularly when they watch the "fillem" "The Bells of Saint Mary", but at other times they seem to be the absolute personification of depravity. Witness the shower scene, where two nuns humiliate the girls with what they sickeningly call "games". The finale will have you punching the air and whooping with joy, but the epilogue makes a poignant point. Shockingly, the last Magdalene Laundry closed only in 1996, and brief recounts of the lives of the girls show that their experiences in the laundry have had a profound effect on their lives, and that all have had sad, and in one case tragic, lives.
Mullan is indeed brave to attack an institution like the Catholic church, but he brings up such an important issue. Catholicism has its roots in the notions of treating the least of men as if they were God himself, but this doesn't seem to be extended to women. The Catholic ideal of a woman is the Virgin Mary, who could be a virgin and a mother at the same time. Such is the Catholic church's fear of female sexuality, which the Magdalene story represents.
The performances of the young women, all virtually unknown, are excellent, but it is McEwan whose tour de force dominates the film. Her quiet cruelty, masked by a serene old face, is striking. Mullan's directing is assured, excellently paced and intelligent, making for a powerful and moving slice of lost Irish history, and the role of Catholicism in this history.
Indeed, the power of the Catholic church over Ireland, which extends right into the hearts and minds of the women of the laundry, is the central issue of Mullan's film. What we do to one another in the name of God is indeed a fascinating and potentially frightening question.
An Industry High Five
Chuck Barris made television shows that never presumed to appeal to anything more than the common man. They were unsophisticated, a little mean and pretty stupid, but people liked them for their unpretentiousness, and for the opportunity to laugh without thinking. Perhaps not high art, but it was what it said it was. By contrast, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" aspires to be a moody conversation piece, appealing to "inquiring minds", but it has completely the wrong feel. This subject matter does not make for a probing insight into the human existence, but script-writer Charlie Kaufman has decided it does. The result is a boring, thoroughly pretentious biography that gives far more credit than is due to all involved.
Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) was the creator of low-brow entertainment like "The Dating Game" and "The Gong Show", resoundingly held accountable for the decline of modern civilization. He claims he was also a CIA agent, taking out contract killings while on "Dating Game" holidays. I don't buy it for a second, and I find it surprising that this film opts to ignore the question of the validity of this story.
This film reeks of pretension, right down to Kaufman's dark, supposedly avant-garde script that does an awful lot of musing but can't seem to hold a coherent storyline. In the DVD special features, first-time director Clooney and his cast rave about Sam Rockwell, but Rockwell just seems to alternate between dead-pan narration and crude parody. Clooney's decision to place his celebrity friends in cameos isn't as clever as Clooney seems to think. Only Barrymore, in an unconventional role, is really worth watching.
This film has been the toast of tinsel town, mostly because it attempts to take a flimsy, dismissible story, and make it an incoherent ramble that Hollywood and art-students love to love. But it doesn't exactly make for great viewing as much as it does for Hollywood back-slapping and glad-handing.
Morte a Venezia (1971)
Strange. There's no other word for it.
This peculiar film about a musician's obsession for a Polish boy whilst holidaying in disease ridden Italy has one major flaw. I've never considered the crumbling, rat-ridden city of Venice to be that beautiful, as much as it is historically fascinating. The boy in this picture (played by the Swedish Bjorn Andresen) isn't that good-looking either. For a film about beauty, this is fatal. The film is also notoriously slow, but Dirk Bogarde's performance and Mahler's haunting score have made it a romantic classic for many people. To my mind, it hasn't aged well, and is perhaps a wee bit too subtle.
Good but Flawed
Jonathon Demme's film "Beloved" has in many ways been re-christened Oprah Winfrey's film. The self-confessed Toni Morrison fan was the driving force behind this film, the Talk Show Queen taking the lead character. The result is an earnest, but unfortunately flawed film.
The thing about the novel "Beloved" is that it has a truly wonderful story. Its very moving, very poignant and indeed very rewarding. It would be hard to ruin such a story, but Demme does not do it full justice. There are moments when this film really soars, but they seem few, and often very far between.
The story revolves around Sethe (Winfrey), an escaped black slave living in freed Ohio after the Civil War with her daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise). Sethe's two sons have abandoned her, leaving the women in a small hut that appears to be haunted by a sad poltergeist. The arrival of two new figures brings new elements to life. Paul D (Danny Glover), who knew Sethe when she was a slave, awakens new possibilities of happiness, but when a child-like young woman calling herself Beloved (Thandi Newton) climbs out of the swamp, the story of Sethe's escape and the ghosts that still haunt her re-emerge.
Winfrey has proved herself with "The Colour Purple", and I thought it was very brave that she opted to look that gritty, considering she is no classic beauty (her eyes look like they're a yard apart!). She's quite fine in this role, but Lisa Gay Hamilton is even better as the younger Sethe in the flashbacks. The actual character of Beloved must have been indeed difficult to translate to the screen, all things considered. Thandi Newton's interpretation is perhaps not entirely successful, a little overdone and stressed, but hers is undoubtedly the most challenging character in the production.
As stated, there are moment when the power of Morrison's prose really shines through. Morrison's is a mystic and soaring look at the effects of slavery, but the supernatural element that was seamless in the novel appears slightly awkward here. I remember Morrison's book being of reasonable length, but this is not extended to the film. Interest lags sometimes in this three-hour production, and the key scenes and moments seem unnecessarily spread out. However, when you do come across these scenes that have an undeniable impact. The beautiful finale, as well as a handful of others, are truly heartbreaking, but I just don't believe that Demme has captured the power and the poetry that was Morrison's masterpiece.
Kath & Kim (2002)
A great laugh
"Kath and Kim" has had a sensational impact on Australian television. The most watched homegrown comedy in years, it is also undoubtedly the best. The characters are brilliantly written, leaving space for hilarious situations that really send up life in the Australian suburbs. Ironically, Kath and Kim have become the most toasted products of the environment they parody.
Kath (Jane Turner) is a house-proud, high maintenance middle-aged woman, with a new lease of life thanks to her new beau, Kel (Glen Robbins). The biggest problem, in more ways than one, is her vile daughter Kim (Gina Riley), whose back at home after leaving her husband Brett (Peter Rowsthorn), who is more devoted to his dog than her. Then there's also Sharon (the hilarious Magda Szubanski), Kim's sporty, unlucky second-best friend. The big laughs come from these characters attempting to appear chic-literate, and from their "unsophisticated" fashion, and seeing Kath's plans for her dream-wedding take hand.
The scripts are sharp and perceptive, the performances all outstanding. This is Australia's answer to "Absolutely Fabulous", bit its popularity is not restricted to its home country. New Zealanders love an opportunity to mock Australian suburbia.