Anastasia (1956)

Why would I want to watch a film that is 55 years old? Well maybe one reason for the inspiration to watch Anastasia came from watching Piano in the Factory at the Sarasota Film Festival a few weeks ago. That film was filled with Russian music.

The other reason is that the lead players of this film, Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner, and Helen Hayes are all Oscar winners, and the film did garner Oscar nominations. Bergman herself won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress. Anastasia was directed by Anatole Litvak, and was a Cinemascope production, which was state-of-the-art at that time, in 1956.

The film is the tale of an opportunistic Russian emigre living in Paris in 1928. This would be Yul Brynner as General Bounine, a former officer in the White Russian Army. After the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsar of Russia, and he and his family had been shot dead by a firing squad in 1918, many Russians fled from Russia; Bounine included.

He fled to Paris, escaping with his life, and most of his money, and a pair of his longtime associates. They set up a restaurant/night club in Paris so that he and so many other Russian emigres might remember the good times of the past, and still be able to enjoy the food and the music from the old country.

He and his pals played by Akim Tamiroff as Chernov, and Sacha Pitoeff as Petrovin, were also conmen and schemers of the highest order. For nearly a decade they had been trying to locate the one daughter of the Tsar who supposedly had survived or escaped from her family’s execution – or lacking the real woman, who was quite likely dead, a reasonable facsimile, as Bounine put it. They had been given lots of money by the expat Russian community to aid in their efforts – all of which had proven futile to that point. Time was rapidly running out. The financial backers demanded results, or Bounine and company,  would be thrown into jail as frauds. The deadline was a mere 8 days away.

Enter Ingrid Bergman as a desperate and suicidal woman who was ready to give up by throwing herself into the Seine River in the dead of winter. She is saved at  the last moment, at the edge of the river bank just beneath the elegant Alexander III Bridge, by Bounine and his friends. Continue reading

Water for Elephants

There have been a plethora of films set in a circus. However most of them are from the mid 20th Century or earlier. Such stars as Martin & Lewis, the Marx Brothers, Charley Chaplin, Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and Elvis Presley all come to mind as having performed in a circus movie.

For me, the best circus movie is still The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) which was a Cecil B. DeMille production. For me, that one captured every essence of the Big Show – from the peanuts to the sawdust, from the trapeze artists to the clowns; this was a  film that had every thing that are the staples of modern film – romance, mystery, suspense, thrills, and even sadness. The ony thing TGSOE lacked was the smell of the elephant shit.

Well, they can add another brand new one to the list. This film is a top-of-the-list-wannabe, but it is not quite that worthy. Of course I am referring to Water for Elephants which opened today, April 22, 2011. The film is directed by Francis Lawrence and stars Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christopher Walz, and a marvelous elephant named Tia who performs as Rosie on screen.

If you’re ready to say that this looks and sounds like it will be a love triangle, ala Titanic, set in the second rate Benzini Bros. Circus – you’d be right. But the film is so much more than that, and at the same time a bit less.

Who’s that woman that works with the horses?
That ain’t no woman. That’s the boss’s wife. She don’t talk to nobody. And you don’t talk to her.

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The Conspirator

Why is it that so many of the best historical period films have executions. Sir Thomas More, played superbly by Paul Scofield, in A Man for all Seasons met the axeman’s blade at the cost of his head. The film garnered six Oscars. Braveheart walked away with 5 Oscars and Mel Gibson as William Wallace died as his body was being pulled apart screaming ‘freedom‘. Anne Boleyn (Anne of the Thousand Days) was beheaded; and Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.

Robert Redford’s The Conspirator is another such film. Taken from the pages of American history, Redford and a new outfit, The American Film Company, have just released The Conspirator, a recreation of the assassination of American President Abraham Lincoln on April 14th, 1865, and the aftermath which resulted in a trial and execution of the conspirators.

The film pays an enormous amount of attention to costumes, make up, lighting, period homes and furnishings. In short the production simply oozes value. The stars are James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, the passionate defense attorney, Robin Wright as Mary Surratt – the accused, Tom Wilkinson as Reverdy Johnson, a Senator from Maryland, Kevin Kline as Secretary of War, Edward Stanton, Danny Houston as Joseph Holt, the government’s prosecuting attorney, and Colm Meany as General Hunter, the presiding justice of the military tribunal that tried Mary Surratt.

Lincoln’s assassination occurs minutes into the film, and shortly thereafter John Wilkes Booth is shot dead in a barn. You can consider all of this as just the appetizers. The film spent no time in showing us the planning or the detection, or the apprehension of the conspirators. The meat and potatoes of the film is the trial.

Tom Wilkinson plays a US Senator and a lawyer. He’s really a talented actor. He was British General Cornwallis in Gibson’s The Patriot, and he was a lawyer who met a nasty fate in the George Clooney film,  Michael Clayton. Here he begins as the lead counsel for the defense, appointed by Kline’s Secretary of War. He asks McAvoy’s Aiken to sit as second chair, but once he got a good sense of the lay of the land regarding the trial he bowed out.

Senator Johnson: The military trial of civilians is an atrocity…

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Summer (Le Rayon Vert)

Lets see… GodardTruffaut, Chabrol, Besson, Clair Denis, Jean-Francoise Richet, and Eric Rohmer. That’s about all the French film directors I can name. Yesterday, at the Sarasota Film Festival, I watched Eric Rohmer’s Summer which is also known as Le Rayon Vert or The Green Ray.

First of all, this film was brought to the cinematic screens and theaters in 1986. So why was it playing at the SFF in 2011? Tom Hall, the Festival’s Artistic Director told us that recently the print of this film had been remastered, and that through a friend at the French Consulate in New York, they were able to bring it to the festival.

On its surface, Summer is the story of Delphine, a woman in her late 20’s or early 30’s who is a Parisienne, and a secretary. Shortly after meeting her, we learn that she’s just been dumped by her boy friend via a phone call, and just a scant two weeks before her summer vacation is to begin, a friend who had made plans to go on vacation with Delphine cancels. So with her summer vacation plans suddenly gone, Delphine is at loose ends.

Well Rohmer’s stock in trade is talk. Then more talk. Followed by still more talk. This seemingly is in direct conflict with one of the dictums of films which is to show not tell. Possibly Rohmer cut class that day long ago in film school.

So Delphine needs to talk about her situation, then have a cry on someone’s shoulder, then talk some more. She’s a woman who seemingly embraces loneliness. She’ll protest that this is simply not the case, again and again, but, when you watch her over the course of this film’s 96 minutes, you will find, that Delphine also tends to isolate herself when in the midst of her friends, or her family, or even with men.

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The Piano in a Factory

The Piano in a Factory (2010) is a comedy drama from China. The film was directed and written by Zhang Meng, with the Korean, Jae-young Kwak as Collaborating Director. I caught this film today at the Sarasota Film Festival.

This is a film whose producers just signed a distribution deal with Film Movement in mid January this year. A New York theatrical opening is planned for this summer, with a limited national roll out to follow. At present, there’s no DVD available, and there’s not even a movie poster available. The image above is a still created from the closing credits.

So what is the buzz about? The story is intriguing. This is Northern China, a heavily industrialized area. But this particular city, is in the throes of the post-industrial hiccups. In fact this is a dying city. Factory after factory have been shutdown, for reasons that could be called obsolesence. Only here, there’s no ‘new’ to replace the old. There’s rampant unemployment, ashen skies, and life is a struggle.

Chen Guilin is a laid-off steel worker. He and his friends are making a meager living as a small musical band for hire. They hire themselves out to occasional weddings and other celebrations, such as a funeral. Chen has a young 10 year old daughter who has shown a great interest and talent for playing the piano.

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I wonder if losing your virginity was anything like how it happened in this British comedy called Submarine.

The Gospel According to Ari Gold:

Vince, if you wanna be a movie star, ya gotta do a big studio movie. E, tell your boy to get on the same page as his agent.

Maybe Ari Gold is a fictional big-time Hollywood agent. But that doesn’t mean that his take on their hierarchy of films was wrong. At the top of the chart is a big studio blockbuster, then a big studio film. This was followed by a small studio film, then indies, then art films. Unfortunately, in the jungle called the movie industry, it is the indies and the art films that are looking for a shot at the big time. They apply to the festivals and hope for a slot, so they might attract a big distribution deal.

One such film is Submarine directed by Richard Ayoade. This was a film produced in Britain in 2010 and was recently picked up by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who together were once known as Miramax, but are now called The Weinstein Group (TWG). This film was a very late addition to the Sarasota Film Festival. In fact, this film came to the SFF only after the Festival’s Film Guide had already been printed.

This is a laugh-out-loud, coming-of-age film that takes place in Wales in the UK. The time setting of the film is rather hard to determine – it could be the mid eighties – I’m guessing because of the smaller sized b & w telly’s, the lack of automobiles, and the loden coats with the wooden toggle buttons.

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Brother and Sister (Dos Hermanos)

An Unexpected Delight!

A film called Brother and Sister (Dos Hermanos) dropped into the Sarasota Film Festival on Sunday. The show was most likely sold out as the theater was packed. In the festival’s program, the film was described this way: “Acclaimed Jewish/Argentinian Director Daniel Burman takes another look at family politics in this comic charmer.”

IMDB had no reviews in English for me to glance at. Would I be seeing a Woody Allen-ish family drama? Would there be laugh-at-loud jokes a la Neil Simon? Well the answer to those questions is that neither Allen or Simon came to mind as I watched. Besides that the characters weren’t the least bit ‘Jewish’.

As the film opens we find ourselves at a meeting of an apartment house’s residents. One of the apartment dwellers had just died the day before, and the topic under discussion was should they send flowers, or a palm, or make a donation. The discussion was not quite heated but there were many differences of opinion. Then she entered.

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Hanna is the brand new action flick that opened today. Directed by Joe Wright, and starring Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, and Eric Bana, the film hopscotches across a couple of continents, 4 different countries, and is a thrilling roller coaster ride of cinematic action.

As the film opens, we are somewhere above the Arctic Circle in Northern Finland. Young Hanna (16?) is alone in the snow covered forest and will soon confront a huge elk. She’s going to dispatch this animal with a bow and arrow. She acquires her target and shoots. She hits him, but misses his heart so she has to chase him down, and finish the job with a handgun.

Born To Be Wild – Steppenwolf – 1975

Rather quickly after that we come to learn that Hana and her father Erik, played by Eric Bana, are living in remote Northern Finland, far away from civilization and other folks. Erik has trained Hanna in the arts of self defense as well as in the arts of self-offense as if to make her a killing machine.

We don’t know why they’re hiding in the Finnish forest or why Eric has trained Hanna. But Joe Wright and his screenwriting team of Seth Lochhead and David Farr, do a superb job of filling us in little by little. Questions do come up, and we do get answers in most cases but not all.

A little bit further along, Erik unveils for his daughter a machine, that was previously buried under the snow and earth, about 40 paces away, that will transmit an electronic signal that will be picked up in Europe and relayed to the some folks in Langley. Specifically to Cate Blanchett as Marissa Weigart. Erik leaves it up to Hanna to decide when to push the lever that will send the signal. He warns Hanna –

“Once you push that switch it won’t end until either she kills you or you kill her.”

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Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (Part 2)

Jacques Mesrine: One day they’ll shoot me to death, and it will completely make sense. Natural. After all, for someone who was in prison with maximum security, there are no rules. Like me, I live without rules…

That’s our man Jacques. Yes, that image to the right is the last shot of the movie. Jacques was probably killed by the barrage fired at him in the ambush by four men with automatic weapons, but in case he was still alive, another cop came running up along side the driver’s side of the car, and put one into his left temple from distance of less than a foot away.

Of course, this film began with the gathered crowd of the curious onlookers and bystanders, the uniformed cops, the plain-clothes anti-Mesrine squad, and a horde of press photographers and media types watching as Jacques Mesrine sat in the driver’s seat extremely dead, his body riddled with wounds. In short, Mesrine had just been executed with prejudice, without having undergone a trial and conviction. This Public Enemy No. 1 was gone … forever.

The beauty of the film wasn’t just the choreography of this execution. In many ways that part was very similar to the way Bonnie and Clyde were dispatched in their film made 41 years earlier. But we knew it was coming since the  opening images of Mesrine: Killer Instinct (Part 1). Director Jean-Francoise Richet actually put 252 minutes of Mesrine into the two films, so I must say that to have invested more than four hours into watching both films, knowing full well how it would end , is really a tribute to the film-maker’s skills.

Even more so, we must comment that Vincent Cassel will never top his performance in this role. This was a performance of a lifetime for this actor. His dominating dance-master in Black Swan was merely brilliant. Whereas Mesrine will go down as Cassel’s signature screen role.

And Jacques Mesrine was a real person. The director wrote a pre-opening text message to the audience which read in translation as:

All films are part fiction. No film can create the complexity of a human life, where each has its own point of view.

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