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The Paperboy (2012)
The Most Underrated Film of 2012
With The Paperboy, we have the arrival of a major new cinematic talent - Lee Daniels. Though his first two films (the bizarre Shadowboxer and the extremely well-acted Precious) had their merits, only with The Paperboy do we finally see the maturation of his craft, the arrival of a distinct new voice. It is a hypnotically bold, daringly original, and utterly fearless film that seemingly effortlessly dances between drama and comedy, tenderness and tension, completely unafraid to go to shocking, dangerous places. It feels totally unpredictable, and nothing about it feels safe, which is something far too many movies are these days. The Paperboy hearkens back to the audacious spirit of American cinema in the 1970s, when filmmakers weren't afraid to make outrageous works like Deliverance and Prime Cut. In this film's world, nothing is sacred, and because Daniels is so assured with this approach, so completely in control of every moment, watching it is an enthralling, absorbing, exhilarating experience.
Rarely am I so entertained and captivated by a film, and even more rarely am I so blown away by a film's originality and daring. With The Paperboy, Lee Daniels created a world I didn't want to leave and a film I didn't want to end. I can't wait to see where he goes from here.
Dwaj ludzie z szafa (1958)
Early Brilliance From Polanski
"Dwaj ludzie z szafa", more commonly known as "Two Men and a Wardrobe", is an early short film from Roman Polanski's film school days.
The most well-known and arguably the best of Polanski's short films, "Wardrobe" is a fairly simple story two men emerge from the ocean carrying a wardrobe, and they travel through a city trying to find a good home for it.
The film is black and white, fourteen minutes long, and completely free of dialogue. It is truly remarkable what Polanski can accomplish with so little. It is deceptively simple on the surface, yet beneath beats the heart of a profound, touching fable. Who are these men? Where are they from? Are they human? They traverse humanity, representing innocence, and witness nothing but skepticism, intolerance, and violence. These are themes that Polanski would revisit later in another short film, "When Angels Fall", and, in a way, he would revisit them many years later with The Pianist and Oliver Twist. It's hard to call the two men protagonists, or even characters at all. They are more the lens of the audience a mere vehicle through which Polanski displays mankind. Mankind is what this film is about. We are the characters.
The film is heartwarming and playful, yet ultimately cynical and sad. Is there no place for innocence and peace left in the world? Are we just a vicious, hating, violent species? In the end, that is all the two men and the wardrobe find, and they retreat back into their ocean haven, disappointed, disillusioned, and slightly broken.
This short film can be found on the Criterion DVD release of Polanski's debut feature film Knife In The Water, and it is well worth seeking out. It is visually dazzling, alludes to many themes Polanski would explore further in the future, and it more than holds its own as a stand-alone film. A must-see for any Polanski fan.
Il grande silenzio (1968)
The Definition of Anti-Western
Westerns. What comes to mind? Sandy deserts, hot sun, tumbleweeds, and heroic duels, right? Now reverse all of that. Now you have The Great Silence.
After a brutal bounty hunter kills a woman's husband, she hires Silence, a mute man who kills bounty hunters for money.
One of the most interesting ideas behind The Great Silence is apparent through the main plot itself. Is Silence any better than the bounty hunter? Isn't he a bounty hunter? The film is full of questions and thoughts about the nature of the old west. It is a film about the emptiness of violence and revenge. Have there been many films that have dealt with these issues? Yes. But The Great Silence is not just a deep contemplation of violence it is also simply a very entertaining spaghetti western, thus it never feels dull and is always engaging.
The whole cast is excellent, but the highlight is the incredibly talented Klaus Kinski, who is electrifying in the role of the ice-cold bounty hunter Loco. As always, you just can't take your eyes off him. But Jean-Louis Trintignant is also very notable for his portrayal of Silence. He takes the Clint Eastwood archetype of "The Man With No Name" one step further in that he quite literally never says a word. Yet somehow he manages to be a very sympathetic character, and we, as an audience, genuinely care about him.
Sergio Corbucci's direction is fittingly sloppy shaky camera-work and many quick zooms make for an unnerving and slightly surreal framework for the film. Interestingly enough, it is actually quite the opposite of Sergio Leone's glacial direction, though he appears to have been an influence on this film. And it is also worth noting that Ennio Morricone scores the film, and he does it expertly.
But the big allure of The Great Silence is its complete reversal of the western genre. Instead of sand and sun, we get snow and clouds. But what's more is that the hero doesn't win. At the moment when one would expect him to pull his gun and defeat the band of villains, he is crippled, and killed. The heroine is killed. All of the innocent hostages are killed. Evil prevails, and the bad guys live. It is just about the most unexpected and downbeat ending I have ever seen. It is also one of the most honest and powerful. Thanks to Corbucci's skilled direction, it hits you like a punch to the gut and it lingers in your mind. It doesn't feel cheap or gimmicky, like it very easily could have.
It is, in fact, so devastating that Corbucci was actually forced to shoot an alternate "happy" ending for certain markets, in which, just in the nick of time, the (dead) sheriff miraculously reappears and kills Loco, allowing Silence to finish off the rest of the bounty hunters. You can see it on the Fantoma DVD. It is hilarious to watch, as it is so obvious that Corbucci shot it in a tongue-in-cheek manner mocking the very clichés it was perpetuating. The west was a harsh place in time where the good guys didn't always win, and Corbucci did an excellent job conveying that.
The Great Silence is a fascinating film that turns the western genre completely on its head. While it is not as beautifully atmospheric as McCabe & Mrs. Miller or as relentlessly entertaining as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, it is a moving and profound film that you certainly won't forget.
Oliver Twist (2005)
A Moving Masterpiece From a Master of Cinema
When I first heard Roman Polanski was going to make Oliver Twist his next project, I found it curious. Why would he go from The Pianist in 2002, a harrowing, realistic account of Holocaust horrors, to Oliver Twist, something of an uplifting, child-friendly story, three years later? Did he just want to lighten up and take a breather? He says he wanted to make a film his children could relate to. This makes Oliver Twist, the film, seem more and more curious to me. Because Polanski's Oliver Twist is a very dark and very deep film.
We all know the story an orphan boy tries to escape a life of dreadful torment and winds up in a gang of young pickpockets, lead by a flamboyant old man named Fagin.
Now, I have not read Charles Dickens' novel, so I cannot critique Oliver Twist as an adaptation. However, the film is so delicate and emotional that I feel it transcends any critiques on adaptation accuracy. This film is not a lighthearted fairy tale, but a beautiful drama crafted by an experienced master of cinema.
First of all, Polanski has a gift for getting great performances out of his actors. The most striking performance in Twist is delivered by Ben Kingsley, whom Polanski extracted such a terrific performance from eleven years prior in Death and The Maiden. He exhibits such a charming and exuberant nature, you can't help but feel a certain fondness for him, no matter how sinister he may seem at times. He's just a lovable old man. Jamie Foreman does a great job as Bill Sykes, creating one of the most menacing and easily hate-able villains I've ever seen. Barney Clark does a pretty good job for a child actor. He's never irritating and quite convincing. The rest of the cast is fairly strong all around, as well.
I could go on and on about how Oliver Twist is masterfully lit and how well the cinematography works, but it rises above technical critiques. I felt such a consistently overwhelming string of emotions while viewing it that I find it difficult to compose this review. The film made me feel uplifted and hopeful before devastating me with disappointment, and then did it all again and again and again, and that, to me, is a remarkable feat. (On a side note, I would also like to add that this is all underscored wonderfully by Rachel Portman's excellent score.) And this is just one way that Polanski is a true master of cinematic perspective. The viewer experiences every emotion that Oliver experiences, and Polanski does it not through gimmicks or manipulation, but through what is shown and not shown. When Oliver is torn away from what could prove to be a loving household, which he has never experienced, he is left with a terrible feeling of guilt and fear. Fear not of what is going to happen to him, but of what his wonderful almost-parents would think of him. The viewer never sees their reaction, but is left with an unbearable sense of not knowing. It's like a punch to the gut, and it hurts.
In a lot of ways, Oliver Twist is a surprisingly logical progression from The Pianist. Both are films that examine the best and worst elements of humanity, and ultimately portray a message of hope. While The Pianist used the real-life horror of The Holocaust to convey this, Oliver Twist uses a fictional 19th Century England. Polanski uses moments of horrible cruelty (including a particularly hard to watch scene of incredibly brutal violence) and moments of nearly inexplicable kindness and decency to create a poignant tapestry of humanity and all that it is capable of. He even does it, at times, with a simple juxtaposition of imagery.
Oliver Twist is a gorgeous, moving, and enlightened masterpiece from a seasoned director who knows exactly what he wants and how to achieve it. Roman Polanski is one of the true masters of the motion picture, and if Oliver Twist does prove to be his last film, it is an unexpectedly strong note to go out on.
Interesting, But Lacking At Its Core
The legendary Jeanne Moreau stars as Mademoiselle, a school teacher, filled with repressed sexual urges, in a small French village. She finds ways to vent her desires, mostly through arson and other destructive acts.
Mademoiselle seems like a film that desperately wants to be profound. It seems like a film that wants to say something about repressing desires, and the insignificance of mankind against nature. For the most part, it fails. It is unclear whether Mademoiselle's violent actions are the product of sexual desire or simple sadism. She sets fires and opens floodgates, but is it a sexual urge? Not really, she just seems to get a kick out of watching the townspeople scramble to save their lives and possessions.
And while the film is directed with an interesting visual flair that does often capture the beauty of nature quite well, it never really achieves a level of Lean-esquire glory or magnificence. Sure, it's pretty to look at, but what's the point? The acting is also sorely lacking. Ettore Manni, who plays Mademoiselle's (and everyone else's) sexual interest, is just not very good. He often unleashes these boisterous laughs, and every time I cringed. It's not even a little bit convincing. Even the usually wonderful Moreau fails to impress here. Her performance just feels hollow. As she has proved in the past that she can be very good, I blame director Tony Richardson, who, unlike someone like François Truffaut or Louis Malle, clearly doesn't grasp what Moreau is capable of.
That's not to say Mademoiselle is a failure. There are several deeply disturbing moments, one in particular involving a rabbit. The film seems to be trying to say that all human beings can be monsters at times, and we take out our suppressed aggression on whatever innocence may be around us. Still, the film seems to lack a core of genuine emotional depth, and therefore, lacks resonance. It doesn't help that it tends to move along at a remarkably slow pace, which causes it to try the viewer's patience at times.
However, I would probably give Mademoiselle a mild recommendation, if for nothing besides the attractive visuals and the fact that it contains Jeanne Moreau.
Snakes on a Plane (2006)
"I've had it with these motherf***ing snakes on this motherf***ing plane!"
Snakes. On a plane.
Get it? If not, you're not going to get this movie, either. If so, Snakes On a Plane delivers all you could want.
There is no point in summarizing the plot. Somehow, hundreds of exotic, venomous snakes get onto a jumbo jet and terrorize the passengers. Again, if you still don't get it, this film is just not for you.
I must admit, ever since I first read the title on IMDb oh-so many months ago, I have been eagerly awaiting its release. Snakes On a Plane. So simple, so blunt, so wonderfully absurd so brilliant. SOaP is pure marketing genius. I waited and waited for what seemed like an eternity Then the soundtrack was released. I was crushed. Panic! At The Disco? Fall Out Boy? What kind of moron allowed this filth to poison my beloved SOaP? I was outraged, and my anticipation had suffered a major blow. Still, I remained cautiously optimistic. The Cee-Lo Green track at least gave me a little hope.
Then, finally, at long last, August 18th arrived. And let me tell you, SOaP is pretty much perfect. From the opening baseball bat murder, to Samuel L. Jackson's incredibly fitting "Do exactly as I say if you want to live." introduction, to Samuel L. Jackson's incredibly fitting closing line, those lovable CGI snakes tore my worries to pieces, much like how they did everything else in sight.
SOaP is everything it should be. It's stupid, violent, ludicrous, hilarious, and above all, fun. And the fact that Samuel L. Jackson is in his most purely badass role since Pulp Fiction doesn't hurt, either. It's been a long time since we've had a truly whacked-out, senselessly violent, one-liner-spewing action comedy. True Lies was essentially the last of the breed, and even that was more of a conscious parody of such films. But Commando fans should rejoice, for Snakes On a Plane catapults the genre back into its glory days, and it is arguably the best film of its kind since that 1985 gem of repressed homosexuality.
Oh, and that music thing. Don't worry; it's only orchestral score until the end credits, as it should be.
There are only three things I can think of that would improve SOaP. 1. Get rid of that awful music video during the end credits. 2. Change Samuel L. Jackson's character name to Samuel L. Jackson. 3. The bloodshed could have been turned up just a bit more. Where were all the arterial snakebite sprays?
But those complaints are minor, and the second one is, admittedly, pretty stupid. But stupidity is what SOaP is all about!
All in all, Snakes On a Plane is the most unbridled fun I've had and am likely to have at the movies this year, and it's probably the best and most entertaining B-movie in years.
Johnny Belinda (1948)
A Poignant Masterpiece
There are very few films that have literally brought tears to my eyes. They must be films of uncompromising emotional power. Films like Magnolia, The Passion of the Christ, and now Johnny Belinda.
It is the story of a deaf and dumb young woman named Belinda. Treated as an unintelligent workhorse all her years, Belinda's life changes forever when a lonely new doctor moves into her small coastal Nova Scotian port town. He takes an immediate liking to her and, proving to her family that she is not the "dummy" they think, he teaches her to read lips. But after a drunken sexual assault leaves her pregnant, rumors begin to fly throughout the small town, and both Belinda and her loved ones must fight for what's right.
The performances are wonderful. Of course, Jane Wyman simply steals the show in her Oscar-winning performance. She brings an incredible heart, warmth, and emotional resonance to the character of Belinda, and she does it without ever saying a word. The rest of the cast is marvelous as well, especially Charles Bickford, who lovingly portrays Belinda's father, and Stephen McNally, who turns Belinda's attacker into one of the most easy to loathe characters ever put on celluloid yet the film still brilliantly keeps him at the level of a realistic personality no one is a caricature.
Director Jean Negulesco brings an understated visual beauty to the film reminiscent of the silent ages, when one had to use aesthetics to make up for the lack of aural stimulus. Every shot is a perfectly composed work of art, turning every moment of Belinda into a masterwork of lighting and raw, majestic nature. The seaside settings are utilized so well that they put Johnny Belinda in league with such legendary jaw-droppers as L'Avventura and Black Narcissus.
But this film is much more than just visual appeal. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, often simultaneously. There are so many thought-provoking themes to gnaw on in Johnny Belinda - the way people view the handicapped, the bonds of parenthood, the power of rumors, the justification of violence as self-defense, and overall morality and humanity. Even the film's setting could be considered an allegory on Belinda the brutal waves of the ocean constantly pounding against the serene shores.
The film is also, as I mentioned before, emotionally overwhelming. While it certainly has a focused narrative, Belinda is foremost a progression of feelings, and they are so well conveyed that I was simply overcome with joy, pain, heartbreak, and hope. While the film is often described as a melodrama, it is far from a soap opera. There are no miraculous moments of sudden verbal triumph for Belinda, no ridiculously overacted moments of teary-eyed abandon Johnny Belinda is a terribly real experience. There are aspects of the story that remain unresolved not loose ends, but difficult problems that would most likely also remain unresolved in reality.
However, I don't want to give the impression that Johnny Belinda is depressing. I felt uplifted and rapturous just as often as I felt overcome by grief and fear. I felt so much for these characters and I wanted so sorely for things to turn out a certain way but I won't reveal whether they do or not. I will say that the film ends on a note of nearly unbearable poignancy, and this is the moment that massaged my tear ducts.
My only complaint concerning the film is Max Steiner's score. He is perfectly suited for epic films like King Kong and Gone With The Wind, but here it feels somewhat over-dramatic and occasionally awkward. He tends to play up the melodramatic angle and spot score in a ubiquitous manner, which simply doesn't fit with a film like Johnny Belinda. Still, it tends to work more often than not, and it is not a major enough problem to work seriously to the film's detriment.
This picture is a true gem. It has been unavailable for years, but thanks to Warner Brothers, it finally has a DVD release, and the restoration is simply glorious it more than does justice to this cinematic treasure. Do yourself a favor and see Johnny Belinda.
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
Not Just Another Horror Remake
Fresh off his visceral masterpiece Haute tension, French director Alexandre Aja gets behind the camera once more for his second film, a revamping of Wes Craven's 1977 Texas Chainsaw wanna-be The Hills Have Eyes.
Upon a casual glance, it's easy to dismiss Hills as yet another useless Hollywood remake of a gritty '70s horror film the original is indeed gritty and from the '70s. However, unlike Dawn of the Dead or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hills is a film that could actually benefit from an updating. Also, unlike the Dawn and Chainsaw remakes, Hills has a director at the helm that actually loves the genre and knows what the hell he's doing.
By now, the scenario is all too familiar: an all-American family gets lost in the middle of nowhere and falls prey to some twisted clan of deranged psychopaths. Clichéd? Sure, but don't forget that the original Hills was one of the first. So just what does Aja bring to the table that sets Hills apart from the other (usually laughable) films of this type? An abundance of style, realism, emotion, and gore.
Aja seems to have a very solid understanding of the most primal emotions possessed by mankind, and in Hills, he explores them in a way that most filmmakers wouldn't dare. As in Haute tension, the violence is presented in a delicate blend of realistic horror and exploitative titillation. When the family is first attacked, the violence is brutal and ugly. However, when the tables are turned a member of the family becomes the one inflicting the violence, the bloodletting is slightly heightened and exploited for entertainment. Could the protagonist be enjoying his vicious revenge? Aja portrays this masterfully and dares his audience to enjoy it with the protagonist. Just how far should one be willing to go? How far is too far? Is this just as wrong? Can it be justified? Something else atypical about Hills is that we actually care about the characters. Instead of the usual ditzy blonde teens we can't wait to see get killed off, these characters are believable and we feel for them. They are all wonderfully portrayed by the fine cast, especially Aaron Stanford (whom you may recognize from X-Men 2 and 3), who gives a surprisingly terrific performance.
Something else that makes Hills more than just an average slasher flick is the masterfully subtle social commentary. The ever-present motif of the American flag (quite literally being shoved down a throat at one point) the rousing score so peculiarly similar to Ennio Morricone's distinctly (and ironically) American The Good, The Bad and The Ugly the ubiquitous desiccated desert landscape that bears a suspicious resemblance to the Middle East this film has something to say.
The only real flaw I can find in Hills is that there are, occasionally, a few groan-inducing "jump scares". They're cheap, gimmicky, and wholly unnecessary. But considering that Haute tension is pretty much entirely without such trickery, I can only guess (and hope) that they were due to studio interference. They have to at least somewhat cater to that moronic demographic, I suppose.
So what's next for Aja? He says his next film, The Waiting, is going to be a gore-less ghost story. He says he wants to see if he can be scary without the gore. There you have it, folks a man that is unafraid to unflinchingly show copious bloodshed, knows how to present subtle social commentary, and is looking to challenge himself. If the horror genre has a savior, Alexandre Aja is it.
Miami Vice (2006)
Not What It Could Have Been...
What comes to mind when you think of "Miami Vice"? Most likely, wild pastels, synthesizers, and bikinis, right? Well, forget about all that. Director Michael Mann, who long ago directed said '80s series, has morphed himself into a well-known master of tough crime films, most notably Heat and, more recently, Collateral. Not surprisingly, this Miami Vice is an entirely different animal than what you may remember.
FBI agents Sonny Crockett and Rico Stubbs, now played by Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx (respectively), are penetrating undercover into an international ring of violent, high-tech drug dealers, and they're getting in deeper than anyone before them. It's only a matter of time before their personal lives become involved and their loved ones thrust into danger.
It seems fairly apparent, even from the previews alone, that Mann is trying to recapture the glory of Collateral. With Jamie Foxx in a co-starring role and that same gritty, lo-fi cinematography, he isn't exactly trying to hide it. Admittedly, it is a great look for this type of film you can virtually feel the warm Miami breeze breathing down the back of your neck. However, I'm not thrilled about the recasting of Foxx, whom I find to be one of the most overrated actors in recent memory. He always seems to play the same character in every role, and this is no exception. Farrell isn't exactly a superb actor, either, but I guess Mann was going for star power in the lead roles, and I suppose he got that.
But the film's faults certainly don't lie with the actors alone Miami Vice suffers from the same pacing problems as Heat. The film opens with an intriguingly cryptic sequence and closes with a crackling shootout, but it sags throughout the mid-section. And it doesn't help that this mid-section is about one hour and forty-five minutes long. While Mann does manage to maintain a pretty good atmosphere throughout, the majority of what happens is rather predictable and uninteresting. For some reason, Mann seems preoccupied with focusing on romantic subplots instead of the actual plot, and again, they're quite uninspired.
In the music department, Mann once again shows a predilection toward Moby and Audioslave. In fact, there is so much Audioslave that he should have just caved and hired Cornell and crew to score the whole damn thing. Well, not really, but you get the idea. The soundtrack is actually pretty weak the Audioslave really only serves to enhance the already somewhat cheesy nature of the romantic scenes.
But Mann does shine during the three action sequences the film has. He once again proves he has a knack for taut, intense, and unflinching shootouts. Sadly, they are just not enough to elevate Miami Vice to any kind of memorable status. With some better actors, a tighter script, and an ending less syrupy, Miami Vice could have been a very solid action flick, à la Collateral, but all we get is a bloated corpse of what could have been.
The Graduate (1967)
Not Quite The Classic It's Claimed To Be
I recently read an interview with Roger Ebert in which he was asked if there were any films he had changed his opinion on over the years. He named The Graduate as a film he didn't like nearly as much as he used to. I think that says a lot about The Graduate.
It is an intentionally comedic drama about a recent college graduate (Dustin Hoffman) who returns home and sinks himself into a comfortable rut involving nightly hotel rendezvous' with an attractive older woman (Anne Bancroft), but when her daughter, who is much closer to his age, returns home, he falls for her, and a chaotic mess of twisted emotions ensues.
The film plays out like a teenager's wet dream. Hoffman's character has rich parents, almost no responsibility, and nightly sex with no strings attached. But director Mike Nichols tries to present it in such a way that Hoffman's character is bored out of his mind typical youth. This section of the film is one of the best depictions of the emptiness and anxiety of casual sex that I have ever seen. It is wonderfully heightened by the excellent accompanying Simon & Garfunkel.
However, the film loses a lot of steam when the daughter enters the picture. We are supposed to believe that Hoffman's character falls in love with her, but I must admit that I felt no real connection between the characters and no real chemistry between the actors. It felt like the writer just needed to throw in something to cause some conflict in the story, so he simply threw in an underdeveloped relationship with the daughter. The whole thing seems to be a cheap attempt at depth, but it just comes off as shallow.
And then we come to the film's often-parodied ending in which Hoffman's character breaks up the daughter's wedding and runs away with her. I found the whole thing to be rather underwhelming. There is no real love between these characters they're just a couple of young people being compulsive.
I also must say that I didn't think the comedy element of the film worked very well at all. It just wasn't very funny, and I don't see why it was necessary.
However, the film does have strength in Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, who are both simply wonderful here. The juxtaposition of their characters alone is fascinating enough a young, naïve man who yearns for a meaningful relationship, but can't resist his hormonal urges, and a hardened, somewhat bitter older woman who simply wants to cut out the arbitrary, for lack of a better term, bullshit and get to the carnality. But Hoffman and Bancroft inject a genuine life into these characters that no one else could have. All the Simon & Garfunkel was a big plus for me, as well.
Overall, The Graduate has the potential to be an introspective drama about the emptiness of sex and the confliction of attraction, but it is squandered on a juvenile and rushed romantic twist.