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This Week's Film Reviews (Jan 7, 2011)

07 Jan 2011

Big films opening are SEASON OF THE WITCH and COUNTRY STRONG.  Smaller gems worth a look include SOMEWHERE and BLUE VALENTINE.

The Bernardo Bertolucci retrospective begins at the TFF Bell Lightbox this week.  Check out THE CONFORMIST and THE DREAMERS.

BLUE VALENTINE (USA 2010) ***1/2

Directed by Derek Cianfrance


BLUE VALENTINE is the story of the relationship of a contemporary married couple, charting their evolution over a span of years by cross-cutting between time periods.  It is actually two stories – the first of the couple falling in love and the second of the couple falling out of love.

Dean (Ryan Gosling) chases after Cindy (Michelle Williams) successfully.  They fall in love, despite a few setbacks like Cindy’s violent ex (Tom Vogel).  But this is an earnest love story that works for its credibility and raw display of emotions.  When the two wed and have a daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka) the relationship turns stormy with disastrous results.

The two stories are cross-cut, which is a bit confusing at the start.  But if one just looks at Dean’s hair, one can tell the difference.  The second story has a balding Dean while the first has Dean with a full head of hair.  The cross-cutting offers the audience to examine at what went wrong as well as what went right in their relationship.  Director Cianfrance is also fond of looking at details or a certain situation, which then escalates to something larger.

BLUE VALENTINE is not an easy or enjoyable film to watch.  No one ones to see a couple that is so much in love begin to hate each other.  Writer/director never forces judgment on his characters and allows his audience to determine for themselves the reason or reasons for the breakdown – which is not easily determined.  But what stands out is the difference in value held high by the individuals.  Dean wants family while Cindy seeks ambition.

Both Williams and Gosling are excellent with Gosling having the more difficult role, as his character requires him to undergo a character change.  BLUE VALENTINE should be seen for both the performances and for a credible story of a good relationship turned sour.

COUNTRY STRONG (USA 2010) *
Directed by Shana Feste


COUNTRY STRONG tells the tale of a 6-time Emmy award country singer (really?) on the rebound.  According to director Shana Feste, the film is loosely inspired by the life of pop singer Britney Spears.  (If only the film was this interesting!)

The lead character is Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) who has taken into drinking after a miscarriage that resulted from her falling off stage.  None of this is shown on screen with the result of the audience at a loss of Kelly’s odd behaviour which is only explained only after half the movie.  Not that the audience cares as director Feste offers no redeeming qualities possessed by this really, really annoying Kelly Canter.

For one, she is always drunk, sleeps with everyone and flirts with upcoming singer/songwriter Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund from TRON LEGACY who actually is the only good (sexy) thing about this movie) despite a loving and supportive husband, James Canter (Country singer Tim McGraw, who is the only lead that does not sing in the film).  She is jealous of another younger singer Chiles (Leighton Meester) who Beau is in love with.  This is likely Paltrow’s worst performance in her career.  Her character comes across as spoilt, untalented and her sobbing and crying only enforces her as an actress who has been spoilt by fame and her winning Oscar for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE).

But what is really wrong with this film, apart from the direction which allows the movie to just plod along and not know when to end, is the awful script.  For one with a touring group as destructive as these four, one would expect at least one of the members to have enough balls to say out loud that all this sleeping around nonsense has got to stop.  With all the harm and jealousy Kelly has for Chiles, a totally out-of whack ending calls for Kelly to give some really good advice for the up and coming star!  Why?  Not even the scriptwriter Feste would have a clue.  When Kelly finally makes a successful comeback, the film goes on with her self destruction, which is totally illogical following her success and joy.  The film continues with the love affair between Chiles and Beau with a song they sing that they had composed together.  But they had sung this song already earlier on in the film.  Then, the film goes on with the two singing yet another song.  Time for the end credits to have started rolling already!!

As for the songs performed in the film, they are ok at best and the main song that Kelly sings at her comeback performance is short of lackluster.  But Paltrow prances around as if she is the hottest young thing on the planet.

COUNTRY STRONG should be seen for the worst performances and worst script/direction of a first film released this new year!

PRECIOUS LIFE (Israel 2010) ***

Directed by Shlomi Eldar


The PRECIOUS LIFE of the film title refers to that of a Palestinian baby suffering from an incurable genetic disease.  The baby needs a marrow transplant.  But the baby is in the Gaza strip where conflict between Israelis and Palestinians prevent the free flow of all goods.

Director Shlomo Eldar’s documentary tells the story the point of view of an Isrsaeli journalist who uses his clout to broadcast the plight of the baby.  But obstacles are aplenty including a mismatching of the marrow involving more donors needed within a time limit.

Eldar’s film is all well intentioned and he does portray the urgency of the matter at hand, though less successfully on the dangers of living in the Gaza Strip (most of which are mentioned on voiceover than captured on film).  The audience knows where all this is heading despite the obstacles that the baby will survive at the end.

One important and crucial issue (that should be dealt with greater detail) is the mother Raidu’s stance.  She believes in suicide bombing to further the Palestinian course.  Thus would the boy whose life is saved by a Jew be brought up in direct opposition to the peace that has brought him into being?

Despite the fact that the donor of the money required for the operation is an Israeli Jew, the film holds little surprises.  It moves along steadily, too steadily to hold much interest if the subject was not about precious life.  Most of what is captured on film would be just as effectively read on paper (perhaps even more, as the director is mor trained as a journalist) on in an article though one may argue that the gist of the film – the cooperation between the Palestinians and the Israelis demands that a film be made on the subject

SEASON OF THE WITCH (USA 2010) ***
Directed by Dominic Sena


At times, SEASON OF THE WITCH treads close to Monty Python (LIFE OF BRIAN, THE HOLY GRAIL) territory, especially when the Monty Python films dealt famously with witch trials, the Black plaque, sorcerers and knights fulfilling their duties for king and kingdom.  Though the story of SEASON OF THE WITCH is straight serious from start to end with all the actors notable Nicholas Cage playing their roles straight, the film ends up as a harmless dark gothic tale despite all the violence and killings involved.

SEASON OF THE WTITCH begins with the hanging and drowning of what appears to be three women wrongly accused of being witches. When the priest insists of carrying out readings to ensure that they do not rise from their dead (hanging and drowning not good enough?), one of them drags the priest to his death.  Later on in the film when the two leads (Nicholas Cage and Ron Perlman) transport a suspected witch to an abbey for absolution thus hoping to end the black plague, the audience is never sure whether the girl (Claire Foy) is supernatural or not.  Though the story contains many opportunities for injection of humour, director Sena (SWORDFISH and WHITEOUT) keeps his film on the straight and serious.

The audience should have nothing to complain about Sena’s film.  The sets, atmosphere and tone are consistent and above average. The fight scenes are exciting enough and the special effects are kept to a controlled minimum that the action scenes do not seem too ridiculous.  Cage is downright serious while Perlman adds a little light touch to the proceedings.  The start of the film has enough titles to provide a little history lesson on the various battles fought during the age of the Crusades.

SEASON OF THE WITCH might be predictable to an extent but it delivers what is expected as seen in the poster and ads.

SOMEWHERE (USA 2010) ***
Directed by Sophia Coppola


Sophia Coppola (THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, LOST IN TRANSLATION) is the daughter of famed director Francis Ford Coppola, director of such epics as APOCAPLYPSE NOW and THE GODFATHER films.  In this film SOMEWHERE which tracks the goings on of a famous star and his daughter, it is with no doubt that Sophia Coppola has drawn from memories of the past of her relationship with her famous father.

Thus, SOMEWHERE turns out to be quite the charming and personal film though the film lacks a strong story.  The film follows Hollywood bad boy Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff of BLADE, playing the part quite well) living his lavish lifestyle in L.A. while making a visit to Italy as his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) tags along after an unexpected visit.  This is a character who puts STUD 782 on his license plate.  But he tones down his ‘playful’ activities when Cleo is around.  It shows that he really cares for her as he his wife decides to leave him.

The film begins with a long take o a desert road with a car repeatedly driving in and out of the frame before eventually stopping in mid frame.  Director Coppola makes most of her statements artistically and cinematically but requires her audience to do some thinking and draw their own conclusions.  This is what makes her film works rather than blatantly telling what is going on.

Though not told from Cleo’s point of view, it is clear that Cleo makes a definite imprint on the life and thinking of her father.  Whenever Cleo appears, she is smiling, looking gorgeous or drawing the attention.  Though womanizing half the time, Johnny Marco is still portrayed as a likable character.  It is funny that he is engrossed with women that results in him falling down the stairs at the start of the film.  He is in an arm cast the rest of the film.

SOMEWHERE is a film that grows on the audience because of its charm, sensitivity and personality.  It won the Gold Lion award for Coppola at the recent Venice International Film festival.

Cinematheque Ontario presents, beginning Jan 6th, a retrospective of the films of Italian director Bernardo Bertoluccci.  Bertolucci had his influences in Pier Paolo Pasolini having worked with him of ACCACTTONE and Sergio Leone, whom he helped script ONE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

Bertolucci broke into fame with his controversial Marlon Brando vehicle LAST TANGO IN PARIS and gained acceptance in Hollywood with the blockbuster THE LAST EMPEROR.  He also won the Oscar for Best Director for the film which also went away with the Best Picture Oscar.  But his truly best films remain IL CONFORMISTA and THE SPIDER’S STRATEGM.  All these films as well as his early works will be screened, including the massive 1900.

BEFORE THE REVOLUTION (Italy 1964) ***
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Bertolucci’s second film is as puzzling as it is interesting.  The film is the study of youth coming-of-age in a climate that is conflicting, aggressive and confusing.  An uncomfortable Fabrizio is engaged to a higher class girl Clelia.  Bertolucci paints a grim picture of class differences that exist both in the city structure and social norms.  Fabrizio begins an affair with his older aunt while his best friend who he mentors dies suddenly from drowning.  His conflicting views of life are not helped when he witnesses the aunt sleeping around.  But Bertoucci’s film leads nowhere primarily because his protagonist never settles down and worse of all has a teacher and Marxist mentor by the name of Cesare who has no redeeming qualities.  The film is watchable but rolls along with as much confusion as poor Fabrizio’s life.  Bertolucci has an odd style and he is game of experimenting with everything including spats of colour in an otherwise black and white film.

BESIEGED (Italy/UK 1998) **
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

This is Bertolucci’s romance where nothing much really happens on screen and the camera focuses on the body of Thandie Netwon as if she were the new Goddess of cinema.  English actor David Thewlis plays an English pianist/composer living in Rome. Thandie Newton plays his housekeeper, an African refugee whose husband is a political prisoner in Africa. The pianist becomes smitten with her and winds up pawning or selling everything he owns (including his most precious possession, a Steinway grand piano) in order to help get her husband out of jail. In the end, the husband is freed and joins his wife, but the night before his arrival she has finally slept with the Englishman.  How Newton ends up from state 1 to the final state is up to the imagination of the audience as Bertolucci provides only brief hints of what could have happened.  BESIEGED is slow moving and a lot of events rarely make any sense or purpose, depending on how one looks at it.  But such is Bertolucci’s style of his romances.

IL COMFORMISTA (Italy/France/W Germany 1970) *****
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Easily Bertolucci’s best film or even arguably one of the best 10 films of all time!  Subtle, cinematic, sexy, thrilling and suspenseful, THE CONFORMIST tells of the mix feelings of Marcello Clerici (Jean Louis Trintignant) as he deals with his part in the assassination his former college professor, Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio). A frequently returned segment is the interior of a car driven by Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) as the two of them pursue the professor and his wife (Dominique Sanda).  THE CONFORMIST is a political film based on the Italian novel of the same name but Bertolucci takes his audience on a personal journey so complex yet personal and brimming of emotions and connotations.  The sets are marvellous and the cinematography short of stunning.  Two segments stand out – one of the sunlight shining through the woods where the assassination takes place and the other with sunlight sifting through the blinds diagonally on to a character on the wall.  The huge empty walls of the government building and the 30’s Fascist art deco add to the film’s atmosphere and doom.  A few images from the film will remain in the mind of cineastes forever – like the image of Dominque Sanda banging on the rolled up window of a car only to realise that the person seating in it is Trintignant, the one who engineered the killing.  Bertolucci brings his film full circle with the protagonist’s meeting with the homosexual (Pierre Clementi) who apparently caused it all.  Again, this segment is up for interpretation which makes the film even ever more brilliant!

THE DREAMERS (Italy/France 2003) *****

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci


The voiceover at the beginning of The Dreamers, only the French would house a cinematheque in a palace, heard as pouting blonde American teen Michael Pitt crosses a bridge over the Seine in Paris, a copy of “Cahiers Du Cinema in his jacket pocket—is enough to make the eyes of any film buff swell with tears of nostalgia.  Director Bernardo Bertolucci returns to the city of lovers decades after Last Tango in Paris again to film, or more appropriate create another moving piece of art. The year is 1968.  Understanding the political events taking place in Paris is integral in appreciating the point Bertolucci is trying to put across.  The Cinematheque Francaise (founded to screen classics and masterpieces otherwise unavailable to the public) founder, Henri Langlois has just then been removed by the government and his followers are taking to the streets in rebellion catalyzing other riotous demonstrations by the public.  Scriptwriter Scots Gilbert Adair, adapting his own book, was there at the time as is evident from the clarity of the incidents that occur in the development of the story.  Matthew, played by Michael Pitt (perhaps a younger version of Adair) is in Paris to learn French but the cineaste gets a French education in sexual mind games when he crosses paths with twins Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel).  But it is the changes in idealism, morality and lifestyle of the three dreamers that Bernardo and Adair are more captivated with and it is the interaction of these values with Matthew’s loss innocence that eventually propels the story to its final and arguably destructive conclusion.

It is good to see Bertolucci in complete control of his material.  Those who love the cinema can understand what it means when some of these powerful images appear on screen like the film buff sitting in the first row of the Cinematheque or watching the end credits, the three protagonists imitating their heroes on film and the public fighting for their right to enjoy the freedom of film.  Film lovers can share in the games played - the tossing of a coin can be related to George Raft to tossing one in Scarface or the tribal dance connected to the number performed by Marlene Dietrich in a gorilla suit in Blonde Venus.  The erotica (carefully built up - from the initial scene of Pitt, sitting in his underwear by the telephone slowly dropping his saliva-wet fingers to his genitals to the nude three-some scene) earns the film its restricted rating.

LOVE AND ANGER (Italy/France 1969) **
Various Directors

This is an artsy film of five short stories by five top European directors including Bertolucci on the theme of LOVE AND ANGER with the contemporary setting of then 1969.  The film is rather dated now in look, theme and expression.  In New York, people are indifferent to derelicts sleeping on sidewalks, to a woman''s assault in front of an apartment building, and to a couple injured in a car crash. Bertolucci’s piece is the segment involving a man, stripped of his identity, dying in bed with actors expressing his agony. A cheerful, innocent young man walking a city street in a time of war pays a price for this innocence. A couple talks about cinema while it watches another couple talk of love and truth on the eve of one character''s return to Cuba. Striking students take over a university classroom; an argument follows about revolution or incremental change.

Bertolucci’s piece is almost unwatchable and one wonders what his aim is.  At one point, he has an actor scratching a door frame with his nails.  If agony is his purpose, he has achieved it by having his audience go through great agony viewing his incomprehensive piece.  Of the 5 stories, Carlo Lizzani’s 1st story is the best, most effective and accessible.  It makes a point without having to contain a story.  Godard’s piece is as confusing as his work ever was and the other pieces are mostly curious but unforgettable bits.

PARTNER (Italy 1969) ***
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

PARTNER is a film takes is more interesting to look at than it really is.  The action takes place right after the student riots just as his other film THE DREAMERS did.  But PARTNER is a film that has no narrative and floats along much like a Godard film.  In fact, many critics claim this is Bertolucci imitating Godard and succeeding as this film bears many traits of a Godard film such as the emotional detachment of the characters, use of sound, anti-narrative and characters bursting out into dialogue.  The protagonist or protagonists (there are two in this case), both played by Pierre Clementi, are a half mad drama teacher and an anarchic more violent character.  They both do meet and the violent one probes the other to more violent tactics, for example in dealing with the current Vietnam War.  Do not expect the film to make any sense, but PARTNER is quite watchable to see Bertolucci do Godard as well as to observe the ideas that he (Bertolucci) throws forth at the audience.

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