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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Underrated/Forgotten Films of the Week

Wages of Fear- Henri-Georges Clouzot's nerve-jangling thriller about a group of workers who have to carry a truckload of nitroglycerin over hazardous terrain in South America.  Truly a classic, this film set the bar high for suspense films of its type and has never been matched, even nearly 60 years later.

The Conversation- Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 Cannes Palme D'Or-winner and Best Picture Oscar nominee is a genius film overshadowed by The Godfather Part II which was released in the same year and won the Best Picture Oscar over it.  It stars Gene Hackman as a professional wiretapper who believes he overhears a murder plot and becomes increasingly paranoid about whether he is safe.

Boogie Nights Review

Boogie Nights Review
1997, 155 minutes
Rated R for strong sex scenes with explicit dialogue, nudity, drug use, language and violence

Boogie Nights is an epic film about the adult film industry in the 1970s and 1980s that follows many different characters as they encounter ups and downs.  It stars Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Don Cheadle and is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood).  The one word I have for this film is magical.  Though this film does not have much deep meaning, it is superbly entertaining and surprisingly tight with incredible performances and Anderson’s trademark moving camera.  With the butt-numbing running time and the amount of characters that inhabit the film, Anderson could have easily lost control of the film and had it go too many directions at once.  But, alas, he doesn’t.  The reason why this works is because he keeps the characters in the same area, but still develops each and makes each one’s personality unique and interesting.  I was never bored and just reveled in the fact that a 26-year-old filmmaker made this as his second feature without formal training (he never went to film school).
Another reason why this film succeeds is because of the charismatic cast.  I love movies with great casts and directors that take full advantage of their talents.  Boogie Nights stars Mark Wahlberg in the performance that started his very successful career.  He plays Dirk Diggler, a teenager who gets noticed by adult filmmaker Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds in his career-reviving, Oscar-nominated performance).  Wahlberg brings a youthful energy and realistic spin to his character.  I cannot think of a better way to start a career.  Oscar-nominee Julianne Moore also gives a great performance as Amber Waves, a drug-addicted adult film actress who is a mother figure to the group of characters in the film.  Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, and Philip Seymour Hoffman also add spice to the film. 
The performances in this film give the film much of its energy.  Each actor takes their character and gives them depth plus a little of the actor themself.  Every one of these actors knows that they are in a great film and it seems as if they wanted to go the extra mile.  I was amazed by their energy and was thrilled by them.
Anderson’s direction and screenplay are two other highlights.  With Boogie Nights, he, as another reviewer has pointed out, captured the mood and feel of an era, just as Robert Altman did in Nashville.  Anderson captures the boom of disco and porn and makes you feel as if you’re there.  How he did it, I couldn’t tell you.  But, I can speculate that the disco music, care-free attitudes of the characters, and lighting had a lot to do with it.  With the script, as already mentioned, Anderson keeps everything moving and tight.  The script has a polished feel with no rough edges unlike his follow-up film Magnolia.  Also, as another review noticed, Anderson makes the film sensitive and has sympathy for his characters, which is a statement that I wholeheartedly agree with.  This film could have been a lurid exploration of a seedy underbelly of America, but instead it is a very tasteful, while still slightly naughty, window into a bygone era.
Overall, Boogie Nights is one of the greatest films ever made and definitely one of Anderson’s best, if not the best.  Entertaining, charming, and magical, it will truly entertain and surprise you.  So, if you do see this film, please post a comment in the comments section about what you thought.

-Joshua Handler

Watch with: Nashville and Magnolia

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

In the Realm of the Senses Review

In the Realm of the Senses Review
1976, 102 minutes, Rated NC-17

Starring Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko MatsudaIn the Realm of the Senses is a film by Nagisa Ôshima, and examines the line between pornography and art.  It is one of the most controversial films ever made.  It is loosely based on the story of Sada Abe, a woman who falls so madly in love with her employer that she strangles and castrates him.  Yes, this is a very lurid film, but it also is one so well done, that one may get lost in it.  And yes, all of the sex in this film is unsimulated.  Does this make the film a porno?  Many have argued that it does.  But, many, like me, argue that it does not.  Why is this nothing more than a piece of porn?  There is a very long and laborious explanation that I could give you, but I will keep it nice and short.  This is not porn because its purpose is not to turn people on.  It is better than that.  This film is an examination of a love affair and sexual obsession that just happens to be very explicit.  And, that frankness is refreshing.  Most films in the modern day would not dare explore the ideas that this film does and would never show what this film does.  I have always said that frankness is what makes a film good.  No sugar coating, no phoniness.  Just cold, hard facts.  And this is exactly what Oshima serves up in this erotic delight.  
First off, I have to say that I was particularly impressed with the performance of Eiko Matsuda as Sada.  She shows depth as an actress in this film.  She is at once a delicate geisha, and then a mad lover.  But, even as a mad lover, she is still the delicate geisha.  The fact that Matsuda could show this throughout the film is astounding.  
But, as great as Matsuda's performance is, the real strength of the film is its exploration of sexual obsession, a taboo topic even to this day.  What this film shows is that obsession is gradual and like the sexual episodes depicted in this film, they eventually come to a shocking and sudden climax.  In the film, sex and obsession are directly linked.  As Sada finds her final climax in the film, the obsession has peaked also.  Also, the film's depiction of madness and obsession is perfect.  For example, in one scene (the one that tips the viewer off that something Sada is becoming infatuated), Sada leaves for the day and lightly tells one of the geishas to not let her lover out.  This is nothing extreme, but still a subtle hint.  Then, as the film wears on, Sada wants to see what her lover does to his wife in bed and her need for sex grows.  Eventually, she can scarcely go for a short amount of time without having sex.  This is what leads to the final act.  Also, the film asks the question of when does love turn into obsession?  Think about that when you view this film.
On a different note, the photography of In the Realm of the Senses is an achievement in itself.  The photography perfectly captures the mood of the film.  In one specific scene near the beginning of the film, there are images of a courtyard with snow falling.  The snow and the courtyard look very soft and delicate.  They are very similar to Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography in McCabe & Mrs. Miller in which he flash exposed the film to give it an old, and therefore, soft feel.  Also, the filming of the sex scenes is very soft.  The cinematographer placed his camera in the right spots.  He shows explicit views of the sex, but never makes it too obvious.  These views seem natural and that is another reason why this film is not another dumb, cheap porno film.  
In addition, the mise-en-scène of this film is very nice as its sets and props never take the viewer's attention off of the actors.  However, it is still just sumptuous enough to fill out the frame and give the film a very rich feel.
Overall, In the Realm of the Senses is a very good film that could easily have been another piece of porn,  but was made so well that it wasn't.  I would definitely recommend this film to adventurous foreign film fans or film scholars, but for the rest of you out there, think twice before viewing this film.

-Joshua Handler

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Underrated/Forgotten Films of the Week

I have a new segment called "Underrated/Forgotten Films of the Week."  It is pretty self-explanitory.  These films are either ones that got lost in the mix, or just ones that didn't get their due.

Enchanted April- Four completely different British women are tired with their dreary lives and decide to rent a villa in Italy to rejuvenate.  One of the best films of all time due to wonderful acting and a great script.  Makes me feel great every time I see it!  Nominated for 3 Oscars®.  Full Review Coming Soon

Seven Beauties- A man gets in trouble and quickly gets caught up in WWII.  A brilliant and haunting film that is one of the best ever and the first to have a female director nominated for the Best Director Oscar®.  Nominated for 4 Oscars®.  Full Review Coming Soon

The Social Network Review

The Social Network Review
2010, 121 minutes, Rated PG-13

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Rooney Mara, and Brenda Song, The Social Network is without a doubt, one of the best films to come to theaters in the past decade.  When I first saw the poster for the film, I had serious doubts because after all, it is only about a very popular social networking site, but my gosh, it was one thrilling and exhilarating work of art.  I cannot say one thing bad about this film.  Everything from Aaron Sorkin's brilliant, Oscar-winning script, to David Fincher's impeccable direction, the convincing acting, wonderfully original score, and some of the snazziest editing this side of Moulin Rouge! is amazing.
FIrst, I will start off with the script, the highlight of this film.  Aaron Sorkin may have had some historical inaccuracies, but he wrote whip-smart dialogue that crackles as it comes out of the actors' mouths.  In the opening scene, Mark Zuckerberg, future CEO of Facebook (Eisenberg) and Erica (Mara), his girlfriend, have a conversation in which he becomes so condescending that she breaks up with him.  Most writers would have simply shown two people talking and one being mean to another.  Nothing special.  But, what Sorkin does that makes this scene so effective is that he gives both characters witty dialogue to fight each other with and simultaneously builds up each of their characters.  By the time this five-minute scene is over, we really hate Zuckerberg.  And I mean, hate.  This is a testament to Aaron Sorkin and his talent.  
Another testament to him is how this film turned from a biographical film to a biographical film with thrills.  The audience is on the edge of their seat every moment of the way largely due to there being no slow spots and once again, the dialogue.  
David Fincher's loss of the Best Director Oscar® is one of the biggest snubs in Oscar® history.  He has had a pretty great career before this and has gotten much attention for directing such films as Se7enFight ClubZodiac, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Best Director nominee).  In The Social Network, his camera placement is near-perfect and the performances that he coaxes out of his actors are nothing less than extraordinary.  Eisenberg and crew were known actors before this film, but afterwards, many were major award nominees and now have many films lined up.  Much of this is thanks to Fincher. 
In this film, the acting is one of the many strong points as Eisenberg plays a smart-talking computer whiz that is so unlikable that you just want to punch him by the end.  The other standout is Garfield as Zuckerberg's friend, Eduardo Saverin.  He shows an enormous range of emotion in this film and is utterly convincing in his role.  He got snubbed of an Oscar nomination as he was far better than some of the supporting actor nominees.
Finally, the score and editing for this film were among the best that have come around in quite a while.  Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' Oscar®-winning score has a very simple piano play at first to set up the quiet, but mysterious mood of the opening, but once their powerful techno pieces start to kick in, their Oscar® was basically secured.  Each thumping beat of the music was perfectly synchronized with the film and I was absolutely electrified.  Also, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall's Oscar®-winning editing is superb.  They always chose the right shot to use and when viewing a string of them in a row, it feels as fluid and exciting as a wonderfully composed symphony.  
Overall, The Social Network is a time capsule for our age and one hell of a film to boot.  It boasts three Oscar® wins and keeps getting better with each viewing (I have now seen it three times).  I would highly recommend this fascinating, electrifying film to anyone and am excited to see this film become a permanent part of American cinema history!

-Joshua Handler

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love Review

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Advanced Screening) Review
2011, 110 minutes, Rated PG-13

Starring Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Kevin Bacon, and Marisa Tomei, Crazy, Stupid, Love. is a romantic comedy focusing on the elusiveness of love and how it can come in go in the blink of an eye.  Now this sounds like a very clichéd premise, which it is, but it is ultimately redeemed by a charming cast and a big heart.  I have always hated films that went for the "ha ha," "ooh" and "aah," but were devoid of heart.  Having heart and real emotion can be a real saver for a film that does not have much of a script to work with as this one does.  Crazy, Stupid, Love. uses just about every romantic comedy cliché in the book, from the break-up-get-together-break-up-get-together routine to the awkward humor and "touching" lesson at the end.  But, in this film the "touching" lesson at the end was very emotional and (for the most part) well-handled.  This is due to the excellent acting skills of the entire cast.  They make the film.  Without them, the film might as well have never been made.
Steve Carell gives an excellent performance as a man who's wife wants a divorce and as always brings his signature awkward humor.  Four-time Oscar®-nominee Julianne Moore plays his wife to perfection.  As one of the most gifted actresses in modern American cinema, she can play any character from a lesbian mother to a disenchanted suburban housewife in 1941.  In this film, her facial expressions are what make her wonderful.  She can give a huge smile, and five seconds later, show a look of immense pain and suffering.  With her charm and her chemistry with Carrell, they really drive the movie home.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are both charming as two people finding love who fall for each other.  They too have great chemistry and between the natural spunk that Stone brings to all of her films and Gosling's energy, they play off of each other perfectly and make a very convincing couple.
Now, we come to the screenplay.  As mentioned earlier, the screenplay has every overused device in the book and takes the easy way out every time it can.  This aspect substantially took away from the film.  I found myself laughing at one point, then rolling my eyes at another because yet another awkward moment came or cheesy line was delivered.  Hallelujah for the cast!
Overall, Crazy, Stupid, Love. is not a film to rush out and see, but is a perfect date movie or a fun night out.  Most will fall for its charm as I did.  Try as I did to resist it, I still kept falling under this film's spell.  This rarely happens, but this film, despite its problems, had just enough to make it completely enjoyable and likable.

-Joshua Handler

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Irreversible Review

Irreversible Review
2002, 97 minutes, Not Rated (If rated, NC-17)

Irreversible is a 2002 French film starring Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, and Albert Dupontel and directed by Gaspar Noe.  This film is told in reverse order and is about a man getting revenge on the person who raped and beat his girlfriend.  What ensues after the murder and rape is what happened before.  If you've seen Memento, this film is very similar in structure.  A fascinating fact about this film is that every scene is a single take (though this is done using a computer combining many shots together) and all of the dialogue is improvised.  Many scenes use cinema verite (AKA "shaky camera") and low frequency sound which supposedly can cause vertigo and nausea. 
Now as fascinating as the style of Irreversible is, it is still widely known as one of the most disturbing films ever made.  It provoked 200 of the 2400 people to walk out of the Cannes Film Festival screening and made three people pass out.  The film is disturbing due to an especially brutal murder scene at the beginning and a single take, stationary camera, nine-minute rape and beating sequence in the middle of the film that was very hard to watch.  Now after hearing these details, one might ask, why the hell would anyone watch this film?  The answer is because Noe uses such sensitivity and tells such a good story, that the rape and violence are not exploitation, but just the opposite.  Without giving away too much, the murder at the beginning is shown to be an act of folly later on, thus showing the awful nature of violence.  The rape scene is also justified as it is not sexualized and what follows shows the horrifying nature of it, thus not justifying the act in the least bit.  
Towards the beginning of the story (the end of the movie), everything is quiet and peaceful and I realized how sad and moved I was knowing what was in store for the characters later.  Bellucci and Cassel built such great characters that I really felt for them by the end of the film.  They accomplished this so well that I felt a subtle wave of emotion come over me at the end that I did not realize was there from a while back.
One final note, Monica Bellucci's performance is one of the bravest of all time.  Not only does she make her character real, but she endures a horrifying rape scene and achieves an eerie realism.  
Overall, this film was a thought-provoking and fascinating film that really moved me.  It was not quite as disturbing as many have said, but still was very rough.  Unless you can handle a lot in your films, do not go near this film.

-Joshua Handler

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon Review

Transformers: Dark of the Moon Review
2011, 157 minutes, Rated PG-13

Starring Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Tyrese Gibson and Frances McDormand, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, is incredibly entertaining, but mind-numbingly dumb.  It has to have one of the worst screenplays in history.  There is a little introduction at the beginning, but after that, we have the human story.  It is inane with no character development whatsoever and vile attempts at humor.  In this part, director Michael Bay tries to throw in as many actors as he can at once.  He uses John Malkovich, Ken Jeong, and many others and then throws them away.  As soon as he throws them away, the action starts and the human story is gone.  After that, the robots all fight and our brain cells are killed off one by one.  However, what an awesome way to kill brain cells.  
Michael Bay makes the best of his $195 million budget and his sound design and CGI are impeccable.  The action scenes in this film are incredibly long and incredibly fun.  The highlight of the film (which actually is around half of the film's length) is a monstrously exciting fight scene in Chicago.  This scene has it all: incredible FX, loud robot action, psychotic stunts, and inventive camerawork.  The most impressive aspect of this scene is when the camera is placed on men with flying suits and we follow them down to the ground.  Even if Michael is incompetent in every other aspect of filmmaking, I give him credit for knowing how to use his CGI and camera very well.
Overall Transformers: Dark of the Moon is worth going to see if you need a mindless action film with extraordinary CGI and camerawork.  If you can get past the story (or lack of), you will be in for a really fun time.

-Joshua Handler

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Punch-Drunk Love Review

Punch-Drunk Love
2002, 95 minutes, Rated R

Starring Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Punch-Drunk Love is a wonderful film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights).  It is a quirky, strange, and magical romantic dramedy (comedy/drama) about Barry Egan (Sandler) who is verbally abused by his sisters and therefore is left without any social skills or social life.  This all changes when beautiful Lena (Watson) comes along.  This film has many strengths, but the one that shows more than any is Sandler's performance.  Normally, Sandler goes for lowbrow comedies that teenagers love to watch, but, in this one, he abandons all of that for a performance that will move you and one where he embodies his character.  Sandler (as someone I know pointed out) is more controlled in this film and therefore cannot do antics that he does in other films.  Also, the film rests on his performance and I believe he knew that if he did not succeed, the film would not either.
Paul Thomas Anderson's direction is also one of the greatest strengths of the film.  He keeps Sandler focused and the shot selections relatively simple, but moves his camera in a way that gives the film fluidity.  There are no rough cuts or shots.  Also, the shots that Anderson chooses are all very beautiful in the way of framing and lighting.  He gives off the air of a very mature filmmaker, not a 32-year-old man.  There are also many interludes that were not made by Anderson that are gorgeous.  They are out-of-focus shots of colors that dance around the screen.
I think the most marvelous aspect of the film overall is the sense of joy that it gives the viewer.  The joy is due to the wonderfully quirky romance story at the film's center and the strange originality that this film has that most modern romance films lack.  I would highly recommend Punch-Drunk Love to anyone looking for a different film that will make them feel good.  It is definitely one of the best films I've seen to date and is also a favorite of director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up).

-Joshua Handler