Monday, April 30, 2012

Let's Talk

The Kid in the Front Row has recently been conducting several interviews with fellow film bloggers. Though I requested for one, he seemed very eager to ask me questions.

The Kid: You changed the name of your blog a few years back - what made you change?

Anna: Oh, that's easy. The original name, Life of a Cinephile and Bibliophile, was way too much of a mouthful and I figured I wasn't the only one getting sick of typing it. I wanted something catchier and, most importantly, shorter. I came up with Defiant Success, which has a double meaning now that I think of it. I originally chose that title as a combination of The Defiant Ones and Sweet Smell of Success, two films I saw in 2010 that I was very much impressed by (the latter title currently resting among my top 5). Now it's more of a reference towards my blogging fame. I'm grateful for my status in the blogging world, but I want more.

K: You write about such a wide variety of films -- do you write about films you've watched, or do you watch films because you want to write about them?

A: The former, though at times the latter. I've seen a number of opinions on a number of films, many of them I agree on. At times I find details within the films that a scant number of people have pointed out, usually involving the actors. You know, lighting, actors' expressions and gestures, things like that. I tend to keep my eye on the small details. (It's a peculiar habit of mine.)

K: You've taken part in lots of blogathons -- what do you enjoy about doing them?

A: It's frequently my way of both showing my work to other people and exploring the work of prolific names I probably never would've watched under regular circumstances. Like when the Large Association of Movie Blogs (LAMB) have their monthly posts focusing on actors and directors, I try to watch at least one or two films the subject has done. (Most of the time I'd already seen a few of their projects.) It's with these blogathons that I discovered many of the actors and directors I admire today.

K: What can you tell us about your life away from blogging?

A: It's not very interesting, I'm afraid. I'm very much a loner and I'd rather write or read instead of chit chat with my peers face to face. Plus side of being a loner is that I can watch my films in peace and not deal with someone constantly going, "What's going on? Who's that actor? Why does she look familiar?" (It's not bad if they talk afterwards but talk to me when I'm watching a film, I will break out the duct tape. I'm not afraid to use it either.)

K: What would you say is your main reason for blogging?

A: I only started blogging because I got bored one summer day in 2009. Then I got a little more into blogging once I made ties with other bloggers. Then a year passed. Then two years and now nearly three years later, here I am. To sum things up, it's my way to curb my boredom. Well, that and because my social life is -- oh, what's the word I'm looking for? -- nonexistent.

K: You seem to blog pretty much every day! How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

A: Simple: change up what you post. Review a highly regarded classic one day and then an underrated recent release the next. And when writing reviews starts to get a little dry, write up a clever list. Rank the work of a prestigious name in the business. Confess which praised films you constantly regret having not seen. You can get a lot of inspiration from other blogs. (Usually for me, I sketch out an idea for a list days if not at least a week in advance. Again, peculiar habit of mine.) 

K: Do you think you view films differently now to when you first started blogging?

A: Absolutely. When I started the blog, many of my posts were as bare-boned as possible. You know, stuff everyone and their moms knew. Now my posts go into greater (and sometimes grander) detail. My movie watching was also affected. I had only seen a few classics, the oldest movies I would watch were from the mid 1970s max. Now I'm watching films ranging from present day to the 1920s. It's also thanks to starting the blog I view films as more than just a form of entertainment. It's just really interesting to see the evolution of film.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ride with the Devil

The Civil War isn't the most filmed war by Hollywood's standards (that honor goes to World War II, Vietnam War a close second) but when it is, the films are usually well regarded.

That most definitely isn't the case with Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil. Perhaps the Taiwanese director wasn't too familiar with a crux in American history, which seems like the possible explanation for the bad pacing and even worse script.

This is no exaggeration; this is a very flawed film. The only redeeming qualities of it are the score and the fact it's thankfully not a 3-hour long epic (though it feels an hour too long by itself). Seriously, those are the only good things (and what prevented me from giving it a lower rating).

There's a reason for Glory is pretty much the quintessential Civil War film. It's actually good. Lee tries too much to surpass let alone match the success Edward Zwick got back in 1989. Maybe if he didn't so hard, he would have ended up with an adequate film.

Instead, Lee is stuck with a blemish on his otherwise impressive resume. (Well, this and Hulk.) Everything about Ride with the Devil feels forced. Personally this is something to avoid unless you need something to help you sleep.

My Rating: ***

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Ten Best Actors Relay Race

One of these days I'm going to learn that whenever there's a meme floating around, sooner or later I'm going to get tagged. Anyway, Nostra of My Filmviews started this about a month ago, and I got tagged by Tyler from Southern Vision. In Nostra's words:
So what’s the idea behind the relay? I’ve created a list of what I think are the best actors. At the end of the post I, just like in a real relay race, hand over the baton to another blogger who will write his own post. This blogger will have to remove one actor (that is an obligation) and add his own choice and describe why he/she did this. At the end the blogger chooses another blogger to do the same. The idea is to make this a long race, so that enough bloggers get a chance to remove and add an actor. We will end up with a list (not ranked in order) which represents a common agreement of the best actors.
The previous entries:
And the actors:

Robert De Niro

Daniel Day-Lewis

Charlie Chaplin

Marlon Brando

Gregory Peck

Paul Newman

Max von Sydow

Jack Nicholson

Humphrey Bogart

Who am I removing? Apologies, Tyler, but I must bid adieu to your choice of Harry Dean Stanton. It's not that I don't like him, it's just I'm not very familiar with his work to agree with you.

Who's replacing him? Tyler believed that I would have fun choosing my actor. (You don't know me very well, do you, Tyler?) Paul Newman was already chosen, and some of my other choices I presumed would get removed on the very next post. (My runner-ups in question are Burt Lancaster, Henry Fonda and Montgomery Clift.) And also, I hate trying to narrow down a list (I always end up making them bigger than shorter), so naturally it was a bit of a struggle. But there was a name that I had strong hopes for surviving through this meme (fingers crossed). Hey, he has to be good; he was Tyler's runner-up. I'm, of course, referring to Jack Lemmon.

What's not to like about him? He was a very skilled actor, performing comedy (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Mister Roberts) and drama (Days of Wine and Roses, Glengarry Glen Ross, Missing) with equal ease. His seven film collaboration with Billy Wilder is one of the most regarded actor-director partnerships in Hollywood. And this quote by his biographer describes him to a T: "Everybody likes Jack. Attacking him would be like pulling a chair out from under your mother."

Okay, tagging this to Stevee from Cinematic Paradox, regardless of the fact I probably know who she'll choose. What can I say? Some people are predictable at times.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Lust, Caution

Within the 158-minute running time of Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, there are moments that could equate to that of pure poetry. Whether it be the gorgeous detail in the costumes, Alexandre Desplat's score or simply the smoke from a cigarette, there's an elegance in the film.

The delicate features of Tang Wei's face are key for her character Wong Chia-chi. Just looking at her you would assume that she is a young housewife. You would never suspect that she's really a spy. The pure innocence in her eyes and smile dismiss such thoughts.

Much like his work in In the Mood for Love, Tony Leung's Mr. Yee is an observant but quiet man. The same can't be said for when he's in the bedroom. There, he is a completely different person. It's scenes like those where people can express who they really are, and Leung shows such a fine example.

Like Lee's previous film Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution focuses on the burning desires between two characters and the outside life around them. Though in a way, it's more of a Chinese Last Tango in Paris (which comes as no surprise since Brando's performance was an influence for Leung's). Their lives are uninteresting, and they crave an escape.

The NC-17 rating is misleading. There's only 10 minutes' worth of sex. The rest, if unclear earlier, is cinematic bliss. The running time may sound daunting, but the film flies by on gilded wings.

My Rating: *****

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Killer's Kiss

You've got to admire Stanley Kubrick. The man only made thirteen films during his forty-six years in Hollywood, and each one of them deemed him a revolutionary to the world of film.

It's clear with his second film Killer's Kiss. The many foundations of his later work can be seen here. The thin line between good and evil. Characters that are next to impossible sympathize for. You know, the standard Kubrick spec.

The film clocks in at 67 minutes, but Kubrick manages to get in an effective story, though not among his more famous work. He does however get in a few noir cliches but adds new variations on them. (Hey, it's only his second film. Give him slack.)

Much like Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese in the years to come, Kubrick treats his hometown of New York City as one of the characters. The hustle and bustle of the city adds gravitas to the story. He knew this city and was going to show it the way he saw it.

Killer's Kiss is good though not particularly memorable. Had it been, say, twenty minutes longer I'd be singing a very different tune. Still, the most crucial aspect in the long run is that the following year, Kubrick made it big.

My Rating: ****1/2

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

Usually when a relatively new actor or director arrives on the Hollywood scene, the typical response among the audience is to watch some of their pre-big break work.

Such is the case with OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. You've probably heard of its director Michel Hazanavicius or its two stars Jean Dujardin an Berenice Bejo. No? They also did The Artist, that silent film that won Best Picture earlier this year. Right, moving on.

The movie is essentially a spoof of the spy capers of the 1960's, more notably the early James Bond movies. However, maybe a nod or two to Austin Powers could be in there. Basically the main spy isn't as clever as Bond though not as dumb as Powers.

It may be in French, but none of the jokes get lost in translation. They all work on a visual aspect rather than verbal, a key thing in any comedy. Hey, you know it's true.

All in all, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is a really funny and clever movie. It takes most spy movie cliches and uses them to their advantage. Dujardin and Bejo are charming and funny. If you want an enjoyable foreign film to watch, look no further.

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Reservoir Dogs

Quentin Tarantino has definitely made a name for himself in the last twenty years. Once a video store clerk, now an Academy Award winner.

Oh, to imagine the reaction back in 1992 when his directing debut Reservoir Dogs was released. Now we're pretty much used to the gore and profanity in his work, but Lord knows what everyone thought of his vision when he first showed up. (Hell, people probably didn't feel this way since Peckinpah.)

Naturally the response was a mix between amazement and shock. Amazement because not many filmmakers prior to Tarantino could effortlessly blend sporadic manner of speaking with violence, shock because of, well, basically the same things. What? The guy's a pioneer.

Sure, Tarantino "borrowed" some of the main ideas from the likes of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and The Killing, but you've got to admire those allusions. Some would call them ripoffs; I call them homages, better yet tributes.

Reservoir Dogs might grow on me more if I watch it a few more times, but it did stick on the first viewing. (That ear slicing scene is the stuff of nightmares, man.) Hey, just watching this makes it clear how he made it big. Seriously.

My Rating: *****

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Most heist films usually rely on a lot of shoot 'em up action and fast-paced music. (One can only imagine the budgets for them.) It's frustrating when they overwhelm the whole film.

That's not the case with Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. (Thank God.) Indeed it does rely on said action and music, but fortunately it's only every small occasion. The majority of the film relies mostly on these things: acting, suspense and a damn good plot.

Walter Matthau stars as Garber, a police lieutenant for the New York City Transit Authority. Matthau usually played a number of cranky members of society, and Garber is no exception. His bone dry commentary is what makes his performance stand out the most.

This show, however, belongs to Robert Shaw as "Mr. Blue". (Yes, that's where Tarantino got that idea for Reservoir Dogs.) He's a silent predator, always calculating. To think this is the same man who played Quint the following year.

In short, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is awesome. Along with Matthau and Shaw's performances, a key feature is David Shire's slick score. You want an action flick? Here's you best bet.

My Rating: *****

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Waterloo Bridge

In the opening moments of Mervyn LeRoy's Waterloo Bridge, an aging soldier remembers a conversation he had with a woman. A quick smile appears on his face, but sorrow soon seeps in and his eyes begin to water. Who is this man and the woman he remembers?

The man is Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor). The woman is Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh), a ballet dancer he falls in love with almost instantly. Their first meeting they fall in love. Their second day they plan to get married. The third day Roy gets shipped off. Myra receives news that Roy was killed in action, and she slips into a deep depression.

Leigh is one of the undisputed greats of Hollywood's Golden Age. Taylor was more recognized as a movie star than as an actor, which is a shame since he was very good in roles like Waterloo Bridge. Seeing them together on screen emphasizes not just that they were very attractive people (they were) but also showing they were talented too.

What's interesting is that the film doesn't rely just on Leigh and Taylor's ability to say lines with conviction. It also relies on their ability to say anything without even speaking speaking, mainly through facial expressions and body language. Three moments in particular: the hope on Roy's face after first meeting Myra; the shock seeping into her face when she sees him very much alive; and the loving, wordless exchanges between them as the waltz to "Auld Lang Syne".

Waterloo Bridge is fantastic. In the wrong hands, this would've been the typical melodrama of the era. Instead, LeRoy makes sure that the romance cliches are absent, and that Leigh and Taylor don't hit a false note at any point. Safe to say all three succeeded.

My Rating: *****

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Deep Blue Sea

There's a perpetual sadness in the face of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) that lingers throughout Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea. It's very evident when she's with her husband William (Simon Russell Beale). Even when she's with her lover Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston) she has that look, no matter how happy she appears.

The audience never particularly learns of why Hester became unfaithful to her husband. My theory is that the thought of being married to a man old enough to be her father was getting more unappealing with each passing day. She wanted someone who was young and exciting, not old and dull. She finds that and more in Freddie but as time wears on, cracks appear.

The acting is superb. The searing look of betrayal on Beale's face as William learns of Hester's infidelity and in scenes afterwards is haunting. Hiddleston goes through a number of emotions throughout the duration of the film, never overdoing any of them, rendering him an actor to keep an eye on. But this show belongs to Weisz. Her layered performance is what awards recognition is made of, the very thing I hope she gets.

Much like the use of muted colors in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Deep Blue Sea uses dull shades to emphasize the film's mood. Davies wants there to be no bright colors to lower the mood. (Even Hester's blood red overcoat looks drab.) The use of harsh incandescent lighting is also used to capture this feeling.

There are problems with the pacing but that aside, The Deep Blue Sea is a fantastic film. Not many films focus on a broken romance as well as this. Weisz, Hiddleston and Beale are great in this anti-romantic film.

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, April 20, 2012


Martin Scorsese's Casino focuses on the fall of Las Vegas, Sin City being reduced from gangster mecca to tourist trap. Four years earlier, Barry Levinson made a film about the rise of the city, transformed from barren desert to illuminated enterprise.

The film is Bugsy, which is about gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (Warren Beatty). Siegel wasn't as deadly as Al Capone nor as smart as his associates Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) and Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel), but he was smart enough to get by. (Sort of.)

Siegel was also a womanizer, so casting Beatty was a smart decision. The film doesn't shy away from Siegel's violent temper either. Beatty portrays Siegel as ruthless but is willing to show his damaged side. Siegel makes it clear he wants to be remembered for something big.

Levinson makes Bugsy look like it's from the 1940's. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, the other gangster film starring Beatty, violence isn't glorified though it is just as bloody. It's in a similar style as Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, right down to the sepia tones in the cinematography.

Bugsy is very good. The best work came from Beatty and a firecracker Annette Bening (husband and wife once production wrapped). In fact, a double feature of this and Casino would be pretty sweet.

My Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Big Lebowski

Most directors have a distinct trademark that makes them recognizable. John Waters has the camp factor. Alfred Hitchcock used suspense. Quentin Tarantino weaves profanity and violence into his scripts.

With Joel and Ethan Coen, many of their films focus on everyday life with a touch of reality's bizarreness. Seriously. Look at Fargo. Look at Raising Arizona. Look at Burn After Reading. And, most importantly, look at The Big Lebowski.

As bizarre as it may sound, you could do a triple feature of The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski, and you see the similarities among them. That's because Ethan based The Big Lebowski off the narrative style of Raymond Chandler, author of the previous two titles. All three have similarities, including the many characters introduced and the few plot holes amid the scripts. In fact, Jeffrey "the Dude" Lebowski could basically be Philip Marlowe had Chandler wrote Marlowe as a pothead slacker.

The cast is great. It ranges from Coen regulars John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and John Turturro (shouldn't he have been nominated by now?) to award favorites Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore. The star of The Big Lebowski, without a doubt, is Jeff Bridges. After all, he's the Dude.

The Big Lebowski is very amusing though it does get surreal at times. Very quotable, that goes without saying. This basically is a movie for everyone except those easily offended by language and/or violence.

My Rating: ****1/2

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Last Night

I was personally surprised with Massy Tadjedin's Last Night. From what I saw the plot was, I thought it would be something along the lines of melodramatic. Instead, it's a mature perspective on relationships.

Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington star as Joanna and Michael, a couple whose marriage lies somewhere between happy and troubled. When Michael is out of town for business, both of them try to resist temptation in the form of his co-worker Laura (Eva Mendes) and her former boyfriend Alex (Guillaume Canet).

I will admit I'm not too fond of Knightley and I thought nothing much of Worthington. Once I saw them in Last Night, my opinion on them altered a bit. Both are very natural in their roles, not going over the top at any point in the film. I particularly liked the look on Michael's face when he's with Laura, trying so hard not to succumb to temptation.

Like Knightley and Worthington, Mendes and Canet are very natural in their roles. Mendes has previously been in a number of movies where she's a temptress, but that's not the case with Last Night. Laura is friendly with Michael, but she never tries to make a move. Same with Alex towards Joanna.

Last Night plays every note on a simple level, something not exactly for everyone. Knightley, Worthington, Mendes and Canet are great in their roles. Not one scene feels out of place, which is always a good thing.

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Mike Hodges' Croupier is definitely one of the more underrated titles of the 1990's. It's clever, it's witty and most importantly, it's damn good.

Clive Owen stars as Jack Manfred, a writer struggling to get his book published. Needing a job, he finds work in the form of a croupier at a local casino. There he comes across a whole sort of people, the kind that spark a writer's imagination.

The best way to describe Jack, not even kidding, is to compare him to James Bond. Both men are calm under pressure, collected when the going gets rough, and look damn good in a tuxedo. (No surprise Owen was in the running to play Bond when Casino Royale was in production.)

Had it not been for Paul Mayersberg's sly script, this film just would have failed on a miserable note. It's loaded with cunning moments and smart dialogue.Think of it as a spy movie minus the spies.

If it wasn't clear enough, Croupier is highly recommended. It's clever like the many caper movies of the 1960's but revamped for the 1990's. Seriously, go watch it and you can thank me later.

My Rating: *****

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Men

At times, a film is only still remembered because it contains the debut of a now prominent actor or director. (I mean, really. Is The Silver Chalice remembered for anything else besides introducing the blue-eyes beauty that was Paul Newman?)

This is the case with Fred Zinnemann's The Men, which features the film debut of acting legend Marlon Brando. Brando is frequently credited with beginning a new era in Hollywood (even though his acting "rival" Montgomery Clift showed up in Hollywood a few years before Brando.) Watching The Men shows the distinction between the glamorous and gritty eras of Hollywood.

It's pretty clear from the slightly melodramatic script that Brando feels out of place. Not because he's not good enough but rather he's too good. He needed to be in something with a sturdier script. (Thank God for A Streetcar Named Desire the following year.)

The Men isn't that bad of a film though. The script and some of the actors are stagy, sure, but the story's not too bad. After all, there weren't too many films from that time about a soldier readjusting to everyday life, which is a plot all too common now.

The only notable quality of The Men is, no surprise, Brando's performance, but again it's not as bad as I make it sound. There are its flaws, but it's a better acting debut than most of the others I've seen.

My Rating: ****

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Piano Teacher

Tyler has been pestering me for some time to see a certain film. Well, guess what, Tyler? I saw it.

The film in question is Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher. Tyler dubbed Isabelle Huppert's work (and frequently too) as "the best female acting performance I have ever seen". It's a damn good performance no doubt about it, though I can't sing the same praises as Tyler. (My vote for greatest female performance seen is Gena Rowlands in either A Woman Under the Influence or Opening Night.)

That doesn't mean it's a bad performance. It's a bold piece of work from Huppert. Her character of Erika keeps a persistent blank look on her face, her mouth only twitching to a faint smile when she listens to someone play the piano masterfully. (There's a similar reaction from her student Walter (Benoit Magimel) with the same thing.)

The audience never really learns of what made Erika the woman she is today. It's slightly frustrating to be honest. (Yes, a similar scenario happens in Shame, but Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan knew what they were doing.) All we pretty much know is that this woman has a kinky nature underneath her composed veneer.

The Piano Teacher by all means isn't a great film but also isn't a bad one either. Regardless of what Tyler says about it, I wasn't heavily impressed by Huppert's work. (I think he hyped it too much.) Still, this and Black Swan would make a badass double feature.

My Rating: ****

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Kiss of the Spider Woman

The many moments in Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider Woman manage to show the very clear distinction between fantasy and reality. It's definitely the case as Luis (William Hurt) describes in grand detail to his cellmate Valentin (Raul Julia) his favorite movie.

Well, you've got to admit, hearing someone talk about a movie is a good way to pass the time. (You're doing it right now.) More so if you're in prison where the guards will get violent with if you cross them. Hence why Luis has his movie. Without it, he probably would have been killed by Valentin by now.

Indeed both men are completely different from one another. It doesn't stop them from forming a bond. It also doesn't stop the last two exchanges between them from being absolutely heartbreaking.

There's a brief observation that's quite striking. When he's locked up, Luis possesses a feminine appearance. It's before he goes to prison (and after he gets released) that he looks masculine. The film doesn't provide much explanation as to why that is, but it is food for thought.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is good amid a few flaws. Hurt and Julia are equally good in their parts. Babenco showcases a tale that displays that at times, opposites attract.

My Rating: ****

Friday, April 13, 2012


Akira Kurosawa is without a doubt one of the masters of cinema. His films could be treated as art, both visually and from a storytelling aspect. (No, Univarn didn't hack this site...or did he?)

When most directors get older, their work starts to lag. Not Kurosawa. The man was seventy-five when Ran was released. Some people have remarked that this was the kind of film that would have failed disastrously had Kurosawa attempted to make it early in his career. Seeing the final results prove they were right.

Kurosawa varied from heartfelt (Ikiru), gripping (High and Low) and stunning (Seven Samurai, Rashomon). Ran fits into all three. Not one moment feels wasted in its 160-minute running time. You can't claim that with most films.

There's a stunning turn of events as Ran wears on. Shortly after his trust towards his sons is betrayed, Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) goes through a startling transition. He becomes delusional. His skin becomes as white as his hair. He literally becomes a ghost of his former self.

Ran gets up there with Lawrence of Arabia as epic filmmaking at its finest. Every small detail works wonders in the long run. It's proof that Kurosawa most definitely knew what he was doing during the duration of his career.

My Rating: *****

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Longtime Companion

Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia is frequently dubbed the first film to showcase the debilitating disease that is AIDS. In reality, Norman Rene beat Demme to the punch three years earlier with his film Longtime Companion.

Bear in mind this was made when people were still learning about the disease. That factor is most definitely felt throughout the film. People were careful of what they did, whether it be for them or in regards for those possibly stricken with the disease. There are many moments like those, all of them hitting close to the heart.

All of the actors play their parts well, especially Bruce Davison, who was rewarded with an Oscar nomination. For my money, the standout actor of Longtime Companion was Campbell Scott. He witnesses many of his friends succumbing to the "gay cancer", but he manages to pull through. There's a striking moment where he's scrubbing himself fiercely after getting kissed on the neck by his hospitalized friend. The scene captures not only the mood of the film but also the whole time period of AIDS' discovery.

What makes Longtime Companion completely different from Philadelphia is that it's, pun not intended, more open in regards to the characters' sexuality. Philadelphia refers to it in only a few crucial scenes; Longtime Companion brings it up every chance it gets. That's not a bad thing at all, mind you.

This is such a devastating film. Most other films usually overdo it when it comes to life-threatening diseases, but most definitely not Longtime Companion. Do yourself a favor and watch this instead of Philadelphia.

My Rating: *****

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Lilies of the Field

Ralph Nelson's Lilies of the Field from a distance looks like a film about race and religion, two very touchy subjects of the early 1960's. Once one watches it, they learn it's more about one's personal morals.

Sidney Poitier stars as Homer Nelson, a man who is an independent thinker. Poitier has a certain charm that's an advantage in creating Homer's personality. Homer is a friendly person when he's with the right people. With the wrong people, he tends to shut himself out from them.

A few of the elements in Lilies in the Field feel dated by many of today's standards, but they were definitely effective back in 1963. The topic of race is used lightly, religion just a little more. It's more so on the understanding between vastly different people, a common theme in the post-McCarthy era, and one that has been exhausted far too often.

That doesn't mean Lilies of the Field is bad. It's actually a very good film. Nelson makes sure that his film stays afloat throughout, and he succeeds for the most part. It's towards the final third that the film gets weak.

As stated, Lilies of the Field is good but not great. Poitier is very good though I would have given the Oscar that year to Paul Newman for Hud. Still, it's worth a look.

My Rating: ****1/2

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Kissing Jessica Stein

Among the field of film, the subject of sexuality has always been a risky subject to cover. (It doesn't seem so hard to cover in foreign films.) Here in the States, filmmakers either take the subject lightly or make their film heavily erotic.

Charles Herman-Wurmfeld's Kissing Jessica Stein falls into the former category. It takes the exhausted plot of a dating failure that fears they'll never find "the one" and then the next person they meet could be just that, and slightly improves on it. The dating failure in question here is Jessica Stein (Jennifer Westfeldt) and the possible "one" is Helen Cooper (Heather Juergensen).

It has its charms. It focuses on bisexuality in a positive light rather than in a slutty way. (You know, the "more easy shots" option.) Bisexuality is viewed here the same way a heterosexual relationship would be shown.

However, there are its downsides, and there are plenty. For starters, there's the fact that Jessica probably only starting dating Helen just because she couldn't find someone nice in the form of a man. (Her many standards are to blame.) And once people realize Jessica is seeing someone, they strain to know who she's seeing. It's annoying in this as it is in real life.

It's good in parts all in all, Kissing Jessica Stein was lacking. It doesn't go into great depths in regards with bisexuality, and many of the characters are annoying, including Jessica. It's worth a rental at most.

My Rating: ***1/2

Monday, April 9, 2012

Midnight Express

Saying Alan Parker's Midnight Express is hard to watch at times is an understatement. Saying the film is one of the best products of the 1970's is also an understatement.

Even if some of the facts are tweaked for Hollywood standards, Oliver Stone's script stays true to the plight of Billy Hayes (Brad Davis), an American imprisoned in Turkey for trying to smuggle drugs out of the country. In prison for nearly five years, Hayes suffered abuse you can't even begin to believe.

Davis plays Hayes with a tumult of emotions yet never overplays any of them. He shows that he's scared just from the look in his eyes. Same thing can be said for his anger and his sorrow. It's an ability not many actors have, and Davis was one of the fortunate ones.

A later scene in Midnight Express shows what Hayes has gone through. He has become numb from the frequent beatings and abuse. When he's temporarily out of the presence of guards and other prisoners, his true emotions pour out. He's absolutely scared shitless and he knows he's going to die if he doesn't get out. It's a hell of a moment.

Midnight Express as mentioned above is damn good. It's definitely a prison film that's in a field of its own. A tad violent in scenes (what else do you expect from something scripted by Oliver Stone?) but they're in small enough doses to handle. Anyone that can watch this more than once is braver than me.

My Rating: *****

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Velvet Goldmine

Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine is a but surreal. It describes itself as a portrait of a pop star's rise to fame. In reality, it's a portrait of a whole era.

Intersecting between 1970's London and 1984 New York City, the film shows how distinct and different the two time periods are. London was full of vibrant colors, New York City full of dull shades. Safe to say which era and locale was the most ideal.

The main subject of Velvet Goldmine is Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a musician who is a clear homage to David Bowie. He rises to the top of the music world fast, but his fall is just as quick. He strives to stand out in a constantly changing society.

Part of the film zeroes in on Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), a fellow musician in a similar vein to Iggy Pop. When Brian first sees Curt perform, he is hypnotized. Not just by the wild antics Curt does on stage, but also by the music. That's the sound he wants.

Velvet Goldmine is amusing even though it gets manic frequently. The music is good, so is the acting. The Citizen Kane references are a nice touch, but they don't make up for a slightly disorganized film.

My Rating: ****

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Panic in Needle Park

For every actor that made it big, there's always that one film that responsible for it all. Without it, they probably wouldn't be the same actors we know today.

Take for instance Al Pacino. His recent work may be lacking but during the 1970's, he was one of the most sought-out actors in Hollywood. His big break was in The Godfather, but it was an earlier work that convinced producers to cast him as Michael Corleone. The film? Jerry Schatzberg's The Panic in Needle Park.

As Bobby, Pacino plays someone who knows his surroundings yet is unaware of what will happen next. This is stark contrast to Helen (Kitty Winn). She is unfamiliar with both the city and its lifestyle. And yet both are complimentary to each other. Bobby guides Helen around the city while she stops him from getting into dangerous territory.

However both could destroy one another. Bobby has a heroin habit and wants Helen not to follow in his footsteps. Curiosity gets the better of her. (The exchange between them when he discovers she shot up is subtle acting at its finest.) They try dig themselves out of the hole they're in, but it's a losing battle for both of them.

The Panic in Needle Park gets monotonous at times though it shows a good portrait of drug addiction and the desperation that comes with it. Pacino and Winn are very good in their roles, showing Bobby and Helen as people who got on the wrong side of the tracks. Not exactly Requiem for a Dream, but it's still pretty good.

My Rating: ****

Friday, April 6, 2012

Midnight Cowboy

This is always the case in both movies and in real life. Whenever someone moves to New York City, usually to make it big, it never ends up the way they want it to.

Such is the case with Joe Buck (Jon Voight) in John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy. He sees a fast track to easy money if he moves to New York City. (And not on Wall Street.) He learns early on that the way to the fast track has a few speed bumps.

Enter "Ratso" Rizzo, the definition of scumbag. Dustin Hoffman's performance of Rizzo gives the film a glimpse of dashed hopes. Rizzo probably had aspirations within his own city, but alas that didn't happen. Unlike Hoffman's star making role in The Graduate, Rizzo has goals for the future; he just doesn't know how to get to them.

Schlesinger captures New York City in an unflattering light, much in the same way Alexander Mackendrick did twelve years earlier with Sweet Smell of Success. He shows the city as a sign of promise to outsiders straining to make a name for themselves. It's contact with its residents that make the city what it is; the last place you want to associate yourself with.

Midnight Cowboy is damn good, though its age can be seen in spots. Voight and Hoffman make the film what it is, which is a portrait of an era full of confusion and uncertainty.

My Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Bicycle Thief

There's always those films that are dubbed essentials. Many times it's very clear as to why.

Like Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (or Bicycle Thieves as it's sometimes called). It's frequently hailed as one of many films of the Italian neo-realism era. But how many have seen it? Not as much as those who've heard of it.

The film focuses on Antonio Ricci, a struggling working father. Antonio is played by Lamberto Maggiorani, a non-professional. It was De Sica's idea to cast people of the Italian working class in the main roles rather than actors. (This wouldn't have worked had De Sica went with the studio's recommendation of Cary Grant.) Upon seeing the film, I realized De Sica made a very smart decision.

The reason? The use of non-professionals added more depth to the film's mood. No one could possibly believe someone like Grant would have difficulty finding a steady job, let alone have troubles at home and with money. Someone like Maggiorani gives the film a desired believability. It just wouldn't have worked with an established star like Grant.

Previous foreign films I watched usually left me amazed. In regards with The Bicycle Thief, it left me both amazed and devastated. When he seeks out sympathy and support, all Antonio gets is contempt. Also, the wrecked look Antonio possesses throughout the film, especially when he loses his bicycle (and most definitely the ending), can just crush you emotionally.

My Rating: *****

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


There have been a number of films focusing on budding relationships, only a handful on same-sex relationships. A lot of them go over the top with emotions, but there are those rare exceptions.

Take for instance Andrew Haigh's Weekend, perhaps the most honest relationship film I've seen. Haigh isn't interested in the amount of physical or emotional intimacy between Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New). He rather focus on the life going around them.

Cullen plays Russell as someone keeps quiet about himself. He likes being among friends but he usually listens to the conversations rather than joining in. (He admits he doesn't like expressing his sexual orientation in public.) Maybe it's because he doesn't want people to think differently about him.

Glen, on the other hand, is vastly differently from Russell. He not only embraces his sexual orientation, he criticizes those who view homosexuality as a bad thing. He is much more confident than Russell, yet New plays Glen as someone who feels and knows something is missing in his life.

Weekend is an exceptionally great film. Haigh throws out the tasteless cliches of same-sex couples, and treats Russell and Glen as an average couple. The scenes between Cullen and New are beautiful and at times heartbreaking to watch. Forget any prejudices you might have towards same-sex couples. This is a film everyone needs to see.

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Fall

Tarsem Singh's The Fall is one of those rare films that effortlessly blends storytelling and stunning visuals. Not since Fellini have we seen such a feat.

The film focuses on Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) and stuntman Roy (Lee Pace), both recovering in the same hospital. As a way of passing the time, Roy tells Alexandria a tale of adventure and revenge. However, there is a motive behind Roy's story.

It's heartbreaking to see Alexandria completely unaware of Roy's intents, more so when she learns of them. It's not that Roy thinks Alexandria is stupid but rather he wants someone who doesn't ask questions to help him. Roy doesn't regret what he does at first, but he most definitely does later on.

Now onto the technical aspects. The cinematography is gorgeous and adds to the beauty of the surreal imagery. The costumes are rich in vibrant color. The score is full of life. This film is the reason for why Blu-ray exists.

The Fall is a gorgeous film, both physically and emotionally. It's also a very devastating film. It may scream out "Art film!" in some scenes, but that's easy to overlook. It's just a marvel to watch.

My Rating: *****

Monday, April 2, 2012

Love Songs

Christophe Honore's Love Songs is an unusual film. Like many foreign films, it depicts themes of love and intimacy. Yet at the same time, it doesn't seem interested in those themes at all.

Love Songs stars Louis Garrel, more familiar from his work in The Dreamers, as Ismael. The film chronicles Ismael's life, both personal and romantic, and both prove to be laced with problems, a number of them he's responsible for.

The film portrays itself as neither a love story nor a character analysis. It's more of a portrait of everyday life. Honore avoids every dramatic cliche most other films have worn out. (Well, except a few perhaps.) He wants something different.

One such cliche is Honore throws away is that Paris can entice passionate feelings amongst anyone that goes there. He instead treats the City of Lights as just an average city. He's not here for the romance; he wants realism.

All in all, Love Songs is an unique film. It's far from most foreign films in recent years, that's for sure. Rather than sex, it relies on the characters. Don't see that very often, foreign or otherwise.

My Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, April 1, 2012

BOOK VS MOVIE: Being There

Jerzy Kosinski's novel and Hal Ashby's film Being There both depict society as obsessed with the media. They must know everything about someone or something, so much so the thought process gets all mixed up.

The only person unaffected by this is Chance. Sure, he watches a fair amount of television, but it doesn't particularly stick. When he speaks, everyone assumes there is a philosophical meaning behind his words. Is there? No, he merely says what little information he has learned in his life.

Kosinski's novel is written in the third person, but it's evident that it's told from Chance's perspective. The writing style is simplistic and doesn't go into grand detail about anything. Not that it's a bad thing at all. It allows the reader to see the world through Chance's eyes.

Ashby's film possesses the same subtle tone that Kosinski's novel has, yet at the same time it feels more sincere than the novel. That's because Peter Sellers' role of Chance makes it possible. Far from the manic roles he did in the years before, Sellers displays a sort of silent honesty in Chance. His Oscar loss will remain a blight on the Academy.

Both the novel and the film have their own charms, though it's the film that proves victorious. It has a truthfulness that the novel (and most other films) lacks. It also captures how dependent society has become towards the media, which is still painfully relevant today.

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