Friday, November 30, 2012

A Separation

Asghar Farhadi's A Separation opens rather tamely. Simin (Leila Hatami) seeks a divorce from husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi), but she isn't granted one. After she moves out, a chain of events happen follow Nader almost to personal ruin.

Of course that description is as vague as I can make it without giving anything else away. I think the less you know about certain films, the more you're bound to like them. (This has been applied to a number of films I've seen as of late.) Anyway, I'm just adding in filler. Let's add something substantial.

Farhadi depicts the domestic situation between Simin and Nader as something reminiscent of a John Cassavetes film. What happens to Nader is worthy of something from Sidney Lumet's work. Safe to say Farhadi was influenced by other directors.

Farhadi's screenplay is fantastic as are the performances from Hatami and Moaadi. It's these aspects that go into a film that should be in full effect in, well, any film. Crap, I'm rambling again. Moving on!

Long story short, A Separation is a brilliant film. This pretty much confirmed that not only should I watch more foreign films, I realized that foreign films are often better than what Hollywood cranks out. Anyway, go see this if you haven't.

My Rating: *****

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lincoln

The main problem with doing a film about history is that most of the time they end up being history lessons performed by actors. There aren't many films that stay true to the facts and keep their audiences captivated.

Graciously, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln does that very thing. (Thank God too.) He doesn't play the sentiment card like he did with Schindler's List nor does he brutalize the facts as Munich so vividly displays. Lincoln instead plays by the book (well, Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) and follows the rules.

Apparently one of the key aspects of any history-based film is that you need a cast like no other. Among the huge (and I do mean huge) cast for Lincoln, the names include Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Jackie Earle Haley, Lee Pace, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris and Michael Stuhlbarg. And those are just the supporting actors.

The film unsurprisingly belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis. Like so many of his other performances, the perception of him simply acting vanishes the moment we first see him in action. Suffice to say he'll get some serious recognition when the time comes. (On that note, has any of his performances not been nominated for anything?)

In toll, Lincoln is great. Personally I'm grateful Spielberg didn't make this an overly sentimental film. (If he did, this review wouldn't be as glowing.) It may not be the kind of film for everyone, but I certainly loved it.

My Rating: *****

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Serious Man

It's amazing that Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) doesn't go mad at some point in Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man. I mean, with all of the immense stress he undergoes, it's almost impossible not to completely snap under pressure.

What are some of the things Larry goes through? Let's see...his wife wants a divorce, his brother won't leave (or do anything productive), his kids are driving him crazy, and a student is blackmailing him. (Believe me, I'm trying to make it sound less hectic than it actually is.)

The Coens based A Serious Man partly on their upbringing. (It makes me wonder what the hell happened in their early life that inspired their films.) It shows that suburbia in the 1960s wasn't ideal as most films from that very era depicted. Ah, hell in the form of reality. Gotta love it.

I also have to talk about Roger Deakins' cinematography. (Again, how has he not won an Oscar or three by now?) He captures the harshness of home life pretty much effortlessly. (Then again, he did shoot Revolutionary Road as well.)

A Serious Man is quite good though I can't bring myself to say that I loved it. It's not exactly my favorite film of the Coens either. (That goes to O Brother, Where Art Thou?) Still, I can understand why many liked it so much. (Personally, it's just another film off my list.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Life of Pi

This is something that happens every year. (Don't deny what I'm about to say.) Every time the awards season rolls around, everyone starts to saying, "Oh, this is the best year for movies." It happened last year, it's happening this year, and I bet it'll happen next year too. (I'm not complaining. It's just something I've noticed.)

One of this year's films that makes that claim ring true is Ang Lee's Life of Pi. It's films like this that keep my faith for cinema's future intact. (Though to be honest a number of films from both last year and this year have managed to keep my hopes up.)

I haven't read Yann Martel's novel but Lee tells the story beautifully. (Anyone who saw Brokeback Mountain knows that he can effortlessly depict a story from page to screen.) It's a fantastically woven story, that goes without saying.

There's apparently a trend in Hollywood as of late where most films are getting the 3D treatment. The thought of a film like Life of Pi getting it seems like the most idiotic idea ever. Personally, the 3D makes the story come alive even more. Much like Hugo last year, Claudio Miranda's cinematography sings with the addition of 3D. Suffice to say if you're going to see this, 3D's a must. (And on a different note, Mychael Danna's score is equally gorgeous.)

Anyway, Life of Pi is without a doubt the most gorgeous film of this year. This is the kind of film you need to see on the big screen otherwise the magic would feel...lacking. But don't just take my word for it. See it for yourself. (Which, of course, you should.)

My Rating: *****

Monday, November 26, 2012

In the Realm of the Senses

If there's one thing in that's always bound to stir up a little controversy, it has to be sex. (Remember Shame last year?) I still don't get why sex in films gets more of an uproar than glorified violence. Before I get carried away, onto the review.

If I had to choose the film that's tied with sex and controversy, it has to be Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses. What else do you expect from a film that was either cut or banned in every country? (It still gets the same treatment it originally got back in 1976.)

Amusingly, it isn't strictly about its very graphic sex scenes and explicit nudity. It also depicts the possessiveness that can come with a relationship. (The possessiveness shown here is much like the kind Adrian Lyne depicted in Fatal Attraction eleven years later.) No one said all relationships would end happily ever after.

However, there's no denying the pornographic nature of the film. (What else can you say after witnessing the leading lady giving the leading man an actual blow job?) It's understandable why it caused so much commotion back in 1976, more so why it still does thirty-six years later.

Anyway, In the Realm of the Senses is an...unique sort of film. Surprisingly, there's some depth to it amid all of the lurid sex scenes. I say some because when it comes to the non-sex scenes, it pales in comparison to Last Tango in Paris and Shame. It's a film you should watch if you dare.

My Rating: ****

Sunday, November 25, 2012

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

From my personal experience, foreign films are usually more complex than their Hollywood equivalents. (I'm not bashing Hollywood, mind you.) I think it's because foreign film industries have less restrictions than Hollywood. But maybe that's just me.

A recent example of a bold foreign film is Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Depicting Romania during the dying days of communism, the film depicts a time of desperation for anyone in certain circumstances. (Though, to be honest, even people today find themselves in desperate measures.)

It's hard to say who goes through a bigger ordeal throughout 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: Gabita (Laura Visiliu), who wants an abortion, or Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), her roommate who organizes everything to make it happen. I'm going with Otilia because she has to get everything without raising any suspicion. (Why Gabita couldn't handle the job is beyond me.)

Mungiu does an interesting job with the whole development of the story. It is at first appearing as a film that's cold and unattached but as it wears on, it becomes more emotionally involved with its characters. That's something I want to see more out of Hollywood.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a brilliant film, that goes without saying. The use of static camera and muted tones adds to the bleakness of the film. If you haven't seen it yet, you honestly should.

My Rating: *****

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Wild Strawberries

Death isn't something anyone looks forward to. All one can do is accept what will eventually happen to them. But then you wonder...did I live a good life?

That's the question on Isak Borg's (Victor Sjostrom) mind throughout Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries. On the day he is to receive his doctorate, he suffers a sort of existential crisis. He examines moments in his life, wondering if he did anything wrong when he was younger.

Bergman apparently knew the human mind and how it works (just look at Persona), as well as the meaning of life an death (The Seventh Seal), family conflict (Autumn Sonata), and judgment and morals (The Virgin Spring). Wild Strawberries has all of those themes and boy, are they on full display beautifully.

It seems fitting that Wild Strawberries was Sjostrom's final film. After all, a film about a man examining his life is practically a perfect swan song for either an actor or a director. (An ideal metaphor for their career? It would seem so.) He definitely gives one of the most essential performances in the history of cinema.

Wild Strawberries is the kind of film that only the most astute of directors will make. Bergman is obviously one such director. Is Wild Strawberries his best film? Well, it's one of them, that's for sure. (My vote goes to either Persona or The Virgin Spring.)

My Rating: *****

Friday, November 23, 2012

Got any suggestions?

I'm trying to improve the blog a bit so it doesn't seem too monotonous every day. But I want to know what you have to say. What can I do to make Defiant Success better?

I honestly want to know.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The 7x7 Link Award

Hey, guess what I got tagged with for the third time this year? (Guess that shows I'm popular or something.) Anyway, Meredith gave me this award and since today's Thanksgiving, might as well give my thanks for it. Let's see if anything has changed since the last time I got this.

Tell everyone something that no one else knows about.
Haven't I said enough about myself? Jeez. Uh...I have a really restless mind. It's always buzzing about with ideas. It gives me a headache to be honest.

Link to one of my posts that I personally think best fits the following categories:
  • Most Beautiful Piece
  • Most Helpful Piece
  • Most Popular Piece
  • Most Controversial Piece
  • Most Surprisingly Successful Piece
  • Most Underrated Piece
  • Most Pride-Worthy Piece
Let's get this over with.

Most Beautiful Piece Not one about physical beauty this time though it is about an aspect of actors I like.

Most Helpful Piece Still going with the BOOK VS. MOVIE posts. (Don't expect me to change my answer.)

Most Popular Piece Combining my last two answers, and saying my lists of my 100 favorite things about movies and 100 film facts about me.

Most Controversial Piece Being lazy again, going with a previous answer.

Most Surprisingly Successful Piece Probably the one where I announced I'm writing a screenplay. (It's nearing completion too!)

Most Underrated Piece I'm actually a little upset that my comparison of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now didn't get that much recognition. I thought it was pretty good.

Most Pride-Worthy Piece Still going with my classic re-casting of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Pass this award onto seven other bloggers.
Now go away. I have family to be with. (Oh, and happy Thanksgiving to my fellow American bloggers.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Lovers

It's made clear early on in Louis Malle's The Lovers that Jeanne Tournier (Jeanne Moreau) has a busy personal life. Not only is she married with a child, she also has a lover. However, it's also made clear she has grown bored with them. They simply don't thrill her anymore.

It's hard to say if she's actually bored with them or that the initial spark has long fizzled out. (Malle doesn't specify at any point.) All that's confirmed is that Jeanne wants some excitement in her dull life.

Enter Bernard Dubois-Lambert (Jean-Marc Bory), a man who helps Jeanne one fateful day. Their initial meeting is mutual at best. But time wears on (just mere hours), and possible feelings develop.

This is where it gets interesting. Malle doesn't condemn Jeanne for her promiscuous behavior nor does he glorify it. He merely depicts her as a woman who wants attention from a man, physically or emotionally. And Moreau makes her come to life. Think of Jeanne as a femme fatale minus the lethal nature amid her seductive attitude.

It slows down during the second act, but The Lovers is an interesting film. The controversy it received back in 1958 seems tame now but you can clearly see how it got critics in an uproar. It may not be my favorite Malle film (that goes to Atlantic City), but it did convince me to see more of his work.

My Rating: ****1/2

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Igby Goes Down

Within the opening moments of Burr Steers' Igby Goes Down, we get a glimpse into the very dysfunctional life of Igby Slocumb (Kieran Culkin). Think of the world he lives in as a more eccentric Wes Anderson film.

Igby is from a family of wealth, but he could care less. He cares even less about his family itself. His father Jason (Bill Pullman) suffered a mental breakdown and is now locked away in a mental institution. His mother Mimi (Susan Sarandon) drinks and pop pills like nobody's business. His brother Oliver (Ryan Phillippe) invades his personal life at terrible times. (Be honest. Even your family isn't this messed up.)

The story Igby goes through is worthy of what Holden Caulfield goes through in The Catcher in the Rye. (I wouldn't be surprised if Steers used J.D. Salinger's novel as an influence.) He gets kicked out of school, he doesn't get along with his parents and he takes refuge in New York City. One could say Igby and Holden are blood brothers.

The actors are very good. Sarandon and Phillippe display the unwanted pretentiousness in Igby's life. Amanda Peet and Claire Danes play the other women in Igby's story, and both deliver. (There's also a very amusing small performance from a pre-Mad Men Jared Harris.) But this is Culkin's film. Culkin, who was also one of my favorite things about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, depicts a complete nonchalant attitude towards, well, everything.

Igby Goes Down is good though I wouldn't highly recommend it. I say that because it's spotty in parts. It's still pretty good for a directing debut. Maybe I'm being sympathetic because I'm like Igby most of the time. Who cares? Just watch it for yourself.

My Rating: ****

Monday, November 19, 2012

I've Loved You So Long

Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas), the protagonist of Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long, is a woman of few words. She merely listens as those around her, especially her sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), talk on and on and on. It's not that she doesn't want to speak. It's just she has nothing to say.

In fact, when most people first meet Juliette, there are a number of varying opinions on her. They find her mysterious because of her quiet nature. They also find her mysterious because Lea had never mention her before.

Those that find out why Lea never mentioned Juliette before then realize why. They then view Juliette as someone who can't be trusted. Hey, what would your reaction be after meeting a woman who just got out of prison for killing her own son?

Claudel ensures to get the best out of Thomas and Zylberstein. Thomas keeps the mystery of Juliette on full display throughout the film. As Lea, Zylberstein tries to revive the bond between her and Juliette, which wasn't very strong to begin with. (Think of their relationship as the French equivalent to Autumn Sonata.)

I've Loved You So Long is a very fascinating film. Thomas, who definitely should have been nominated for her work here, gives an amazing performance of someone who tries to cope with their past actions and uncertain future. It's truly one that must be seen to be believed, both Thomas' performance and the film.

My Rating: *****

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Smashed

In 1962, Blake Edwards made a film called Days of Wine and Roses starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. It was a departure for Edwards and Lemmon since both were mainly recognized for comedy. It was also one of the first films to depict alcoholism in an ugly light.

Fast forward fifty years later to 2012. The stars and director of Days of Wine and Roses have passed on, but the impact the film left sure hasn't. In fact, many elements in James Ponsoldt's Smashed can be reminiscent of Edwards' film. After all, both films depict a marriage united by alcohol.

Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has a pretty good life, much like Lemmon's Joe Clay. Steady job, happily married...all is right in the world. Her only problem is her drinking, which she's been doing for as long as she can remember. Then everything starts to fall apart in her life, making her reconsider her ways.

Winstead provides an interesting portrait of an alcoholic. She is capable of maintaining a steady life when sober. That goes out the window when she's been drinking. (One drunken meltdown in particular proves that.) And the supporting cast of Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally and Octavia Spencer is also great, but this film belongs to Winstead.

The main complaint I have with Smashed is that the tone doesn't match the theme. To me, a film revolving around an alcoholic should be a little dark. But the story and the acting are great, so I suppose I could let it pass. Personally, I hope Winstead gets some recognition out of this.

My Rating: ****

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Friday, November 16, 2012

My Movie Alphabet

Mettel has a new blogathon that's been floating around the internet for a while. I figured, what the hell. I'll join in too. But my list will look lackluster (say that three time fast) because I don't have the skill and/or ability to make good graphics like every other blogger doing this. Aw, screw it. I've got good choices. (However, I'm skipping over X because I don't have a good entry for it.)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

We Own the Night

There are actors that usually deliver their best work when in the hands of a certain director. Would the career of Robert De Niro (or Leonardo DiCaprio) gone anywhere had he not worked with Martin Scorsese? Jack Lemmon without Billy Wilder? Marlon Brando without Elia Kazan? (The answer to all of them: probably not.)

A recent, more understated collaboration is James Gray and Joaquin Phoenix. Gray is still trying to make a name for himself while Phoenix has been a noted actor for years. I first noted their work together in the form of Two Lovers, Gray's most recent film. It was the quiet but deep performance from Phoenix that made the film get ranked as a personal favorite of mine. But it wasn't until much later that I realized I should see another film of theirs.

I opted for their 2007 collaboration We Own the Night, which several bloggers I know call one of the best films of that year. It's clear as to why. This is the kind of film that Scorsese or even Coppola would have made back in the 70s because man, you can feel elements of Mean Streets and The Godfather in certain scenes.

The film isn't just about Phoenix. The cast also includes Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes and Robert Duvall, all of whom are great in their roles. It's a great cast but this is Phoenix's show. This is more proof that he's one of the finest actors working today.

We Own the Night is a really great film. You can tell Gray is providing a nice homage to the crime films of the 70s just from watching this. Every element works in every scene, nothing feeling out of place at any point. Here's hoping Gray gets the recognition he deserves because damn. He really knows what he's doing.

My Rating: *****

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bringing Out the Dead

The 1990s featured some very underappreciated works from martin Scorsese. (The main film of the 1990s Scorsese titles was Goodfellas.) Casino is one of the reputed great gangster films. The Age of Innocence is a gorgeous period piece.

But what about his 199 film Bringing Out the Dead? Well, it's another prime example. Depicting New York City's seedy underbelly, the film chronicles the slow but maddening descent of one man ensnared in the insanity of society. (And I'm putting it gently.)

The film stars Nicolas Cage and for some reason, I kept thinking about his work in Leaving Las Vegas. It makes sense if you've seen both films. His roles in Bringing Out the Dead and Leaving Las Vegas has him on a self-destructive path within the span of several days, each day resulting in him getting weaker mentally. It's a hell of a performance out of Cage too.

It's also no surprise that there are parallels between this and Taxi Driver. (Then again, it helps that both films are directed by Scorsese and written by Paul Schrader.) The protagonists in both films drift through New York City and see it as hell on earth. As Travis says in Taxi Driver, "Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets."

Bringing Out the Dead is probably the rawest of Scorsese's films, perhaps too raw to some. He's not afraid to tread into risky territory. (He did make Taxi Driver after all.) The main thing that matters to him is to tell a tale of the immoral nature within humanity and how it can sometimes destroy us.

My Rating: ****1/2

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Zorba the Greek

When Basil (Alan Bates) first meets Alexis Zorba (Anthony Quinn) early on in Michalis Cacoyannis' Zorba the Greek, it's made very clear they're from different ends of the spectrum. Basil is a reserved British writer while Zorba is a Greek who goes by his own rules. Yet somehow they become friends.

Basil is amazed by Zorba's zest for life. Zorba feels the same towards Basil's lack of it. When they head to Crete, Basil embraces the lifestyle of Zorba's people while Zorba embraces Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova), the owner of the town hotel.

Zorba the Greek is strictly about Basil or Zorba. The film also revolves around the small community they're in. The people that are a part of the community have their own rules and morals. Cross those rules and morals, and feel their wrath.

The actors are very good. Kedrova possesses a quiet longing with her Madame Hortense. Bates in turn quietly observes the many happenings around him. (There is also a very lovely scene between him and Irene Papas.) But this is Quinn's show. After all, this is an actor who often stole the spotlight from his co-stars. (I am intrigued that they got a Mexican actor to play a Greek.)

Zorba the Greek is a very charming film. Thanks to Quinn and Bates' performances, the film just resonates its dark yet touching themes. Walter Lassallly's cinematography gorgeously captures the Greek countryside. And that final scene provides solid testament as to why I love film.

My Rating: *****

Monday, November 12, 2012

Equilibrium

What would it be like to live in a world where freedom of expression is no longer free? What if the very things that made us who we are became illegal? It's a horrifying prospect, especially with the censorship laws throughout the world.

Kurt Wimmer's Equilibrium explores the possibility of such a world existing. All forms of expression -- literature, music, art -- are banned and those found with them will be executed. In order to stay unaffected, everyone is administered a drug which suppresses all emotion.

Wimmer's vision is almost like what Ray Bradbury did with Fahrenheit 451. Something that's in our life every day is suddenly forbidden, a simple object that is deemed dangerous for our mental health. Sure, it's understandable how a few books or a couple paintings could get some controversy, but becoming qualified to be destroyed? Practically horrifying, especially coming from someone who appreciates the arts.

However, the main flaw of Wimmer's vision is his apparent need to include violence into the story. I suppose it's mainly because everyone's a living, breathing sociopath under the drug, so the need to kill someone is inevitable. Seems like a strange response to the drug though.

Equilibrium provides an interesting concept but it gets bogged down thanks mainly to the violence aspect. Maybe if that was removed, this would be ranked alongside THX 1138 and Blade Runner. Instead, it falls face first into guilty pleasure territory. And that's where it intends to stay too.

My Rating: ***1/2

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pandora's Box

G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box provides a portrait of a woman whose life is layered with good luck and hard times. She's fully aware of the distinction between the two, but they blend from time to time so she can't be too sure.

The woman in question is Lulu, a role immortalized by Louise Brooks. She plays Lulu as someone who is fully aware of her sexual prowess and its impact on men. It's just she finds out about it too late most of the time. Brooks makes this role her own. (And to think there was an uproar over her casting.)

The interesting thing is that Pabst doesn't depict Lulu as either a man-eater or a martyr. He depicts her as an innocent girl who acts naughty at times. What happens to her in the end could be up for debate. Was what happened to Lulu unjust or deserved?

There have been a number of films focusing on the tumultuous sexual lifestyles some people lead (only a small handful daring to delve into sex addiction) since the release of Pandora's Box. But it was Pabst's film that started them all. Bear in mind this was a film from the late 20s and it was quite ahead of its time. (One of the supporting characters is a lesbian.) And it still resonates to this day.

Pandora's Box is a truly fascinating film to watch. It's a stunning portrait of the dangers within human nature and the consequences that follow. Honestly one of the boldest films from the early years of cinema.

My Rating: *****

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Skyfall

When you look at the small but extensive filmography of Sam Mendes, you can tell he's interested in stories about the everyman and the life they lead. Suffice to say his newest film Skyfall feels out place when in the likes of American Beauty or Revolutionary Road. That doesn't mean it's a bad film. Oh no, not at all.

Even though the James Bond franchise has now been around for fifty years, I'll admit I'm not well versed in the world of 007. (The only other Bond film I saw was Casino Royale.) That said, I still managed to get the few throwbacks to previous entries that were in Skyfall.

The cast is great. (Then again, with names like these, what else would you expect?) Daniel Craig is essentially perfect as James Bond. (Boo to those that say he isn't.) Judi Dench is also perfect as M. Javier Bardem is equally ideal for the role of villain Raoul Silva, displaying a nice balance of creepy and straight-up unhinged. Supporting actors Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris and Albert Finney are also great. Wonder what the cast for the next one will be like?

The many other aspects of Skyfall are also to die for. Adele's theme song is (pun slightly intended) pitch perfect. Same can be said for Thomas Newman's score. But I must talk about Roger Deakins' cinematography. The pure gorgeousness of it makes the film come alive. I would be ecstatic if Deakins got nominated, more so if he finally won.

I must say, this year has been pretty great for actions films. First The Avengers, then The Dark Knight Rises, now Skyfall. Mendes seems like an odd choice at first but when you see the final result, you realize he was perfect for the job. But if you had seen his unjustly underrated Road to Perdition (which co-starred Craig), then you know Mendes could depict action and violence without overdoing it. In short, Skyfall is awesome.

My Rating: *****

Friday, November 9, 2012

Nikita

When we first see the title character of Luc Besson's Nikita (or La Femme Nikita as it's commonly called), she is clearly zoned out, oblivious to the mayhem going on around her. As the film progresses, she becomes more focused and driven.

Nikita is played by Anne Parillaud. She provides the appropriate amount of sex appeal and cunning behavior needed for the role. That said, there isn't much else for Parillaud to do. The role mainly consists of her being in either a skimpy outfit or her underwear. (Well, later on in the film anyways.)

Besson is one of those directors who's accused of preferring style over substance. With Nikita being the first film of his I saw, I can't really confirm it. I will say I definitely felt it from Nikita. (Probably not a good note to start on.)

Speaking of the film's style, it is pretty nice. Thierry Arbogast's cinematography and Eric Serra's score make the most out of the film. Though to be honest, those are the main highlights of Nikita.

All in all, the film's all right. There are a few sequences that are good, but that's about it. It's definitely clear that it was made in "the MTV era". (Just saying.) I just hope The Professional won't be like this.

My Rating: ****

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Band Wagon

Anyone who has seen enough musicals from Hollywood's Golden Age knows you have two song-and-dance men to choose from: Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Both were very different; Astaire provided elegance with his dancing whereas Kelly was more aggressive. Kelly himself said it best: "If Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, I'm the Marlon Brando."

Even though the dancing styles are different, amusingly their careers were somewhat similar. Both started out in show business with their siblings. Years later, both displayed their abilities as legit actors around the same time. (For Astaire, it was 1959's On the Beach; for Kelly it was Inherit the Wind the following year.)

Also within a year, both had the leading role in a prominent MGM musical. Kelly of course had Singin' in the Rain whereas Astaire had Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon. Both films were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and their roles were that of movies stars whose careers are in trouble. (Ironic on Astaire's part since The Band Wagon was made when his career was at a standstill.)

Of course both musicals have their differences. Singin' in the Rain was more bouncier in comparison to The Band Wagon. Astaire's musical was more of a musical revue than a straight-up musical. Also, Singin' in the Rain has more charm than The Band Wagon.

The Band Wagon itself is mainly all right. Some of the musical numbers feel out of place. (It makes sense when you realize only three songs from the original stage production made it into the movie.) But of the musical numbers, my favorites were "Dancing in the Dark" and "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan". Also, it made me realize that I have to see one of Astaire's movies with Ginger Rogers soon. (Can't believe I haven't yet.)

My Rating: ****

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Brute Force

Following the end of World War II, returned soldiers were trying to escape the uncomfortable nature of everyday life. One such escape was to the movies. But they weren't seeing the love story pictures their sweethearts wanted to see. They wanted to see something with more grit. Something like a film noir.

It makes sense once you think of it. They're weren't ready to see a saccharine-drenched picture that Hollywood often cranks out. (That was probably why the Frank Capra-helmed It's a Wonderful Life didn't have great returns.) They had gotten accustomed to a world of violence and death, so they wanted a movie that feature that.

One such film is Jules Dassin's Brute Force. Depicting a life behind bars, the film chronicles the differing perspectives between the inmates and the guards. However Dassin depicts the guards as the morally corrupt, especially Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn). (Many later noirs would go into the territory of power corrupting absolutely.)

The film stars Burt Lancaster (in only his second film role!) as Joe Collins, a prisoner who only wants to get out of jail. He has good reason to; the health of his wife Ruth (Ann Blyth) is declining and he wants to be with her. The silent intensity that Joe displays is precisely why I love Lancaster in the first place.

Brute Force is very good though it feels like it's lacking...something. What it is, I have no idea. (Might become evident on a re-watch.) Still, Dassin's direction, Lancaster's charisma and William Daniels' cinematography kept me intrigued.

My Rating: ****1/2

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph

This year has been pretty good to the world of animation. Yeah, there have been a few misses earlier in the year, but titles like Brave, ParaNorman and Frankenweenie gave me hope.

Another is Rich Moore's Wreck-It Ralph. My definition of a great animated movie is one that can be enjoyed at any age. (This is precisely why movies from Disney and Pixar are often successful.) Is this the case with Wreck-It Ralph? Oh, you bet it is.

When my sister showed me the trailer a few months back, the one thing she commented on was how they managed to get famous video game characters into one movie. I have to admit I was curious about that myself, but it kind of went away once I remembered Disney's recent spending spree. (The probably bought a few rights beforehand.)

Onto the names involved. Sarah Silverman was entertaining without being annoying. Jane Lynch was awesome, but then again she usually is. Jack McBrayer was really funny as the complete happy-go-lucky guy. (He also convinced me that I need to watch 30 Rock.) But the star of Wreck-It Ralph is John C. Reilly. He has played likable schmoes enough times to make it understandable why he's perfect as Ralph.

Basically I loved Wreck-It Ralph. It's a really original and thoroughly entertaining concept. So if you're a video game fan or just want a fun movie to watch, Wreck-It Ralph is your go-to movie. You won't regret it. (Oh, one more thing. The short that plays before the movie, Paperman, is adorable.)

My Rating: *****

Monday, November 5, 2012

State and Main

Depicting the chaos behind the production of a film isn't something very commonly tackled among Hollywood. (There are those few titles every and again.) Maybe it's because no one in Hollywood wants everyone to know the troubles that go into making a movie.

There are many complications that can affect the production of a film: money problems, "creative differences", squabbles between director and producer, actors behaving badly, insecure actors, re-writes galore...just your average film production. Nothing too extreme.

David Mamet's State and Main depicts such chaos and almost effortlessly. (Maybe because at that point Mamet had written for a number of prominent directors.) It almost made me iffy on pursuing a career in Hollywood. (Not entirely though.)

The names involved are pretty good. Among them are William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker, Julia Stiles, David Paymer and Charles Durning. (Added bonus: Coulson -- er, Clark Gregg -- is in it too!) I found them very well suited for their roles, so I have no complaints on them.

My only complaint is with Mamet's style of writing. Maybe once I've gotten accustomed to it the complaints will stop but for now, I'm just not that into the repetitive nature of it. Still, the comedic moments helped a bit. I can see myself re-watching it in the near future though.

My Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Advise and Consent

In 2000, Rod Lurie released The Contender. The film revolved around the somewhat controversial nomination of a vice president candidate and the highly publicized confirmation hearings that would follow. It was a very well-received film, especially since it was an original idea.

Rewind thirty-eight years earlier, and you'll see that Otto Preminger had beaten Lurie to the punch on the subject. Of course knowing the period Preminger's film Advise and Consent was made in, the thing Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) is accused of was dabbling in communism rather than a string of illicit affairs. (I suppose that was the norm back in the day.) That's one of a few things that make the film dated and somewhat flawed.

Knowing that this is a film directed by Preminger, there is bound to be a risky subject as a focal point. (Previous examples include drug abuse in The Man with the Golden Arm and rape in Anatomy of a Murder.) For Advise and Consent, the subject in question is homosexuality. However, it's treated more as a subtheme rather than a main one. Again, another flaw.

The cast is one for the ages. Along with Fonda, the names include Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, Don Murray (in a role that's very much a far cry from Bus Stop), Peter Lawford, Gene Tierney, Franchot Tone, Lew Ayres and Burgess Meredith. (Also keep your eyes peeled for a young Betty White as a senator.) They're all great, especially Murray.

Advise and Consent is the best film of Preminger's career (that honor goes to Laura) but it's one of them. Released in a year filled with great titles, this seems like a minor blip on the film radar. Still, it's worth a look.

My Rating: ****1/2

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Age of Innocence

It seems strange that Martin Scorsese, the man responsible for blood-soaked films like Goodfellas and Raging Bull, would go and do a much quieter film like The Age of Innocence. This is the kind of film more suited for James Ivory, so is Scorsese's decision in making this a misstep on his part? Absolutely not.

It's peculiar because if you've seen any of his crime films, you wouldn't have thought that Scorsese was capable of subtlety. (Casino would have made that theory impossible to imagine.) But that's the foundation for The Age of Innocence. Scorsese shows that you don't need complete excess for a gorgeous film.

That said, the visual design of the film is stunning. Thanks to Dante Ferretti and Robert J. Franco, the detail in many of the scenes is worthy of anything in a Luchino Visconti film. But it's on a much smaller scale than, say, Visconti's The Leopard. But that helps in the film's sense of subtlety. (There are eye-catching set pieces regardless.)

Scorsese doesn't shy away from making his film practically come alive. And it's thanks to the many finer details that contribute to that. There's Elmer Bernstein's score which just makes the film even more gorgeous. The costumes designed by Gabriella Pescucci are stunning and wisely earned her an Oscar. And the cinematography by Michael Ballhaus practically makes the film swoon. (How did it not get nominated?)

The Age of Innocence is an emotionally gorgeous film. Thanks to the fantastic work from Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, Scorsese makes Edith Wharton's novel (which I'll admit I haven't read) come to life. And those final scenes are quietly heartbreaking. (Again, not something you'd expect from the man who gave the world Taxi Driver.)

My Rating: *****

Friday, November 2, 2012

49th Parallel

Michael Powell's 49th Parallel isn't a war film in the conventional sense. Yes, the Nazis are the villains in this (not to mention the main characters) but Powell isn't interested with the battlefield. He's more interested with the home front.

The film's set in a country that had little involvement in World War II: Canada. (Okay, that's a lie. They had some significant involvement in the war.) There are a few stereotypes among the portrayals of Canadians but apart from that, Powell provides an honest portrait of the country.

The names involved with 49th Parallel include Laurence Olivier, Anton Walbrook and Leslie Howard. Yet they are not the stars of the film. (They are merely supporting players, despite the fact Howard and Olivier got top billing.) The star, however, is Eric Portman, who plays the leader of the Nazi troupe. He gets so wrapped up in his faith for his country, it practically poisons his mind.

Another noted aspect of 49th Parallel is the lovely cinematography by Freddie Young. Capturing the vast Canadian land, Young has an eye for nature's true beauty amid the ruggedness of it all. (Then again, this is the man who would later shoot Lawrence of Arabia.)

49th Parallel isn't as great as Black Narcissus or The Reds Shoes or Peeping Tom, but it is an interesting film to watch. Powell captures the determination found in every human, something that will not be easily destroyed in any situation. (Haven't we all gone through a time like that?)

My Rating: ****

Thursday, November 1, 2012

BOOK VS MOVIE: Fight Club

It takes a lot for anyone to depict the complete mayhem within a society. Sometimes it doesn't even take too much imagination  since such mayhem happens every day in real life at every waking moment. (It's true. Just pay attention to the news.)

Also look at Fight Club. The mayhem throughout the whole story is insane on every level yet it seems sane when in comparison to anything that happens in real life. (Believe me, I know life is weird.)

Chuck Palahniuk's writing style is sporadic, manic and completely off the wall. And I love it. Usually manic writing styles put me off, but Palahniuk somehow drew me in. Maybe it was just the story he told, but who knows? (Not me, that's for sure.)

I think had I not read Palahniuk's novel, I wouldn't have understood David Fincher's film in the slightest. (Then again, I might have been able to if I tried hard enough.) But Fincher, Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter know how to make Palahniuk's outlandish story come to life.

Both Palahniuk's novel and Fincher's film both depict the very dark side of anarchy and nihilism. But Fincher's film makes understanding the story Palahniuk originated more easier. (Palahniuk himself said that Fincher improved his novel.) Also, is it weird that I think Fincher's film could make for an interesting double feature with Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master?

What's worth checking out?: I'd go with the movie.