Monthly Archives: September 2011

1-minute reviews: Drive, Conan: The Barbarian, The Verdict, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Senna

Even though I’ve slacked a little with my IMDB TOP 250 challenge, I’ve certainly continued to watch films that range from the brand new releases to some old favorites.

Here are my brief reviews of the latest films I have had the pleasure to watch:

Drive (2011): this is one of the most interesting movies I have seen in a while. So many different aspects that are worth analyzing. French director Nicolas Refn moves to Hollywood and delivers, together with Ryan Gosling, a thrilling visual experience with a lot of heart. It is also a tribute to cinema, often feeling like an art-house experiment that evokes the pace and the feel of the great “Taxi Driver”. In many ways, it is a modern revision of the Scorsese film featuring a incredibly handsome hero that is not much of a hero, but one who we cannot resist nonetheless.

Its pace might be frustrating and the story might not be the most creative we have seen this year, but it is certainly a thrilling experience unlike most.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (very good)

The Verdict (1982): this is the story of an unremarkable-divorced-old-lawyer scrapping for work in New York City. A man that drinks and stumbles around town aimlessly who one day happens to come across a case that has the potential to change his life. The film is, above all, the stage to a very powerful performance by the unforgettable Paul Newman who, for the first time in his career, looked tired and vulnerable. The film starts out slow, presenting a man on the verge of total collapse, with an eroded moral sense and a lack of self-respect. As Paul Newman starts to regain control, although never completely, we start to understand the fragility of this man and how much he needs this case to salvage whatever is left of his broken spirit.

The film is touching at times mostly due to a finely tuned script that was made to fit a virtuoso performance by one of the ultimate greats under the watchful eye of a director’s director: Sidney Lumet.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (very good)

Senna (2011): little could have gone wrong with this documentary if enough care was given in telling the amazing story of Ayrton Senna Da Silva. The late Brazilian F1 driver was as fascinating in film as he was in life. He was handsome, outgoing, friendly and extremely talented. He was a risk-taker, an emotional and passionate person who loved life to the point of risking it often. The documentary focuses on his career, often zooming into his expressive eyes, talking about his incredible talent and love for the sport. The film is effective in that it makes us fall in love with Senna as a person even when we know little besides his F1 carreer. For fans of the sport (myself included), it was an opportunity to relive a tragic moment that most of us would rather forget. Senna is a tragic love story about a man that was capable of rallying an entire country and an entire sport around him.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (very good)

Conan: The Barbarian (2011 remake): It is time for Hollywood to understand that there are certain films that do not need a remake. Conan was made famous a few decades back because of a young and muscular rising star born in Austria who would eventually become so universal he can be referred to as simply “Arnold”. Now the year is 2011 and yet another buff attractive actor comes to the fore and accepts a role that catapulted another similar story to fame.

One must understand that its predecessor did not make Arnold more famous due to its quality. Far from it. In fact, it probably had more to do with the distasteful and continuous violence that combined with half-dressed women and men, some of whom were amazingly gorgeous, catapulted that film to fame. The remake played around with the story and took itself a bit too seriously. It was overwrought, cliche, tacky and excessively lengthy. The action sequences were entertaining at first, but the systematic staging of the battles fueled by the purest of desire for revenge quickly got tiresome.

I was inclined to walk out after seeing the manner in which Conan was born, but the film picked up just enough to make me want to finish watching.

Rating: 2 out of 5 (bad)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011 remake): Unlike the previous film, no one could have convinced me a couple of years ago to have given an endorsement for the making of another remake of the famous Planet of the Apes saga. It is not the most interesting of stories out there, failing to generate anything remarkable the last time it was remade with Mark Whalberg in the lead. However, the franchise revitalized itself with a strong cast, a smart director and, above all, a very respectable script. One of the film’s most successful aspects is that it chooses to focus on the touching yet thrilling story of Cesar, the lead ape, whose fluid humanoid behavior proved to be excitingly unpredictable. The film as a whole possesses a good pace, rarely stopping to let the viewer catch a breath. For its thrills, the depth of the script and the sleekness of the story, the 2011 remake of the classic might just end up being the best remake of the year.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (very good)

Niels

Social Cinema: 9/11 (2002)

In light of the 10th year anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, I have decided to open up yet a new series in this blog of mine: Films that Matter. The goal of this series would be to discuss pieces of film that have touched upon subjects that are of relevance to the world we live in today. These films might not be ultimate works of art, but because of their content, they have a relevance that should not be overlooked.

Like I said, I would like to start this new series with a French documentary simply titled 9/11. In case you are already wary of what you are about to read, I can preview the next few paragraphs by saying that what makes this film remarkable and different from the rest is that it did not intend to be what it ultimately became. In fact, the film was intended to be a rather modest inside-look at the lives of New York City firefighters, focusing on the daily occurrences at a station that happened to serve lower Manhattan, to then quickly turn into an astonishing true recollection of a historic event.

During most of its running time, the documentary is nothing more than an hour of impressive footage. It is, without a doubt, one of the most vivid and poignant accounts of the greatest terrorist attack in history. There were no sappy moments or over rehearsed accounts of those involved, it was simply a raw and intimate look from the heroic perspective of the firefighters that were called to action that unforgettable morning.

It is by no means a polished or extremely well-crafted documentary. In fact, a good amount of the film is rather uninteresting as the two french film makers spend time documenting the lives of firefighters in Manhattan in the days prior to the tragedy. It is especially dull because we all know what to expect coming into the film, and the first part has little to do with the tragedy and more to do with understanding the inner workings of a fire station.

What the film does provide is an indelible account of the story told by the cameras of innocent survivors that found themselves in the midst of one of the most horrifying catastrophes the world has ever seen. For all of its value as a historic piece, the film remains a relatively unknown documentary and one wonders why it has. Perhaps it has to do with the over saturation of imagery and video footage provided by an infinite amount of news outlets all around the world, or maybe this is a film that is not suitable to a larger audience whether it may be for the disturbing nature of its content or because the issue remains a sensitive one to a lot of people.

What is definitely true is that “9/11” is a hair-rising, stomach-turning, incredibly horrific account of the tragedy, one that should be watched in order to realize the degree of devastation and human loss from the point of view of the true heroes of that day: fire fighters.

Niels

IMDB Top 250: Cinema Paradiso (1988)

I arrive at my 13th review with great pleasure knowing that I will be talking about my favorite film of my IMDB challenge as of today: Cinema Paradiso.
Released in 1988 and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, this Italian film is a wonderful story that celebrates the magic of cinema with comedy, romance and a bit of drama.

It starts in Rome where a successful man named Salvatore learns about the death of a chilhood friend: Alfredo. Quickly, we are taken a few decades back to Sicily where a young altar boy lives with his war-widowed mother in a modest home in a little southern Italian town.
The boy’s curiosity takes him to sneak inside the church after hours to watch movies before the town’s father censors them. The boy sticks his head in between two large red curtains and tries to contain his laughter everytime father Adolfio rings a bell to scenes with kissing.
Young Salvatore also enjoyed sneaking into the projection booth where Alfredo, the projectionist, spends most of his time editing big rolls of film to meet the obstinate censorship of the father. Alfredo is, at first, annoyed by the boy, insisting on the dangers of the projection booth as old rolls of film were highly flammable (a very important detail the film pays attention to).

As the film progresses, fire seems to play a big role. First, Salvatore’s modest house is almost consumed by flames due to the large stack of film the boy had collected from all the kissing scenes that had been censored and discarded. Later, Alfredo and Salvatore relationship grows fonder after a fire that destroyed the old cinema paradiso nearly killed them.

It is only after this sequence that the film starts gaining a particular significance as more than a coming-of-age story. Alfredo suffers a permanent injury in the fire and becomes a kind of tragic backdrop to the innocence and youthful spirit of Salvatore.
When the cinema is rebuilt with the help of astute politicians, the role of the projectionist is given to Salvatore. This is the first of several clues the film leaves to show the potential of Salvatore, who at a young age, was already the caretaker of the town’s main source of entertainment.

As the young boy grows older, we’re treated with magical moments that enrich the movie and make the town alive with characters that remain more or less unchanged in time, acting as placeholders that inform Salvatore’s memory of childhood.
Night after night, Salvatore projects films, and the town gathers to enjoy movies of all kinds. Cinema Paradiso includes a significant array of clips from mostly American and European classics in black and white, one of the many homages to the history of cinema scattered throughout the movie.
In Cinema Paradiso, watching films is treated as the socio-cultural activity that it was a few decades ago. It is not only a tribute to the power of film, but also a nostalgic look at the past, when going to the movie theatre meant a whole lot more than it does today.
Cinema Paradiso also touches upon romance to give teen Salvatore more appeal as a character. However, there is hardly anything about his first love that speaks of realism. Salvatore’s quest for the affection of a girl is treated as an homage to classic Hollywoodesque love stories and the famed Italian romanticism that has always permeated the culture of the Peninsula.
Salvatore’s failed love story also serves as a cathalist for his exit from Sicily. In his depression, Salvatore finds comfort and wisdom in his friend Alfredo, who had grown to cherish the kid as his own. This was no longer a simple brotherly friendship. Alfredo turned into Salvatore’s confidant and mentor, and in return, Salvatore became Alfredo’s purpose in life and his gift to the world. Alfredo took it upon himself to make sure Salvatore was the man any of the town’s folk could never hope to be. His advice: leave Sicily and never look back.

Once the film reaches this point, we’re back at where we started, having left behind a wonderful coming-of-age full of comedy to replace it with a highly emotional ending that moved me to the brink of tears. It wasn’t sappy, it wasn’t expected, the storyarch simply closed itself superbly, leaving no room for anything more or less.

Since watching Cinema Paradiso, I have read a few reviews about the film. Most are favorable and a few are not. Those that criticize the film tend to say they wanted less grandeur and theatrical moments, often citing that the film uses common shortcuts to make its point across.

While there is some truth to it, Cinema Paradiso was as consistent as they come in its delivery, at no point did it become lost in its own ways. The film tries and succeeds in making us fall in love with his grand story and with the magic of film. It does not try to be anything less than theatrical, which is in a way, the expected outcome for an Italian film that wants you to fall in love with it as you easily could for Italian culture.

As the famed architect and businessman Daniel Burnham once said: “Make no small plans, for they don’t have the power to stir men’s soul”
Arguably I could say the same in this case: make no small modest movie, for it would not have enough power to bring me (and you) to the brink of tears.

Rating: 5 out of 5 (absolutely magical)

Niels