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I lived in Moscow on the Hudson, Manhattan, New York, New York Once Upon a Time in America. While dodging Bullets Over Broadway and A Shot in the Dark on Mean Streets - Sunset Blvrd, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Dr I am looking through The Mirror with Eyes Wide Shot and Smiles of a Summer Night during Modern Times and Radio Days In a Company of Men, Women in Love, A Fish Called Wanda, Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, Hamlet, King Lear, Barry Lyndon, and Alexander Nevsky. Taxi Driver will take us to Fellini's Roma where we will spend Enchanted April and Summer with Monica, while Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will shed Winter Light on City Lights. We will listen to The Magic Flute, Autumn Sonata, and to Witness for the Prosecution (O Lucky Man!) who testifies against Crimes and Misdemeanors that result in Death in Venice for Rocco and 8 1/2 of His Brothers during White Nights. After we say Au Revoir Les Enfants du paradis, we would engage in Forbidden Games and ......to be continued (maybe)
Confessions of a Movie Lover (Not a 'Movie Buff') : Why do I love Movies? I don't consider myself neither a film critic nor a film buff - I simply love movies, have loved them since I was 5 and my grandmother took me to the theater for the first time. She later told me that she had been afraid that I would've became bored, restless, and started to cry - it never happened. I was so charmed and fascinated by the miracle of film that I sat not even moving, mesmerized and not uttering the single sound. I am always ready for the same miracle to happen again. I expect every new (for me) movie to be great; I want to love, to cherish and to adore it. When it happens and the movie becomes mine, I am the happiest person in the Universe. I am ready to tell the whole world what they are missing and invite everyone to join me in the joy and fun. When it happens...The movie does not need to be a well known masterpiece with the long and great reputation - it would be a masterpiece for me, and that's what I care about. I do enjoy all types of movies, there are a lot of"skeletons in my closet" - the obscure movies, the bad ones, the rightfully forgotten ones. The movie does not even need to be a perfect piece of art but it should genuinely move me or tell me something so personal that would open a hidden door in my heart and let me re-live the moments of the past that have gone forever but are still alive in the vaults of my memory. It does not happen often but when it does, it is like the lightning - that how I would feel if traveling back in time ever becomes reality. When and only when that happens, I'd rate the movie YES. I don't watch the movies to find the flaws, I watch them because I want to feel - as long as I can feel, as long as I can await for the miracle to happen and be prepared for it - I am alive and young.
Words and Pictures (2013)
Picture me a word
The movie had more potential that it actually used but for the presentation of the arguments for words and for pictures alone it deserves respect and interest. It is nice to see a film that actually cares about art, its different forms, faces and shapes, and, at least, tries to engage the viewer in the subject. Yes, the theme of the "wonder-boys" on the crossroads that hit the dry spell and can't get themselves out of the writers' block has been done much better in the well.. "Wonder boys". Yes, the tormented artist struggling to overcome physical disability is also familiar subject and no one ever will be able to over-shine D.D.Lewis in 'My Left Foot". So, what? This movie, even if it comes in the end to the rom-com territory, still raises the interesting questions beyond the rom-com genre and leaves pleasant enough impression and afterthought. Kudos to the Brit, Clive Owens and to the French, Juliette Binoche for being so natural as the intelligent Americans dedicated their lives to the art of words and images.
Terence Fletcher: I was there to push people beyond what's expected of them. I believe that's an absolute necessity.
Dreams of becoming the great jazz drummer seem bring Andrew (Miles Teller) to the prestigious east coast conservatory where he catches attention of the celebrated but fearsome instructor and conductor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), who invited Andrew to join the school jazz band.
Critics and viewers alike praise Whiplash to the high heaven. It was nominated for five Oscars including Best picture and received three, with predictable best supporting role award for J.K Simmons as evil sadistic manipulative bully-jazz band conductor who thrives on terrorizing the students players, especially the main character, Andrew. It is not very often that my opinion about a movie would differ completely from the public opinion but the only impression I got in the end of the often-unwatchable Whiplash, that it proves an old joke: the best marriage is between a sadist and a masochist. They both get what they need but why has the viewer to suffer?
The movie is not very long and acting by J. K. Simmons and Miles Teller is excellent, - intense and selfless, but it is essentially the scene after scene of never stopping verbal, mental and physical abuse that take place during the student jazz orchestra rehearsals for upcoming competition. More than anything, it brings to mind the first half of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket with J. K. Simmons' Fletcher making Gny. Sgt. Hartman very jealous. While the Kubrick's movie was hard to watch, it was believable and true to the logic of the characters and the situations. The jazz boot camp in the prestigious music conservatory does not ring true neither as a realistic character study of obsession and pushing the limits in the pursuit of getting the dreams come true nor as an allegory of pure evil causing something good happen.
The film director/screenwriter Damien Chazelle based Whiplash on his own teenage experience as a member of the high school jazz band with very strict instructor but he did not want to make a realistic film. He wanted to carry on screen the feeling of dread that has haunted him for many years. Early on Chazelle gave Simmons direction that "I want you to take it past what you think the normal limit would be" telling him "I don't want to see a human being on-screen anymore. I want to see a monster, a gargoyle, an animal." Chazelle exorcised his own demons and most certainly succeeded in creating a pure evil. Yes, Simmons has never been better but what is the point of film? By pushing so much further, making Simmons' character a monster of manipulation, hatred and sadism, Chazelle stripped the film of humanity, of joy that creativity and music offer. It leads to a loss of interest in what was happening on the screen and looks more and more like a very bad dream or illustration in the psychiatry textbook. To call this movie "inspiring" is an insult to creative artistic people and their instructors, mentors, teachers. What could it possibly inspire?
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
This is not a love story... But it is about love
Finally, the day has arrived and I can happily say that I have lived to see something that I almost lost my hope to see - a truly original, clever, beautiful, creative, funny and moving, modern American romantic comedy. Nothing is new in this world. It is impossible to come up with the new plot about love or possibility of love, or expectation of love or losing it but it is possible to look at the old story with a fresh eye and to make the movie as enchanting as 500 Days of Summer. The first time director Marc Webb has started on a very high note. His movie is charming (I know I use this word a lot but it describes 500 days perfectly). It combines many different techniques and succeeds adorably in following two leads and their 500 days of getting together and gradually drifting apart. Not often, I see the movie that makes me smile from the beginning to the end. I felt like that big silly grin was glued to my face and I did not mind at all. It is nothing Webb did that I have not seen before. He applies the broken narrative and jumping back and forward in time. His use of split screen technique creates the best scene in the film with many memorable scenes. He inserts a musical number that seems to come from a Bollywood movie and changes the real world into animation. Yes, we have seen this all before but together these tricks have mixed in something magical, delicately bittersweet and funny without being stupid, loud, vulgar, and pushy.
The big part of the magic is without a doubt an undeniable palpable chemistry between two leads, both known for their previous performances in the independent movies. Zooey Deschanel (Summer) was the best part of All the Real Girls (2003). As for Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Tom), now, eight years after 500 days of Summer, he has become one of the best actors of his generation.
Marc Webb's debut feature generated many positive reviews, and it deserves them. Time will tell if 500 Days of Summer becomes Annie Hall for the modern time. I believe it is that good. There were few things that I did not like very much, for example a clichéd smart-alecky rather annoying character of pre-teen sister of Tom. Nevertheless, the entire movie is so wonderful that I don't want to nit-pick and would recommend it highly.
P.S. Wherever you are, Jenny Beckman, I want to thank you for having inspired this movie.
"I'm speechless. I have no speech."
It has been over nineteen years since the show about a stand-up New-York City comedian, "neat freak" named Jerry Seinfeld, and his three colorful friends, a loser, a doofus, and a neurotic ex-girlfriend aired its final episode on May 14, 1998 but still no sitcom on TV has come close to its incomparable brilliancy which lies in the ability to make somehow a viewer addicted to the narcissist and selfish characters that constantly put themselves into the pointless and absurd situations. I still remember how I became a fan. One evening, the episode called "The Rye" was playing on TV. I stopped, watched for a few minutes, and the rest is history. I fell in love instantly and forever. Since that night, I watched the new episodes and re-runs whenever it was possible and I have become one of the millions of fans of the greatest show about nothing ever written, directed, and produced. In its best episodes, "Seinfeld" is perfection that no other show would ever achieve.
Even now after all these years I keep asking myself why the show about four rather selfish, egocentric, immature, often back-stabbing and outrageous characters who are afraid of commitments has been so universally loved and admired? Maybe we can see ourselves in them. Or, the secret to Seinfeld's success was the misanthropic Larry David, the failed comedian but talented writer who uses humor derived from awkward social situations, and his collaboration with Jerry Seinfeld? Or maybe as a great work of art, the show defies any explanation? The sitcom has given us so many unforgettable minutes of joy, that it will never be replaced. Even Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's baby in all its greatness is not as enjoyable as "Seinfeld." Curb Your Enthusiasm is about George Costanza whose dreams came true - he is rich and had for several seasons a beautiful loving wife but he does not have Jerry, Cramer, and Elaine in his everyday life. And their absence shows.
The show gave us plenty of great episodes - The Soup Nazi, The Chinese Restaurant, The Pez Dispenser, The Limo, The Bubble Boy, The Contest, The Puffy Shirt, The Hamptons, -"that's the best, Jerry, that's the best from the masters of their domains", and there are so many more! And how many quotes from the show have become the part of everyday conversations, "yada yada yada"," they are real and spectacular", "Jerry, just remember, it's not a lie if you believe it." "Hello, Jerry. Hello, Newman".
Thanks for the wonderful memories.
Irina Palm (2007)
Irina Palm is not the first or last movie about a middle-aged woman who would face the situation that requires to completely turn her life around and to make the choices and sacrifices she would never even imagine. What makes Irina Palm special is Marianne Faithful in the titular role.
The pop-culture legend and the muse of the legendary rock-musicians, the singer, the actor, the rare beauty, the symbol of swinging 60s, the center of media frenzy in her young days, the recovering drug addict, the 60+ years old cancer survivor and the grandmother of two, gives a brilliant Oscar worthy performance as Maggie/Irina, a 50 years old widow who desperately needs to find a job to help to pay for her beloved grandson medical bills. She throws herself into the movie, brings genuine emotions and humor to the rather grim and perverse story, and she owns the movie. Without her, it could have been just another small mildly interesting independent film with a quirky twist but she elevates it to the higher level. She is a fine actress and her performance as a loving grandma/reluctant sex worker with a magic touch is affecting, moving, funny, dignified, and memorable. Marianne Faithful and Yugoslavian actor Miki Manojlovic as Maggie/Irina's boss have the real chemistry together and make us believe that the mutual interest, understanding and attraction could exists in some very unlikely places, lead to love and (who knows) even happiness.
My Blueberry Nights (2007)
In the Mood for Blueberry Pie ?
Quoting one of the greatest modern films, any time of the day is a good time for pie. Blueberry Pie. The Hong-Kong auteur Wong Kar-Way certainly thought so having made his first English language movie with the popular American desert playing an important role. My Blueberry Nights is a very beautiful, visually instantly recognizable Wong Kar-Way's picture even though his usual collaborator Christopher Doyle did not shoot it. Instead, Darius Khondji provided lush cinematography with lots of night shots and neon lights. The soundtrack is wonderful which is no surprise at all. Kar-Way was very impressed by the singer/songwriter's Norah Jones work and his idea was to make a movie around her voice, her songs and the mood that they create. He says that there is something exciting about her voice. It could be the blend of sensuality, melancholic longing, hidden passion, depth and obvious class that might have attracted the celebrated master of the modern romantic film. My Blueberry Nights is also a travelogue and the contribution of the Hong-Kong director to the American cinema. By his own words, he chose to make his American debut the road movie to learn more about America and to get to know her better.
The three stories of love lost, as the song in soundtrack confirms, have been told before. The main story concerns Elizabeth (Jones) who got dumped by her boyfriend and leaves the big city to get far away and to reinvent herself. She befriends Jeremy, the owner of the diner named "Klyuch", which means "the" key in Russian. He keeps the big jar on the counter where his customers would drop the keys for the ones they love to come back and start all over. Elizabeth's journey would bring her to Memphis, Tennessee, where she encounters the guy so crazy about his wife he could not let her go. Later, in Nevada, Elizabeth meets the gambler girl who longs to re-unite with her estranged father. The problem is not in the stories, anything but new, rather, in the simplistic, uneven and abrupt way they are told. In one of the scenes, Elizabeth says that sometimes things look better on the paper. Maybe it is the case with the film. There's nothing wrong with Wong Kar-Way's movie equivalent of Blueberry Pie. It's just... overly sweet and sadly, the impressive cast has not much to play. Perhaps, that's why the female characters in the movie were so forgettable even if played by Rachel Weitz entering the bar in slow motion and Natalie Portman in oversize sunglasses leaning against convertible. And with all due respect to Norah's talent as a musician, her acting debut was not memorable. On the other hand, David Strathairn's performance was impressive in spite of the short appearance and Jude Law was very likable as Jeremy. And there were Norah Jones' songs and the vistas of America the Beautiful as seen through the eyes of the most romantic modern filmmaker in his English language debut which is pleasant, good looking but simple, even silly and lightweight movie. It is very much akin to a first impression of the foreign tourist armed with all sorts of clichés who just started to explore the never seen before country.
The Front (1976)
A writer looks for trouble
I am proud to declare that I have seen (or thought that I have seen) every movie Woody Allen has been associated with, either as a writer, director or a star, very often all of the above. To my surprise, I realized just recently that I missed "The Front", very dark, rather tragic political dramedy about shameful part of the American history, the McCarthy-era Communist witch hunts with the blacklists that affected deeply lives of many Hollywood filmmakers, performers and writers. Creators of the film, director Martin Ritt; writer Walter Bernstein; and actors Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough and Joshua Shelley knew about McCarthy-era from their own experiences. They were all blacklisers. Woody Allen who did not participate in directing "The Front" or writing the script delivers realistic and sympathetic performance as Howard, a small apolitical guy, rather a loser who wanted to help his friend, a blacklisted writer, by providing the front for the TV scripts with a little profit for himself to cover his own many debts. While doing so (and helping two more blacklisted writers), Howard soon realized how horrible, unfair and anti-human the blacklist situation was and he wanted to do something about it.
By reluctant pretending to be a writer, he becomes a popular and sought-after figure among the TV producers and actors and makes friends with the beloved TV comedian Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) who was blacklisted because of the marching during the May Day parade in his youth many years ago. Howard witnesses firsthand the spiral fall of the man who lost everything he lived for because he was not allowed to do the very thing he was born to do - to perform on public, to entertain, to make people laugh. If nothing else, "The Front" introduced me to Zero Mostel, the very symbol of great comedian and the victim of the witch hunts in the 1950. Mostel effortlessly steals every moment he is in, and his last scene could make a stone weep.
If you are prepared for a comedy, The Front is most certainly not a regular one even though it's got quite a few jokes, the majority of which had to do with Howard (Allen) repeating that he was not a writer and could not even write a grocery list. Coming from a man whose next film would be "Annie Hall" that brought him two Oscars for writing and directing and who has received numerous awards and nominations for his work during several decades, especially, for screen writing, makes it for an excellent joke.
The film belongs to its time by giving very personal and honest account on what it was like to be on the notorious blacklist but it works fine for today audiences as well. It's been over 60 years since the dark times of the blacklists, the hunt for the dissenters, for those whose opinions, beliefs, preferences were different from the generally accepted but we all should know about the gross injustice that resulted in many broken lives and never let the dark era of paranoia, abuse of power, and hypocrisy prevail again.
Kærlighed på film (2007)
No man is an Island
"Beautiful girl and the unsolved mystery - good starting point for a noir film", mentions to the everyman Jonas, husband and father, the hero of "Just another love story", one of his friends, urging him to think twice before immersing into that mystery. And soon, the movie turns out as a thriller in the Hitchcock's and Coen Brothers' traditions with the main character taking the sudden choices in order to run from the stalled relationship that lost its initial appeal, from unfulfilling job, from life that leads nowhere to a romantic passionate love and exciting new possibilities.
Derivative - that's the word that majority of nay-sayers use when commenting on this film. But its writer/director Ole Bornedal does not hide throughout the picture that he has made a noir film, or, rather, Neo-noir: Danish style that characterizes by postmodernist self-reflection and consciously refers to the works of past and present. There are all ingredients here you would expect in a noir film: twists, turns, wrong or questionable choices the main character takes and where they would lead him. There are mysterious young woman with a dark past and a sinister stranger in bandages, gloomy deserted landscapes and long corridors with flickering neon lights. The scenes of killings and beatings are rather cruel and violent, erotic encounters - explicit, and the ending is thousands miles away from a Hollywood happy ending. But for Ole Bornedal, the creator of Just Another Love Story, the most important message that he wanted to convey to the audience was that everybody carries a dream and the need for a self-fulfillment in life - that life very rarely offers. His dark, violent, moody noir reflects on the wishes, fantasies, desires that seem have been lost as time goes on but never disappear and only wait patiently for a sudden spark to ignite them and to start unquenchable, all-consuming disastrous flames.
The film is over the top in its second part but by that time you have been already so involved in the story and glued to the screen that you are willing to forgive whatever problems and deep holes the plot has and how many films and books Just Another Love Story freely refers to. It could be described as Talk to Her While She Was Sleeping but remember not to mess with the Chinese Triads because this is No Country for Old Men. Ole Bornedal's neo-noir also brings to memory the mystery novels by French writers, the duo Boileau- Narcejac and Sébastien Japrisot. The former are the authors of the novels Les Diaboliques and Vertigo. Before they became the classics of cinema, they had been and still are highly popular books. "Trap for Cinderella" by Sébastien Japrisot tells about a young woman who has lost her identity due to amnesia in the fatal fire accident and does not remember anything that led to the disaster including the truth about being a murderer or a victim or both. The common feature of all mentioned novels and their screen adaptations is assuming somebody else's personality. But "No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main." And giving up your identity, pretending to be someone else, thus accepting their connections with this world however mysterious, sinister, dangerous those connections may be, inevitably leads to the devastating results. It is just a guess whether Bornedal is familiar with these books but the theme of Identity is the most prominent in his film, which is a riveting thriller, an impossible love-story, a social commentary on the middle-aged angst, as much as a philosophical meditation on the possibility/impossibility to live someone else's life, and accepting your own.
The Gift (2015)
"See, you're done with the past, but the past is not done with you."
Time will tell whether Joel Edgerton joins the exclusive club of the famous actors turned talented and successful film directors or sticks to the acting career but his directorial debut, "The Gift", was a nice gift to the fans of the psychological thrillers in the Alfred Hitchcock's fashion or, rather, their new variety, "marriage thrillers" that follow the success of David Fincher's provocative Gone Girl. Edgerton, who gave a bravura performance in the fellow Aussie's, Buz Luhrmann's adaptation of Great Gatsby, hit the trifecta with writing the screenplay, directing, and producing The Gift, and also playing one of the three main characters.
Edgerton undoubtedly loves the good thriller and proves to know how to make one. The Gift starts with a married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callen (Rebecca Hall), relocated from Chicago to a suburban Los Angeles neighborhood after Simon finds a new job outside the city that should propel him to the corporate heights. While out buying supplies for their new picture-perfect home, they run into Gordon "Gordo" Moseley (Joel Edgerton), a former high school classmate of Simon's who Simon claims to have completely forgotten about. Soon after, Gordo begins dropping in unannounced, usually when Simon is at work. He sends thoughtful housewarming gifts for the couple, neatly wrapped in the bright paper, with the bow attached, accompanied with nice handwritten card in the red envelope.
Without giving too much away, it should be said that whatever started as yet another retelling of the "Fatal Attraction" type story, turned out as the dissections of such ugly but persisting realities of life as bullying, human cruelty, unconscious desire for dominating that would start in someone's past and would cover all aspects and spheres of human communicating, including school, family, the workplace, and neighborhood. Main idea of Edgerton's film as shared by director himself during an interview is acknowledgment of one's past, admitting to the wrong doings in order to be able to build the future. But it brings a question: do we change as time goes by? Are we able to admit the guilt that went unpunished and to face the consequences? Can we predict to what extend will our words and deeds affect someone's life? Someone whom we won't even recognize if run across accidentally after many years?
Edgerton plays with the viewers' expectations and takes them to the unpredictable directions adding to the plot more layers and depths. The way he tells the story while building up the suspense and creating disturbing atmosphere is remarkable. He almost convinces the viewers that they could guess easily what would happen next yet when they expect it the least, he pulls the rug from under their feet. As a director, his use of the multiple glass surfaces is masterful. The heavily windowed houses in the nice South California area, Hollywood Hills, are as important to the plot as three main characters. Huge windows and glass doors seem to bring people closer but, at the same time, they stand as the walls of alienation and estrangement. Massive glass elements soon become gloomy threatening messengers of impending psychological horror which comes from the sins of the past that have not been acknowledged. Danger may lurk behind the misted glass door while you take a shower in the safety of your house. There is a silhouette disappearing in the air in the manner of Keyser Söze behind the thick matt glass doors in the hospital. The movie keeps surprising us by changing the viewpoints, by showing that what we see is not always what actually goes on in front of us. It makes us ask themselves, do we really know these closest to us, someone whom we think we share the intimate knowledge of ultimate closeness with.
One of the delicious surprises the movie provides is the characters development that drives the story and moves it in the different directions. Both, Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman play real people, complex and alive, not just two-dimensional carton figures. Jason Bateman, especially, impresses by bringing out dark sides of Simon's confident, successful, charismatic persona. But the best gift Edgerton keeps to the very end. For the movie which important and repeated over and over image are nice wrapped gift boxes of the different sizes and shapes, the writer/director refuses to wrap up the ending and attach the colorful bow to it. The Gift's conclusion is open but strangely satisfying. What goes around comes around, and bygones don't want to be bygones.
La jetée (1962)
La jetée (1961) aka The Pier is one of the best, poignant, and most unusual films ever made. The 28 minutes long collection of unbelievably rich, mesmerizing, still black and white images accompanied with the mourning score and sparse narration look inside your very soul while you look at them and they talk to you and reach to all your senses. This is correct - the film used a photo-montage technique but once stated watching, I was so enthralled that I did not think about technical part. The film is simple, poetic, philosophical, and profound. It is an anti war/post-apocalyptic science fiction documentary style and at the same time the ode to love, longing, and to power of memory.
Here is the paradox - how can documentary, made of the still black and white images tell the story that would influence every following film about time travel and be the true feast for mind and soul? Well, it has happened in La jetée, and while watching you forget what genre the movie belongs to because it defies the definitions of genres, and you just don't want it to end even though you know from the beginning that this movie will never have a happy ending. Like millions of fascinated viewers I ask myself how that much was achieved with so little. Like an unnamed protagonist of La jetée is marked for life with an unforgettable image from his childhood, the viewer is marked with the still images of the film, especially by only one animated image of awakening in the film that comes like a miracle.
I finished earlier this evening re-watching Terry Gilliam's excellent film Twelve Monkeys (1995) for which La jetée was the inspiration. Now when I saw both, I am sure that if it were not for the unspeakably sad, beautiful and moving short film of Chris Marker that suggests that "calling past and future may save the present" and provides the extraordinary emotional impact with the story of return to the most vivid childhood memories again and again, there would be no brilliant and dark visions of Twelve Monkeys. Both films are glorious in their unique way and should be viewed together to be appreciated fully.
A Serious Man (2009)
"Uncertainty Principle proves we can't ever really know... what's going on. So it shouldn't bother you."
It's been mentioned many times that A Serious Man (2009) is a retelling of the Book of Job. It very well could be - as only Coen Brothers could adapt the Biblical story to the screen. They placed Job, the Schlimazel of the Old Testament in Minnesota suburbia of their own adolescent. They named him Larry Gopnik, made him a physics professor in a local college, a nice, loving, and pious man, and let him watch hopelessly how his life was collapsing around him while he tried to make sense of what and why was happening to him and desperately sought after a spiritual help from his religious advisers, three rabbis - in vain. A Serious Man is not an autobiographical movie but it is set in the very atmosphere and spirit where two Coen boys grew up in the year 1967, the exact year Joel Coen turned 13 and was preparing for his own bar mitzvah - just like Danny Gopnik, 13 years old pot smoking Jefferson Airplane fan Larry's son whose Bar Mitzvah in the movie is a truly unforgettable event for many reasons. Now, as the experienced celebrated filmmakers who have proved (at least for this viewer) to be among THE best modern filmmakers, Coens look back at the place and time that shaped them as individuals, men, and creative personalities, and they ask eternal and often impossible to answer questions. Does life have meaning? What is the point of it? Or is there point at all? Why do bad things happen to a decent person who "did not do anything"? Is there any certainty in life or all we can do just accept the fact there is no explanation, no certainty, and no fairness, and the best is - "to receive with simplicity everything that happens to you."
I can understand how this film may be puzzling and even disappointing for many viewers even among the fans. A Serious Man is different and original even for Coens, always innovative and creative artists, but it is undeniably and unmistakably, their film, with their finger prints all over. Take for example the opening scene, the black/white prologue spoken in Yiddish and set somewhere in Eastern Europe back in the 19th or 18th century, in a small Shtetl. It involves a married couple and their mysterious visitor who could be a dybbuck, an evil spirit, believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person. The scene certainly would stay with a viewer and make them try to understand its meaning. As one explanation, the husband and wife could be the ancestors of Larry Gopnik before his family immigrated to the USA and ended up in Minnesota. The encounter with the dybbuk could bring the curse to the future generations, and that may explain all assortment of "tsuris" that poor Larry tries to deal with. Coen's explained that they wanted to include a folk tale to set the tone in the film that explores among many things Jewish traditions, religion, faith, and character. They could not find a tale they'd like, so they wrote one and made a very stylish, ominously dark yet funny and mysterious opening to their film. As a perfect balance to the fairytale/ghost story opening, the final scene comes that literally can blow you away. As it has happened before in a Coens 'movie , the open ending has as many admirers as haters but I believe it was no other way to finish the film, and I found the ending perfect in the universe that Coens create.
The brothers' decision to cast mostly unknown stage actors in the main roles, proved to be successful one, and everyone was up to their job. Michael Stuhlbarg positively shines as Larry and he makes one of the most sympathetic characters in Coens' movie. Sari Lennick, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed as a seriously creepy man whom Larry's wife Judith wanted to leave Larry for as well as the rest of the cast are all memorable. The camera work by Roger Deakins', the longtime collaborator of Coens in recreating the long gone era of the late 60s in the Middle of America is above any praise. A Serious Man is beautiful, profound, and perfectly well made. It is funny, too. Seriously.
Brideshead Revisited (1981)
An exemplary adaptation
11 hours long TV miniseries "Brideshead Revisited", based on Evelyn Waugh's eponymous classic novel, has been one of the most pleasurable watching experiences I can think of. It lacks action or adventure, but is one of the most charming, elegiac, moving, elegant, and classy films, TV or otherwise. It is also generous with the delightful humorous scenes in the specific English humor that can't be faked or reproduced outside of England. Both, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier, contributed to these scenes as well as Nickolas Grace as Anthony Blanche, decadent and flamboyant but sharp and observant acquaintance of both main characters, Charles Rydes and Sebastian Flyte. Anthony Andrews plays golden boy Sebastian as Dorian Grey with heart, beloved and admired by everyone but troubled, unhappy and self-destructing because, as one of the characters insightfully observed, he is in love with his childhood and he refuses to grow up.
The production valued are of the highest quality, and never for a moment I stopped enjoying the magnificent settings of such locations as Venice, Morocco, Central America, Paris, and New York as well as majestic halls and glorious landscapes of Brideshead (Castle Howard). The most important aspect of Brideshead Revisited, is, without doubt, Evelyn Waugh's language, and Jeremy Irons, as Charles Rydes, the film protagonist, was born to narrate the pages of the beautiful prose that sounds like an exciting melody of the times passed but not faded.
While watching "Brideshead Revisited", I contemplated on why this story of the class that does not exist anymore in the period of time that is long past history is still compelling and riveting. What are these people to me? Why was I running home every evening to continue watching the stories of their lives that on the surface seem uneventful and even boring? I guess the answer is in double magic of great literature that had captured the period of fall of Great Empire and those who disappeared with it and grand film making that did not lose much while adapting it to the screen. One of the best TV series ever made, "Brideshead Revisited" deservingly belongs to 100 Best British TV films.
Albert: I'm not the hero. I'm the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero's shirt; that's who I am.
"A Million Ways to Die in the West" uses the scenery, camera work, and soundtrack that are too good for such crude, rude, raunchy, tasteless affair as Seth MacFarlane goofy western –parody. Somebody said already that the world did not need the whole two minutes of Neil Patrick Harris's manifestations of the upset stomach and public defecation in somebody's hat not once but twice. The joke about a virgin guy in love with the town prostitute who would not have sex with him before the wedding was funny once (barely) not ten times. If MacFarlane had taken it easy (ier) on the jokes involving farts, pissing sheep, crude sexual references , etc, and decreased running time from 116 minutes to, say, 90 or 85, the movie might have been much better and funnier. There are a million ways to die in the west. Dying from constant laughing while watching this movie is not one of them. With all this said Albert's (MacFarlane) drug-induced trip close to the end is truly wonderful, creative, funny scene that re-invents the word "surreal". He deserves a credit for casting Charlize Theron as the female lead, Liam Neeson as the devious villain, and Neil Patrick Harris as the pompous mustached mustachery owner. It is always nice to see them on the screen, and they seemed to enjoy making fun out of the weird situations and the fools out of themselves. There are million ways to spend your time during the weekend, and Steve MacFarlane's western-parody comedy while, certainly, not the best of them, is not the worst.
House of Sorrow and Hope
"Water" (2005) that was written and directed by Deepa Metha, the Indian- born Canadian film director and screenwriter, is a final part of her Elements trilogy, Fire, Earth, and Water. Each film deals with serious and often unknown outside of India problems that the country has inherited over its long history of religious traditions that always played highly important role in all aspects of Indian society. Water, a heart breaking tale of Indian widows, is set during the early 1940s and tells the compelling story of an eight-year-girl who learns that she became a widow. Her parents married her when she was an infant to an unknown man but were taking care of her until she was old enough to become a wife to the husband she never met. After his death, according to the holy laws the little girl had only three choices in her life: to burn with her husband on the funeral pyre, to marry his younger brother or to become untouchable and spend the rest of her life in an ashram - a shelter for widows at the temple, on the banks of the great river.
Delicately beautiful and colorful film introduces the viewers to several unfortunate widows of different ages who whose families have abandoned them forever. The women have to live together and use any means possible for surviving. Pain, grief, loss, sacrifices are the essential parts of their daily struggles. Deepa Metha deserves every praise and award she has received for her memorable and passionate film which may shock the viewers who would not imagine what choices were available to a woman - widow back in the days and even now in some rural parts of India. But the film also praises the beauty of nature, joy of friendship, and eventually, it brings hope for better future for those women and their country.
Not only is Water an exquisite work of art, it is an important social statement. So important, indeed, that the Indian government interfered with the production process, canceled the funding of the film, restricted Metha to shoot in India, and did not stop the fundamentalists' riots that threatened the physical violence toward the female director and the members of the crew.
If the things have improved in India, as the officials proclaim, why the government hated so much just the idea of the film and caused all kinds of obstacles for Deepa Metha and her crew?
Magic in the Moonlight (2014)
Not much magic under this moon
For the 46th time, the viewers who came to see the latest Woody Allen's picture are greeted with his familiar calling card, the black screen with elegant white subtitles that is a portal to the new world created by the tireless workaholic whose motto is - no single year without a movie. This time, he takes us to Europe of the late 1920s, at the end of the short lull between two most devastating wars of the 20th century. After brief stop in Berlin, the plot moves to the luxurious villa on the seaside of French Riviera where the owners, their guests and neighbors are all excited about otherworldly and supernatural phenomena inexplicable by science.
Do Cassandra's and Sybil's really exist among us? Can they foresee the future and read the past, based on the mental images that are projected directly into their consciousness? Are they really a medium between the material and spiritual worlds? Famous circus magician, skeptic and atheist Stanley (Colin Firth) responds scornfully: "No!" And he is ready to expose one such Sybil, red- haired and green-eyed young American woman Sophie (Emma Stone). Acrimonious and sarcastic,Stanley has no doubts that he will immediately uncover the impostor, but to his utmost surprise he realizes that Sophie knows his hidden secrets, weaknesses, regrets and unfulfilled dreams he never admitted to anyone. Maybe, unknown and hidden forces exist after all?
The picture is beautiful to look at. Shot by Darius Khondji, who has worked on three Allen's films of lately, the French Riviera arises from a dream, wrapped in beauty, serenity and luxury. The problem was, first and foremost, a colorless screenplay which subject Allen might have borrowed from one of his recent London pictures. There is nothing wrong with re-using one's own ideas, and it was Allen who once said: "Steal from the best". But he wrote the script for Magic in the Moonlight without a drop of inspiration or magic. Easily predictable movie drags in the middle hoping for magic to move it towards the final black screen with the white letters adding up to the word "End". What could have been charming romantic period piece/comedy turned bland, devoid of originality and sadly did not allow talented actors Marcia Gay Harden and Jackie Weaver to shine in the supporting roles. This is unfortunate because in Allen's movies even inanimate objects can give exciting performance.
Another problem was director's decision to make a romantic comedy, which, by definition, must end with the close-up of two heroes either lost to the world in an endless kiss or looking into each other's eyes with tenderness that softly melts the screen. Stanley and Sophie share no spark, no "chemistry" that would make the viewers believe in the possibility of romance developing between them. Much more "chemistry" has arisen between Sophie and pretty dresses in the fashion of the late 1920s that were created for her by the talented costume designers. One of the cheerful dresses, white with a big red collar, clings to her gently, hugging her slender figure and highlighting unusual shade of her red hair. And perky black beret, holding on her pretty head at an impossible angle, may well qualify for an Oscar for best supporting role.
Perhaps, none of the modern actors can play a cocky and arrogant English snob better than Colin Firth what he has proved repeatedly. This time, though, he went so deeply into the character that when he had to switch to falling in love mood, the transition was sharp, sudden and not convincing.
With all this said, even pedestrian Woody Allen comedy is more elegant, polished and pleasant than most of the rom- coms produced by the big studios but vagueness, haste and not plausible final act weakened the magic of moonlight. It lacks the enchantment and spell of Paris at midnight that Allen created with light touch and inspiration three years ago.
The Bank Job (2008)
Big Trouble on the Baker Street
While watching The Bank Job (2008) by Roger Donaldson I could not help thinking how much it felt like a Guy Ritchie's movie, the best that he did not direct. The Bank Job is fast, smart, and so well made that I can only agree with Richard Rupert of At the Movies with Ebert& Rupert, "The most entertaining heist movie I've seen in years". It is based on the true story of the Baker Street robbery that involved a robbery of the safe deposit boxes at a branch of Lloyds Bank on the corner of Baker Street and Marylebone Road, London, and the following political scandal that the content of some of the boxes might have caused. The robbers were never arrested, and the cash, jewelry and the documents were never recovered. I am not sure how much truth is in the film but it works fine recreating the atmosphere of the 1970s with its political corruption, sex scandals that link to the highest circles, and the police incompetence.
I mentioned Guy Ritchie above, and it seems that the colorful characters from the different layers of society that inhabited London in The Bank Job might have come directly from his early movies. The most decent and sympathetic turned to be the petty thieves led by Terry Leather (the role fits Jason Statham like a glove) while the owners of the stolen safe deposit boxes are mostly corrupt and despicable. Among them the members of the parliament who like to visit the fashionable London brothel, the leader of Black Power organization who keeps the compromising pictures of a member of British Royal Family in the coveted deposit box 118, and the porn-king of Soho (David Suchet) who makes the note of his every payment to the bent cops of London in the special book. Sushet, known to millions as a master of gray cells, the world famous Hercule Poirot, is here on the other side of the law. Perhaps, you won't remember this movie for its outstanding photography and spectacular scenery but as far as the level of entertainment and thrills goes, it is certainly a hit. And the big one.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
It's good knowin' he's out there. The Dude. Takin' 'er easy for all us sinners."
Looks like while making "The Big Lebowski" (1998)– weird, nutty, outrageously funny and deliciously twisted movie, the brothers Ethan and Joel Coens, known for their unique and dry humor, sat back, laughed out loud, and had fun. "Big Lebowski" turned as one of the funniest comedies ever made. It is funny because of the incredibly off-beat characters, their weirdness, flaws, their interactions, the surreal situations they found themselves in, and perfectly written and delivered hilarious dialogs. There is the story, of course, which is based on the case of mistaken identity with the following kidnapping, villainous nihilists, vanguard erotic flying painter, the bowler named Jesus but the story is truly secondary to the delicious craziness of the movie.
Some reviewers call Big Lebowski misfire and deranged mess, saying that the story is convoluted with the characters we would not care about a bit. It was also interesting to read the reviews that were written upon its release and compared it to Coens' "Fargo" that had been made a year earlier than the adventure of Jeffrey "the Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges)."Fargo" could be Coens' masterwork but it does not make Lebowski any worse. It was dismissed as the inferior film and was predicted not to stand the future re-watch. The time has proved the predictions wrong. "The Dude" Lebowski - middle-aged pot smoking, White Russian drinking, bowling enthusiast ex-hippie, and his friends, Polish Catholic converted Jew, "more Jewish than Tevye" Vietnam veteran Walter with anger management problems (John Goodman) and timid, little slow, "sweet prince" Donny (unusually quiet Steve Buscemi) have become the cult figures, the beloved characters, for millions of film lovers of different generations, not only the baby- boomers.
The Coen Brothers have made twenty films, and all of them are treasure, including their contribution in the 2006 anthology, Paris, je t'aime. I've seen all their films and I want to repeat the title of my review on their latest, "Burn after reading" - The Coen Brothers don't make bad movies, because they don't know how. Their films, Including the cult favorite, Big Lebowski, should not be missed. They are clever, darkly funny, and beautiful without being pretty pictures. In short, they are first class entertainment.
Hit the Road: India (2013)
Invitation to the adventure
I found out about this independent adventure documentary from one of its creators and started with watching the 3 minute long trailer which instantly grabbed my attention. Tight, dynamic, even suspenseful thanks to well-chosen soundtrack, the trailer was a great introduction to the film.
I liked the 80 minutes long movie and given that it was the first picture by the Baghdasaryan brothers, they deserve respect and praise for making an engrossing and intriguing film. The subject of the movie was new for me because I did not know anything about The Mumbai Xpress, one of the most extensive and demanding routes of The Indian Auto rickshaw Challenge, the race across India on the auto-rickshaw or tuk- tuk that covers almost 2000 km. Extremely popular in the urban areas due to their simplicity,efficiency and low cost, driving Auto rickshaw across the huge continent with diverse landscape during the rainy season presents a real challenge. That's why the participants, the teams of two or three drivers from different countries, called the rally 'an amazing race for the clinically insane'. But the madness of the brave deserves a film made about it, and that's exactly what Baghdasaryan brothers did. Technically, their film deserves praise. They were able to create a mood of the travel. Shot during the rainy season, the movie is soaked in rain and leaves impression of danger waiting on the every turn of the treacherous roads. The soundtrack, superimposed on the images of long and often grueling journeys between the cities, helps to feel excitement as well as fatigue and frustration that the participants inevitably and regularly have to deal with.
Of several international team-participants, the Baghdasaryan chose the Team US/ Canada team, which included Rick, a Chicago Realtor, and Keith, a Canadian Chef to follow in their adventures during Mumbai Xpress. Rick and Keith, despite their far from extreme occupation back home (or, perhaps, because of it), were ready for excitement and unexpected turns on the treacherous roads during the tropical never ending rain. It was fun in the beginning to follow them on the trip where the problems with their tuk-tuk happened all the time but somewhere in the middle of the road following their team only became a little repetitive and monotonous. I kept thinking of the others teams and how they were handing the long trip. Especially, I wanted to follow the only female team participants and to experience the rally from their perspective. Another slight quibble I have to the film, it was hard to distinguish one city or town on the way from another. I am not sure how the footage should have been edited to pick the most interesting and memorable signs of each new place but there is something for the creators to improve during the work on the future projects. Now, after few weeks since I saw the film, I think that the trailer was the best part of the experience. But as I mentioned above, Hit the Road: India is quite good as a debut in documentary and I am sure that it is a beginning of the long and successful road for the Baghdasaryan Brothers.
Secrets of the Dead: Ultimate Tut (2013)
Beyond the Valley of the Kings
Ultimate Tut, a special two-part documentary in the popular educational PBS series Secrets of the Dead, is an exciting account of historical-scientific investigation that might have brought us closer to the solving of one of the most fascinating ancient mystery - the short life and death of the Egyptian boy-pharaoh Tutankhamen (Tut) of the 18th dynasty. Tut has become the most recognizable figure of the ancient Egypt after his intact tomb with the priceless golden treasures, Tut's mummy, and the strikingly beautiful golden mask of the young ruler were discovered in 1922 in Egypt's Valley of the Kings by the archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter.
The two hours long documentary is made as the investigation undertaken by Egyptologist Chris Naunton who has been haunted by the obvious differences in the way the 18-years-old King of Egypt was prepared and sent to the eternal life comparing to the rest of the pharaohs whose tombs were also discovered in the Valley of the Kings. Why Tut's was the only tomb that has survived the millenniums with almost all its treasures in place and never been raided by the grave-robbers? Why was the young king buried in a hurry and interred in the tomb that was not prepared properly? Why his body was brutally deformed and the crucial inner parts were missing? Why was embalming of his body performed in the manner that was not appropriate for such important person? Why were the name of Tutankhamen as well as the names of his father, Akhenaten (formerly Amenhotep IV) and his successor, Ay, missing from the list of all pharaohs, Abydos King List? Finding the answer to one of these questions would immediately bring Naunton to the next, and would take him further on the exciting journey all over the world, from Cairo and Luxor to Liverpool University in England, to Getty Center, Los Angeles, California, USA, and back to Egypt. He enlisted the help of the lead scientists, forensics specialists, doctors, historians, archaeologists, geologists and art historians to find the answers and their scientific proof. Two hours long investigation into the mystery that goes back 3000 years turned to be one of the most gripping, compelling, and fascinating documentary thriller I've ever seen. It is entertaining, educational, and is highly recommended to these who love to follow the mysteries of the past and who appreciates excellent documentaries.
Blue Jasmine (2013)
Jasmine's blues and the face of Woody Allen's nightmares
All 45+ movies directed by Woody Allen start identically, first, with the black screen for few moments, and then white-on-black credits, placed with the perfect symmetry in the Windsor typeface, and set to jazz music. The empty black screen in the beginning is like Malevich's black square that can content anything behind it. Watching it for few seconds before the movie starts is for the Allen's fan the sweetest moment of anticipation the new work from the favorite filmmaker. Where will he take us this time? Following the fallen celestial being named Jasmine from the Mt. Olympus on Manhattan to the lowland of San Francisco Bay area, Woody Allen and Cate Blanchett have created the special treat for the movie lovers.
I don't know what took Woody Allen and Cate Blanchett so long but finally the match that was meant to be blessed by the movie gods took place and produced one of the strongest ever Woody Allen's dramatic films with what could be the best single performance in his movie, and that tells a lot.
Woody Allen and Cate Blanchet use the familiar setting of the great classical American play by Tennessee Williams "The street car named desire" but re-invented it by moving plot to the modern days of the post 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of the largest Ponzi scheme in the history of the USA. The film takes place in San Francisco and in flashbacks goes to the posh Manhattan apartment, trendy restaurants, five stars hotels, and Hamptons summer house where Blanchett's character, Jasmine Francis used to lead the life of the elegant socialite, the wife of the Wall Street financial wizard, Hal (Alec Baldwin effortlessly effective as a smooth-talking charming silver- tongued rascal who made his fortune by ruining millions of people with his ruthless machinations). "Blue Jasmine" is a very dark comedy or rather tragicomedy and it concerns two very different sisters, Jasmine (Blanchett) and Ginger (Sally Hawkins.) Andrew Dice Clay gave a moving performance as Augie, Ginger's bitter ex-husband whose dream of investing $200K lottery winning was shattered by Hal. Sally Hawkins as Ginger is admirable. Ginger's live has never been easy or glamorous but she accepts whatever good it has to offer, she does not expect much and she is able to keep her sanity, reason, and good spirits which can't be said about Jasmine.
When Jasmine's life collapses along with the fall of her husband's financial empire, she loses everything including her grip to reality and is forced to turn to her working class sister. Moving from NYC to SF, staying with her sister and her two sons in a small "homey" apartment and trying to move on with her life, Jasmine in Blanchett's performance is unforgettable . She is selfish, delusional, weak, depressed, classy, charming, scared, confused, and feverish at the same time. She is ashamed of herself, of what she became, of how low she has fallen, while she believes that she is entitled to the finest things in life. There is obvious guilt she carries with her. She tries to adjust to the real world but she has no skills for survival in it on her own. With one gesture, one look, one change of facial expression, Blanchet takes Jasmine from hopes to turmoil to despair, from glitz and glamor of the recent past to the uncertainty and fear of present, and watching her impetuous sudden transformations is heartbreaking. I've been Cate Blanchett's fan for many years and I treasure every role I've seen her in but in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" she is more than superb or excellent. She is beyond any superlatives. There is no single false note in her performance. I did not want to feel sorry or sympathize with Jasmine. Comparing to Blanche Dubois with whom a lot of critics and viewers identify her, Jasmine was guilty of at least one act of deliberate cruelty which is unforgivable, and she knew it. But, differently from Blanche, by the time the movie starts, Jasmine is not on the verge but beyond a nervous breakdown and watching her trying to deal with it, helping herself with vodka martinis and Xanax while having delusions of superiority and fading hope of somehow be able to move on, to pull herself through, and bursting in the sudden agitated talking to herself on the streets, on the park benches, on the plane sit, makes the viewers to feel for her against their best instincts. You simply can't take your eyes off her for a second. This is a master class in acting, authenticity, and humanity by Cate Blanchett, the most talented actor (of both genders) of her generation in the best serious film by Woody Allen.
"Blue Jasmine" is beautiful to look at. San Francisco and NYC, two cities-antipodes look marvelous under the Javier Aguirresarobe's camera but the best visual treats come from the seamless flashbacks that added so much to the story of paradise (with plenty of snakes lurking ) lost. Whatever flaws the film might have, like using some characters or their convenient appearances in the right time in the right places as merely plot devices, don't matter much in presence of greatness whose name is Cate Blanchett.
But let's imagine for a second that the movie was as much about one woman's loss of her fairy tale life and about class differences in the modern society as it was about some of Woody Allen's own life experiences: his memory of being in the eye of public disgrace and scandal, his own son's refusal to have anything to do with his father, and his perception of the greatest disaster of all - being shut off from the only thing in life that matters to him, which is making movies. In this case, Allen gave the face to his own nightmares, disasters, and regrets, and that is Jasmine's face in the final scene of his latest, dark and great film.
Bodas de sangre (1981)
"The weeping of the guitar begins "
I've wanted to see the first film in the Carlos Saura -Antonio Gades' flamenco trilogy, Blood Wedding(Bodas de sangre), 1981, for many years, after I saw and was fascinated by the second entry in the trilogy, Carmen (1983). Bodas de Sangre has impressed me as much as Carmen. The film chronicles one day of the Gades's dancing company which members gather for the dress rehearsal of the ballet based on the drama by Federico Garcia Lorca and performed in flamenco style. First twenty minutes or so depict the dancers arriving to the theater and preparing for the dress rehearsal. Saura's camera follows the performers while they apply the make- up and change the clothes for the stage costumes. In this part of the film, Antonio Gades shares his memories of becoming a dancer and of the artists who had influenced him.
Then, we are transported to the past, on the day of the fateful wedding that would change forever the lives of three people, the Bride (Cristina Hoyes), her Lover Leonardo ( Antonio Gades ), and the Groom (Juan Antonio Jimenez) and these close to them, forever. The powerful, intense, passionate yet restrained, the ballet choreographed by Antonio Gades is excellent. The tragic story of two ill-fated lovers first told by Lorca and then re-told in the language of uniquely Spanish art of flamenco that combines Guitar music, dance, and singing. The dancers express the deepest emotions and burning desires in perfectly fluid neat movements that are captured by the camera of film director, Carlos Saura.
The unforgettable film seems very simple on the surface because it never leaves the rehearsal studio. There are no elaborate set decorations or stunning visuals. The costumes are simple and the color black dominates with the one exception only, the white color for the Bride's wedding gown, her shoes and stockings. The strength of Saura's vision is in following the performers closely and making the viewer a participant of the tragic story that happens in front of us. The final scene of the film is quite extraordinary considering that there were no special effects used during the filming. The duel on the knives between the groom and the lover takes place for as long as 6 minutes in slow motion in silence. Maybe it was so slow because both men knew that in the end of it there will be death and the time stopped for them. How the performers could maintain the perfect movements, bending in the impossible angles and expressing the powerful emotions in that almost impossible to imagine slow tempo -is a great secret and a stunning achievement of the performers, the choreographer who staged the scene, and the director who had captured them.
Nurse Betty (2000)
Three is a charm, and it certainly was for Neil LaBute - his first three films (of In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, and this one) were fresh, original, darkly funny, had personality and insightful, not clichéd look inside his characters' hidden desires and motivations. What he saw often was not pretty but always honest. Of three, Nurse Betty is the best - deliciously multi-layered, full of twists and turns, making fun of the TV obsessions and turning upside- down many genres. What is the film? A sort of a cinematic onion that reveals its layers one by one. It's a black comedy and a thriller, a road movie and a modern version of the girl Dorothy's adventures in the Wizard of Oz. It is very detailed clinical description of post- traumatic stress disorder and the parallel story of two dreamers who in the same fashion created in their imagination the ideal lovers that were so far removed from reality as Kansas from Oz. And the awakening was truly shocking.
Renee Zellweger in a Golden Globe-winning performance has never been better, before or after Betty (Chicago came close). Morgan Freeman has never been as romantic and so much in love at the same time being a cold-blooded and meticulous hit-man. Greg Kinnear as a man from Betty's dreams, "so handsome that a bit more and it would be a crime" was perfectly cast and funny as the shallow TV star. The presence of Aaron Echhart and Crispin Glover did not hurt the film, either. But the real star is the script, so rich and unpredictable that it was pleasure following all its turns and twists. Underseen and underrated indie film that has only became better since I saw it first time soon after its release, it is a rare treat. This is a very funny and very dark film. It is dreamy, and it's one of the movies that make me happy just to know that it exists. Definitely recommended for repeat viewing. The ending is beauty itself.
There is another "never" I have to add -Neil LeBute has never done anything as fresh and enjoyable since "Nurse Betty".
To Rome with Love (2012)
Woody Allen's Roman Holiday
During Woody Allen's European vacation, he has made four stops in London, visited Barcelona, dropped for a short visit to New York City, spent one summer in Paris, and then he had Roman Holiday last summer. All the tourist attractions of the Eternal City are in full display in Allen's film and they are spectacular: the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, the Coliseum, and panoramic views of the city from above, the rain at night, and outdoor cafés. Like in Paris' movie before that, Darius Khondji's camera finds unexpected and hidden angles of famous Rome beauty. The sound of wonderful melodic Italian songs and arias are heard everywhere -and what is Italy or Rome without music? Four different stories in which the Romans and the visitors are involved play against this joyous background of Rome glowing under summer sun. It seems that Allen created a mini Decameron. The stories do not overlap, but they have in common Rome and love in Rome to Rome.
Comparison with last year Allen's film about Paris certainly arises, but as Paris and Rome are two very different cities, even though both are famous, beautiful and often serve as a background or even an important character in the movie ("Fellini's Rome," and "Paris, I Love You", for example), so the Allen's movies about Paris and Rome are quite different. The Roman film, in my opinion, lacks rare magic and brilliance of "Midnight in Paris." The reason seems to be in switching from one story to another, and there are, as I've mentioned, four of them. Each is funny and attractive in its own way, but as the whole they failed to produce magic. As the rule, all stories in an anthology can't be on the same level. The story of Leopoldo, for instance, had intriguing premise but then just lost some of its steam.
Definite plus - for the first time in the last six years, Allen is in front of the camera as well as behind it. Allen knows a secret of physical comedy. He can simply stay in the frame, even in the background and keep silent, and his face will express a range of feelings and emotions, the predominant being a mixture of confusion and dumbfoundedness. Some might say that we've seen it all before but I don't mind. Allen is a good comedian who always makes me smile and laugh. And the same can be said of his Roman film. Allen does not do anything new here but the movie is good. For example, the idea of introducing a singer with the great voice who can only sing in the shower was original and smart. The film is funny, witty, beautiful, bright, and very light, feather-light. Its creator is 76 years but you hardly believe it when he sends us on Roman holiday.
My conclusion - any Allen's movie, even average comparing to his best work, is worth watching. If you are a die-hard fan like me, you've seen it already. I've said many times before and I repeat again - even the average Woody Allen's movie is better than most cookie-cutter comedies released by big studios. If you are not a fan, give "To Rome with Love" a chance, you may fell in love with it. This is the first anthology by Allen for many years and I'm sure you'll like if not four by some of the stories. I am personally delighted by the story of the owner of the funeral home, who sang like Caruso and Pavarotti, but only in the shower, to the sound of pouring water while lathering his back. Or, perhaps, you'll like a surreal story of a simple Roman office employee, who one sunny day out of sudden became insanely famous and popular. Moreover, he could not figure out what actually happened and what exactly he did or did not do? Real celebrities and the crowds of the journalists all listened to his every word as the highest wisdom. Or you may click with the story of Jack, a young American architect -student, his girlfriend, and her best friend - a heart-breaker, of Jack's inner voice played by Alec Baldwin. Well, if you cannot stand Allen, I'll let you in on a secret, if you do not know by now. There is also Penelope Cruz in the role of Anna (I think Woody bowed to Anna Magnani's "Mother Rome" and Sophia Loren - Filomena from "Marriage: Italian Style") and it is impossible to take the eyes off her. Anna - is the character from the fourth story which is about newlyweds who came to Rome for a honeymoon from the small town and the cheerful confusion that occurred when the young bride stepped out of the hotel and got lost in the maze of the Rome's streets. If the presence of Cruz in her second Allen's film is still not enough for you, well, then I do not even know what to say. Only that you should choose for your Roman holiday another Rome, not the one that Woody Allen created.
Life of Pi (2012)
Furious Tiger, Brave Boy
I saw "Life of Pi" last night and absolutely loved it. I still feel so overwhelmed by it, its visual splendor and the moving story that kept me involved for the whole time. The latest Ang Lee's film is beauty itself, and everyone involved in creation of such sparkling intelligent and classy entertainment deserves the highest praise and admiration for the work they've done. I am sure that in two days, "Life of Pi" will receive majority of Oscars it is nominated for. It deserves them.
I hesitated to see it because I did not think that the movie about a boy and a tiger stuck together in the middle of the ocean for months after the horrible shipwreck on the drifting lifeboat which the ferocious tiger first claimed as his territory and a makeshift inflatable raft chained to it which was Pi's fragile shelter would be so compelling and gripping but it was. Roger Ebert said that Life of Pi is "a miraculous achievement of storytelling and a landmark of visual mastery". I gladly agree with that. I simply can't find anything wrong with "Life of Pi." It is beautiful, profound and adventurous story of survival and understanding life with all it offers or throws at us. It is life affirming even though it takes us along with Pi Patel through unspeakable hardship, losses, and deadly danger of indifferent and indomitable forces of nature's elements and wild creatures. And it manages to say a lot about faith and God without being over-simplistic, preachy or shoving religion in your face. It may help an atheist to understand the believers better or at least to try. It also turns itself in unexpected direction when we thought we were in the end of the journey, reflects on the darkest corners of human nature and leaves the viewers asking questions on what they really want to believe and whether they are open to the possibility of miracle in life, in their lives. It is up to the viewers to choose the answer only they would be satisfied with.
Peaceful beauty of Pondicherry, former French colony in India that surprisingly for me looked like a charming small French town, totally enthralled me in the beginning of the film that started as a typical coming of age story. Well, it is coming of age story but amazing on so many levels, spiritual, ethical, physical, religious, humanistic, testing the limits of what a human being can deal with and how it would shape him, his life, and his perception of life. This is an experience, both movie watching and afterthought that will stay with me. What else can I ask for in a movie? I've always respected and admired Ang Lee and found his movies exquisite. But "Life of Pi" is without doubt his best work. Furious tiger, brave boy, magic journey, fascinating story - amazing movie.
Holy Motors (2012)
"Being an actor is the loneliest thing in the world." James Dean
Enter at your own risk. This movie is quite capable of confusing you and making you angry. It could delight or overwhelm you, win you over or enrage you. It could make you feel like cursing and truly hate all art- house in general, French art-house in particular, and Leon Carax, and his collaborators, specifically.
For me, "Holy Motors" is very interesting, unpredictable, shocking and ever-changing. It is my kind of movie in which the writer/director expresses his admiration for cinema as an art form. I've always felt a deep respect for the filmmakers who use in their original and unpredictable pictures the references, allusions, and direct calls to the other movies and to film creators who inspired them. "Holy Motors" is one of those pictures – about film and film-making.
Our life – is a (movie) theater, and we are actors in the movie that plays in the theater. For me, it is the first thing to keep in mind when you try to make sense of what is actually going on and what "Holy Motors" is about. I see it as a dedication to all movies and the genres. Here they are, the Umbrellas of Cherbourg and deadly struggle of the character and his doppelganger in the gangster movie. There are also the references to beauty and the beast, not Disney's version nor Jean Cocteau's, but shockingly funny monster of Walerian Borowczyk's La Bete (1975) aka The Beast. Still gorgeous Edith Scob (Celine, limo driver and Monsieur Oscar's business partner), puts on a mask in the latest episode of the film - direct reference to the classic horror, Georges Franju's film "Eyes Without a Face" (1959), where she played her most famous role in the film, which defined the whole genre. And, perhaps, "Holy Motors" is an update version of Celine and Julie that looks at the story or many stories from different angles and plays with them. Could it be Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" in Paris, with limousine - sort of Charon's boat plying between the worlds of the living and the dead, reality and illusion, film and audience, between the actors and their characters? Or maybe this is Un Chien Andalou / Andalusian Dog for our time with the script by Charlie Kaufman - open doors to the irrational; do not try to explain the unexplainable. Maybe Carax could say just like Luis Buñuel, "You need an explanation? I do not have any." Just look closely at images and metamorphosis and try not to search for the meaning in them. They may not have a special meaning at all but would it make the movie any worse? Would the movie affect you any less if you can't grab its meaning? Perhaps the meaning in the words by Monsieur Oscar as father to his teenage daughter in his most realistic role: "You are punished by being just yourself all your life." Isn't it sad never let the world of imagination, illusion and fantasy pull you beyond reality, where you are just you? ... But can one only exist in a world of illusion and change masks one by one and forget what the real face is?
Denis Lavant, director-screenwriter Leos Carax's alter ego, works wonders here, changing into nine personalities during the course of movie. His face is fascinating – the face of Socrates, and satyr, murderer, and wise tired clown. Of modern actors, John Malkovich and Malcolm McDowell have such impressive faces... And so, Lavant's hero or, rather, heroes travel all day long with Celine, the driver, passing striking views of Paris, impersonating different personalities, who are on the weird, shocking, crazy, unbelievable missions, ordered by someone unknown, captured on the camera by someone unseen but always present.
I read somewhere that idea of Motors came from Carax interest and curiosity in very long limousines, obsolescent powerful toys, whether messengers of the past in the future, or, on the contrary, from future in the past, sort of motorized brontosaurs. What's inside, who is inside? The size is such that it is possible to live ... or to prepare for the transition from one life to another, and then, third, and more. And to appear in every life in a completely different roles – a killer, a victim, a beggar, a millionaire, a monster named Monsieur S**t, a caring father to a shy, awkward teenage girl , then the futuristic creature having sex with the elastic beauty covered in red plastic And then he returns home Or does he?
And maybe Holy Motors is not just about us looking at stretched limousines, but about them looking at us and gossiping about us and their future in hushed silence and darkness of the company "Holy Motors"' night garage.
But what Holy Motors is for sure - the message that was sent beyond our world - "Katya, this is for you" - the last frame of the movie with a picture and dedication to Leos Carax's muse and beloved, Ekaterina Golubeva (1966-2011).