Saturday, March 17, 2007

Esther Kahn (2000)

***½
France/UK

Arnaud Desplechin's ambitious, seductive, arch and confounding inquiry into a maladjusted Jewish girl's acting bug in 19th-century London. Summer Phoenix takes on the title role with a fragility that hints at neurosis and serves the film's first couple of acts tolerably well. But as the picture progresses and characters start bigging up Esther's talent and stage presence, no real transition makes itself felt in Phoenix's performance. And you begin to suspect that Desplechin may be holding too much faith in his ingenue. It's quite clear that rather than Esther's commanding the stage, his main point of interest is Esther's incapacity to emotionally engage with the real world, with her attraction to theatre and dogged determination to become a great actress coming about merely as consequences. But is it genuinely Desplechin's primary goal to refocus your attention at Esther's disassociation from her interior battle when he doesn't let you hear her triumphant line deliveries as Hedda Gabler, or is he merely filming around his star's plainly limited acting range? It is entirely likely that in Phoenix's shifty gazes and hushed speech patterns Desplechin is seeing a layered, abstruse performance, while you're pretty much seeing a blank. But of the two of you, who's right?

dir: Arnaud Desplechin
wir: Arnaud Desplechin, Emmanuel Bordieau
ph: Eric Gautier
cast: Summer Phoenix, Ian Holm, Fabrice Desplechin, Frances Barber, Lazsló Szábó, Claudia Solti, Emmanuelle Devos, Paul Regan, Ian Bartholomew

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

**½
USA

A glorified make-over movie with mild pretensions of a fashion world satire, which are quickly smothered by the makers' fetish for trashy but expensive-looking couture (as well as a crummy sense for comic timing). Anne Hathaway tries very hard to pretend she isn't plucky and puppy-hungry for your love as she plays an aspiring journalist who loses touch with her true self while working for a major fashion magazine. As the boss from hell, Meryl Streep attempts multiple variations on the one note. The only time she's particularly interesting to watch is a brief patch where she's stripped of make-up and her destitute middle-aged-ness is underlined. And even then she's on auto-pilot.

dir: David Frankel
cast: Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Adrian Grenier, Tracie Thoms, Daniel Sunjata

Japanese Story (2002)

***
Australia

An arty vehicle for Toni Collette, who plays the unwilling tour guide to a Japanese businessman visiting the Australian outback. Like its leading lady's efforts, the picture is mannered and shallow until it takes a detour in the third act towards something ostensibly more authentic. Collette's performance grows flesh and bones even as the film stagnates and becomes repetitive and the Japanese character is rounded off as an exotic nothing.

dir: Sue Brooks
cast: Toni Collette, Gotaro Tsunashima, Matthew Dyktynski, Lynette Curran, Kate Atkinson, John Howard, Justine Clark

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

*****
Italy/France

In his most famous and possibly best film, Pier Paolo Pasolini gives the first book of the New Testament a stark, earthy work-over, bringing to it a sense of poetry and transcendence that stays true to the Christian fathers' intentions but has nothing to do with the kitschy earnestness of the Bible.

wr/dir: Pier Paolo Pasolini
ph: Tonino Delli Colli
ed: Nino Baragli
pd: Luigi Scaccianoce
cast: Enrique Irazoqui, Susanna Pasolini, Margherita Caruso, Marcello Morante, Mario Socrate, Settimio Di Porto

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Godfather (1972)

*****
USA

It's not a perfect film. Women barely get a word in, the sound recording is paltry, and the whole thing reeks of the 70s when it's meant to be set in the 40s. It's a flawed film. But it's a great film. It boasts cracking dialogue, grand performances and several of the most creative depictions of violence committed to screen. It features so many intensely thrilling moments, it's practically made up of them. They blur into each other. The whole thing becomes one three-hour-long intensely thrilling moment.

dir: Francis Ford Coppola
wr: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola
ph: Gordon Willis
ed: William H. Reynolds, Peter Zinner, Marc Laub, Murray Solomon
m: Nino Rota
cast: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Richard Castellano, Diane Keaton, Richard Conte, Talia Shire, John Cazale

Venus (2006)

***½
UK

As he prepares himself for death, a wistful, septuagenarian Peter O'Toole - charming and seductive as ever - plays an actor who finds everything he will miss about life personified in his dear friend's grandniece, played with great confidence by newcomer Jodie Whittaker. The picture, taking off from a terrific script by novelist Hanif Kureishi, is as brash and bawdy as it is tender and melancholy. Though at all times firmly grounded in its protagonist's pasty day-to-day reality, it's suffused in reverie.

dir: Roger Michell
wr: Hanif Kureishi
cast: Peter O'Toole, Jodie Whittaker, Leslie Phillips, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Griffiths

Black Rain (1989)

***
Japan

Shohei Imamura's account of one family's suffering in the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing is filmed in the classical style of 1950s Japanese cinema, all grieving violins and silvery monochrome. It's fascinating to see a Japanese filmmaker tackle this topic so confrontingly and with such ambition, but the picture is jarringly prone to melodramatics.

wr/dir: Shohei Imamura
cast: Yoshiko Tanaka, Kazuo Kitamura, Etsuko Ichihara, Shoichi Ozawa, Norihei Miki, Keisuke Ishida, Hisako Hara, Masato Yamada

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Taste of Cherry (1997)

***½
Iran/France

It's so easy to mistake careful, poignant observation for banality in the cinema of Abbas Kiarostami that it becomes dangerously tempting to reconsider the banality - when it is genuine - as careful observation instead. Elements of both can be found in this, his Palme d'or-winning study of a middle aged man's deliberation of why life is and isn't worth living.

wr/dir: Abbas Kiarostami
cast: Homayon Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari, Safar Ali Moradi Mir Hossein Noori

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

****½
USA

Preston Sturges reshuffles his terrific ensemble so that gawky Eddie Bracken plays a would-be Marine who has to return home without ever having entered into battle, William Demarest as the sergeant who reinvents him as a returning war hero before his awestruck hometown and Freddie Steele as the soldier who's always looking to protect his poor mother. The movie has the warmth of Hollywood's concept of middle America, the bite of a very clever political satire and the verbal and visual imagination of Preston Sturges at his verbal and visual peak.

wr/dir: Preston Sturges
ph: John Seitz
cast: Eddie Bracken, William Demarest, Ella Raines, Freddie Steele, Bill Edwards, Raymond Walburn, Georgia Caine, Alan Bridge, Franklin Pangborn, Jimmie Dundee, James Damore, Stephen Gregory, Len Hendry, Esther Howard, Elizabeth Patterson, Jimmy Conlin, Arthur Hoyt, Harry Hayden