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Archive for July, 2010

The Bicycle Thief

Directed by Vittorio De Sica

Released in 1948, “The Bicycle Thief” (or the more literal translation, “Bicycle Thieves” – though I prefer the original interpretation) is quite possibly the most famous piece of Italian cinema ever produced. If not such, then it certainly comes a close second to Fellini’s “8 1/2”. (More on that film soon… probably.) It has more often than not made the Top 10, Top 25, Top 100, (and so on and so forth) list of all time greatest movies ever, by critics, and even more impressively, other filmmakers. In other words, before even getting the chance to watch this film I was completely under the impression that it could be nothing short of a masterpiece. Usually when my expectations outweigh my knowledge of a film, the expectations get the better of me and I end up severely disappointed. I’m happy to say that this wasn’t the case with “The Bicycle Thief”. It really is as good as everyone makes it out to be.

The one thing you need to know about this film going in, is that it is a neorealistic film. In other words, it tries to represent the beauty and drama of everyday life. It’s absolutely not a piece of escapism. Do not expect to be “entertained” in the usual sense of the word. If following around a father and his young son through the streets of Rome as they search for a bicycle doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then you might as well just stop reading this now.

Okay, now that pretty much everybody has stopped reading, I can talk a little more about the film with the clear knowledge that nobody is reading what I’m saying. (What can I say, I’m shy.)

I think that what sets “The Bicycle Thief” apart from other films, both neorealistic and not, is its heart. Every character openly wears their emotions on the cuff of their sleeve. (Which might have to do with where the film was made more than anything else, because it’s certainly an Italian trait if I’ve ever come to know one.) There are no ulterior motives or plot twists at work here. A man needs his bike to keep his job and keep his family fed and sheltered. His bike is stolen and he goes looking for it with the help of his son. The film never gets more complicated than that. But all the same, through the expert staging and fantastic acting, the film is one of the funniest and heart-wrenching pieces of fiction that you will ever see. The film offers up a very definitive moral understanding of human nature and doesn’t shy away from this perception at all. Life is tough, but in between all that toughness there is levity, laughter, love, and genuine moments of happiness. Brief as all those may be. That one film is capable of summing all of this up in under 90 minutes of screen time is a miracle all its own. But that it does so so effectively is an example of something else, true artistry.

Trailer:

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This might very well be the funniest thing that I have ever seen on the Craig Ferguson show. And a quick browse through this site will tell you that that means a lot.

And just because everyone seems to love him (for good reason) here’s a little more of Sid, talking about the life of a rabbit. (It’s pretty tough… unless of course you’re Sid.)

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Martyrs

Directed by Pascal Laugier

I just turned on this movie expecting your typical horror fest, not doing much to mentally prepare myself for the watching of it. I really, really, wish I had. “Martyrs” is quite possibly one of the most horrific and disturbing pieces of celluloid that I have ever seen. And I’ve seen pretty much everything. “Martyrs” makes snuff films look like the most jovial of Will Ferrell comedies. But the craziest thing? Despite how mentally disturbing it is, it never crosses the line and becomes exploitive. Violence for the sake of pure unadulterated violence. Make no mistake, it comes close to that line, flirting with it particularly strongly towards the end of the film, but underneath it all is a story that vindicates its extremely brutal methods.

“Martyrs” is a film made in Quebec, Canada.  And to its credit, it’s the most impressive Canadian production that I can ever remember seeing. It’s really quite beautiful looking. Until all the violence starts. Which happens about fifteen minutes into the film and then never stops. After this point, it remains beautifully shot, but all the same you’re gonna wanna look away more often than not. I know I did. I can remember a few moments in the film when I genuinely thought that I might have to turn this off. (The removal of a mask stapled to someone’s head – at the half way point of the movie – bringing me closest.) For the first forty minutes, the film is completely and disgustingly hypnotizing. The end of the film falters somewhat in its pacing, but it is obvious that the story would not have worked without the decisions made here, so this small discretion is forgivable.

I really don’t know what else to say about this film. It’s not something you just simply watch. No sane human being could sit through this movie without feeling something. It absolutely is a movie that you experience. So if you think that you have the intestinal fortitude to do so, search it out and turn it on. It’s a fantastic horror film, but please, don’t say that I didn’t warn you. Seriously. They should hand out medals for people who are able to make it through the totality of this picture. Either that, or lock us away.

I’ve decided not to include a trailer here because the less you know about this film (and what happens) the better. (And the trailer gives away far too much.) So if you think you might want to watch it, avoid reading or watching anything else about the film. I’ll provide a brief synopsis here, just to get you started.

A young girl is kidnapped and tortured for 14 months. Once breaking free from her captors she is placed in an orphanage. 15 years later she goes searching for those people who kidnapped her with the help of her closest friend. Sounds simple enough right? Trust me, by the end of the film, you will have forgotten all about the beginning.

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Network

Directed by Sidney Lumet

This film is a tour de-force as far as acting is concerned. I never would have thought with a main cast all above the median age of 50, that a film would contain as much energy as this one does, but it’s as electrically charged as the lightning bolt crashing through its poster and trailer. Within a two hour running time, it zips in and out of the life of its four main characters, bouncing all around them and watching as their realities (both televised and not) come crashing down around them.

I’ve never seen the television industry portrayed so coldly, humoursly, and gasp, accurately. (Though I sincerely hope that that last point has changed somewhat over the past thirty-some-odd years, as it’s an industry I hope to one day work in.) The entire film is a philosophical look at not only the television generation, but the entire way that the world presently works. It’s full of spot-on characterization, fast and furious dialogue, and metaphors on top of metaphors. If I had one gripe with the film, it’s that Faye Dunaway’s relationship with William Holden feels somewhat rushed or false, but by the end of the film, I believe that was intentional more so than not. It’s certainly a powerful piece of filmmaking, and if I have very little to say about it, it’s only because there’s no need. Anything there is to say, “Network” finds a way to say it. Or show it.

Trailer:

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Philadelphia

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Where to begin with this film? In short, it was nothing like I expected. I think it’s very likely that had this film been made more recently, it would be a very different piece of cinema. I wanted to like this film, truly. I believe that it had the absolute best intentions at heart, but I can’t shake the feeling that it does as much damage to the issue of homosexuality in America, as it does good.

The real problem stems from Denzel Washington’s character, Joe Miller. (Though it must be said that Denzel nonetheless, gives an awesome performance as always.) He’s a bigot when it comes to homosexual men, yet still he chooses to represent Tom Hank’s character, Andy, as his legal representation. No doubt, this was a choice added to develop more emotional resonance to the events that unfold. I’m sure Denzel’s character was supposed to act as a sort of surrogate for American society, afraid of something they do not understand, but by the end of the film changed for the better. The problem is, this change never really happens. As the films stands, Joe Miller hates gay people all the way up until about 2/3rd’s of the way through the film. And even then, at the end of the film, the audience is never given any sign that his attitude towards homosexuality has really changed. True, he comes to care for Andy and Andy’s family, but there is never a moment where his character realizes how he has viewed gay people before was wrong. There is never a moment of real catharsis for Joe, and if there is, it’s so subtle that it might as well not count. (I suppose that we could see his removing of Andy’s oxygen mask without being afraid of contracting AIDS as “improvement”… but as far as I’m concerned, all Joe has learned is something biological; you can’t catch AIDS like a common cold. He is still far away from understanding that his conception of tolerance needs to change.)  I am far from a believer that films need to preach their message, but in a film with a character that so openly debases the gay population, a character that at the end we’re supposed to have seen as one of the heroes of the piece, a little more reason to believe him as such is needed. As it stands now, he helps Andy simply because the law was “broken”. This ends up sending a fairly horrible message, one that says bureaucratic legalities trump basic human rights. And I’m sorry, but that’s something I can just not approve of.

The other problem I have with this film is somewhat ironic in context of my previous issue. Namely that the film (especially the beginning) is highly over directed. Seriously. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film so needlessly over stylized before. I understand exactly what Demme was going for, putting HIV right in front of our faces, but the entire first half hour seems to consist solely of close-ups, most of which make the film comes across as slightly cartoonish and over-dramatic. Had Demme utilized these close-ups more sparingly, I believe that it would have made for a much more subtle and effective film, and one that still got his point across clearly. Had Demme paced himself and been a little less forth coming at the beginning and a little more at the end, maybe things would have worked out differently.

Other than these two (large) issues, “Philadelphia” was a good film. Tom Hanks gives a powerful performance, and the use of music is spot-on. The film often times works quite well, which makes it all the more demoralizing to be forced to think of what might have been.

Trailer:

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Me and Orson Welles

Directed by Richard Linklater

There’s no other artist quite like Orson Welles. No other persona either, for that matter. As far as Mythology goes in both filmmaking and the theatre, Welles sits upon his golden throne tossing lightning bolts down upon us mortal men. He is a god in the industry, and like all such powerful beings, has both his followers and his detractors.

I can’t really say that I’ve ever really been either. I’ve seen only a few of his films, and have never concerned myself with studying his life or his work. At the same time, I see the merit and power that his films contain and can’t help but think that as an actor, there has never been anyone else with such presence on-screen. Even when he’s not the camera’s focus, your eye is drawn to him, his orbital pull drags you in. “Me and Orson Welles” is the new film by Richard Linklater, of whom I have been a huge fan ever since seeing “Before Sunrise”. (My favourite romantic film of all time.) And it is a film that concerns itself heavily with the idea of Orson Welles, the mythology of the man, while at the same time, managing to portray him as something very, very, human.

We are brought into the film, and Orson’s world, through the eyes of a young man named Richard, played by Zac Efron. I can’t say I’ve ever seen Efron act in anything else, but he does a surprisingly admirable job in this film. His character is somewhat unfocused, but I would say the fault for that lies more with the screenwriters than anyone else. Richard is a necessary evil of sorts. Though the film is strongest whenever Orson Welles (played fantastically by Christian McKay) is on-screen, too much of him would have been exactly that. Seeing Orson through the eyes of an impressionable young man allows the audience to interact and relate to Orson in a much more manageable way. Had Orson been the main character of the film and each scene seen through his own eyes, the audience would eventually have become overpowered by it all.

Another area that this film does a magnificent job is in its representation of the creation of a play. Though the film only concerns itself with the final week of rehearsals for Welles’ interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Caesar”, I don’t think that I have ever seen a film capture the behind the scene relationships of those involved in making a play better than this one does. The level of humanity found in this picture is astonishing, and it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to making its characters more “likable.” Everyone in this film is flawed, most so, heavily. And I found it very refreshing that the film didn’t try to hide that whatsoever.

It’s a shame that this film didn’t find a much wider audience when it was released late last year (and with Efron’s involvement, somewhat surprising). Regardless, if you have any love for Orson Welles, Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Richard Linklater, the theatre, Shakespeare, the 1930’s, or just a well told story, search this film out.

Trailer:

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What’s New Pussycat?

Directed by Clive Donner

And thus ends my quest to watch every Woody Allen film written or directed by him. (So far.) I still haven’t seen every single movie he’s ever acted in, but there aren’t many of those left and I’ll get to them eventually. I saved this film for last because it was the first film Allen ever worked on, and in my weirdly formed world of OCD-lite, the last film I watched had to either be his most recent film or his first. I ended up going with “first.” Still, I had little hope that I was really going to enjoy this film. Woody has always been outspoken about his distaste for it, and the other two films of his that he has hated (“Casino Royale”, and “What’s Up, Tiger Lilly?”) I found to be rather dull. So really, I sat down to watch this film, daring it to make me like it. After about ten minutes, it sort of did.

What’s hard for me to do is watch a Woody Allen film without separating the script from his voice. Even in his most recent films, in which he no longer acts, I always picture my neurotic best friend, spouting out lines instead of say… Scarlett Johansson. (Believe me, I know that I could spend years of therapy on that thought alone. How anyone, let alone a heterosexual male, would purposely picture a 120 pound neurotic nut, than one of the most beautiful woman in the world is beyond me. And I’m the one doing it!) Anyway, slight tangent now over, it was even harder for me to watch a Woody Allen based screenplay with someone else directing it. I find it highly unlikely that the original screenplay was as comically broad and slapstick filled as the final film ended up being, if only because Allen has always voiced his dislike for that type of comedic styling. The thing is though, with Peter Sellers and Peter O’Toole whom are both fine actors in their own right, the film still manages to find a way to be charming. Is it as funny as “Take the Money and Run” or “Sleeper”? No, but it’s zany and sexy and has a bevy of fantastic one liners that zip around at a manic pace. Over all, the film could have ended up being much, much worse, and even though Mr. Allen will probably always be discouraged at its continued existence, there are a lot worse film debuts out there. Woody got a little bit lucky, especially for a film that’s genesis came purely from the fact that the title was the favoured line that Warren Beatty utilized to pick up women.

Trailer:

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