Saturday, July 7, 2012

MOVIE REVIEWS #37: "MOONRISE KINGDOM," "W.E.", "JOHN CARTER," "A DANGEROUS METHOD", "THE WHISTLEBLOWER", "HAPPY HAPPY", "DAYDREAM NATION", "SEX AND THE CITY 2" and MORE!

Hope everybody had a nice 4th of July. The hits are back up a little bit on my blog, but still, I've gotten zero comments on, anything. That's disappointing. Lot of reviews this week, and I'm watching more movies as I go. I spent the 4th of July making a rare trip to the movie theatre, so as always, I have a "Special Review" of "Moonrise Kingdom" this week. It's my first Special Review in months, and hopefully there will be more in the future. Also, an oddity this week, and I am asking for help on this from people if they can. I watched a film this week that I won't be reviewing. Not for any political or personal reason, but, for a practical reason. The film was Jean-Luc Godard's "Detective," one of his later films, and the reason for my not writing a review is because, strangely, I couldn't find this film on imdb.com. I looked under it's director, it's stars, a few other things on the site, but I just couldn't find it at all. If anybody can find it, let me know, and I'll give it a proper review, (I usually use imdb.com as a refernce when writing reviews, in case I need an actor or director's name, or something like that; it's usually pretty reliable) but I'll shorthand it here real quick. It was about a boxer, who's prepping for a fight, while staying in his hotel, and a lot of typical late-Godard stupid shit. I give it 2 STARS. Anyway, if someone can find it, or know a different, equivalent source of the movie, let me know, and if you still you do, and you still want the review, I'll try to write it from memory. Strange mystery to me, but there it is, the rare time I won't be reviewing a film that I watched this week.

Anyway, enough from me, let's gets to a jam-packed edition of my Random Weekly Movie Reviews! Starting with our Special Review of "Moonrise Kingdom"!

MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012) Director: Wes Anderson

5 STARS



Describing what happens in Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," will take some time. It'll sound like a seemingly random series of characters and quirks that don't have much relation to each other, but as you're watching the film, every single one of them not only seems natural, but completely necessary. This film takes place off the coast of New England, in the mid-'60s, only because I think it's an appropriate time for Anderson to use some of the pop music he likes. The time period doesn't matter, though, not in a Wes Anderson film. They take place, anywhere, and wherever he wants them too, and rewrites the rules as he sees fit. There's a few things that he always has: funny insert shots, often with words elaborating on something, that play similar to title cards in silent films, he has wide-angle dolly shots, that seems to move horizontally and vertically through the movie, showcasing the lays of the land, usually the indoor layouts, and he has numerous exacting details in all facets of art and set design. It's no wonder that his previous film was the animated "Fantastic Mr. Fox"; it must've been easier for him to get exactly what he wants doing that, with little side jokes that fill up the screen, that only a keenful eye will catch, and even then, only on multiple viewings. I've seen some of his scripts, much of the set, costumes and art design is meticulously written out. That's the other thing that will always make his movies watchable, even his bad films, he puts so much detail into every scene of his movies, sometimes, every shot, that there's always something new to look at. To begin "Moonrise Kingdom," there's a Narrator (Bob Balaban) who seems to know the lay of the lands, these New England islands, where we're told in three days, a storm is coming. At the Khaki Scouts camp, Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), awakes to find one of his scouts, missing. The scout, a 12-year-old orphan, Sam (Jared Gilman) left a note announcing his resignation and cut a hole in his tent, which he hid behind a poster and escaped into the night. (The "Shawshank Redemption" reference, has to be intentional) Ward notifies the Island Police, which consists only of Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who hires the scouts and rounds up the others on the island, to begin searching. He has been having an affair with Laura Bishop (Frances McDormand), who, like her husband Walt (Bill Murray) is a highly-successful lawyer. So succesful, that their house is so big, she carries around a megaphone to call up to her kids. Her oldest kid, Suzy (Kara Heywood) who, like Sam, has a history of being difficult and troublesome, runs away, and meets Sam, who's been her penpal for a year. They're off to run away through the woods, and live together I guess. With his excellant scout skills, and her juvenile novels and her brother's record player, and her tendency to get violent with left-handed scissors, for awhile, they're pretty good at outrunning the adults, and the former scouts who never liked Sam to begin with. The other scouts talk like they're in a foxhole, or in "The Dirty Dozen," most of the time. The adults, talk like a Wes Anderson film, I guess, as do Sam and Suzy, who come about as close to remaking "The Blue Lagoon," as I think it's possible to get to in Wes Anderson world. "Moonrise Kingdom," is a strange mix. It's story feels like a children's lit book, complete with kids going on an amazing adventure and clueless adults who try to act reasonably, similar to the ones that Suzy reads, which goes naturally with Anderson's sensabilities, which always seemed both surreal and big, similar to how a child sees the world. This is one of his very best films. I can see why a lot of my friends have told me to go see it now, and not wait for DVD it really is something special.

W.E. (2011) Director: Madonna

2 1/2 STARS

Madonna has always had a spiritual connection to famous and powerful women from the past. I don't think this is unusual for women, actually. Once the dreams of Cinderella and Prince Charmings fade away, they often grab upon some famous women from the past and use them as guides for their life. I guess men do something similar as well, but it seems more like placing their idols on a pedestal as an ideal, while women, feel an emotional connection to the past that's far stronger and otherwordly. Madonna has always taken the prototype of female glamour and power to use as inspiration. Marilyn Monroe famously, and other movie stars as well, they even appear in her song "Vogue", she played Eva Peron in "Evita," and fought like hell to play Frida Cahlo for years, before the part finally went to Salma Hayek. In that light, it's not surprising now that young musicians search for a spiritual connection to her in the same way, that's in order to explore this aspect more thoroughly, she's begun directing. Her inspiration this time, is Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), the American divorcee who's affair with Prince Edward (James D'Arcy), led to him giving up the throne as King of England. You might remember some of this story being told from a different perspective in "The King's Speech" from two years ago. I think the natural assumption will be to assume that Wallis is the Madonna-character in "W.E.", the one we're supposed to follow as the stand-in for the director, similar to the traditional "Woody Allen" character in his films. It's not. The Madonna character is Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), who lives in present-day, is in a bad relationship, and hangs out at Sotheby's, where Wallis's old items are being auctioned soon. She has become obsessed with reading Wallis's letters, which she always marked "W.E.", for Wallis and Edward. She even starts imagining Wallis is with her, trying to figure out what she would do in her position. What did she do, and what would she do now. This is why a party scene in the 1930s, seems to make perfect sense with the Sex Pistols music in the background. The Wallis and Edward story is based on facts, but I don't believe their intended as realism, I think they're visions and imaginings from Wally. She has clues, and thinks she can fill in more pieces than most, and she might even be right, but their her thoughts, and her life is now forever linked with Wallis's, especially so, now that she's falling for Evgeny (Oscar Isaac) a Russian security guard at the auction shop, that notices when she doesn't show for the final day. You'll notice that I've given only description, and interpretation of "W.E.", and not opinion yet. I think that's because I understand it more than I like it, or maybe I understand it, more than it is good. Don't get me wrong, I think Madonna is a talented director. This is only her second attempt, after the short film-turned-feature "Filth and Wisdom," a couple years ago, and it's clear to me she can have a career in this if she wanted. I particularly like the motif of how she often used a moving camera to circle around it's characters. I'm not surprised to learn that one of her biggest directing influence is Wong Kar-Wai, 'cause I think his films often have the problem of presuming that two separates incidents or lives, must be inherently connected because they are in the same movie. I think she actually improves on that here, but I don't know if, these connections that seem natural from an emotional and spiritual, inner perspective, ever really come out that way in film, where such a connection, without plots connecting, can seem disjointed and out-of-place. The ending of the film is the movie's weakest, especially the last ten minutes, which just don't work, but Arianne Phillips certainly deserved her Oscar nomination for costume design. (Deep breath) I'm very torn on this film, but ultimately while I understood it emotionally, I just don't think it works visually. If this was an album with all the feeling and spiritual connectiveness as the movie has, I'd buy it, and listen to it constantly. As a film, it's just not there. I admire it as a look inside the mind of one of those women who I wish I could empathically feel myself, but I just convince myself that I have to watch it a second time. Sorry Madonna, but I just can't recommend it. Don't let that stop you from making another film though. Very disappointing as Director Andrew Stanton's follow-up to the masterful, "Wall-E".

JOHN CARTER (2012) Director: Andrew Stanton

2 STARS

One of my friends was very excited about "John Carter," as he was a fan of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels that inspired the movie as a kid. Burroughs is of course, most famous for creating "Tarzan", but "John Carter of Mars," and the dozen or so books in that series have their own cult following in sci-fi circles. According to him, with the exception of bringing in a character named Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) who's told of this story from his Uncle's will, after his passing, the movie was fairly accurate to the book. That maybe so, but all I really saw was a lot of special effects and noise. Lotta sound, a lotta fury, and it really didn't mean much of anything. The first twenty or thirty minutes happen in the same pattern. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) get caught, John Carter then escapes from whomever caught him, they chase John Carter until the catch him again, and then he escape again. This happened three or four times. It's just after the Civil War, and Carter doesn't want to rejoin the Army, although the U.S. Government is pretty insistent, he eventually does get away, and into a cave where he's knocked out. When he awakes, he's on Mars. How did he get there? He doesn't know, but he wants to get home, but unfortunately, he's caught in the midst of a war between cities. I forget the names, but one of them had been destroying all of the Mars cities, and now this last one, named Helium, I think, is one of the last ones still fighting off. This world of Mars felt to me, like a rip-off of "Avatar," not done as well, and the story, which involves a female soldier, Dejas, (Lynn Collins) that John, reluctantly teams with as she's knowledgeable in-, whatever it is that helps supposedly get John home. Science, mythology, hieroglyphics,...? It was something Da Vinci Code-like, but she also happens to be a Princess, who's supposed to marry a member of their opposing tribe to hopefully stop the war. (I'll give one guess to figure out when does the wedding get interrupted with John saying that it's a trap.) There's apparenlty a lot of far more noticeable and famous people in CGI-roles as these alien, which seem to be constantly fighting and the humanoid martian characters. I'm not sure if fans liked "John Carter," that much. Even my friend noted that he's not sure he'd like it, if he wasn't familiar with the books, and I don't know how many fans of the series their even are. The film took forever to get into production for Disney, and went through multiple different titles before "John Carter," was settled on, and it's now become one of Disney's biggest flops to date. John Carter really isn't that interesting a character actually. He's somewhat single-minded and two-dimensional. I can see why most people remember Tarzan, and forget John Carter. It was big, overblown, overdone, filled with, wall-to-wall action and special effects, and it just put me to sleep. This movie probably would've fit in better without the fancy EFX, and probably should've been made in the fifties or forties, on a double-bill with "Ants," or "Forbidden Planet," then maybe it would've fit in. (Actually, it might have inspired a lot of those B-movie sci-fi classics.) Now, it feels like a tired old retread of those far better classics.

A DANGEROUS METHOD (2011) Director: David Cronenberg

5 STARS

The endings credits explaining what happens to the character in Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method," aren't unexpected, but they underline an aspect of that time part of history we don't think about sometimes, the waste of it all was. Here is a story of three people who forever changed and enlightened the world, and there's something that doesn't seem quite right about how they ended up. Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method," examines the friendship and rivalry between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). It begins with Jung, who soon begins using Freud "Talking Cure," as it was called then, on his own set of patients, most notably, a hysterical Russian Jew, Sabrina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Sabrina's institutionalized, with problems that come, not only from a violent father during childhood, but also, stemming from that, a repressive masochistic sexual desire. She's dangerous at first, but smart, and Jung convinces her to start working at the institution, and eventually, to begin classes to become a psychiatrist herself. Meanwhle, Jung and Freud have begun communicating, as her case was particularly unusual, and eventually, they began meeting occasionally. The conflicts of Freudian and Jungian philosophies will come as no surprise to those who've taken, even the simplist psychology courses, but the debate has never been outdated. Jung objects to Freud insistance on a Godless perspective to psychoanalysis, and his insistence that everything is related to sex. Freud thought Jung might lead this new-found science into the next wave, especially after the self-demies of Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) but grew distrustful of him. Before Otto's self-destruction, Carl takes some of his advice, and begins having an affair with Sabrina. His sexual frustration comes from his marriage. (Boy there's a sentence that's a great joke set-up) His wife Emma (Sarah Gordon) is busy with the kids, and having them, but in rather cautious in bed, and Carl can let his frustrations out on Sabrina, at least for awhile. The movie's based on the Award-winning play, "The Talking Cure," from Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the screenplay, and there's a lot of talking in it, and the dialogue is constantly fascinating. These are three amazing performances by Fassbender, Mortensen and Knightley. One of Cronenberg's motifs has always been with his fascinations of the mind, whether it's being controlled by television like "Videodrome," or sees the future like "The Dead Zone," or it's being repressed like "A History of Violence," he tends to get his very best films out of, cinematic psychoanalysis, and here, he brings us, essentially the psychoanalysis, and it really does show it in it's painful and disgruntled infancy. It's still in it's infancy, come to think of it, it's only about 100 years old, and we're still debating it's merits. "A Dangerous Method," gives us a true story about some of the most famous people in history, and it never hits a wrong or cliched note. And, in regards to Cronenberg's filmography, it's a good clue, 'cause he always usually worked in some kind of sci-fi or horror/thriller genre for most of his career, and only at the peripheries of his films, has he really touched upon his fascination with the inner workings of the mind until now, and he really hasn't attacked it head-on until now. I hope a lot of people, go back and look at some of his other films again, after watching "A Dangerous Method," and hopefully see some of them in a newer light.

THE WHISTLEBLOWER (2012) Director: Larysa Kondracki

3 STARS

Rachel Weisz has chosen, for some reason to take a lot of unglamourous roles. Well, I guess "unglamourous," isn't exactly the right word, but she's capable of most anything, but she's gone out-of-her-way for more challenging, and often more complex, and darker work in recent years. I happen to also watch her work in the TV movie "Page Eight," prior to watching "The Whistleblower," ironically also a film about uncovering a high-level conspiracy, and I remember how great an actor she can be, and that she can easily by a major go-to Hollywood starlet, but she stays in England, and tends towards the challenge and the artistic. She even recently wrote and directed a short film. "The Whistleblower," is once again, another challenging role where Weisz excells. She plays a cop from Nebraska, Katherine Bolkovac, who took a position for a company who handled training the police in other countries that the U.S. has either taken over, or has an interest in after a war, in this case, she's in Bosnia. It's post, the conflict, Serbs and Croats, still are uneasy working together, and she's in charge of getting a regular, working police going. If a girl comes in with knife wounds, talk to the doctors who treated her, the nurses, talk to her husband, learn how to search evidence... nothing that seems to difficult, even with the language and cultural barrier. The UN takes notice of her, and soon, she starts taking notice of prostitutes that come in, beaten and distraught, and not from around there. There's been quite a few movies and documentaries, on the illegal sex trade industry lately. Pedophiles who fly into southeast Asia and young women getting kidnapped and having to work off their release, which they never do, stories like that. I live in Vegas, and it's been the American epicenter on the war on human trafficing in America for the last decade or so. In of itself, it's a disturbing topic, and not the easiest, but Katherine begins uncovering trades and traders amongst the UN, and the local police forces, and the UN's covering of it up. Katherine's story isn't that much different than other whistleblower stories, she's got some friends she thinks she can trust, some she can't and some that she's wrong about, but ultimately, once she's on certain people's radar, they begin trying to take her out or shut her up. She wanted just to help out the women, bring them back home, and lock up the traffickers, and only when she had no other option, did she finally start talking to the press. It's an inspiring journey, a very good acting performance, and she' got some good supporting work around her like David Straitharn and Vanessa Redgrave and Monica Bellucci, but this really is her film. It's good; it does what it aimed to do, unfortunately it's not particular special or memorable in this genre, like, let's say, Michael Mann's "The Insider," for instance, but it's another good reminder of just how special an actress Rachel Weisz can be, when given a really strong role.

HAPPY HAPPY (2011) Director: Anne Sewitsky

3 STARS

The title "Happy Happy" refers to the eternally optimistic perspective of Kaja (Agnes Kittlesen), who's marriage is disintegrating to the point of no return, and who's life is coming apart at the seams, but through it all, she manages to find ways to make herself happy. This is the first feature film from Norweigan director Anne Sewitsky, and it was Norway's entry for the Foreign Film Oscar last year. It's been about a year since Kaja's made love to her husband Eirik (Joachem Rafaelsen), he claims she's lost her attractiveness, and he's worried after a yeast infection she had that's now, long-been cleared up. His only real passion is with hunting with the boys. This is until they start befriending the new neighbors, Sigve and Elisabeth (Henrik Rafaelsen and Maibritt Saerens). Kaja likes the couple. They're in love, they're both professionals, they're willing to frolick in the snow, they're very good at playing sexy couples board games, they even sing together in a choir. (The choir scenes get annoying at times, although the musical interludes with the four-piece a cappela group are just odd) They even adopted a kid from Ethiopia, Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy) who's stuck playing slave with Kaja's kid Theodor (Oskar Hernaes Brandso), which is a game that, especially Theodor, takes a little too seriously. Do not show that kid "Roots". I'm still debating what I think of that subplot, and how it fits in with the main story, which starts to turn once Kaja and Sigve begins having feelings for each other. She's bored with her loveless marriage, and he's charmed at first be her naivete. (It's always the naive who are truly happy, isn't it?) Well, isn't exaclty naive, or exactly happy. She knows more about her husband that he believes he's letting on. Kaja's one of those trusting people who's personality is always gonna get manipulated, even if that isn't somebody's intention. She deserves better, but she's learning, and her life is getting better. I guess I'm recommending "Happy Happy," although the perspective of the film does trouble me. I'm not quite sure the best approach to this material was through Kaja's eyes. I guess that's the point, but there's a reason that characters like her are usually more in supporting roles, as oppose to being the showcase of a film. Still, even the stuff that doesn't work is interesting enough, it's a recommendation. Not the biggest one, there's some thought and talent at work here.

DAYDREAM NATION (2011) Director: Michael Goldbach

1 STAR

Kat Dennings has that same quality onscreen that Marilyn Monroe had, the camera, absolutely loves her. I'm serious, it's hard to take your eyes off of her, no matter what she's doing, or what she's in. That's probably why I watch her films, and catch her on TV on "2 Broke Girls," when I can. Her problem is that she isn't always given the best material to work with. "Daydream Nation," is an example of not getting good material to work with. It starts with an interesting premise, and then sets up a lot of things, that are never brought back around, like a fire that keeps burning, her Dad, (Ted Whittall) soon-to-be dying, although eventually they do figure out the secret of that serial killer at her high school. Dennings plays Caroline Wexler, who's moving to a new high school, and decides to be a completely different person this time around. She's clearly a fish out of water, so she decides to keep herself interesting, and play to any previous assumptions kids have, by sleeping with one of her teachers, a Mr. A. (Josh Lucas), who teaches some kind of English, but is another bad writer-turned-teacher who suddenly feels inspired after falling in love with Caroline. (Actually, can I back up for a second, and point out, that only women can go to a completely different place, and suddenly decide, on a whim to be someone different than who they were. Has anybody else noticed that? Girls can go from brainiac to slut in, nothing less than a wardrobe change. I've always wanted to do that, to suddenly go somewhere else and be a completely different person this time, never friggin' works! My old me keeps bitching and moaning and sneaking in, and eventually, I'm sitting alone in the corner of the cafeteria again, more confused with humanity than ever before. This only ever has a chance at working, if you're a hot girl, I am convinced of that.) Anyway, she does catch the appeal of one classmate, Thurston (Reece Thompson), somebody who the old her, would've at least might've hung out and got high with back at her old school, I imagine, but she decides to just play him like a fiddle, and occasionally like a sex toy, just to screw with his mind. His mother, Enid (Andie MacDowell, and why is she reduced to this part in this film?) is nice and sweet, and her and Caroline's father have a connection at first. The whole screwed-up thing comes to ahead one night, and by that time, I had long stopped caring. "Daydream Nation," feels like a daydream, a combination of random thoughts, probably from a guy who only has a fantasy perspective on women, and just enough Indy film styling to jump a timeline, and double-back with voiceover, but not enough to do it, with any kind of point to it. It's also dreadfully boring. I don't know what Caroline, or any other character really learned from these experiences, or if there was any point to the movie at all. A better version of the character, and a much better version of this film is Christina Ricci's performance as Dede Truitt in Don Roos's film "The Opposite of Sex". It's almost like they gave this character an out by saying, "Oh no, she's not really like that, she's just pretending to be one," instead of actually making her somebody who actually is this Picaroesque bitch she plays. I really wish Kat Dennings can find some better material to be a lead in a movie in, and soon, but "Daydream Nation," boy, this is not it.

SEX AND THE CITY 2 (2010) Director: Michael Patrick King

2 STARS

One of the earlier blog, and one of my personal favorite that I've written, was called "Dear 'Sex and the City', Please Die Already! Thank You, Sincerely, Big Fan", where I express considerable doubt as to why the show had continued to be so in demand that two movies had been made, and a pilot on Carrie Bradshaw's teenage years called "The Carrie Diaries," was in development, but speaking on the issue as a devoted fan of the series. I was hoping to come to all of you and say that "Sex and the City 2," wasn't going to be as bad as the critics claimed it was, and that, possibly I was wrong about how badly they've lost focus from what the series was into what some of it's more superficial fans think it is. I was hoping I was wrong, but I wasn't. Sure, I laughed occasionally, and found some of the scenes actually worked rather well, but like the first movie, which had no business existing, this movie, had no business existing, and for half the film, they actually got rid of the "City" part. (And come to think of it, there wasn't enough sex in this film either) It begins at Standford (Willie Garson) and Anthony's (Mario Cantone) wedding. "I thought they hated each other?" one of the girls ask? I did too, but apparently, this movie needed a gay wedding. I don't know if it did or didn't, but I will say that Liza Minnelli's version of "Single Ladies," is way better than Beyonce's. (Oh yeah, I said it, and I mean it!) Carrie Preston, formerly Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker, and yeah, apparently "Preston" is Big's last name) has finished her second book, this one on marriage, just as her and John's (Chris Noth) marriage is starting to reach a rough patch, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon, who is phoning it in here, as she probably should, but if anybody still hasn't sent their Emmy ballots yet, remember her for "The Big C", she's great in that show!) is still married to Steve (David Eigenberg) with their kid, but she's recently quit her beloved job, in a scene which begets the question, "Why does Ron White have a cameo in this film?" (Although, his cameo is better than others, Tim Gunn, you should know better), Charlotte (Kristen Davis), with two kids now with Harry (Evan Handler, and by the way, I'm mentioning the character and actor's name, but the men, are basically showing up in this movie as glorified cameos, even the ones that were in the series) but she's finding a lot less satisfaction in parenting than she had once hoped. Samantha, (Kim Cattrall) is going through menopause, and God damn it, that's funny as hell in of itself, but she manages, through her ex-boyfriend/client Smith Jerrod (Jason Lewis), tickets to Abu Dhabi. Boy it's tough coming up with a decent sentence after that, but apparently they all decide to go. I will not explain the details of how the four girls end up, hiding under burkas, running through an Abu Dhabi market, as they're trying to get to the airport before Samantha gets arrested for,- well, being Samantha pretty much, but that's the moment we left "Sex and the City," and ended up in "Road to Morocco". (Actually Morocco was actually doubling for Abu Dhabi) It's official, these characters have arched, and that's one of the problems with these movies, they just don't know what to do with characters, and it's really unclear why they keep doing them. It makes it a lot harder to explain my love for the TV series to detractors when they keep popping these films out. They had a brief beginning, where we got to see the girls before they knew each other in a flashback sequence, that was interesting, but didn't exactly add anything, and at an incruciating 2 1/2 hours, the movie is just too long. John Corbett shows up, for some reason. The illusion of conflict possibly. I would've thought it'd be easier and make more sense to explain Aleksandr Petrovsky happening to be in the U.A.E., and probably better, but maybe Baryshnikov was unavailable, or he was smart and said no. "Sex and the City 2" has some moments, but, if this ver comes back, it should be as an episodic, but even then... It doesn't make me wish the show were back on the air, but it does make me wish they left it alone.

VANYA ON 42ND STREET (1994) Director: Louis Malle

5 STARS

On the busy streets of Manhattan, we start to see some of the actors. Some are familiar to us. There's Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, the two who shared cinema's most famous dinner in Malle's greatest film "My Dinner with Andre". A few other we recognize actors, as they show up at this run-down theatre, along with a few guest that Andre is chatting up. There's a table, a couple chairs, some other small props. Then suddenly, we look up, and we don't even realize it at first, but the play has begun. No costumes, only some lighting, barely a stage, and we're headstrong in Chekhov's most famous play. "Vanya on 42nd Street," became Louis Malle's final film, as he died just a year after it's release, and it's one of his absolute best. Gregory had been taking this David Mamet adaptation of "Uncle Vanya," and when all the other actors could be brought together, they'd start performing the play. In an abandoned theatre, or a warehouse, sometimes a friend's apartment, it didn't really matter where, they'd just perform it. Malle came in and decided to shoot them one day. During act breaks, we get some occasional tidbits from Gregory, as he explains a nuance or two to his own personal guests, the only ones who see it. During an intermission, the cast even talks to the guests, but as they're performing, they are they're roles. Shawn plays Vanya, who's spent his life looking over Serybrykov's (George Gaynes) estate. His sister, Sonya (Brooke Smith), their mother (Lynn Cohen), her mother, Nanny (Phoebe Brand), Serybrykov's new wife Yelena (Julianne Moore), and occasionally Dr. Astrov (Larry Pine), who comes in and drinks himself of alcohol and conversation. Conversation is truly Chekhov's greatest gift, exceptionally exposition, which is why I'm not going to explain any of the plot of "Uncle Vanya," besides, they're gonna show it to you. I can' think of another film that makes you so absorded in the performance, while they still tell you that it's a performance. Well, Denys Arcand's "Jesus of Montreal," kinda does it with the Passion Play, but even then, that still just a part of a larger story. The story of "Vanya on 42nd Street," is that a bunch of the best actors you can find, come together to perform "Uncle Vanya", and then they do it, and that's it. "My Dinner with Andre," is just about two old friends, a playwrighter and a director, who come together and have dinner, but it's one of the greatest films ever made, and "Vanya..." is also one of the greatest films ever made. The power in people talking, can have just as much absorption power as their is, watching a play being performed, especially a good play, and especially when good actors, who are able to have a cup of coffee one second and suddenly, are their parts the next, are performing it. 19th Century Russian rural estate, or a run-down abandoned theatre on 42nd Street, does it really matter?

MALENA (2000) Director: Guiseppe Tornatore

4 STARS

I seriously doubt that Guiseppe Tornatore is ever gonna top his debut film "Cinema Paradiso", although he's come interestingly close at times. You need a good story to fit with his best abilities. A childlike perspective on the world, a combination of multiple emotions, stretching from physical comedy to heartbrake and shame, and an entire community to be able to overhear and give opinions disguised as exposition. "Malena," has all three of these. The child perspective this time is Renato (Guiseppe Sulfaro), a 12-year old, who's constantly upsetting his pro-Mussolini parents (Luciano Federico and Matilde Piana), right as the war begins. His fascination is Malena (Monica Bellucci) a very beautiful neighbor. So beautiful that everybody in town assumes that she's cheating on her husband Nino (Gaetano Aeroica), as he's out fighting in the war. She's not. We know that 'cause Renato spends his days spying on her, and his nights masterbating about her. Eventually, she gets a letter announcing her husband's death, and she has trouble supporting herself. The rumors continue to expand, especially the disgust with the women, claiming now that she's prostituting herself. Part of this is that she's an outsider to the area, but the other part is her beauty. I've noticed this get touched upon occasionally in Italian films. It's partly a Northern Italy/Southern Italy, but outsiders aren't allowed, especially gorgeous, beautiful ones who are perceived as immediate threats to the more homely girl's. A threat that their husband will leave them for her, or sleep with her, not so much a threat to them as appearance, but a threat to their way of life. Keeping in mind the time period of a prevalent fascism, and this goes from idle gossip to true threat faster than you'd believe. That's a long way of saying that Renato isn't the only one who has a fascination with her, but Malena, for the most part, remained the stunning beauty outsider, that's true to her husband, until she's forced otherwise. I'm not completely sure I buy the ending to "Malena," the very scenes when Malena returns to the town after the war, (I won't go into why she leaves in the first place and what happens after) but most of the movie is another enjoyable journey from childhood daydream to adult reality from Tornatore. He seems to be good at these, especially if they're a period piece of some kind. Childlike innocense always takes place in the past, 'cause it's the past when we were a child. "Malena," actually was somewhat popular and well-knowned in America, and actually got two Oscar nominations for cinematography and for the score by the great Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest of all film composers. It's actually one of his lesser-known scores, but it's still quite good. As is the film, and the more Tornatore films I watch, I recognize that he is one of the most distinctive. I always know when I'm watching a film of his. That's a double-edge sword though, it's either his greatest strength or his biggest weakness. Thankfully, "Malena," is a strength.

PITFALL (1962) Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara

4 1/2 STARS

"Pitfall" is my introduction to the work of the great Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara, and in the coming weeks I'll be reviewing a couple more of his films, and I borrowed a three-pack of his movies from the library, and if the other two films are as good as "Pitfall," then I'm definitely in for a treat. "Pitfall," takes it time a bit in the beginning, as we follow a Miner (Hisashi Igawa) who travels from town to town looking for work mainly, going from job to job, until he is suddenly killed by a mysterious Man in White Suit (Kunie Tanaka). He then becomes a ghost, seemingly stuck in this world, unable to effect what's going to happen next, but must look on in order to find out, he hopes, why he was killed. At first, he follows a woman, a witness who's opening a candy store (Susie Sasake), but when she files the report with the police, she lies about what happened, claiming that the guy was a miner who was killed, by another miner. The local miners are in fact, not only in a fight with management, but they're also fighting each other, as the two hole that they're mining from, we learn, have split into two unions. The leader of Hole #1, Otsuka (Igawa, again) looks an awful lot like the man who was killed, and now, one of the rival mine's leader, Toyama (Sen Yamo) is considered a main suspect. Meanwhile, the Man in White Suit, makes a visit to the Shopkeeper's house, that doesn't go exactly as she planned either. The ghosts in this movie are portrayed as though the still live among the people on Earth, walking and talking with other ghosts, but stuck in an eternal state of death. One of the ghosts, always has his neck on his side, as he died of a broken neck from a mine collapse. There's a similar approach, in a completely different film, made a couple years ago that I really liked called "Wristcutters: A Love Story", although the dead in that film lived in their own pergatory, they were always stuck in the manner in which they died. I bet that film that film was influenced by "Pitfall," a bit. Ultimately, the Miner finds out little about the reasons behind his sudden death, and less explanation as to why it happened, and why it was him. The last words the Man in White Suit says before heading off is "Exactly as planned". Who's plan? What plan? In life we don't get these answers, and apparently in death we don't get these answers. It might be frightening, but I think there's a beauty in the way that the dead may walk among us as they do in this film, almost like a separate universe that coincides with the living, and I think it's one of the better ways to approach the subject. "Pitfall" is a wonderful, and thoughtful ghost story, told with a paceful but beautiful style that really manages to engross the audience. The more you watch, the more sucked into the film you get. Lots of beautiful shows as well. Next week or so, I'll be watching "Woman in the Dunes," which is considered Hiroshi Teshigahara's greatest, and already I'm looking forward to it. "Pitfall," was his one of his very first feature, and it's quite a good introduction to his work.
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