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Harvey Keitel may be one of the biggest almost-mega-stars in Hollywood
history. He was Martin Scorsese's boy wonder, and was well on his way
to the A-list; until the show was stolen from him in 'Mean Streets' by
supporting actor Robert De Niro. The next time the two played together
in a Scorsese film, De Niro was the star and Keitel was barely
recognizable as a villainous pimp, and the rest is history. And yet,
surprisingly, after a decade of marginalization, Keitel enjoyed a brief
renaissance in the mainstream, with memorable lead roles in 'Reservoir
Dogs', 'The Piano' and 'Smoke'. Stuck somewhere in between those three
was 'Bad Lieutenant' - a hateful, despicable, practically insufferable
film, in which Keitel pulled a performance that may be as good as
anything De Niro made in his long and celebrated career.
'Bad Lieutenant' is not, by any measure, a great film. Like most Abel Ferrara films it's pretentious and self-indulgent in pornographic levels. However, the script and story are sparse enough, and Keitel's performance is powerful enough, to make it an impressive experience nevertheless. Keitel proves just how much of a character actor he is in a performance so powerfully painful that it brings up memories of Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now; Keitel's Lieutenant is a portrait of a man in a mental breakdown, and it's so breathtakingly convincing and pained that it's nearly impossible to watch. If you're entertaining any notions that 'Bad Lieutenant' is a crime drama in the vein of 'Reservoir Dogs' or Martin Scorsese's works, or even the more recent remake starring Nicolas Cage, leave those notions behind. It's a mood piece with barely any plot to speak of, and more than anything else it's a master class in acting. If you can force yourself to sit through it, you may get one of the single finest acting jobs of the 90's.
For your own sake - and especially if you're a science fiction fan - do not take Another Earth literally; better yet, don't think of it as a science fiction film at all. Focusing on whether or not it makes sense scientifically - which it most certainly doesn't - will not allow you to enjoy it in any way or get anything out of it, and there's actually a lot to get. Another Earth is a minimalistic drama about personal choices, human connections and regret, where any elements that could be described as science fiction is used as an allegory for the characters' state of mind and for the human condition, rather than the driving point of the story. If you can watch it with that in mind, and resist the urge to look for physical and astronomical consistency or anything of that nature, you'll find a beautiful film, both very sad and quite hopeful, with a great deal of love for humanity and an intellectual insight into human nature. Brit Marling delivers a subtle, subdued but sharp and effective performance in the lead, and even if the directorial work and cinematography are a little bland and conventional - which makes it not quite as good as it maybe could have been - it doesn't detract from the writing and the acting, which make for a fascinating and engrossing allegorical tale. Highly recommended for anyone with an open mind.
Reversal of Fortune is a dramatization of a real-life attempted murder
case, as documented in the book by the same title which was written by
Alan M. Dershowitz, defense attorney to the main suspect, Claus von
Bülow. The film works as a solid little courtroom drama with an
intriguing story, a clever script and an impressive cast; but it
doesn't go the extra mile into something more than a daytime TV movie.
It tries hard to break the mold - most notably, by having much of the
film narrated by the victim - but at heart, it remains a very plain
legal drama; and emotionally, it maintains a dry, distant coldness that
doesn't allow the viewer to care about anything that's going on. That
feeling of emotional disconnection leads to a film with a steady pace,
with no highs and lows, and with no real climaxes or tension. In other
words - rather dull, and unless you really pay attention to the details
of the case, there's nothing much to grab onto.
It's also worth mentioning that the film's poster, as well as Jeremy Irons's Oscar win, is more than a bit misleading, because Irons and Glenn Close aren't really the main characters, though the story revolves around them; and in fact Irons's performance is completely over-the-top and certainly not up to the standards he set two years earlier with his masterful work on Dead Ringers. The majority of the film revolves around Ron Silver, who plays Dershowitz himself; and while Silver's performance is understated and quiet, it's also the strongest one in the film. But it's just not enough to give it any emotional or moral weight and to keep the whole thing together, because the viewer doesn't care about Dershowitz winning or losing the trial any more then they do about Von Bülow being found guilty or not.
Like the best of British dramedies, Mrs. Henderson Presents is, most of
all, a joy to watch. A witty script and snappy, fast dialog; excellent
British actors (Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Will Young and Christopher
Guest are all deliciously nasty); occasional laughs, and most of all, a
lot of heart and a lot of humanity. Much like The Full Monty, this film
takes a subject matter that would have probably come across as lewd and
awkward in an American film, and makes it very approachable by putting
as much emphasis as possible on the human spirit, almost to the point
of naiveté; but it never falls into kitch, and manages to make for a
true feel-good movie in the real sense of the words.
The film's only real failing is in its pacing, which made me feel like there could have been a lot more to this story. This is felt most clearly with the characters, who go through very little development. We get some insight into the main characters played by Dench and Hoskins, though not a lot of it; but other characters don't even get that, and it's most irritating with the Maureen, played wonderfully by Kelly Reilly, who has the making of a main character but one gets the feeling that a lot of her scenes were left out in the editing process, because she jumps from scenes to scenes completely changed but the viewer gets no sense of the process she goes to, and ultimately cares about her very little. These problems are probably to some indecision about whether this should be a historical drama or a character study, and the 100-min runtime just isn't enough to carry both. That stops it short of being a great film, but it's still a very good one and one it's impossible not to enjoy.
Probably the best thing I can say about Killer Joe is that it's
memorable, and that's nothing to be taken too lightly: this film is a
true original, it has style, it has wit, it cleverly juggles genres and
it sticks to the viewer's mind. William Friedkin (The French
Connection, The Exorcist, Rules of Engagement) was always a solid
director working within genres, not one who breaks molds; in Killer Joe
he's more daring, more stylish and more wicked than I've ever seen him
Killer Joe is far from perfect, though. A lot has been said about Matthew McConaughey's performance - there's no doubt that it's a gutsy one and I applaud McConaughey for stepping out of the comfort zone of his rom-com typecast, but I really don't think he has the depth to pull off Joe's character, and when he plays a psychopathic killer I feel like he's imitating other actors playing psychopaths in movies he saw, and he doesn't sell it, which drains the film of a lot of the power it could have had, with a more competent actor in the lead. Some of the other actors pull their weight, though - in particular, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple and Gina Gershon all deliver wonderful performances which give their relatively minor characters a lot more depth than the script gives them.
McConaughey's acting isn't the only thing to keep Killer Joe from greatness, though; Friedkin juggles genres impressively, but it doesn't always work quite the way he intended it. Especially some of the more shocking scenes in the second half feel like they're trying too hard to shock, to the point that they wind up more funny than shocking and take the wind out of the more humorous scenes. The film, as a whole, suffers from lack of balance and focus and a general inconsistency. But even if the viewers can't always be sure if they're watching intelligent camp or just pure trash, they're always invested and always interested, and they're still wondering what they saw a long time after the film is over. It's not perfect and it may not be everyone's cup of tea but it should definitely be watched.
Why is Terrence Malick so highly regarded by film buffs? Why is he
considered by so many to be one of the best directors alive? On most
days I would say that the sole reason is his mysteriousness. That his
many years of inactivity throughout the 80's and 90's, his long
intervals between films even after that, and his fondness for
seclusion, served to build up his reputation as a cult figure and made
the legend that much bigger than the man. It's only during and
immediately after watching Days of Heaven that I see the magic Malick
has, the one that made him a unique and legendary director even when he
only had two films under his belt - a magic that, try as I might, I
could never find in any of the films he made afterwords.
Days of Heaven was fascinating for me because it's a rare case of a film that I loved but couldn't explain to myself why. In addition to breathtakingly beautiful (Oscar winning) cinematography and superb music (Ennio Morricone's beautiful score skillfully juxtaposed with segments from Saint-Saëns), Days of Heaven has a kind of human warmth that makes it very easy to be absorbed into; paradoxically, it feels very global and very personal at the same time. The fact that it deals with very general emotions and issues of human morality, emphasized by the pretty transparent use of biblical analogies, doesn't detract from the impression that it features real people that the viewer cares about deeply. This despite a sparse script that's pretty weak even when taking its minimalism into account, and an awful performance from Richard Gere (balanced by the much more believable work of Sam Shepard).
Days of Heaven is an experience rather than a film, and the experience is so powerful and absorbing that the above mentioned flaws are hardly even noticeable. It's not perfect in every way, but it probably couldn't have been better than it is - it's a film where all the pieces fall into place, including all the seemingly meaningless and random shots of nature - unlike the ones in The New World and Tree of Life, that seemed like they were pasted in just to make it feel like a Malick film. I don't know if it's the fact that he didn't yet feel like he has something to prove, or if the short runtime is a factor, but Days of Heaven feels more personal than most films, and Malick seems to have invested his soul in it, which may explain why he didn't dare release another film for two decades. He probably knew that he'll never make one that matched it.
The screwball comedy genre, as a whole, dated terribly, more so than almost anything else made in the 30's and 40's; My Man Godfrey stands the test of time better than most, mainly thanks to the fact that - in contrast to the usual tradition of screwball - the male lead in this film, played by William Powell, is an interesting and layered character with some mystery to him, rather than a stiff, dull, uncharismatic robot. Powell's Godfrey seems to not be aware that he's in a screwball comedy, which makes the romantic scenes - especially the ending - forced and awkward; but the romance in My Man Godfrey is its worst aspect anyway, and it feels as if it was tacked on just to make the film conform to the genre, and Carole Lombard often looks like she's embarrassed to be a part of it and wants to get it over with as quickly as possible. It's better to ignore that, and focus on the film's stronger points - Powell' straight-man performance, the social satire, and wonderful supporting roles by Alice Brady, Eugene Palette, Jean Dixon and of course Mischa Auer, who delivers the film's most hilariously over-the-top moments. At any rate, My Man Godfrey is probably essential for film history buffs and screwball lovers, and also for graphic designers for one of the finest title sequences of the 1930's; by its own right, it's an entertaining and zany little comedy that's still worth seeing.
Death at a Funeral (2007 original, not to be confused with the awful
American remake from 2010) is everything that's good about British
comedy, and if you're a fan of British humor you're likely to enjoy it.
With mainstream American comedy dumbing down more and more, it's nice
to have a reminder of just how good Brits are in merging high-brow and
low-brow, in creating a simple comedy which features corpses falling
out of caskets, fecal humor, nudity just for the heck of it and tons of
sexual humor and still feels this classy. Death at a Funeral has
terrific acting, intelligent dialog and restrained pacing, all of which
lack in most recent American comedies.
The one thing it lacks, and it's enough to bring the whole thing down a bit, is likable and interesting characters - especially the main characters, who we don't really get to know and don't really care about. The supporting cast hides some real gems though; Alan Tudyk (pulling off a terrific English accent), Peter Vaughan, Ewen Bremner and of course Peter Dinklage are all hilarious and steal the show from Matthew Macfadyen and Rupert Graves. It's not that Macfadyen and Graves aren't good in the film - they deliver their lines perfectly and with terrific timing, but they don't get anything interesting to work with. That's why Death at a Funeral, while incredibly fun, is also a bit forgettable and doesn't make any real connection. It's a shame, because it could have been better than it is, but it's still very good.
Michael Palin was always 'the Quiet One' of the Monty Python gang, but
he was one of the most talented actors in the group (second only to
Cleese and maybe Chapman) and a key writer of some of their most
memorable skits. In this, his one and only true vanity project - the
only film in which Palin was the sole writer as well as the star - he
didn't quite make the grade. Palin is a wonderful actor, but not quite
as good at being at the center of attention as Cleese, Chapman or even
Idle in his own over-the-top way; his character in The Missionary feels
bland and uncharismatic, a muffled echo of his Sir Galahad from Monty
Python and the Holy Grail (though it may be the inspiration for his
much funnier chaplain character in The Meaning of Life).
The Missionary isn't a bad film; it simply reeks of mediocrity and indecision, which leads to a sad feeling that it could have been much better. The writing is solid all the way through, but it's never quite clear if it was intended as a goofball comedy or a tongue-in-cheek social satire. As it is there's a little of both, but neither one goes all the way. The same goes for the characters played by Palin himself and by Maggie Smith, who are are denied strong, comical characteristics, but don't have any real subtlety or depth of character either. It's the more outrageous, cartoonish characters that are memorable - played by fine actors like Michael Hordern, Trevor Howard, Denholm Elliott, Phoebe Nicholls and a young but unmistakable Timothy Spall. Any scene with these characters works well, and that's when Palin's talent as a comedy writer and the famous Pythonesque timing pay off. Unfortunately these are sidenotes in the mess that is the overall film, which is dominated by the wasted talents of Palin and Smith.
Billy Wilder's work didn't exactly decline in quality during the 70's;
rather, he seems to have been making less of an effort to break new
ground and reinvent genres, instead leaning back on genres he new well
and making perfectly solid films that were fun to make and fun to
watch. The Front Page is no exception; on the surface it's easy to
blame Wilder of lacking originality, in adapting a play that had been
put to film twice before. However, the 1931 version really isn't good
enough to pay attention to, and the 1940 version (His Girl Friday)
changed things around quite a bit, making Wilder's version the
definitive version of the play. Wilder reverted the lead role from a
woman back to a man, retaining the relationship between the two leads
to the 'male life partners' version that the original play had, which I
found more interesting than the romantic relationship in 'His Girl
And the best thing is that the chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau is so good, that they make this relationship really work. They worked twice before, in 'The Odd Couple' and 'The Fortune Cookie', and once again prove how good they are together; a testament to that is that the first half of 'The Front Page', in which Lemmon interacts with actors like Susan Sarandon and Austin Pendleton, moves along with a lazy pace, usually witty but never grabs the viewers completely; but the second half, which is mostly around Lemmon and Matthau, sparks all over the place and is an absolute joy to watch, right up to the ending - and nobody could direct an ending scene like Wilder. It's Wilder's knack for pacing that makes the film work, and Lemmon and Matthau have amazing timing that compliments it perfectly. The film may not be groundbreaking but it's a nearly perfectly made comedy, with some vicious observations about the nature of media and politics.
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