Saturday, June 30, 2012

#684. Black Hawk Down (2001)

Directed By: Ridley Scott

Starring: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore

Tag line: "Rangers Lead the Way"

Trivia: Some of the radio chatter in the movie was taken from actual radio transmissions made during the battle

French politician George Clemenceau once said, “War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory”. Ridley Scott's 2001 film Black Hawk Down begins with a quote of its own, from Plato: “Only the dead have seen the end of war”. But for the U.S. personnel who fought that October day in Somalia, there was only one credo that mattered: Leave no man behind.

Black Hawk Down details the events of October 3, 1993, when a joint venture of U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force Special Ops carried out a daylight raid in the city of Mogadishu, Somalia to apprehend two lieutenants of Somali warlord Mohammed Aidid. Having established his military strength by way of brutality and violence, the United States set Aidid's removal from power as their top priority in the region. 

At first, the operation goes according to plan, and both lieutenants are quickly taken into custody. But then a Black Hawk helicopter is shot down. Before the sun would set, another Black Hawk joined it on the ground, and suddenly the mission shifted from an extraction of prisoners to one of recovery and rescue. 

In Mogadishu, the Rangers and Delta Force operatives sent to retrieve their comrades found themselves surrounded, trapped in a hostile city with few provisions and limited medical supplies. In all, 19 servicemen lost their lives.

Black Hawk Down is a technically stunning motion picture, from its crisp editing and engaging style to the beautiful cinematography of Slawomir Idziak. When the first Black Hawk helicopter, piloted by C.W.O. Cliff Wolcott (Jeremy Piven), is struck by enemy fire, director Scott provides us with a dual point of view, establishing the action both inside the doomed craft and at ground level. These shots are quick, yet not so quick that we lose our bearings, and when the aircraft goes into a tailspin and crash lands, there is a moment of total silence, broken only by the chilling radio announcement that “Super Six One is down”.

With its realistic, often nerve-wracking battle scenes, Black Hawk Down is an uncomfortable film to sit through. And yet its gritty depiction of warfare is absolutely vital to telling this particular tale, for it was only by making Black Hawk Down as accurate an account as possible that the filmmakers could be sure no man’s story was left behind.

Friday, June 29, 2012

#683. Tales That Witness Madness (1973)

Directed By: Freddie Francis

Starring: Jack Hawkins, Donald Pleasence, Kim Novak

Tag line: "...Is it just your imagination or your Sanity that's in question?"

Trivia: Rita Hayworth was to appear in the film but left after a short time on the set. She was replaced by Kim Novak

Director Freddie Francis was no stranger to horror anthologies, having helmed Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors in 1965, Torture Garden in 1968 and Tales from the Crypt in 1972. Yet even with Francis' experience in this particular arena, his 1973 movie, Tales That Witness Madness, is ultimately a mixed bag.

Noted psychiatrist R.C. Tremayne (Donald Pleasance) is giving good friend Dr. Nicholas (Jack Hawkins) a tour of his facility. Using advanced methods, Tremayne has been treating a variety of patients, including Paul (Russell Lewis), an adolescent boy whose parents (Donald Houston and Georgia Brown) worried when he started spending his days with an imaginary playmate named "Mr. Tiger". Another patient, named Timothy (Peter McEnery), claims to have visited the 19th century on what he says was a haunted bicycle, which once belonged to his Uncle Albert (Frank Forsyth). Rounding out the collection of oddballs is a man (Michael Jayston) who fell in love with a tree branch, thus making his wife (Joan Collins) green with envy, and Auriol (Kim Novak), whose daughter (Mary Tamm) was seduced by a business associate (Michael Petrovich) attempting to remove a curse placed on his family, one that could only be destroyed by the consumption of human flesh.

As is the case with most anthologies, some of the stories in Tales That Witness Madness are stronger than others. The 1st segment, titled Mr. Tiger, seems straight-forward enough, with young Paul creating a fictitious pet to help him deal with his parent’s constant bickering. But then, how to explain the muddy paw prints, and huge scratches that mysteriously appear on several doors? While predictable, Mr. Tiger ends strongly, and with plenty of blood. Penny Farthing combines period romance with the strange story of Uncle Albert, whose charred, rotting corpse stalks Timothy whenever he rides the antique bicycle into the past. An engaging mystery, Penny Farthing is easily the strongest tale in Tales That Witness Madness, and by a wide margin. Despite the presence of the lovely Joan Collins, Mel, about a man obsessed with a tree branch, is fairly silly, and Luau plays out at a methodical pace, featuring a so-so performance by Kim Novak and a plot that doesn’t break any new ground.

Though it comes up short from time to time, even the weakest entry in Tales That Witness Madness boasts an interesting premise, and while the film certainly won’t set your world on fire, it will, undoubtedly, keep you entertained.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

#682. Blow-Up (1966)

Directed By: Michelangelo Antonioni

Starring: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles

Tag line: "Sometimes, reality is the strangest fantasy of all"

Trivia: This was Antonioni's first English language film

Blow-Up introduces us to a photographer named Thomas (David Hemmings) who is convinced that, while snapping pictures in the park one afternoon, he inadvertently captured a murder on film. Aside from noticing a blur in one of the developed photos that looks a bit like a dead body, the woman who was in the park at the time (Vanessa Redgrave) tracks Thomas down, and is quite desperate to buy the pictures from him. Obviously, she’s trying to hide something. Or is she?

This is but one of the avenues traveled by director Michelangelo Antonioni in Blow-Up, a movie as conscious of style as it is story. Along with its tale of a possible murder, Blow-Up takes us deep into the London mod scene of the 1960s, where fashion photographers were apparently as popular as rock stars. Thomas revels in his lifestyle, taking pictures of gorgeous models and enjoying the vast wealth doing so has brought him. And yet he remains curiously unfulfilled. Never content with what he has, Thomas is always on the lookout for more. On a whim, he purchases an old bi-plane propeller at a small antique store. He needs the propeller because it’s beautiful, and the fact it's too big to even fit in his car is of little concern. After all, it just might be very important to him someday. Maybe.

Soon enough, we realize both aspects of Blow-Up, the supposed killing and Thomas' boredom, are joined at the hip. Did Thomas' camera actually capture a murder in progress? Whether it did or not really isn’t the point. Unhappy with his life, Thomas wants to see more in his photos, certainly something besides a romantic tryst in the neighborhood park. He wants it to be true because getting a killer on film would be pretty special, and might even make him special as well. At long last, his work would mean more than what the latest fashions are. He would have finally made a difference.

With Blow-Up, director Antonioni has constructed a movie that simultaneously glorifies and condemns the lifestyle of its main character. We witness the power and prestige that went hand-in-hand with being a '60s fashion photographer, just as we see the longing and search for purpose that might have resulted from engaging in such a profession. Thomas' life is as empty as a spent cartridge of film, and what bothers him most is he knows it. If helping to catch a murderer can change all that...well, why not?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

#681. Before Sunrise (1995)

Directed By: Richard Linklater

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Andrea Eckert

Tag line: "Can the greatest romance of your life last only one night?"

Trivia: The Ferris wheel Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy ride in Vienna is the same one used in The Third Man and The Living Daylights

In contrast to the movie romances we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on the big screen, Before Sunrise gives us a version of “love at first sight” as it might actually play out in real life.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a young American traveling abroad, meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a French student, while on a train to Paris. As they talk, the pair find themselves increasingly attracted to one another, and he invites her to spend the evening with him in Vienna, his last before returning to the States the following morning. Against the backdrop of this beautiful city, they share a fun-filled night learning all they can about each other, from past love affairs to future ambitions. Jesse and Celine grow closer as the hours slip away, and soon saying goodbye proves more difficult than either imagined it would be.

The relationship that develops between the main characters in Before Sunrise is rooted not in physical attraction, but conversation. Shortly after hooking up on the train, Jesse asks Celine to join him in the dining car, where they can enjoy a meal together as they engage in some small talk. But it isn't long before this 'small talk' evolves into something more substantial. In fact, they're so engrossed in their chitchat that they don't realize until much later they don’t know each others first names! Hawke and Delpy's chemistry is nothing short of amazing; in their hands, dialogue that could have easily sounded like the pretentious ramblings of a pair of twenty-somethings is instead a fascinating give and take between two people desperate to uncover everything they can about one another.

Before Sunrise is the account of a couple of strangers who become friends, and a couple of friends who become lovers. We’re witnesses to the initial spark, as well as the resulting fire that blossoms into love, and because we were there to see it grow, we're just as warmed by it as they are.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

#680. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Directed By: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore

Tag line: "The Mission Is a Man"

Trivia:  All the principal actors underwent several days of grueling army training - except for Matt Damon, who was spared so that the other actors would resent him, and would convey that resentment in their performances

Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic Saving Private Ryan opens with a bloody reenactment of the invasion of Normandy, an amphibious landing along the coast of France carried out by the Allies on June 6, 1944. This sequence, which runs for approximately 30 minutes, is devastating, and gives me a whole new respect for the men who sacrificed everything on that June day. 

Yet it’s the memories and emotions, which go hand-in-hand with such sacrifice, that make up the heart of Saving Private Ryan, and prove just as destructive as any battle.

Having survived the assault on Omaha Beach, Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) is next given a special assignment, one that comes directly from the top: locate and rescue Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose exact whereabouts are unknown. 

It seems Ryan’s three brothers, who enlisted along with him when the U.S. entered the war, have all been killed in action within the last week. Gen. George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) has ordered that Ryan be found and brought back alive, so he may return home to be with his family during their time of grief. 

Most of the men under Miller’s command, including Sgt. Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Pvt. Richard Reiben (Edward Burns) and Pvt. Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper), are none too happy to be risking their necks to save a single man. But Miller accepts the mission and leads his squad deep into occupied France, where they hope to track down a soldier lost in the chaos of war, without knowing whether or not he's even alive.

Intense feelings are at play in Saving Private Ryan, and Spielberg guides us through them in a very meticulous manner, starting us off with barbarity and pandemonium on a grand scale (the beaches at Normandy), then slowly narrowing the story down to the effect war has on the individual. Yet while the film’s scope may narrow, the intensity of the experience is never diminished. For Capt. Miller’s men, every mile deeper into enemy territory gives them time to think. They begin to resent Ryan, whom they have never met, because he's suddenly become the sole reason they're fighting so far from home. Every skirmish they get mixed up in along the way, every wound the suffer, every loss the encounter becomes his fault.

But what about Ryan? What happens when, and if, they find him? Aside from the shock of learning that his brothers are dead, Ryan must also deal with the fact that a group of fellow soldiers risked their lives (some even losing them) so he could get a free ticket back to the States. Is he worthy of such a sacrifice? If he lives to be a hundred, will a day pass that he won’t remember it?

The first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan are a violent account of the atrocities of war. The final 2+ hours are a journey into the crippling emotions that, for many who serve, last longer than physical wounds. As Saving Private Ryan so wonderfully demonstrates, war is hell on many, many levels.

Monday, June 25, 2012

#679. Independence Day (1996)

Directed By: Roland Emmerich

Starring: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum

Tag line: "The question of whether or not we are alone in the universe has been answered"

Trivia: Over 70 mock news broadcasts were created for this film

Some critics weren't kind to the 1996 sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day, calling it, among other things, syrupy, loud, dumb, clunky, and disappointing. I can't really argue with their observations (especially “loud”), yet would also add “fun” to the list. I realize this movie has moments that are as cheesy and cornball as they come, but I gotta tell you, I have a great time whenever I watch it!

As the July 4th weekend is about to begin, mankind is suddenly and unexpectedly visited by beings from another world, who have positioned their enormous spaceships over the planet’s largest cities, disrupting satellite communications on a global scale. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), a technician for a New York-based cable network, figures out that this satellite interruption is the result of an encoded signal being passed between the visiting spaceships, one which serves as a countdown to an attack! 

David tries to inform his ex-wife, Constance (Margaret Colin), who is the Press Secretary for American President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman), about the impending disaster, but his warnings arrive too late. After a devastating first attack in which New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. are completely destroyed, the U.S. responds by sending a squad of highly-trained Marine pilots, commanded by Captain Steve Hiller (Wil Smith), against the invading extraterrestrials. When their technology proves too powerful for the military to overcome, President Whitmore is left with a limited number of options, and all hope for mankind's survival seems to be fading. 

But humanity isn’t beaten yet, and may have a trick or two left up its sleeve to give the alien invaders a run for their money!

Independence Day has a few things going for it, not the least of which is Wil Smith, who, despite having only appeared in a handful of movies to this point, shows real confidence as Hiller, the hot-shot fighter pilot, and it was this film that established Smith as a bankable box-office star (a year later, he'd set the cinematic world ablaze once again with his turn in Men in Black). 

While some scoffed at the notion that Jeff Goldblum’s character, David, who is essentially a repair man, would be the first earthling to crack the alien code, I thought this little story twist was kinda cool, and Goldblum's performance is the reason why, Goldblum has always been an actor who commands your attention, and did a fine job portraying yet another of Independence Day's unlikely heroes. 

As for the special effects, they're top-notch; the scene where the ships first break through earth's atmosphere, which we see happen over several major cities, is awe-inspiring, and the initial air battle between the aliens and the U.S. military is as thrilling as it gets.  In addition, Independence Day features a number of fun cameos, my favorite being Brent Spiner (aka Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation) as a goofy scientist who meets a rather unfortunate end. 

And if I'm being honest... well... I always get a bit choked up when the world joins forces to combat the alien threat! Yeah, I know it's pure hokum, but, for me, it worked. And since I'm laying it out there, I love the scene in which Pullman's President Whitmore delivers his inspirational speech just before the big battle, telling a rag-tag team of hastily-assembled pilots that humanity “will not go quietly into the night”.

Schmaltzy? Sure. 

Effective? Hell, yeah!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

#678. Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Directed By: David Lynch

Starring: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux

Tag line: "A woman in search of stardom. A woman in search of herself - in the city of dreams. A key to a mystery - lies somewhere on Mulholland Drive"

Trivia: Chosen by France's Les Cahiers du cinéma as the best picture of the decade

Many of Mulholland Dr.’s detractors - and even some of its fans - have been frustrated over the years by the film’s seemingly incoherent story. Characters prance in and out of the picture with little explanation, and entire sequences will have you scratching your head in a vain attempt to make sense of it all. 

Yet if you can abandon all preconceptions of what a movie should be, and instead soak in what this motion picture has to offer, Mulholland Dr. will leave you mesmerized.

Originally intended as a pilot for a new David Lynch television series (a la Twin Peaks), Mulholland Dr. takes us to the dream-like world of Hollywood, where illusion exists with no tangible reality to support it.  A woman with amnesia (Laura Harring) is convinced her life is in danger, but has no idea who is after her, or why. She meets a fresh, young newcomer to Tinsel Town named Betty (Naomi Watts), a bubbly innocent who wants to be an actress. Betty tries to help this confused woman (who thinks her name might be Rita) unravel the mystery of her identity. 

Throw in a tempestuous director (Justin Theroux) whose next picture is being manipulated by the mob, and a local restaurant with a monster living in its back alley, and you have a film noir the likes of which only David Lynch could have conceived.

Mulholland Dr. will grab you with it’s spellbinding pace, and the persistent, deliberate tempo of each scene. Deep-flowing tension and explosive emotions run just beneath the surface in the segment where the director is ordered by two crime bosses (Dan Hedeya and Angelo Badalamenti) to cast a specific actress in his next movie, which the director flat-out refuses to do. 

Melancholy bleeds from the screen when Betty and “Rita” make a late-night trip to the Club Silencio, where they originally hoped to find some clues, but instead witness a mystifying all-Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison’s hit song, Crying

There’s nothing about either of these two sequences that would lead us to believe they belong in the same movie; neither appears to have any relevance to the other. Yet it’s the mood of each one, their calculated tone that drives not only these scenes, but every sequence in Mulholland Dr.

Director Lynch has assured us there are clues, placed conspicuously throughout the film, to help us figure it all out, and I’m inclined to believe him. Discovering what they are, however, simply isn’t a priority. If I never uncover the answers, I will still return to Mulholland Dr. For me, it’s better than a work of cinematic art; it’s dozens of works, played out dozens of times over. 

Make no mistake: your trip along Mulholland Dr. will not be an easy one. Yet if you’re prepared to allow your mind to wander to a place where anything can happen, where logic takes a back seat and leaves the driving to pure, hypnotic style, you’ll find Mulholland Dr. an unbelievably satisfying journey.

Mulholland Dr. is indeed a puzzle, but unlike most puzzles, this one looks just as good lying in pieces on the floor.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

#677. Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Directed By: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly

Tag line: "From the director of Pi"

Trivia: Director Darren Aronofsky asked Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans to avoid sex and sugar for a period of 30 days in order to better understand an overwhelming craving

Requiem for a Dream is an exposé, detailing, in often shocking fashion, the tragic consequences of drug addiction. With such a bleak subject matter, you might assume Requiem for a Dream is an uncomfortable film to sit through. 

Well, you'd be correct; this movie is devastating. 

But as difficult as it is to watch, I couldn't recommend it more. Aside from its frank portrayal of addicts, Requiem for a Dream boasts an incredible style, which director Darren Aronofsky injects into each and every scene.

Sarah Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) is a middle-aged widow living in Brooklyn, New York. Her only child Harry (Jared Leto) has just stolen her television, which he sells to buy drugs for himself and his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). Harry’s girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) has dreams of becoming a fashion designer, yet is held back time and again by her crippling addiction to cocaine. 

One day, Sarah receives a phone call inviting her to be a contestant on her favorite TV game show. Her elation quickly turns to sadness, however, when she realizes her favorite red dress - the only dress she would even consider wearing for her TV debut - no longer fits her. So, Sarah pays a visit to a doctor who writes her a prescription for diet pills (aka amphetamines), no questions asked. Before long, Sarah has dropped a staggering 25 pounds, but the pills are affecting more than her waistline.

Requiem for a Dream is clever in its depiction of drug use, exposing us to every ‘high’ by way of stylishly constructed montages that feature quickly edited shots, detailing both the process of taking drugs as well as the effects they have on the user. Thanks to Aronofsky's ingenious approach, we experience what the characters are experiencing, essentially ‘getting high’ right along with them. Each time Sarah pops another diet pill, the action speeds to a near frantic pace. Then, as the pills wear off, things slow to a crawl.

Perhaps the most engaging aspect of Requiem for a Dream, however, is the way it got me thinking about its four main protagonists, and the very nature of their addictions. I believe Sarah Goldfarb best sums up the mindset of these characters when she explains to Harry (who himself is addicted to heroin) why she is taking the pills. For Sarah, the promise of being on television has given her a reason to live, and she tells Harry, point blank, that “it makes tomorrow all right”. 

Though poignant, this statement is also quite chilling. Yes, narcotics may make tomorrow seem "all right", as Sarah says, but what about the other tomorrows that will follow? What will it take to make them OK? Most addicts don't think that far into the future. Their philosophy is “feel good now”. 

But there will be a next day. There's always a next day. What then?

Requiem for a Dream shows us many of these "next days", and it is not a pretty sight!

Friday, June 22, 2012

#676. Demonic Toys (1992)

Directed By: Peter Manoogian

Starring: Tracy Scoggins, Bentley Mitchum, Daniel Cerny

Tag line: "They Want To Play With.....YOU!"

Trivia:  Writer David S. Goyer was originally set to direct the film before Peter Manoogian was brought in.

A direct-to-video cheapie from Producer Charles Band, Demonic Toys has the perfect title, because it’s the toys that make it such an entertaining watch.

Detective Judith Gray (Tracy Scoggins) and her partner, Matt (Jeff Weston), who also happens to be her boyfriend, are working undercover to bring down a pair of gun dealers. But when the arrest goes bad, Matt is shot dead, and an angry Judith chases the two dealers into a nearby toy warehouse. What none of them realizes is the building they've just entered is home to a demon, which has been trapped there for 66 years. Taking on the form of a small boy (Daniel Cerny), this demon uses his powers to bring several old toys to life, sending them to kill everyone in the place with the exception of Judith. And why is Judith to be spared? Because she’s pregnant, and the demon intends to take possession of her unborn child’s body, thus allowing him to finally be “born” into the real world.

While the special effects in Demonic Toys aren't all that special, they work well enough, and the dream team of satanic toys the film assembles proves a nasty bunch of killers. Clown dolls are creepy on their own, but give them a devilish grin and razor-sharp teeth, then place them inside a Jack-in-the-Box, and your audience will be having nightmares for weeks. It’s this toy that draws first blood, popping out of its box and lunging at one of the criminals (Barry Lynch), ripping the guys face to shreds with its impressive fangs (one of the few effects that look pretty damn good). An evil teddy bear then joins the fracas, growling and chomping off a couple of the baddie’s fingers. Eventually, this bear will learn a few additional tricks, including how to swing a baseball bat. There’s a robot as well, which gets its shots in (literally) from time to time, yet the toy that makes a lasting impression is Oopsie-Daisy, the baby doll. She’s the only one who speaks, usually spewing a string of obscenities that’d make Chuckie from Child’s Play blush. “I can walk, I can talk, I can even shit my pants”, she says to Charnetski (Peter Schrum), the warehouse security guard. “Can you shit your pants?” she asks as she reaches for his gun, kicking off another blood-soaked sequence.

The basic premise of Demonic Toys (not to mention the story itself) makes little sense, and the opening shoot-out drags on way too long, failing to generate a single nail-biting moment. As for the demon, giving him the appearance of a young boy (with long fingernails) was an interesting choice, even if he doesn’t look particularly menacing. Not to worry, though: his possessed toys already got “scary” covered.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

#675. Schindler's List (1993)

Directed By: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley

Tag line: "Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire"

Trivia:  Steven Spielberg was not paid for this film. He refused to accept a salary citing that it would be "blood money"

As I think back on the events of Schindler’s List, I find it nearly impossible to write a routine analysis of the film. It just doesn’t feel right to assess the movie on a technical level, discussing its marvelous performances or hauntingly effective black and white imagery. Schindler’s List is too powerful to be reduced to a few standard observations. More than the sum of its cinematic achievements, Schindler’s List is an emotion, a reaction, a feeling of dread that forms deep inside and claws its way to the surface.

It’s 1941, and German entrepreneur Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) has traveled to Nazi-controlled Poland to seek his fame and fortune. A smooth talker, Schindler bribes the necessary Nazi officers, and before long receives a lucrative contract to manufacture pots and pans for the German army. To save on labor costs, Schindler employs Jews from the Krakow Ghetto, and even hires Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to handle the day-to-day operations while he himself womanizes and cozies up to Nazi officials. 

For a time, business is good, with Schindler making more money than he ever dreamed possible. Not even the sudden arrival of Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the new commandant and a vicious, murdering thug, can stop the cash from pouring in. 

But Schindler can't hide from his own conscience, which gets the better of him when he witnesses the atrocities committed by Goeth and his troops against those huddled into the Ghetto. With his eyes suddenly opened to the brutality of the regime that pays him, business becomes a secondary concern for Schindler, who teams up with Stern to save as many Jews as possible from the Nazi's “final solution”.

My initial experience with Schindler’s List opened my eyes. For most of my life, I knew very little about the cruelties and atrocities committed during World War II, that knowledge going no further than the page or two mention it received in a school textbook.  With Schindler’s List, Spielberg provided a fresh perspective, but more than that an intensely disturbing account of this dark moment in history, giving faces to the names and showing the humiliation and suffering these men, women and children were forced to endure. I was beyond shaken; I was devastated, and years later, having seen it numerous times, Schindler's List remains a gut-wrenching motion picture.

It is much more than a movie; it’s an awakening, a window overlooking a tragedy that, for the longest time, I was only too happy to ignore. Now, thanks to this amazing film, the images of these terrible events are forever etched in my mind.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

#674. Cast Away (2000)

Directed By: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Paul Sanchez

Tag line: "At the edge of the world, his journey begins"

Trivia:  Actual lines of dialogue were written for Wilson the Volleyball, to help Hanks have a more natural interaction with the inanimate object

Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is Federal Express’s most enthusiastic employee. His job as a quality control manager takes him all over the world, but during a trip to Malaysia, disaster strikes when the plane Chuck is traveling on is hit by lightning and crashes into the sea. The lone survivor of the ordeal, Chuck is lucky enough to make his way to a small, deserted island, where he must learn to endure without any of life's luxuries (or basic necessities) to assist him. Relying on his surroundings and a handful of Fed-Ex packages that also washed up on shore, Chuck slowly adapts to his new home. Yet returning to civilization is never far from Chuck’s mind, and he longs for a chance to rekindle his relationship with Kelly (Helen Hunt), the girlfriend who, before the tragedy, was about to become his fiancé.

In Cast Away, Tom Hanks delivers what is easily one of his finest performances, rivaling even his Award-winning turn in Forrest Gump. As the film begins, Hanks' Chuck is arrogant, brash, and ambitious; a gung-ho, dedicated Fed-Ex middle-manager. Of course, none of these traits do him much good once he's stranded on the island. In fact, there are more than a few ironies Chuck must deal with when he's marooned in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. For starters, the demands of his job made Chuck a slave to the clock. In an early scene, he’s reading the riot act to a group of under-performing carriers in Russia, screaming “We never, ever allow ourselves the sin of losing track of time!”. Suddenly cut off from the world he knows, Chuck can no longer tell you what day it is. Back home, Fed-Ex meant everything to him, and his commitment to it was unmatched. We hear the same story told several times about how, while working as a young delivery boy, his truck broke down, forcing Chuck to “borrow” a boy’s bicycle in order to complete his deliveries. But now that he's facing a life-or-death situation, Chuck quickly learns dedication is not the key to endurance. He continually eyes the Fed-Ex parcels, and at first respects their confidentiality. But realizing they may contain items that could make his life alone a bit easier, he soon opens them. We watch as Chuck’s priorities gradually change, and with only his thoughts (and a volley ball) to keep him company, he’s finally growing as an individual, not an employee, and surviving any way he can.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

#673. Slaughter Hotel (1971)

Directed By: Fernando Di Leo

Starring: Klaus Kinski, Margaret Lee, Rosalba Neri

Tag line: "A Place Where Nothing Is Forbidden!"

Trivia:  This film was also released as Asylum Erotica

Sometimes I find myself in the mood for a movie that will make me think, maybe challenge me with a complex story and deep message about the meaning of life. Then there are times I want to see hot, horny babes getting sliced to pieces, all under the watchful eye of that notorious rapscallion, Klaus Kinski. How lucky I am director Fernando Di Leo made his 1971 giallo, Slaughter Hotel. If he hadn't, this rather specific cinematic itch of mine would have been much harder to scratch.

A mysterious killer is murdering the residents of an all-girls mental institution, brutalizing them in gruesome fashion. Nobody knows who the killer is, though there are several suspects, including Dr. Francis Clay (Klaus Kinski), a physician who's been a bit distracted since learning Cheryl (Margaret Lee), a beautiful patient he’s fallen in love with, has been given a clean bill of health by the facility’s chief of staff, Professor Osterman (John Karlsen), and will soon be released. Can the culprit be found before he (or she) has the chance to kill again, or will more women fall victim to a maniac whose craving for blood seems insatiable?

Also known as Asylum Erotica, Slaughter Hotel is a fun film. At its most basic, the movie is pure exploitation, with plenty of gorgeous ladies shedding their clothes for no apparent reason. One particular patient is a nymphomaniac named Anne (Rosalba Neri), who sneaks out of the hospital one night to seduce the gardener (John Ely), then has sex with him in the greenhouse. But the good times aren’t reserved for the inmates alone; there's a nurse (Monica Strebel) who's attracted to a shy patient named Mara (Jane Garret), and let's just say her attentions don't go unrewarded. In truth, the violence in Slaughter Hotel isn’t nearly as plentiful as the nudity and sex, yet the gore we do see is effective. The first victim loses her head with the help of a scythe, and from there, the killer switches to a variety of weapons, from axes and knives to crossbows and even a mace, all with the same grisly effect.

Slaughter Hotel knows what its audience wants, and gives it to them in large doses. And yet, despite the film’s extreme nature, it manages to squeeze an interesting (though not exactly taut) little thriller into the mix. Who is the killer? Why is he / she murdering these women? For a film with so much blood and naked flesh, Slaughter Hotel also intrigued me to the point that I wanted these questions answered.

Monday, June 18, 2012

#672. Behind Convent Walls (1978)

Directed By: Walerian Borowczyk

Starring: Ligia Branice, Howard Ross, Marina Pierro

Trivia:  Luciano Tovoli, who also worked behind the camera on Suspiria, was this film's cinematographer

With cinematography by Luciano Tovoli, who worked alongside such noteworthy filmmakers as Dario Argento (Suspiria) and Michelangelo Antonioni (The Passenger), director Walerian Borowczyk’s Behind Convent Walls is a beautiful motion picture, which just so just happens to be about a group of nuns who can't keep their clothes on!

Based on a story in Stendahl’s “Promenades dans Rome”, Behind Convent Walls is among the finest nunsploitation films ever made, with some of the horniest sisters ever to grace the big screen. The Mother Superior (Gabriella Giacobbe) has her hands full with this rowdy bunch, and does what she can to keep their hyperactive libidos in check.

Thank goodness she has her niece, Sister Clara (Ligia Branice), whose piety makes her a role model for the other girls. That is, until the arrival of Rodrigo (Howard Ross), the nephew of the Father Confessor (Mario Maranzana). Having taken up temporary residence at the convent to study in their library, Rodrigo falls head over heels in love with Sister Clara, and she, in turn, harbors some feelings for him as well.

Behind Convent Walls begins innocently enough, with Silva (Alex Partexano), a servant, delivering a side of beef to the convent. The setting is very “old-world”, with creaking wooden doors and long hallways illuminated by natural light. We follow Silva as he carries the carcass into the kitchen, where several of the Sisters are in the process of making bread. Silva even sports dark glasses, placed over his eyes when he first arrived, so that he would not be “tempted” by the Sisters. We then move outdoors to a picturesque garden, where a handful of nuns are tending to the flowers. I was struck by the look of the film in these early scenes, the camera moving freely throughout, revealing colors so brilliant they spill off the screen. At this point in the movie, Behind Convent Walls is nothing more than an exposé of life in a European convent.

Of course, this is all an illusion; a wonderfully realized deception by Borowyczyk and his crew, but a deception nonetheless. Before long, the debauchery will be in full swing!

How kinky does Behind Convent Walls get? Without going into too much detail, here are a few examples of what transpires once the good Sisters let their habits down: One nun, inspired by the beautiful music emanating from the chapel, lies on her back and does leg exercises, her skimpy undergarments failing to completely conceal her most private of areas. But this pales in comparison to some of the other “activities”, including Sister Lucretia’s sexual encounters with a local man she smuggles into the convent; or Sister Martina’s (Loredana Martinez) affair with Silva. There’s also a scene involving a small piece of wood, which breaks through an upstairs window as Silva is chopping branches below, that is gathered up by one of the Sisters and whittled down (with the help of several shards of broken glass) into a dildo. She even tests her new toy, doing so with extreme vigor.

Behind Convent Walls is a rare blend of European arthouse and exploitation sleaze, and proves a shining example of both.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

#671. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

Directed By: Alain Resnais

Starring: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada, Stella Dassas

Trivia:  Eiji Okada did not know any French and was coached in pronouncing each syllable and memorized that order

The first ten minutes of Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour make it appear as if we're watching a documentary on the aftermath of the 1945 atomic bombing of that city, revealing the horrors of war on a gut wrenching level. We see mangled corpses, and victims so badly burned their bones were visible through their skin, images which serve as a brutal reminder of one of mankind's darkest hours. Yet Hiroshima Mon Amour bears witness to another tragedy of war: its memories. Through Resnais' clever use of flashbacks, coupled with his non-linear approach to telling this most unusual of love stories, we learn not all battle scars are on the surface.

It’s 1959. A French actress named Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) is in Hiroshima, Japan filming an anti-war movie. She spends the night with Lui (Eiji Okada) a married Japanese architect who was off fighting when the bomb hit the city. As a result of their brief affair, Elle begins to reminisce about her own wartime experiences when, as a teenager in occupied France, she fell in love with a German officer (Bernard Fresson), a romance that ended tragically, and with her being branded a collaborator. Once again facing this bitter past, Elle must learn to accept her heartache and sorrow, lest she become yet another casualty of the war.

Memory plays a central role in Hiroshima Mon Amour, both on a large scale (the city of Hiroshima) and a smaller one (Elle's affair with the German soldier). Images of Hiroshima as it looked immediately following the blast, with thousands of victims seeking shelter and entire blocks reduced to rubble, are interspersed with shots of the modern Hiroshima, the hustle and bustle of daily life returning to its streets. Where there was once carnage and chaos, there is now order and progress, and the bombing is but a distant, albeit painful memory. Despite having endured the worst of what war has to offer, Hiroshima has moved on.

Elle believes she has also moved on. Having long forgotten her German lover, she now lives her life to the fullest, traveling around the world as a performer of some reputation. However, unlike Hiroshima, the human spirit cannot be rebuilt with brick and mortar, and while fourteen years may be enough time to reconstruct a city, its not nearly enough to rebuild the soul. Her dalliance with the architect has reminded the actress of her past, causing her to cling to her new love, as if doing so might somehow help her come to terms with the one she lost. Still, no matter how much Elle tries to escape the anguish, it's clear these memories will always remain.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

#670. Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Directed By: Robert Aldrich

Starring: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten

Tag line: "Don't Tell Anyone What Happened In The Summer House!"

Trivia: Features the final film performance of Mary Astor

Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte reunites the director (Robert Aldrich) and star (Bette Davis) of 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Joan Crawford, who also appeared in Baby Jane, was cast in Sweet Charlotte as well, but she became ill during the shoot, and was replaced by Olivia De Havilland). 

It’s been years since I’ve seen this film, and for the longest time, I was of the opinion it was the lesser of the two works. Now, I see I was wrong. Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte is an edgy, often downright creepy Southern Gothic, with Davis hamming it up to perfection as the elderly belle with a dark, sinister past.

Decades after the brutal murder of her lover, Charlotte Hollis (Davis), believed by many to be the perpetrator of that heinous crime, is living alone in her desolate mansion, with only long-time housekeeper Velma (Agnes Moorehead) to keep her company. 

When the city threatens to take the estate away from her, Charlotte turns to her cousin, Miriam (Olivia De Havilland), for guidance. With the help of a local doctor (Joseph Cotton), Miriam tries to convince Charlotte that it would be best if she finally left the old place. 

But Miriam might also have an ulterior motive for wanting Charlotte out of the picture.

Whereas What Ever Happened to Baby Jane relied almost exclusively on the relationship between Davis and Crawford to send chills up its audience’s collective spines, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte establishes, in a well-designed pre-title sequence, that the horrors of this particular tale will be a bit more diverse. As the movie opens, we’re transported back to 1927, and watch as Charlotte’s father, Big Sam Hollis (Victor Buono), confronts her married lover, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), telling him, in no uncertain terms, to leave Charlotte alone. 

The next night, at a society ball being held at the Hollis estate, John does exactly what the old man told him to do, taking Charlotte into a back room and promptly ending their relationship. Heartbroken, Charlotte runs off crying, shouting at John that she could kill him. 

From there, things don’t go very well for poor John, who, moments later, is hacked to death with a cleaver, losing his right hand and, presumably, his head in the attack. All the evidence suggests that Charlotte is the killer, especially when she shows up at the dance with blood on her dress. 

We then leap ahead some 30-odd years to modern tinmes, where a group of kids are approaching the dilapidated Hollis mansion, daring one of their number (John Megna, who played Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird) to go inside. “What is she catches me?”, he asks nervously. Yet the others are persistent, so in the boy goes, tip-toeing slowly through the once-great estate. Suddenly, a clock chimes, momentarily breaking the tension.  That is, until an elderly Charlotte rises from her chair, somewhat bewildered, calling out for her dead lover and sending the frightened boy scrambling for the exit. 

Shifting from direct horror (the murder) to suspense, and doing so in the opening few minutes of the film, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte grabs our attention right out of the gate, pulling us in and never letting us go.

Davis builds on the fine work she did in Baby Jane, bringing to Charlotte a believable intensity - peppered with the perfect amount of over-the-top bravado - that makes her tragic character appear unpredictable. And while the movie's ending gets a tad convoluted, even going so far as to borrow a key scene from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 classic Diabolique, Davis’ performance, combined with Aldrich’s always-interesting camera placement and De Havilland’s controlled turn as the cousin who is up to something, transforms Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte into a very different kind of film than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 

And, in some ways, perhaps even a superior one.

Friday, June 15, 2012

#669. Do The Right Thing (1989)

Directed By: Spike Lee

Starring: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee

Tag line: "It's the hottest day of the summer. You can do nothing, you can do something, or you can..."

Trivia:  Spike Lee originally wanted Robert De Niro for the role of Sal. But De Niro turned down the part, saying that it was too similar to many of the parts he had played in the past

Like many who have watched Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, the experience shook me, and in a way I never anticipated.

The film opens on the hottest day of the year in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, with Mookie (Spike Lee) on his way to Sal’s (Danny Aiello) pizzeria, where he works as a delivery boy. 

Shortly after Mookie arrives, his good friend, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), gets into an argument with Sal over the latter’s ‘Italian Hall of Fame’, a wall at the pizzeria that displays pictures of famous Italian Americans. Buggin’ Out wants to know why there aren’t any African Americans on the wall, seeing as this particular demographic makes up nearly 100% of Sal’s clientele. Sal flat-out refuses to add anyone who isn’t Italian to his wall, and tells Buggin’ Out, in no uncertain terms, to leave the pizzeria immediately. 

This small, seemingly insignificant argument eventually leads to an explosion of racial bigotry, violence, and even murder that will rock this neighborhood to its core.

While Mookie, Sal, and Buggin’ Out are the main protagonists of Do The Right Thing, the film also features a much broader cast of characters, each of whom we get to know quite intimately. There’s “Da Mayor” (Ossie Davis), a kindly vagrant who performs odd jobs in exchange for beer money, as well as Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), a landlady who has no time for what she calls “Da Mayor”’s disgusting drunken routine. 

Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), a local celebrity of sorts, blasts his enormous boom box at a deafening level, while Sal’s two sons, the angry Pino (John Turturro) and the friendly Vito (Richard Edson), help their father out at the pizzeria. Every individual listed here, and many more besides, are more than simple background characters, and each plays a significant part in this story of urban bigotry.

Which is why I found Do The Right Thing so deeply disturbing. I came to care about the residents of this Brooklyn neighborhood, and found myself genuinely concerned when the racism and hatred that had simmered just below the surface for much of the movie ignited into an all-out, burning rage. 

Ever since my first viewing of Do The Right Thing, I’ve been trying to work out how these events could have been avoided. What if Buggin’ Out had just backed off on his request for African-American pictures in Sal’s Pizzeria? What if Sal hadn’t been so stubborn, perhaps allowing him to add a few photos to the Wall of Fame? What if Pino hadn’t said this? What if Radio Raheem hadn’t done that? What if Mookie had intervened a bit sooner? 

There seems to be no end to the questions that pop up every time I watch this emotionally draining film. Eventually, I hope to make some sense of the chaos that erupted in the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant on that terrible, terrible night.

I'm still trying...

Thursday, June 14, 2012

#668. Donnie Brasco (1997)

Directed By: Mike Newell

Starring: Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Michael Madsen

Tag line: "In 1978, the US government waged a war against organized crime. One man was left behind the lines"

Trivia: The scene of Joe Pistone practicing on the FBI's firing range was inserted at the insistence of the studio, who wanted a shot of Johnny Depp firing a gun for the movie's trailer.

More than a solid crime film, Donnie Brasco, like Goodfellas before it, is a window into a world most of us will never know.

Based on the true story of an FBI operative who successfully infiltrated the New York mob in the 1970s, director Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco relates the tale of agent Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp) who, assuming the identity of a fictitious diamond expert named Donnie Brasco, is accepted by the infamous Nonanno crime family as one of their own. His “in” Is assured the moment he gains the trust of Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), a hit man for the mob and a well-respected member of the organization. With Lefty’s help, Donnie rises quickly through the ranks, but the longer Pistone plays the part of a gangster, the deeper he gets into the role. Before long, he’s alienated his wife (Anne Heche) and children, and is spending more time with the mob than away from them. Along with his ever-worsening domestic problems, Pistone also struggles with the realization that, when he finally does come clean, it will more than likely mean the end of the line for Lefty, who personally vouched for him. Under incredible pressures from all sides, the fine line separating Agent Pistone from his alter-ego, Donnie Brasco, slowly fades away.

As Pistone interacts with Lefty and the other members of the family, we're given a glimpse of just how appealing the “life” of a gangster can be. Aside from the power that goes hand-in-hand with the lifestyle, there’s also the camaraderie, the comfort in knowing you belong. Eventually, this feeling gets the better of Joe Pistone. Wonderfully portrayed by Johnny Depp, Pistone begins this undercover assignment in full possession of his law enforcement skills. During one of the initial sit-downs with his FBI contact, he gives a report about his first meeting with Lefty. “I’ve got my hooks in him”, Pistone tells his fellow agent, “I got my hooks in that guy”. As the film progresses, however, we start to wonder if it isn't the other way around, with Pistone losing sight of his objective, and getting personally involved in the inner workings of a crime family he’s supposed to be infiltrating. Pistone develops a deep friendship with Lefty, and goes out of his way to take care of the aging mobster. Lefty even looks on young Donnie Brasco as if he were his own son.

I die with you, Donnie”, Lefty says at one point, and the way he says it, Pistone knows it’s the absolute truth.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

#667. A Night at the Opera (1935)

Directed By: Sam Wood

Starring: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx

Tag line: "Don't miss it! The funniest picture ever made!"

Trivia:  In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked this as the #85 Greatest American Movie of All Time

A Night at the Opera - the Marx Brothers' 1935 comedy that tackles high society like no film had before it - features a number of insanely funny scenes, certainly some of the best work the trio has ever done (The 4th brother, Zeppo, had left the team by this point).  

Unfortunately, A Night at the Opera was also the last great movie the siblings would make together.

Part-time business manager and full-time con artist Otis P. Driftwood (Groucho) wants to worm his way into the good graces of wealthy widow Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont). Knowing she's a patron of the New York Opera, Driftwood attempts to sign Rudolfo Lassparri (Walter King) to a long-term contract, which would bring the arrogant Italian Tenor to America, thus guaranteeing Mrs. Claypool's eternal gratitude. 

But Driftwood makes the mistake of instead entering into a contract with Ricardo (Allan Jones), a talented yet virtually unknown singer who wants to make it big so he can marry Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), the love of his life. 

Along with his bumbling pals Fiorello (Chico) and Tomasso (Harpo), Ricardo stows away on a ship bound for New York, where he hopes to become a star. But with the Marx Brothers on the loose, the city may never be the same again!

Many of the comic routines in A Night at the Opera are among the finest the brothers ever devised. Along with the now-famous “Stateroom Scene”, where Groucho's ocean liner cabin becomes so overcrowded that it explodes into the hallway, there's a magnificent sequence in which the three Marx's play “musical cots” in their hotel room, to confuse a plainclothes detective (who, according to Groucho, looks “more like an old clothes detective”). 

Groucho fires off his standard barrage of hilarious one-liners, usually aimed directly at Mrs. Claypool. “I saw Mrs. Claypool first”, he angrily says to Gottlieb (Sig Ruman), a rival who is also attempting to woo the affluent socialite. “Of course, her mother really saw her first”, Groucho adds, “but there's no point bringing the Civil War into this”. 

And then, there's the unforgettable moment when Groucho and Chico are arguing over a contract, with Groucho trying to explain what a sanity clause is. “You can't fool me”, Chico blurts out. “There ain't no Sanity Claus!”. Sure enough, there's hardly any sanity at all in A Night at the Opera, and that's what makes it so nearly perfect.

After the financial failure of their earlier films (including the now-classic Duck Soup), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer - which had just signed the Marx Brothers to a multi-picture deal - convinced them their box-office appeal would improve with the inclusion of a romantic sub-plot, usually accompanied by a handful of musical interludes. 

Unfortunately, these asides, which were almost always heavy-handed and dull, only succeeded in bogging down the pace of the trio's later pictures. Even in A Night at the Opera, the love story involving Ricardo and Rosa is an unnecessary distraction, but with so many moments of inspired anarchy tossed into the mix, you barely notice how vapid it truly is. 

And while the brothers would falter in later years with forgettable entries like A Day At The Races and At the Circus, A Night at the Opera still stands as a shining example of just how brilliant these three comedians truly were.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

#666. Traffic (2000)

Directed By: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones

Tag line: "No One Gets Away Clean"

Trivia:  Catherine Zeta-Jones was pregnant during filming, and the role was adjusted to suit her condition. Originally, her character was already a mother of two instead of six months pregnant

A motion picture that explores the “war on drugs” in amazing detail, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is understandably large in scope. In fact, the underlying message of the film is that the war itself may be too large, perhaps even too politically-minded to ever achieve total victory. Fought on a federal level, the battle against drugs has become a bureaucratic tug-of-war, with governmental positioning and budgetary concerns taking center stage. As this is going on in Washington D.C., the real fight rages in the streets, where casualties are dying by the thousands.

In Traffic, the world of illegal narcotics is turned inside-out, from the manner in which drugs are smuggled across borders right down to the courtrooms, where the law does its part to bring foreign cartels to their knees.  Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) has just been appointed the President's new Drug Czar, but how can he combat dope on the streets of America when he can’t even control his own daughter’s (Erika Christensen) addiction? 

DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) recently apprehended Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), a key member of an organization that smuggles drugs into the U.S. From Mexico. In exchange for immunity, Ruiz has agreed to testify against Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), the head of his organization. Once Ayala is taken into custody, his wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), finds herself alone with the couple's young son, and forced to somehow pay the millions her husband owes his “associates”. 

On the Mexican side of the border, the battle has become a crusade for honest lawmen such as Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) who is often stifled by the corruption within his own ranks. Shortly after making a successful bust, Rodriguez and his partner, Manolo (Jacob Vargas), are themselves apprehended by the troops of Gen. Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian), a man who claims to be their comrade in the fight. Salazar says he admires Rodriguez, and wants to help him bring down the country's powerful cartels, but all is not as it seems.

Along with its amazing performances (Del Toro won both an Oscar and BAFTA for his turn as Rodriguez, while the entire cast walked off with Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild), Soderburgh's unique approach to Traffic helped transform it into a wonderfully fascinating, incredibly emotional motion picture. In creating the movie's look, Soderbergh utilized a variety of film stocks, thus giving each segment its own unique atmosphere. The sequences in Mexico are faded and yellow, infusing them with a raw energy that illustrates how “down and dirty” the drug situation has become in that country. When Judge Wakefield first meets with General Salazar, he asks the General how Mexico is dealing with the treatment of addicts once they've been identified. Quite casually, Salazar replies, “They O.D., they die, and then there’s one less user to worry about”. Clearly, there are fights the war on drugs is losing, and others it is ignoring completely.

By the end of Traffic, we're left wondering if "war" is even the correct approach to the problem. With drug use hitting so close to home for so many people, the struggle against illegal narcotics is far from a battle for some. As Judge Wakefield asked at one point, how do you declare war on your own family?

Along with being an incredibly stylized motion picture, Traffic gives us plenty to think about.

Monday, June 11, 2012

#665. City of God (2002)

Directed By: Fernando Meirelles

Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Matheus Nachtergaele, Leandro Firmino

Tag line: "If you run you're dead...if you stay, you're dead again. Period"

Trivia:  Seu Jorge, who plays the character Knockout Ned, is a samba-soul singer with cult-status in Brazil. One of his songs can be found on the City of God soundtrack

Simultaneously shocking and breathtaking, Fernando Meirelles’ City of God is unique in that it keeps our eyes glued to the screen, even as our sensibilities are telling us it would be better to look away.

City of God is based on a true story, and recounts the exploits of criminals and drug lords who ruled the slums of Rio de Janeiro for the better part of two decades. 

Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) is a photographer and aspiring journalist who, with his camera at his side, took it upon himself to document the turbulent history of a specific section of Rio, a place known to the locals as the “City of God”. Gang fights, complete with semi-automatic weapons, prevented people from walking the streets, and drug lords crawled over the bodies of their rivals to get to the top. 

No criminal was as volatile, as dangerous as Lil’ Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), a killer who started young and went on to become the deadliest gangster the City of God has ever known. But even Lil’ Ze had a hard time maintaining control. He eventually grew suspicious of everyone around him, including his closest friends. And as many who live in the City of God can tell you, suspicions often lead to murder.

The fact that City of God is rooted in reality makes it all the more disturbing. I’ve seen poverty and crime in countless movies over the years, yet seldom have either been depicted quite as uncompromisingly as in this film. 

While director Meirelles crafts City of God with a fair amount of cinematic flair, never once does it detract from the brutality of what we are seeing. The stylish, slow motion shootouts and 360 degree pans are there to intensify the awful truth that lies at the heart of this story. In its 130 minutes, City of God takes us in many directions, and through all the bells and whistles, it remains very, very real.

Since the start of the new millennium, Brazil has given the world a number of excellent motion pictures. Movies like Carandiru, director Hector Babenco’s true account of a prison riot that resulted in the deaths of more than 100 inmates in 1992; and Jose Padilha’s Bus 174, a documentary about a man who took an entire busload of people hostage in Rio in 2000. These films are strong examples of how poverty affects the unfortunate souls who deal with it on a daily basis. Like City of God, they can be tough to watch, and the urge to look away may strike you more than once.

But trust me when I tell you looking away will not be an option with City of God. Rarely has violence ever been this captivating.