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Sweeney Todd: A Big Bloody Mistake
Fans of the Tim Burton-Johnny Depp franchise can rejoice, and as usual, leave their critical faculties at the door. Their heroes have come through, spraying the screen with ketchup, acting the gamut from A to B, yelling their way toward Oscar noms. Or not. For the rest of usaware that Sondheim's great score is also the high point of late-20th Century music theatrethe movie Sweeney Todd is a noisy, thudding, completely unsatisfying bore. Depp starts out angry and goes nowhere. The voice is thin, reedy, and often overpowered by Jonathan Tunick's aggressive orchestrations. Depp barely manages to even look at Helena Bonham-Carter, and she, as Mrs. Lovett, connects only to little Ed Sanders--who as Toby, steals every single scene he's in. In other words, the chemistry is off, off, OFF. Alan Rickman is the sexiest Judge Turpin on record, but must make due without singing the great "mea culpa." Anthony and Johanna are sung by pretty actors who have little to no impact whatsoever, and Burton leaves their story unresolved. I enjoyed Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli, but don't think he was right for his role either. Again, Ed Sanders as Toby was amazing, but that's not the reason we go to see Sweeney Todd. In the words of the real fright master, Bela Lugosi, "Beware, beware, beware."
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)
The Passion of Fassbinder
Now that the holy grail of modern film is on DVD, finally and firmly in hand, we can take a close look at that thing called "Berlin Alexanderplatz." The famous Fassbinder shot is used throughoutactors revealed in hot lights through darkened doorways; as well as the ever present vertical lines slicing the screen like prison bars. Much of the film is shot with internal framing techniques, and when not, there is the broad expanse of Franz Biberkopf's apartmenta loft-like, two-level stage where threatening lights are constantly pulsating. Berlin Alexanderplatz may be a 15½ hour film, but it is played out theatre-style in Fassbinder's mental proscenium. In the heart of Berlin we wander with Franz, cages within cages, where realpolitik takes a back seat to survival. A crass, capitalistic jungle where more than 600,000 people have been thrown out of work in a matter of months (1928), is home to whores, pimps and thieves who have plenty to eat and drink. Our hero, Franz Biberkopf, fondly reminisces about Rosa Luxemburg. But this Berlin is not the workers' paradise that the great social revolutionary dreamed of and was then executed for. Is that perhaps her secret, broken down printing press in the middle of Franz's apartment, never touched or even casually mentioned? Fassbinder and Franz seem to reject all politics, left or right, and abandon themselves instead to the Weimar melodrama of instant gratification and the much replayed nightmare of a horrific crime. After our hero careens out of prison, where he has spent four years paying for the murder of his hooker-girlfriend Ida, he stays as drunk as possible, and despite his vow to live a good and upstanding life, draws into his orbit a string of women who love him obsessively and whore for him happily. His life force is irresistible, but he'd rather make his own, if clumsy, way. Franz soon finds himself in the ridiculous position of hawking a Nazi pamphlet he does not care about, the "Beobachter," while his socialist friends watch on in horror. That is, his socialist friends who are well connected to the local crime lord, Herr Pums, and are eager to have Franz join in on their sub-capitalist, black market enterprises. And then, as destined, Franz meets his soul-mate and nemesis, Reinhold. The ensemble acting of Berlin Alexanderplatz is miraculous, as is the iron grip Fassbinder had on his material. Günter Lamprecht as Franz truly does inhabit one of the screens all time great characters. The canvas is gigantic and his plodding, bearish performance with roller-coaster peaks and valleys often turns on the dime. Likewise, Gottfried Johns' Reinhold is Franz's seductive, sexy, utterly nefarious foil. All the women are memorable, especially Barbara Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla and Elisabeth Trissennaar. Don't miss the outrageously costumed Frau Pums (Lilo Pempeit), who also happens to be Fassbinder's real-life mother. We've waited 25 years to revisit Fassbinder's great Passion Play, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Definitely not for the squeamish, but rejoice and spread the word. P.S. The epilogue, which bothered me in 1983, has fully redeemed itself. It's not just a director indulging in every fantasy of his alter ego, but an earnest, if unfettered, look at Biberkopf's mind flying apart. Fassbinder ties the huge story up neatly and gives Hanna Schygulla's Eva some fantastic scenes in the process.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
Among the Worst Films of All Time
Complete insanity to focus on Marie Antoinette at the center of one of modern history's most defining events, yet at the exclusion of history itself. That kind of solipsism is historical denial, and we do not applaud untruth. The real M.A. was not so enigmatic after all. Quite self-aware, never that powerful, certainly not the semi-impaired cupcake of Ms. Coppola's vision. Nothing, nothing! of three concurrent wars bankrupting a nation, the corruption of the Estates General, the Affair of the Necklace. And most importantly -- nothing of the rancid Duc d'Orleans, royal court cousin, chiefly responsible for M.A.'s rise in society, the overshadowing of Pompadour, duBarry, etc. It was Orlean who undermined the throne, spread pornographic images of the real M.A., fostered revolution and then hoped to inherit from a disgraced Louis a grateful nation returning to his version of monarchy. And So Much More. Coppola erases history and gives us instead a costume show. Frankly, that particular costume show was on display in 1975's Oscar-winner for costumes (also M. Canonero "Barry Lyndon"), and no surprises here.
a masterpiece is a masterpiece is a masterpiece
First of all check your inhibitions at the door. You won't see another film any time soon where every main character copulates, interacts and reconfigures socially as if the camera were an intractable and omnipresent feature of daily life. In fact, J.C. Mitchell's camera is the indisputable hero of the film, dissecting, probing, partying, performing psychic surgery. And at last, the camera demands that the truth of one's self be dealt with, faced full on, and accepted if you don't, the camera seems to say, the price will be heavy indeed. Shortbus has a rich historical background, even though no American director has dared to swim in these waters for decades -- if ever. "Severin," Bunuel's repressed housewife from Belle de Jour is borrowed lock stock and barrel by Lindsay Beamish (marvelous!), except swung to the opposite polarity. Shortbus finds Severin an experienced, jaded dominatrix who longs for normalcy. Encolpio, Aschylto and Gitoni from the Fellini Satyricon (James, Jamie and Ceth) seem transported directly to the Warhol factory of the 1960s (why not?), where they replay their headlong duplicate/triplicate hall of mirrors game, toying with sanity, mortality and pleasure. Sofia and Rob, the films central straight couple, are caught meanwhile in a one-sided orgasm directly from Bergman's Face to Face. She's even a therapist(!) whom Severin (Bunuels heroine) deftly rescues by first making Sofia confront her father, and second, by whipping husband Rob (literally) into joyful submission. Despite J.C. Mitchell being the spiritual child of these great directors and their films, the voice of Shortbus is confident, singular and original. Mitchell is now front and center, the voice of American avant garde cinema. Welcome to the underground.
The Quagmire of Derivation; A Dead Actor Steals the Film
So many great sci-fi films are visually quoted in "Sky Captain" that the game of guessing which ones completely overrides any interest this razor-slim plot might inspire. For instance: "Metropolis," "Things to Come," "Indiana Jones," "Tron," "War of the Worlds," "Empire Strikes Back," "King Kong," etc. etc. etc., are all represented, and with actual footage from "Oz" rounding it out. Further, it might be okay in theory to borrow the image and voice of a dead actor, but alas, the great Laurence Olivier (Dr. Totenkopf) is delivered to us without any regard for the late actor's legendary witty line delivery or his distinctive facial gestures. And Olivier STILL steals the film from the fey, introspective Jude Law, the wooden Gwenyth Paltrow and the underused, overly-accented Angelina Jolie. Images of the late Richard Harris and John Guilgud are also used as the missing scientists, although these actors remain uncredited. Ironically, the 6 minute audition film that Sky Captain is based upon is simply spectacular; the resultant film however, is a thudding disappointment. 4/10
Alexander an Instant Camp Classic
Oliver Stone has imagined a vigorous, opulent homage to the Sword and Sandal genre, and like the best of those films of a generation ago, sheer visual style, over-the-top acting, and showmanship win the day. The best of those films-Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur and Spartacus-also had brilliant scripts, pitting their protagonists in the center of conflicts where superhuman will and wit overcome immense odds. But as history's first and most insatiable conqueror, Alexander seems unchallenged. Mighty ancient cities fall beneath his sword like so much marshmallow, and his one true enemy-Darius, King of Persia-has no words in Stone's film at all!-he's just a face. Thus, without a central conflict to dramatize, Stone's film lowers itself to the Sword and Sandal genre's middle road, where writing takes a back seat, and characters make portentous pronouncements before going off to fulfill their destinies. Angelina Jolie, as Olympias, Alexander's mother, comes off best and worst in Stone's decadent stew. Her unnatural devotion to Alexander seems to inspire the 'You-Must-Conquer-the-Known World' flame, but she's quickly side-lined by the script and is left screaming in the wilderness, having no real effect on the ensuing action. But she looks magnificent, and her face at the moment of Philip of Macedonia's death, is alone worth the price admission. Her Transylvanian accent, however, is a distraction, as are the Irish, English and Scottish dialects of other actors. Stone's script also avoids Alexander's more elaborate military strategies-studied and duplicated for thousands of years-and makes short shrift of the ongoing power struggles he had with his generals. Colin Farrell, as Alexander, works hard and holds the screen for 3 hours with a strange mix of petulance, arrogance and good old fashioned Hollywood charm. He and Jared Leto, as Hephaistion, have a long and tender love scene (fully-clothed) on a Babylonian balcony, looking down on what has to be the most opulent scenery ever devised for a feature film. This is a clear, if telescopic homage to D.W. Griffith's 1916 Masterpiece, 'Intolerance.' All in all, Stone's Alexander is never boring, never brilliant, but always visually exciting. Probably the most gorgeous film made in years. Terrific showmanship. 7/10
Pseudo-intellectual claptrap of the Charlie Kaufman Kind
(Spoiled...) Like the rest of Kaufman's self-absorbed hallucinations, Eternal Sunshine fails to jump the "who cares" hurdle. What an overwrought mess of a movie. As far as that mind-surgery-memory-deleting helmet goes, why in tarnation was Jim Carrey's character--a self-described uninteresting bore--so very talented at resisting the program? No mental giant, he would have succumbed immediately. End of movie. But no! We replay this deja vu game of meeting forgotten lovers into infinity, while every character gets thrown into stylistic outer space: Comedy for some, tragedy for others, sex farce when Mr. Kaufman runs out of ideas. Actually, apart from Sunshine's tangled structure, there are no ideas. Not once are we given useful, relevant information about anyone who inhabits the film. Carrey and Winslet's megawatt dual-presence is wasted inside of a situation that resembles a hamster cage, not a story. Only Tom Wilkinson, as the memory-deleting helmet inventor, seems to grasp the danger of what's happening. Kaufman, however, surrounds him with a gang of assistants who are giggling morons. What a sad, confused, irrelevant film. I was reminded more than once of the forgotten French mind-game films of the sixties. Marienbad, anyone?
Director Shoots Self in Foot
Dogville is hard to care about. (Spoilers, maybe
) Despite a deeply empathetic performance from Nicole Kidman, I had no idea what von Trier was after. He brutalizes an actress, exposes the duplicitous, greedy underbelly of a town of small-minded inbreds (that not-so-clearly symbolizes 'Capitalism Run Amok = Slavery!'), then condemns his entire universe of characters those who survive, anyway to a future of amoral hopelessness.
His version of America? Who cares. All of this is surrounded by John Hurt's extraneous, should-have-been-deleted narration, which again and again tells us 'what's really happening' but never 'really' does. Other distancing (Brechtian) techniques abound: i.e., a marvelous town 'setting' which forces the audience to imagine time and space, yet the set is poorly, monotonously photographed, and ends up meaning nothing: we would have concentrated on these actors' faces regardless of the abstraction surrounding them. Re: the camera work: The famous 'Kubrick pullback' is used again and again, yet no von Trier pullback reveals any hidden truth or meaning at any given moment. So . von Trier is no Bertholt Brecht and certainly no Stanley Kubrick, but neither is he Friedrich Dürrenmat, whose plot of 'The Visit' Dogville is clearly lifted from. But there's no harm in derivation if cleverly done. Unfortunately, von Trier mires himself and us in murky political euro-symbolism that fails to illuminate his plot. There's a nifty revenge twist at the end, but it seems to have nothing to do with what's come before. Dogville may be disturbing and memorable, but it's a sophomoric effort at best. I'll watch von Trier in the future, but he's never been better than 'Zentropa (Europa)' and that was a long time ago. 4/10
Morte a Venezia (1971)
Stalking the Abyss
Visconti's Death in Venice qualifies as one of the most beautiful films ever made. While watching, we acknowledge we are in the hands of a visionary genius. Endlessly opulent Death in Venice surely is; but in other important ways, it's an unsatisfying film. Thomas Mann writes with contempt and from a distance of von Aschenbach's literary career and output; of his imperious manner, his layer-upon-layer of programmed, self-conscious behavior. When Tadzio appears and obsession arises, it's evident that Aschenbach hasn't the slightest idea who he is beneath his Gilded-Age trappings and carefully lived life. In fact, upon seeing Tadzio, the 'Solitary,' as Mann sometimes calls him, splits in two. Aschenbach No. 1 absorbs the sight of a beautiful 14-year old boy, then attempts to intellectually process the giddy jolt in blood pressure as he would a work of art - a 'divine' work of art. But Aschenbach No. 2, emerges as a stalker who takes control of, then replaces, the rational Aschenbach No. 1. Like the original Aschenbach, his sexual-doppelganger is mortified to make human contact with the object of his obsession - and thus Tadzio remains a far-off ideal. Thomas Mann has no mercy for this game. Every shred of self knowledge comes too strong and too late; the excitement of sexual flush is too great to resist. That Venice is gripped by disease means nothing to Aschenbach - except that his game now has higher stakes. When he finally whispers beneath his breath 'I love you,' he knows that all is lost, and the abyss awaits. Is any of this filmable? Perhaps, and Visconti creates a visual feast impossible to look away from. But there are errors: He and Dirk Bogarde create Aschenbach as sympathetic; Mann, again, did not. Aschenbach's POV dominates the film and we are expected to identify. But nowhere on screen is there a man being torn apart from within. Bogarde toggles between the sublimely controlled and the ridiculously temperamental with ease - but what's underneath? Bogard's reactive performance has no mooring. Mann writes a character who is, in his imagination, doing the Dance of the Seven Veils, all too aware of the consequences such freedom invites, yet unable, unwilling to resist. Also, Visconti's screenplay creates a character not in the original - Alfred, a friend of Aschenbach's - to dramatize Mann's discussion of Art and Artists. These scenes are badly written disasters, and the actor who portrays Alfred is difficult to watch. Also, Visconti's Aschenbach is a Gilded-Age Teutonic composer, which I think works for the film; and the symphonies of Mahler substitute for Aschenbach's novels. Mahler's great music unfortunately is badly recorded and very badly played. So Death in Venice, as Visconti hands it to us, is not the complete success it might have been, but as a purely visual experience its power cannot be denied. All students of film, especially cinematography, will want to take a look.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Lost in translation and Instantly Forgettable
`Lost in Translation' can be summarized as `Italian-American Girl Makes Bittersweet French Film in the Style of Godard in Far Away Japanese Metropolis'. And, WOW, does it NOT WORK. Unfortunately Ms. Coppola neglected to write a script. Instead, she fixes her camera on a pensive, depressed Bill Murray and a pensive, depressed Scarlett Johanson, failing to put a single compelling thought in either of their heads. In a plastic/electric version of Japan these two lock retina, and virtually no one in their orbit seems more real than an animated stereotype all the Japanese entertainment industry folks yell, whimper, simper or just plain freak out. But no one talks or says anything meaningful, because there is no plot and no script to indicate a plot. Same with the Americans, who arbitrarily wander in front of the camera. Giovanni Ribisi, Scarlett's photographer husband, seems to be in another film, not even aware of his wife's needy, private world of self-indulgence and vague personal crisis. There are some spectacular shots of Mount Fiji. Other than that, there's no movie here at all. Ms. Coppola obviously has a fine directorial eye, but her ear for dialogue and instinct for story are immature at best.
TAYLOR LIGHTS A BONFIRE CALLED `THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION'
Film in the 1960s circled around various social, political and historical themes. My favorite is `Women Who Altered the Course of History.' On the always unsafe British throne we saw Eleanor of Aquitaine (The Lion in Winter), Anne Boleyn (Anne of the Thousand Days), and Elizabeth I duking it out with her arch enemy (Mary, Queen of Scots). Long before them, however, on the world's stage, we have the redoubtable Cleopatra of Egypt, making the power grab of all time. We have also Elizabeth Taylor of Hollywood, making the power grab of all time. A product of the ancient MGM regime, Taylor has since acknowledged her bitter personal dealings with studio boss L.B. Mayer. Thus, when 20th Century Fox offered Mike Todd's widow the role of Cleopatra, she had certain contractual demands: a record-breaking million dollar salary, expense accounts for herself and new husband, Eddie Fisher, $10,000 per day for any work past contract termination, and, if anyone doubts Taylor's business acumen, the film was to be shot in Todd-AO, the cameras and film process of which she was sole owner. Her final take was in excess of $7 million. The resultant film, looking backwards 40 years, is still lively, never boring, and surprisingly accurate. There is respect for the historical record (Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra also time-compresses, as does Shaw's Ceasar and Cleopatra). But Joseph Mankiewicz's `modern-speaking' script unwisely bites off more than it can chew. It wants to tell the whole story of Rome and Egypt during a power struggle that altered the course of Western Civilization. We live today in Augustus Ceasar's world, not Cleopatra's. Architecture, government, bureaucratic structure, even plumbing, all descend from Rome and the edicts of Octavian, who later became Augustus. Hollywood on the other hand, and to a great extent `the modern woman,' live in the world Elizabeth Taylor created. Hollywood has had its share of powerful women Garbo and Hepburn both successfully trumped Louis B. Mayer while negotiating contracts. But Taylor negotiated Cleopatra acting as her very own corporate mogul, and the star system, and how movie stars get paid, changed forever. But something else, something more important, happened while filming Cleopatra: the twice-divorced, recently-widowed Taylor had just married Eddie Fisher, father of two, husband of another much-adored movie star, Debbie Reynolds. Richard Burton (Marc Antony) entered the scene, replacing Steven Boyd, and Taylor fell deeply in love. A media storm ignited, and the entire planet watched, as Taylor was condemned by the Catholic Church; the Pope himself called her a wanton home-wrecker. Following her heart, the most famous actress in history decided to conduct life `her way.' Ten thousand Roman extras fill the set as Cleopatra makes her way atop a giant, rolling sphinx. They scream `Liz! Liz! Liz!' Taylor, dressed as a gold-clad Roman eagle, calmly walks towards Rex Harrison's Julius Ceasar and gives him a wink. Hollywood, the star system, the media, and women, are altered forever.
The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
I Just Love A Good Tautological Conundrum....
... and Reloaded has them all over the place. (Spoilers within spoilers) So if a process is in a redundant loop, and all questions can only be answered with other questions, you've got a Matrix! Yeah, yeah, yeah, I grooved on the Morpheus-speak, and I expect the redundant loop (of which Oracle slyly spoke; and Architect totally spewed truth) will be interrupted and the foretold Revolution will happen. The bizarre Merovingian will probably seek revenge, and someone in Zion has hell to pay. I can tell you this: the mainframe is nowhere near all those doorways, and if programs are writing programs, that's where the Revolution will start. Happy hunting Neo. You are the One (again). I'm holding my breath. 0101010101010101~
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Cassavettes The Anti-Hollywood
A man goes into a big, strange house with his family and friends. He is armed with script and camera, and proceeds to create a milestone work of American cinema the key film of the 1970s. Above all else, `A Woman Under the Influence' is Anti-Hollywood, Anti-Establishment, Anti-Film. 1970's Hollywood may have defined itself with films like Godfather, Rocky, Annie Hall, and Deer Hunter but real, unpredictable, chaotic life was Cassavettes' territory. Fact is, Hollywood will never be ready for uninhibited Mabel and her much crazier husband Nick. Nutty as she is, Mabel/Cassavettes does nothing but tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. Hollywood at best, tells persuasive lies. So
, to get Hollywood ready for the Gospel of Cassavettes, the first thing that must happen is to banish the entire FX community; ship em to Alcatraz where they can make blockbuster cartoons for each other. Second the writers, directors and producers of said cartoons can go Vegas and try to `leave.' Those who remain will be entrusted with putting complex human beings who inhabit interesting lives and situations on the screen not `role models' who traipse through neatly-plotted, highly-improbable, beautifully photographed, committee-designed plots. Get my point? By the way, Gena Rowlands in "Influence" gives one of the finest performances of the sound era. See this film. See it now. Right now.
The Hours (2002)
Three appetizers, no entree, forget about dessert
Did Meryl Streep really say "I have a presentiment" in The Hours? I too had a presentiment -- that I would see a movie -- alas, there was none to be found. The Hours is an overwrought, underwritten, beautifully acted, fastidiously directed mess -- unfortunately. Unfortunate because, not merely three, but a dozen actors do absolutely splendid work. Unfortunate because, between three woven films, not a single shred of a story gets told in any way that matters, or is satisfactory -- which is the cinematic way. Doors slam continuously, people walk with purpose, cakes are baked, lines are spoken, people are in crisis, but what exactly is their problem? What are these scenes about? As I watched, I thought more of my own life, its tangled twists and turns, its little river of existence, than what was on the screen. As I watched, a young couple behind me were laughing again and again at highly inappropriate moments. I totally agreed with them.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
GWTW -- The Hollywood Sex Magic History Machine
The creators of WIND did not envision a 65-year life to their work. Indeed, David O. Selznick sold his interest in the film within years; Margaret Mitchell remarked on publication that she hoped the book would sell a few thousand copies(!). So it's a huge mistake to judge WIND on any terms but its own -- what it "was", and then, what it "is". Today we see a colorful, vividly realized costume epic. But in 1939, it seemed like the Sistine Chapel had come to life and was appearing at the downtown Rialto. Forgive the silly metaphor, but you get what I'm after -- the size and scope of WIND on film had no precedent. Released in the shadow of the Great Depression, WIND in hindsight is less about the Civil War than a nation's slow crawl out of recent poverty. When Scarlett said `I'll never be hungry again,' the nation rose and said `Damn Right!' The moment was set to fiery, defiant music, and the illusion of America, as she wanted to see herself, was set. History, right or wrong, was suddenly embodied by a sexy young girl who wants, not just to survive, but to prosper. Powerful stuff. But is that enough to hold our attention, year after year, decade after decade? WIND is still visually persuasive and always will be. Max Steiner's score beneath those images cannot be underestimated -- there had never been so much music outside the realm of grand opera. Music completes the illusion. The script however, full of momentum, has little substance. It weakens as years go by. Mitchell was no Tolstoy, but her brilliant novel is condensed to a long, shallow, sentimental melodrama. The writing is redeemed only by two key performances: Hattie McDaniel, as Mammy, is the first African American allowed to create a real human being on screen (for that we thank David O. Selznick); and of course, Vivien Leigh's complex, amazingly sexual Scarlett. In a strange mix of glamour and guts, the vortex of her acting seems to create the film around her; she wills it to happen. After 35 years of watching, I've come to regard her as, not merely the leading actress, but the real director of Gone With the Wind -- and the reason to keep watching.
Razzled my Dazzle, Peppered my Ragu -- But where's the blood?
Chicago is a terrific movie; fast paced, beyond sexy, the performances are delicious, right down to Queen Latifah and Christine Baranski. So see it! But there are problems: (1) Where's the blood? Our heroines commit MURDER. There should be blood on the screen and blood on their pretty flesh (yeah, it's a musical; yeah, it's a fantasy -- so what?). (2) The choreography, while in the style of Fosse, lacks his elegance, clean line and sexual charge. (3) The camera work, while often astonishing, is sometimes just plain messy. But, hey! I'm quibbling. The movie works and that's what counts. So see it!
Ladri di biciclette (1948)
Still a Masterpiece; Still Powerful
Among the handful of perfect, ultimate film experiences, Bicycle Thief still has the power to amaze. Try to take your eyes off Ricci and his son, Bruno, as scene after scene turns hopefulness into despair then abject humiliation. Yes, Bicycle Thief is a political film, and its characters do represent a war-torn Italy deciding its fate(metaphorically, Ricci without his Bicycle; and literally, the Socialist agitators meeting in the basement along side community entertainers). But should we care about that now? Politics and emerging regimes in Bicycle Thief wisely take a backseat to the urgent problems of joblessness and "feeding the kid". In that respect, the only comparable US film is Ford's "Grapes of Wrath". Tom Joad and Antonio Ricci may be caught in different stories, but they have a lot in common. Politics aside, Bicycle Thief's script is concise, unsentimental and its power still resonates. The black and white photography, capturing Rome in its ancient and more recent state of post-WWII decay, is often breathtaking. Editing and directing are flawless -- Bicycle Thief flows like a scary, poverty-stricken nightmare, and then delivers one of world-cinema's greatest closing images. Do not miss this perfect film.
The First Eight Hours...
(Spoilers) A twenty hour canvas was simply too broad for this story. Writing, directing, acting, casting, all seemed on a downhill trajectory after the first four nights. However, I thought Major Crawford (Joel Gretsch) was a terrific sci-fi villain; beautifully written, ferociously acted. In fact, his pursuit of aliens and every human they might have touched was the key to the whole series, alas merely the first part. He was far more dangerous than any perceived extraterrestrial threat or plot, and killing him off midway was a huge error. His son and granddaughter, inheritors of the project, paled in comparison. It was Maj. Crawford's face we should have been watching as "Ally" fulfilled her destiny. Kudos to Steve Burton, Anton Yelchin and Catherine Dent for wonderful performances (also in the first half). Dakota Fanning was excellent as Ally; unfortunately the production fell apart around her.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
A Visionary Masterpiece... And the Best Picture of 2001
Not a question in my mind that Moulin Rouge should have won the 2001 Best Picture Oscar. This film took guts to make. To mix the Dumas "Camille" story into the La Boheme Paris of Lautrec and Puccini, then to toss in pop hits spanning the past several decades is, well, a stroke of interpretive (if anachronistic) genius. As for Kidman's performance -- WOW! Couldn't take my eyes off of her. Think of the great actresses and singers coming before her in prior tellings of that story: Bernhardt, Duse, Garbo, Callas, Stratas. Kidman stands and delivers in the midst of a thumping phantasmagoria that somehow does recall the excitement, danger and romance of a long-gone era -- and, like the story requires, does it like a diva. All the men are excellent, of course, Ewan MacGregor, Jim Broadbent. Brilliant cinematography, rightfully quoting the great paintings of the era. Baz Lurhman resurrects an old chesnut of a story with the eye of an impressionist master and the ear of a rock and roller -- how'd he do that? Yes, indeed -- Moulin Rouge is a great film.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
KWAI -- NOW
Without belittling `Kwai,' it does seem, looking backwards at David Lean's career, to be a dress rehearsal for the more operatic, tightly controlled (and better written) `Lawrence of Arabia.' Alec Guiness's passionate, detailed performance as Colonel Nicholson, above all other factors, makes Kwai a still watchable and important experience. The screenplay, however, divides unevenly between those who must build the Bridge and those who must destroy it. Ebert, in his Great Movies article, correctly identifies William Holden's character in Kwai as undergoing an implausible transition from escaped POW to martini-guzzling playboy to selfless war hero. Verbatim: `Holden's character, up until the time their guerrilla mission begins, seems fabricated; he's unconvincing playing a shirker, and his heroism at the end seems more plausible.' That, I believe, is also Kwai's greatest weakness. Holden's relationship with Jack Hawkins (playing a parallel role to his General Allenby in Lawrence) seems pallid next to the mighty Guiness/Hayakawa standoff in fact, it seems to be in another movie altogether. Also, Malcolm Arnold's score, which I loved when I was a kid, seems now jarringly inappropriate from start to finish. I am too much influenced, I suppose, by the rock and roll jungle menace of Coppola's `Apocalypse Now.' Lastly, it is many decades past 1957. Images of whistling soldiers, marching proudly after months of captivity, then putting on an `entertainment' more expected in the world of Rodgers and Hammerstein, may ring very false to today's viewer. But keep your eyes fastened tight to Alec Guiness. Kwai is the Everest of his career, and very few actors climb that high.
Don't Say a Word (2001)
Can You Say the Word "Derivative"?
"Don't Say a Word" is a mishmash of plots borrowed from everywhere. Thus, plot-holes abound. All your favorite thrillers are represented: Hitchcock's Rear Window, Spellbound, Dial M for Murder, just to get the ball rolling. The rest, you can guess. But don't miss Sean Bean playing THE EXACT SAME ROLE he played in "Patriot Games." Brittany Murphy is quite excellent -- and is the only reason to sit through this otherwise silly film. Finally, Hollywood needs to realize NOW that casting leading actors in their 50s with actresses 20 years their junior is a huge cliche and not representative of any demographic.
Vredens dag (1943)
A Stunning Masterpiece
If you're a fan of powerful acting, detailed direction, flawless pictorial composition, you've got to see this film. Pacing is slow and deliberate, but also terrifying. Sex, religion and witchcraft are common themes in movies, but rarely has that combination been explored to any psychological depth. Like Bergman's "Seventh Seal" and Miller's "Crucible," "Day of Wrath" transports us back a few hundred years -- where the fear of evil, and Satan in particular, is a daily, obsessive concern. Where otherwise good people can point a finger at an acquaintance or a loved one (or at you) and accuse them (or you) of conspiring with the Devil. A very frightening film.
What new devilry is this???
If you can see past the non-stop special effects, beautiful fantasy landscapes and wonderfully committed performances, you'll realize that the script for this elephant is turgid to the point of fossilization. Unspeakable dialogue beneath swooping camera moves can't hide the fact that there is not a single interesting idea in three hours of exposition. Quest, quest, quest. The ring is evil. Quest, quest, quest. The folks who voted this film up there in the company of Godfather and ABOVE Citizen Kane in the IMDB list -- well, all I have to say is -- you need to take a crash course on 10 decades of film history.
The Time Machine (2002)
I couldn't believe my eyes and ears. Was I really watching the very worst film ever made? Think so. Scene after scene falls flat. Miscasting from top to bottom. A director who appears to have never WATCHED a film, let alone directed before. A screenwriter who seems to have consulted with no one over age 11. Worse than last year's PLANET OF THE APES. Much worse than BATTLEFIELD EARTH (Is that possible?). Better stop here -- already wasted two hours watching the film. In summary -- a complete disgrace.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
The Hollywood Stamp of Excellence?
(SPOILERS) To Russell Crowe's credit, he resists the temptation to wallow in Akiva Goldman's overwrought, pseudo-Greek tragedy of a script to deliver a fairly compelling performance. Nash's story IS compelling; however, Ron Howard (director) misses every opportunity to tell it or interpret it. Again and again, he resorts to safe, traditional, manipulative, Hollywood direction and refuses to enter Nash's mind and relay his experience in a visual or metaphorical way (refer to Aronofsky's brilliant "Pi"). We are instead given car chases, conspiracy theories, imaginary friends, sentimental scenes with fountain pens, but alas, no interesting camera work. That's a pity. Roger Deakins' cinematography (with the Coen Brothers, for instance) is usually astonishing. Here, it's merely serviceable. Howard reigned Deakins in for all the wrong reasons. Lastly, the Academy of Blah, Blah, Blah is just as predictable, misty-eyed and conservative as it has always been. A Beautiful Mind was certainly not the best picture of last year.