Monday, April 14, 2014

Film Reviews: Dom Hemingway & Under the Skin

"Dom Hemingway"  *** (out of ****)

Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) is a guy every thug knows. He served a 12 year prison sentence. He did a good thing though. He lived by the code of ethics among thugs, he didn't rat anyone out. He was a goodfella. No, wait, sorry, wrong movie. Well, sorta.

Now that Dom has been released from his sentence he wants payback. During those 12 years he was away his wife died of cancer, he never had the chance to say goodbye and he never got the chance to see his daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clarke) grow up. Now she has a son which Dom never knew about. In fact she doesn't even meet Dom when he is released. Instead his old friend Dickie Black (Richard E. Grant) picks him up.

Given all that has happened to him, Dom expects Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir) to pay him back. Mr. Fontaine is a top thug. The man Dom protected. All Dom had to do was give the police a name and his sentence may have been reduced. But, then that would have made Dom a rat. Which is unacceptable. Mr. Fontaine knows he owes Dom.

"Dom Hemingway" is a Guy Ritchie / Quentin Tarantino-esque movie that was directed by Richard Shepard who also directed "The Matador" (2005) and a few episodes of the HBO telelvision show "Girls". And that's largely the problem. Shepard is no Ritchie or Tarantino. He lacks their visual flair. Their inventiveness.

Though "Dom Hemingway" has its own charms. Jude Law is very good in the lead. Some of the dialogue is good. But the movie feels slight. It shifts tone. It goes from a revenge thug almost comical story to a sentimental tone dealing with a man trying to reconnect with the daughter he never knew.

"Dom Hemingway" is no classic but it puts on an entertaining show and has a good performance by Jude Law, who really carries the movie.



"Under the Skin"
 * 1\2 (out of ****)

Jonathan Glazer's science-fiction adaptation of Michel Faber's novel of the same title was the big art house movie release over the weekend.

Many people were greatly looking forward to this film. Glazer has previously directed "Sexy Beast" (2001) the fantastic gangster film with Ben Kingsley and "Birth" (2004) the divisive reincarnation movie starring Nicole Kidman. I personally enjoyed both and was also looking forward to "Under the Skin".

"Under the Skin" has opened to mainly positive reviews both in the U.K., where it was released a month earlier and the U.S. But if people thought "Birth" was an audience divider wait until they see "Under the Skin" (2014).

In "Under the Skin" Scarlett Johansson plays an alien, who isn't given a name. She takes the form of an attractive young woman who is an uncanny double for Scarlett Johansson. She prowls the streets of Glasgow in a van looking for unsuspecting lonely young men, who no one would miss if they should disappear. When she finds a potential victim she brings them back to her secret hideaway where the men mysteriously vanish in a black liquid which is almost like quicksand. The men eventually evaporate and only their skin remains.

Not much is thoroughly explained in this movie. What is the ultimate goal of these aliens? What is this black liquid? Why only go after young men?

The movie seems to hit on some themes concerning beauty, being human and the powerless nature men face when confronted by a beautiful woman.

The alien played by Johansson goes through a shift and starts to show compassion towards humans after she meets a young man who suffers from neurofibromatosis, played by Adam Pearson. Initially she picks him up with the intention of taking him to the hideway but she lets him escape. It is what I like to call "the beauty and the beast" syndrome. The beautiful woman takes compassion on the ugly male. Examples are of course "Beauty and the Beast", "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "The Kings of Queens". It reinforces the concept the media and society has tried to shove down our throats that women are compassionate. They have a maternal instinct. And Johannson isn't even human in this movie yet exhibits "typical" female traits.

These moments clash with earlier scenes where Johansson leads these men to their demise and a scene on a beach involving a baby.

Those that like this movie say they enjoyed the style of the movie. They like the cinematography, the music and the eerie quality Glazer gives the movie. But no one talks about the substance. Every critic that I have read says they don't quite understand the movie but to them it doesn't matter. The style is so overwhelming. To me this is a typical example of style over substance. If critics didn't feel this is an "important", "artistic" movie they would say "Under the Skin" is a mis-guided convoluted mess.

Yes, you can sense the movie wants to be about something. There is some sort of commentary going on but I am not convinced the movie goes about presenting those themes in the best way possible.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Letterboxd.com

I thought my readers would be interested to know a new movie site I joined - letterboxd.com

On this site you can keep a movie diary of when you see movie, give them a star rating and write reviews. You can also make friends on the site and follow individuals with similar movie taste.

I have always said I never review every movie I have ever seen on this blog. But, on letterboxd.com you can now see all the movies I have seen and my ratings for them, even if I don't write a review. I am still updating everything but already I have rated more than 3,500 films compared to the 600 I have reviewed on here.

If you'd like to join the site and follow me on there here is a link to my profile:
http://letterboxd.com/alexudvary/

Film Review: Jodorowsky's Dune

"Jodorowsky's Dune"  **** (out of ****)

What if. It is a favorite question we all like to ask ourselves. What if I had done this. What if I had done that. Movie lovers have a lot of "what ifs" too. What if we could see Jerry Lewis' "The Day the Clown Cried" (1972) or what if we could see Erich von Stroheim's original "Greed" (1924) or Orson Welles' original cut of "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942) or F.W. Murnau's "4 Devils" (1928). To that list we can now add another. What if Alejandro Jodorowsky had made Dune?

"Jodorowsky's Dune" (2014) is a documentary directed by Frank Pavich which explores this concept. Jodorowsky sits down with Pavich to discuss all the preparation he had begun - storyboards, casting, costume designs, camera movements, production designs, all to have the project scraped due to finances.

For those unaware of the name, Alejandro Jodorowsky is a cult favorite filmmaker born in Chile. Before making films he joined the circus and performed as a clown. He was a puppeteer. He studied mime with Marcel Marceau and was involved with the surrealist movement. He directed avant garde theatre. All of this was brought with him when he started to make films.

He is best known for two movies; "El Topo" (1971) a spiritual spaghetti western and "The Holy Mountain" (1973) another film with spiritual themes. His last major work released in America was "Santa Sangre" (1990), the first film I ever saw by him. At its time of release the late film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert, said "this is a movie like none I have seen before, a wild kaleidoscope of images and outrages, a collision between Freud and Fellini." He even placed it on his "top ten" list that year.

Dune is a science fiction novel written by Frank Herbert in 1965. It became a world-wide best seller and received much critical praise, even winning a Hugo award in 1966. Herbert would go on to write five more sequels. According to Wikipedia the plot is described as "set in the distant future amidst a feudal interstellar society in which noble houses, in control of individual planets, owe allegiance to the Padishah Emperor, Dune tells the story of young Paul Atreides, whose noble family accepts the stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis. As this planet is the only source of the "spice" melange, the most important and valuable substance in the universe, control of Arrakis is a coveted — and dangerous — undertaking. The story explores the multi-layered interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, as the forces of the empire confront each other in a struggle for the control of Arrakis and its "spice".

Pavich interviews Michel Seydoux, a producer who worked with Jodorowsky on preparing "Dune" as well as storyboard artist Chris Foss and H.R. Giger, who created production designs. Dan O'Bannon, a special effects artist passed away but his wife is interviewed. Each express disappointment the film was never made and tell funny stories of their first impression of Jodorowsky who is a bit eccentric.

People can argue if Jodorowsky would have made a great film or not. If he was the right director for such a film or if he casted it right. Set to act in the movie was Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and David Carradine. But what one comes away with watching "Jodorowsky's Dune" is the joy of the creative process, the power of imagination and an artist love of cinema. Even though Jodorowsky's adaptation was never made, this documentary is still a celebration of cinema. It explores an artist desire to be heard. This is what makes this documentary so fascinating and enjoyable to watch.

Jodorowsky is a great subject to interview. He is wildly expressive and tells many anecdotes. The best of them is how he was able to get Orson Welles and Salvador Dali to agree to appear in the movie and his reaction to David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of "Dune". Just interviewing Jodorowsky on his career would have made an interesting documentary. He is a man with a lot to say.

There are those who may feel this documentary is slight. It has a limited appeal. They aren't being fair. The movie is about more than just this one movie or one man. Because of that it is one of the year's best films.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Film Review: Look Who's Laughing

"Look Who's Laughing"
** 1/2 (out of ****)

I was really looking forward to seeing "Look Who's Laughing" (1941). It seemed like the type of movie which would appeal to my cinematic taste buds. In fact it is a movie which should appeal to a lot of us old-timers, those of us who grew up with the movies and radio programs of the 1930s and 40s. But, for some reason the movie didn't fully work for me.

"Look Who's Laughing" stars Edgar Bergen and his alter-ego Charlie McCarthy (I always found it funny that McCarthy gets a separate billing and would be listed as playing "himself"), Jim Jordan and Marian Jordan as Fibber McGee and Molly, Harold Peary as Gildersleeve and Lucille Ball as Julie, Edgar's assistant.

For those unaware Fibber McGee and Molly was a popular radio show airing between 1935 through 1959. A popular side character on the show was Gildersleeve which eventually had a spin off program in 1941 and in 1955 made it to television for one season. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were also on radio which they own extremely successful program and appeared in two-reelers and feature films. If you know all of this information and are familiar with these actors and their programs, "Look Who's Laughing" has a special appeal. All of our "friends" have gathered together for a movie.

Basically "Look Who's Laughing" is half Edgar Bergen comedy meets Fibber McGee and Molly. It primarily feels like an extended Fibber McGee program with Bergen as the special guest.

Bergen plays himself, a popular radio ventriloquist, who is about to go on vacation while his assistant, Julie, is about to get married. Bergen is also something of a pilot and as he and McCarthy are in the air, they get lost and land in a small town where Fibber McGee and Molly live.

In this small town there is a lot happening. Currently the town is trying to get Hilary Horton (Neil Hamilton) to buy a piece of land in order to build an airport. If this happens there will be a great many new jobs which will be created. Also, the piece of land proposed is own by Fibber. But Gildersleeve has a deal with a competitor to build the land in a neighboring town and will receive a cut if the deal falls through. It just so happens Edgar Bergen knows Horton and would be more than happy to show him the land since we has taken a liking to Fibber McGee and Molly.

This plot takes up a majority of the movie. If you don't know much about Fibber McGee and Molly the movie does a somewhat decent job introducing them. You will come to know they are a happy but poor mid-west couple. Fibber is a bit of a dreamer and has grand ambition of perhaps one day becoming president. He likes to think of himself as a businessman. Molly stands by his stand but is critical of his schemes but doesn't prevent him from going forward. She just sort of "puts up" with him. Surprising one thing the movie doesn't do is bring their 'closet" gag to the screen. This was a running joke on the radio show. McGee had a closet full of items he has completely forgotten about and every time he would open the closet door, against Molly's protest, everything would fall on top of Fibber.

Near the end of the movie is starts to suggest Julie, who is about to marry Jerry (Lee Bonnell) is really in love with Edgar and he is really in love with her. But Edgar Bergen was not really a leading man type and so this isn't played as a straight romance. We don't even see the two of them kiss (!).

The movie, which was directed by Allan Dwan, who's career goes back to the silent era, has what used to be called a "mid western homespun" sense of humor. It is very genteel. It should be pointed out Bergen, Jim Jordan and Marian Jordan were all from Illinois. That may be why I don't like it. I can handle Fibber McGee and Molly for about 30 minutes, small doses, but a feature film is too much for me. Bergen can be very funny but needs someone to play off of. Bergen and McCarthy had a good "rival" in W.C. Fields, who would often appear on Bergen's radio show and had a "feud" with McCarthy, threatening to turn him into fire wood. They also appeared in the feature film "You Can't Cheat An Honest Man" (1939) which I strongly recommend seeing, especially if you want to see Bergen in a better movie.

The sensibility of the characters here is a little too "goody goody" for me. I like it sometimes when watching Will Rogers who had a "aw-shucks" personality, another mid-western trait. I would recommend watching his movies over this as well. See "They Had To See Paris" (1929), its sequel "Down To Earth" (1932) and "A Connecticut Yankee" (1931).

Dwan does an adequate job directing this. Peter Bogdanovich wrote about him in one of his book but I never thought much of Dwan. He also directed the Ritz Brothers in "The Gorilla" (1939), which is better than its reputation would have you believe and "The Three Musketeers" (1939). He directed a rather bland WW2 comedy "Around the World" starring band leader Kay Kyser and directed a somewhat sequel to "Look Who's Laughing" called "Here We Go Again" (1942).

Though the genteel, mid-western humor, doesn't completely appeal to me, the movie is fun to watch if only to see all these characters together. I find it difficult believing this movie would have much cross over appeal to younger audience members of today's generation but you never know.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Film Review: The Maltese Falcon

"The Maltese Falcon"  *** (out of ****)

Not so fast! It's not "The Maltese Falcon" you are thinking of. This is the 1931 film version of Dashiell Hammett's novel directed by Roy Del Ruth starring Richard Cortez and Bebe Daniels.

Of course when film lovers hear "The Maltese Falcon" they think of the 1941 version directed by John Huston (his directorial debut) starring Humphrey Bogart. That version is great. A classic. But, I thought it would be interesting to review this version instead, if, for any other reason, it is rare and is a curiosity piece.

The danger in discussing this movie as well as seeing it, is most people have seen the Humphrey Bogart version first and will compare this movie to that one. If you do that, many will say this 1931 isn't as good. That's a mistake. I know it's difficult, but, try not to think of the other version. Watch this movie on its own merits. Accept the actors in these roles. If you are able to do that then this version is entertaining and not without its own charm.

Richard Cortez plays detective Samuel Spade who runs an agency with this partner, Miles Archer (Walter Long, a familiar face to Laurel & Hardy fans. Long would play the "heavy" against them). One day a woman, Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels, best know for her role in the musical "42nd Street" (1933), she comes into their office with a story about her sister who has run off with a man she fears is holding her hostage. She would like Spade or Archer to trail the man in order to find her sister. Spade and Archer are skeptical of her story but when she offers to pay them two hundred dollars for the job, they agree.

Meeting Ruth turns out to be the worst thing that can happen to the detectives. Later that night Archer is killed, which is convenient for Spade, who was fooling around with Archer's wife, Iva (Thelma Todd). Archer was killed following the man Ruth told them about. Who killed Archer? Adding more mystery to the situation Ruth admits she lied about having a sister and wanted the men to scare this secret man.

The plot thickens when Sr. Cairo (Otto Matieson) and Casper Gutman (Dudley Diggos) enter the picture. They both inform Spade of a "black bird" they are searching for which they believe Spade is in possession of. It is a valuable statute which Spade suspects Ruth has and is the real reason she wanted his help.

As detective stories of the 1930s go, there were also Philo Vance stories such as "The Kennel Murder Case" (1933) and a little later the "Thin Man" series, "The Maltese Falcon" is worth watching. Because it was made in 1931 it is "pre-code", a time when movies were able to get away with more sexually suggestive material. The first scene in the movie shows a woman walking out of Spade's office. The camera go in for a close up of her legs as she adjust her stockings. Another scene shows Ruth taking a bath. It is implied she has slept with Spade. And it is implied Spade has or had a relationship with his secretary, Effie (Una Merkel). Some have even suggested there are homosexual undertones, though I reject that notion.

Though I wouldn't call "The Maltese Falcon" a great movie. Some of it has to do with the director Roy Del Ruth. Del Ruth was a good studio director churning out several movies a year. He is mostly known for the musicals he directed such as "Kid Millions" (1934) with Eddie Cantor and "Happy Landing" (1938) with Sonja Henie. He also directed a Joel McCrea comedy "He Married His Wife" (1940)  and he directed another "pre-code" goodie, "Blonde Crazy" (1931) with James Cagney and Joan Blondell. But I don't think he was the right director for this. He doesn't get the most out of this material. He doesn't create much suspense or get much out of his actors. He doesn't have a great artistic eye, which is why I prefer his lighter fare.

Cortez and Daniels are good together but I didn't feel chemistry between them. You don't really believe the two are in love with each other.

What viewers will like about this movie is a suggestive sexual nature of it. I have heard some say Cortez was better in this role than Bogart because his character is more ruthless whereas Boagrt was more sensitive. I didn't see it that way. I think Bogart was a better actor than Cortez and was more interesting to watch on-screen. Maybe if "The Maltese Falcon" had better, more famous actors I might have enjoyed it more.

Still, the movie has its own charms. It is not a waste of time. It is a quaint detective story with little suspense and decent acting.

[Interesting Note: In order to avoid confusion with the 1941 version, the movie was re-titled "The Dangerous Female". If you are looking to buy the movie search both titles.]

Monday, March 24, 2014

Film Review: Our Women

"Our Women"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Relationships are pretty difficult to sustain. We seem to live in a culture where everyone is looking for love but no one can find it. People are too busy with their careers. They aren't over an ex. They aren't ready to commit. They need more "me" time, there are so many things they want to do. They don't want to "settle". And yet for others they feel they are getting older. Time is running out.

The Hungarian comedy "Our Women" (Nejem, nom, csajom, 2014) deals with these issues but does so from a female perspective. It is the women that want the relationships. They are the ones looking for love. They are the ones that go to great lengths to maintain happy relationships as they deal with difficult men. Women are the ones that make all the sacrifices.

I reject this notion as a single thirty-something male living in a big city. My own experiences have shaped the opinion it is the women that aren't ready to commit. The only reason I am single is because I meet women who aren't ready to commit. They don't know who they are or what they want out of life yet. They want to focus on their career. They aren't over an ex. Though, I suppose that doesn't sell movie tickets. It doesn't feed into the stereotype the media has been feeding us for years. Men are suppose to be the ones that are afraid to commit and women are the delicate ones looking for love.

In "Our Women", which played at the 17th annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago, we follow four women in interconnecting story-lines, as each tries to maintain a relationship and keep domestic bliss. There is Helga (Judit Schell) a newsreporter who has been dating Jozsef (Peter Rudolf) for two months. They have not slept together yet and it is driving Helga crazy. What is he hiding? Is he married? But Helga is of a certain age and wants to have a child. Whatever Jozsef's secret is he better tell her quickly because her biological clock is ticking and she can't waste her time with a man that is available and doesn't want to have children.

Next there is Vera (Agi Gubik) who is married to Attila (Andras Stohl). They have a five year old son together and it has dawn on Attila the child is nothing like him. Their son gets beat up in school and paints pictures of flowers. Attila begins to wonder if the child is his. Does Vera have some secret she is keeping from Attila? Did she cheat on him?

Rounding out the two remaining stories are Szilvi (Rozi Lovas) and Flora (Katya Tompos). Szilvi lives with Balint (Bela Meszaros). She wants to have a baby but Balint thinks they should get married first. And before they get married Balint wants to sleep with other women first. He can't imagine himself sleeping with only one woman for the rest of his sleep. Instead he wants them to become swingers. They meet another couple; Emma (Patricia Kovacs) and Robert (Zoltan Schmied). Flora is married to Peter (Tamas Keresztes). Both are very conservative and religious. Flora however suspects Peter may be seeing a prostitute. He leaves in the afternoon on unexpected appointments.

The was directed by Peter Szajki and is only his second feature film. "Our Women" was quite the success in Hungary and it is easy to see why. This is a funny, light-hearted romantic comedy. It tries to create a balance and explore some issues in a more dramatic detail while finding the humor in what we all go through to fall in love.

Americans might recognize Judit Schell from everyone in the cast. She was in another Hungarian romantic comedy "Just Sex and Nothing Else" (Csak szex es mas semmi, 2006) which was released in America. And in some ways the movies are similar. In both movies she plays a older woman looking for love, wanting to have a baby. While the other actors are not known to us, they are quite good. I especially like Agi Gubik and Rozi Lovas. Gubik adds a little more dramatic depth to her character and Lovas seems perfectly suited for romantic comedy.

The weakest story of the bunch may be Flora and Peter's. Their plot isn't really terribly interesting when compared to the others and isn't given as much screen time and detail as the other stories.

"Our Women" is the kind of movie which should have a cross-over appeal and entertain American audiences. It is disappointing the movie has not been distributed in America yet. The movie was released in Hungary two years ago. Sadly there is no market here for Hungarian movies. Over the years I have seen several Hungarian movies at the EU Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival which have been very entertaining and powerful films and unfortunately none of them have been released here. People don't know what they are missing out on. Too bad. "Our Women" is a delightful romantic comedy with some laughs.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Film Review: Nymphomaniac Vol. 1

"Nymphomaniac"  *** (out of ****)

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has released another controversial film, "Nymphomaniac" (2014). The film has been divided into two parts or volumes. Volume one has been released this weekend.

Once upon a time Lars von Trier was a filmmaker I respected a great deal. He rattled me. He makes bold, daring films which challenge the conventions of what cinema can show us, themes to explore. He hit "mainstream" with "Breaking the Waves" (1996) a very engaging film about love, sex and God, though not in that order. He followed up with "Dancer in the Dark" (2000), "Dogville" (2004) and "Antichrist" (2009). I was an admirer of "Waves", "Dancer", "Dogville"- I placed it on my top ten list that year and "Manderlay" (2006) his sequel to "Dogville", he lost me with "Antichrist" which just pushed me a bit too far. For example there were scenes of genital mutilation which disturbed me but at least he got a reaction out of me. Then he released "Melancholia" (2011) which, well, there's no other way to say it, bored the life out of me. And now we have "Nymphomaniac".

Given the title it shouldn't surprise anyone when I say the movie is about a nymphomaniac named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She is lying on the ground bloody and beaten in a courtyard when a resident, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) notices her and offers to bring her into his apartment for a cup of tea, at her request. There in his apartment she tells him her story. Not just why she was lying on the ground in the courtyard, they never get to that, I presume that will be discussed in volume two, but the story of her life is told in relation to her sexuality and multiple sexual encounters and her meeting what may prove to be the love of her life, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf).

The movie is released as "not rated" though if it were it would most definitely receive an NC-17 rating due to the explicit sexual nature of the film. Though it is the cause of the controversy surrounding the picture, I was left indifferent. Not just indifferent to the sex scenes but to the picture as a whole. That is very surprising. Lars von Trier doesn't normally make movies which don't get a reaction out of you. Either you love them or hate him. You don't sit there in the middle pondering both sides yet that's my reaction to this film.

The movie is neither interesting nor boring to me. It is neither erotic or titillating to me yet I wouldn't say it is neither of those things to someone else. It goes on too long yet I felt it ended too abruptly. The sexual scenes didn't shock though I could see how they might shock others. The movie merely exist to look at but I felt nothing as I sat in the movie theatre. I wasn't as bored as I was watching "Melancholia", "Nymphomaniac" is told with a bit more energy, but like the main character in the movie, I was left wanting more.

Joe tells us about her parents (Christian Slater and Connie Nielsen) and her relationship with them. She loved her father, a doctor, who thought her about nature, in particular ash trees, his favorite. She disliked her mother whom she describes as "cold" and "cowardly" among other adjectives I'm not allowed to print. She tells us the early age she discovered her "female parts" (age two) and her first sexual experience (age 15) with Jerome. We learn of a game she and her best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) played to see which one would sleep with the most boys in a single day. They would board a train and try to get men to take them to the bathroom to have sex with. Whoever slept with the most men by the time they reached their destination would win a bag full of chocolates. I always knew women liked chocolate but I guess I didn't realize how much.

We learn how Joe is unable to keep track of all the men in her life. Within one day she could sleep with as many as five people. They just wait their turn, like taking a number at a deli. Sometimes situations get ugly, like when one of the men Joe has been sleeping with leaves his wife and children for her. The wife, Mrs. H. (Uma Thurman) arrives at Joe's apartment, with her children, to introduce them to Joe and to make sure the children understand what their father is doing. To some this would be an example of "dark humor" which von Trier is engaging in. We can understand Mrs. H's feelings but we also look on with pity. She is causing emotion scars her children may never forget.

And so it continues for two hours. A couple of sex scenes followed by some scenes with Joe and her father and then a few more sex scenes. During all of this Joe and Seligman will interrupt the flow of the story and try to show correlations between Joe's behavior and fly fishing or musical composition. These moments are a little heavy-handed as if trying to make Joe's behavior poetic. There is art to what she is doing. It is like the story of the director who likes to shoot movies of pretty girls naked and says, it is not porn, it's art. And so it is with Lars von Trier. "Nymphomaniac" is not porn. I'll admit that but it is not great art to me either and when he tries to draw all these connections it seems a bit pretentious.

It may be unfair to review this movie while volume two is yet to be released but is that my fault or Lars von Trier's? Why not just release the movie as one four hour long feature film? It is a nice way to make double the money as now we all have to go back and buy another ticket. Still, I have to admit volume one made no real lasting impression on me. Individuals who declare "masterpiece" are over selling the film. Those that declare the movie is "trash" and / or "porn" aren't being fair. I'm somewhere in the middle. That's not a good place to be when watching a Lars von Trier movie. We'll see what volume two brings us.

Film Review: The Excursionist

"The Excursionist"  **** (out of ****)

There have been so many stories dealing with the cruel and harsh treatment so many had to endure due to Soviet Communism. After WW2 as the Soviets marched to Germany they never left the countries they had to go through to get there. They caused so much misery for so many people who never wanted them there to begin with.

The Lithuanian film "The Excursionist" (Ekskursante, 2014) is an emotionally gripping true story dealing with the hardships an 11 year old girl, Masha (Anastasija Marcenkaite) had to survive during this time.

The film premiered in Chicago at the 17th annual European Union Film Festival to a sold-out crowd. It is an remarkable achievement given to us by a country many Americans never look to for their cinematic pleasure. The fact that the movie is Lithuanian may be its only obstacle. While, it is true the screening was sold out that is only because a very active Lithuanian community in Chicago came out for the screening. Americans couldn't point to Lithuania on a map. To the American eyes countries such as Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are not really part of Europe. Europe is really only France, Italy, the United Kingdom and perhaps Germany and Spain. Because the movie is Lithuanian it will have limited appeal to American distributors, who will feel there is no market for this movie. However, if this movie were made in America, I'm willing to bet Oscar buzz would be circulating.

To put it simply the movie is a masterpiece. Masha, along with her mother, are on a train being sent to a gulag camp in Russia. The mother, who is pregant, dies before they arrive. With the help of some of the other passengers little Masha escapes and with the kindness of strangers must find her way back home to her village. Of course harboring a refugee is against the law. Especially someone who is not a member of the communist party.

Through the course of this journey, both emotional and physical, Masha meets good people along the way. People who will sacrifice themselves to help her. Of course, she meets more people who treat her cruely. Abuse her on an emotional, physical and most importantly, spiritual level. Our young hero is a Catholic. It is her faith and belief in doing the right thing which keeps her going. Through religion she find strength. She believes she will make it home.

Watching "The Excursionist" I am reminded of a Romanian movie directed by Nicolae Margineau, one of the great figures in Romanian cinema, called "Bless You Prison" (Binecuvantata fii inchisoare, 2002), I called it one of the best films of 2002 and one of the best movies of the last decade. These movies would make a very good double-bill, as both movies take place near the same time and deal with two characters who use their faith to get them through their horror.

The performance given by Anastasija Marcenkaite is incredible. What a gifted young actress she is. The entire movie rest on her shoulders. She has to express so much to the audience. The character endures so much pain and suffering, the movie really goes after our heartstrings, laying on the pathos. Still it is a challenging role. I am not familiar with this actress. I don't know if she has been in many Lithuanian films or not but she is a born actress. She will have quite the career ahead of her.

Director Audrius Juzenas has given us a masterpiece. I hope it finds distribution in America. This is one of the most powerful films I have seen this year.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Film Review: Le Week-end

"Le Weekend"  **** (out of ****)

Sadly while everyone will go see "Divergent" (2014) this weekend, Roger Michell, of "Notting Hill" (1999) and "Morning Glory" (2010) fame, released his latest film "Le Week-end" (2014) which will get lost in the shuffle. A shame. It is one of the year's best films.

"Le Week-end" is a charming British comedy/drama starring Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan and Jeff Goldblum. It continues the collaboration between Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi. Previously the two worked on "Venus" (2006) with Peter O' Toole and "Mother" (2003), a very bold film, whose secrets I will not reveal.

Broadbent and Duncan play a married couple that have been together for 30 years. Celebrating their anniversary they go to Paris for the weekend. Any couple that has ever spent a weekend together will tell you, by the end of the experience you will learn a lot about each other. You may even learn things about each other neither one of you wanted to know. And so it is in "Le Week-end". The couple's bond will be tested. The movie covers a wide range of themes including love, death, age and commitment. These characters look back on their life and wonder, where has it all gone? What has their lives amounted to?

What makes "Le Week-end" such a treasure to behold is Kureishi's screenplay. It brims with life. This is a warm, human comedy which hits on universal truths. The dialogue rings true. The audience is able to relate to these characters. Their situation is believable. We know these characters. They are our parents, grandparents, maybe we even see ourselves in them. It is Kureishi and Michell's ability to flesh these characters out that makes the movie magical.

Broadbent and Duncan have great chemistry between. For as good as the screenplay and Michell's direction may be, credit must be given to the actors as well. Their interpretation of their characters is a driving force behind the success of the movie. Their every gesture, speech pattern seems well placed. They have become these people. Their acting has an almost naturalistic quality to it, especially Broadbent (who is an old Mike Leigh regular. Leigh's film have an improvised quality to them). Is he even acting? Did they just place the camera on him?

In the opening moments of "Le Week-end" we see Nick (Broadbent) and Meg (Duncan) on a train headed for Paris. They seem like a "comfortable" couple. Old and set in their ways. Nick frequently forgets where he has placed things and Meg constantly reminds him. They quarrel. Make snide remarks toward each other. But we sense Nick loves Meg. Meg on the other hand seems a bit difficult to read. She doesn't seem as content with her life as Nick. In fact throughout the movie you keep expecting one of them to say the marriage is over. They want a divorce. Naturally, I won't reveal if that happens. But soon the movie touches on, what keeps two people together? How do you "put up" with another person?

On this weekend getaway they run into an old friend of Nick's, someone who he went to Cambridge with, an American, Morgan (Jeff Goldblum). Morgan, now divorced, has moved to Paris, where he has remarried. He is living with his much younger wife and they are expecting a child. He is a famous author, and in honor of his new book, is having a party which he invites Nick and Meg to. The party will be the turning point. The moment when the couple will be faced with the truth. By the end of the evening, Nick and Meg will know where they stand with each other.

At the party there is flirtation and drinking and we sense Morgan is a bit of an old charmer himself, always remarking on Meg's beauty. Accusations are hurled and midnight trysts are promised. But what will it all lead to? Though don't think however this is a bedroom sex farce. There is no low brow humor. These are smart, educated people. They don't resort to such language.

Finally another star of the movie is Paris herself. Not since Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" (2011) has the city looked more beautiful. It is a prominent part of the movie. Paris is suppose to be the city of love and romance. Will the charms of Parisian life rub off on Nick and Meg? Will this enchanting city make them fall in love all over again?

"Le Week-end" has opened to much critical acclaim and was nominated for several British Independent Film Awards, including best film. Lindsay Duncan won a best actress award and Broadbent and Goldblum were both nominated in the best actor and supporting actor categories.

This is a charming, sweet, funny movie which I hope audiences find during its theatrical run. This is one of the year's best films.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Film Review: Divergent

"Divergent"  *** (out of ****)

The setting is Chicago, sometime in the distant future. There has been a great war, which has nearly destroyed civilization as we know it. In order to rebuild itself the world is now divided into five factions. Those factions are Abnegation, who represent the selfless, they govern this new world. Next there is Dauntless, they represent the brave, Erudite, who represent intellect, Candor, which represents honesty and finally Amity, which stands for peace. This is the world presented to us in "Divergent" (2014)

The way this new society works is individuals are given an aptitude test which will determined which of these five factions they will belong to. Once you join a faction you can never change. These rules sometimes separate families if one of the members scores differently on the test. If this happens you are not allowed to visit your family. The motto of the society is factions before blood.

The underlying theme of "Divergent" is individualism. The world showcased here is one based on conformity. The population must be labeled. Citizens must fall into a group. Those that do not conform are considered a danger. They are know as "divergent" - free thinkers who will not conform. They defy labels.

This way of thinking is with us now. In our society we need to label others. First we start of with the basics. Male or female. Old or young. Tall or short. But then we get a little more complex. Kind or cruel. Intelligent or not. Democrat or Republican. We are constantly ready to fit people into boxes. This helps us identify people. Once we label them we know what to expect from them. They live up to their reputation. This is especially true in our politically divided country we live in.

What ultimately hurts "Divergent" is it takes this serious theme and then fuses it with a love story. "Divergent" becomes another "Twilight" series for young girls to gawk at guys and watch a cheesy love story. Too bad. When a movie has ideas and wants to be about something but then has to push aside those ideas in order to become more "marketable". The romance is what made Veronica Roth's novel popular. The romance is what will get people into the seats. And the theatre I saw this movie at was nearly sold out with young teenage girls eagerly awaiting for the movie to start.

In "Divergent" we follow Tris (Shailene Wooley) and her family; Natalie her mother (Ashley Judd), Andrew her father (Tony Goldwyn) and Caleb her brother (Ansel Elgort). They are Abnegation. Tris and Caleb have now reached the age where they must take the aptitude test to find out what their destiny is. Will they remain Abnegation or are they meant for something else?

When Tris takes her test she discovers she is divergent. At first she does not understand what this means and the reaction she will face from the rest of society. All she knows is she must not reveal being divergent to anyone.

Tris joins the Dauntless and there develops a crush on one of her instructors, Four (Theo James) who senses Tris is not like the other recruits, one of whom includes Peter (Miles Teller, who co-starred in last year's "The Spectacular Now" (2013) also with Woodley).

Without revealing too much, secret government plots are discovered. It is up to Tris to correct these things and bring true harmony to this new world.

Some have compared this movie to "The Hunger Game" novels and movies. Both revolve around young woman put in extreme situations. Both movies also touch on social and political themes and don't fully follow through with them.

The movie was directed by Neil Burger, best known for "The Illusionist" (2006) and "Limitless" (2011). The movie feels like a big budget Hollywood production. You don't sense there was a director behind this. A personal vision is not presented. The movie is overwhelmed by the effects and budget.

The target audience will enjoy "Divergent". It is a welcome surprise that the movie has ideas and wants to make a commentary but one wishes the movie had dropped the love story. Shorten the running time (the movie is over two hours) and focus more on the social commentary. Then "Divergent" would have been something to recommend. As it is now, it is a light, mass audience tale of forbidden love.