Alright, now that that's done, it's time for my latest Random Weekly Movie Reviews!
EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE (2011) Director: Stephen Daldry
2 1/2 STARS
Inconsistent. That's the word that keeps coming into my mind when I think about "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close". Part of me gets what they're trying to do, and sometimes I think it works, but then it does some things that are just odd choices, and it's strange. There's things to admire about it, but I just can't get past some of these peculiarities. I don't know the book, which is apparently very popular, but it takes place in New York, about a year or so after 9/11. The story itself, is based out of fantasy and adventure, almost fairy tale-like. This doesn't seem like a particularly believable combination, especially when it begins with an eleven-year old walking to Brooklyn from Manhattan, alone. The 11-year old is Oskar (Thomas Horn) who's dad, a jeweler named Thomas (Tom Hanks) was killed on 9/11. He had a meeting in the second tower that day. He left a few phone calls on the answering machine, which Oskar didn't pick up. His memories of him, are very exact and involve a series of mysteries and adventures that he'd set up for them. It's mentioned that Oskar was tested for Asperger's Syndrome once, and they came back inconclusive. He has it. I know this 'cause I also have an inconclusive test for Asperger's Syndrome. Okay, actually I don't, but I always feared that I have it, having a brother who's autistic, I'm actually much more likely than most to have it, but I've chosen not to be tested. The one thing that leads me to think I don't have it, is that I'm a pretty good liar. Oskar lies so rarely, he actually keeps a running total; that's a sign of A.S. I don't have a problem with an A.S. character, but it's used as a gimmick here. Why couldn't he have just been a normal kid? Probably cause he has to give a lot of exposition and details about his journey, and everything else for that matter, that it's easier to just hint that he may have a mental disability to explain it. The adventure begins about a year after 9/11, when Oskar goes into his Dad's room, and finds hidden in a blue lamp, a key in an envelope, with the word "BLACK" on it. Oskar, believes this to be a clue, and he's determine to keep this last gasp of his father's memory alive, and becomes determine to find out what the key unlocks. He begins with everybody in New York named Black. He walks all the way for most of the journey, which he takes on weekends, and occasional skipped days off from school. He begins with an Abby Black (Viola Davis), which is first alphabetically. He goes from burrough to burrough for months. His mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock) is a bit of a sleeping mess during this time, although, it still seems strange that she'd let her boy go running around New York all by herself. Eventually, The Renter (Max von Sydow) joins him. A mute old man, who's been rented out Oskar's grandmother's (Zoe Caldwell) room for a while. He has "Yes" and "No" tattooed on his hands to answer question, and he writes everything else out. Who is he? It's not hard to figure out, in fact it only took me about 30 seconds after being told of his existence, to figure out who he is, thankfully, the movie's not about that. Von Sydow got a surprise Oscar nomination for his part here, one of two shocking nominations the film got, the other for Best Picture despite the movie getting snubbed at most every award show beforehand, and knocked by the critic's badly. It got only a 48 on rottentomatoes.com's tomatometer, over half the major film critics in America, hated it, by far the lowest ever to get a Best Picture nomination. It also marks the third consecutive Stephen Daldry film to get a Best Picture nomination. He's a talented filmmaker, he's better on stage however, but his films seem to get progressively worse, making some of his recent nominations rather odd to me. There's a lot to like about "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," Thomas Horn for instance, while I have some questions about the A.S. the character is given, is incredibly good in the lead role, in fact it's really amazing just how well he manages to run this movie. He's in every scene, and he's quite good in some scenes. Max Von Sydow is very good, as is some key supporting work from Davis and later by Jeffrey Wright, but it doesn't seem to have the real emotions underneath that this story seems to need. It's actually somewhat similar to two other Best Picture nominees this year, "Hugo," and "War Horse". "Hugo" was also about going through a long adventure, (which also involved a key) in order to figure out what some mystery is, and "War Horse", was also about a character going through a long journey meeting numerous different characters along the way, and not really being too affected by the encounters. In Roger Ebert's review of the film, he summised that "You will not discover why it was thought that this story needed to be told." I must confess I've having trouble figuring that out myself. I think there's room to look at any moment in history, even the most depressing and unnerving through any kind of prism you want, and that includes 9/11 and fairy tale. However, this isn't the way to tell it well.
ANONYMOUS (2011) Director: Roland Emmerich
Dear Mr. Emmerich:
You've put a lot or work and thought into this film, so for that reason, I've chosen to criticize it as unbiased and objectively as possibly. While I appreciate your interest in conspiracy theories, you're belief that William Shakespeare's (Rafe Spall) work was written by anybody other than the Bard yourself, is one of the most ridiculous and delusional of all conspiracy theories. I say this having gone through all known theories myself, (I had to recently for a project in a theatre class) and personally, I've been through practically every other major conspiracy theory around. JFK's assassination, the moon landing being faked, the one where Paul McCartney's supposedly been dead since 1966. (That one I actually think has some validity to it, if it weren't for the fact that he's still alive, I'd think it'd be legitimate) Every lamebrained theory about Shakespeare not authoring his own works is based on the narrow-minded and delusional point of view that a man from such unimpressive an upbringing would've been incapable of creating such masterpieces and "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet," in your case, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifan) Only the most frustrated and untalented of writers is capable of thinking this, and they use sporadic and oftentimes untrue, and worse, unproveable "facts," as evidence that he couldn't have done it. First of all, the offensive part of your theory, is that only somebody of priviledge could've written these things, and only have written things that they themselves experienced? I've written scripts and stories in about five or six different genres, and through the eyes of many people who are not like me, as have many other great and talented writers. You wrote and directed "2012," right? And "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow?" Have you experienced a world-ending apocalypse, or a sudden ice age encompassing the world, or an alien invasion? No, you didn't, but you wrote about them anyway. A writer can't have imagination is basically your claim, but you certainly do? Not a great one like the Bard's, but an imagination nonetheless, right? That you believe it to be a legitimate conspiracy theory at all is an insult to all writers and creative artists all who dare to imagine worlds as varied as a prison, a haunted house, a war they've never been to, or a world as inventive as Pandora or Narnia or even Middle Earth, and you should get with the program. And by the way, here's one fact for you, the first time any of these conspiracy theories ever came about occurred 150 years, after Shakespeare's death, long after anybody who ever knew him was alive to repudiate or confirm any theories about Shakespeare. I dare you to find another even marginally believable conspiracy theory that can trace it's origins to that late a date, after all the particulars are no longer around. However, you've clearly put some work into this hairbrained theory of yours, you put up your own money to make this film even, and a lot of care into "Anonymous," so you deserve to have the film judged based on it's own merits as a film, and not the wild speculation it insists upon. Saying that, the film is very well-done. I think the idea of using Ben Johnson (Sebastien Armesto) as a go-between was inventive and interesting. I even admire how you compared Laertes to William Cecil (Robert Thewlis), a family of magistrates known for playing mind games chess with members of the Royal Family for years. For much of the movie, if I didn't know any better, I'd think your theory was at least plausible, up until the end when you through that idea way off the rails, especially the notion of Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson when young, Vanessa Redgrave old) having numerous bastard children-, I mean, come on, even you must've known that one is ridiculous? I like the idea of using this theory to create a plausible story, and while the movie is out there, especially at the end, the movie kept me interested, just enough to recommend it, even with all the stretching of facts and logic, "Anonymous" was ultimately entertaining. I commend your ability, and I hope in time, you'll realize the error of your thoughts, and accept "Anonymous," as I do, as a moderately-enjoyable flight-of-fancy, that has no basis in reality what-so-ever, but is at least inventive and entertaining.
DECLARATION OF WAR (2012) Director: Valerie Donzelli
4 1/2 STARS
France's entry in the Foreign Language Oscar contest, and officially, the first film with a 2012 American release I've seen, "Declaration of War," begins with two character named Romeo and Juliette (Jeremy Elkaim and Director Valerie Donzelli, the film's co-writers, and real-life husband and wife). They meet at a party, they fall in love, and then, they have a child. So far, the story seems normal, but soon they realize that their child isn't. He's not walking as fast as the other kids, he's not eating, he's throwing up when he does. There's an asymmetry to his face that the pediatrician sees. There's a few other signs that something might be wrong, and they begin going through some tests. It takes awhile before doctors can finally figure out what it is, a brain tumor. He's gonna have to have brain surgery, and even then, chemo, radiation, and that's if he survives, and there's still a lot of other factors involved. This kind of thing isn't in parenting books you know? What happens if something's wrong with your child? Elkaim and Donzelli based the film on their own experiences, and there's some interesting observances they make. How they're told about one operation's success, but how things could still be much worse, and that they don't tell their friends that part. How life still goes on living. Romeo's working on a wallpapering a room for what seems like forever. Or how they go out still, even when their kid is in the hospital for weeks on end. If you don't let go for at least a second or two, you'll be doing nothing but fighting forever. Yet, fight they must, to get their kid to survive. The title is accurate, it is a war to go through such a thing. An exhausting, emotional gut-wrenching war, where losing isn't an option. There aren't too many movies I can compare this film too, that aren't overly-emotional Lifetime Movie of the Week type films. "Lorenzo's Oil," comes to mind, (Also based on real life) but that was about two parents who were more determined to solve their kid's illness on their own than they were, the doctor's who were dragging their feet. Despite their literary influenced names, Romeo and Juliette aren't particularly extraordinary people like that, and the doctor's can only do so much. Sure, they aren't happy that the surgeon barely looks up and notices them, right before they perform surgery, but hell, he's the best at this thing, and frankly their isn't much they can do, just like everybody else in situations like this. "Declaration of War," is both matter-of-fact, and emotionally powerful. There's no background music stirring our emotions one way or another, or any other Hollywood cliches involved in films like these. In many ways, the story is simple. Our kid was sick, but we took him to a doctor, and eventually, he got better. What does that take to happen? Determination and luck mostly, and an insistence on fighting to survive.
J. EDGAR (2011) Director: Clint Eastwood
J .Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) is certainly one of the most intriguing characters in modern American history. He was awarded a disturbingly high amount of power in our nation's government as head of the FBI for life, an honor that will most surely never be given out again, and yet, fought intensely for more power. He desire to bend or break any Constitutional amendment he so chose in order to get any information he can on whatever radical or other person in power, real or perceptual he could, is the same insistent desire that made him forever reinvent how we investigate and solve crimes in this country. He wasn't exactly on the front lines of any war, in fact, he was once ridiculed for having never made an actual arrest himself, (although he occasionally would show up for the photo op) but he enjoyed making sure that all those could only be controlled by him. I bet he was a good chess player. But what do we know of him now? That he was gay, and wore women's clothing. The latter has never been proven. "J. Edgar", Clint Eastwood's latest achievement tries as much as it can to dig into this complicated character. The secrets he tried to find out about others he must've considered as nothing to the ones he kept to himself. He was never a natural around girls, except for his mother, (Judi Dench) and his longtime secretary, Miss Gandy (Naomi Watts), the only other person it seems he trusted was his colleague and longtime
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS (2011) Director: Francis Lawrence
2 1/2 STARS
"Water for Elephants," makes such a weird mistake right off the bat, that a week after watching it, it's still mind-boggling to me, and I really want to go into some details on this, 'cause it's a such, "why would you do that?" moment that... ugh- The movie begins, in this present, and we're introduced to this old man, who's hanging around after hours at a circus. This is the grown up man, who's life we're going to see in flashback, he's played as an old man by the great Hal Holbrook, and eventually, he starts to tell his story about how he broke into the circus business with the Penzini Brothers, in the early '30s. He's an old man, he's telling his story in flashback, and we start to hear his voiceover, and then for some reason that I can't possibly explain, the voiceover switches to Robert Pattinson's voice, who's playing the young man. What the hell did he do, get younger as he was telling this story? First of all, you got Hal Holbrook, for Christ's sake, when he's not making movies, he still tours the country doing his one-man show as Mark Twain, and even if he didn't still do things like that at age 80+, he's got such a great voice, it's perfect for voiceover work, and it has been many times before, and what do you gain, storywise, plotwise, eh-anything, by switching the voiceover at all, other than making the audience confused? Is it bad enough that we're selling Robert Pattinson, 'cause he's famous for "Twilight," right now, that we have to hear his voice too, even when it doesn't require it, and in fact, it shouldn't be there? I think it'd make more sense if he was just shirtless throughout the film for no reason. Anyway, that bizarre decision aside, "Water for Elephants," is a beautiful, but mostly unremarkable melodrama, which kinda works at times, but loses it at the ending, which involves a character, dying by an animal, in a way that seems that like a strange way to kill somebody, even for an animal, even for this animal. Pattinson plays Jacob Jankowski, who despite studying veterinary sciences at Cornell, he finds himself broke and homeless after his parents' sudden deaths. He hasn't graduated, but he's close, and he's smart and quick enough to impress August (Christoph Waltz) the ringleader and owner of a traveling circus that specializes in animal tricks, especially ones performed with August's wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). She's an acrobat who's known for riding and performing tricks with the animals, mostly horses, but with a main horse injured, and Jacob's help, they're going to train her to work on an elephant. The movie is a pretty basic, love triangle story from there, and it's really overdone and melodramatic. The voiceover, again, the voiceover, sometimes, comes up in weird moments where it just reiterates what Jacob's thinking, which, most of the time, we could already tell what he's thinking, so much of the voiceover is useless in fact. This is the first since "Inglourious Basterds", that I've seen Christoph Waltz, and he is really the best thing in the movie. I mean, this is a quintessential, great performance, bad film example, here. He really plays this erratic and heartless ringmaster really well. That's not to say everybody else was bad, they weren't. I'm a little torn on what I think of Witherspoon's role, but she good, even Pattinson was pretty good. The real problem, the film is just slow and boring for most of the movie. It looks pretty, the cinematography and the art design especially was great, but it's one of those movies where you know something big's gonna happen at the end, and staring at your watch, waiting for the ending to see if it's good enough to salvage the melodrama. It really doesn't. (Note: In maybe the 2nd most bizarre choice involving this film, it won the People's Choice Award for Favorite Drama Movie last year. Not that the People's Choice Awards had much credibility to begin with, but yeah, that's one more bad choice the people have made, granted a far better choice than fellow nominees "Limitless," and "The Help", but still, what were they thinking?)
ANOTHER HAPPY DAY (2011) Director: Sam Levinson
"Another Happy Day," is one of those movies where a family comes together for an event, and because of events that happened in the past, the whole family is now f***ed up and filled with layers of tension and anger that seems ready to explode. Explode or cry, or freak out.... The past really does have a drastic effect on the present doesn't it. I need to be of a scorecard to keep track, but the movie begin with Lynn (Ellen Barkin). Her oldest son Dylan (Michael Nardelli) is getting married, but they haven't seen each other in years. Lynn had a very violent and devastating divorce with Paul (Thomas Haden Church), it even separated the kids from each other. Dylan stayed with Paul, who eventually sobered up and married Patty (Demi Moore), but now, he wants to start having a relationship with his daughter Alice (Kate Bosworth), but Lynn is headstrong against it. Not only because of the past but of the present. Alice has been troubled, as all her kids have (She has a couple other kids that aren't with her ex, I'll get to them in a bit), but Alice has been in and out of psychiatric care, she's got a habit of cutting herself. Her son Elliot (Ezra Miller) has been in and out of drug rehab more times than they can count, and Lynn so embarassed of him, she told her family that he was in Sweden getting clean for the last few months. Her young, Ben (Daniel Yelsky) who has Asperger's Syndrome (Not used as a gimmick here) points out at the beginning, correctly how all the kids she raised have turned out as fuck-ups while Dylan, the one she didn't turned out okay. Lynn is a bit of a mess, an understandable one, but she's barely able to keep herself composed, but with the kids and husband she has..., and her family, I didn't even mention the family compound they're heading to. Her mother Doris (Ellen Burstyn) is a chatty Cathy with Lynn's sisters, gossiping about everybody that's there, especially Lynn, and her father Joe (George Kennedy) is long sleep away from dropping dead, and nobody's quite sure why he's hanging on either. There's also a bunch of cousins, that... well, the last time you thoroughly enjoy a family get-together? It's been awhile for me. One characters observes how much more civil families tend to be with each other at a funeral or another tragic moment. "Another Happy Day, isn't a masterpiece in the genre, but it's well-acted and well-written by writer/director Sam Levinson, his first-time directing. There's a lot of history and conflict being thrown around, and it's really good, it's just a lot of it. It's a little too much, but it's too much of a good thing so it's a recommend.
ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN (2011) Director: Jose Padhilha
It's a little bit rare that I watch a sequel before I catch the original, but "Elite Squad: The Eneny Within," a sequel to the 1997 Brazilian film "Elite Squad", was Brazil's entry for the Foreign Language Oscar last year, a rather curious pick in hindsight, but there's talent working on this film. The director, Jose Padhilha directing the first "Elite Squad" and he's currently on pre-production for the "RoboCop" remake (Why they're that one of all things, I don't know.) and the script is by Braulio Montavani, who wrote the masterpiece "City of God," about a decade ago, one of the best films of the last decade. The movie begins with a prison riot. The prisons are separated as best they can, based on gang affiliations, as most of the druglords still run things on the outside from prison, and are constantly plotting to kill each other inside, which Capt. Nascimento (Wagner Moura) would be just fine with personally, if his job wasn't as a guard who theorhetically, has to stop things like that. He's disgusted with the dealers, and thinks getting rid of them would be beneficial, and after the riot, begins weaponizing the police forces to do rid the streets of them. What he doesn't foresee, is the crooked police force, which is now heavily armed, yeah they keep drugs and dealers out of the slums, but they take over the slums, controlling everything else, including utilities and businesses. They've basically invented their own Mafia, and for themselves, and when something happens, they fix the evidence, blame someone or something else, or just get rid of the body, and that includes everybody from kids to journalists, all in the name of stopping crime. Nascimento realizes his mistakes, a little too late, and by the time he starts trying to rid the bad cops off the streets, good cops end up killed, and the level of corruption just keeps on getting higher and higher up the chain. The movie takes place, just like "City of God," in Rio de Janiero, and I can't help but think about how they're getting the Olympics in four years, and the cycle is everlasting and the corruption is just too high to really do anything about it. Maybe a drug-ridden neighborhood might be a lesser of two evils. "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within," is not an Oscar-worthy picture, it's actually inconsistent most of the time, and I have a feeling that with the context of the first film, we might be missing a lot of the personal involvement we get in the characters, particular Nascimento. A sub-plot involving his son, often slows the movie down a bit. Most of the time, the movie picks up steam as it goes along however, and we get used to the more chaotic world we're in. I guess this film has to be considered a bit of incomplete review until I see the first film, but I'm impressed with this one enough to recommend it, even without the previous film for context. It holds up enough on it's own.
HENRY'S CRIME (2011) Director: Malcolm Venville
2 1/2 STARS
(Slight chuckle) You know, film critics do kinda run into this problem occasionally, where, we kinda like a film, personally, but when we take a step back from it, and look at it objectively, we kinda have to pan it anyway, 'cause we know better. One of my old High School English teachers, Mr. Steve Akers explained it to me once this way, and I do tend to judge and separate in a similar way in my work, and it's learning the difference between "what you like," and "what is good". It's a weird line, but it's one that I consider very important to learn in order to look at any piece of art objectively. Recently I had a conversation with a fellow critic kind of along these line in regards to my 5 STARS review of "Young Adult," where I gave the movie five stars, even though personally, it's not a film that, at least on a single viewing, is particularly easy or enjoyable to watch. If I just reviewed my enjoyment in watching "Young Adult," it'd probably be a 3 1/2-4 STARS, but there's more to that film than that. In regards to "Henry's Crime," if it's just a personal enjoyment, 3 STARS, not a great film but there's a lot I, kinda liked and kinda shyly smiled with a slight chuckle at. However, I also know that, it doesn't really work that well, but it's kinda enjoyable, and I won't stop anybody from watching it, but I can't quite recommend it. (And for some reason, I can't stop using the word "kinda" in this movie review, but that's kinda the point, and kinda the film "Henry's Crime" is) Henry (Keanu Reeves) seems to be the normal everyman, eating breakfast with his wife, Debbie (Judy Greer) having a little fight about kids that they've probably had a few times before about something else. Then, Keanu ends up taking the fall for his old friend Eddie Vibes (Fisher Stevens) and his sickly friend Joe (Danny Hoch). Their crime, robbing a bank. Jail, isn't that bad. He pals around with a lifer named Max (James Caan) a conman who probably could convince a board to let him out, but he actually likes jail a little too much. It's been his home way too long. After doing three years, his wife is now with Joe, one of the guys he covered for, although he's not as pissed at that as you'd think, but he is pissed that if he did three years for robbing a bank, he might as well actually rob the damn bank. First, he convinces Max to get out of jail to help him out. Then, he gets hit by a car. Well, I doubt he planned that part, but the girl that hit him, Julie (Vera Farmiga), the local lotto girl, or as it's called in Buffalo, the Buffalotto. (Wonderfully cheesy pun) She's also an actress working on a production of "The Cherry Orchard," (The first Chekhov reference this week, but not the last) in a theatre that's next door to the bank, which just so happens, to have an old prohibition tunnel that goes right into the bank, which is next door, and pretty soon, Henry convinces first Julie, and then everyone else, to let him play Lopahin in the play. There's a few other strange characters that come in and out of this film as they prepare for both, the robbert, and for opening night. Like I said, there are a lot of fun little pieces to play with here, and that might be enough for some. The pacing's odd, but I kinda like this eased-back heist/farce of a comedy, but I've seen quirky little films like this before, and done really well. "Henry's Crime"? Yeah, it'll kill an hour and a half, but if pick, practically any Coen Brothers film at random, it really isn't even 2nd tier; it's somewhere between 3rd and 4th really. I kinda (Dammit I said it again) think they could've done more with all of these characters in the end, and instead, they went with something more Hollywood rom-com cliche. Something more creative might've satisfied me enough for a recommendation, but as it stands, there's just better quirky little indy heist comedies out there. Still, I've had a lot worse times killing that hour and a half before.
BURIED (2010) Director: Rodrigo Cortes
3 1/2 STARS
"Buried" is a good movie, but it is probably most successful as a technical filmmaking exercise. The concept is more interesting than the film itself, but sometimes that's alright. It takes place in what literally might be the smallest amount of actual space that an entire film has ever taken place in, inside a coffin. It's buried somewhere in the middle of the Iraqi desert. Inside the casket, Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) awakes. He's got a cell phone, with precious little battery time left, and precious little actual time left as well. He's not a soldier, but a truck driver, hired by a company with a government contract to help rebuild the country, that assured him that something of this nature was probably not gonna happen when they sent him to Iraq. He envoy was attacked however, and he's being buried alive, and held for ransom by his kidnappers, who insist on being paid. Meanwhile, he lights up a lighter to see... well, anything. He doesn't know how deep he's buried, but he can get some cell phone signal, and tries calling everybody. His family, his company, the military, the FBI, his wife, his mother. The terrorists insist that he use the phone to make a video, under the threat of killing other members of his convoy. At around 90 minutes, we get about all we can handle of "Buried". The movie is dark, probably lit only with the lighter and cell phone camera. All other actors are either only heard over the phone, or on a video being played on the phone. Reynolds has a very difficult job for an actor here. He's all alone, stuck, literally in a box, he can't get out of, and he's in every second of this movie, and all he has to interact with is the cell phone. The performance will obviously get comparisons with James Franco's Oscar nominated performance in the film "127 Hours," which also presented an actor with a similarly difficult challenge of being stuck, unable to get out, and having to play off, himself, and no one else, for the entire film. "127 Hours," is a better movie, and a better performance, although I'll be remembering this Ryan Reynolds performance. I like him, but compare to some of my movie-watching comrades who really like him, I've always been underwhelmed by him, even in good movie where he's the lead, like "Definitely, Maybe" for instance. "Buried"'s not quite real time, but it feels close enough. The directing by Rodrigo Cortes, only his second feature-length film is invented in how it films every inch of the enclosed space, although ironically, he doesn't always succeed in getting the appropriate chlosterphobic feeling that the film really need. A quick reviewing of "12 Angry Men," and one extra read of Sidney Lumet's book on directing, but even still, "Buried," is quite an impressive film. I think I appreciate it more than I admire it, but still worth looking for to, to consider the filmmaking challenges a film like this presents.
ANTON CHEKHOV'S THE DUEL (2010) Director: Dover Koshavilli
1 1/2 STARS
I'm not exactly an expert on Chekhov, but there's probably a good reason why I don't think "The Duel," when I think of his work, and I do think of pieces like "Uncle Vanya," and "Three Sisters," which based on what little I"ve seen and read, which includes this latest literary adaptation. Either that, or the movie, which ads seem to indicate a film that's far more sexual than it turns out to be, is just not told that well. It does a rather sweeping motion to it. I just checked Roger Ebert's review of the film, and even his last words on it are "If you're not well-rested before entering the theatre, it could put you under." Well, I was put under, and that's strange, cause when I think of very well-done Chekhov, even in film form, I think characters that are constantly in motion, even in Vanya, or are constantly speaking and keeping us interested in what they're saying and forcing on us. When I watch "The Sisters," a few years ago, I realized what people meant when they say he's amazing at exposition dialogue, 'cause it works so well in that film. In this film, I can't remember a single interesting line of dialogue, and only a generic description of what actually happened in the film. I mean, there was a duel at the end, I remember that part, and it was over a woman, nothing shocking there. It takes place at one of those Black Sea resorts where the wealthy and the ideological seem to be. Laevsky (Andrew Scott) was in love with Nadia (Fiona Glascott) but now that she's left her husband for him, he's not that interested anymore. Nadia, then catches the eye of a Darwinian zoologist, Von Koren (Tobias Menzies) who becomes determined to have Nadia for himself. This is the eventual long set-up for a fairly unimpressive and uninteresting duel. I think another problem with this film is that, I don't recognize any of the actors. I'm serious; it's a requirement of any film that I need that, but I couldn't care about any of these characters. An actor I recognized might have helped, but as far as I can remember, these were all lesser-known British actors and actresses in "...The Duel" and I really was just following along, waiting for the inevitable. Maybe if the movie was done at a pace faster than slug, it might have not been that big an issue, but have the time, I have to look at my notes, just to remember who which guy was, and that's just not a good thing to be doing during a film. Don't let "Anton Chekhov's The Duel," be your introduction to Anton Chekhov, you'll just be disappointed.
FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) Director: Fred M. Wilcox
4 1/2 STARS
"Forbidden Planet" is considered one of the premiere science-fiction films of it's time, and I can certainly understand why. It's a little tricky to judge such films that were made during this era. Clearly the special effects of the day, while amazing at the time, are quite limiting compared to now. Robby the Robot getting his own credit in "Forbidden Planet" is the kind of thing Otto from "Airplane!," was making fun of, but it's impressive for it's time. The real power in "Forbidden Planet," like all great sci-fi is the power of the story itself. A crew of a starship, led by Commander J.J. Adams (Leslie Neilsen, speaking of pre-"Airplane!") heads to a planet, where 20 years earlier, a science ship had landed, but has been silent ever since. Unsure of what to expect to find, they begin their landing approach with a warning to stay away by the lone surviving member of the crew, Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon). Warning ignore, they crew arrives with a greeting party of Robby taking them to the house of Dr. Morbius, where he once again warns them to leave, weaving a vicious tale of how all his crew died suddenly by some mysterious and monstrous force on the planet. Yet, Morbius has survived, along with his daughter Alta (Kim Novaks, oh the other sci-fi tradition, all women wear are free-spirited and apparently unaware of how her tiny little (dress/skirt/go-go-boots, insert any article of clothing, really) can have a great/grave effect on a crew of men who haven't seen a woman in years. (Of course, she hasn't seen a man other than her father her whole life, but still...) Anyway, as predicted, men start getting killed by some invisible force on the planet, that they begin strategizing to fight, but seem overwhelmed at best. The monster gets stronger and stronger, as Dr. Morbius's secrets one-by-one, get more and more revealed, and the truth about a once-thriving society of the planet is found underneath the barren crust. "Forbidden Planet," is loosely, very loosely based on "The Tempest" of all things, although I think it's influence is closer to someone like Ray Bradbury at the time, and probably greatly influence someone like Gene Roddenberry. You can almost see how "Star Trek," could've been influence by this sci-fi story where the battle of the mind if more fascinating that any battle with giant ants or some other popular/famous aliens in similar films of it's time. Either way, it's surprisingly effective. It holds up as one of the great early sci-fi classics, better than most of them, certainly so considering the era. It probably could be remade with better special effects, but they haven't done it yet. (Although one future project on imdb.com is listed as "in development") I can see why they're reluctant. While the effects are old, there's a certain charm to them and in leaving the classic film alone for generations. Besides, I think honestly, that Hollywood doesn't think they can make a better version of this film today, and frankly, I agree with them.
SWEET AND LOWDOWN (1999) Director: Woody Allen
Well, I've had Chekhov plays show up in two film reviews this week (Oh, and Spoiler alert! I'll be reviewing "Vanya of 42nd Street" at a sooner-than-later date!) and now, here's another weird coincidence: this week, I'm also reviewing two films, involving Oscar-nominated performances, where the actor/actress was nominated for playing a character that was mute. Max von Sydow, who was nominated last year for "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," and now, I'm reviewing Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown," which earned Samantha Morton an Oscar nomination. Titled after the George Gershwin song, "Sweet and Lowdown," is one of Allen's experimental films. He's done mockumentary-style films in the past like "Take the Money and Run," and "Zelig," for instance. Allen plays himself actually, as one of many experts giving their take on the little-known-about, but often rumored-about Emmett Ray (Oscar-nominee Sean Penn), who's considered the 2nd Greatest Jazz Guitarist in the world. The first one is Django Reinhardt, "this gypsy" as Emmett often refers to him. He admires him more than he is capable of loving anybody. He's seen him twice in his life, and both times, he fainted in his presence. The movie takes place around the late '20s-early '30s. Emmett's skill are unbelievable (Penn apparently learned to play guitar for the role), and he's quite popular, although he blows most of his money on booze and women, booze and gambling, and he often shows up late for work. One time, he took opium in Jersey, and didn't wake up 'til 4 days later in Pennsylvania Dutch country. At least that's one of many stories/rumors about him. Some stories have multiple variations of what happened, depending on how one person may have heard the story previously. One day on the Boardwalk with his drummer, they strike up a conversation with a couple girls. Ray, unfortunately gets the mute one, Hattie. (Morton) She's a cute little thing, who has bad handwriting, but instantly falls for Ray, even if Ray never exactly admits to falling for her. He ends up taking her across the country, recording, touring, even to Hollywood, where much to Ray's displeasure, she gets discovered there and put in a movie role. Morton reminds me of Harpo Marx in this role, in a good way, the way he could, without words express any emotion he needed, with or without props. (Particularly so if you watch some of the later Marx Brothers films, where he isn't so scheming and devilish) She's quite good here, as is Penn, their performances really are the core of the film. Although Emmett married a well-to-do writer, Blanche (Uma Thurman) at one later point, for reasons that still seem strange in hindsight. A lot of the film feels strange really. There's no real narrative, just a lot of half-truths, and stories that are told, mixed in with some of the more believable romantic scenes. There's two of the best performance in Allen films in recent years in "Sweet and Lowdown," but it's more of an interesting curiousity in Allen's canon. A good curiousity, a funny one certainly, it's definitely in his comedies but it often feels more like fragments that a whole film. I think it's clearly on purpose, trying to get to know a man through only the myths and legends about him that remain and exist. In a way, this is a good predecessor to "Midnight in Paris," which uses the same time frame, and also takes the more legendary characteristics of famous people to tell their showcase. A quick check of wikipedia confirms what I expected, that Ray isn't a real legendary jazz guitarist, just another creation from the mind of Woody Allen. (Django Reinhardt is real though. I wish I knew that without looking it up, but...) It takes him some time before he realized the great characters of the era already existed, but he still created one good enough to be worth watching.