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True Grit (2010)
The Coen Brothers return with True Grit, their 4th consecutive film (starting from No Country from Old Men in 2007). Shot only earlier this year, the film contemplates the Southern plains following a feisty heroine Mattie along with the unscrupulous Rooster Cogburn and sidekick LaBoeuf. Along for the ride is vicious Ned Pepper and the dull Tom Chaney.
As the Coen brothers stated numerous times, True Grit is meant to be a more earnest adaptation of the source novel by Charles Portis. This is clearly presented in the film with its sometimes unintelligible dialogue and classic tropes. Unlike their darker No Country for Old Men, the film takes on a more unsophisticated tone. Mattie is clearly the hero and Chaney and Ned clearly the antagonists. Rooster's drunken stupor leads to comic effect, as does his verbal sparring with the self-righteous LaBoeuf.
What helps the Coens realize this goal so well is the support they garner by their more than capable cast. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld are completely embrace their parts. And in this process of complete immersion in language and mannerisms, they all turn in remarkable performances. Bridges and Steinfeld are likely to receive Oscar nominations (the latter, unfortunately, in Supporting Actress) but the cast on the whole roundly performs. Damon in particular continues to show off impressive ability after his likewise humorous turn in The Informant!.
From a behind-the-scenes perspective, the Coen Bros. also rely on their trusty team. Roger Deakins proved his ability to master the Western landscape with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and here proves once again his fateful eye. The compositions all feel completely appropriate. Sometimes Deakins channels the starry nights of The Night of the Hunter (also referenced through the older Mattie's narration in beginning and end) and like that earlier work, the film is visually entrancing. Carter Burwell also provides a solid score, frequently using "Leaning on Jesus" (also a nod to Night of the Hunter). And the Coen Bros., using their alias, masterly cut the work together so that it builds along nicely. Violence often erupts in True Grit with the filmmakers preferring to use the point-of-view of the characters rather than cutting to the potential victims.
If one can knock True Grit for anything, it's that the film sometimes feels longer than it needs to be. The epilogue, in particular, feels less necessary than it does tacky. But the Coens faithfulness to the source novel may have been a part of this, as well as their desire to tell a complete story. Along with a PG-13 rating, this is probably the most market friendly Coen Bros. film in quite a while but it still works due to their unquestionable talent.
To summarize, True Grit is a satisfying Western. It does not aim to subvert the genre like No Country for Old Men, but rather to please. And thanks to its solid performances and technical craft, True Grit succeeds.
Black Swan (2010)
Black Swan, the latest from Darren Aronofsky is a twisty-turny psychodrama in the vein of Roman Polanski with aspects of The Wrestler through in for good measure. The film constantly pumps itself through with menace, leaving the audience increasingly jolted until the sweeping conclusion.
The story is hard to explain without spoiling anything. Nina (Natalie Portman, at her restrained best) is an earnest ballerina hoping for her big moment. She is potentially foiled (or is she?) by Lily (Mila Kunis), a more striking figure.. all the while under the auspices of Thomas (Vincent Cassel, channeling plenty of smarminess). Along for the ride is Nina's overriding mother (Barbara Hershey) and an dancer on the skids, Beth (Winona Ryder). As these characters collide the plot becomes less and less coherent.
And this does not pose any problems for Aronofsky who along with his capable collaborators in both aural and visual realms works to stir a striking environment. The New York city streets are constantly empty, leaving Nina to face off against unknown forces. Her overdone apartment speaks volumes about her childlike state. Aronofsky, like what he did with Mickey Rourke, hovers behind Portman constantly with his camera creating a sense of constant alertness. Rather than shooting dialogue in two shots, he cuts in front of both actors to convey a volley of emotional drama. Like Polanski's Rosemary's Baby or Repulsion, Aronofsky tries to stir up as much menace as possible. Every frame feels tense, especially when the story becomes more splintered.
The visceral impact of this works because it serves as the driving force behind the film. It's practically impossible to isolate a singular aspect of Black Swan; the sound design, the performances, the writing, etc. all coalesce under Aronofsky's commanding vision. Here he has fully matured as a director, confident in his constantly stylistic protrusions. Consequently the film, like Requiem for a Dream, leaves the viewer gasping for air. By the time the ending credits begin there is a definitive response-but to what, exactly? Are Black Swan's pleasures all sensory? Is there something more intellectually engaging underneath the strong exterior?
These are questions like to divide viewers. But it is a film that works, thanks to Aronofsky's direction, and one that leaves an impression throughout and immediately after. What happens after remains to be seen.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Merry Christmas, Lawrence.
An enigmatic tone piece from internationally acclaimed Nagisa Oshima, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a left-of-center look at the moods of a WWII P.O.W. Camp. Comparisons to The Bridge on the River Kwai cannot be avoided (not that the producers strove to do such) but this film is a very different animal indeed.
As posited by Jeremy Thomas in a supplemental interview, "What happens when a Japanese filmmaker makes a Japanese P.O.W. camp movie?" Something like this film in which the elegiac tone is oh so much more important than anything else. David Bowie's constant, downbeat independence vs. Tom Conti's fierce loyalty vs. Takeshi Kitano's upbeat clown pose... these are the most important elements of the piece.
The humid tropics of Java help tell the story of a wound up prison camp in Indonesia during W.W.II. Cryptic Jack Celliers (Bowie) joins the titular Lawrence (Conti) and his crew of British soldiers under the auspices of the jocular Hara (Kitano) and Yonoi (pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto, pulling double duties as the composer). Their relationships form the backbone of the film as they all vie for control. Celliers and Yonoi's ambivalent relationship moves the film along while the Japanese-speaking and mannered Lawrence constantly bickers with Hara about equal treatment.
The film has a definitive Western feel in the setting up of the story. It is based on a South Afrikaner's memoir and written by a British screenwriter. The back-and-forth dialogue, particularly during rigid two way conversations speak to this. But Oshima lets the music pulsate along and tracks along, showing how these men affected each other. By the conclusion the audience is so thoroughly engrossed in just the ambiance that they forget everything else. Unlike Oshima's more extreme In the Realm of the Senses, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a relatively easy act to follow. Although not as artistically rewarding, it is equally worth watching.
Green Zone (2010)
The Noble Soldier
Green Zone follows the recent trend of productions such as The Hurt Locker, Generation Kill and Body of Lies, all of which examine the current Mid-East conflict. Interestingly enough each of these pieces also present the soldier on the ground as our brave and morally valid hero, acting under flawed circumstances. These brave men and women are forced into unimaginable situations not by their own doing but by wily governments who look for cheap gains.
With Green Zone soldier Miller (Matt Damon) frustratingly works to find WMDs in the early days of the Iraq invasion. His commitment, as seen in the beginning of the film, is unwavering. He goes through the utmost caution and firmly believes in what he is doing. But he is exasperated that these sites are coming up empty. Why, he asks. Why are so many men and women putting their lives on the line for a hoax?
Enter smarmy Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) and aged Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), essentially two opposing sides of military intelligence. One advocates the official line of finding and decimating WMD sites, the other gathering strong material and looking to the past to dictate what happens in the future. Along for the ride is Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), a brave but haunted Iraqi civilian trying to help.
With all these pieces in place noted screenwriter Brian Helgeland and director Paul Greengrass try to take the real-life drama of war and mix it with the exciting espionage of an action film. To mixed results. Using the RED camera, Greengrass swishes through the dingy rubble and sparkling interiors of 2003 Iraq. He essentially presents two worlds: the charm of the Green Zone with its untouched palaces, and well-prepared offices of abundant information and knowledge. And secondly, the grime-infested night streets of Iraq where reality takes over. Despite their differing morals, both Brown and Poundstone are tucked away in their secure offices while Miller goes through both worlds in his danger quest to find "the truth".
Damon pumps Miller up with the most upright moral behavior. As a soldier he rarely questions orders; "Ours is not to reason why but to do or die." But seeing the situation fall apart around him, he is forced into drastic steps. Damon does an admirable job with what he is given but his character is one-note. As others have mentioned, and what is often the case with these projects, is that the Middle Easterners tasked with helping the protagonist are far more interesting. Here they are the ones faced with the difficult decisions and, as one can see in hindsight, must bare the blunt of American blunders. To that note Freddy comes across as the most complex figure, imploring Miller to consider the consequences of what is happening.
In many ways the release of Green Zone firmly challenges and elevates the film. For one it was delayed by a solid 1-2 years by Universal. But viewing on the eve of the end of combat operations in Iraq adds an interesting touch. For one, the true end of combat operations is debatable. But more pressingly, all of the information presented in the film has been revealed to the public. The civil war violence that plagued Iraq, along with the complete lack of WMDs, is by this time well documented. Alas, this is an unavoidable situation with any drama that attempts to look at the present day. But it also hurts the film which ends up coming across as preachy. Many can readily identify the conflicted journalist, the smarmy Bush clone, etc. without much thought. Greengrass' solution is to take these events and put them in an action movie spin. And while the action does thrill, the audience mostly knows the results already.
All in all Green Zone is an interesting exploration of the Iraq conflict but fails to really grasp any of what it's working with. One can easily turn to Generation Kill for the true military experience or alternatively Standard Operating Procedure for the brutal interrogations of the war. Here is "Bourne in Iraq" but whether anyone cares is a completely different question.
Ace Pole Andrzej Wajda directs an uncompromising, sprawling 2 hour retelling of the fateful events leading up to, including, and after the Spring 1940 massacres in Katyn. Being somewhat familiar with the subject itself helps understand a great deal of Wajda's intentions as this film is markedly designed for a Polish audience. Despite it's wide availability in America (the DVD still includes forced Polish subtitles in scenes that feature German/Russian dialogue) and its nomination for Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards, Katyn is not necessarily geared towards the average cinema goer.
Using the intersecting lives of soldiers families, Katyn attempts to give a sense of being around at this time and place. Starting with a somewhat obtrusive metaphor of Poles being stuck on a bridge between the invading Germans and invading Russians (in 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact, splitting the virgin Polish nation) and continuing with such lines as "Poland will never be free. Never.", Katyn tries to elucidate the feelings of a confused people. The crisp cinematography by Roman Polanski regular Pawel Edelman, reminds of other Pole Janusz Kaminski's work on Saving Private Ryan in its hand-held journalism of violence. In the last scenes the audience is suddenly thrust into the systematic execution of the Polish prisoners, often seeing first-hand the simple one bullet execution of countless lives.
Although Wajda chooses to focus on a few specific characters, his scope is to demonstrate the larger decay of the events on Polish society. Specifically, the Russian propaganda swallowed by the government of the newly minted People's Republic of Poland spreads through institutions like a cancer. The Russians purported, with great fanfare, that the Nazis were responsible for the events. Cherished corners of Polish society, such as education and religion, uphold these myths to the detriment of the population. It leads some of these characters to dark places.
If one was to fault Wajda for anything in this project, and again this is to remind of the distinctly Western point-of-view presented here, it's that his widened scope can often lose the necessitated focus of the audience. Like his much championed Ashes & Diamonds there are one or two protagonists that would suffice; instead Wajda chooses to follow a small group which lessens the emotional impact. It is difficult to invest in a character when they are suddenly cut away from.
In the aftermath of recent events in Poland, it almost feels like academic duty to sit down and watch Katyn. And in many ways Wajda's filmmaking throughout the past four decades has felt academic. Yet he is still a filmmaker on top of his form, enriching Polish and international culture with an impacting film that probes something more abstract than a simple historical event.
Who is the good guy? Who is the bad guy? Does it matter?
Ajami tells the tale of Israeli Jews and Arabs, albeit splintered. The audience is treated to a violent opening followed by dialogue and interaction. As they see the individual characters unwind, the Arab store owner, the Israeli cop, things begin to get more complicated.
The primary power of Ajami is in its mode of storytelling which correlates to the content itself. There are several chapters, each telling a different story. What is most intriguing is how these stories fit. A character will appear two chapters later only for his intentions to be revealed then. A certain act of violence, a consequence of violence, etc. are not contextualized but only taken in the moment. The viewer may be tempted to judge or hold preconceived notions about the characters until the filmmakers, often with great effect, reveal the true intentions of these individuals.
This can be applied to the whole of the Israel-Palestine situation. Each violence has its lasting impact on individuals and groups alike. In Ajami a murder is not only between the victim and the perpetrator. Likewise reading in the news about a killing can only tell a fraction of the truth. The filmmakers wisely adopted a very documentary like feel to this film, similar to The Class and Gomorra. Characters names are only mentioned realistically. There is a sense of confusion as to who is whom for some of the sequences. At times it is frustrating because a Western audience may be more tempted to discuss the actual identity of a character than understand the point of the movie as a whole. Another issue is that this documentary, video approach to film-making can sometimes feel problematic or trite. By the time the third and fourth chapters are reached, there are several emotional climaxes. But these are immediately followed by more revealing. It works in most cases, prompting me to give Ajami a very high mark.
It is a film worth seeing for anyone interested or disinterested in the region. A highly potent character study that proves, perhaps unintentionally, the power of a filmmaker to show or to not show intentions.
The Ghost Writer (2010)
Roman Polanski's 'The Ghost Writer' bears the most in common with his recent 'The Ninth Gate'. The comparison starts this review as many others will inevitably find some comparison to be made with the director's work, especially since his personality looms so large.
The plot has been described countless times and will be spared here. What instead fascinates is the depiction of Ewan McGregor as the nameless protagonist. He has no family, no real attachments so to speak, and no real drive. Like Johnny Depp's "book detective" in 'The Ninth Gate' his reason for existence seems to be to serve those higher in society. McGregor plays the party well, never completely convincing in one state or the other. Even when under duress his physical movements speak much more about his mental state than his mannerisms. This could be interpreted as Polanski's examination of apathy within larger society. What I mean by that is to say that it is through the Ghost's lack of interest that one can observe the world.
Shot by Pawel Edelman, who has collaborated with Polanski in the past as well as with other heavyweight Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, the images of 'The Ghost Writer' suggest a cool bleakness. Accompanied by a poetic score by the always reliable Alexandre Desplat the film suggests a constant looming menace, embodied by the rain of the New England island. The camera often remains static, sometimes zeroing in for reactions, but always showing a complete action through a singular movement or lack of movement. Often times the characters seem resigned to their fates. The roles each person plays in the story are very clearly defined. Former-PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), surrounded by his lackeys, anti-war protesters, etc. all seem just pieces of grander scale. Polanski's world view is so thoroughly and crisply represented through this visual style it is as if the individual events are not as important as the atmosphere in general.
This is precisely why the film works, because of a director so in command of his craft. The film runs over 2 hours but every decision feels completely blocked and planned out. Every image carefully composed, every moment of information tightly plotted. 'The Ghost Writer' works terrifically by raising your blood level in this manner. Some will inevitably complain it makes the film seem merely serviceable when such expected plot twists occur. Yet I can think of few filmmakers so readily able to create such a vivid world and sustain it greatly. There are some pacing issues and the music can be overbearing. These are not unlike the problems facing Martin Scorsese's 'Shutter Island'. The talent of all involved makes the film exceed a workmanlike thriller even though the atmosphere on set was so mathematical.
A very enjoyable, meticulous film that demands and rewards patience. Worth seeing.
Fractured yet Suspenseful
Revanche starts out in the shower of a motel room in VIenna. The city is portrayed in the opening act of the film with sordid darkness, mostly taking places in barely lit clubs or dirty streets populated by Russian hookers. A protagonist emerges, a scraggy Austrian male who tries to escape with his girlfriend. The rest can't really be said without spoiling the film.
The tagline of Revanche ponders the fairness of life. The film tries to pinpoint human nature itself and the opportunity for redemption. Happiness seems relative, the wrong people have it and the right people don't. In fact Revanche opens and closes with suspense that reminds of the other Austrian fimmaker Michael Haneke. In Cache, Haneke uses heart stopping thrills to ask universal questions about its characters and humans in general. Revanche seems to be trying to do the same thing but in a more problematic fashion. The film opens and ends with such intensity, so methodically planned. But the middle is stretched out far too long, filled with frustratingly similar scenes and dialogue. It's almost as if the film took a detour and forgot what it was trying to suggest in the first place.
The contrast between Vienna and the Austrian countryside seems another point of the filmmakers. Yet this metaphor gets heavy handed and cumbersome. The audience waits patiently for more startling revelations but are only treated to them in the film's near ending. It's a shame because if Revanche was better scripted, the film could've gone much further. A strong rating for characterizations and worth seeing, just with dimmed expectations.
Un conte de Noël (2008)
A Christmas Tale has been booked as an extremely unconventional holiday film from most major reviewers. This is a selling point-the film is a "true" examination of the holidays that offers no traditional entry and exit. It's the direct contrast of Four Christmases and at least one reviewer pondered "If only American Christmas films could be like this one..." Certainly, A Christmas Tale is unconventional, using Wes Anderson-like bookmark introductions as an omniscient narrator dictates the various children's upbringing. Scenes suddenly cut off in the middle or change. Things are never really explained. Two characters have a major feud between them but the origins are never quite described.
This lack of knowledge and unpredictability gives A Christmas Tale an almost luminous ambiance. The film doesn't really move forward so much as float. Characters self-consciously talk about their own trappings in a theatrical way or muse about an event the audience was never privy too. It feels like the viewer is spying on this family, not in a Hitchcockian sense, but more as a privileged member. And although all of these distinctive attributes distinguish the film from more generic fare, it doesn't honestly add much. There is little emotional investment in the characters or their struggles, even though so much of the film depends on a sympathetic audience. The happy moments or the sad ones seem to do little to really effect anyone because such little is known about these people. The film feels airy and faint but it only lessens the impact.
One wonders why this approach was chosen. Perhaps to get the audience to feel instead of think. It doesn't seem like A Christmas Tale really wants to offer something different, as primed by others. Instead the filmmakers simply want to tell a story that transports the audience to France. They want the viewer to invest in these characters struggles and feel for them. But the film is loaded with such sudden and copious amounts of joy and the usual suspects- a scruffy but loving husband, a stern but fair mother, the black sheep who doesn't understand, the loving husband who doesn't complain, the adolescent child who is trying to find his place... the list goes on. But what's the significance? Where's the punch? What's the so what?
It's difficult to recommend this film even though the rating may not seem terrible. "Worth watching" is difficult to categorize in this place because the film feels like a continuation of this director's style but I know very little about his prior works. Check it out but don't expect much and you may be pleasantly surprised.
Los abrazos rotos (2009)
Well-done if not overwrought foreign film
In Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces a now-blind filmmaker recounts his love affair with an old actress/muse (Penelope Cruz). This plot point is not reached until nearly the middle of this over 2-hour film, even though it feels much longer. As usual Cruz delivers a very solid performance but her aesthetics threaten to overpower much else, especially considering her Oscar-nominated turn in Volver. I appreciated the sensitivities of the various performances but it seems Almodovar is too self-conscious about the nature of film-making himself, the film ending with one such line. The film feels like it runs too long and tries to address too many issues-the clash between business and art, the nature of love, and growing up. Although Almodovar does this very well and with powerful imagery supplied by the constantly reliable Rodrigo Prieto, the film does not seem to leave much of a lasting impression. The emotional payout seems stilted by the long running time and the mix of a suspenseful thriller and campy hip movie. Overall Broken Embraces works thanks to its performances and often funny writing but is hindered by the aforementioned elements. Worth watching.
The Limits of Control (2009)
Methodical if not frustrating and fragmented
Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control is probably one of the most divisive films I can think of in recent history. Although he is a celebrated filmmaker for his recent works such as Ghost Dog and Broken Flowers, the reception to The Limits of Control was less than enthusiastic.
Trying to describe the plot is, frankly, a waste of time. Jarmusch is unlikely to disagree with this comment. It stars a Lone Man (omnipresent Isaach de Bankole) on a "job" that no one really understands (the actor included, as noted in some interviews). Jarmusch shows his gradual progression through Spain as he meets with various characters played by old Jarmusch regulars and international actors. Conversations are held in French, English, Arabic, Spanish, and Japanese but all with the same meaning. This is comparable to the similar relationship of characters in previous Jarmusch movies such as Down by Law, Mystery Train, or more recently Ghost Dog and Coffee and Cigarettes. Yet here it practically wears thin, by the time our protagonist is well into his mission the audience already gets that even though he can't translate what the characters are saying, he understands it.
Understanding is something that can't really be mentioned alongside with The Limits of Control. A small but crucial monologue at the film's conclusion by the American (a too highly billed Bill Murray) explains the origins of the title but does not do much else. Is Jarmusch interested in easy explanations? Here, not very. The colorful cinematography by ace Christopher Doyle helps the film feel transcendent and the supporting performances add a certain amount of humor. Likewise the heavy soundtrack reminds one of Dead Man in being equally foreboding and listenable. As one can probably surmise by this brief review, it's difficult to categorize the film. I appreciated the visual values but feel it is too hyped by many. The film drags but isn't necessarily boring. The promise of closure is not there but one still feels compelled to just soak in the imagery.
For anyone interested in watching this, be forewarned. Don't expect to see a conventional film but expect to see events and conversations unfold. Some are interesting, others are not. I think it's worth taking the journey.
A Serious Man (2009)
Abstract and solid
A Serious Man, the Coen Bros new film, is different from what has come before it. Many will inevitably try to compare the numerous dream sequences to the surrealism and (Jewish) neuroticsm prevalent in Barton Fink. Others how the film beats up the character as the Coens did in the recent Burn After Reading, practically patronizing how shallow and often stupid they are. Yet the film is also filled with a great amount of warmth and despite the jolt the ending has-I think ultimately is a film about coping.
A plot summary doesn't do much to describe the film which is separated into a prologue set in Poland in Yiddish then chapter headings that show when the protagonist seeks out three main rabis. As his troubles compound the situations become increasingly bizarre and humorous. The humor feels more universal than, say, Burn After Reading. Particularly in the insulation of these characters as most, if not all scenes, take place from Larry's perspective. His unorthodox and uptight American neighbors, a Korean student of his, etc. all have very funny interactions with Larry that the audience enjoys. His inability to really deal with his surroundings and his timid nature are played for great comedy.
It's hard to effectively write up about the film's merits as it is so abstract. Audience opinion is likely to be divided as this does not conveniently fit into the Coens cannon. There is no ransom plot, no bursts of sudden violence and no major stars who make fools of themselves. Instead the film is tightly constructed by trying to convey the atmosphere of living and dealing in this time and place. The ambiance of the film is perhaps its strongest and weakest element. Since it relies so much on mood and texture, it's hard to do a full critical analysis. Many will differ in their response to the significance of the ending or the significance to the film on the whole. Personally I recommend it.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Incedinary but fractured
Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing has earned a reputation for being a scream about the harsh and damaging effects of racism. Unlike Driving Miss Daisy, released the same year, it views race relations as a problem without much of a solution. Lee's interest is on "telling it how it is" and like most of his filmography he tries to put a message across but ends up only partially succeeding.
Set over the course of one day, Do the Right Thing tells an intertwined story of a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn. Set in just one block it most prominently features Italian-American pizzeria owner Sal (an Oscar-nominated Danny Ailleo), his two racist sons, Mookie (Lee himself), and a host of other characters like Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Da Mayor (Ossie Davis). Although the clash may seem to simply be the African Americans vs. the Italian Americans, Lee tries to show deeper schisms within each community. Each character serves as a microcosm of sorts. Da Mayor represents the elder African American, intent on establishing trust and friendship between everyone. Sal tries hard to not be a racist and genuinely cares for the customers he serves. But Buggin' Out and Sal's son Pino (John Turturro) are the most vicious characters in the film. They constantly spew racism to anyone and everyone who will listen and are convinced that they are authority matters on their subjects. They do not wish to create harmony but would rather get their own way. Although the older generations embodied in Sal and Da Mayor seem more level headed, the younger generations are seen as less forgiving and more prone to violence.
Lee's point by showing these troubled relations is not so much to propose a solution to the problem but show the problem. Most characters in the film are unlikable by the conclusion. They, for the most part, fail to "do the right thing" and instead let anger take over. Sal shows his racist insides by using the n-word and then smashes Radio Raheem's boom box. Mookie, mostly ambivalent throughout the film, initiates the film's concluding riot. Everyone, according to Lee, has the propensity for violence and racism. This is a stark contrast to other films dealing with similar issues. In the Heat of the Night, Driving Miss Daisy, and the later film Crash all show that mutual peace and respect can be achieved despite racial differences. Lee does not really seem to believe that message, offering a glimmer of optimism in the film's last scene but ultimately focusing on the destruction in the community.
This decision to not propose a solution and to remain pessimistic is both Do the Right Thing's strength and weakness. Although the writing, acting, editing, cinematography are all frenzied and energetic enough to demonstrate Lee's message the film still feels fractured and sometimes dramatically stunted. Although Mookie seems to be the main character or anchor for the film there does not seem to be a clear focus. There is an omnipresent narrative perspective, sometimes one that breaks the fourth wall, but one that never suggests a more developed understanding of film. Lee's earlier She's Gotta Have It used some narrative experimentation to explore the inner subjectivity of its protagonist and also was mostly seen from her perspective. With a sprawl of characters Lee is unable to really find a cohesive enough way to tell the story. Although the splintered narrative may seem appropriate for the film's storyline, it ends up distracting. Individual relationship stories are shown that do not seem to really advance the film. Character development sometimes feels labored. The film only runs for 2 hours but it seems that Lee wants to develop his characters as much as humanly possible-although some seem much more complex than others. The message given at the end of the film seems to be that everyone is in this mess together, embodied by the setting of one block. He does not really suggest what people must do to overcome the racist urges in them but suggest that they all have them. He is unable to dramatically remedy this and the film feels more like a dramatic exposition.
All said and done Do the Right Thing is still a partially successful film. It entertains and elicits a powerful emotional response from the viewer. After seeing the film it is difficult not to feel something about what was just experienced. Some people take Sal's side, others Buggin' Out's. The "side" taken is not really important, it just reflects how each individual reacts differently to the same presentation. The editing, cinematography, and performances are given 100% by the respective filmmakers. Every character feels real and full blooded, not a cliché found in Paul Haggis' Crash. They are often frustrating but never untrue. This is remembered as Lee's best film... personally, I would argue that She's Gotta Have It is. But nonetheless it should be respected and praised for it's representation of a complex and fractured society at this time and place.
Los cronocrímenes (2007)
Intriguing but simple
The Spanish horror film Los cronocrimenes or Timecrimes, centers on a man's attempts to go through the past to stop a series of crimes. Using only four characters, the film weaves a story about how Hector (Karra Elejalde) tries to get himself and others out of trouble by using an elaborate system of time travel. Although the idea of time travel loans itself too many inconsistencies and plot holes they are cleverly side stepped by director/writer/co-star Nacho Vigalondo. The focus becomes more about the effect that the time travel has on Hector rather than the time travel itself and the film, like it's semi-counter part Let the Right One in, uses the story as a springboard for human drama. Hector is a murky protagonist and although the audience wants him to succeed some of his actions seem very questionable, especially when viewed in a series of different contexts.
Vigalondo employs multiple perspectives of similar events to show how each has a different implication. What seems like a simple set-up turns out to be infinitely more complex once the idea of time travel is brought into the fold. Unfortunately, Vigalondo is unable to infuse the film with any lasting dramatic weight. The film is only 90 minutes but feels longer and some of the dialogue feels labored and a little trite. The concept is so novel that it threatens to overpower the rest of the story, despite the attempt at emphasizing the human drama. There is no real "message" or lasting idea presented in the film. It feels, instead, like a series of episodes with interesting connections but no real lasting power.
That said Los cronocrimenes is not a bad film by any means. It is entertaining with solid performances across the board. Humorous and clever writing is there in parts to help move the story along a little faster. But ultimately they fail to give the film a big enough pulse to truly make a lasting impression. Some interesting ideas and good presentation do not always make for a great end result.
Miami Vice (2006)
Exciting, refreshing, and classy - one of the best movies of the year
'Miami Vice' is based off the time capsule 1980s show of the same name, but the styles couldn't be anymore different. This will undoubtedly upset some who were expecting a conventional remake of the show, Michael Mann decided to make a gritty, HD shot, noir/drama. The results are captivating, utterly original, and this is truly one of the best movies of the year.
There are no opening credits. Just the Universal studio logos then into a nightclub (playing the trailer theme song by Linkin Park/JAY Z.. slightly confusing, but I digress) where Dets. Sony Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricard Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are on a sting operation, along with Michelle Rodriguez partners played by Naomie Harris and Elizabeth Rodriguez. Unexpectedly, Crockett receives a cryptic phone call from an informant named Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes) who kills himself shortly after. So begins the undercover agents descent into the underworld to find out more about an FBI leak that Stevens mentioned. Soon they end up operating with the intense José Yero (John Ortiz), and Isabella (Gong Li), a Chinese-Cuban accountant for the smuggling operation. A business relationship is worked out, but things spiral out of control when Crockett falls (hard) for Isabella, who is the girlfriend of the main kingpin Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar). The plot is minimalist to say in the least, as Mann doesn't spoon feed the audience with what's going on. Names of characters aren't spoken way into the movie, leaving a better sense of realism. What makes 'Miami Vice' so sublime is the man behind the camera, Michael Mann (no pun intended).
Employing the unmatched talent of director of photography Dion Beebe (who won the Oscar for 'Memoirs of a Geisha, also starring Li), Mann shoots in new HD format. This decision gives the film a gritty, almost unnerving feel, revealing deep clouds and beautiful Miami sunsets but also darkening the dangerous slums of Columbia. Mann penned the screenplay, based off the show he and Anthony Yerkovich created, which has some uninspired lines and moments, but is ultimately original. Despite the fact that 'Miami Vice' fits in the genre of action, there are only few explosions/gunshots until the very end. Yet, with his choice of settings and plot details, the film is every bit as exciting. The first few gunshots in the film come as complete surprises, and the audiences literally jumped then started laughing/applauding. The actors use firearms realistically, and also they suspiciously always make their mark, one must keep in mind that they are special cops with extensive training. Mann also make smart decisions when it came to casting. Both leads fit in naturally with their roles, and the supporting players all contribute valuably. Li has a tough time speaking English, and struggles, but I was able to understand everything she said. All the considers, the actors did fine considering the often limited emotional nature of the roles. But it is as a director that Mann fits everything together.
Known for his realism (firearms training for actors is the norm), Mann who directed such thrillers as 'Heat' and 'Collateral' embarks on familiar territory but with a refreshing eye. Shots are always well placed and gorgeous, the action comes in sporadic bursts but fit in the with the story. The film is intense even during the scenes of dialogue, because the audience is unsure what exactly will happen next.
This film definitely is one of the highlights of the year, along with Richard Linklater's 'A Scanner Darkly'. Although some clichés knock it down from being perfect, 'Miami Vice' is definitely one of the must-see movies of the year.
V for Vendetta (2005)
Ideas are not, in fact, bulletproof
'V for Vendetta' marks the debut of James McTeigue, an assistant director to the likes of George Lucas and The Wachowski brothers who penned the screenplay. It's a dramatic, theatrical action/political film about a fascist society and one man's stand against it. It was based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore, who initially wrote it as an attack on the new rule of Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s. However, both as an action film and a political message it stumbles and fails.
Evey Hammond works is a humble citizen of the state who works in a television station. One night she is stopped by the police for passing curfew and is attacked and nearly raped. Fortunately for her, an enigmatic but gregarious hero named V (Hugo Weaving) comes to the rescue. The film begins to snowball from here, as V eventually lists Evey into helping him defeat the fascist society spearheaded by Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt), who's basically Big Brother with a voice. Also on the case is weary Inspector Erich Finch (Stephen Rea), who's not quite convinced that V's a terrorist simply killing civilians. The film is full of dialogue and action alike, and contains less than subtle remarks concerning the current Bush administration. Unfortunately, this is where the film fails.
I do not let political feelings get in the way of analyzing and reviewing film, but 'V for Vendetta' is incredibly blunt and even hackneyed. There are several reasons why the swipes at Bush feel unnecessary and poor. For one, the Wachowski Bros. wrote the screenplay in the 1990s, so why would it contain references to Avian Flu, homosexual marriage, etc? And if based upon a graphic novel written in the early 80s, how does this fit in either? It doesn't, and that is the fatal error. The filmmakers allow their own political opinions to hijack how they conceive and execute the premise. A flashback concerning a lesbian couple and their suffering doesn't fit in the film like it should, it feels tacked on to make another point. As an action movie, there's not much excitement either. There are plenty of slick visuals, but this alone doesn't make a good film. As many explosions and fights with the police as there are, this doesn't equate to action being driven by story.
Portman is a solid actress, but here she doesn't astound. She's given relatively little to do and must wait on the sidelines as V delivers monologue after monologue on how brutal the government is, how the situation came to be, etc. etc. Weaving, who rarely disappoints, is very much up to the task and provides some good natured if not jovial fun as the masked crusader. Rea, one of the often ignored actors of his generation, proves himself even if his role is limited. Hurt (who ironically started in a 1984 adaptation of '1984') hams it up as Sutler, but it's merely another piece of the puzzle. The script feels muddled, cluttered, and too political. McTeigue goes by the books on how to shoot action sequences, frame the story, etc. It feels more like a Wachowski film.
'V for Vendetta' is a weak film. It has some impressive visuals, and some exciting scenes, not to mention some rock solid supporting performances. These alone propel slightly above terrifyingly terrible, but that doesn't mean it's not awful.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Strong performances and solid direction are ultimately dogged by a weak screenplay
'Brokeback Mountain' is a love parable set over twenty years, focusing on two men as they yearn for each other. The film has picked up a strong amount of steam and is likely to win at least one major Academy Award. The film features, undeniably, extremely strong performances along with some nicely done technical awards. It is in the screenplay and story that it falls apart.
Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is a quiet cowboy from Wyoming who is looking to get some money for a job watching over sheep. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a gregarious, youthful man from Texas who wants the same job. At first the two just drink a beer together then go up to the mountains. As they quietly observe the scenery of Brokeback Mountain they slowly unravel their lives to one another - only to have a sudden sexual experience that neither of them can understand. The men can not deny or accept their passion for one another and once the job is done Del Mar goes off and marries his sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams). Twist goes back to rodeo and there picks up the dashing and wealthy Lureen (Anne Hathaway). The two eventually settle down and start families until one day Del Mar receives a letter from Twist, reminding him of their passion. They each make excuses that they are "fishing buddies" while they go up to the mountains to share the passion amongst themselves. Things go awry as the two men are heartbroken over the fact that they can never be together even though they crave it so. An interesting idea, but one that unfortunately doesn't work out as best as possible.
'Brokeback Mountain' is based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx. Short is the key word here. The screenplay by Larry McCurthy and Diane Ossana feels stretched out. The film covers the personal tales of these two men over a span of twenty years as they fade in and out of bitter relationships and fight with those around them. The film feels like a replay of everything - running at 2 hours and 15 minutes it's not exactly short. The problem is that after a certain period of time the audience understands that these two men will never be together, even though Twist may come up with an idealistic future. The photography of the mountains is well done by master Rodrigo Prieto ('25th Hour', 'Alexander') although it seems the imagery of the mountains does most of the work. The film has a melody to it's visual technique but that's not enough to save the flawed script that overreaches. This is not to say there aren't any positive elements to the film.
The performances are nothing short of great. Ledger gives a strong, somber performance as a man who has dirt because he doesn't know how to get what he wants. Also sublime is Williams as the tormented wife who loves her husband but only wants him to love her back. Similarly impressive are the other two cast members. Lee, as a director, has established himself already. Here here adds to his filmography, providing a subtle view to the story. His ability to get strong performances out of his lead actors is unfaltering, as is his ability to tell a story about outsiders.
'Brokeback Mountain' is interesting. It's a slow, quiet film that takes it's time. But what exactly is the right amount of time? With some strong performances, neat technical details, and solid direction 'Brokeback Mountain' had a recipe for something better... too bad it didn't quite take it.
Walk the Line (2005)
A solid, well-made film about the life and times of Johnny Cash
'Walk the Line' tells the story of music legend Johnny Cash and his journey to becoming a popular country rock icon. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as The Man in Black and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, who Cash desperately tries to marry many times. Director James Mangold ('Girl, Interrupted') tells the story of 'Walk the Line' through flashback initially then moves into "present" time.
The film shows Cash as a young boy growing up in a farm in Arkansas. His father (Robert Patrick) is tough on him, but seems to hold more love towards his brother Jack. Unfortunately there is a bizarre saw-blade accident and Jack is killed. This incident is shown to scare Cash as the responsibility for the death is blamed on him. After joining the Air Force and serving in Germany Cash moves into a house with Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) and has two kids. After an unsuccessful stint as a salesman, he goes into music and is sharply elevated to fame. This is where he meets June Carter, the woman who he falls in love with although it causes a problem for his marriage. The rest of 'Walk the Line' covers Cash going to places like Folsom Prison, singing his songs to large audiences, and doing several duets with Carter.
Employing emotionally raw scenes, Mangold attempts to tell Cash's story honestly but not without heart. The screeenplay, based on Cash's autobiography, weaves together a narrative about Cash as a man who got into trouble his fair share but was ultimately honest with himself and who didn't care what other people thought. The screenplay is simple enough - it shows cause and effect and develops the relationship between Cash and Carter well. One can tell Mangold put his heart into the project and very much cares about the subject matter. His direction, too, is solid but nothing spectacular. In terms of technical elements 'Walk the Line' is richly edited and well shot. Even though the film is well made it's not quite great.
As much as it tries to cover Cash's life, Mangold doesn't cover everything and the ending feels abrupt. The performances are very strong from both leads although the supporting cast is forgotten about, unlike 'Ray'. It doesn't delve deep into the material but covers things too simply. Overall, 'Walk the Line' is a good biopic for anyone interested in Cash or music but it never gets to the level of great.
A wonderful, quirky film - one of my favorites, if not no. 1
Eccentric writer/director Wes Anderson and co-screenplay writer Noah Baumbach tackle the high seas in this adventure story about a weary oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) as he tries to find the "Jaguar Shark" that ate his friend alive. What Anderson and Baumbach do so well is spin together a narrative that is both simple and complex, a wonderful, funny, passionate film that's richly laced with acerbic humor and strong performances.
Zissou has reached the end of his line. His last few documentaries have flopped and his producer Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon) is having a tough time getting funds. His wife, Eleanor (Angelica Huston) pays less and less attention to him and his nemesis Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) is beginning to interfere more and more with his research. On top of all this he discovers that he might have a son from a long ago affair, the quiet and simple minded Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) of Kansas. After the failed running of a documentary that shows his friend and mentor Esteban (Seymour Cassel) being eaten alive Zissou decides that it's time to make his last trek-find and kill the shark at any cost. Along for the bumpy ride are the usual cast of misfits, former German bus driver Klaus Daimler (an achingly hilarious Willem Dafoe), a nosy but professional, pregnant journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), and a Bail Bond Stooge (Bud Cort). This unlikely team, along with some other comrades of Steve venture dive head first into quite an adventure. There are some classic scenes, such as when Steve tries to confront the possibility of mutiny and some harsh and gritty scenes, such as when Filipino pirates attack and board Zissou's ship. This thick, rich plot is executed to the full extent by the talented crew.
Anderson has a knack for making some off beat comedies with oddball characters (see 'Bottle Rocket' or 'Rushmore'). After getting an Academy Award nomination for writing 'The Royal Tenenbaums' Anderson made this film and his talent only develops with age. His first three outings he co-wrote with usual actor Owen Wilson however this time he employs the talents of Baumbach (who just recently came out with the acclaimed 'The Squid and the Whale'). The pair make a very fresh film that still fits in the mold of Anderson's previous work even if the other screenwriter has been changed. The photography and editing are vibrant without being overly glossy and there is a truly amazing soundtrack featuring some David Bowie songs in Portugese. As a director, Anderson is able to infuse a very life like yet subtle quality into his characters. Zissou is egotistical and even an ass yet there is something strangely likable about him. Klaus is a crazed German and Dafoe deserved to have been nominated for his turn. The rest of the cast also turns in some notable performances, especially in some rather intense scenes. It all works out well.
'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou' is my favorite film. It's a rich mixture of wonderful chemistry, writing, directing, and wit. Don't miss it.
Muddled plot with some a strong performance makes Jarhead a mediocre film
'Jarhead' is the latest film film from Academy Award winning director Sam Mendes ('American Beauty', 'Road to Perdition') about a Marines unit during the Gulf War. The story revolves around sniper Anthony "Swoff" Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his scout friend Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) as they serve their tour of duty in Iraq. They are commanded by Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), a tough-as-nails leader who demands complete motivation and hard work. As the film progresses, the viewer begins to understand more and more the situation that Swofford and co. face.
The Gulf War was very short - only four days and the film makes a point about this. Swofford and Troy are trained to fight against the Saddam Hussein's troops who have invaded Kuwait only the war is over before they can actually kill anyone. Swofford wrote an autobiography of his experiences about the futility of training young men to fight without ever actually giving them the opportunity. However, as interesting a point this is to make the film ends up feeling muddled and dull.
In the Stanley Kubrick film 'Full Metal Jacket' the viewer sees Marines being drilled to become perfect, mean, killing Marines and perhaps even robots. The difference between 'Jarhead' and 'Full Metal Jacket' is that the former does not devote as much time to build up this vital plot point. There are scenes that involve a drill instructor and a boot camp but they are not nearly on the same level and intensity, nor does it really push through the plot. The entire film talks about the daily boredom the Marines face in Operation Desert Shield then Iraqi Desert Storm as they eagerly wait for the chance to shoot at the enemy. However the film feels stretched out and has some bizarre scenes that apparently serve as metaphors. As someone who has not read the novel I can not accurately comment on whether or not the film incorporated the elements from the novel although screenwriter William Broyles Jr. ('Apollo 13', 'Unfaithful') seems to muddy up several scenes. The viewer gets a sense of the irate atmosphere but that does not mean it has to be dull and long. Although this is the main flaw of the film, there are some positive elements.
Sarsgaard has proved himself a capable actor in films like 'Garden State' and 'Kinsey' and here he lives up to the reputation. He has one very emotional scene towards the end where he perfectly delivers the difficult emotions and his frustration with the situation. Gyllenhaal also proves himself talented although it feels as if he is a pedestrian, and as if he is the lenses for which the audience sees everything through. Oscar winner Foxx also plays his role with solid charisma, although he is given less to do than in his sublime performances in 'Collateral' or 'Ray'. Other notable cast members include Chris Cooper as a Lt. Col. and Dennis Haysburt as a Major who causes some big problems for the main characters. There are also some impressive technical elements.
Ace director of photography Roger Deakins has some striking images such as burning oil fields and the dry heat of the desert frustrating the Marines. Editor Walter Murch is able to inter cut splice in some nice imagery throughout although as mentioned before the film drags it's heels. Mendes expressed admiration for how Kubrick directed 'Full Metal Jacket' in previous interviews concerning the film. His admiration shows very clearly. He wants to make a strong point with 'Jarhead' without the messy elements of politics or modern day comparisons. And to some degree he succeeds yet at the same time the film feels disconnected. In 'Full Metal Jacket' there are some stark and fascinating caricatures of the Vietnam Marine yet Kubrick somehow infuses a life into those characters.
'Jarhead' is not necessarily a bad film, nor is it really a good film. It's mediocre and while the murky plot elements drag it down, Sarsgaard impresses very much and the visual elements are a plus. In some ways, it just could've been done better.
Man on Fire (2004)
An entertaining movie - though it the visuals ultimately detract
'Man on Fire' is an action film that tries to go beyond, like A.J. Quinnell's novel. Rather than focusing purely on action sequences, director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Crimson Tide) and writer Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) attempt to build a relationship between the characters. The attempt is admirable but the film ultimately falls to clichés and unnecessary, fast-paced editing.
Creasy (Denzel Washington) is an American in Mexico City, hired to work as a bodyguard for a wealthy family. All around the city kidnappings are happening at an alarming rate. Lisa (Radha Mitchell) is nervous and convinces her husband Samuel (Marc Anthony) to hire Creasy as a protector for their young daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning). At first, the relationship between Creasy and Pita is strained but eventually they come to gain affection for each other. Creasy is an alcoholic shell in the beginning of the film and uses the job as an opportunity to stop his habit. He's an extremely mysterious, quiet man who Pita eventually opens up. Nasty consequences ensue, when Pita is kidnapped and a ransom is demanded. Creasy is shot at the scene but eventually recovers and with weapons from Rayburn (Christopher Walken) decides to personally hunt down those responsible. As the film continues the conflict gets wider and wider as he searches for answers. Soon a conspiracy involving a corrupt lawyer (Mickey Rourke) is uncovered leading to even more gruesome violence to a suspenseful conclusion.
'Man on Fire' had potential as a film, being based on a great novel but Scott and Helgeland ultimately cut short on the relationship in order for action. Dizzying, MTV-like editing is used for many of the action scene and it feels as if Scott is trying to emulate both his brother, Ridley and filmmaker Oliver Stone. In 1994 Stone released 'Natural Born Killers' which used aesthetics as a focal point to the narrative of the film including some hyper-real scenes. Scott seemed to favor using a similar technique in 'Man on Fire' however the negatives outweigh the positives. The cinematography by Paul Cameron is at once ferocious, especially considering his work on films like 'Gone in Sixty Seconds' and 'Swordfish'. Christian Wagner (True Romance, Mission: Impossible II) edits with the same kind of speed but instead of adding to the film it also subtracts. The action scenes feel unnecessarily disruptive and it's when the violence on screen happens that Scott actually gains momentum. These scenes last more in the memory than the relationship. Helgeland's script dramatically makes cuts to the novel, and frankly it's uncertain that he even read it! Characters are made into two-dimensional pawns, the setting is changed from Italy to Mexico City, and whole chapters of character development are swiftly cut.
Washington and Fanning give the appropriate energy for their characters, especially the former. Washington is a talented actor and his performance is one of the good factors of the film. Fanning also is entertaining as always, particularly in the bonding scenes. The rest of the cast is not worth much mention. Walken plays the role straight, which is disappointing considering his good work in 'Catch Me if You Can'.
In the end 'Man on Fire' gives into the typical formula. The visuals can be arresting, the action is entertaining, and the leads are worthwhile but the mess created by the filmmakers ultimately drags it down to mediocre or below good.
The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971)
A dark and interesting adaptation of a great play
Adapting William Shakespeare to the screen can be a dramatically difficult task. His plays are visceral in writing and do not take the time, which novels do, to describe the visual mannerisms of the story. Thus, it is the job of the director (Roman Polanski), writer or writers (Roman Polanski, Kenneth Tynan), and cast (Jon Finch, Francesca Annis) to create a film out of plain dialog. "Macbeth" in particular is a very dark, visual play that requires a skilled level of film-making. In this regard, Polanski, Tynan, and Finch succeed in their creation of 'The Tragedy of Macbeth'.
The story of "Macbeth" revolves around a Scottish soldier named Macbeth (Jon Finch). After a gruesome battle in which Macbeth quells a rebellion, him and his brother in arms Banquo (Martin Shaw) encounter three witches. These witches give a prophesy that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor, Thane of Fife, and "king hereafter". Macbeth is confused but ultimately fascinated with becoming the king. When one of these prophecies comes true, Macbeth realizes that it's very possible he will become king. He sends a letter to his wife (Francesca Annis) explaining the events. Lady Macbeth fears that her husband is too weak to seize the opportunity, and manipulates Macbeth into killing the honorable king Duncan (Nicholas Selby) to seize the position. When this happens, Macbeth becomes king but everything fails. Strange events begin to happy in the castle at Scottland, there is mutiny in the ranks, and all of Scottland fears and hates Macbeth. In England two ardent followers of Duncan including his son Malcolm (Stephan Chase) and a member of Scottish royalty Macduff (Terence Bayler) decide that it is necessary to rid Macbeth from power. Consequences come to a head and ultimately everything leads to a violent conclusion in a bloody final stand between Macbeth and the English Army.
Roman Polanski has a history of making dark films. Whether it's the quiet and dreamy atmosphere of 'Rosemary's Baby' or the cool mystery noir of 'Chinatown' Polanski understands how such gloomy film-making can affect the viewer. In 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' Polanski uses this to create a large amount of tension in his story. The characters are violent and ruthless, and the language is a means of starting violent conflict. 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' may have struck a personal chord for Polanski as it was being filmed when his wife Sharon Tate was untimely murdered by the Mason Family. "Macbeth" is in it's own way a dramatic and violent tale, but Polanski accelerates the level of violence to sometimes gratuitous portions. Severed limbers are constantly show with bloodshed every which way. Part of the art "Macbeth" was Shakespeare's ability to convey the sense of increasing danger and blood using only words. There is one sword fight in the end of the play, necessary to filming but it seems Polanski took the major battle scenes and breathed life into them too much. The film has a murky visual style, as if filmed on a low budget. Interestingly enough, ipso facto this murky visual style is a component of the film. The low budget and dark visuals become sensory and contribute to the atmosphere Polanski was trying to form. The cast is able enough, providing the necessary traits to effectively project the dialog and language onto the screen. Most notable is Finch as the torn Scottish king, who's conscience ultimately betrays him.
'The Tragedy of Macbeth' may not be a brilliant adaptation of the popular play, but Roman Polanski has a certain amount of success in the way he films the ideas set out by William Shakespeare. It's too grotesque for it's own good, but in the end it's a solid and worthy counter-part. 8/10
A searing and visually pleasing adaptation, one of Mike Nichols' best films
In 'Catch-22' director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry, along with a large ensemble that includes the likes of Alan Arkin, Art Garfunkel, Martin Sheen, and Orson Welles, takes on the challenge of adaptation Joseph Heller's renown novel. And through stunning visual work with crisp and deadpan dialogue, the 'Catch-22' is effortlessly able to capture the immense spirit of Heller's novel and at the same time stand alone as a master film.
'Catch-22' takes place on the Mediterranean Island of Pianosa and the film has a strange narrative time order, which mainly includes flashback. Yossarian (Alan Arkin), a bombardier during World War II walks out just after a meeting with the high command and is stabbed. While lying on the surgery table, he begins to remember the strange events of the war, including the catch that doesn't allow him to go home: catch-22. In order for a person to be grounded from flying the set number of missions, which is constantly being raised by the mean spirited Colonel Catchart (Martin Balsam), he must declare himself insane to Doctor Daneeka (Jack Gilford ). The catch is that by declaring himself insane and requesting to not fly anymore missions, he has proved himself sane! Through recalling major events, such as the painful death of the new gunner Snowden, his romantic entanglement with a prostitute in Rome, and other crazy wartime events, Yossarian slowly unravels the story. The world seems to be slowly disintegrating around him as a his friends either go crazy or are killed in combat, and at the same time mess hall officer Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight) is constantly taking away plane equipment in order to make a profit. The difficult task of adapting such a complex plot from the novel was solved handled breathtaking skill. While some characters, major or minor, do not make the transition from Heller's novel to Henry's screenplay; the "spirit" of the novel is captured. The surreal feeling of wartime and the bizarre and comedic events that take place are stunningly well delivered.
The cast does a good job of taking their characters and elevating them. Yossarian is arguably one of the most enjoyable characters in literary history, and Arkin gives a very well rounded performance as a man extremely paranoid about the war, but for good reason. The supporting cast, including Sheen, Voight, Welles, and even Henry himself as Colonel Korn gives able to support to the events of the story, although the main events really encompass around Yossarian.
'Catch-22' was released in 1970, three years after Mike Nichols' popular film 'The Graduate' for which he nabbed a Best Director Academy Award. It also came four years after his adaptation of Edward Albee's play 'Who's Afraid of Virgnia Woolf?', Nichols' debut piece that showcased his ability to handle sharp dialogue and direct a poignant story and ensemble from another popular literary work. Nichols, fresh off the success of these two films along with a directing Oscar and another nomination, directs 'Catch-22' with a strongly appeasing visual style and a remarkable subtlety. Even during the more hectic scenes, such as a raid on the airbase, Nichols is able to continue his momentum throughout. The film, as mentioned many times in this review, looks absolutely stunning and Nichols' is also able to effectively command his large ensemble. Buck Henry, who collaborated in the writing of 'The Graduate' manages to not only capture the extremely significant and memorable dialogue of 'Catch-22' but at the same time capture the pure depth and at times, cynicism which author Heller portrayed.
In the end, 'Catch-22' proves a success in its storytelling and visual style. While the film overall fell in the shadow of the popularity of Robert Altman's 'M*A*S*H' which also took major Oscar nominations instead, the film nonetheless stands out amongst its time, proving itself an extremely tight and well done adaptation of a complex piece of literature.
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
Quentin Tarantino falls once again, a sub par continuation of an exciting film
Writer/ Director Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown) continues his story from 'Kill Bill: Vol. 1', an exciting action/ adventure film that chronicles the revenge of The Bride (Uma Thurman) as she seeks to find those whom she used to trust and those who put her into a comma for four years. In Vol. 1, The Bride dispatched O - Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) and the Crazy 88 fighters. In 'Kill Bill: Vol. 2' the story continues as she seeks to find and kill Budd (Michael Madsen), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), and of course Bill (David Carradine), ending her rampage.
Tarantino created an exciting, action packed explosive piece of cinema with 'Kill Bill: Vol. 1' by using slick cinematography/ editing and combining several highly memorable action sequences with a cool story. Instead of choosing to make a film with similar style as Vol. 1, in 'Kill Bill: Vol. 2' Tarantino opts to make the film more plot orientated and dig deeper into the characters. Flashbacks are used a few times to develop the relationships between characters that once was, in particular The Bride and Bill at the wedding rehearsal. However, Tarantino is ultimately dogged by his murky screenplay and timid direction that fails to truly grab a theme and hold onto it. There is a dizzy and very spectacular fight scene in a trailer between Elle and The Bride, and a humorous flashback to The Bride's training by Pai Mei (Gordon Liu). However, these action scenes aren't enough to make the film interesting and it becomes purely dull. It is discovered in the very end of 'Kill Bill: Vol. 1' that The Bride's daughter is still alive, and in Vol. 2 they finally meet and try to form a bond. Bill finally is shown and developed. But it seems Tarantino was trying to go two places at once, and was trying to make an action piece and a drama at the same time.
Tarantino has always had a knack for making films with slang filled dialog, and stylish criminal characters. Bill is the culmination of Tarantino's style, particularly a scene in which he delivers a monologue about his thoughts on Superman. While Carradine definitely has some cool to him, the dialog ends up falling flat to the ground and it seems the depth, or whatever it was Tarantino was trying to achieve was totally lost. The film feels boring and patchy, instead of the tight focus Tarantino employed with 'Kill Bill: Vol. 1', Vol. 2 is by comparison much weaker and much more disconnected. The Bride is given more to do than simply fight this time, and she is asked to finally show more human emotions. Unfortunately, Thurman isn't half able to pull this off. While her grim emotions were perfect in Vol. 1, Tarantino gives her more to do but she is just incapable. One scene asks for her to be crying on the floor in a bathroom, and I couldn't help but laugh. She simply lacks the ability to perform. Carradine, as mentioned previously definitely has style but the murky screenplay doesn't give him the ability to really use it to full potential. Michael Madsen and Daryl Hannah are appropriate in their roles, particularly Hannah as the fork tongued bitch Elle. The usual sharp performances Tarantino gets from his actors is lost, and there is no one to blame but him. The film employs some sharp visuals as well, thanks to ace director of photography Robert Richardson (JFK), but visuals aren't as important to the story as they were in Vol. 1.
I give some credit to 'Kill Bill: Vol. 2'. There are some exciting moments in the film, and Carradine is able to give off some nice moments. But the flat screenplay by Quentin Tarantino and his unfocused direction break the film apart.
Donnie Brasco (1997)
A good, meaningful film about the mafia in the 1970s
While the early to mid 90's had a slew of mafia films, 'Donnie Brasco' stands out. With its rich screenplay and strong performances, 'Donnie Brasco' is a good film that ultimately is more about the friendship between two people rather than the mafia.
Joseph D. Pistone (Johnny Depp) is an excellent FBI agent who goes undercover in the 1970s New York mob as diamond salesman Donnie Brasco. His lead man is Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), an aging and somewhat of a lowlife gangster who sees his chance for redemption in "Donnie". Pistone's wife, Maggie (Ann Heche) doesn't know much about her husband's career and soon their marriage begins to get rocky as he spends more and more time undercover, eventually seemingly one of the mafia's own. Also playing a central role in the story is Sonny Black (Michael Madsen), an up and coming gangster who seems to be getting more respect than Lefty. As the plot develops, Pistone loses himself in the role of Brasco and forms a true bond with Lefty. To his knowledge, and to the knowledge of his fellow mafia members Donnie is a trustworthy gentleman, and the friendship between Lefty and Donnie only increases. Lefty is clearly a degenerate, he constantly mumbles and complains about the poor treatment he gets from mafia chieftain Sonny Red (Robert Maino), and also is constantly asking people for money. He forms a true friendship with Donnie as he tries to gain some altitude back, and as he sees Black getting higher and higher than he does. Soon, the situation begins to escalate as the FBI begins to close in on Pistone's case, and Pistone must make a difficult decision about Lefty who he has formed the true bond with.
Paul Attanasiano (Quiz Kids) based his screenplay on the novel of the same name by the real life Pistone and Richard Wooley. While the novel is a clear autobiography of sorts, the film has no narration. Instead the narrative is made clear by Attanasiano's script as he blends the life of Pistone and of Brasco, two separate characters who eventually become one. His screenplay is dynamite. Many mafia films showcase tough guy dialog, but in the instance of 'Donnie Brasco' this dialog serves a higher purpose. The conversations and the actions between Lefty and Donnie form a true relationship, despite their opposite professions. There are also some magnetic scenes of drama and brutal violence, especially at a Japanese bar when Donnie doesn't want to take his shoe off. While some background characters may seem like the typical mafia lowlifes, the simple characterization of Lefty and Donnie is pure magic. Mike Newell, who's previous list of credits include the comedy 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' brings appropriate direction to the film. This film is not necessarily about the mafia at a certain time like 'Goodfellas' or 'The Godfather' is, but rather more of a relationship film, showing the way two men come together despite their circumstances. Also very worthy of mention is talented composer Patrick Doyle's musical score, which adds to the emotional effect of many scenes. The performances by Pacino and Depp, as usual, are fantastic. Pacino is given a real chance to shine as the aging Lefty, a man unlike his charismatic character in 'The Godfather' series. Depp once again displays his ability to simply submerge himself completely in a role, and as an added bonus the character acts, adding on layers.
'Donnie Brasco' is a good film. The fresh screenplay, strong acting, and sharp direction makes it very worthy of mention. While it at times gets too slow, or the story sometimes loses focus, it still is a very worthy film of watching.