Alexandra

Alexander Sokurov has been nominated for the Palme D’Or at Cannes five times. To achieve something like that, a director must have a way with crafting strikingly original films, and while “Alexandra” may reek of a Disney high concept film on paper (What if your grandmother followed you out to your military base?), it achieves a level of uniqueness and tender emotion that I hadn’t expected.

The film follows an elderly Russian woman named Alexandra (Galina Vishnevskaya) traveling to a military base in Chechnya to visit her grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov) following the recent death of her husband. Denis has been away for seven years, and she’s “no good by herself.” Continue reading “Alexandra”

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee” series

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee” series combines two short films, a book of letters and the Palme D’Or winning feature.

Can I say I’ve seen three films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul or just one?

Weerasethakul (or Joe) is the Palme D’Or winning director from Thailand for his film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” He’s one of a kind purely in the fact that he’s from Thailand. I’ll give you a dollar if you can name another.

But from reading reviews of his other films, most notably “Syndromes and a Century” and “Tropical Malady,” Joe has a penchant for the exotic landscape of his homeland, and he’s a pro at allowing his camera to patiently and quietly explore it.

Joe brought this love of his home to fruition in his “Uncle Boonmee” series, a collection of a feature film (“UBWCRHPL”), two short films and one magazine booklet of photographs.

I’ve now seen all four components, and although I had my reservations about his feature alone (I may have to see it again), as a collective whole, various themes of nature, poverty, humanity and reincarnation come to fruition. Continue reading “Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee” series”

Water for Elephants

“Water for Elephants” is a classically good romance with a period-piece vibe. The film’s title, which it takes from a book of the same name, is symbolic of the falsity in the main character’s life. But there’s nothing fake about the actual circus of a film director Francis Lawrence creates.

That tangible quality of ‘Water for Elephants” is part of its appeal. Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz all interact with physical, flesh and blood animals including the aforementioned elephant, and their personal interactions are real and simple enough to reach out and touch them.

In a day and age when modern romances can seem so stretched, this one is smart enough to convince us otherwise. Continue reading “Water for Elephants”

Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Palme D’Or winner “Uncle Boonmee” comes close to the idea of “pure cinema,” but the film never announces its presence.

2010’s winner of the Palme D’Or at the Cannes film festival beat out the likes of Mike Leigh, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Abbas Kiarostami. His name is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a director from Thailand who has been making his rounds at Cannes for some time with his distinct visual style.

In “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” he uses the backdrop of the rich, exotic Thai jungle to tell an odd but not disconcerting ghost story. Right there in his title, Weerasethakul (also known as Joe in the film critic community) explains to his audience the significance of the ideas of reincarnation in Thailand.

So his film is not complicated, but it is no less demanding. Continue reading “Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”

The King’s Speech

“The King’s Speech” was made in the 1940s, I’m almost sure of it. Director Tom Hooper’s film feels so much like one, and it’s just as good as anything in that golden age of movies.

For example, a majority of the films released during that time went to promoting the war effort and used World War II as a real world back drop. “The King’s Speech” is based on the true story of King George VI, who despite a crippling fear of public speaking and a terrible speech impediment, overcame his disability to unite the country during war time while the whole world was for the first time listening on radio.

And everything about the film screams that classical quality. The screen acting is superb and charismatic. The dialogue is fast, witty and poignant. The spacious cinematography compliments the dim art direction that begs to have been shot in black and white.

“The King’s Speech” is a true throwback to the good ‘ole days, and I suspect this film that won the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival will give “The Social Network” a run for its money in the Best Picture race, becoming a battle between the values of new and old Hollywood. Continue reading “The King’s Speech”

Rapid Response: Ed Wood

Ed Wood is considered the worst director who ever lived. He held this title for so long, and it wasn’t until recently that my generation has established new cult heroes of awful cinema such as Tommy Wisseau and Uwe Boll and seem to have forgotten Wood somewhat. Beyond that, there is a belief that “Plan 9 from Outer Space” is actually not the worst film ever made but one of the BEST films ever made, that it’s awful sets, performances and effects and complete disregard for continuity was all brilliantly intentional and ironic. Only in the 21st century would such a mindset develop.

It doesn’t help that Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” despite being released in his heyday of the ’90s, despite being one of his most critically acclaimed films and despite starring his eternal frontman Johnny Depp, is one of his least known films amongst the many Burton fanboys still agreeing how great “Alice in Wonderland” was (it’s not).

In this film, Burton doesn’t necessarily vindicate Wood as a genius, but he is sympathetic to him, and he recognizes a certain level of genius (albeit one that doesn’t indicate something “good”) in him absent from most other directors of all time. Depp infuses Wood with a sheer level of optimism and grinning credulity for everything around him, and such was the way Wood directed his movies, in love with every shot and every line of dialogue as a work of art. It’s not that he was blind to his own failure as well as other’s greatness. In his mind, everyone was great.

The film is hilarious, one of my favorite lines being, “Aren’t you a fag? What? No, I’m just a transvestite.” Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, who starred in numerous Wood films, is terrific, as is Bill Murray as an arguably odd and unnecessary character, Bunny Breckenridge. The black and white cinematography has that great ’50s B-Movie vibe, and the scenes in which they recreate “Plan 9 from Outer Space” are priceless in their precision to the film (which I’ve seen, and yes, it is terrible in an amazing way).

I’m not sure on the accuracy of the film historically, but it’s great fun and actually one of Burton’s best.

Campus MovieFest directors should find their voice

Student filmmaking is as indie as the movies get.

I would imagine there are some telecom students shooting with multiple HD cameras or in 3-D that would disagree with me, but the work done this past Sunday at the Campus MovieFest says differently.

I watched a number of films that lacked substance but were made up for in style, some that had strong concepts but called out for a larger budget and some that were impressive in both aspects but were still complex in their execution.

CMF provides equipment for the filmmakers to shoot their projects, but only a handful of the 16 finalists were clearly shot on the handheld camera given to everyone. But even those few demanded a lot from their actors, their screenwriters and their cinematographers to make a remotely decent film.

After the screening, a friend of mine who had made a very well shot, told and acted short and was selected as one of the nominees for Best Comedy, expressed his disappointment at his loss. He explained that in all of his precise cinematography and cooperating with the actor and screenwriter to achieve a convincing story, he might have left out his own voice. Continue reading “Campus MovieFest directors should find their voice”

Rapid Response: The Verdict

In honor of the late great Sidney Lumet, I watched “The Verdict” one of the four films for which he was nominated for Best Director. It’s a courtroom drama starring Paul Newman and written by David Mamet, both of whom were nominated for Oscars as well in 1982.

What sets it apart instantly is how we follow Newman as Frank Galvin, a struggling drunk of an attorney with a reputation for being an ambulance chaser after a divorce, a disbarment hearing and the loss of four cases in the last three years of his career. The movie starts on a note that other films might climax on, showing him trashing his office before his first case in months shows up at his doorstep. It’s a simple malpractice case intended to be settled out of court. He would make a clean $70,000 and the plaintiffs would go away happy too, and although he starts out as a lying dirt bag, putting on performances to explain to his client why he was late and making up pseudonyms and stories to get into funerals and hospitals, he instantly gains a change of heart when he sees his client, a girl in a coma whose life has been taken away by negligent doctors.

As a craggy old man, it’s a bit of a reversal of the norms. Usually the down in the dumps guy is always fighting for social justice and has his morals compromised or vice versa. It was refreshing to see Newman in a weak, old man role rather than his young, good looking self. He was in his early 50s at the time, but he plays a character looking to be in his 60s at least. It’s a stark contrast to even his role reprisal in “The Color of Money,” where his character is old but his spirit is not.

The performances are all great and the dialogue is well written, but I sometimes take exception to courtroom dramas that have flaws in their case proceedings. That’s the point of “The Verdict,” I know, that the system is broken and the poor are powerless, but this movie had a judge out to get Galvin and actually opening his mouth to ask questions to the witness, and later a key testimony is stricken from the record on a technicality. There’s also a big twist that comes later, but it and the character’s other purpose both seemed tacked on.

I did enjoy it, if specifically for Newman’s work and Lumet’s ability to keep the camera hidden and let the characters speak for themselves. But the AFI lists it as the 4th best courtroom drama of all time, and that may be pushing it.

Lawrence of Arabia

I can think of a handful of movies the average moviegoer will never get around to seeing, no matter how good or critically acclaimed they are: “Schindler’s List,” “Shoah,” “The Decalogue,” “Birth of a Nation,” certain Kurosawa epics, and “Lawrence of Arabia.” All of those titles have length in common, but “Lawrence of Arabia” is a curious inclusion, because at no point is that film difficult to watch.

However, I can think of reasons why certain people may avoid it, however misguided they may be. The film is pushing four hours in length, has no women in its cast, very little “action,” a peculiar male lead that hints at homosexuality and every critic who praises it agrees that the only proper way to actually see it is to see it projected in 70mm film.

I have seen the film twice now, once on TCM, and at time of writing, I’ve now seen it projected on 70mm film as is recommended. The film is a masterpiece no matter how you see it, but seeing it on the big screen will certainly make the film much more tolerable or manageable to watch for the average viewer.

And it is the way to see it. People come out of “Lawrence of Arabia” having been to the desert and back, but only if you’ve actually “felt the desert” first. There are brilliantly desolate scenes in this movie where the image is nothing more than pristine sand and a perfectly crystal clear horizon in every direction.

And despite being inspired by John Ford’s “The Searchers” and similar images in Monument Valley, Lean had the nerve to go to the deserts of Jordan and back, where no one had ever shot anything like this before, to capture what only he imagined could be great. Continue reading “Lawrence of Arabia”

The Damned United

 

Tom Hooper just won Best Director and Best Picture for “The King’s Speech” at the Oscars. The expansive cinematography in that film revealed the gravity of King George VI’s every word. In “The Damned United,” which he made in 2009, the cinematography needs to be so wide open just to keep Brian Clough’s ego inside.

Michael Sheen plays Brian Clough in such a way that he becomes one of those characters you can only refer to by his full name. Clough has one of the most winning records in the history of the Premier League of British football, and yet Clough’s name has become synonymous with “The 44 Days,” or the immensely brief time he was manager of Leeds United and led them to their worst season opening in the history of the club.

“The Damned United” is a “sports movie” but avoids any of the usual clichés or even common themes of the genre. Here is a movie in which the loser becomes the legend.

Clough began his career as the manager of Derby County, which in the mid ‘60s was a struggling team near the bottom of the 2nd Division of the league. As part of the European Cup, Derby got to play the top seeded Leeds. Derby got trounced, but Clough was embarrassed not just for his team but also personally after the Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) refused to shake his hand and blew him off for an after game drink.

Fast forward to 1974, and Revie has been appointed the manager of the national team after a disappointing run in the World Cup. Leeds’s replacement is Brian Clough, and he told the team that every award they ever won should be thrown “in the bin because they were not won fairly.” He hated the team, he hated the players and he hated Revie, and the film becomes a character study into Clough’s reasons why.

What Sheen brings to the performance is simply an immersed, headstrong attitude. He is not humble, and yet not overly rude, boastful, sarcastic or tough. He does swear and get in some witty jabs, but Clough is merely utterly confident of himself, and Sheen’s glowing personality and constantly brimming façade gives that exact impression.

He makes good choices and is even inspiring. His knowledge of the sport and even experience as a player ultimately allowed him to lead his team to the national championships. But in all of his motivating speeches and victories, we see no one but him. Most sports movies usually individualize a member of the team, providing the screenplay with someone for the coach to relate to, but this film is all about Clough.

That feeling of singularity in the story is thanks in part to Hooper’s direction. Hooper delicately paces Clough’s rise and fall, including mostly stock footage of matches, no “big games” and particularly minimal camera movement. There’s a scene early on where Clough is on the phone with his partner Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) as he’s just tracked down a new player for the team. The camera moves in on Clough so subtly and slowly, but we get the sensation that his head and ego are just growing with potential.

Hooper then puts Clough’s ego to the test with the Leeds squad, a group of players all dressed in bright purple, their names always starkly visible on their jerseys and identified above any other player on the Derby squad. It’s almost as if by just standing on the pitch with their backs to the camera they are challenging Clough’s ego and authority.

“The Damned United” is richly directed, photographed and acted. With Sheen, Timothy Spall and even Jim Broadbent in the cast, Hooper has assembled just about the three most underrated British actors working today, and they’re all doing wonderful screen acting.

“The King’s Speech” won the Oscar because it is so inspirational and moving. “The Damned United” is hardly an inspirational story of victory, but somehow it still seems like a win.