Roger Ebert didn't find this movie as good as I did so I put my own point of view.
"I think this movie is really amazing. At the end, you are so confused. I'm sure a lot of people are annoyed by this but I love this feeling. Even if you have more information than the main character, Leonard, at the end, it is still a big blur. How long has been he on the run ? 1 year ? 2 years ? longer ? How many John D. has he killed ? Was his wife killed or did he made it up ? Some many questions that remain even if you watch the movies 20 times. I just think it is fascinating. "
Roger Ebert didn't find this movie as good as I did so I put my own point of view.
"The first Dogme movie was just great. No special effects, no big stars just a simple and pure movie. It was also the first time I felt nauseous after watching a movie. Not because It was bad but because it was so heavy and emotional. A great movie."
Roger Ebert didn't review this movie so I put my own point of view.
"I'm usually not a fan of psychopath/serial killer movies. I mean they are most of the time entertaining but they are almost never great, in my point of view. This one is the exception. It is so thoughtful and complex. An amazing picture."
" 'Dark City' by Alex Proyas resembles its great silent predecessor 'Metropolis' in asking what it is that makes us human, and why it cannot be changed by decree. Both films are about false worlds created to fabricate ideal societies, and in both the machinery of the rulers is destroyed by the hearts of the ruled. Both are parables in which a dangerous weapon attacks the order of things: a free human who can see what really is, and question it. 'Dark City' contains a threat more terrible than any of the horrors in 'Metropolis', because the rulers of the city can control the memories of its citizens; if we are the sum of all that has happened to us, then what are we when nothing has happened to us?
In 'Dark City' (1998), all of the human memories are newly fabricated when the hands of the clock reach 12. This is defined as 'midnight', but the term is deceptive, because there is no noon. 'First came darkness, then came the Strangers' we are told in the opening narration. In the beginning, there was no light. John Murdoch, the hero, asks Bumstead, the police detective: 'When was the last time you remember doing something during the day?' Bumstead is surprised by the question. 'You know something?' Murdoch asks him. 'I don't think the sun even exists in this place. I've been up for hours and hours, and the night never ends here.'
The narration explains that the Strangers came from another galaxy and collected a group of humans to study them. Their civilization is dying. They seek to find the secret of the human heart, or soul, or whatever it is that falls outside their compass. They create a vast artificial city, which can be fabricated, or 'tuned', whenever they want to run another experiment.
We see the tuning taking place. All humans lose consciousness. All machinery stops. Changes are made in the city. Skyscrapers are extruded from the primordial materials of the underworld, architecture is devised, rooms are prepared for their inhabitants, props are set in place. Aided by a human scientist, the Strangers inject memories into the foreheads of their test subjects. When humans awaken, they have no memory of the day before; everything they remember has been injected from a communal memory bank. If a man commits murder one day and then is given a new identity, is he still capable of committing murder? Are men inherently good or evil, or is it a matter of how they think of themselves? The Strangers need to know.
Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) has developed an immunity to the devices of the Strangers. His latest memory injection was incomplete. It was administered by Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), a scientist who works for the Strangers but has no love for them. Murdoch wakes in a hotel room with the corpse of a dead woman; the script for the day has made him a serial killer of prostitutes. Schreber warns him he is the subject of an experiment but has proven resistant to it. The Strangers are coming for him, and he must flee.
That sets the story into motion: Murdoch wanders through the city, trying to discover its underlying nature; Detective Bumstead (William Hurt) tries to capture him, but will gradually be won over by Murdoch's questions (he is programmed as a cop, but not a very good one; he keeps complaining, 'no one ever listens to me'). Then there is the torch singer, Emma (Jennifer Connelly), who remembers that she is John's wife and loves him, and that they met at Shell Beach. Everyone says they know how to go to Shell Beach. But no one seems able to say exactly where it is.
The Strangers occupy the bodies of human cadavers. Most of them are tall; one is in a child's body but is no child. The alien beings themselves, living inside the corpses, look like spiders made of frightened noodles. They can levitate, they can change the matter of the city at will, they have a hive insect organization, they gather in a subterranean cavern to collectively retune the city. This cavern has visuals reminding us of two Fritz Lang films: the underworld mechanisms in 'Metropolis' (1927) and his 'M' (1931), with the pale faces of criminals rising row above row into the gloom.
In October, I went through 'Dark City' a shot at a time for four days at the Hawaii Film festival, with moviegoers who were as curious as I was. We froze frames, we dissected special effects, we debated the meaning of the film, and our numbers even included a psychiatrist who told us of the original Daniel Schreber, a schizophrenic whose book on his condition influenced Freud and Jung.
Sometimes during the shot-by-shot analysis, we simply froze a frame and regarded it. Some of the street scenes echo paintings by Edward Hopper or Jack Vettriano. This is not only a beautiful film but a generous one, which supplies rich depth and imagination and many more details than are really necessary to tell the story. Small wonder that the name Bumstead appears, perhaps in honor of Henry Bumstead, one of the greatest Hollywood art directors. The world created by the Strangers seems borrowed from 1940s film noir; we see fedoras, cigarettes, neon signs, automats, older cars (and some newer ones -- the world is not consistent). Proyas wrote the screenplay with David S. Goyer and Lem Dobbs; the screenplays Dobbs wrote for 'Kafka' and Goyer wrote for 'Batman Begins' contain some of the same notes sounded here.
Proyas likes deep-focus compositions. Many interior spaces are long and narrow. Exteriors look down one street to the vanishing point, and then the camera pans to look down another street, equally long. The lighting is low-key and moody. The color scheme depends on blacks, browns, shadows and the pallor of the Strangers; warmer colors exist in human faces, in neon signs and on the billboard for Shell Beach. 'I am simply grateful for this shot,' I said in Hawaii more than once. 'It is as well-done as it can possibly be.' Many other great films give you the same feeling -- that their makers were carried far beyond the actual requirements of their work into the passion of creating something wonderful.
I believe more than ever that 'Dark City' is one of the great modern films. It preceded 'The Matrix' by a year (both films used a few of the same sets in Australia), and on a smaller budget, with special effects that owe as much to imagination as to technology, did what 'The Matrix' wanted to do, earlier and with more feeling.
The poignancy of 'Dark City' emerges in its love stories. At a crucial point, John Murdoch tells Emma, 'Everything you remember, and everything I'm supposed to remember, never really happened.' Emma doesn't think that can be true. 'I so vividly remember meeting you,' she says. 'I remember falling in love with you.' Yes, she remembers. But this is the first time they have met. 'I love you, John,' she says. 'You can't fake something like that.' And Murdoch says, 'No, you can't.' You can inform someone who they love, and that is what the Strangers have done with their memory injection. But what she feels cannot be injected. That is the part the strangers do not understand. Emma has a small role but it is at the heart of the movie, because she truly knows love; John has still to discover it -- to learn about it from her.
The Strangers are not evil. They simply proceed from alien assumptions. They are not even omnipotent, which is why Murdoch, Bumstead and Schreber have relative freedom to move about the city. At the end, we feel a little sorry for them. They will die surrounded by happy beings whose secrets they could not discover.
Notice an opening shot that approaches the hotel window behind which we meet Murdoch. The window is a circular dome in a rectangular frame. As clearly as possible, it looks like the 'face' of Hal 9000 in '2001'. Hal was a computer that understood everything, except what it was to be human and have emotions. 'Dark City' considers the same theme in a film that creates a completely artificial world in which humans teach themselves to be themselves."
"Shortly before filming was to begin on 'Rashomon', Akira Kurosawa's three assistant directors came to see him. They were unhappy. They didn't understand the story. 'If you read it diligently,' he told them, 'you should be able to understand it, because it was written with the intention of being comprehensible.' They would not leave: 'We believe we have read it carefully, and we still don't understand it at all.'
Recalling this day in Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa explains the movie to them. The explanation is reprinted in the booklet that comes with the new Criterion DVD of 'Rashomon'. Two of the assistants are satisfied with his explanation, but the third leaves looking puzzled. What he doesn't understand is that while there is an explanation of the film's four eyewitness accounts of a murder, there is not a solution.
Kurosawa is correct that the screenplay is comprehensible as exactly what it is: Four testimonies that do not match. It is human nature to listen to witnesses and decide who is telling the truth, but the first words of the screenplay, spoken by the woodcutter, are 'I just don't understand.' His problem is that he has heard the same events described by all three participants in three different ways--and all three claim to be the killer.
'Rashomon' (1950) struck the world of film like a thunderbolt. Directed by Kurosawa in the early years of his career, before he was hailed as a grandmaster, it was made reluctantly by a minor Japanese studio, and the studio head so disliked it that he removed his name from the credits. Then it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, effectively opening the world of Japanese cinema to the West. It won the Academy Award as best foreign film. It set box office records for a subtitled film. Its very title has entered the English language, because, like 'Catch-22', it expresses something for which there is no better substitute.
In a sense, 'Rashomon' is a victim of its success, as Stuart Galbraith IV writes in The Emperor and the Wolf, his comprehensive new study of the lives and films of Kurosawa and his favorite actor, Toshiro Mifune. When it was released, he observes, nobody had ever seen anything like it. It was the first use of flashbacks that disagreed about the action they were flashing back to. It supplied first-person eyewitness accounts that differed radically--one of them coming from beyond the grave. It ended with three self-confessed killers and no solution.
Since 1950 the story device of 'Rashomon' has been borrowed repeatedly; Galbraith cites 'Courage Under Fire', and certainly 'The Usual Suspects' was also influenced, in the way it shows us flashbacks that do not agree with any objective reality. Because we see the events in flashbacks, we assume they reflect truth. But all they reflect is a point of view, sometimes lied about. Smart films know this, less ambitious films do not. Many films that use a flashback only to fill in information are lazy.
The genius of 'Rashomon' is that all of the flashbacks are both true and false. True, in that they present an accurate portrait of what each witness thinks happened. False, because as Kurosawa observes in his autobiography, 'Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.'
The wonder of 'Rashomon' is that while the shadowplay of truth and memory is going on, we are absorbed by what we trust is an unfolding story. The film's engine is our faith that we'll get to the bottom of things--even though the woodcutter tells us at the outset he doesn't understand, and if an eyewitness who has heard the testimony of the other three participants doesn't understand, why should we expect to?
The film opens in torrential rain, and five shots move from long shot to closeup to reveal two men sitting in the shelter of Kyoto's Rashomon Gate. The rain will be a useful device, unmistakably setting apart the present from the past. The two men are a priest and a woodcutter, and when a commoner runs in out of the rain and engages them in conversation, he learns that a samurai has been murdered and his wife raped and a local bandit is suspected. In the course of telling the commoner what they know, the woodcutter and the priest will introduce flashbacks in which the bandit, the wife and the woodcutter say what they saw, or think they saw--and then a medium turns up to channel the ghost of the dead samurai. Although the stories are in radical disagreement, it is unlike any of the original participants are lying for their own advantage, since each claims to be the murderer.
Kurosawa's screenplay is only the ground which the film travels, however. The real gift of "Rashomon" is in its emotions and visuals. The cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa evokes the heat, light and shade of a semi-tropical forest. (Slugs dropped from trees onto the cast and crew, Kurosawa recalled, and they slathered themselves with salt to repel them.)
The woodcutter's opening journey into the woods is famous as a silent sequence which suggests he is traveling into another realm of reality. Miyagawa shoots directly into the sun (then a taboo) and there are shots where the sharply-contrasted shadows of overhead leaves cast a web upon the characters, making them half-disappear into the ground beneath.
In one long sustained struggle between the bandit (Mifune) and the samurai (Masayuki Mori), their exhaustion, fear and shortness of breath becomes palpable. In a sequence where the woman (Machiko Kyo) taunts both men, there is a silence in which thoughts form that will decide life or death. Perhaps the emotions evolved in that forest clearing are so strong and fearful that they cannot be translated into rational explanation.
The first time I saw the film, I knew hardly a thing about Japanese cinema, and what struck me was the elevated emotional level of the actors. Do all Japanese shout and posture so? Having now seen a great many Japanese films, I know that in most of them the Japanese talk in more or less the same way we do (Ozu's films are a model of conversational realism). But Kurosawa was not looking for realism. From his autobiography, we learn he was struck by the honesty of emotion in silent films, where dialog could not carry the weight and actors used their faces, eyes and gestures to express emotion. That heightened acting style, also to be seen in Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" and several other period pictures, plays well here because many of the sequences are, essentially, silent.
Film cameras are admirably literal, and faithfully record everything they are pointed at. Because they are usually pointed at real things, we usually think we can believe what we see. The message of "Rashomon" is that we should suspect even what we think we have seen. This insight is central to Kurosawa's philosophy. The old clerk's family and friends think they've witnessed his decline and fall in 'Ikiru'(1952), but we have seen a process of self-discovery and redemption. The seven samurai are heroes when they save the village, but thugs when they demand payment after the threat has passed. The old king in 'Ran'(1985) places his trust in the literal meaning of words, and talks himself out of his kingdom and life itself.
Kurosawa's last film, 'Madadayo' made in 1993 when he was 83, was about an old master teacher who is visited once a year by his students. At the end of the annual party, he lifts a beer and shouts out the ritual cry 'Not yet!' Death is near, but not yet--so life goes on. The film's hero is in some sense Kurosawa. He is a reliable witness that he is not yet dead, but when he dies no one will know less about it than he will."
'I don't think any word can explain a man's life,' says one of the searchers through the warehouse of treasures left behind by Charles Foster Kane. Then we get the famous series of shots leading to the closeup of the word 'Rosebud' on a sled that has been tossed into a furnace, its paint curling in the flames. We remember that this was Kane's childhood sled, taken from him as he was torn from his family and sent east to boarding school.
Rosebud is the emblem of the security, hope and innocence of childhood, which a man can spend his life seeking to regain. It is the green light at the end of Gatsby's pier; the leopard atop Kilimanjaro, seeking nobody knows what; the bone tossed into the air in ``2001.'' It is that yearning after transience that adults learn to suppress. 'Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get, or something he lost' says Thompson, the reporter assigned to the puzzle of Kane's dying word. 'Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything.' True, it explains nothing, but it is remarkably satisfactory as a demonstration that nothing can be explained. 'Citizen Kane' likes playful paradoxes like that. Its surface is as much fun as any movie ever made. Its depths surpass understanding. I have analyzed it a shot at a time with more than 30 groups, and together we have seen, I believe, pretty much everything that is there on the screen. The more clearly I can see its physical manifestation, the more I am stirred by its mystery.
It is one of the miracles of cinema that in 1941 a first-time director; a cynical, hard-drinking writer; an innovative cinematographer, and a group of New York stage and radio actors were given the keys to a studio and total control, and made a masterpiece. 'Citizen Kane' is more than a great movie; it is a gathering of all the lessons of the emerging era of sound, just as 'Birth of a Nation' assembled everything learned at the summit of the silent era, and '2001' pointed the way beyond narrative. These peaks stand above all the others.
The origins of 'Citizen Kane' are well known. Orson Welles, the boy wonder of radio and stage, was given freedom by RKO Radio Pictures to make any picture he wished. Herman Mankiewicz, an experienced screenwriter, collaborated with him on a screenplay originally called 'The American'. Its inspiration was the life of William Randolph Hearst, who had put together an empire of newspapers, radio stations, magazines and news services, and then built to himself the flamboyant monument of San Simeon, a castle furnished by rummaging the remains of nations. Hearst was Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates rolled up into an enigma.
Arriving in Hollywood at age 25, Welles brought a subtle knowledge of sound and dialogue along with him; on his Mercury Theater of the Air, he'd experimented with audio styles more lithe and suggestive than those usually heard in the movies. As his cinematographer he hired Gregg Toland, who on John Ford's 'The Long Voyage Home'(1940) had experimented with deep focus photography--with shots where everything was in focus, from the front to the back, so that composition and movement determined where the eye looked first. For his cast Welles assembled his New York colleagues, including Joseph Cotten as Jed Leland, the hero's best friend; Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander, the young woman Kane thought he could make into an opera star; Everett Sloane as Mr. Bernstein, the mogul's business wizard; Ray Collins as Gettys, the corrupt political boss, and Agnes Moorehead as the boy's forbidding mother. Welles himself played Kane from age 25 until his deathbed, using makeup and body language to trace the progress of a man increasingly captive inside his needs. 'All he really wanted out of life was love,' Leland says. 'That's Charlie's story--how he lost it.'
The structure of 'Citizen Kane' is circular, adding more depth every time it passes over the life. The movie opens with newsreel obituary footage that briefs us on the life and times of Charles Foster Kane; this footage, with its portentous narration, is Welles' bemused nod in the direction of the 'March of Time' newsreels then being produced by another media mogul, Henry Luce. They provide a map of Kane's trajectory, and it will keep us oriented as the screenplay skips around in time, piecing together the memories of those who knew him.
Curious about Kane's dying word, 'rosebud,' the newsreel editor assigns Thompson, a reporter, to find out what it meant. Thompson is played by William Alland in a thankless performance; he triggers every flashback, yet his face is never seen. He questions Kane's alcoholic mistress, his ailing old friend, his rich associate and the other witnesses, while the movie loops through time. As often as I've seen 'Citizen Kane', I've never been able to firmly fix the order of the scenes in my mind. I look at a scene and tease myself with what will come next. But it remains elusive: By flashing back through the eyes of many witnesses, Welles and Mankiewicz created an emotional chronology set free from time.
The movie is filled with bravura visual moments: the towers of Xanadu; candidate Kane addressing a political rally; the doorway of his mistress dissolving into a front-page photo in a rival newspaper; the camera swooping down through a skylight toward the pathetic Susan in a nightclub; the many Kanes reflected through parallel mirrors; the boy playing in the snow in the background as his parents determine his future; the great shot as the camera rises straight up from Susan's opera debut to a stagehand holding his nose, and the subsequent shot of Kane, his face hidden in shadow, defiantly applauding in the silent hall.
Along with the personal story is the history of a period. 'Citizen Kane' covers the rise of the penny press (here Joseph Pulitzer is the model), the Hearst-supported Spanish-American War, the birth of radio, the power of political machines, the rise of fascism, the growth of celebrity journalism. A newsreel subtitle reads: 1895 to 1941. All of these years he covered, many of these he was. The screenplay by Mankiewicz and Welles (which got an Oscar, the only one Welles ever won) is densely constructed and covers an amazing amount of ground, including a sequence showing Kane inventing the popular press; a record of his marriage, from early bliss to the famous montage of increasingly chilly breakfasts; the story of his courtship of Susan Alexander and her disastrous opera career, and his decline into the remote master of Xanadu ('I think if you look carefully in the west wing, Susan, you'll find about a dozen vacationists still in residence').
'Citizen Kane' knows the sled is not the answer. It explains what Rosebud is, but not what Rosebud means. The film's construction shows how our lives, after we are gone, survive only in the memories of others, and those memories butt up against the walls we erect and the roles we play. There is the Kane who made shadow figures with his fingers, and the Kane who hated the traction trust; the Kane who chose his mistress over his marriage and political career, the Kane who entertained millions, the Kane who died alone.
There is a master image in 'Citizen Kane' you might easily miss. The tycoon has overextended himself and is losing control of his empire. After he signs the papers of his surrender, he turns and walks into the back of the shot. Deep focus allows Welles to play a trick of perspective. Behind Kane on the wall is a window that seems to be of average size. But as he walks toward it, we see it is further away and much higher than we thought. Eventually he stands beneath its lower sill, shrunken and diminished. Then as he walks toward us, his stature grows again. A man always seems the same size to himself, because he does not stand where we stand to look at him."
" 'The Truman Show' is founded on an enormous secret that all of the studio's advertising has been determined to reveal. I didn't know the secret when I saw the film, and was able to enjoy the little doubts and wonderings that the filmmakers so carefully planted. If by some good chance you do not know the secret, read no further.
Those fortunate audience members (I trust they have all left the room?) will be able to appreciate the meticulous way director Peter Weir and writer Andrew Niccol have constructed a jigsaw plot around their central character, who doesn't suspect that he's living his entire life on live television. Yes, he lives in an improbably ideal world, but I fell for that: I assumed the movie was taking a sitcom view of life, in which neighbors greet each other over white picket fences, and Ozzie and Harriet are real people.
Actually, it's Seaside, a planned community on the Gulf Coast near Tampa. Called Seahaven in the movie, it looks like a nice place to live. Certainly Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) doesn't know anything else. You accept the world you're given, the filmmakers suggest; more thoughtful viewers will get the buried message, which is that we accept almost everything in our lives without examining it very closely. When was the last time you reflected on how really odd a tree looks? Truman works as a sales executive at an insurance company, is happily married to Meryl (Laura Linney), and doesn't find it suspicious that she describes household products in the language of TV commercials. He is happy, in a way, but an uneasiness gnaws away at him. Something is missing, and he thinks perhaps he might find it in Fiji, where Lauren (Natascha McElhone), the only woman he really loved, allegedly has moved with her family.
Why did she leave so quickly? Perhaps because she was not a safe bet for Truman's world: The actress who played her (named Sylvia) developed real feeling and pity for Truman, and felt he should know the truth about his existence. Meryl, on the other hand, is a reliable pro (which raises the question, unanswered, of their sex life).
Truman's world is controlled by a TV producer named Christof (Ed Harris), whose control room is high in the artificial dome that provides the sky and horizon of Seahaven. He discusses his programming on talk shows, and dismisses the protests of those (including Sylvia) who believe Truman is the victim of a cruel deception. Meanwhile, the whole world watches Truman's every move, and some viewers even leave the TV on all night, as he sleeps.
The trajectory of the screenplay is more or less inevitable: Truman must gradually realize the truth of his environment, and try to escape from it. It's clever the way he's kept on his island by implanted traumas about travel and water. As the story unfolds, however, we're not simply expected to follow it: We're invited to think about the implications. About a world in which modern communications make celebrity possible, and inhuman.
Until fairly recently, the only way you could become really famous was to be royalty, or a writer, actor, preacher or politician--and even then, most people had knowledge of you only through words or printed pictures.
Television, with its insatiable hunger for material, has made celebrities into 'content', devouring their lives and secrets. If you think 'The Truman Show' is an exaggeration, reflect that Princess Diana lived under similar conditions from the day she became engaged to Charles.
Carrey is a surprisingly good choice to play Truman. We catch glimpses of his manic comic persona, just to make us comfortable with his presence in the character, but this is a well-planned performance; Carrey is on the right note as a guy raised to be liked and likable, who decides his life requires more risk and hardship. Like the angels in 'City of Angels', he'd like to take his chances.
Ed Harris also finds the right notes as Christof, the TV svengali. He uses the technospeak by which we distance ourselves from the real meanings of our words. (If TV producers ever spoke frankly about what they were really doing, they'd come across like Bulworth.) For Harris, the demands of the show take precedence over any other values, and if you think that's an exaggeration, tell it to the TV news people who broadcast that Los Angeles suicide.
I enjoyed 'The Truman Show' on its levels of comedy and drama; I liked Truman in the same way I liked Forrest Gump--because he was a good man, honest, and easy to sympathize with.
But the underlying ideas made the movie more than just entertainment. Like 'Gattaca', the previous film written by Niccol, it brings into focus the new values that technology is forcing on humanity.
Because we can engineer genetics, because we can telecast real lives--of course we must, right? But are these good things to do? The irony is, the people who will finally answer that question will be the very ones produced by the process. "
" 'American Beauty' is a comedy because we laugh at the absurdity of the hero's problems. And a tragedy because we can identify with his failure--not the specific details, but the general outline.
The movie is about a man who fears growing older, losing the hope of true love and not being respected by those who know him best. If you never experience those feelings, take out a classified ad. People want to take lessons from you.
Lester Burnham, the hero of 'American Beauty', is played by Kevin Spacey as a man who is unloved by his daughter, ignored by his wife and unnecessary at work. 'I'll be dead in a year', he tells us in almost the first words of the movie. 'In a way, I'm dead already.' The movie is the story of his rebellion.
We meet his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), so perfect her garden shears are coordinated with her footwear. We meet his daughter Jane (Thora Birch), who is saving up for breast implants even though augmentation is clearly unnecessary; perhaps her motivation is not to become more desirable to men, but to make them miserable about what they can't have.
'Both my wife and daughter think I'm this chronic loser,' Lester complains. He is right. But they are not without their reasons. At an agonizing family dinner, Carolyn plays Mantovanian music that mocks every mouthful; the music is lush and reassuring, and the family is angry and silent. When Lester criticizes his daughter's attitude, she points out correctly that he has hardly spoken to her in months.
Everything changes for Lester the night he is dragged along by his wife to see their daughter perform as a cheerleader. There on the floor, engrossed in a sub-Fosse pompon routine, he sees his angel: Angela (Mena Suvari), his daughter's high-school classmate. Is it wrong for a man in his 40s to lust after a teenage girl? Any honest man understands what a complicated question this is. Wrong morally, certainly, and legally. But as every woman knows, men are born with wiring that goes directly from their eyes to their genitals, bypassing the higher centers of thought. They can disapprove of their thoughts, but they cannot stop themselves from having them.
'American Beauty' is not about a Lolita relationship, anyway. It's about yearning after youth, respect, power and, of course, beauty. The moment a man stops dreaming is the moment he petrifies inside and starts writing snarfy letters disapproving of paragraphs like the one above. Lester's thoughts about Angela are impure, but not perverted; he wants to do what men are programmed to do, with the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.
Angela is not Lester's highway to bliss, but she is at least a catalyst for his freedom. His thoughts, and the discontent they engender, blast him free from years of emotional paralysis, and soon he makes a cheerful announcement at the funereal dinner table: 'I quit my job, told my boss to - - - - himself and blackmailed him for $60,000.' Has he lost his mind? Not at all. The first thing he spends money on is perfectly reasonable: a bright red 1970 Pontiac Firebird.
Carolyn and Jane are going through their own romantic troubles. Lester finds out Carolyn is cheating when he sees her with her lover in the drive-through lane of a fast-food restaurant (where he has a job he likes). Jane is being videotaped by Ricky (Wes Bentley), the boy next door, who has a strange light in his eyes. Ricky's dad (Chris Cooper) is a former Marine who tests him for drugs, taking a urine sample every six months; Ricky plays along to keep the peace until he can leave home.
All of these emotional threads come together during one dark and stormy night, when there is a series of misunderstandings so bizarre they belong in a screwball comedy. And at the end, somehow, improbably, the film snatches victory from the jaws of defeat for Lester, its hero. Not the kind of victory you'd get in a feel-good movie, but the kind where you prove something important, if only to yourself.
'American Beauty' is not as dark or twisted as 'Happiness', last year's attempt to shine a light under the rock of American society. It's more about sadness and loneliness than about cruelty or inhumanity. Nobody is really bad in this movie, just shaped by society in such a way they can't be themselves, or feel joy.
The performances all walk the line between parody and simple realism; Thora Birch and Wes Bentley are the most grounded, talking in the tense, flat voices of kids who can't wait to escape their homes. Bening's character, a real estate agent who chants self-help mantras, confuses happiness with success--bad enough if you're successful, depressing if you're not.
And Spacey, an actor who embodies intelligence in his eyes and voice, is the right choice for Lester Burnham. He does reckless and foolish things in this movie, but he doesn't deceive himself; he knows he's running wild--and chooses to, burning up the future years of an empty lifetime for a few flashes of freedom. He may have lost everything by the end of the film, but he's no longer a loser."
Roger Ebert didn't review this movie so I put my own point of view.
"I found the story really entertaining and challenging too. It is also really well done. The best thing is actually that, at the end, you don't get any simple answers and you can think about it and try to sort it out as long as you want."
" 'A Perfect World' contains a prison break, the taking of a hostage, a chase across Texas, two murders, various robberies, and a final confrontation between a fugitive and a lawman. It is not really about any of those things, however. It's deeper and more interesting than that. It's about the true nature of violence and about how the child is father to the man.
The film brings together the leading icons of two generations of strong, silent American leading men: Kevin Costner, as a fugitive who takes a boy as a hostage, and Clint Eastwood, as the Texas Ranger who leads the pursuit. But the Costner character doesn't seem really focused on his escape, and the Eastwood character seems somewhat removed from the chase. These two men first met long ago, and they both know this isn't about a chase. It's about old, deep wounds.
This is a movie that surprises you. The setup is such familiar material that you think the story is going to be flat and fast. But the screenplay by John Lee Hancock goes deep. And the direction by Clint Eastwood finds strange, quiet moments of perfect truth in the story.
Both Costner and Eastwood are fresh from triumphs at the Academy Awards, but in neither 'Dances With Wolves' nor 'Unforgiven' will you find the subtlety and the sadness they discover here. Eastwood has directed 17 films, but his direction is sometimes taken less seriously because he's a movie star. 'A Perfect World' is a film any director alive might be proud to sign.
Costner's character, Butch Haynes, is a young man who drifted into trouble and was sentenced unfairly, to get him out of the way. The Eastwood character, Red Garnett, had something to do with that and has never felt quite right about it. Escaping from prison, Haynes and another convict break in on a mother and her children at dawn. Soon they're on the road with a hostage, Phillip (T.J. Lowther), 9 or 10 years old.
Before long the other con is gone from the scene and the man and the boy are cutting across the back roads of Texas. In pursuit is Red Garnett, riding in a newfangled Airglide trailer that's a 'mobile command headquarters'. Garnett is saddled with a talky criminologist (Laura Dern) and various other types, including a sinister federal agent who is an expert marksman. The general view is that Haynes is a desperate kidnapper. Both Eastwood and Dern think, for different reasons, it isn't that simple.
And it's not. The heart of the movie is the relationship that develops between the outlaw and the kid. You can look very hard, but you won't be able to guess where this relationship is going. It doesn't fall into any of the conventional movie patterns. Butch isn't a terrifically nice guy, and Phillip isn't a cute movie kid who makes and then loses a friend.
It's not that simple. Butch, we learn, was treated badly as a boy. His father was absent, his mother was a prostitute, the men in her life didn't like him much. Butch talks vaguely about going to Alaska. But as the man and boy drive through the dusty 1963 Texas landscape, it's more like they're going in circles, while the man looks hard at the boy and tries to see what it means to be a boy, what is the right way and the wrong way to talk to one. He's trying to see himself in the kid.
There are some murders in the film, all of them off-camera.
One body is found in an auto trunk, the other in a cornfield. We don't see either killing; Eastwood stays away from the cliche of a gun firing, a body falling, and it's not until late in the film that someone is shot onscreen, and then in very particular circumstances.
But there is violence in the movie. In the film's key sequence, Butch and Phillip are given shelter for the night by a friendly black farmer (George Haynes). The next morning, Butch watches as the farmer treats his son roughly, slapping him when he doesn't behave. It's the wrong way to treat a kid, but Butch's reaction is so angry that we realize a nerve has been touched. And as a complex series of events unfolds, we discover the real subject of the movie: Treat kids right, and you won't have to put them in jail later on. The crucial violence, from which later violence springs, is when a child is treated with cruelty.
Eastwood tells the story in unexpected ways. The way Butch starts right out, for example, letting Phillip hold a gun. (But not to shoot someone with it; his reasons for doing this, in fact, are so deep that you have to think long about them.) And scenes of quirky humor involving runaway trailers, Halloween masks, barbecued steaks and other details that break the tension with a certain craziness.
(There is, for example, a scene in a roadside diner named 'Dottie's Squat and Gobble', which is the best restaurant name I have ever seen in a movie.) 'A Perfect World' has the elements of a crime genre picture, but the depth of thought and the freedom of movement of an art film.
You may be reminded of 'Bonnie and Clyde', 'Badlands' or an unsung masterpiece from earlier in 1993, 'Kalifornia'. Not because they all tell the same story, but because they all try to get beneath the things we see in a lot of crime movies and find out what they really mean."
Roger Ebert didn't find this movie as good as I did so I put my own point of view.
“This movie was almost perfect. The story, the acting and the direction was so great, during the whole movie, my heart was boucing and I had a terrible headache. Unfortunately, the end was a little bit disappointing. I won't say why because I don't want spoil yo it. A part from that, it is a faschinating movie.”
"Terrence Malick's 'The New World' strips away all the fancy and lore from the story of Pocahontas and her tribe and the English settlers at Jamestown, and imagines how new and strange these people must have seemed to one another. If the Indians stared in disbelief at the English ships, the English were no less awed by the somber beauty of the new land and its people. They called the Indians "the naturals," little understanding how well the term applied.
Malick strives throughout his film to imagine how the two civilizations met and began to speak when they were utterly unknown to one another. We know with four centuries of hindsight all the sad aftermath, but it is crucial to 'The New World' that it does not know what history holds. These people regard one another in complete novelty, and at times with a certain humility imposed by nature. The Indians live because they submit to the realities of their land, and the English nearly die because they are ignorant and arrogant.
Like his films 'Days of Heaven' and 'The Thin Red Line', Malick's 'The New World' places nature in the foreground, instead of using it as a picturesque backdrop as other stories might. He uses voice-over narration by the principal characters to tell the story from their individual points of view. We hear Capt. John Smith describe Pocahontas: 'She exceeded the others not only in beauty and proportion, but in wit and spirit, too.' And later the settler John Rolfe recalls his first meeting: 'When first I saw her, she was regarded as someone broken, lost.'
'The New World' is Pocahontas' story, although the movie deliberately never calls her by any name. She is the bridge between the two peoples. Played by a 14-year-old actress named Q'orianka Kilcher as a tall, grave, inquisitive young woman, she does not "fall in love" with John Smith, as the children's books tell it, but saves his life -- throwing herself on his body when he is about to be killed on the order of her father the chief -- for far more complex reasons. The movie implies, rather than says, that she is driven by curiosity about these strange visitors, and empathy with their plight as strangers, and with admiration for Smith's reckless and intrepid courage. If love later plays a role, it is not modern romantic love so much as a pure instinctive version.
And what of Smith (Colin Farrell)? To see him is to know he knows the fleshpots of London and has been raised without regard for women. He is a troublemaker, under sentence of death by the expedition leader, Capt. Newport (Christopher Plummer) for mutinous grumblings. Yet when he first sees Pocahontas, she teaches him new feelings by her dignity and strangeness. There is a scene where Pocahontas and Smith teach each other simple words in their own languages, words for sky, eyes, lips, and the scene could seem contrived but it doesn't, because they play it with such a tender feeling of discovery.
Smith is not fair with Pocahontas. Perhaps you know the story, but if you don't, I'll let the movie fill in the details. She later encounters the settler John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and from him finds loyalty and honesty. Her father, the old chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg), would have her killed for her transgressions, but "I cannot give you up to die. I am too old for it." Abandoned by her tribe, she is forced to live with the English. Rolfe returns with her to England, where she meets the king and is a London sensation, although that story, too, is well-known.
There is a meeting that she has in England, however, that Malick handles with almost trembling tact, in which she deals with a truth hidden from her, and addresses it with unwavering honesty. What Malick focuses on is her feelings as a person who might as well have been transported to another planet. Wearing strange clothes, speaking a strange language, she can depend only on those few she trusts, and on her idea of herself.
The are two new worlds in this film, the one the English discover, and the one Pocahontas discovers. Both discoveries center on the word "new," and what distinguishes Malick's film is how firmly he refuses to know more than he should in Virginia in 1607 or London a few years later. The events in his film, including the tragic battles between the Indians and the settlers, seem to be happening for the first time. No one here has read a history book from the future.
There are the familiar stories of the Indians helping the English survive the first winter, of how they teach the lore of planting corn and laying up stores for the winter. We are surprised to see how makeshift and vulnerable the English forts are, how evolved the Indian culture is, how these two civilizations could have built something new together -- but could not, because what both societies knew at that time did not permit it. Pocahontas could have brought them together. In a small way, she did. She was given the gift of sensing the whole picture, and that is what Malick founds his film on, not tawdry stories of love and adventure. He is a visionary, and this story requires one."
"In an earlier review of 'Blade Runner', I wrote; 'It looks fabulous, it uses special effects to create a new world of its own, but it is thin in its human story'. This seems a strange complaint, given that so much of the movie concerns who is, and is not, human, and what it means to be human anyway. Even one character we can safely assume is human, the reptilian Tyrell, czar of the corporation which manufactures replicants, strikes me as a possible replicant. And of the hero, Deckard (Harrison Ford), all we can say for sure is that director Ridley Scott has left clues in various versions of his film that can be used to prove that Deckard is a human -- or a replicant.
Now study that paragraph again and notice I have committed a journalistic misdemeanor. I have referred to replicants without ever establishing what a replicant is. It is a tribute to the influence and reach of 'Blade Runner' that 25 years after its release virtually everyone reading this knows about replicants. Reviews of 'The Wizard of Oz' never define Munchkins, do they? This is a seminal film, building on older classics like 'Metropolis' or 'Things to Come', but establishing a pervasive view of the future that has influenced science fiction films ever since. Its key legacies are: Giant global corporations, environmental decay, overcrowding, technological progress at the top, poverty or slavery at the bottom -- and, curiously, almost always a film noir vision. Look at 'Dark City', 'Total Recall', 'Brazil', '12 Monkeys' or 'Gattaca' and you will see its progeny.
I have never quite embraced 'Blade Runner', admiring it at arm's length, but now it is time to cave in and admit it to the canon. Ridley Scott has released a 'definitive version' subtitled 'Blade Runner: The Final Cut," which will go first to theaters and then be released Dec.18 in three DVD editions, including a 'Five-Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition' that includes, according to a press release, 'All 4 Previous Cuts, Including the Ultra-Rare 'Workprint' Version! plus the usual deleted scenes, documentaries, bells and whistles.'
The biggest change Scott made in earlier versions was to drop the voice-over narration from the 1982 original. Spoken by Ford, channeling Philip Marlowe, it explained things on behalf of a studio nervous that we wouldn't understand the film. Since much of the interest in the film has been generated by what we weren't sure we understood, that turned out to be no problem. The ending has been tweaked from bleak to romantic to existential to an assortment of the above, and shots have come and gone, but for me the most important change in the 2007 version is in the print itself.
Scott has resisted the temptation to go back and replace analog special effects with new GCI work (which disturbed many fans of George Lucas' "Star Wars") and has kept Douglas Turnbull's virtuoso original special effects, while enhancing, restoring, cleaning and scrubbing both visuals and sound so the film reflects a higher technical standard than ever before. It looks so great, you're tempted to say the hell with the story, let's just watch it.
But the story benefits, too, by seeming more to inhabit its world than be laid on top of it. The action follows Deckard, a "blade runner" who is assigned to track down and kill six rebel replicants who have returned illegally from off-worlds to earth, and are thought to be in Los Angeles. (The movie never actually deals with more than five replicants, however, unless, as the critic Tim Dirks speculates, Deckard might be the sixth). Replicants, as you know, are androids who are 'more human than human', manufactured to perform skilled slave labor on earth colonies. They are born fully formed, supplied with artificial memories of their 'pasts', and set to break down after four years, because after that point they are so smart they have a tendency to develop human emotions and feelings and have the audacity to think of themselves as human. Next thing you know, they'll want the vote, and civil rights. Much of this comes from the original Philip K. Dick story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Since replicants in general do not know they are replicants, there can be real poignancy in their lives. We feel sympathy for one in particular, Rachael (Sean Young), who finds herself involved in romance with Deckard. He loves her even though he has reason to believe she is a replicant, but a very good one, almost impossible to detect.
What I have always wondered is why the Tyrell Corporation made their androids so lifelike. Why not give them four arms and settle the matter, and get more work out of them? Is there a buried possibility that Tyrell's long-range plan is to replace humans altogether? Is the whole blade-running caper simply a cover for his scheme? But never mind. What matters to the viewer is that the ground rules seem to be in place, and apply in one of the most extraordinary worlds ever created in a film.
The skies are always dark with airborne filth in this Los Angeles of the future. It usually rains. The infrastructure looks a lot like now, except older and more crowded, and with the addition of vast floating zeppelins, individual flying cars, and towering buildings of unimaginable size. When I first saw the film I was impressed by the giant billboards with moving, speaking faces on them, touting Coca-Cola and other products. Now I walk over to Millennium Park and see giant faces looming above me, smiling, winking, and periodically spitting (but not Coke). As for the flying cars, these have been a staple of sci-fi magazine covers for decades, but remain wildly impractical and dangerous, unless locked into a control grid.
The 'human story', as I think of it, involves practical tests to determine if an individual is a replicant or not, and impractical tests (such as love) to determine how much that matters to (a) people, if they are in love with a replicant, and (b) replicants, if they know they are replicants. This has always been a contrived problem, easily avoidable in practical ways, unless (as I suspect) the Tyrell Corporation has more up its sleeves than arms. But to stumble on plot logic seems absurd in a film that is more about vision. And I continue to find it fascinating how film noir, a genre born in the 1940s, has such a hammerlock on the future (look at 'Dark City' again). I suspect film noir is so fruitful and suggestive that if you bring it on board, half your set and costume decisions have been made for you, and you know what your tone will be.
Ridley Scott is a considerable director who makes no small plans. His credits include 'Alien', 'Legend', the inexplicable '1492', 'Gladiator', 'Black Hawk Down' and the brilliant 'Matchstick Men', and his 'American Gangster' opened in 2007 in theaters. He has the gift of making action on a vast scale seem comprehensible. I have been assured that my problems in the past with 'Blade Runner' represent a failure of my own taste and imagination, but if the film was perfect, why has Sir Ridley continued to tinker with it, and now released his fifth version? I guess he's only... human."
"The opening scenes of 'The Game' show Michael Douglas as a rich man in obsessive control of his life. The movie seems to be about how he is reduced to humility and humanity--or maybe that's just a trick on him. The movie is like a control freak's worst nightmare. The Douglas character, named Nicholas Van Orton, is surrounded by employees who are almost paralyzed by his rigid demands on them. 'I have an Elizabeth on line three,' says one secretary, and then a second later adds, 'Your wife, sir.''I know,' he says coldly. We have the feeling that if the second secretary had not spoken, he would have replied, 'Elizabeth who?' His underlings are in no-win situations. It is, in fact, his ex-wife; at age 48, Van Orton lives alone in the vast mansion where his father committed suicide at the same age. His birthday evening consists of eating a cheeseburger served on a silver tray and watching CNN.
Van Orton's younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) visits him and announces a birthday present: 'The Game', which is 'sort of an experiential Book of the Month Club'. Operated by a shadowy outfit named Consumer Recreation Services, the Game never quite declares its rules or objectives, but soon Van Orton finds himself in its grasp, and his orderly life has become unmanageable. 'It will make your life fun again,' he is promised, but that's not quite how he sees it, as a functionary (James Rebhorn) leads him through the signup process.
Soon everything starts to fall apart. His pen leaks. His briefcase won't open. Wine is spilled on him in a restaurant. He is trapped in an elevator. The level of chaos rises. He finds himself blackmailed, his bank accounts are emptied, he wanders like a homeless man, he is trapped inside a cab sinking in a bay, he is left for dead in Mexico.
Of course many of the physical details of what happens to him are implausible or even impossible, but so what? The events are believable in the sense that events can be believed in a nightmare: You can hardly worry about how a horror has been engineered when you're trapped inside it.
The mounting campaign of conspiratorial persecution is greeted by Van Orton with his usual style of cold contempt and detachment: He knows all the angles, he thinks, and has foreseen all the pitfalls, and can predict all the permutations. But he finds he is totally wrong. Even those few people he thinks he can trust (including a waitress played by Deborah Kara Unger--or is she a waitress?) may be double agents. There is even the possibility that the Game is a front for a well-planned conspiracy to steal his millions. Michael Douglas, who is superb at playing men of power (remember his Oscar-winning turn as Gordon Gekko in 'Wall Street') is reduced to a stumbling, desperate man on the run (remember his unemployed engineer in 'Falling Down').
"The Game', written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, is David Fincher's first film since 'Seven', and projects the same sense of events being controlled by invisible manipulation. This time, though, there's an additional element: Van Orton is being broken down and reassembled like the victim of some cosmic EST program. And it is unclear, to him and to us, whether the Game is on the level of a fraud, or perhaps spinning out of control.
The movie's thriller elements are given an additional gloss by the skill of the technical credits, and the wicked wit of the dialogue. When Van Orton's brother asks, 'Don't you think of me anymore?' he shoots back, 'Not since family week at rehab.' And when his ex-wife asks if he had a nice birthday, he answers, 'Does Rose Kennedy have a black dress?' The film's dark look, its preference for shadows, recalls 'Seven' and also Fincher's 'Alien 3'. The big screen reveals secrets and details in dark corners; on video, they may disappear into the murk. Like 'Seven', the plotting is ingenious and intelligent, and although we think we know the arc of the film (egotist is reduced to greater humility and understanding of himself), it doesn't progress in a docile, predictable way; for one thing, there is the real possibility that the Game is not an ego-reduction program, but a death plot.
Douglas is the right actor for the role. He can play smart, he can play cold, and he can play angry. He is also subtle enough that he never arrives at an emotional plateau before the film does, and never overplays the process of his inner change. Indeed, one of the refreshing things about the film is that it stays true to its paranoid vision right up until what seems like the very end--and then beyond it, so that by the time the real ending arrives, it's not the payoff and release as much as a final macabre twist of the knife. "
"It is a strange comment to make about a film set inside a prison, but 'The Shawshank Redemption' creates a warm hold on our feelings because it makes us a member of a family. Many movies offer us vicarious experiences and quick, superficial emotions. 'Shawshank' slows down and looks. It uses the narrator's calm, observant voice to include us in the story of men who have formed a community behind bars. It is deeper than most films; about continuity in a lifetime, based on friendship and hope.
Interesting that although the hero of the film is the convicted former banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), the action is never seen from his point of view. The film's opening scene shows him being given two life sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover, and then we move, permanently, to a point of view representing the prison population and particularly the lifer Ellis 'Red' Redding (Morgan Freeman). It is his voice remembering the first time he saw Andy ('looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over'), and predicting, wrongly, that he wouldn't make it in prison.
From Andy's arrival on the prison bus to the film's end, we see only how others see him - Red, who becomes his best friend, Brooks the old librarian, the corrupt Warden Norton, guards and prisoners. Red is our surrogate. He's the one we identify with, and the redemption, when it comes, is Red's. We've been shown by Andy's example that you have to keep true to yourself, not lose hope, bide your time, set a quiet example and look for your chance. 'I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really,' he tells Red. 'Get busy livin' or get busy dyin'.'
The key to the film's structure, I think, is that it's not about its hero, but about our relationship with him - our curiosity, our pity, our admiration. If Andy had been the heroic center, bravely enduring, the film would have been conventional, and less mysterious. But we wonder about this guy. Did he really kill those two people? Why does he keep so much to himself? Why can he amble through the prison yard like a free man on a stroll, when everyone else plods or sidles?
People like excitement at the movies, and titles that provide it do well. Films about 'redemption' are approached with great wariness; a lot of people are not thrilled by the prospect of a great film - it sounds like work. But there's a hunger for messages of hope, and when a film offers one, it's likely to have staying power even if it doesn't grab an immediate audience.
'The Shawshank Redemption' premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 1994, and opened a few weeks later. It got good reviews but did poor business (its $18 million original gross didn't cover costs; it took in only another $10 million after winning seven Oscar nominations, including best picture).
There wasn't much going for it: It had a terrible title, it was a 'prison drama' and women don't like those, it contained almost no action, it starred actors who were respected but not big stars, and it was long at 142 minutes. Clearly this was a movie that needed word-of-mouth to find an audience, and indeed business was slowly but steadily growing when it was yanked from theaters. If it had been left to find its way, it might have continued to build and run for months, but that's not what happened.
Instead, in one of the most remarkable stories in home video history, it found its real mass audience on tapes and discs, and through TV screenings. Within five years, 'Shawshank' was a phenomenon, a video best seller and renter that its admirers feel they've discovered for themselves. When the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the 'Shawshank' groundswell in April 1999, it was occupying first place in the Internet Movie Database worldwide vote of the 250 best films; it's usually in the top five.
Polls and rentals reflect popularity but don't explain why people value 'Shawshank' so fervently. Maybe it plays more like a spiritual experience than a movie. It does have entertaining payoff moments (as when the guards from another prison, wearing their baseball uniforms, line up to have Andy do their taxes). But much of the movie involves quiet, solitude, and philosophical discussions about life. The moments of violence (as when Andy is sexually assaulted) are seen objectively, not exploited.
The movie avoids lingering on Andy's suffering; after beatings, he's seen in medium and long shot, tactfully. The camera doesn't focus on Andy's wounds or bruises, but, like his fellow prisoners, gives him his space.
The Morgan Freeman character is carrier of the film's spiritual arc. We see him at three parole hearings, after 20, 30 and 40 years. The first hearing involves storytelling trickery; the film has opened with Andy's sentencing, and then we see a parole board, and expect it's about to listen to Andy's appeal. But, no, that's when we first see Red. In his first appeal he tries to convince the board he's been rehabilitated. In the second, he just goes through the motions. In the third, he rejects the whole notion of rehabilitation, and somehow in doing so he sets his spirit free, and the board releases him.
There's an underlying problem. Behind bars, Red is king. He's the prison fixer, able to get you a pack of cigarettes, a little rock pick or a Rita Hayworth poster. On the outside, he has no status or identity. We've already seen what happened to the old librarian (James Whitmore), lonely and adrift in freedom. The last act, in which Andy helps Red accept his freedom, is deeply moving - all the more so because Andy again operates at a distance, with letters and postcards, and is seen through Red's mind.
Frank Darabont wrote and directed the film, basing it on a story by Stephen King. His film grants itself a leisure that most films are afraid to risk. The movie is as deliberate, considered and thoughtful as Freeman's narration. There's a feeling in Hollywood that audiences have short attention spans and must be assaulted with fresh novelties. I think such movies are slower to sit through than a film like 'Shawshank', which absorbs us and takes away the awareness that we are watching a film.
Deliberate, too, is the dialogue. Tim Robbins makes Andy a man of few words, quietly spoken. He doesn't get real worked up. He is his own man, capable of keeping his head down for years and then indulging in a grand gesture, as when he plays an aria from Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro'. (The overhead shot of the prisoners in the yard, spellbound by the music, is one of the film's epiphanies.) Because he does not volunteer himself, reach out to us or overplay his feelings, he becomes more fascinating: It is often better to wonder what a character is thinking than to know.
Roger Deakins' cinematography is tactful, not showy. Two opening shots, one from a helicopter, one of prison walls looming overhead, establish the prison. Shots follow the dialogue instead of anticipating it. Thomas Newman's music enhances rather than informs, and there is a subtle touch in the way deep bass rumblings during the early murder are reprised when a young prisoner recalls another man's description of the crime.
Darabont constructs the film to observe the story, not to punch it up or upstage it. Upstaging, in fact, is unknown in this film; the actors are content to stay within their roles, the story moves in an orderly way, and the film itself reflects the slow passage of the decades. 'When they put you in that cell,' Red says, 'when those bars slam home, that's when you know it's for real. Old life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.' Watching the film again, I admired it even more than the first time I saw it. Affection for good films often grows with familiarity, as it does with music. Some have said life is a prison, we are Red, Andy is our redeemer. All good art is about something deeper than it admits. "
"It is not too soon for 'United 93', because it is not a film that knows any time has passed since 9/11. The entire story, every detail, is told in the present tense. We know what they know when they know it, and nothing else. Nothing about Al Qaeda, nothing about Osama bin Laden, nothing about Afghanistan or Iraq, only events as they unfold. This is a masterful and heartbreaking film, and it does honor to the memory of the victims.
The director, Paul Greengrass, makes a deliberate effort to stay away from recognizable actors, and there is no attempt to portray the passengers or terrorists as people with histories. In most movies about doomed voyages, we meet a few key characters we'll be following: The newlyweds, the granny, the businessman, the man with a secret. Here there's none of that. What we know about the passengers on United 93 is exactly what we would know if we had been on the plane and sitting across from them: nothing, except for a few details of personal appearance.
Scenes on board the plane alternate with scenes inside the National Air Traffic Control Center, airport towers, regional air traffic stations, and a military command room. Here, too, there are no back stories. Just technicians living in the moment. Many of them are played by the actual people involved; we sense that in their command of procedure and jargon. When the controllers in the LaGuardia tower see the second airplane crash into the World Trade Center, they recoil with shock and horror, and that moment in the film seems as real as it seemed to me on Sept. 11, 2001.
The film begins on a black screen, and we hear one of the hijackers reading aloud from the Koran. There are scenes of the hijackers at prayer, and many occasions when they evoke God and dedicate themselves to him. These details may offend some viewers, but are almost certainly accurate; the hijacking and destruction of the four planes was carried out as a divine mission. That the majority of Muslims disapprove of terrorism goes without saying; on 9/12, there was a candlelight vigil in Iran for the United States. That the terrorists found justification in religion also goes without saying. Most nations at most times go into battle evoking the protection of their gods.
But the film doesn't depict the terrorists as villains. It has no need to. Like everyone else in the movie they are people of ordinary appearance, going about their business. 'United 93' is incomparably more powerful because it depicts all of its characters as people trapped in an inexorable progress toward tragedy. The movie contains no politics. No theory. No personal chit-chat. No patriotic speeches. We never see the big picture.
We watch United 93 as the passengers and crew board the plane and it prepares to depart. Four minutes later, the first plane went into the WTC. Living in the moment, we share the confusion of the air traffic controllers.
At first it's reported a 'small plane' crashed into the tower. Then by a process of deduction it’s determined it must have been a missing American flight. The full scope of the plot only gradually becomes clear. One plane after another abandons its flight plan and goes silent. There are false alarms: For more than an hour, a Delta flight is thought to have been hijacked, although it was not. At the FAA national center, the man in charge, Ben Sliney (playing himself) begins to piece things together, and orders a complete shutdown of all American air traffic. Given what a momentous decision this was, costing the airlines a fortune and disrupting a nation’s travel plans, we are grateful he had the nerve to make it.
As the outline of events come into focus, there is attempt to coordinate civilian and military authorities. It is doomed to fail. A liaison post is not staffed. Two jet fighters are sent up to intercept a hijacked plane, but they are not armed; there is discussion of having the fighters ram the jets as their pilots eject. A few other fighters are scrambled, but inexplicably fly east, over the ocean. Military commanders try again and again, with increasing urgency, to get presidential authorization to use force against civilian aircraft. An unbearable period of time passes, with no response.
'United 93' simply includes this in the flow of events, without comment. Many people seeing the film will remember the scene in 'Fahrenheit 9/11' in which President George W. Bush sat immobile in a children's classroom in Florida for seven minutes after being informed of the attack on the WTC. What was he waiting for? Was he ever informed of the military request? The movie does not know, because the people on the screen do not have the opportunity of hindsight.
All of these larger matters are far offscreen. The third act of the film focuses on the desperation on board United 93, after the hijackers take control, slash flight attendants, kill the pilots and seem to have a bomb. We are familiar with details of this flight, pieced together from many telephone calls from the plane and from the cockpit voice recorder. Greengrass is determined to be as accurate as possible. There is no false grandstanding, no phony arguments among the passengers, no individual heroes. The passengers are a terrified planeload of strangers. After they learn by phone about the WTC attacks, after an attendant says she saw the dead bodies of the two pilots, they decide they must take action. They storm the cockpit. Even as these brave passengers charge up the aisle, we know nothing in particular about them -- none of the details we later learned. We could be on the plane, terrified, watching them. The famous words 'Let's roll' are heard but not underlined; these people are not speaking for history.
There has been much discussion of the movie's trailer, and no wonder. It pieces together moments from 'United 93' to make it seem more conventional, more like a thriller. Dialogue that seems absolutely realistic in context sounds, in the trailer, like sound bites and punch lines. To watch the trailer is to sense the movie that Greengrass did not make. To watch "United 93" is to be confronted with the grim chaotic reality of that September day in 2001.The movie is deeply disturbing, and some people may have to leave the theater. But it would have been much more disturbing if Greengrass had made it in a conventional way. He does not exploit, he draws no conclusions, he points no fingers, he avoids 'human interest' and 'personal dramas' and just simply watches. The movie's point of view reminds me of the angels in 'Wings of Desire'. They see what people do and they are saddened, but they cannot intervene. "
"In the small but eventful world of Gilbert Grape, emergencies are a natural state. His younger brother, Arnie, has a way of climbing the town water tower and forgetting how to get back down.
His mother, who weighs 500 pounds, spends days at a time just sitting on the sofa. His best friend, Bobby, is an apprentice at his dad's funeral parlor and loves to talk about the tricks of the trade. His boss, who runs the local grocery store, is under threat from the big new supermarket on the edge of town, which has live lobsters in a tank - something the folks in Endora, Iowa (Pop. 1,091) can't stop talking about.
Gilbert Grape is more or less equal to these challenges, but life is not easy for him. What helps is the small town itself. In a big city, we sense, the Grape family would be isolated and dysfunctional, but in Endora, where everybody knows everybody and Gilbert fits right in, life is more possible, and the family is at least quasifunctional.
'What's Eating Gilbert Grape' makes of these materials one of the most enchanting movies of the year, a story of people who aren't misfits only because they don't see themselves that way. Nor does the film take them with tragic seriousness; it is a problem, yes, to have a retarded younger brother.
And it is a problem to have a mother so fat she never leaves the house. But when kids from the neighborhood sneak around to peek at the fat lady in the living room, Gilbert sometimes gives them a boost up to the window. What the hell.
The movie, written by Peter Hedges and based on his novel, has been directed by a Scandinavian, Lasse Hallstrom, for whom families seem to exert a special pull. His credits include 'My Life as a Dog'(1985), about a young boy's coming of age amid eccentric Swedish rural people and first love; and the underrated 1991 film 'Once Around', in which Richard Dreyfuss married into a family that was appalled by his abrasiveness.
The special quality of 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape' is not its oddness, however, but its warmth. Johnny Depp, as Gilbert, has specialized in playing outsiders ('Edward Scissorhands', 'Benny and Joon'), and here he brings a quiet, gentle sweetness that suffuses the whole film. Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Arnie, the retarded kid brother, has been nominated for an Academy Award, and deserves it.
His performance succeeds in being both convincing the likable. We can see both why he's almost impossible to life with, and why Gilbert and the rest of the Grapes choose to, with love.
For all of their resiliency, however, the Grapes seem stuck in a rut in Endora. Gilbert, who appears to be around 21 years old, hangs out with other guys his age, drinking coffee and making small talk and quizzing Bobby about the undertaking business. On his delivery rounds for the grocery store, he makes frequent stops at the home of Mrs. Carver (Mary Steenburgen), a lonely housewife who is always much less lonely after Gilbert's visits. At home, Gilbert oversees his two younger sisters; the household runs according to rituals, and for some time the kitchen table, with dinner on it, has been brought to Momma (Darlene Cates) so that she won't have to go to it.
Then a young woman named Becky (Juliette Lewis) arrives in town, in an RV driven by her grandmother (Penelope Branning). They're on vacation, traveling from nowhere to nowhere, and they pause in Endora long enough for Becky and Gilbert to begin a romance. And love, as it often does, acts as a catalyst for the Grapes, breaking the patterns that might have held them for a lifetime. When Gilbert brings Becky to meet Momma, we sense a tension and an excitement that is breaking the pattern of years.
One of the movie's best qualities is its way of looking at the fat mother and the retarded brother with sympathy, not pity.
Darlene Cates, making her movie debut, has an extraordinary presence on the screen. We see that she is fat, but we see many other things, too, including the losses and disappointments in her life, and the ability she finds to take a grip and make a new start. And DiCaprio, as Bobby, somehow finds a way to be difficult and invaluable at the same time.
Movies like 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape' are not easily summarized; they don't have that slick "high concept" one-sentence peg that makes them easy to sell. Maybe all I've said still leaves you wondering what the movie is about. But some of the best movies are like this: They show everyday life, carefully observed, and as we grow to know the people in the film, maybe we find out something about ourselves. The fact that Hallstrom is able to combine these qualities with comedy, romance and even melodrama make the movie very rare. "
"A man gets violently drunk and is chained to the wall in a police station. His friend comes and bails him out. While the friend is making a telephone call, the man disappears from an empty city street in the middle of the night. The man regains consciousness in what looks like a shabby hotel room. A bed, a desk, a TV, a bathroom cubicle. There is a steel door with a slot near the floor for his food tray. Occasionally a little tune plays, the room fills with gas, and when he regains consciousness the room has been cleaned, his clothes have been changed, and he has received a haircut.
This routine continues for 15 years. He is never told who has imprisoned him, or why. He watches TV until it becomes his world. He fills one journal after another with his writings. He pounds the wall until his fists grow bloody, and then hardened. He screams. He learns from TV that his blood and fingerprints were found at the scene of his wife's murder. That their daughter has been adopted in Sweden. That if he were to escape, he would be a wanted man.
'Oldboy', by the Korean director Park Chanwook, watches him objectively, asking no sympathy, standing outside his plight. When, later, he does talk with the man who has imprisoned him, the man says: 'I'm sort of a scholar, and what I study is you.'
In its sexuality and violence, this is the kind of movie that can no longer easily be made in the United States; the standards of a puritanical minority, imposed on broadcasting and threatened even for cable, make studios unwilling to produce films that might face uncertain distribution. But content does not make a movie good or bad -- it is merely what it is about. 'Oldboy' is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare.
The man, named Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-Sik), is a wretch when we first meet him, a drunk who has missed his little daughter's birthday and now sits forlornly in the police station, ridiculously wearing the angel's wings he bought her as a present. He is not a bad man, but alcohol has rendered him useless.
When he suddenly finds himself freed from his bizarre captivity 15 years later, he is a different person, focused on revenge, ridiculously responsive to kindness. Wandering into a restaurant, he meets a young woman who, he knows from the TV, is Korea's 'Chef of the Year'. This is Mido (Gang Hye-Jung). Sensing that he has suffered, feeling an instinctive sympathy, she takes him home with her, hears his story, cares for him, comes to love him. Meanwhile, he sets out on a methodical search to find the secret of his captivity. He was fed pot stickers, day after day, until their taste is burned into his memory, and he travels the city's restaurants until he finds the one that supplied his meals. That is the key to tracking down his captors.
It is also, really, the beginning of the movie, the point at which it stops being a mystery and becomes a tragedy in the classical sense. I will not reveal the several secrets that lie ahead for Oh, except to say that they come not as shabby plot devices, but as one turn after another of the screws of mental and physical anguish and poetic justice. I can mention a virtuoso sequence in which Oh fights with several of his former jailers, his rage so great that he is scarcely slowed by the knife sticking in his back. This is a man consumed by the need for revenge, who eventually discovers he was imprisoned by another man whose need was no less consuming, and infinitely more diabolical.
I am not an expert on the Korean cinema, which is considered in critical circles as one of the most creative in the world ('Oldboy' won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes 2004). I can say that of the Korean films I've seen, only one ('The YMCA Baseball Club') did not contain extraordinary sadomasochism. 'Oldboy' contains a tooth-pulling scene that makes Laurence Olivier's Nazi dentist in 'Marathon Man', look like a healer. And there is a scene during which an octopus is definitely harmed during the making of the movie.
These scenes do not play for shock value, but are part of the whole. Oh has been locked up for 15 years without once seeing another living person. For him the close presence of anyone is like a blow to all of his senses. When he says in a restaurant, 'I want to eat something that is alive,' we understand (a) that living seafood is indeed consumed as a delicacy in Asia, and (b) he wants to eat the life, not the food, because he has been buried in death for 15 years.
Why would Mido, young, pretty and talented, take this wretched man into her life? Perhaps because he is so manifestly helpless. Perhaps because she believes his story, and even the reason why he cannot reclaim his real name or identity. Perhaps because in 15 years he has been transformed into a man she senses is strong and good, when he was once weak and despicable. From his point of view, love is joined with salvation, acceptance, forgiveness and the possibility of redemption.
All of this is in place during the several scenes of revelation which follow, providing a context and giving them a deeper meaning. Yes, the ending is improbable in its complexity, but it is not impossible, and it is not unmotivated. 'Oldboy' ventures to emotional extremes, but not without reason. We are so accustomed to 'thrillers' that exist only as machines for creating diversion that it's a shock to find a movie in which the action, however violent, makes a statement and has a purpose."
'Are you talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here.' says Travis Bickle in 'Taxi Driver'.
It is the last line, 'Well, I'm the only one here.' that never gets quoted. It is the truest line in the film. Travis Bickle exists in 'Taxi Driver' as a character with a desperate need to make some kind of contact somehow - to share or mimic the effortless social interaction he sees all around him, but does not participate in.
The film can be seen as a series of his failed attempts to connect, every one of them hopelessly wrong. Bickle (Robert De Niro) asks a girl out on a date and takes her to a porno movie. He sucks up to a political candidate and ends by alarming him. He tries to make small talk with a Secret Service agent. He wants to befriend a child prostitute, but scares her away. He is so lonely that when he asks, 'Who you talkin' to?' he is addressing himself in a mirror.
This utter aloneness is at the center of 'Taxi Driver', one of the best and most powerful of all films, and perhaps it is why so many people connect with it even though Travis Bickle would seem to be the most alienating of movie heroes. We have all felt as alone as Travis. Most of us are better at dealing with it.
Martin Scorsese's 1976 film, which is now being re-released in a restored color print, with a stereophonic version of the Bernard Herrmann score, is a film that does not grow dated, or overfamiliar.
I have seen it dozens of times. Each time I see it, it works; I am drawn into Travis' underworld of alienation, loneliness, haplessness and anger.
It is a widely known item of cinematic lore that Paul Schrader's screenplay for "Taxi Driver" was inspired by 'The Searchers', John Ford's 1956 film. In both films, the heroes grow obsessed with 'rescuing' women who may not, in fact, want to be rescued. They are like the proverbial Boy Scout who helps the little old lady across the street whether or not she wants to go.
'The Searchers' has Civil War veteran John Wayne devoting years of his life to the search for his young niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), who has been kidnapped by Commanches. The thought of her in the arms of an Indian grinds away at him. When he finally finds her, she tells him the Indians are her people now and runs away. Wayne then plans to kill the girl, for the crime of having become a 'squaw'. But at the end, finally capturing her, he lifts her up (in a famous shot) and says, 'Let's go home, Debbie.' The dynamic here is that Wayne has forgiven his niece, after having participated in the killing of the people who, for 15 years or so, had been her family. As the movie ends, the niece is reunited with her surviving biological family, and the last shot shows Wayne silhouetted in a doorway, drawn once again to the wide open spaces.
There is, significantly, no scene showing us how the niece feels about what has happened to her.
In 'Taxi Driver', Travis Bickle is also a war veteran, horribly scarred in Vietnam. He encounters a 12-year-old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster), controlled by a pimp named Sport (Harvey Keitel). Sport wears an Indian headband. Travis determines to 'rescue' Iris, and does so, in a bloodbath that is unsurpassed even in the films of Scorsese. A letter and clippings from the Steensmans, Iris' parents, thank him for saving their girl. But a crucial earlier scene between Iris and Sport suggests that she was content to be with him, and the reasons why she ran away from home are not explored.
The buried message of both films is that an alienated man, unable to establish normal relationships, becomes a loner and wanderer, and assigns himself to rescue an innocent young girl from a life that offends his prejudices. In 'Taxi Driver', this central story is surrounded by many smaller ones, all building to the same theme. The story takes place during a political campaign, and Travis twice finds himself with the candidate, Palatine, in his cab: Once, the candidate is with a hooker; the next time, with campaign aides.
Travis goes through the motions of ingratiating flattery on the second occasion, but we, and Palatine, sense something wrong.
Shortly after that Travis tries to 'free' one of Palatine's campaign workers, a blond he has idealized (Cybill Shepherd). That goes wrong with the porno movie. And then, after the fearsome rehearsal in the mirror, he becomes a walking arsenal and goes to assassinate Palatine. The Palatine scenes are like dress rehearsals for the ending of the film. With both Betsy (Shepherd) and Iris, he has a friendly conversation in a coffee shop, followed by an aborted 'date', followed by attacks on the men he perceives as controlling them; he tries unsuccessfully to assassinate Palatine and then goes gunning for Sport.
There are undercurrents in the film that you sense without quite putting your finger on them. Travis' implied feelings about blacks, for example, which emerge in two long shots in a taxi driver's hangout, when he exchanges looks with a man who may be a drug dealer. His ambivalent feelings about sex (he lives in a world of pornography, but the sexual activity he observes in the city fills him with loathing). His hatred for the city, inhabited by 'scum'. His preference for working at night, and the way cinematographer Michael Chapman makes the yellow cab into a vessel by which Travis journeys the underworld, as steam escapes from vents in the streets, and the cab splashes through water from hydrants - a Stygian passage.
What is the purpose, the use, of a film like 'Taxi Driver'? It is not simply a seamy, violent portrait of a sick man in a disgusting world. Such a portrait it is, yes, but not 'simply'. It takes us inside the mind of an alienated fringe person like those who have so profoundly changed the course of recent history (Oswald, Ray, Bremer, Chapman). It helps us to understand these creatures who emerge, every so often, guns in their hands, enforcing the death penalty for the crime of celebrity. Sick as he is, Travis is a man.
"For those who have read Thoreau's Walden, there comes a time, maybe only lasting a few hours or a day, when the notion of living alone in a tiny cabin beside a pond and planting some beans seems strangely seductive. Certain young men, of which I was one, lecture patient girl friends about how such a life of purity and denial makes perfect sense. Christopher McCandless did not outgrow this phase.
Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, which I read with a fascinated dread, tells the story of a 20-year-old college graduate who cashes in his law school fund and, in the words of Mark Twain, lights out for the territory. He drives west until he can drive no farther, and then north into the Alaskan wilderness. He has a handful of books about survival and edible wild plants, and his model seems to be Jack London, although he should have devoted more attention to that author's 'To Build a Fire'.
Sean Penn's spellbinding film adaptation of this book stays close to the source. We meet Christopher (Emile Hirsch) as an idealistic dreamer, in reaction against his proud parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) and his bewildered sister (Jena Malone).
He had good grades at Emory; his future in law school was right there in his grasp. Why did he disappear from their lives, why was his car found abandoned, where was he, and why, why, why?
He keeps journals in which he sees himself in the third person as a heroic loner, renouncing civilization, returning to the embrace of nature. In centuries past such men might have been saints, retreating to a cave or hidden hermitage, denying themselves all pleasures except subsistence. He sees himself not as homeless, but as a man freed from homes.
In the book, Krakauer traces his movements through the memories of people he encounters on his journey. It was an impressive reporting achievement to track them down, and Penn's film affectionately embodies them in strong performances. These are people who take in the odd youth, feed him, shelter him, give him clothes, share their lives, mentor him and worry as he leaves to continue his quest, which seems to them, correctly, as doomed.
By now McCandless has renamed himself Alexander Supertramp. He is validated by his lifestyle choice. He meets such people as Rainey and Jan (Brian Dieker and Catherine Keener), leftover hippies still happily rejecting society, and Wayne (Vince Vaughn), a hard-drinking, friendly farmer. The most touching contact he makes is with Ron (Hal Holbrook), an older man who sees him clearly and with apprehension, and begins to think of him as a wayward grandson. Christopher lectures this man, who has seen it all, on what he is missing and asks him to follow him up a steep hillside to see the next horizon. Ron tries, before he admits he is no longer in condition.
And then McCandless disappears from the maps of memory, into unforgiving Alaska. Yes, it looks beautiful. It is all he dreamed of. He finds an abandoned bus where no bus should be and makes it his home. He tries hunting, not very successfully. He lives off the land, but the land is a zero-tolerance system. From his journals and other evidence, Penn reconstructs his final weeks. Emile Hirsch plays him in a hypnotic performance, turning skeletal, his eyes sinking into his skull while they still burn with zeal. It is great acting, and more than acting.
This is a reflective, regretful, serious film about a young man swept away by his uncompromising choices. Two of the more truthful statements in recent culture are that we need a little help from our friends, and that sometimes we must depend on the kindness of strangers. If you don't know those two things and accept them, you will end up eventually in a bus of one kind or another. Sean Penn himself fiercely idealistic, uncompromising, a little less angry now, must have read the book and reflected that there, but for the grace of God, went he. The movie is so good partly because it means so much, I think, to its writer-director. It is a testament like the words that Christopher carved into planks in the wilderness.
I grew up in Urbana three houses down from the Sanderson family -- Milton and Virginia and their boys Steve and Joe. My close friend was Joe. His bedroom was filled with aquariums, terrariums, snakes, hamsters, spiders, and butterfly and beetle collections. I envied him like crazy. After college he hit the road. He never made a break from his parents, but they rarely knew where he was. Sometimes he came home and his mother would have to sew $100 bills into the seams of his blue jeans. He disappeared in Nicaragua. His body was later identified as a dead Sandinista freedom fighter. From a nice little house surrounded by evergreens at the other end of Washington Street, he left to look for something he needed to find. I believe in Sean Penn's Christopher McCandless. I grew up with him."
"The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in '2001: A Space Odyssey', but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn't include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence, and leaves it on screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations. Alone among science-fiction movies, '2001' is not concerned with thrilling us, but with inspiring our awe.
No little part of his effect comes from the music. Although Kubrick originally commissioned an original score from Alex North, he used classical recordings as a temporary track while editing the film, and they worked so well that he kept them. This was a crucial decision. North's score, which is available on a recording, is a good job of film composition, but would have been wrong for '2001' because, like all scores, it attempts to underline the action -- to give us emotional cues. The classical music chosen by Kubrick exists outside the action. It uplifts. It wants to be sublime; it brings a seriousness and transcendence to the visuals.
Consider two examples. The Johann Strauss waltz “Blue Danube,'' which accompanies the docking of the space shuttle and the space station, is deliberately slow, and so is the action. Obviously such a docking process would have to take place with extreme caution (as we now know from experience), but other directors might have found the space ballet too slow, and punched it up with thrilling music, which would have been wrong.
We are asked in the scene to contemplate the process, to stand in space and watch. We know the music. It proceeds as it must. And so, through a peculiar logic, the space hardware moves slowly because it's keeping the tempo of the waltz. At the same time, there is an exaltation in the music that helps us feel the majesty of the process.
Now consider Kubrick's famous use of Richard Strauss' 'Thus Spake Zarathustra'. Inspired by the words of Nietzsche, its five bold opening notes embody the ascension of man into spheres reserved for the gods. It is cold, frightening, magnificent.
The music is associated in the film with the first entry of man's consciousness into the universe - -and with the eventual passage of that consciousness onto a new level, symbolized by the Star Child at the end of the film. When classical music is associated with popular entertainment, the result is usually to trivialize it (who can listen to the 'William Tell Overture' without thinking of the Lone Ranger?). Kubrick's film is almost unique in enhancing the music by its association with his images.
I attended the Los Angeles premiere of the film, in 1968, at the Pantages Theater. It is impossible to describe the anticipation in the audience adequately. Kubrick had been working on the film in secrecy for some years, in collaboration, the audience knew, with author Arthur C. Clarke, special-effects expert Douglas Trumbull and consultants who advised him on the specific details of his imaginary future -- everything from space station design to corporate logos. Fearing to fly and facing a deadline, Kubrick had sailed from England on the Queen Elizabeth, doing the editing while on board, and had continued to edit the film during a cross-country train journey. Now it finally was ready to be seen.
To describe that first screening as a disaster would be wrong, for many of those who remained until the end knew they had seen one of the greatest films ever made. But not everyone remained. Rock Hudson stalked down the aisle, complaining, 'Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?' There were many other walkouts, and some restlessness at the film's slow pace (Kubrick immediately cut about 17 minutes, including a pod sequence that essentially repeated another one).
The film did not provide the clear narrative and easy entertainment cues the audience expected. The closing sequences, with the astronaut inexplicably finding himself in a bedroom somewhere beyond Jupiter, were baffling. The overnight Hollywood judgment was that Kubrick had become derailed, that in his obsession with effects and set pieces, he had failed to make a movie.
What he had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man's place in the universe, using images as those before him had used words, music or prayer. And he had made it in a way that invited us to contemplate it -- not to experience it vicariously as entertainment, as we might in a good conventional science-fiction film, but to stand outside it as a philosopher might, and think about it.
The film falls into several movements. In the first, prehistoric apes, confronted by a mysterious black monolith, teach themselves that bones can be used as weapons, and thus discover their first tools. I have always felt that the smooth artificial surfaces and right angles of the monolith, which was obviously made by intelligent beings, triggered the realization in an ape brain that intelligence could be used to shape the objects of the world.
The bone is thrown into the air and dissolves into a space shuttle (this has been called the longest flash-forward in the history of the cinema). We meet Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), en route to a space station and the moon. This section is willfully anti-narrative; there are no breathless dialogue passages to tell us of his mission. Instead, Kubrick shows us the minutiae of the flight: the design of the cabin, the details of in-flight service, the effects of zero gravity.
Then comes the docking sequence, with its waltz, and for a time even the restless in the audience are silenced, I imagine, by the sheer wonder of the visuals. On board, we see familiar brand names, we participate in an enigmatic conference among the scientists of several nations, we see such gimmicks as a videophone and a zero-gravity toilet.
The sequence on the moon (which looks as real as the actual video of the moon landing a year later) is a variation on the film's opening sequence. Man is confronted with a monolith, just as the apes were, and is drawn to a similar conclusion: This must have been made. And as the first monolith led to the discovery of tools, so the second leads to the employment of man's most elaborate tool: the spaceship Discovery, employed by man in partnership with the artificial intelligence of the onboard computer, named HAL 9000.
Life onboard the Discovery is presented as a long, eventless routine of exercise, maintenance checks and chess games with HAL. Only when the astronauts fear that HAL's programming has failed does a level of suspense emerge; their challenge is somehow to get around HAL, which has been programmed to believe, “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.'' Their efforts lead to one of the great shots in the cinema, as the men attempt to have a private conversation in a space pod, and HAL reads their lips. The way Kubrick edits this scene so that we can discover what HAL is doing is masterful in its restraint: He makes it clear, but doesn't insist on it. He trusts our intelligence.
Later comes the famous 'star gate' sequence, a sound and light journey in which astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) travels through what we might now call a wormhole into another place, or dimension, that is unexplained. At journey's end is the comfortable bedroom suite in which he grows old, eating his meals quietly, napping, living the life (I imagine) of a zoo animal who has been placed in a familiar environment. And then the Star Child.
There is never an explanation of the other race that presumably left the monoliths and provided the star gate and the bedroom. '2001' lore suggests Kubrick and Clarke tried and failed to create plausible aliens. It is just as well. The alien race exists more effectively in negative space: We react to its invisible presence more strongly than we possibly could to any actual representation.
'2001: A Space Odyssey' is in many respects a silent film. There are few conversations that could not be handled with title cards. Much of the dialogue exists only to show people talking to one another, without much regard to content (this is true of the conference on the space station). Ironically, the dialogue containing the most feeling comes from HAL, as it pleads for its 'life' and sings 'Daisy'.
The film creates its effects essentially out of visuals and music. It is meditative. It does not cater to us, but wants to inspire us, enlarge us. Nearly 30 years after it was made, it has not dated in any important detail, and although special effects have become more versatile in the computer age, Trumbull's work remains completely convincing -- more convincing, perhaps, than more sophisticated effects in later films, because it looks more plausible, more like documentary footage than like elements in a story.
Only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape. Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain it after difficulties either comic or dramatic. '2001: A Space Odyssey' is not about a goal but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are. Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet but among the stars, and that we are not flesh but intelligence."
"McHugh and I were sitting in O'Rourke's one day when a guy we knew came in for a drink. The guy pulled back his coat and we could see he had a handgun in his belt. 'Why are you carrying a gun?' McHugh asked. 'Because I live in a dangerous neighborhood,' the guy said. It would be safer if you moved,' said McHugh.
Michael Moore's 'Bowling for Columbine', a documentary that is both hilarious and sorrowful, is like a two-hour version of that anecdote. We live in a nation of millions of handguns, but that isn't really what bothers Moore. What bothers him is that we so frequently shoot them at one another. Canada has a similar ratio of guns to citizens, but a 10th of the shooting deaths. What makes us kill so many times more fellow citizens than is the case in other developed nations? Moore, the jolly populist rabble-rouser, explains that he's a former sharpshooting instructor and a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association. No doubt this is true, but Moore has moved on from his early fondness for guns. In 'Bowling for Columbine', however, he is not so sure of the answers as in the popular 'Roger & Me', a film in which he knew who the bad guys were, and why. Here he asks questions he can't answer, such as why we as a nation seem so afraid, so in need of the reassurance of guns. Noting that we treasure urban legends designed to make us fearful of strangers, Moore notices how TV news focuses on local violence ('if it bleeds, it leads') and says that while the murder rate is down 20 percent in America, TV coverage of violent crime is up 600 percent. Despite paranoia that has all but sidetracked the childhood custom of trick or treat, Moore points out that in fact no razor blades have ever been found in Halloween apples.
Moore's thoughtfulness doesn't inhibit the sensational set-pieces he devises to illustrate his concern. He returns several times to Columbine High School, at one point showing horrifying security-camera footage of the massacre. And Columbine inspires one of the great confrontations in a career devoted to radical grandstanding. Moore introduces us to two of the students wounded at Colum-bine, both still with bullets in their bodies. He explains that all of the Columbine bullets were freely sold to the teenage killers by Kmart, at 17 cents apiece. And then he takes the two victims to Kmart headquarters to return the bullets for a refund.
This is brilliant theater and would seem to be unanswerable for the hapless Kmart public relations spokespeople, who fidget and evade in front of Moore's merciless camera. But then, on Moore's third visit to headquarters, he is told that Kmart will agree to completely phase out the sale of ammunition. 'We've won,' says Moore, not believing it. 'This has never happened before.' For once, he's at a loss for words.
The movie is a mosaic of Moore confrontations and supplementary footage. One moment that cuts to the core is from a standup routine by Chris Rock, who suggests that our problem could be solved by simply increasing the price of bullets--taxing them like cigarettes. Instead of 17 cents apiece, why not $5,000? 'At that price,' he speculates, 'you'd have a lot fewer innocent bystanders being shot.' Moore buys a Map to the Stars'Homes to find where Charlton Heston lives, rings the bell on his gate, and is invited back for an interview. But Heston clearly knows nothing of Moore's track record, and his answers to Moore's questions are borderline pathetic. Heston recently announced he has symptoms associated with Alzheimer's disease, but there is no indication in this footage that he is senile; it's simply that he cannot explain why he, as a man living behind a gate in a protected neighborhood, with security patrols, who has never felt himself threatened, needs a loaded gun in the house. Heston is equally unhelpful when asked if he thinks it was a good idea for him to speak at an NRA rally in Denver 10 days after Columbine. He seems to think it was all a matter of scheduling.
'Bowling for Columbine' thinks we have way too many guns, don't need them, and are shooting each other at an unreasonable rate. Moore cannot single out a villain to blame for this fact, because it seems to emerge from a national desire to be armed. ('If you're not armed, you're not responsible,' a member of the Michigan militia tells him.) At one point, he visits a bank that is giving away guns to people who open new accounts. He asks a banker if it isn't a little dangerous to have all these guns in a bank. Not at all. The bank, Moore learns, is a licensed gun dealership.
Note: The movie is rated R, so that the Columbine killers would have been protected from the 'violent images', mostly of themselves. The MPAA continues its policy of banning teenagers from those films they most need to see. What utopian world do the flywheels of the ratings board think they are protecting?"
" 'As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States.'
So says Henry Hill in the opening moments of Martin Scorsese's 'GoodFellas', a movie about the tradecraft and culture of organized crime in New York. That he narrates his own story--and is later joined by his wife, narrating hers--is crucial to the movie's success. This is not an outsider's view, but a point-of-view movie based on nostalgia for the lifestyle. 'They were blue-collar guys,' Hill's wife explains. 'The only way they could make extra money, real extra money, was to go out and cut a few corners.' Their power was intoxicating. 'If we wanted something, we just took it,' Henry says. 'If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.'
At the end of the film, Henry (Ray Liotta) still misses the old days. His money is gone, most of his friends are dead, and his best friend was preparing to kill him, but after he finds safety in the federal witness protection program, he still complains. 'We were treated like movie stars with muscle,' he remembers. 'Today, everything is different. There's no action. I have to wait around like everyone else.'
The rewards of unearned privilege are at the heart of 'GoodFellas' (1990). There's an early scene introducing Henry's partner Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), and he enters the shot in a sort of glowing modesty; his body language says, 'no applause, please.' Henry's other partner is Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), who makes the mistake of over-exercising his clout instead of letting it go without saying. In one of the great buildups and payoffs in movie history, he believes he's going to become a 'made' man, realizes his mistake too late, and says 'Oh, no' before being shot in the head. He never learned to relax and enjoy his privileges. He always had to push things.
The early scenes of 'GoodFellas' show young Henry Hill as a gofer for the local Brooklyn mob, which has its headquarters in a taxi garage right across the street from his house. (A shot of Henry looking out the window mirrors Scorsese's own childhood memories from Manhattan's Little Italy neighborhood, and so does a following sequence which uses subtle slow-motion for closeups of the mobster's shoes, ties, hair, rings and cigars.) In a movie famous for violence that arrives instantly, without warning, the most shocking surprise comes when Henry is slapped by his father for missing school. He had to 'take a few beatings' at home because of his teenage career choice, Henry remembers, but it was worth it. Violence is like a drumbeat under every scene.
Henry's joy in his emerging career is palpable. He sells stolen cigarettes out of car trunks, torches a car lot, has enough money at 21 to tip lavishly. In the most famous shot in the movie, he takes his future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) to the Copacabana nightclub. There's a line in front, but he escorts her across the street, down stairs and service corridors, through the kitchen area, and out into the showroom just as their table is being placed right in front of the stage. This unbroken shot, which lasts 184 seconds, is not simply a cameraman's stunt, but an inspired way to show how the whole world seems to unfold effortlessly before young Henry Hill.
There is another very protracted shot, as Henry introduces us to his fellow gangsters. Henry leads the camera through a crowded club, calling out names as the characters nod to the camera or speak to Henry. Sometimes the camera seems to follow Henry, but at other times it seems to represent his POV; sometimes he's talking to them, sometimes to us. This strategy implicates us in the action. The cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, did not get one of the film's six Oscar nominations, but was a key collaborator. Following Scorsese's signature style, he almost never allows his camera to be still; it is always moving, if only a little, and a moving camera makes us not passive observers but active voyeurs.
The screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese is based on Pileggi's book about Hill, Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family. It is equally based, probably, on Scorsese's own memories of Little Italy. It shows a mob family headed by Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), who never talks on the phone, dislikes group conversations, disapproves of drugs (because the sentences are too high), and sounds like a parish priest when he orders Henry to return home to his wife. That doesn't mean he has to dump his mistress; all the guys seem to have both a wife and a mistress, who are plied with stolen goods of astonishing tastelessness.
'GoodFellas' is unusual in giving good screen time to the women, who are usually unseen in gangster movies. Karen Hill narrates her own side of the story, confessing that she was attracted to Henry's clout and fame; after she tells Henry the guy across the street tried to hit on her, Henry pistol-whips him and then gives her the gun to hide. She tells us: 'I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn't. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on.' It is reasonable to suggest that 'The Sopranos' finds its origin in the narrations in 'GoodFellas', especially Karen's.
Underlying the violence is a story of economic ambition. Henry and Karen come from backgrounds that could not easily lead to Cadillacs, vacations in Vegas and fur coats, and she justifies what he has to do to pay for the lifestyle: 'None of it seemed like crimes. It was more like Henry was enterprising and that he and the guys were making a few bucks hustling, while the other guys were sitting on their asses waiting for handouts.'
The story arc follows Henry's movement up into the mob and then down into prison sentences and ultimate betrayal. At first the mob seems like an opening-up of his life, but later, after he starts selling drugs, there is a claustrophobic closing-in. The camera style in the earlier scenes celebrates his power and influence with expansive ease. At the end, in a frantic sequence concentrated in a single day, the style becomes hurried and choppy as he races frantically around the neighborhood on family and criminal missions while a helicopter always seems to hover overhead.
What Scorsese does above all else is share his enthusiasm for the material. The film has the headlong momentum of a storyteller who knows he has a good one to share. Scorsese's camera caresses these guys, pays attention to the shines on their shoes and the cut of their clothes. And when they're planning the famous Lufthansa robbery, he has them whispering together in a tight three-shot that has their heads leaning low and close with the thrill of their own audacity. You can see how much fun it is for them to steal.
The film's method is to interrupt dialogue with violence. Sometimes there are false alarms, as in Pesci's famous restaurant scene where Tommy wants to know what Henry meant when he said he was "funny." Other moments well up suddenly out of the very mob culture: The way Tommy shoots the kid in the foot, and later murders him. The way kidding-around in a bar leads to a man being savagely beaten. The way the violence penetrates the daily lives of the characters is always insisted on. Tommy, Henry and Jimmy, with a body in their trunk, stop at Tommy's mother's house to get a knife, and she insists they sit down at 3 a.m. for a meal.
Scorsese seems so much in command of his gift in this film. It was defeated for the best picture Oscar by 'Dances with Wolves', but in November 2002 a poll by Sight & Sound magazine named it the fourth best film of the past 25 years (after Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now', Scorsese's 'Raging Bull', and Bergman's 'Fanny and Alexander'). It is an indictment of organized crime, but it doesn't stand outside in a superior moralistic position. It explains crime's appeal for a hungry young man who has learned from childhood beatings not to hate power, but to envy it. When Henry Hill talks to us at the opening of the film, he sounds like a kid in love: 'To me, it meant being somebody in a neighborhood that was full of nobodies. They weren't like anybody else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double-parked in front of a hydrant and nobody ever gave them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.' "
"Visiting an old people's home, I walked down a corridor on the floor given over to advanced Alzheimer's parents. Some seemed anxious. Some were angry. Some simply sat there. Knowing nothing of what was happening in their minds, I wondered if the anxious and angry ones had some notion of who they were and that something was wrong. I was reminded of the passive ones while watching 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'. Wiped free of memory, they exist always in the moment, which they accept because it is everything.
In his screenplay for the film, Charlie Kaufman has a character quote some lines by Alexander Pope:
'How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resigned…'
This passage comes well into a very long poem which I doubt the character Mary would have memorized. The audience needn't know that; many may know no more than she does when she calls the author Pope Alexander. She quotes as she's trying to impress a boss she loves. Kaufman has that knack of painlessly explaining his subject right there on the screen. Consider how much information about evolution he embeds in his screenplay for 'Adaptation'.
Kaufman, the most gifted screenwriter of the 2000s, is concerned above all about the processes of thought and memory. His screenplay for Spike Jonze's 'Being John Malkovich' (1999) involved a way to spend 15 minutes inside the mind of another person. Michel Gondry's 'Human Nature' (2001) is concerned about the Nature vs. Nurture theories of our behavior: Do we start this way, or do we learn it? Jonze's 'Adaptation' (2002) contrasts the physical evolution of orchids (which assume fantastic forms to earn a living) with identical twins, one who writes from his nature and the other from his nurture. In George Clooney's 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind'(2002), he shows the game show creator Chuck Barris leading a double life as a deadly CIA assassin (Barris believes this story is factual). Kaufman's first film as a director, 'Synecdoche, New York' (2008), is his most challenging. He attempts no less than to dramatize the ways in which our minds cope with our various personas and try to organize aspects of our experience into separate compartments we can control.
These sound like topics for a class in evolution or neuroscience, but Kaufman and his directors structure them like films that proceed quite clearly along paths we seem to be following, until we arrive at the limits of identity. 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind', like 'Malkovich', invents a fantastic device for its peculiarities, and wisely declines to explain it. All we know is that an obscure company in Boston offers to erase your memories of a particular person or anything else. Period.
The film opens like a Meet Cute. Indeed, it's a film built around Meet Cutes, some not so Cute. A solemn, worried man named Joel (Jim Carrey) takes a train for no reason and at a station encounters Clementine (Kate Winslet), who thinks they've met before. He doesn't think so. She persists. He goes home with her and they sleep together. In fact they have met before and were in love, but it ended badly and they both had the memory erased.
That much is quite clear. It also becomes clear, later, that when the wounded Joel discovered what Clementine did, in revenge he sought to wipe her from his memories. His head is encased in a sort of aluminum football helmet attached to an alarmingly small laptop controlled by a technician named Stan (Mark Ruffalo), who drinks beer with his co-worker Mary (Kirsten Dunst). They're jumping on his bed in their underwear when Joel's mind goes 'off the map'.
Terrified, Stan calls in the boss, Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), who is alarmed, as well he might be. Inside the helmet, Joel struggles desperately to resist the loss of his memories of Clementine. He has literally changed his mind about changing his mind. Kaufman by now has jumped the rails and tumbled us into a labyrinth of time and reality. We see Joel and Clementine at various times before both erasures, after hers, and during his--when he even tries to hide his memories by disguising them both as childhood playmates.
Some viewers have been confused by the film's movement through chronology and locations, but I think the paradoxes are explained if we realize that everything is happening in only one place, Joel's mind. The disconnects are explained by his fragmented memories of when that they were together before, during and after the erasure. The train station sequence at the beginning is closer to the end of the movie's timeline.
Not that we're required to piece it all together. Gombry and Kaufman use qualities of the cinema itself to allow it to make emotional sense when it's baffling any other way. We know our minds easily comprehend and accept flashbacks, hallucinations and conflicting realities. Even small children seeing a flashback for the first time understand what's being conveyed. As impossible events occur, we understand they're subjective--generated in the minds of the beholders. That explains the crumbling beach house in "Eternal Sunshine" and the constantly burning home in 'Synecdoche'. We know at the time they aren't 'real', and afterwards we're missing the point if we ask for an 'explanation'. These films are made with insight into how the mind translates information.
Kaufman isn't merely an ingenious screenwriter but a shrewd one. Notice how he uses the comic subplot involving Joel, Catherine and Patrick (Elijah Wood), the clueless office assistant, as counterpoint to his fraught central story. And how Dr. Mierzwiak functions as the Prospero figure, lending gravitas to an absurd premise. If we complain about these "extra characters," we may as well complain about their parallels in Shakespeare. It's difficult to focus on two people in an impossible situation for three acts, and even harder to make that entertaining, as a film like this must. Kaufman uses comic relief as a important device in his construction.
His screenplays require actors who can keep a straight face in the center of farce. Nothing is more fatal than an actor signaling that material is funny. That's for us to decide. To the character, it's his life, and there's nothing funny about it. Keaton never allowed himself a smile or a wink; Chaplin a few smiles, but too many. Jim Carrey in 'Eternal Sunshine' is a sad sack throughout; John Cusack in 'Malkovich' earnestly desires to do good, and Malkovich himself has made a career of probity; Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'Synecdoche' desperately seeks to hold together his mental machinery (and the film itself is far from funny).
Why I respond so intensely to this material must involve my obsession with who we are and who we think we are. The secret of communicating with another person, I suspect, may be in communicating with who he thinks he is. Do that, and you can kid a great man and treat an insignificant one with deep respect. They'll credit you with insight.
The wisdom in 'Eternal Sunshine' is how it illuminates the way memory interacts with love. We more readily recall pleasure than pain. From the hospital I remember laughing nurses and not sleepless nights. A drunk remembers the good times better than the hangovers. A failed political candidate remembers the applause. An unsuccessful romantic lover remembers the times when it worked.
What Joel and Clementine cling to are those perfect moments when lives seem blessed by heaven, and sunshine will fall upon it forever. I hope those are the moments some of those patients are frozen in. They seem at peace."
Roger Ebert didn't find this movie as good as I did so I put my own point of view.
"I remembered when I saw it for the first time. I was 16 and completely blown away. It was made almost 25 years before but it seemed so modern. It has everything : the visuals, the direction, the acting, the music, the thoughtfulness,.... A great classic."
" Miyazaki's 'Spirited Away' has been compared to 'Alice in Wonderland', and indeed it tells of a 10-year-old girl who wanders into a world of strange creatures and illogical rules. But it's enchanting and delightful in its own way, and has a good heart. It is the best animated film of recent years, the latest work by Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese master who is a god to the Disney animators.
Because many adults have an irrational reluctance to see an animated film from Japan (or anywhere else), I begin with reassurances: It has been flawlessly dubbed into English by John Lasseter ('Toy Story'), it was co-winner of this year's Berlin Film Festival against 'regular' movies, it passed 'Titanic' to become the top-grossing film in Japanese history, and it is the first film ever to make more than $200 million before opening in America.
I feel like I'm giving a pitch on an infomercial, but I make these points because I come bearing news: This is a wonderful film. Don't avoid it because of what you think you know about animation from Japan. And if you only go to Disney animation--well, this is being released by Disney.
Miyazaki's works ('My Neighbor Totoro', 'Kiki's Delivery Service', 'Princess Mononoke') have a depth and complexity often missing in American animation. Not fond of computers, he draws thousand of frames himself, and there is a painterly richness in his work. He's famous for throwaway details at the edges of the screen (animation is so painstaking that few animators draw more than is necessary). And he permits himself silences and contemplation, providing punctuation for the exuberant action and the lovable or sometimes grotesque characters.
'Spirited Away' is told through the eyes of Chihiro a 10-year-old girl, and is more personal, less epic, than 'Princess Mononoke'. As the story opens, she's on a trip with her parents, and her father unwisely takes the family to explore a mysterious tunnel in the woods. On the other side is what he speculates is an old theme park; but the food stalls still seem to be functioning, and as Chihiro's parents settle down for a free meal, she wanders away and comes upon the film's version of wonderland, which is a towering bathhouse.
A boy named Haku appears as her guide, and warns her that the sorceress who runs the bathhouse, named Yubaba, will try to steal her name and thus her identity. Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette) is an old crone with a huge face; she looks a little like a Toby mug, and dotes on a grotesquely huge baby named Boh. Ominously, she renames Chihiro, who wanders through the structure, which is populated, like 'Totoro', with little balls of dust that scurry and scamper underfoot.
In the innards of the structure, Chihiro comes upon the boiler room, operated by a man named Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers), who is dressed in a formal coat and has eight limbs, which he employs in a bewildering variety of ways. At first he seems as fearsome as the world he occupies, but he has a good side, is no friend of Yubaba, and perceives Chihiro's goodness.
If Yubaba is the scariest of the characters and Kamaji the most intriguing, Okutaresama is the one with the most urgent message. He is the spirit of the river, and his body has absorbed the junk, waste and sludge that has been thrown into it over the years. At one point, he actually yields up a discarded bicycle. I was reminded of a throwaway detail in 'My Neighbor Totoro', where a child looks into a bubbling brook, and there is a discarded bottle at the bottom. No point is made; none needs to be made.
Japanese myths often use shape-shifting, in which bodies reveal themselves as facades concealing a deeper reality. It's as if animation was invented for shape-shifting, and Miyazaki does wondrous things with the characters here. Most alarming for Chihiro, she finds that her parents have turned into pigs after gobbling up the free lunch. Okutaresama reveals its true nature after being freed of decades of sludge and discarded household items. Haku is much more than he seems. Indeed the entire bathhouse seems to be under spells affected the appearance and nature of its inhabitants.
Miyazaki's drawing style, which descends from the classical Japanese graphic artists, is a pleasure to regard, with its subtle use of colors, clear lines, rich detail and its realistic depiction of fantastical elements. He suggests not just the appearances of his characters, but their natures. Apart from the stories and dialogue, 'Spirited Away' is a pleasure to regard just for itself. This is one of the year's best films."
"Alcoholics or drug addicts feel wrong when they don't feel right. Eventually they feel very wrong, and must feel right, and at that point their lives spiral down into some sort of final chapter--recovery if they're lucky, hopelessness and death if they're not.
What is fascinating about 'Requiem for a Dream', the new film by Darren Aronofsky, is how well he portrays the mental states of his addicts. When they use, a window opens briefly into a world where everything is right. Then it slides shut, and life reduces itself to a search for the money and drugs to open it again. Nothing else is remotely as interesting.
Aronofsky is the director who made the hallucinatory 'Pi'(1998), about a paranoid genius who seems on the brink of discovering the key to--well, God, or the stock market, or whatever else his tormentors imagine. That movie, made on a tiny budget, was astonishing in the way it suggested its hero's shifting prism of reality. Now, with greater resources, Aronofsky brings a new urgency to the drug movie by trying to reproduce, through his subjective camera, how his characters feel, or want to feel, or fear to feel.
As the movie opens, a housewife is chaining her television to the radiator. It's no use. Her son frees it, and wheels it down the street to a pawn shop. This is a regular routine, we gather; anything in his mother's house is a potential source of funds for drug money. The son's girlfriend and best friend are both addicted, too. So is the mother: to television and sugar. We recognize the actors, but barely. Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) is fat and blowzy in her sloppy house dresses; if you've just seen her in the revived 'Exorcist', her appearance will come as a shock. Her son Harry (Jared Leto) is gaunt and haunted; so is his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly). His pal Tyrone is played by Marlon Wayans, who has lost all the energy and cockiness of his comic persona and is simply trying to survive in a reasonable manner. Tyrone suspects, correctly, that he's in trouble but Harry is in more.
Sara's life passes in modest retirement. She joins the other old ladies out front of their building, where they line up their lawn chairs in the sun. She's addicted to a game show whose host (Christopher McDonald) leads the audience in chanting 'We got a winner!' She's a sweet, naive women who gets a junk phone call that misleads her into thinking she may be a potential guest on the show. She obsesses about wearing her favorite red dress, and gets diet pills from the doctor to help her lose weight.
She does lose weight, and also her mind. 'The pills don't work so good anymore,' she complains to the druggist, and then starts doubling up her usage. Her doctor isn't even paying attention when she complains dubiously about hallucinations (the refrigerator has started to threaten her). Meanwhile, Harry talks to Marion about the one big score that would 'get us back on track'. Tyrone can see that Harry is losing it, but Marion, under Harry's spell, has sex with a shrink (Sean Gullette, star of 'Pi') and is eventually selling herself for stag party gang-gropes.
Aronofsky is fascinated by the way in which the camera can be used to suggest how his characters see things. I've just finished a shot-by-shot analysis of Hitchcock's 'The Birds' at the Virginia Film Festival; he does the same thing, showing us some things and denying us others so that we are first plunged into a subjective state and then yanked back to objectivity with a splash of cold reality.
Here Aronofsky uses extreme closeups to show drugs acting on his characters. First we see the pills, or the fix, filling the screen, because that's all the characters can think about. Then the injection, swallowing or sniffing--because that blots out the world. Then the pupils of their eyes dilate. All done with acute exaggeration of sounds.
These sequences are done in fast-motion, to show how quickly the drugs take effect--and how disappointingly soon they fade. The in-between times edge toward desperation. Aronofsky cuts between the mother, a prisoner of her apartment and diet pills, and the other three. Early in the film, in a technique I haven't seen before, he uses a split screen in which the space on both sides is available to the other (Sara and Harry each have half the screen, but their movements enter into each other's halves). This is an effective way of showing them alone together. Later, in a virtuoso closing sequence, he cuts between all four major characters as they careen toward their final destinations.
Burstyn isn't afraid to play Sara Goldfarb flat-out as a collapsing ruin (Aronofsky has mercy on her by giving her some fantasy scenes where she appears on TV and we see that she is actually still a great-looking woman). Connolly, who is so much a sex symbol that she, too, could have disgraced herself in "Charlie's Angels," has consistently gone for risky projects and this may be her riskiest; the movie is inspired by Hubert Selby, Jr.'s lacerating novel of the same name, and in her own way Connolly goes as faras Jennifer Jason Leigh did in 'Last Exit to Brooklyn'(1989), an equally courageous, quite different, film based on another Selby novel. Leto and Wayans have a road trip together, heading for Florida, that is like a bleaker echo of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo's Florida odyssey in 'Midnight Cowboy'. Leto's suppurating arm, punished by too many needles, is like a motif for his life.
The movie was given the worthless NC-17 rating by the MPAA; rejecting it, Artisan Entertainment is asking theaters to enforce an adults-only policy. I can think of an exception: Anyone under 17 who is thinking of experimenting with drugs might want to see this movie, which plays like a travelogue of hell."
" 'City of God' churns with furious energy as it plunges into the story of the slum gangs of Rio de Janeiro. Breathtaking and terrifying, urgently involved with its characters, it announces a new director of great gifts and passions: Fernando Meirelles. Remember the name. The film has been compared with Scorsese's 'GoodFellas', and it deserves the comparison. Scorsese's film began with a narrator who said that for as long as he could remember he wanted to be a gangster. The narrator of this film seems to have had no other choice.
The movie takes place in slums constructed by Rio to isolate the poor people from the city center. They have grown into places teeming with life, color, music and excitement--and also with danger, for the law is absent and violent gangs rule the streets. In the virtuoso sequence opening the picture, a gang is holding a picnic for its members when a chicken escapes. Among those chasing it is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), the narrator. He suddenly finds himself between two armed lines: the gang on one side, the cops on the other.
As the camera whirls around him, the background changes and Rocket shrinks from a teenager into a small boy, playing soccer in a housing development outside Rio. To understand his story, he says, we have to go back to the beginning, when he and his friends formed the Tender Trio and began their lives of what some would call crime and others would call survival.
The technique of that shot--the whirling camera, the flashback, the change in colors from the dark brightness of the slum to the dusty sunny browns of the soccer field--alert us to a movie that is visually alive and inventive as few films are.
Meirelles began as a director of TV commercials, which gave him a command of technique--and, he says, trained him to work quickly, to size up a shot and get it, and move on. Working with the cinematographer Cesar Charlone, he uses quick-cutting and a mobile, hand-held camera to tell his story with the haste and detail it deserves. Sometimes those devices can create a film that is merely busy, but 'City of God' feels like sight itself, as we look here and then there, with danger or opportunity everywhere.
The gangs have money and guns because they sell drugs and commit robberies. But they are not very rich because their activities are limited to the City of God, where no one has much money. In an early crime, we see the stickup of a truck carrying cans of propane gas, which the crooks sell to homeowners. Later there is a raid on a bordello, where the customers are deprived of their wallets. (In a flashback, we see that raid a second time, and understand in a chilling moment why there were dead bodies at a site where there was not supposed to be any killing.) As Rocket narrates the lore of the district he knows so well, we understand that poverty has undermined all social structures in the City of God, including the family. The gangs provide structure and status. Because the gang death rate is so high, even the leaders tend to be surprisingly young, and life has no value except when you are taking it. There is an astonishing sequence when a victorious gang leader is killed in a way he least expects, by the last person he would have expected, and we see that essentially he has been killed not by a person but by the culture of crime.
Yet the film is not all grim and violent. Rocket also captures some of the Dickensian flavor of the City of God, where a riot of life provides ready-made characters with nicknames, personas and trademarks. Some like Benny (Phelipe Haagensen) are so charismatic they almost seem to transcend the usual rules. Others, like Knockout Ned and Lil Ze, grow from kids into fearsome leaders, their words enforced by death.
The movie is based on a novel by Paulo Lins, who grew up in the City of God, somehow escaped it, and spent eight years writing his book. A note at the end says it is partly based on the life of Wilson Rodriguez, a Brazilian photographer. We watch as Rocket obtains a (stolen) camera that he treasures and takes pictures from his privileged position as a kid on the streets. He gets a job as an assistant on a newspaper delivery truck, asks a photographer to develop his film, and is startled to see his portrait of an armed gang leader on the front page of the paper.
'This is my death sentence,' he thinks, but no: The gangs are delighted by the publicity and pose for him with their guns and girls. And during a vicious gang war, he is able to photograph the cops killing a gangster--a murder they plan to pass off as gang-related. That these events throb with immediate truth is indicated by the fact that Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the newly elected president of Brazil, actually reviewed and praised 'City of God' as a needful call for change.
In its actual level of violence, 'City of God' is less extreme than Scorsese's 'Gangs of New York', but the two films have certain parallels. In both films, there are really two cities: the city of the employed and secure, who are served by law and municipal services, and the city of the castaways, whose alliances are born of opportunity and desperation. Those who live beneath rarely have their stories told.
'City of God' does not exploit or condescend, does not pump up its stories for contrived effect, does not contain silly and reassuring romantic sidebars, but simply looks, with a passionately knowing eye, at what it knows."
"A vast empty Western landscape. The camera pans across it. Then the shot slides onto a sunburned, desperate face. The long shot has become a closeup without a cut, revealing that the landscape was not empty but occupied by a desperado very close to us.
In these opening frames, Sergio Leone established a rule that he follows throughout 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'. The rule is that the ability to see is limited by the sides of the frame. At important moments in the film, what the camera cannot see, the characters cannot see, and that gives Leone the freedom to surprise us with entrances that cannot be explained by the practical geography of his shots.
There is a moment, for example, when men do not notice a vast encampment of the Union Army until they stumble upon it. And a moment in a cemetery when a man materializes out of thin air even though he should have been visible for a mile. And the way men walk down a street in full view and nobody is able to shoot them, maybe because they are not in the same frame with them.
Leone cares not at all about the practical or the plausible, and builds his great film on the rubbish of Western movie cliches, using style to elevate dreck into art. When the movie opened in America in late 1967, not long after its predecessors 'A Fistful of Dollars'(1964) and 'For a Few Dollars More'(1965), audiences knew they liked it, but did they know why?
I saw it sitting in the front row of the balcony of the Oriental Theatre, whose vast wide screen was ideal for Leone's operatic compositions. I responded strongly, but had been a movie critic less than a year, and did not always have the wisdom to value instinct over prudence. Looking up my old review, I see I described a four-star movie but only gave it three stars, perhaps because it was a 'spaghetti Western' and so could not be art.
But art it is, summoned out of the imagination of Leone and painted on the wide screen so vividly that we forget what marginal productions these films were--that Clint Eastwood was a Hollywood reject, that budgetary restraints ($200,000 for 'Fistful') caused gaping continuity errors, that there wasn't a lot of dialogue because it was easier to shoot silent and fill the soundtrack with music and effects. There was even a pathetic attempt to make the films seem more American; I learn from the critic Glenn Erickson that Leone was credited as "'ob Robertson' in the early prints of 'Fistful', and composer Ennio Morricone, whose lonely, mournful scores are inseparable from the films, was 'Dan Savio'. Even Eastwood's character, the famous Man With No Name, was an invention of the publicists; he was called Joe in the first movie, Manco in the second, and Blondie in the third.
Perhaps it is the subtly foreign flavor of the spaghetti trilogy, and especially the masterpiece 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly', that suggests the films come from a different universe than traditional Westerns. Instead of tame Hollywood extras from central casting, we get locals who must have been hired near the Spanish locations--men who look long-weathered by work and the sun. Consider the legless beggar who uses his arms to propel himself into a saloon, shouting, 'Hand me down a whiskey!'
John Ford made Monument Valley the home turf of his Western characters, and he made great films there, but there is something new and strange about Leone's menacing Spanish vistas. We haven't seen these deserts before. John Wayne has never been here. Leone's stories are a heightened dream in which everything is bigger, starker, more brutal, more dramatic, than life.
Leone tells the story more with pictures than words. Examine the masterful scene in the cemetery. A fortune in gold is said to be buried in one of the graves, and three men have assembled, all hoping to get it. The actors are Clint Eastwood (the Good), Lee Van Cleef (the Bad), and Eli Wallach (the Ugly). Each man points a pistol at the other. If one shoots, they all shoot, and all die. Unless two decide to shoot the third man before he can shoot either one of them. But which two, and which third?
Leone draws this scene out beyond all reason, beginning in long shot and working in to closeups of firearms, faces, eyes, and lots of sweat and flies. He seems to be testing himself, to see how long he can maintain the suspense. Or is it even suspense, really? It may be entirely an exercise in style, a deliberate manipulation by the director, intended to draw attention to itself. If you savor the boldness with which Leone flirts with parody, you understand his method. This is not a story, but a celebration of bold gestures.
Eastwood, 34 when he first worked with Leone, already carried unquestioned authority. Much is made of the fact that he came from television, that he starred in 'Rawhide', that in those days it was thought that a movie audience wouldn't pay to see an actor it could watch for free. Eastwood overcame that jinx, but not any actor could have done it--and not with any director. He says he took the roles with Leone because he wanted to make movies and Hollywood wouldn't hire him.
Yes, but Eastwood himself was to become an important director, and even then he must have sensed in Leone not just another purveyor of the Italian sword-and-sandal epics, but a man with passion. Together, Leone and Eastwood made The Man With No Name not simply bigger than a television star, but bigger than a movie star--a man who never needed to explain himself, a man whose boots and fingers and eyes were deemed important enough to fill the whole screen.
I wonder if Eastwood's character has a tenth as much dialogue as Tuco, the Eli Wallach character. The Man With No Name never talks; Tuco never stops. This is one of Wallach's inspired performances, as he sidesteps his character's potential to seem ridiculous, and makes him a desperate, frightened presence. When he makes a clown of himself, we sense it is Tuco's strategy, not his personality. Trained in the Method, a stage veteran, Wallach took this low-rent role seriously and made something evocative out of it.
Lee Van Cleef, as Angel Eyes, was New Jersey-born, already a veteran of 53 films and countless TV shows, many of them Westerns (his first movie credit was 'High Noon', where he played a member of the gang). In a movie with a lot of narrowed eyes, he has the narrowest, and they gleam with insane obsession.
All three men are after the fortune in Civil War gold, and the secret of its location is parceled out among them (one knows the cemetery but not the grave, the other knows the name on the tombstone but not the cemetery). So they know that they will remain alive until the grave is found, and then it is likely that each of them will try to kill the others.
In a film that runs 180 minutes in its current restored version, that is not enough plot, but Leone has no shortage of other ideas. There is the opening shootout, involving unrelated characters. There is the con game in which Wallach plays a wanted man, Eastwood turns him in for the reward, and then Eastwood waits until he is about to be hanged and severs the rope with a well-aimed shot. There is the magnificent desert sequence, after Eastwood abandons Wallach in the desert, and then Wallach does the same to Eastwood, and the sun burns down like a scene from 'Greed'. There is the haunting runaway wagon, filled with dead and dying men.
And, surprisingly, there is an ambitious Civil War sequence, almost a film within a film, featuring a touching performance by Aldo Giuffre as a captain in the Union Army who explains his alcoholism simply: the commander who has the most booze to get his troops drunk before battle is the one who wins. His dying line: 'Can you help me live a little more? I expect good news.'
Sergio Leone (1929-1989) was a director of boundless vision and ambition, who invented himself almost as he invented the spaghetti Western. Erickson, whose useful essay on the trilogy is at www.DVDtalk.com, notes that Leone hyped his own career 'by claiming to be the assistant director on Robert Aldrich's Italian production of 'Sodom and Gomorrah' (1962), even though he was fired after only a day'. Leone made a forgotten Roman Empire epic in 1961, and then based 'A Fistful of Dollars' so closely on Akira Kurosawa's samurai film 'Yojimbo' that perhaps Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of 'Psycho' was not the first time the technique was tried.
A man with no little ideas, Leone made two other unquestioned masterpieces, 'Once Upon a Time in the West'(1968) and 'Once Upon a Time in America'(1984). By the end of his career, Hollywood was suspicious of films with long running times, and criminally chopped 'America' from 227 minutes to a sometimes incomprehensible 139. Nineteen minutes were cut from the first release of 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'. But uncut versions of all of his films are available on DVD, and gradually it becomes clear how good he really was."
"What is genetic engineering, after all, but preemptive plastic surgery? Make the child perfect in the test tube, and save money later. Throw in perfect health, a high IQ and a long life-span, and you have the brave new world of 'Gattaca', in which the bioformed have inherited the earth, and babies who are born naturally get to be menial laborers.
This is one of the smartest and most provocative of science fiction films, a thriller with ideas. Its hero is a man who challenges the system. Vincent (Ethan Hawke) was born in the old-fashioned way, and his genetic tests show he has bad eyesight, heart problems and a life expectancy of about 30 years. He is an 'In-Valid', and works as a cleaner in a space center.
Vincent does not accept his fate. He never has. As a child, he had swimming contests with his brother Anton (Loren Dean), who has all the right scores but needs to be saved from drowning. Now Vincent dreams of becoming a crew member on an expedition to one of the moons of Saturn. Using an illegal DNA broker, he makes a deal with a man named Jerome (Jude Law), who has the right genes but was paralyzed in an accident. Jerome will provide him with blood, urine samples and an identity. In a sense, they'll both go into space. 'Gattaca' is the remarkable debut of a writer-director from New Zealand, Andrew Niccol, whose film is intelligent and thrilling--a tricky combination--and also visually exciting. His most important set is a vast office where genetically superior computer programmers come to work every day, filing into their long rows of desks like the office slaves in King Vidor's 'The Crowd' and Orson Welles' 'The Trial'. (Why are 'perfect' human societies so often depicted by ranks of automatons? Is it because human nature resides in our flaws?) Vincent, as 'Jerome', gets a job as a programmer, supplies false genetic samples and becomes a finalist for the space shot.
The tension comes in two ways. First, there's the danger that Vincent will be detected; the area is swept daily, and even an eyelash can betray him. Second, there's a murder; a director of the center, who questions the wisdom of the upcoming shot, is found dead, and a detective (Alan Arkin) starts combing the personnel for suspects. Will a computer search sooner or later put together Vincent, the former janitor, with 'Jerome', the new programmer? Vincent becomes friendly with Irene (Uma Thurman), who works in the center but has been passed over for a space shot because of low scores in some areas. They are attracted to one another, but romance in this world can be dangerous; after kissing a man, a woman is likely to have his saliva swabbed from her mouth so she can test his prospects. Other supporting characters include Gore Vidal, as a mission supervisor, and Tony Shalhoub as the broker ('You could go anywhere with this guy's helix under your arm').
Hawke is a good choice for the lead, combining the restless dreams of a 'Godchild' with the plausible exterior of a lab baby. The best scenes involve his relationship with the real Jerome, played by Law as smart, bitter, and delighted to be sticking it to the system that has grounded him. (He may be paralyzed from the waist down, but after all, as the movie observes, you don't need to walk in space.) His drama parallels Vincent's, because if either one is caught they'll both go down together.
Science fiction in the movies has recently specialized in alien invasions, but the best of the genre deals with ideas. At a time when we read about cloned sheep and tomatoes crossed with fish, the science in 'Gattaca' is theoretically possible. When parents can order 'perfect' babies, will they? Would you take your chances on a throw of the genetic dice, or order up the make and model you wanted? How many people are prepared to buy a car at random from the universe of all available cars? That's how many, I suspect, would opt to have natural children.
Everybody will live longer, look better and be healthier in the Gattacan world. But will it be as much fun? Will parents order children who are rebellious, ungainly, eccentric, creative, or a lot smarter than their parents are? There's a concert pianist in 'Gattaca' who has 12 fingers. Don't you sometimes have the feeling you were born just in time?"
Roger Ebert didn't find this movie as good as I did so I put my own point of view.
"This movie is really creepy and it has one of the best perfomance ever. Jeremy Irons portrays 2 different twins so well that if even though they are identical, you can easily identify them. The story is fascinating as well."
" 'The Godfather' is told entirely within a closed world. That's why we sympathize with characters who are essentially evil. The story by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola is a brilliant conjuring act, inviting us to consider the Mafia entirely on its own terms. Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) emerges as a sympathetic and even admirable character; during the entire film, this lifelong professional criminal does nothing of which we can really disapprove.
During the movie we see not a single actual civilian victim of organized crime. No women trapped into prostitution. No lives wrecked by gambling. No victims of theft, fraud or protection rackets. The only police officer with a significant speaking role is corrupt.
The story views the Mafia from the inside. That is its secret, its charm, its spell; in a way, it has shaped the public perception of the Mafia ever since. The real world is replaced by an authoritarian patriarchy where power and justice flow from the Godfather, and the only villains are traitors. There is one commandment, spoken by Michael (Al Pacino): 'Don't ever take sides against the family.'
It is significant that the first shot is inside a dark, shuttered room. It is the wedding day of Vito Corleone's daughter, and on such a day a Sicilian must grant any reasonable request. A man has come to ask for punishment for his daughter's rapist. Don Vito asks why he did not come to him immediately.
'I went to the police, like a good American,' the man says. The Godfather's reply will underpin the entire movie: 'Why did you go to the police? Why didn't you come to me first? What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you'd come to me in friendship, then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if, by chance, an honest man like yourself should make enemies . . . then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.'
As the day continues, there are two more scenes in the Godfather's darkened study, intercut with scenes from the wedding outside. By the end of the wedding sequence, most of the main characters will have been introduced, and we will know essential things about their personalities. It is a virtuoso stretch of filmmaking: Coppola brings his large cast onstage so artfully that we are drawn at once into the Godfather's world.
The screenplay of 'The Godfather' follows no formulas except for the classic structure in which power passes between the generations. The writing is subtly constructed to set up events later in the film. Notice how the request by Johnny Fontane, the failing singer, pays off in the Hollywood scenes; how his tears set up the shocking moment when a mogul wakes up in bed with what is left of his racehorse. Notice how the undertaker is told 'someday, and that day may never come, I will ask a favor of you. . .' and how when the day comes the favor is not violence (as in a conventional movie) but Don Vito's desire to spare his wife the sight of their son's maimed body. And notice how a woman's 'mistaken' phone call sets up the trap in which Sonny (James Caan) is murdered: It's done so neatly that you have to think back through the events to figure it out.
Now here is a trivia question: What is the name of Vito's wife? She exists in the movie as an insignificant shadow, a plump Sicilian grandmother who poses with her husband in wedding pictures but plays no role in the events that take place in his study. There is little room for women in 'The Godfather'. Sonny uses and discards them, and ignores his wife. Connie (Talia Shire), the Don's daughter, is so disregarded that her husband is not allowed into the family business. He is thrown a bone--'a living'--and later, when he is killed, Michael coldly lies to his sister about what happened.
The irony of the title is that it eventually comes to refer to the son, not the father. As the film opens Michael is not part of the family business, and plans to marry a WASP, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). His turning point comes when he saves his father's life by moving his hospital bed, and whispers to the unconscious man: 'I'm with you now.'
After he shoots the corrupt cop, Michael hides in Sicily, where he falls in love with and marries Appolonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). They do not speak the same language; small handicap for a Mafia wife. He undoubtedly loves Appolonia, as he loved Kay, but what is he thinking here: that he can no longer marry Kay because he has chosen a Mafia life? After Appolonia's death and his return to America, he seeks out Kay and eventually they marry. Did he tell her about Appolonia? Such details are unimportant to the story.
What is important is loyalty to the family. Much is said in the movie about trusting a man's word, but honesty is nothing compared to loyalty. Michael doesn't even trust Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) with the secret that he plans to murder the heads of the other families. The famous 'baptism massacre'' is tough, virtuoso filmmaking: The baptism provides him with an airtight alibi, and he becomes a godfather in both senses at the same time.
Vito Corleone is the moral center of the film. He is old, wise and opposed to dealing in drugs. He understands that society is not alarmed by 'liquor, gambling . . . even women.' But drugs are a dirty business to Don Vito, and one of the movie's best scenes is the Mafia summit at which he argues his point. The implication is that in the godfather's world there would be no drugs, only 'victimless crimes', and justice would be dispatched evenly and swiftly.
My argument is taking this form because I want to point out how cleverly Coppola structures his film to create sympathy for his heroes. The Mafia is not a benevolent and protective organization, and the Corleone family is only marginally better than the others. Yet when the old man falls dead among his tomato plants, we feel that a giant has passed.
Gordon Willis' cinematography is celebrated for its darkness; it is rich, atmospheric, expressive. You cannot appreciate this on television because the picture is artificially brightened. Coppola populates his dark interior spaces with remarkable faces. The front-line actors--Brando, Pacino, Caan, Duvall--are attractive in one way or another, but those who play their associates are chosen for their fleshy, thickly lined faces--for huge jaws and deeply set eyes. Look at Abe Vigoda as Tessio, the fearsome enforcer. The first time we see him, he's dancing with a child at the wedding, her satin pumps balanced on his shoes. The sun shines that day, but never again: He is developed as a hulking presence who implies the possibility of violent revenge. Only at the end is he brightly lit again, to make him look vulnerable as he begs for his life.
The Brando performance is justly famous and often imitated. We know all about his puffy cheeks, and his use of props like the kitten in the opening scene. Those are actor's devices. Brando uses them but does not depend on them: He embodies the character so convincingly that at the end, when he warns his son two or three times that 'the man who comes to you to set up a meeting--that's the traitor', we are not thinking of acting at all. We are thinking that the Don is growing old and repeating himself, but we are also thinking that he is probably absolutely right.
Pacino plays Michael close to his vest; he has learned from his father never to talk in front of outsiders, never to trust anyone unnecessarily, to take advice but keep his own counsel. All of the other roles are so successfully filled that a strange thing happened as I watched this restored 1997 version: Familiar as I am with Robert Duvall, when he first appeared on the screen I found myself thinking, 'There's Tom Hagen.'
Coppola went to Italy to find Nino Rota, composer of many Fellini films, to score the picture. Hearing the sadness and nostalgia of the movie's main theme, I realized what the music was telling us: Things would have turned out better if we had only listened to the Godfather."
"The musical score plays an even greater role in 'The Godfather: Part II' than it did in the original film. Nostalgic, mournful, evoking lost eras, it stirs emotions we shouldn't really feel for this story, and wouldn't, if the score were more conventional for a crime movie. Why should we regret the passing of a regime built on murder, extortion, bribery, theft and the ruthless will of frightened men? Observe how powerfully Nino Rota's music sways our feelings for the brutal events onscreen.
At the end of Francis Ford Coppola's masterwork 'The Godfather'(1972), we have seen Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) change from a young man who wanted to stand apart from his family to one who did not hesitate to take up the reigns of control. In 'Part II'(1974), we see him lose his remaining shreds of morality and become an empty shell, insecure and merciless. If the score evokes pity, it is Michael's self-pity. In attempting to fill the shoes of his father, Michael has lost sight of those values that made Don Corleone better than he had to be and has become a new godfather every bit as evil as he has to be. If Rota's score had been energetic and pounding, we might see him as more closely paralleling Tony Montana in a better film, Brian DePalma's 'Scarface'(1983). But the score is sad, and music can often evoke emotion more surely and subtly than story. Consider how deeply we are moved by certain operatic arias that are utter nonsense.
The devolution of Michael Corleone is counterpointed by flashbacks to the youth and young manhood of his father, Vito (Robert De Niro). These scenes, taking place in Sicily and old New York, follow the conventional pattern of a young man on the rise and show the Mafia code being burned into the Corleone blood. No false romanticism conceals the necessity of using murder to do business. Such events as Vito's murder of the minor-league New York godfather have their barbarism somewhat softened as Coppola adopts Vito's point of view and follows him as he climbs rooftops to ambush the man and successfully escapes. It is a built-in reality that we tend to identify with a film's POV. Here the murder becomes another rung on Vito's ladder to success.
To be sure, the life of young Vito helps to explain the forming of the adult Don Corleone, and to establish in the film the Sicilian code of omerta. As Michael changes, we see why he feels that he must. He must play the game by its rules. But I am not sure the flashbacks strengthen the film. I would have appreciated separate films about young Vito and the evolution of Michael. Never mind. What we have are two compelling narratives, two superb lead performances and lasting images. There is even a parallel between the deaths of two elderly dons. Revenge must be obtained.
Coppola is at the top of his form in both films, and if I disapprove of the morality of the central characters, well, so do we all. We agree people should not kill one another, but that doesn't explain why these films are seen again and again, entering a small worldwide canon of films just about everyone seems to have seen. They are grippingly written, directed with confidence and artistry, photographed by Gordon Willis ('The Master of Darkness') in rich, warm, tones. The acting in both films is definitive. We can name the characters in a lot of films (Harry Lime, Scarlett O'Hara, Travis Bickle, Charles Foster Kane) but from how many films do we remember the names of six or more characters? Brando, Pacino, De Niro, Duvall, Cazale, Caan, Diane Keaton, Lee Strasberg, Talia Shire, Michael V. Gazzo and others are well-cast, well-used, gifted and correct for their roles.
Simply as a story, the Michael scenes in 'The Godfather: Part II' engage our emotions. I admire the way Coppola and his co-writer Mario Puzo require us to think along with Michael as he handles delicate decisions involving Hyman Roth (Strasberg), the boss of Miami; Fredo (Cazale), his older brother, and the shooting of Sonny (James Caan). Who has done what? Why? Michael floats various narratives past various principals, misleading them all, or nearly. It's like a game of blindfolded chess; he has to envision the moves without seeing them.
But finally it is all about Michael. Even the attack on the night of his son's first communion party is on his bedroom, not our bedroom. His wife, Kay (Keaton), leaves him, and his focus does not waver: He will keep his son. Tom Hagen (Duvall), the most trusted confidant of father and son, considered a brother, is finally even suspected. In Michael's life, paranoia is a useful defense mechanism.
Coppola shows Michael breaking down under the pressure. We remember that he was once a proud war hero, a successful college student, building a legitimate lifestyle. But on their wedding day, Kay first began to fully realize what an all-controlling cocoon the Corleone clan was. There would always be things she could not be told about, could not be trusted with. Finally Michael has no one to tell or trust except his elderly mother (Morgana King). Michael's desperation in that intense conversation explains everything about the film's final shot.
So 'Part II' is finally a sad film, a lament for loss, certainly. It is a contrast with the earlier film, in which Don Corleone is seen defending old values against modern hungers. Young Vito was a murderer, too, as we more fully see in the Sicily and New York scenes of Part II. But he had grown wise and diplomatic, and when he dies beside the tomato patch, yes, we feel regret. An age has closed. We feel no regret at Michael's decline. The crucial difference between the two films is that Vito is sympathetic, and Michael becomes a villain. That is not a criticism but an observation.
The 'best films' balloting on IMDb.com lacks credibility because popularity is the primary criteria. But hundreds of thousands do indeed vote, and as I write the top four films, in order, are 'The Shawshank Redemption', 'The Godfather', 'The Dark Knight' and 'The Godfather: Part II'. Of all of the reviews I have ever written, my three-star review of 'Part II' has stirred the most disagreement. Sometimes it is simply cited as proof of my worthlessness. I've been told by many that 'Part II' is a rare sequel that is better than the original. Have I changed my mind? No. I have read my review of 'Part II' and would not change a word.
Then why is it a 'great movie'? Because it must be seen as a piece with the unqualified greatness of 'The Godfather'. The two can hardly be considered apart ('Part III' is another matter). When the characters in a film take on a virtual reality for us, when a character in another film made 30 years later can say 'The Godfather' contains all the lessons in life you need to know, when an audience understands why that statement could be made, a film has become a cultural bedrock. No doubt not all of the gospels are equally 'good', but we would not do without any of them.
'The Godfather: Part II' then becomes a film that everyone who values movies at all should see. And as I write this, it can be seen in astonishingly good prints. The 'Godfather' trilogy has been painstakingly digitally restored by Robert Harris, a master in his field. I have seen the restored 'Godfather' in the new 35mm print and 'Part II' in the new Blu-ray DVD. Having first seen both at their world premieres, I would argue that they have never looked better. For films of such visual richness, that is a reason to rejoice.
And now I come back to the music. More than ever, I am convinced it is instrumental to the power and emotional effect of the films. I cannot imagine them without their Nino Rota scores. Against all our objective reason, they instruct us how to feel about the films. Now listen very carefully to the first notes as the big car drives into Miami. You will hear an evocative echo of Bernard Hermann's score for 'Citizen Kane', another film about a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it."
" 'Bad Lieutenant' tells the story of a man who is not comfortable inside his body or soul. He walks around filled with need and dread.
He is in the last stages of cocaine addiction, gulping booze to level off the drug high. His life is such a loveless hell that he buys sex just for the sensation of someone touching him, and his attention drifts even then, because there are so many demons pursuing him.
Harvey Keitel plays this man with such uncompromised honesty that the performance can only be called courageous; not many actors would want to be seen in this light.
The lieutenant has no illusions about himself. He is bad and knows he is bad, and he abuses the power of his position in every way he can. Interrupting a grocery store stickup, he sends the beat cop away and then steals the money from the thieves. He sells drug dealers their immunity by taking drugs from them. In the film's most harrowing scene, he stops two teenage girls who are driving their parents' car without permission. He threatens them with arrest, and then engages in an act of verbal rape.
Remember the Ray Liotta character in the last sequence of Martin Scorsese's 'GoodFellas', when he is strung out on cocaine and paranoid that the cops are following him? His life speeds up, his thinking is frantic, he can run but he can't hide. The Keitel character in 'Bad Lieutenant' is like that other character, many more agonizing months down the road. Life cannot go on like this much longer.
We learn a few things about him. He still lives in a comfortable middle-class home, with a wife and three children who have long since made their adjustment to his madness. There is no longer a semblance of marriage. He comes in at dawn and collapses on the couch, to be wakened by the TV cartoons, which cut through his hangover. He stumbles out into the world again, to do more evil. When he drives the kids to school, his impatience is palpable; he cannot wait to drop them off and get a fix.
The movie does not give the lieutenant a name, because the human aspects of individual personality no longer matter at this stage; he is a bad cop, and those two words, expressing his moral state and his leverage in society, say everything that is still important about him.
A nun is raped. He visits the hospital to see her. She knows who attacked her, but will not name them, because she forgives them.
The lieutenant is stunned. He cannot imagine this level of absolution. If a woman can forgive such a crime, is redemption possible even for him? The film dips at times into madness. In a church, he hallucinates that Jesus Christ has appeared to him. He no longer knows for sure what the boundaries of reality are. His temporary remedies - drugs and hookers - have stopped working. All that remains are selfloathing, guilt, deep physical disquiet, and the hope of salvation.
'Bad Lieutenant' was directed by Abel Ferrara, a gritty New Yorker who has come up through the exploitation ranks ('Ms. 45', 'Fear City') to low budget but ambitious films like 'China Girl', and 'Cat Chaser'. This film lacks the polish of a more sophisticated director, but would have suffered from it. The film and the character live close to the streets. The screenplay is by Ferrara and Zoe Lund, who can be seen onscreen as a hooker. They are not interested in plot in the usual sense. There is no case to solve, no crime to stop, no bad guys except for the hero.
Keitel starred in Scorsese's first film and has spent the last 25 years taking more chances with scripts and directors than any other major actor. He has the nerve to tackle roles like this, that other actors, even those with street images, would shy away from. He bares everything here - his body, yes, but also his weaknesses, his hungers. It is a performance given without reservation.
The film has the NC-17 rating, for adults only, and that is appropriate. But it is not a 'dirty movie', and in fact takes spirituality and morality more seriously than most films do. And in the bad lieutenant, Keitel has given us one of the great screen performances in recent years."
Roger Ebert didn't find this movie as good as I did so I put my own point of view.
"This is the only American movie directed by Emir Kusturica, the great serbian director and it is actually his best one. Johnny Depp, as usual, is just great. The story is not relevant but the mood is great and rather unique. A mesmerizing picture."
"One of the most sublime and hazardous moments in human experience comes when two people lock eyes and realize that they are sexually attracted to one another. They may not act on the knowledge.
They may file it away for future reference. They may deny it. They may never see each other again. But the moment has happened, and for an instant all other considerations are insignificant.
Early in Louis Malle's 'Damage', such a moment takes place between Dr. Stephen Fleming, a British government official, and Anna Barton, a young woman he has met at a reception. But it is wrong to describe it as a moment. They speak briefly, their eyes meet, and then each holds the other's gaze for one interminable second after another, until so much time has passed that we, in the audience, realize we are holding our breath.
There might have been a moment when they could have broken the spell, but both chose not to, continuing the moment far beyond the bounds of propriety or reason - particularly since Anna (Juliette Binoche) has just told Stephen (Jeremy Irons) that she is his son's fiancee.
This moment is followed by another that is remarkable for being so abrupt. Stephen sits at his desk. The telephone rings. A voice: 'It's Anna.' He replies: 'Tell me where you are and I'll be there within an hour.' And so begins their love affair, passionate and obsessive, reckless and heedless of harm to others. It is not that they want to hurt anyone, and it is not even that they want a sexual dalliance. This is something different. Indeed, they both love Martyn (Rupert Graves), Stephen's son, and plans for the marriage of Martyn and Anna continue uninterrupted.
'Damage' is not about romance but about obsession, about erotomania on the part of the older man, and about complex and hidden feelings on the part of the young woman. She is attracted to Stephen, yes, but there is more than that.
When she was young she suffered a traumatic loss, and she describes herself as 'damaged' She would not hurt him, not by an overt act, but her presence will eventually lead to harm. Watching this movie is like watching an emotional traffic accident as it unfolds.
The film is based on the best seller by Josephine Hart, which had a certain undeniable power, but the right place for this material is the screen, I think, because it can show exactly how the two look at one another. This is a movie about sight; from the first moment the two meet, it is filled with what is seen and what is not seen, as Stephen suffers though a dinner party with his wife, his son, Anna and her mother - and some observe, and some do not, what has happened.
Casting is everything here. Stephen could easily come to seem like a fool, and some actors could have played him no other way.
Jeremy Irons, gaunt and aesthetic, brings no fleshy pleasure to the role. Love makes him look like a condemned man, and he feels guilty about sleeping with his son's fiancee, but he must, he cannot help himself, and so he does. The heart knows what it must have.
Juliette Binoche also embodies qualities that are essential to the film. She is attractive, but not in a conventional movie way; her face is solemn and serious, and she is capable of showing nothing and yet suggesting multitudes. Godard chose her for the title role of his 'Hail Mary', Andre Techine cast her as a sexual tigress in 'Rendezvous', and in Phil Kaufman's 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', she was the young woman who the doctor saw for a moment in a train station, and who come to stay with him, and who he could not deny. It is clear that all three directors saw her as somehow outside the norm, as an actress who could portray sexuality without descending to its usual displays.
Louis Malle is a director who has specialized in varieties of forbidden sex. His credits include 'Pretty Baby', about a photographer's child model, and 'Murmur of the Heart', about incest.
His screenplay is by the playwright David Hare, who does an excellent job of surrounding these people with convincing characters whose very ordinariness underlines the madness of their actions. Miranda Richardson plays Jeremy Irons' wife, and is magnificently angry in the powerful closing scenes. Leslie Caron is Anna's mother, who knows her daughter well, and sees what is happening. And Rupert Graves is warm and likable as the son.
'Damage', like 'Last Tango in Paris' and 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', is one of those rare movies that is about sexuality, not sex; about the tension between people, not 'relationships'; about how physical love is meaningless without a psychic engine behind it. Stephen and Anna are wrong to do what they do in 'Damage', but they cannot help themselves. We know they are careening toward disaster. We cannot look away."
"There is a certain style of illustration that appeared in the boys' adventure magazines of the 1940s - in those innocent publications that have been replaced by magazines on punk lifestyles and movie monsters. The illustrations were always about the same. They showed a small group of swarthy men hovering over a treasure trove with greedy grins on their bearded faces, while in the foreground, two teenage boys peered out from behind a rock in wonder and astonishment. The point of view was always over the boys' shoulders; the reader was invited to share this forbidden glimpse of the secret world of men.
'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' begins with just such a scene; director Steven Spielberg must have been paging through his old issues of Boys' Life and Thrilling Wonder Tales, down in the basement.
As I watched it, I felt a real delight, because recent Hollywood escapist movies have become too jaded and cynical, and they have lost the feeling that you can stumble over astounding adventures just by going on a hike with your Scout troop.
Spielberg lights the scene in the strong, basic colors of old pulp magazines. When the swarthy men bend over their discovery, it seems to glow with a light of its own, which bathes their faces in a golden glow. This is the kind of moment that can actually justify a line like It's mine! All mine! - although Spielberg does not go so far.
One of the two kids behind the boulder is, of course, the young Indiana Jones. But he is discovered by explorers plundering an ancient treasure, and escapes just in the nick of time. The sequence ends as an adult claps a battered fedora down on Indiana's head, and then we flash forward to the era of World War II.
The opening sequence of this third Indiana Jones movie is the only one that seems truly original - or perhaps I should say, it recycles images from 1940s pulps and serials that Spielberg has not borrowed before. The rest of the movie will not come as a surprise to students of Indiana Jones, but then how could it? The Jones movies by now have defined a familiar world of death-defying stunts, virtuoso chases, dry humor and the quest for impossible goals in unthinkable places.
When 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' appeared, it defined a new energy level for adventure movies; it was a delirious breakthrough. But there was no way for Spielberg to top himself, and perhaps it is just as well that 'Last Crusade' will indeed be Indy's last film. It would be too sad to see the series grow old and thin, like the James Bond movies.
Even in this third adventure, some of the key elements are recycled from 'Raiders'. This time, Indy's quest is to find the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus Christ is said to have used at the Last Supper.
(To drink from the cup is to have eternal youth.) The Holy Grail reminds us of the Ark of the Covenant in the first film, and in both cases the chase is joined by Nazi villains.
The new element this time is how Spielberg fills in some of the past of the Jones character. We learn his real name (which I would not dream of revealing here), and we meet his father, Professor Henry Jones, who is played by Sean Connery on exactly the right note.
Like the fathers of classic boys' stories, Dr. Jones is not a parent so much as a grown-up ally, an older pal who lacks three dimensions because children are unable to see their parents in that complexity. I kept being reminded of the father in the Hardy Boys books, who shook his head and smiled at the exploits of his lovable lads and only rarely 'expressed concern' or 'cautioned them sternly'. Since the Hardy Boys were constantly involved, at a tender age, with an endless series of counterfeiters, car thieves, kidnap rings, Nazi spies and jewel thieves, their father's detachment seemed either saintly or mad - and Connery has fun with some of the same elements.
Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones again this time, and what he does seems so easy, so deadpan, that few other actors could maintain such a straight and credible presence in the midst of such chaos. After young Indy discovers his life's mission in the early scenes, the central story takes place years later, when Dr. Jones (the world's leading expert on the Holy Grail) is kidnapped by desperados who are convinced he knows the secret of where it is now hidden.
He does. And Indy, working from his father's notebook, follows a trail from America to the watery catacombs beneath Venice, and then to the deserts of the Holy Land, where there is a sensational chase scene involving a gigantic Nazi armored tank.
He is accompanied on his mission by Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), an art historian he meets in Venice. But the character is a disappointment after the fire of Karen Allen in the first movie, and even the sultriness of Kate Capshaw in the second.
Spielberg devises several elaborate set-pieces, of which I especially liked the rat-infested catacombs and sewers beneath Venice.
(I tried not to remember that Venice, by definition, has no catacombs.) The art direction looks great in a scene involving a zeppelin, and an escape from the airship by airplane. And the great tank in the desert is fearsome and convincing.
If there is just a shade of disappointment after seeing this movie, it has to be because we will never again have the shock of this material seeming new. 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', now more than ever, seems a turning point in the cinema of escapist entertainment, and there was really no way Spielberg could make it new all over again.
What he has done is to take many of the same elements, and apply all of his craft and sense of fun to make them work yet once again. And they do."
"In the waning days of World War II, American bombers drop napalm canisters on Japanese cities, creating fire storms. These bombs, longer than a tin can but about as big around, fall to earth trailing cloth tails that flutter behind them; they are almost a beautiful sight. After they hit, there is a moment's silence, and then they detonate, spraying their surroundings with flames. In a Japanese residential neighborhood, made of flimsy wood and paper houses, there is no way to fight the fires.
'Grave of the Fireflies'(1988) is an animated film telling the story of two children from the port city of Kobe, made homeless by the bombs. Seita is a young teenager, and his sister Setsuko is about 5. Their father is serving in the Japanese navy, and their mother is a bomb victim; Seita kneels beside her body, covered with burns, in an emergency hospital. Their home, neighbors, schools are all gone. For a time an aunt takes them in, but she's cruel about the need to feed them, and eventually Seita finds a hillside cave where they can live. He does what he can to find food, and to answer Setsuko's questions about their parents. The first shot of the film shows Seita dead in a subway station, and so we can guess Setsuko's fate; we are accompanied through flashbacks by the boy's spirit.
'Grave of the Fireflies' is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation. Since the earliest days, most animated films have been 'cartoons' for children and families. Recent animated features such as 'The Lion King', 'Princess Mononoke' and 'The Iron Giant' have touched on more serious themes, and the 'Toy Story' movies and classics like 'Bambi' have had moments that moved some audience members to tears. But these films exist within safe confines; they inspire tears, but not grief. 'Grave of the Fireflies' is a powerful dramatic film that happens to be animated, and I know what the critic Ernest Rister means when he compares it to 'Schindler's List' and says, 'It is the most profoundly human animated film I've ever seen.'
It tells a simple story of survival. The boy and his sister must find a place to stay, and food to eat. In wartime their relatives are not kind or generous, and after their aunt sells their mother's kimonos for rice, she keeps a lot of the rice for herself. Eventually, Seita realizes it is time to leave. He has some money and can buy food--but soon there is no food to buy. His sister grows weaker. Their story is told not as melodrama, but simply, directly, in the neorealist tradition. And there is time for silence in it. One of the film's greatest gifts is its patience; shots are held so we can think about them, characters are glimpsed in private moments, atmosphere and nature are given time to establish themselves.
Japanese poets use 'pillow words' that are halfway between pauses and punctuation, and the great director Yasujiro Ozu uses 'pillow shots'--a detail from nature, say, to separate two scenes. 'Grave of the Fireflies' uses them, too. Its visuals create a kind of poetry. There are moments of quick action, as when the bombs rain down and terrified people fill the streets, but this film doesn't exploit action; it meditates on its consequences.
The film was directed by Isao Takahata, who is associated with the famous Ghibli Studio, source of the greatest Japanese animation. His colleague there is Hayao Miyazaki ('Princess Mononoke', 'Kiki's Delivery Service', 'My Neighbor Totoro'). His films are not usually this serious, but 'Grave of the Fireflies' is in a category by itself. It's based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Nosaka Akiyuki--who was a boy at the time of the firebombs, whose sister did die of hunger and whose life has been shadowed by guilt.
The book is well-known in Japan, and might easily have inspired a live-action film. It isn't the typical material of animation. But for 'Grave of the Fireflies', I think animation was the right choice. Live action would have been burdened by the weight of special effects, violence and action. Animation allows Takahata to concentrate on the essence of the story, and the lack of visual realism in his animated characters allows our imagination more play; freed from the literal fact of real actors, we can more easily merge the characters with our own associations.
Hollywood animation has been pursuing the ideal of 'realistic animation' for decades, even though that's an oxymoron. People who are drawn do not look like people who are photographed. They're more stylized, more obviously symbolic, and (as Disney discovered in painstaking experiments) their movements can be exaggerated to communicate mood through body language. 'Grave of the Fireflies' doesn't attempt even the realism of 'The Lion King' or 'Princess Mononoke', but paradoxically it is the most realistic animated film I've ever seen--in feeling.
The locations and backgrounds are drawn in a style owing something to the 18th century Japanese artist Hiroshige and his modern disciple Herge (the creator of Tin Tin). There is great beauty in them--not cartoon beauty, but evocative landscape drawing, put through the filter of animated style. The characters are typical of much modern Japanese animation, with their enormous eyes, childlike bodies and features of great plasticity (mouths are tiny when closed, but enormous when opened in a child's cry--we even see Setsuko's tonsils). This film proves, if it needs proving, that animation produces emotional effects not by reproducing reality, but by heightening and simplifying it, so that many of the sequences are about ideas, not experiences.
There are individual moments of great beauty. One involves a night when the children catch fireflies and use them to illuminate their cave. The next day, Seita finds his little sister carefully burying the dead insects--as she imagines her mother was buried. There is another sequence in which the girl prepares "dinner" for her brother by using mud to make "rice balls" and other imaginary delicacies. And note the timing and the use of silence in a sequence where they find a dead body on the beach, and then more bombers appear far away in the sky.
Rister singles out another shot: 'There's a moment where the boy Seita traps an air bubble with a wash rag, submerges it, and then releases it into his sister Setsuko's delighted face--and that's when I knew I was watching something special.'
There are ancient Japanese cultural currents flowing beneath the surface of 'Grave of the Fireflies', and they're explained by critic Dennis H. Fukushima Jr., who finds the story's origins in the tradition of double-suicide plays. It is not that Seita and Setsuko commit suicide overtly, but that life wears away their will to live. He also draws a parallel between their sheltering cave and hillside tombs.
Fukushima cites an interview with the author, Akiyuki: 'Having been the sole survivor, he felt guilty for the death of his sister. While scrounging for food, he had often fed himself first, and his sister second. Her undeniable cause of death was hunger, and it was a sad fact that would haunt Nosaka for years. It prompted him to write about the experience, in hopes of purging the demons tormenting him.' "
Because it is animated and from Japan, 'Grave of the Fireflies' has been little seen. When anime fans say how good the film is, nobody takes them seriously. Now that it's available on DVD with a choice of subtitles or English dubbing, maybe it will find the attention it deserves. Yes, it's a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made."
"The man comes walking out of the desert like a Biblical figure, a penitent who has renounced the world. He wears jeans and a baseball cap, the universal costume of America, but the scraggly beard, the deep eye sockets and the tireless lope of his walk tell a story of wandering in the wilderness. What is he looking for? Does he remember?
Wim Wenders' 'Paris, Texas'(1984) is the story of loss upon loss. This man, whose name is Travis, was once married and had a little boy. Then that all went wrong, and he lost his wife and child, and for years he wandered. Now he will find his family and lose it again, this time not through madness but through sacrifice. He will give them up out of his love for them.
The movie lacks any of the gimmicks used to pump up emotion and add story interest, because it doesn't need them: It is fascinated by the sadness of its own truth. The screenplay was written by Sam Shepard, that playwright of alienation and rage, and it reflects themes that repeat all through Wenders' career. He is attracted to the road movie, to American myth, to those who stand outside and witness suffering. Travis in 'Paris, Texas' is like Damiel, the guardian angel in 'Wings of Desire'. He loves and cares, he empathizes, but he cannot touch. He does not have that gift.
The movie's story is simply told. Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) asks for water at a backroads gas station, collapses, is cared for at the local hospital. His brother Walt Henderson (Dean Stockwell) comes to fetch him, but when they stop on the road he starts walking away again, down the railroad tracks. He will not speak. And when he finally does start speaking, it's as if he is haltingly reassembling a self that he lost track of. Walt and his wife Anne (Aurore Clement) live in Los Angeles with Hunter (Hunter Carson), who is Travis' son. We gradually learn pieces of the story: Hunter was left with the Hendersons by Travis' wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), who could no longer care for him, but who sends a check every month from a bank in Houston.
Travis is not insane, not acting out his alienation. He is simply lost in grief, despairing at the way his marriage was joyous for a brief time and then was destroyed by his own drinking and jealousy. He stays for a time with the Hendersons, slowly wins Hunter's trust, walks home with him from school in a sweet little scene where they copy each other's gaits. Then he has a serious conversation with Hunter that leads to them getting into Travis's old Ford pickup and driving to Houston to find Jane.
The movie is always compared to John Ford's 'The Searchers', a film in which a man wanders in the desert to look for a young woman lost to the Indians. Another film said to be inspired by 'The Searchers' is Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver', where the hero (also named Travis) tries to rescue a young woman from the clutches of a pimp. In the Wenders and Shepard telling, Jane is discovered working in a sex club, where her specialty is sitting behind one-way glass and talking with her customers over a telephone. The buried theme in each case is the need to save the woman from what is perceived as sexual bondage. All three heroes--those played by John Wayne, Robert De Niro and Stanton--are somewhat misguided in their quest, not quite understanding the role of the woman.
The journey from Los Angeles to Houston includes many long talks between Travis and Hunter, and I was reminded of Wenders' 'Kings of the Road'(1976), where two men share a long journey and talk especially about women, how they need them and do not understand them. Travis and Hunter talk obliquely about the missing wife and mother, but they also cover the Big Bang and the theory of relativity. Although they are sharing the front seat of the truck, they sometimes speak over walkie-talkies. This mechanical intervention in their conversation is reflected later, when Travis talks with his wife on the telephones in the booths at the sex club.
'Paris, Texas' is as linear as an arrow. Travis is hauled back from despair and reunited with his brother's family and Hunter. The more he sees the family the more he feels that Hunter belongs with his biological mother. The journey takes them to Houston, and then everything narrows down to the heartbreaking scenes in which Travis and Jane try to explain themselves to one another.
Their first conversation is halting and painful, as Travis tries to determine if Jane goes home with her customers for money. She does not. We understand that Travis asks not out of jealousy, but because he is forming a plan. In the second conversation, even though Jane cannot see him and his voice is distanced by the tinny sound of the phone, Travis turns his back to the window. He cannot even look at Jane while telling her a story.
'I knew these people,' Travis begins, in one of the great monologues of movie history. 'These two people. They were in love with each other. The girl was very young, about 17 or 18, I guess. And the guy was quite a bit older. He was kind of raggedy and wild. And she was very beautiful, you know?'
He tells of a time when even a trip to the grocery store was an adventure. When he would quit jobs just so he could be at home with her. And then how the jealousy began to eat at him: 'Then he'd yell at her and start smashing things in the trailer.' When Jane repeats, 'the trailer?' it is clear she knows this is Travis (I think she knows sooner, and gives it away with a sideways flicker of her eye). He continues with his story, ended when the marriage is in wreckage and he awakens with the trailer on fire: 'Then he ran. He never looked back at the fire. He just ran. He ran until the sun came up and he couldn't run any further. And when the sun went down, he ran again. For five days he ran like this until every sign of man had disappeared.'
This confession inspires Jane to turn her back to the window and tell her own story. At one point she turns off the light in her cubicle and he turns a light to his face and she can even see him. They never touch. He tells her that Hunter is waiting for her in the Meridian Hotel, Room 1520. 'He needs you now, Jane. And he wants to see you.'
The film ends with the mother and child reunited. In a decision that is both dramatically and cinematically inspired, Travis watches their meeting from the rooftop of a nearby garage, and then drives away. There is the same feeling as when John Wayne, in 'The Searchers', restores the missing girl to her family and then looks on, alone again and forgotten, before turning to walk back into the wilderness.
Practical and logical objections can be raised about this story. Was Travis right to take Hunter away from Walt and Anne? Can Jane care for him? Could Jane work in the club and not be a prostitute?
But never mind. Wenders uses the materials of realism but this is a fable, as much as his great 'Wings of Desire'. It's about archetypal longings, set in American myth. The name Travis reminds us of Travis McGee, the private investigator who rescued lost souls and sometimes fell in love with them but always ended up alone on his boat. The Texas setting evokes thoughts of the Western, but this movie is not for the desert and against the city; it is about a journey which leads from one to the other and ends in a form of happiness.
Wenders is part of that circa-1970 flowering of talent known as the German New Wave (it includes also Herzog, Fassbinder, Schlondorff, von Trotta). He has always been fascinated by American movies and music; many of his films are set at least partly in the U.S. The music in 'Paris, Texas' is by Ry Cooder, and it's lonely and filled with distance (they collaborated again on the Cuban music documentary 'The Buena Vista Social Club'). The photography by Robby Muller contains the sense of a far horizon beyond every close shot. The Shepard dialogue lacks all flourish and fanciness, and is about hard truth, long rehearsed in the mind.
Then there are the miracles of the performances by Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski and Hunter Carson (the son of Karen Black and L.M. 'Kit' Carson). Stanton has long inhabited the darker corners of American noir, with his lean face and hungry eyes, and here he creates a sad poetry. Kinski, a German, perfects the flat, half-educated accent of a Texas girl who married a 'raggedy' older man for reasons no doubt involving a hard childhood. Young Carson, debating relativity and the origin of the universe, then asking even harder questions such as 'why did she leave us?' has that ability some child actors have, of presenting truth without decoration. We care so much for their family, framed lonely and unsure, within a great emptiness."
" 'Raging Bull' is not a film about boxing but about a man with paralyzing jealousy and sexual insecurity, for whom being punished in the ring serves as confession, penance and absolution. It is no accident that the screenplay never concerns itself with fight strategy. For Jake LaMotta, what happens during a fight is controlled not by tactics but by his fears and drives.
Consumed by rage after his wife, Vickie, unwisely describes one of his opponents as 'good-looking', he pounds the man's face into a pulp, and in the audience a Mafia boss leans over to his lieutenant and observes, 'He ain't pretty no more'. After the punishment has been delivered, Jake (Robert De Niro) looks not at his opponent, but into the eyes of his wife (Cathy Moriarty), who gets the message.
Martin Scorsese's 1980 film was voted in three polls as the greatest film of the decade, but when he was making it, he seriously wondered if it would ever be released: 'We felt like we were making it for ourselves.' Scorsese and De Niro had been reading the autobiography of Jake LaMotta, the middleweight champion whose duels with Sugar Ray Robinson were a legend in the 1940s and '50s. They asked Paul Schrader, who wrote 'Taxi Driver', to do a screenplay. The project languished while Scorsese and De Niro made the ambitious but unfocused musical 'New York, New York', and then languished some more as Scorsese's drug use led to a crisis. De Niro visited his friend in the hospital, threw the book on his bed, and said, 'I think we should make this'. And the making of 'Raging Bull', with a screenplay further sculpted by Mardik Martin ("Mean Streets'), became therapy and rebirth for the filmmaker.
The movie won Oscars for De Niro and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and also was nominated for best picture, director, sound, and supporting actor (Joe Pesci) and actress (Moriarty). It lost for best picture to 'Ordinary People', but time has rendered a different verdict.
For Scorsese, the life of LaMotta was like an illustration of a theme always present in his work, the inability of his characters to trust and relate with women. The engine that drives the LaMotta character in the film is not boxing, but a jealous obsession with his wife, Vickie, and a fear of sexuality. From the time he first sees her, as a girl of 15, LaMotta is mesmerized by the cool, distant blond goddess, who seems so much older than her age, and in many shots seems taller and even stronger than the boxer.
Although there is no direct evidence in the film that she has ever cheated on him, she is a woman who at 15 was already on friendly terms with mobsters, who knew the score, whose level gaze, directed at LaMotta during their first date, shows a woman completely confident as she waits for Jake to awkwardly make his moves. It is remarkable that Moriarty, herself 19, had the presence to so convincingly portray the later stages of a woman in a bad marriage.
Jake has an ambivalence toward women that Freud famously named the 'Madonna-whore complex'. For LaMotta, women are unapproachable, virginal ideals--until they are sullied by physical contact (with him), after which they become suspect. During the film he tortures himself with fantasies that Vickie is cheating on him. Every word, every glance, is twisted by his scrutiny. He never catches her, but he beats her as if he had; his suspicion is proof of her guilt.
The closest relationship in the film is between Jake and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci). Pesci's casting was a stroke of luck; he had decided to give up acting, when he was asked to audition after De Niro saw him in a B movie. Pesci's performance is the counterpoint to De Niro's, and its equal; their verbal sparring has a kind of crazy music to it, as in the scene where Jake loses the drift of Joey's argument as he explains, 'You lose, you win. You win, you win. Either way, you win'. And the scene where Jake adjusts the TV and accuses Joey of cheating with Vickie: 'Maybe you don't know what you mean.' The dialogue reflects the Little Italy of Scorsese's childhood, as when Jake tells his first wife that overcooking the steak 'defeats its own purpose'.
The fight scenes took Scorsese 10 weeks to shoot instead of the planned two. They use, in their way, as many special effects as a science fiction film. The soundtrack subtly combines crowd noise with animal cries, bird shrieks and the grating explosions of flashbulbs (actually panes of glass being smashed). We aren't consciously aware of all we're listening to, but we feel it.
The fights are broken down into dozens of shots, edited by Schoonmaker into duels consisting not of strategy, but simply of punishing blows. The camera is sometimes only inches from the fists; Scorsese broke the rules of boxing pictures by staying inside the ring, and by freely changing its shape and size to suit his needs--sometimes it's claustrophobic, sometimes unnaturally elongated.
The brutality of the fights is also new; LaMotta makes Rocky look tame. Blows are underlined by thudding impacts on the soundtrack, and Scorsese uses sponges concealed in the gloves and tiny tubes in the boxers' hair to deliver spurts and sprays of sweat and blood; this is the wettest of boxing pictures, drenched in the fluids of battle. One reason for filming in black and white was Scorsese's reluctance to show all that blood in a color picture.
The most effective visual strategy in the film is the use of slow motion to suggest a heightened awareness. Just as Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle saw the sidewalks of New York in slow motion, so LaMotta sees Vickie so intently that time seems to expand around her. Normal movement is shot at 24 frames a second; slow motion uses more frames per second, so that it takes longer for them to be projected; Scorsese uses subtle speeds such as 30 or 36 frames per second, and we internalize the device so that we feel the tension of narrowed eyes and mounting anger when Jake is triggered by paranoia over Vickie's behavior.
The film is bookmarked by scenes in which the older Jake LaMotta, balding and overweight, makes a living giving 'readings', running a nightclub, even emceeing at a Manhattan strip club. It was De Niro's idea to interrupt the filming while he put on weight for these scenes, in which his belly hangs over his belt. The closing passages include Jake's crisis of pure despair, in which he punches the walls of his Miami jail cell, crying out, 'Why! Why! Why!'
Not long after, he pursues his brother down a New York street, to embrace him tenderly in a parking garage, in what passes for the character's redemption--that, and the extraordinary moment where he looks at himself in a dressing room mirror and recites from 'On the Waterfront'('I coulda been a contender'). It's not De Niro doing Brando, as is often mistakenly said, but De Niro doing LaMotta doing Brando doing Terry Malloy. De Niro could do a 'better' Brando imitation, but what would be the point?
'Raging Bull' is the most painful and heartrending portrait of jealousy in the cinema--an 'Othello' for our times. It's the best film I've seen about the low self-esteem, sexual inadequacy and fear that lead some men to abuse women. Boxing is the arena, not the subject. LaMotta was famous for refusing to be knocked down in the ring. There are scenes where he stands passively, his hands at his side, allowing himself to be hammered. We sense why he didn't go down. He hurt too much to allow the pain to stop."
"It was Francois Truffaut who said that it's not possible to make an anti-war movie, because all war movies, with their energy and sense of adventure, end up making combat look like fun. If Truffaut had lived to see 'Platoon', the best film of 1986, he might have wanted to modify his opinion. Here is a movie that regards combat from ground level, from the infantryman's point of view, and it does not make war look like fun.
The movie was written and directed by Oliver Stone, who fought in Vietnam and who has tried to make a movie about the war that is not fantasy, not legend, not metaphor, not message, but simply a memory of what it seemed like at the time to him.
The movie is narrated by a young soldier (Charlie Sheen) based on Stone himself. He is a middle-class college student who volunteers for the war because he considers it his patriotic duty, and who is told, soon after he arrives in the combat zone, 'You don't belong here.' He believes it.
There are no false heroics in this movie, and no standard heroes; the narrator is quickly at the point of physical collapse, bedeviled by long marches, no sleep, ants, snakes, cuts, bruises and constant, gnawing fear. In a scene near the beginning of the film, he is on guard duty when he clearly sees enemy troops approaching his position, and he freezes. He will only gradually, unknowingly, become an adequate soldier.
The movie is told in a style that rushes headlong into incidents.
There is no carefully mapped plot to lead us from point to point; instead, like the characters, we are usually disoriented. Anything is likely to happen, usually without warning. From the crowded canvas, large figures emerge: Barnes (Tom Berenger), the veteran sergeant with the scarred face, the survivor of so many hits that his men believe he cannot be killed. Elias (Willem Dafoe), another good fighter, but a man who tries to escape from the reality through drugs. Bunny (Kevin Dillon), the scared kid, who has become dangerous because that seems like a way to protect himself.
There is rarely a clear, unequivocal shot of an enemy soldier.
They are wraiths, half-seen in the foliage, their presence scented on jungle paths, evidence of their passage unearthed in ammo dumps buried beneath villages. Instead, there is the clear sense of danger all around, and the presence of civilians who sometimes enrage the troops just by standing there and looking confused and helpless.
There is a scene in the movie that seems inspired by My Lai, although it does not develop into a massacre. As we share the suspicion that these villagers may, in fact, be harboring enemy forces, we share the fear that turns to anger, and we understand the anger that turns to violence. Some of the men in "Platoon" have lost their bearings, are willing to kill almost anyone on the slightest pretext. Others still retain some measure of the morality of the situation. Since their own lives also may be at stake in their arguments, there is a great sense of danger when they disagree. We see Americans shooting other Americans, and we can understand why.
After seeing 'Platoon', I fell to wondering why Stone was able to make such an effective movie without falling into the trap Truffaut spoke about - how he made the movie riveting without making it exhilarating. Here's how I think he did it. He abandoned the choreography that is standard in almost all war movies. He abandoned any attempt to make it clear where the various forces were in relation to each other, so that we never know where 'our' side stands and where 'they' are.
Instead of battle scenes in which lines are clearly drawn, his combat scenes involve 360 degrees: Any shot might be aimed at friend or enemy, and in the desperate rush of combat, many of his soldiers never have a clear idea of exactly who they are shooting at, or why.
Traditional movies impose a sense of order upon combat.
Identifying with the soldiers, we feel that if we duck behind this tree or jump into this ditch, we will be safe from the fire that is coming from over there.
In 'Platoon', there is the constant fear that any movement offers a 50-50 chance between a safe place or an exposed one. Stone sets up his shots to deny us the feeling that combat makes sense.
The Vietnam War is the central moral and political issue of the last quarter-century, for Americans. It has inspired some of the greatest recent American films: 'Apocalypse Now', 'The Deer Hunter', 'Coming Home', 'The Killing Fields'. Now here is the film that, in a curious way, should have been made before any of the others. A film that says - as the Vietnam Memorial in Washington says - that before you can make any vast, sweeping statements about Vietnam, you have to begin by understanding the bottom line, which is that a lot of people went over there and got killed, dead, and that is what the war meant for them."