A Separation (2011) Review

24 09 2012

Copyright 2011 Hopskotch Films

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

I finally got around to seeing this film recently and, if you haven’t seen this one yet, stop what you are doing right now, go to the local redbox, and rent this tonight.  Seriously, it’s the best film of last year, and I don’t mind saying that in the first sentence of my review, which says a lot.

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, this now Academy Award-winning film, stars well-known Irania actress Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi as couple Simin and Nader.  Together, they have a adolescent daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi).  They reside in Nader’s father’s apartment, who is essentially an invalid due to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.  When Nader refuses to leave their native country and his father, Simin demands a separation, to which he readily agrees.  With Simin leaving the household, Nader hires a sitter for his father, Razieh (Sareh Bayat).  However, after having to clean up an accident his father has on her first day, she tells Nader she can no longer do the job; the drive is too far, and she has religious concerns over touching his father to clean him up if he soils himself.  She, however, recommends her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), who is out of work and deeply indebted to creditors.  The following day, when Hdjat can’t make it to the house due to a court appearance, Razieh, who is pregnant, returns with her young daughter to do the work.  However, she leaves his father unattended during the day for personal reasons.  When Nader comes home to find his father tied to a bed and nearly at a point of death, he blows up at Razieh when she returns.  The scuffle includes a slight physical interaction on his part; she, subsequently, miscarries her child.  It’s left to the court and the families to decide whether Nader is responsible.

This film, made on a minuscule budget compared to even independent American films, is a powerhouse dramatic effort.  The acting, directing, editing, cinematography, and most of all, wonderfully dramatic story, come together to create an engaging, passionate and engrossing film that will go down in history as a classic.  It’s once in a blue moon that you get to view a film that is as truly cinematic as this, and its always a special occasion that will be savored in an your mind long after it’s running time is over.

It’s films like this that renew my hope in cinema whenever the general Hollywood “fodder” has be down about the industry.  I can only hope that I can be a part of a film as special as this one day.

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The Artist (2011) Review

30 01 2012

Copyright 2011 La Petite Reine

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

This was my most anticipated film of the year, hands down.  Ever since I first heard about this movie during its screening at Cannes, I have been anxiously awaiting the local release.  I’m extremely happy to report that, even despite my incredibly high expectations for this movie, it did not disappoint.

The story begins in 1927, near the height of technical and artistic achievement in silent motion pictures, chronicling the success of matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin).  His movies are known and loved the world over and his off stage charisma and antics are always front page news.  After the screening of one of his latest films, a young aspiring starlet in the audience accidentally bumps into him as he is getting photos taken outside the theatre.  At first embarrassed and scared of how Valentin will react, she immediately lightens up when he begins to laugh and let’s the photogs take several snapshots of them both.  The next morning, those photos are front page news, and the young woman, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), makes her way to the studio to try and get some work.  At Valentin’s insistence, she is hired on as an extra.  After the day’s shoot, she visits him in his dressing room and they nearly share a romantic moment before being interrupted by Valentin’s chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell).  With the advent of sound, Valentin’s studio, Kinograph (a take on famous monikers like Biograph), move in new directions.  Valentin, like many silent stars of the day, refuse to accept the new medium and, after being dropped from Kinograph, begins to write, direct and shoot his next film, Tears of Love, himself, funding out of pocket.  With the stock market crash following on the heels of the disappointing reviews and returns of Tears of Love, Valentin is broke, dried up and desperate.  In contrast, however, young Peppy Miller has made a meteoric rise to fame in the new talkie medium.

In conjunction with the story itself, the film takes many liberties to authenticate it to the time in cinema history in which it is presenting.  The film is shot in black-and-white (well, color converted to black and white in DI for all you DPs that need to know exactly), it is 95% silent, shot in Academy ratio (1.33:1, essentially squared as was standard before the 1950s) and recorded at 18 frames per second to elicit the common motion difference we sense between many silents as compared to modern films.  Though, again, for you purists, this motion deception was not because of the films themselves, as much as with projection measures today being at 24fps, whereas common frame rate in the early part of cinema was dictated at 16fps; however, since films were hand cranked by the cameramen, the fps actually fluctuated a bit between 12 and 20 most of the time depending on the action on screen.  Anyway, in short, this movie did all it could do to authenticate the look and feel of classic Hollywood cinema.  It turned out to be an endearing and perfect choice for the story, and not at all a gimmicky or satirical take on the perception of silent cinema.

The acting, since the film was silent, was more about body language than anything else.  Everything had to be visual and the actors were made to express much more through actions and facial expressions than anything else.  Again, it was a natural ode to silent cinema and the long lost art of pantomime.  The way Dujardin and Bejo interacted and expressed emotions physically was breathtaking and captured the magic of some of silent cinema’s greatest actors and actresses precisely.  Largely, Valentin’s character was modeled after such stars of the 1920s like Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert, where, in turn, Miller’s part was very much Garbo-esque (even the line “I want to be alone” famously appears in the film!).  Their performances, one without any lines and the other with one single solitary line, were breathtaking.   So far in my journey through this year’s Oscar nominees, these two are my picks for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress.  A special note needs to be given to Uggie the dog as well, who expertly played his supporting role of Jack the Dog – if only a non-human could get a Best Supporting Actor nod!

In the technical arena, in addition to the shooting standards mentioned earlier, this film was just seamlessly well-made.  Guillaume Shiffman’s classic hard light approach to the cinematography was fantastic, absolutely beautiful.  Nearly every frame of this film I could easily see myself hanging a still on the wall of my house and being pleased; then again, however, I love classic Hollywood era lighting.  I think it is classy and sharp, and even more than that, I’ve always had a soft spot for black and white cinematography.  To me, black and white helps suspend my disbelief more than color; it creates somewhat of an alternate reality that I can accept more as a totally different world than color, which so closely resembles our own.  I know every film doesn’t call for the use of black and white, but this one certainly benefited and I’m always happy to see well shot black and white footage on the screen.  As for the direction, Michel Hazanavicius did a phenomenal job.  There were many beautifully framed and interesting shot selections throughout and several scenes that helped convey Valentin’s emotions through a creative addition of some sound work.

In conclusion, I loved this film, everything about it.  I loved that it was silent, that it was black and white, the costume design, the acting, the story, the direction, the great cinematography, the precise art direction in creating 1920s Hollywood, the fact that it was an ode to silent cinema which I adore, and how heartfelt so many of the scenes were.  This was a brilliant  movie.  I loved Hugo nearly as much, but I have to go on the record to say that this film will be my pick for Best Picture for this year, at least so far.

I’ve currently seen six out of the nine nominees this year for Best Picture and don’t see any of three I have yet to see usurping this pick.  Actually, I have two left to see – War Horse and The Descendants, because I refuse to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close because I hate when crap like that gets on the nominee list.  It’s been destroyed by critics, I didn’t like the director’s past films and it just comes across as Oscar fodder we-love-Scott Rudin crap, and for that I boycott it.





Silent Film Released in 2011 A Possible Oscar Contender?

27 05 2011

Copyright 2011 La Classe Américaine

This film was recently brought to my attention by a co-worker and I can’t tell you how excited I am to hear about it.  Directed by Michael Hazanavicius, The Artist was completely shot in black-and-white, in Academy Ratio (1.33:1) and is completely silent!  Starring Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle and Penelope Ann Miller, the film takes place in 1927 and centers around silent film star George Valentin.  At the dawn of sound, he’s worried his career might fall into shambles; whereas, in contrast, young extra Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) sees the transition as an opportunity to propel to stardom.

The film made it’s debut at the Cannes Film Festival the other week and won Best Actor for Jean Dujardin.  In addition, the Weinstein Company have negotiated to bring it to wide release later this year, both domestically and internationally.  Could this film possibly be the first silent film in Oscar contention for Best Picture in nearly 70 years?   Could it be the first silent film to win Best Picture since the beginning of the Academy Awards in 1927 with Wings?  

Being a huge fan of silent films, I can only hope for such happenings.  I can’t wait for the release to see if this film really is as good as so many critics say it is.  In the meantime, I will have to be happy with the trailer, which is available in HD at:





Pietro Germi: Unknown Master of Italian Cinema

1 04 2011

Pietro Germi - Italian Film Director

When you think about Italian cinema, several names generally come to mind: Fellini, Visconti, de Sica, Bertolucci and possibly even Benigni.  One name that is rarely mentioned in cinema circles, but whom is one of my favorite Italian directors, is Pietro Germi.  Germi, unlike some auteurs, was able to expertly master the mechanics of both comedies and dramas, while all the time keeping his own style evident throughout.  Even a couple years ago as Wikipedia was becoming very popular, Germi still hadn’t an article on his life and career.  The article that is currently live for him on the site is one that I took the time to write myself.

Germi was born in Genoa, Italy in 1914.  After a brief excursion into nautical school, he decided to enter the film industry.  He attended film school in Rome and performed many functions on various sets including acting, assistant directing and occasionally writing during his youth.  His first film as a director was The Testimony in 1946.  Following this film, he released a film every year or two for the next 25 years as a director and, more often then not, served as either writer or co-writer as well.

Germi’s first films were in the Italian neo-realist style with a deep rooting in dramatic content.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the neo-realist style, it generally covered topics that were true-to-life and the protagonists were generally the everyman type.  In addition, the films were generally shot in natural locations as opposed to shooting in a studio and the cinematography and direction had a grittier, more realistic style to it than a polished Hollywood film.  Most all of his output during the 1950s was in this style and focused on dramatic content, though he would later be more known for his comedic efforts.  Just to give you a Germi starter kit so to speak, I’ll recommend three of his films that I feel will get you on your way to either liking or deciding that Germi’s work is not for you.

One of my favorite films from Germi’s dramatic material is 1956’s The Railroad Man. In addition to writing and directing, Germi also played the lead role of Andrea Marcocci.  Andrea is, as the title suggests, a railroad worker.  He is happy in his career and spends many a night drinking with his fellow workers after getting off the job.  However, after nearly colliding with another train while trying to avoid someone attempting suicide on the tracks, Marcocci is laid off.  Further misfortune begins to complicate his life after this incident, and between his problems at work, his drinking and troubles in his family life, Marcocci’s mood gets more and more despairing.  However, his youngest son Sandro (Edoardo Nevola), wants to help his father and through Sandro’s love and support his father is able to find some form of peace.  The film is a complex study of the everyman through the life of this common railroad worker.  It touches on the human emotion on every level throughout the film and is an outstanding example of the Italian neo-realist style.

"Divorce, Italian Style" - 1961

In 1961, Germi moved into comedic material and would stay in this genre for the majority of his career following.  The film, Divorce, Italian Style, would be his greatest success, winning him a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award and garnering a nomination for Best Director.  The film tells the story of Sicilian nobleman Ferdinando Cefalù, played with precision by famous Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, who hopes to marry his beautiful cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli).  The problem, however, is that he is already married to Rosalia, and in Sicily at the time it was illegal to get a divorce.  Determined to succeed, Ferdinando tries to manipulate a plan to get his wife caught up in an affair; then, when he “finds” her in the act, murder her and only receive a short sentence for an honor killing.  Mastroianni is brilliant in the part of Ferdinando and the film overall has amazing timing for comedic effect.  Following the international success of this film, many Italian comedies of the 1960s tried to emulate Germi’s style and there were a few direct off shoots of this movie.

The last Germi film I’ll go into detail on is his 1963 film Seduced and Abandoned.  It directly relates in style and mood to his previous film Divorce, Italian Style. Agnese Ascalone (Stefania Sandrelli) is the daughter of a prominent Sicilian miner, Vincenzo.  She is found in the kitchen by Vincenzo and her mother being seduced by her sister’s fiancee, Peppino.  To uphold strict Sicilian mores, Vincenzo demands Peppino marry Agnese instead.  The  resulting demand leads the story through one hilarious situation after another.  Saro Urzi, who plays Vincenzo, was perfect for this role as the frustrated, comical patriarch.  In America, he is probably best known for playing Signor Vitelli in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

Unfortunately, Germi would pass in 1974 from hepatitis at the age of 60.  His last film was the mediocre Alfredo, Alfredo with Dustin Hoffman and favorite muse Stefania Sandrelli.  There are many other films in this brilliant Italian director’s repertoire worth seeing, but if you just want a tast of his comedic and dramatic style, then I feel these three films are a good place to start.  In my opinion, Germi’s abilities as a writer and director were as reputable as any of the other illuminaries of Italian cinema and hope his work will reach a wider audience in years to come.





Inside Job (2010) Review

16 03 2011

Copyright 2010 Sony Pictures Classics. Dir. Charles Ferguson

★ ★ ★ ★

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to see this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job.  The film deals with the events and practices that lead to the economic crisis of 2008-2009 that we are still recovering from.

First and foremost when I watch a documentary, I am interested in how well the film presents the information on the topic it is focusing on.  The shady practices of Wall Street and our capitalist system were presented in great detail in this film from the beginning of Iceland’s financial collapse all the way to our present situations.  Secondly, I watch for how entertaining this educational material is to actually watch and the film’s ability to keep a viewer engaged with the material.  It seems the filmmakers of this film borrowed a bit from Michael Moore with some of the “shock and awe” ways of presenting information and the fun, tongue-in-cheek musical selections interspersed throughout (including Big Time by Peter Gabriel and New York Groove by Ace Frehley).  Some audiences don’t like this approach to a documentary and prefer a straighter, less enhanced presentation of material, but for me personally, I think it helps create a stronger impact and keeps the watchability at a high.

Technically, the film looked great.  It was shot on the RED One digital cinema camera in 4k mode, so the resolution and dynamic range of the interview sequences are quite high for a documentary.  A lot of the “run and gun” segments were shot on the Sony EX-1 which still retains a high visual quality, but not to the level that the beautiful sweeping intro shots of Iceland are on the RED One.  As previously mentioned, I really loved the musical picks they decided to use throughout the film and many of the montage sequences had a nice, machine gun paced editing flow that keeps true to the music video age documentary style we have become accustomed to in the last 10 to 15 years.

Without getting too political in the review, the film’s content is hard hitting and definitely ignited a strong response against how our system is currently run.  However, I will be honest and admit that I am a liberal and this film was made by liberal filmmakers, so there is a certain level of bias.  However, I don’t think anyone could argue after seeing this film that what was happening in our financial markets was right.  Essentially, a few super rich decided to take their greed to a new level which, in turn, has collapsed a global economy.  If nothing else, I think the film wants the viewer to take away one encompassing theme: that the system as it stands today HAS to be changed.  We can’t continue going on in a crippling financial system that, as the Who would say, is “in with the new boss, same as the old boss.”

I haven’t seen many of the other documentaries that came out in 2010, but I can see why the Academy chose this film as the Best Documentary Feature this year.  It’s not perfect and not the best documentary I’ve ever seen, but it’s a good, solid film that deals with a subject that is probably the single most important topic of our time in relation to global tranquility.








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