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The Unchanging Sea (1910)
Fishing village melodrama
Two scenes make this otherwise unwatchable melodrama slightly interesting. It is when we see the fishermen's wives looking out at the sea from the shore: first one woman only, while the boat carrying her husband is launched and leaves to sea, then three wives in a stunning composition, as they wait for their men. Scenes like these are probably among the first in cinema showing -from a subjective point of view- the concerns and desperation of a character being abandoned by a loved one. And they do it in a fashion that has become almost common cinema grammar ever since.
Other than that, this is a typical Griffith one-reeler: trite melodrama, slow pacing, unwatchable acting.
What Drink Did (1909)
The Secret Prequel to The Shining
This Griffith one-reeler is the first part of a prequel to Kubrick's The Shining.
What Drink Did narrates how Delbert Grady, the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, kills one of his two daughters under the effects of booze. Griffith did not have the time to complete his prequel project so we do not know how the second daughter died and when the two bodies got the ill treatment seen in The Shining.
Overall, a worthy effort from a master filmmaker of those early days of movies. What I liked the most is the delicate and subtle way the moral message is conveyed, which by no means is spoon-fed to the audience. The extreme plausibility of the plot and the supremely realistic acting are key elements to the brilliancy of this tale.
Mulholland Dr. (1999)
So glad that this became a feature
In 1999 David Lynch was tasked with this TV series pilot that was ultimately rejected by ABC. Once Lynch said in an interview that he is "a sucker for a continuing story". I think the remark is pretty down right. Look for instance at "Twin Peaks" and Lost Highway, both of which I am a big fan of. Also consider Inland Empire as well as all the post-2001 shorts, of which I am not a fan at all.
Be as it may, in this one case the miracle happened. Lynch took the rejected pilot from the drawer and made it in a great full feature film, released in 2001, after re-shooting a few scenes and adding several others. Mulholland Dr. the feature, an apparently elusive but ultimately full sense-making story, is the best of Lynch's so far, in my opinion, and one of the best movies of the last twenty years.
Now looking back at the pilot, I could not be more grateful that things went the way they did. The episode as such is great looking and builds up a lot of atmosphere. It is definitely of a far superior quality than the average TV show, probably even better than the "Twin Peaks" pilot. But precisely because of this, Mulholland Dr. the pilot deserved more than being just the first episode of a series (and of course more than being left in a drawer).
When you consider it, the pilot has so many merits it is hard to believe it was made for TV. The score by Angelo Badalamenti, the cinematography by Peter Deming, the production design and the technical values in general are all top notch. And what's more, the acting is superb. Harring and Watts are mesmerizing and it is no surprise that they (especially Watts) went on to star careers after the full feature was released. Watts delivers according to her standards, i.e those of one of the best actresses of her generation. While the same cannot be said of Harring, she is nonetheless good and brings forth a lot of noir atmosphere, sheer sexiness and emotion. And the supporting cast also do an exceptional work, making all of the characters memorable. Just think of then relatively unknown Theroux playing the utterly unlikable film director or of veterans Hedaya and Forster. And of course, the characters are good because the dialog is so good.
Overall, this is clearly not required viewing if you are not a hardcore fan of David Lynch, in which case go to the 2001 movie instead. However, if you already saw and liked the movie, the pilot becomes interesting as it shows how Lynch, for once, beautifully closed the loop. Something that I have missed him doing in the last ten years.
Lady Blue Shanghai (2010)
Let's get it straight first off: I am a big fan of Lynch's and I know that this is supposed to be a long ad.
But that does not stop me from thinking that this short film is a ludicrous effort that only serves the purpose of reminding the viewer how great Lynch used to be, at least up to Mulholland Dr., which is now more than ten years ago! Everything, maybe except for the music, is wrong in this short. As usual the plot makes no sense at all, which could be bearable in itself, but no atmosphere is built out of the plot less story either, so the fact that there is no or little story does become a problem. Second, the Chinese actors are terrible, they are so bad that it looks like Lynch cast the first two guys he saw walking down the street. On we go. The bag as mysterious, symptomatic object (see blue box from Mulholland Dr.) is used in a ridiculous way, both when it is seen in the hotel room and on the billboard. Cotillard tries hard but there is little to do with a character that has to deliver useless "I love you" lines to a random Chinese guy waving a blue napkin (or was it a rose).
Finally a word on the digital video cameras. I already disliked Inland Empire because it used them. I think Lynch should abandon this idea and go back to a more traditional technique. The sexiness of movies such as Mulholland and Lost Highway was also due to the fantastic way they were photographed. We do not need the shakiness and the low resolution of Inland Empire and of this short, they just don't add anything while they take away a lot.
Now, Mr Lynch, please go back to make feature films and return to your old standards, we are tired of pointless digital video shorts.
Il Decameron (1971)
Whenever I watch a Pasolini movie, I am invariably caught by sorrowful spasms at several very obvious technical flaws:
1) Why is dubbing used so poorly? Why is the speech so often out of sync? Why, oh why! (Note that until very recent times many Italian flicks suffered from this. I personally believe this is one of the many reasons why Italian cinema, with a few exceptions, has had such a poor diffusion abroad. Movies are made so much more palatable by something as relatively simple as good lip syncing).
2) Acting is mostly very poor. I am not a fan of the actors used by Pasolini. I know very well that he uses non professional actors for a reason, that is to draw more genuine emotions from them, to impress the public with fresh, interesting faces, etc. But I think that, while these effects are only partially achieved, the acting is, simply put, horribly directed. There are other instances of movie makers working with non professional actors, and it is not always bad. But with Pasolini it mostly is. In this movie (as in others) acting looks so unnatural, see e.g. Ninetto Davoli in the first episode. Of course this is magnified by what I said at point 1.
3) Editing is another problem. Cuts are of uncanny lengths leaving too much silence after some character has spoken, or no silence at all. The pacing of sequences, while resulting in a certain naïveté of the narration (something that I think was intended), is mostly erratic and inconsistent.
4) Close-up abuse! When you have cast weak actors/actresses with uninteresting faces that are very poorly dubbed, the worst you can do is punctuating your movie with close-ups! And this is exactly what happens in Il Decameron. (See for example the first episode when the two burglars speak in front of the sarcophagus, with the camera shifting between the two's frontal close-ups, an especially uncanny effect).
I wonder if all of the above are deliberate choices or it is just that Pasolini is not a good filmmaker in those areas. Or maybe it is just me. And the reason I say so is that I have not found (so far) reviews, especially from Italy, that significantly criticize any of those points. However, if you compare Pasolini with the craftsmanship of Italy's greatest director, Federico Fellini, it should be evident that PPP is very far from FF's technical mastery. I am not talking about their artistry or weltanschauung, just of their technical capabilities. Fellini had wonderful actors, who were well dubbed (or self-dubbed) in well edited movies, especially in the early-middle phase of his career. Now, the reason I bring forth Fellini is that Italian critics, while recognizing Fellini as superior, never seem to disprove of the obvious (for me) technical problems that oftentimes make PPP's pictures barely watchable, as if their director's intellectual worthiness, which was testified by his literary accomplishments (Pasolini was a novelist and a poet), were enough by themselves to justify the quality of his cinematic efforts.
The above rant on technical faults is made all the more painful by Pasolini's patent inventiveness, coupled with solid narrative and figurative vigor. I still think that Pasolini is a great filmmaker, notwithstanding all I have said. In Il Decameron, he does capture somehow the popular grace of Boccaccio's short stories. The characters, the landscapes, the architecture, the use of dialect, all contribute to the rendering of a stunning fresco of Medieval Italy, a land where religious superstition, joie de vivre and mockery seemed, and still seem, to be all one.
When you think of how beautiful and gracious the canvas outline comes out, then you can't help cursing the blotches caused by the violent, seemingly uneducated brush strokes of the maestro. And going back to the Italian critics, I really think they got it all wrong in not criticizing Pasolini's style during his career as a director, because all the praise he received from them did not stimulate him to reconsider his technique, so his entire production came out regrettably flawed.
Mr. Nobody (2009)
...before I read any other reviews.
* At the end, the "story", or "plot", is seemingly made understandable. This is what I understood after one viewing and without reading other reviews or googling anything. All is seen through the eyes of a nine years old boy at the moment when he is faced with the choice whether he wants to stay with his father or mother. All happens in those few seconds he is running after the train that is bringing his mother away. Finally he stays with his dad and, of all the possible lives that could be, one finally materializes as true, i.e. life with Anna, the only one of the three girls that would effectively make him happy. In fact we have seen how the Elise and Jean lives would have made him unhappy. As all the reverie ends, time starts to wheel back through all the possible paths, towards the original moment of the train and then forward from that moment to the only life, the one with Anna. As this happens, centenarian Nemo dies and is reborn in a backwards fashion, all the while saying that this has been the best day of his "life", which in fact has been only an imaginary life, made up in the mind of a child.
* There is only one thing that disturbs me, that is: we see Nemo not making it to the train, which would mean he stays with his dad, not his mom. Which would lead to either Jean or Elise, not Anna, whom he would find following his mother. And yet, the final denouement involves Anna. Why? I think there are two possible answers. One: Nemo does not make it to the train, but later decides to join his mother. This would stress the fact that not everything, after all, is left to chance in our life, but we can make effective decisions. Two: Nemo stays with his father, but as things go, this does not prevent him to meet Anna. This would imply that the reverie in Nemo's head is just that, a reverie, and we cannot possibly predict the future. (Note that one of the imagined Nemos says that he can predict the future sometimes).
* This said, it is very possible that I have not got it all and some other things are escaping my interpretation. E.g. a lot is done with colours. Red and blue and yellow (primary colours) are dominant in the different threads. I am not sure how to connect the different colours with the different paths/girls, but Anna seems "to be" red and Jean blue. However I am not sure about Elise/yellow (except that Elise is a blonde).
* Formally this is a very good movie. Acting performances are solid. Leto is excellent. Polley and the child/adolescent actors are also good.
* The imagery is astounding. The direction and photography are top notch. So much so that occasionally Van Dormael seems to go a bit over the top with unnecessary camera movements.
* The score is perfect, melancholy and ironic. I especially liked the use of the song "Mister Sandman", whose lyrics make it clear in the first place that the movie is based on a dream or, rather, on a daydream.
* The special effects are extremely good although they still leave a light, plastic CGI aftertaste. For example when we see those helicopters building the sea, it looks more like the CGI crew are showing off than a compelling scene. If the child is making it all up, why would he need helicopters? A simple wave filling up the sea would be sufficient, I say. However, of all the heavily CGI-ed movies I can think of, this is amongst those that make the best use of this technology by keeping it understated most of the times. I noticed that Inception uses CGI effects in a very similar way, also to portray dream-like situations and landscapes. Nobody, though, does it better because, with few exceptions, is less of a showing off than Nolan's movie. I.e. the CGI aftertaste is there, but does not ruin the overall flavour like it did in Inception (a heavily overrated one, in my opinion).
All in all, I am satisfied by this movie but a bit overwhelmed by the occasionally excessive camera tricks and CGI. I am also still too puzzled by it and think I need another viewing at least. Mr. Nobody succeeds in this, it summons the viewers to put the pieces together, although at times it also spoon-feeds them a bit too much (see the final resolution revealed by old Nemo in a too blatant verbal explanation).
And now on to see what other people think...
The Wind and the Lion (1975)
Unlikely story set in gorgeous landscapes
An affluent American family of three (a woman, played by Bergen, and her two kids) living in Morocco is kidnapped by the chief of the Berbers (Connery), who will ask the Americans for an important ransom. Connery and the kidnapped become closer and closer, especially when he singlehandedly rescues them from a dangerous situation. Meanwhile the Americans plan to overcome the Berbers with their military, pushed by president Teddy Roosevelt who is campaigning for reelection back in the States. The military succeed, although they have to slaughter dozens of men, and at the last minute free the Berber chief, that had been treacherously captured by the Germans.
There are not many memorable things in The Wind and the Lion. Being it a Milius flick, what I mostly expected was epos. And on this level, the movie works just fine. We get all the battles and the monumental scenery. The Moroccan setting, recreated in Southern Spain, is good and credible. (Although after a while I got the trick, when I recognized Seville in one of the scenes). Another interesting aspect is the scenes involving Theodore Roosevelt, played by an excellent Brian Keith, back in the States. These overseas intermissions in the Moroccan tragedy are well crafted and show the game of politics behind the drama of the kidnapping set on the far Rift mountains of Morocco. Roosevelt is depicted as an all too fatuous character, in love with manly sports and self-assertion but ultimately weak in keeping promises. And so the American coup in Morocco, somehow backed by Roosevelt and carried out by the military and the diplomats (among the latter a good performance by Geoffrey Lewis), is openly made to look despicable for its surreptitious and illegitimate motives. There is an image at a certain moment of a waving American flag that occupies the full screen. This reminded me of one of the last scenes in Altman's Nashville, when another Stars and Stripes banner waves in the wind to signify the ambiguity of politics in the face of the people.
However, after having set a good pace, the movie fails to keep its promises. In an unlikely inversion of roles, the American turn out to be the good guys, as if all of a sudden the courage to hold the position kept in the first two thirds of the movie had left. So the American soldiers, held at gun point by Bergen (a quite doubtful event to say the least), admit that they must rescue the Berber, now held hostage by the real bad guys. Who, of course, are the Germans!! In this, the American are joined by the Berber warriors.
I am also disappointed by Connery, not quite credible as a Berber. He does a lot of tricks and the usual Connery grins that are full of charisma, but that just does not make it less British, or at least, Anglo-Saxon than he is. In another scene, Connery's character, who is otherwise full of "honor" and "respect", decapitates some of his people in cold blood for having stolen his fruit. Meanwhile Bergen's children look at him bewildered and admired. What absurdity. It is not clear whether we need to look at him in the same, admired awe. I hope not.
Bergen is beautiful and does a reasonable job, but her character is also flawed, as nobody would expect all that bravery in a rich blonde American widow violently subdued and kidnapped by what is depicted as an aggressive band of desert warriors. So she is driven to do illogical and impossible things like disarming an entire American brigade and convincing them to attack the Germans, that so far were like allies. Again, what a blotch in the script! Once the movie starts rolling downhill, there is nothing to stop it. To the point that the final battle looks boring and bogus (look for those fake looking gunshots in the ground). Bergen rescues the Berber in the most stupid way: he is hanging from a rope, which she severs so he can free fall head first on the ground! Connery's skull must be very strong because he gets up ready to fight the Germans.
All in all, this is a spectacular movie that is blessed by Milius' direction and some good locations, but flawed by a more than poor script that does not do justice to the good cast. Which, by the way, includes a useless but likable cameo by John Huston, playing an adviser to the President.
Children of Men (2006)
Slightly flawed yet thrilling action dystopia
What I liked:
- The directing and editing: amazing job by Cuarón. This is an outstanding directorial and editing achievement. There is mastery in every scene. This, together with the superb production design, totally succeeds. The dystopian 2027 England that comes out of the picture is just frightening. It made me think of Boyle's "28 Days Later", a movie that is similar to "Children" in many respects. However "Children" is superior to "28" in almost all regards and certainly Cuarón achieved finer directing than Boyle. Take e.g. some amazing scenes. Those with the Fishes ambushing the car and the escape from the Fishes' country house with Theo pushing the car etc., what astounding pieces of action film! Surprise, rhythm, camera perspective from Theo's point of view, with the attackers close, then far, then close again, then gone: perfect! And of course, a lectio magistralis in long takes: the scene at Bexhill with Theo escaping from certain death into the besieged building to retrieve the baby: hats off, again! (Although Cuaron here is too self-assured in showing how good he is and ends up getting the obvious wrong: I was distracted at the silliness of Ejiofor talking of how nice is to hear a baby's voice while bullets are hitting the wall one inch from his head). And of course the emotional moment of the three fugitives walking through the suddenly silent and astonished guerrilla.
- The sheer level of detail that is put in every scene. Tens and tens of small clues or secondary dramatic elements lurk in every shot and enrich it. Far from creating useless distraction, they add flavour and meaning to the movie. See e.g. all these animals that appear and disappear, like dogs and sheep. Same goes for the graffiti, the newspaper clippings, the props, the furniture.
- Clive Owen: I am not a big fan of Owen's but this time he got it right. He is convincing in the action scenes, where he does a good physical job but manages to understate the action and thus gives it credibility, as his character is not a super-hero type. He also gets it right in the dialogue scenes and builds nicely on the relationships with Caine, Moore and Ashitey.
- The London 2012 jumper: sublime touch. It was the future, it will soon be the present, in the movie the Games are far past, no more than a reason to keep memorabilia in the wardrobe. Plus, how chilling to think that in fictive 2012 the sterility epidemics was already widespread. What could have been the resulting climate during an event that is supposed to celebrate peace among the peoples and the dignity of the human being?
What I did not like:
- The implausibility of the plot: a major problem here. I just can't get it. So, for reasons unknown, Kee is pregnant and is going to give birth. In the first place, it is never explained why she does not go public and tells the authorities. OK, it is an evil dystopian society, but I am sure she would have got safer by doing so rather than escaping under the menace of being shot down. Ah, because she is an immigrant. I still don't get it (Theo states something about this in the movie but to no avail: why?). And then, why this conflict among Fishes and Theodore? He wants to bring the baby to the boat, because this was Julian's wish. But again, why would Kee accept to do it, if she runs the risk to die together with her baby? The promise of the boat and the "Human Project" seems too vague and unconvincing.
- The ending: just adds up to more implausibility. A meeting with a fishing boat at a buoy off a Channel harbour... I am sorry, but this is not credible! How could the fugitives be there on schedule? A boat approaching a buoy in the mist is not like the 2pm train to Clapham... So they get there, just in time for Theo to die and, like one minute later, the boat to show up. Of course Theo manages to steer a small rowboat right to the buoy in the thick fog. (Although I guess that the choice of having this meeting at sea and having the small rowboat in it does have some figurative, poetical reasons).
- Ashitey/Kee: especially in her early scenes, her acting is poor and she spoils them ("Wicked!").
- The music: most of the '70s music just does not fit. I do not understand why Cuarón would choose this, instead of a solid, original score. Or just more silence, maybe it would have helped as well.
What I don't know whether I liked:
- Michael Caine. I love him, but does he get it right here? I am note sure, maybe they should not have had him wearing that silly wig in the first place. Yes, long hair tells us straight away that he is a hippie, but there were a lot of other clues to it. So we have this silly old good man jumping around Owen and saying things about faith and destiny, but I am still not sure to what purpose. And yet... and yet Caine is Caine, he is likable even with the stupid wig.
All in all, this movie is a consistent, brilliant, raw yet understated piece of action-packed dystopia with a depressingly convincing depiction of the very close future and some interesting, if hardly noticeable, takes on the world of our days, including mass immigration, the role of nations, the clash of civilizations, the meaning of (bearing) life and, ultimately, the sense that the human species gives to the universe.
Refreshing specimen of Moroccan cinema
Seen on 20090103 at the beautiful Cinémathèque de Tanger, Morocco.
I loved this movie and I hope that European audiences have the possibility to see it in their countries. It is a sad comedy about two boys from Casablanca, Morocco, struggling to be great mobsters and at the same time dealing with everyday problems, namely violent fathers and love deceptions.
The movie is very stylish. The credit sequence, showing different corners of the streets of Casablanca, is amazing, and made me feel like visiting that city, which I skipped during my travel through Morocco.
The two main characters are portrayed by two excellent actors that I believe have a bright future in Moroccan cinema. I do not know if they are proficient in French and/or English, but I hope so, because they deserve a big European production to show their value. I think their look, not to mention their acting quality, should help them make it into some sets in France, for instance. Their outfit in this movie should help as well. I particularly liked the tie and suit of the guy with the hair locks (inspired by Reservoir Dogs? Who knows?).
Also, many characters in Casanegra are particularly good. I will only mention the small kid-crooks selling cigarettes and the turtle guy (great!). The bearded mobster is great as well, but after a while I grew tired of his way of speaking and overacting.
All in all this is a great movie, but I have to complain at least about its length, which is exaggerate. After such a lengthy movie (the second half is especially cumbersome and full of useless scenes and dialog), one would expect a flamboyant finale, but the conclusion is not. It is in fact completely acceptable, but one would expect more.
Rogue of a croc
Seen at Sitges Film Festival. Before entering the theatre I thought this was going to be an obviously self-conscious splatter b-movie, as we see so many these days. The mother lode was started by "Scream" and has not stopped since then. All in all, however, Rogue comes out as a honestly, straightforwardly enjoyable pop-corn movie with some good moment to remember.
The film superstar is -not surprisingly- the crocodile. The croc is realistic, fun and quite scary. Thumbs up for the special FX guys who did a really good job (otherwise I suspect the movie would be unwatchable). The best scene with the croc is when, after showing itself in full glory, the beast goes under water in the little pool in the cave, and you know it is going to come out in 1 sec or so and you scream for the good guy to do something (which he eventually does). These scenes are a major innovation of the classic "Jaws" stuff we see during the rest of the movie. The most typical "Jaws" shot (swimmer seen from below, hypothetical beast's POV) is repeated several times. Once we even see the back scales of the croc looming over the water like a shark's fin. More Spielbergean inspiration from "Jurassic Park": crocs are explicitly referred to as modern dinosaurs; like JP this is a tale of tourists chased by a reptile during an excursion; croc thuds boat like T-Rex thuds jeep, etc.
Other influences I smelled: "Deliverance" (men in boat cross the wild and get their holiday messed up), Terrence Malick (the cricket close-up), "Alien" (croc's den) and John Carpenter (people on small island besieged by invisible forces).
Acting is surprisingly solid, above all from the supporting characters. Overall, telling who dies next is not 100% predictable, which I consider good value for a b-movie like this; for example, the bad guy turns out to be a hero but gets butchered anyway and the nice doggy dog is not luckier than that. Script is not so bold as to have hero and heroine slaughtered as well, although you may think they are doomed at one point. Score works well underlying scary moments and luxuriant landscapes.
The only thing I am a little upset about is why the hell the guys do not turn off their torches when swimming across the swamp. I am not into crocodiles that much, but I am pretty sure they are not blind