Friday, November 28, 2008

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

By all accounts, silent film director D.W. Griffith invented the modern feature-length film. His movies introduced ambitious storylines, editing techniques and camera tricks that had never before been seen. Yet that does not make his films any easier to watch for the modern viewer. The Birth of a Nation, Griffith's 1915 Civil War epic, is on one hand one of the most influential and important films ever made. On the other hand, it is often dry and unengaging. And of course the film is notoriously racist, playing up the worst racial stereotypes and glorifying the Ku Klux Klan as the savior of the South. 

The story is split into two halves, with the first covering the Civil War and the second covering the Reconstruction period. These events are seen through the eyes of two families - the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons. The families are close friends, and their relationship provides the film with its structure, as the family members witness famous events such as Lincoln's assassination and the rise of the KKK. 

So just how racist is The Birth of a Nation? Well, the film certainly anticipates its criticism, with a disclaimer at the beginning saying that the story is not supposed to reflect any race of today. And given all that I had read, I was expecting worse during the film's first half. The racism is certainly there - all of the slaves are portrayed as being perfectly happy, and black soldiers are portrayed as mindless followers - but the first half of the film does not actively condemn blacks, preferring to tell its war story. 

However, all of that completely changes in the second half. Part two opens with a quote from Woodrow Wilson that glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, calling it "a veritable empire of the South" that arose "to protect the Southern country." Black characters (most of whom are played by white actors in blackface) are seen as villains who overtook the South and trampled on its great legacy. In one scene at the State House of Representatives, there is an overwhelming majority of blacks, and they are all portrayed as uncivilized and incompetent. A caption card laments the "helpless white minority." In the next scene, Ben Cameron is inspired to create the Ku Klux Klan, who are seen as the film's heroes. In yet another scene, a black character named Gus attempts to rape young Flora Cameron. He is later executed by the KKK. These are just a few examples of the racism in the film. 

So yes, The Birth of a Nation is morally despicable. But is it watchable? For the most part, I found the film to be tedious and overlong. Unlike The Passion of Joan of Arc, another silent film that I reviewed, it does not stand well on its own merits. If one puts aside the racism and the cinematic importance, The Birth of a Nation is simply not very engaging. There are a few notable exceptions, though. The assassination of Lincoln is very suspenseful, and a few battle scenes are exciting. 

Still, how can I possibly hold that against the film? The Birth of a Nation is in many ways the birth of cinema, and it is unfair to criticize its narrative for not being fully developed. It would be like looking back and criticizing Edison's lightbulb for not being bright enough. With that in mind, I begin to see the folly of assigning any sort of rating to this film. Can I possibly judge The Birth of a Nation the same way I would judge, say, Quantum of Solace? Of course not. It may be that I am simply not knowledgeable enough about silent film to fully appreciate the movie. Suffice to say that The Birth of a Nation is not an easy film to watch, due to both its nature as a 3-hour silent film and its outspoken racism. But it is undeniable that it is a film of lasting historical importance, and should be viewed as such. 

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Soon after Die Another Day, the 20th installment in the James Bond series, was released in 2002, it was widely ridiculed for crossing the line into self-parody. The villain created an orbiting ice palace to harness solar energy. 007 drove around in an invisible car, and sailed down a raging river standing on an ice block. Quantum of Solace, the second Bond film starring Daniel Craig as 007, faces almost the opposite problem. The movie tries to be so grim, gritty, and realistic that it just comes across as dull and lifeless.

The story picks up almost immediately after the great Casino Royale, with Bond driving an injured Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) to headquarters for interrogation. Before escaping, Mr. White reveals something about a nefarious organization that "has people everywhere." Further investigation leads to the discovery of a group called QUANTUM, which is employing Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) in an evil plot to overthrow Bolivia's government and drain its oil reserves. Or something like that.

But enough about the plot! This is a James Bond movie! How are the action scenes, you wonder. Fine, if you are a fan of the mile-a-minute, quick-cut, shaky camera action scenes that dominate the Bourne series. For those of us who do not enjoy nausea, however, Quantum's action scenes are quite irritating. Perhaps I am being unfair, though. In the Bourne films, the quick editing and shaky camera techniques contribute to the suspense, and the viewer at least has some idea of what is going on. The same cannot be said for the car chase that opens this film. Rather than getting my blood pumping, it left me sitting there waiting for the damn thing to end.

Yet when we are not being hammered by incomprehensible action scenes, the movie bores us with unnecessary exposition. The plot was really not interesting enough to hold my attention, and after a certain point I found myself tuning out. The main villain, Dominic Greene, is played by the terrific French actor Mathieu Amalric, but his character is bland and uninteresting. And yes, M (Judi Dench) and Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) were likable enough characters in Casino Royale, but they are given far too much screen time here.

The Bond girls fare slightly better. There are two - one a well-developed main character and the other one of Bond's quick flings. Olga Kurylenko plays Camille, the main female sidekick. Like Bond, she too is out for revenge for the death of a loved one. Kurylenko does well with the material given to her, but I can't pretend that her character is very memorable. Agent Fields (Gemma Arteron) is an entirely different beast. Her character's fashion and hairstyle are clearly throwbacks to the Bond girls of the 60s era. Although she does not have very much screen time, Arteron injects some humor and spirit into a movie that is desperately lacking in those departments.

But the main problem with Quantum of Solace is that there is nothing memorable about it. I struggle to think of a single sequence that is a standout. Director Marc Forster has said that his favorite scene comes during an opera performance, when the action cuts back and forth between the violence on stage and the violence that Bond is wreaking. But the scene struck me as a failed attempt at artsiness. The parallels that are being drawn are unclear, and the whole sequence feels out of place - like a pedestrian attempt at the montages that close the Godfather films.

So what impression does Quantum of Solace make? Not much of one, I'm afraid. I found it instantly forgettable, an endless string of uninspired action scenes. Casino Royale is the superior film in every way - its action sequences are at once more memorable, more exciting, and more comprehensible. And its story actually had a heart, and took time to develop characters. The same cannot be said for the sequel. Forgive the obvious pun, but Quantum of Solace left me feeling more shaken than stirred.

Verdict: C

Monday, November 24, 2008

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita is perhaps most remembered for the image of beautiful blonde actress Anita Ekberg standing in a fountain in Rome. It is an iconic image; recognizable even to those who have not seen the film. Ekberg plays an American actress named Sylvia, but she is only a minor character in the film, just one of many characters who pass through the story. In fact, La Dolce Vita is a very episodic film with few recurring characters. The one thread that ties it all together is the character of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a photojournalist who lives the "sweet life" in Rome - driving expensive cars, eating at cafes and cavorting with movie stars. The movie exposes the shallowness of such a life, and is particularly relevant in this age of Paris Hiltons and Lindsday Lohans. But to look at La Dolce Vita as merely a message movie is to ignore the most compelling reason to see it - it is a fascinating character study, featuring beautiful cinematography and directed by a top-class filmmaker at the height of his power. 

It is difficult to summarize the "plot" of La Dolce Vita because it is by no means a traditionally structured narrative. The film is mainly a string of disconnected sequences, each representing one night in Marcello's life. There are a few recurring characters, though - Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) is Marcello's estranged and suicidal girlfriend. Steiner (Alain Cuny) is one of Marcello's idols, a seemingly happy intellectual with a wife and kids. Maddalena is a rich heiress who Marcello encounters at the beginning and end of the film. 

The film's structure is at times frustrating. Upon first viewing, some sequences seem overlong, and the film lacks a cohesive flow. Yet that is part of what La Dolce Vita so brilliant. Its disjointed structure illustrates the empty life of Marcello. He spends his nights at sumptuous parties, drinking with beautiful women, but never finds a stable relationship or any real meaning in his life. The same holds true for the people Marcello surrounds himself with. 

In one telling sequence, Marcello's father comes to Rome and visits his son. Marcello expresses a clear desire to connect with his father, but at dinner his father is distracted by an alluring chorus girl. They go home together, but at dawn his father becomes sick and eventually must leave on an early train. The scene is revealing because it shows how Marcello's character flaws go back to his father, but also that Marcello is looking for a real relationship with his father. Mastroianni perfectly exudes a lonely yearning in that scene. 

Another central figure in the story is Steiner, who in many ways represents what Marcello would like to be. Steiner is a serious writer, a family man, and fancies himself an intellectual. But he is not as happy as it would appear, which is made tragically clear later in the film. The character of Steiner, and indeed all of the supporting characters, are wonderfully sketched by Fellini, the screenwriters, and a gifted cast. 

Another one of the the film's assets is its gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. Many of the images in the film are extremely memorable.  The fountain scene is the most obvious example, but there are others. A Christ statue being towed over Rome by a helicopter. The deserted streets of Rome at night. Marcello's father, blankly staring out of an apartment window. And the perfect final few shots of the film, which I will not reveal here.  

La Dolce Vita is also fascinating for its depiction of the paparazzi. In fact, the word "paparazzi" comes from the film's character of Paparazzo, who is one of the many photojournalists who swarm around the lives of the main characters. The paparazzi are ever-present in the movie, and they have no sense of decency. When Marcello gets into a fight with Sylvia's boyfriend, they do not rush to help their friend but rather rotate around the fight to get the best shot. When a woman is informed of a family tragedy, dozens of them crowd around her to capture her reaction. The film is almost scarily accurate in this depiction, especially since it holds true today. 

La Dolce Vita is a long and at times frustrating film - its unconventional structure may try the patience of some viewers. But that is really the only criticism I can give it. The film is positively overflowing with ideas, and its influence on cinema is remarkable. Yet aside from any historical importance, La Dolce Vita is a wonderful film in its own right. The story is heartbreaking, the cast impeccable, and the cinematography beautiful. For adventurous filmgoers, La Dolce Vita will provide food for thought for years to come. 

Verdict: A

Friday, November 14, 2008

12 Angry Men (1957)

With the exception of two brief scenes that bookend the film, Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men takes place entirely in a jury room on a sweltering summer day. In other films, such a confined setting might become tedious, or even seem more like a play than a movie. But this is not the case with 12 Angry Men. The film is so finely crafted by the director, and the cast so impeccable that it transcends its humble setting to become a memorable and lasting entertainment. 

The film begins with a quick courtroom scene, in which a bored judge addresses the jury of a murder trial before dismissing them. The case in question involves the murder of a father by his son, a juvenile delinquent who was allegedly seen and heard committing the crime. The vote must be unanimous to pass a decision either way, but it seems obvious that the defendant is guilty. But during the preliminary vote, there is one holdout - Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda), who votes not guilty and expresses a desire to talk about the case. What follows takes place entirely within the confines of the jury room,  as Fonda presents his argument for reasonable doubt. As the debate progresses, things get heated, and the jurors' prejudices and ulterior motives are revealed.

12 Angry Men marked the directorial debut of Sidney Lumet, who went on to direct such films as Murder on the Orient Express, Network, and Dog Day Afternoon. But even from this first feature, his skill is unquestionable. It is said that as the film progresses, Lumet used different lenses and shifting camera angles to contribute to an increasing feeling of claustrophobia. This technique is fascinating,  but perhaps the most important thing about it is that the viewer hardly notices. Certainly, the tension of the film seems to increase as it goes on, but Lumet never lets any of his techniques upstage the actors. 

And what a cast he assembled! The ensemble here is truly perfect. The standout, at least for me, is Lee J. Cobb as Juror No. 3, an extremely embittered and angry man who has had something of a family tragedy. But every actor delivers solid work. E.G. Marshall as a man of pure reason and Ed Begley as an outspoken racist are just a few examples. Each of these actors gives a distinct personality to their nameless characters, and the way that those personalities collide with the other jurors is consistently fascinating to watch. Ironically enough, Fonda's Juror No. 8, the protagonist of the film, is one of the few jurors who really seems like a stock character. He is honorable and dignified but rather uninteresting, mainly serving to set the story in motion. Still, this is hardly bothersome, and one can hardly blame the screenwriter for not providing a backstory for every single character. 

12 Angry Men is the promising debut of a young director, who is now fully recognized as one of the great American filmmakers. That alone is reason enough to see it. But above all, 12 Angry Men is simply a terrific story brought to life by a brilliant cast. A true classic.

Verdict: A 

Monday, November 10, 2008

Persepolis (2007)

Persepolis is nothing if not ambitious. It almost defies labeling, because it is such a unique creature. It walks a thin line between comedy and drama. It is an animated film and contains flights of fantasy, but its characters and story are rooted firmly in reality. It is in some ways "artsy", with its stylistic animation and its mature storyline, but it always feels accessible. What is perhaps most surprising about the film, then, is that all of these elements come together and the film works beautifully. 

Persepolis, based on a series of graphic novels, is a semi-autobiographical story about Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian woman who grows up during the late 70s and early 80s, a very turbulent time for Iran. She is witness to the revolt against the Shah regime, wars with Iraq, and other conflicts. At home and abroad, Marjane struggles with her Iranian identity, depression, an increasingly restrictive society, and of course love over the course of the film.

The animation of Persepolis is quite striking. The vast majority of the film is composed of hand-drawn* black and white animation. Although studios like Pixar deliver some fine computer-generated animation, it is refreshing to see a more traditional approach inPersepolis. The animation is particularly inspired during the historical interludes, in which rulers are portrayed as puppets being manipulated on a stage. But other images remained in my head. Long lines of soldiers shoot at each other across a ditch and then fall in, as the bodies pile up. Marjane and her boyfriend fly through the city in their car. Waves in the ocean are seen as massive swirls that gently bob up and down. 

But perhaps the most compelling reason to watch Persepolis is simply its story. The film's characters are fully rounded, and the humanity of the story is compelling. Marjane's tale is essentially a coming-of-age story, but it never dissolves into cliché. Marjane's relationship with her grandmother, her disenchantment with the superficiality of European society, and her struggles with love all feel like the genuine conflicts of a real person. I fear, though, that I am making Persepolis sound too serious. The truth is that Persepolis finds great humor in Marjane's story. In one of my favorite scenes, an adolescent Marjane walks down a street in Iran past a line of shady looking men with trenchcoats, whom look like they could be drug dealers. But no, they are merely selling lipstick, nail polish, and Stevie Wonder CDs. In another scene, Marjane struts down the street, singing "Eye of the Tiger." 

Persepolis succeeds not only as an animated movie but as a great film in itself. The film combines a compelling storyline with a striking visual style and is truly a must-see.

Verdict: A

*Note: I said the animation was hand-drawn, but it was most likely created and edited on a computer. Still, it looks hand-drawn, and the point still stands that it looks very different than anything the American animation studios are producing.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Birds (1963)

Alfred Hitchcock promoted his film The Birds by saying "It could be the most terrifying motion picture I have ever made!" Interesting, then, to note that the movie takes about 45 minutes before anything remotely terrifying happens.

The Birds begins with young socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) meeting lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) at a bird store. She is charmed and after he leaves, she purchases a pair of lovebirds that he was interested in for his younger sister. Daniels tracks down Brenner at his Bodega Bay home, and delivers the birds. She is soon persuaded to stay for the weekend, staying with schoolteacher (and Brenner's ex-flame) Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette). Soon after her arrival, huge groups of birds begin to inexplicably attack the residents of Bodega Bay.

Hitchcock certainly takes his time in setting up the characters and plot. Maybe a little too much time. The actors all do a fine job, but much of the setup seems tedious. The beginning scenes where Daniels tracks down Brenner, drives down to Bodega Bay, finds out the name of his sister, etc. is a prime example. There is nothing wrong with character development, but I think that the first hour or so of The Birds could have been tightened up considerably. To be sure, Hitchcock rarely rushes into the action at the beginning of a movie. But in films like Psycho, Hitchcock uses the extra time to build up the suspense and mood of the film. A lot of the setup in The Birds just feels unnecessary.

Hitchcock is at his best when the birds finally attack. It starts off innocently enough, with one gull swooping down at Melanie on a boat. Then a flock attacks several children during Cathy Brenner's birthday party. Each attack gets progressively bigger and more threatening. Interestingly, Hitchcock almost never uses music, at least not noticeably like he did in Psycho. I suppose he didn't really need it; there is something rather unsettling about the birds' attacks as they are. But even more unsettling are the shots where the birds are just sitting there calmly, staring. One of the most suspenseful Hitchcock sequences I've seen comes at the end of the film, when Brenner goes outside at dawn and sees hundreds of birds perched all around his house. He quietly walks over to the garage, slowly backs out with the car, and opens the front door to bring his family and Melanie to the car. The suspense, obviously, comes from the fact that the birds could attack at any minute. But they don't, they just stare, and the result is a very creepy scene.

The Birds does have some other flaws besides the tedious set-up. There is a scene in a diner that is altogether too convenient. Melanie is calling home trying to explain to her father about the bird attacks, when she just happens to run into a bird expert who lectures her about the difference between crows and blackbirds and why different kinds of birds would never fly together. The whole scene comes off as phony and unnatural, as well as overlong. It also seemed that Hitchcock really didn't know how to end the movie. The ending is abrupt and there is no resolution for the characters he has so labored to develop.

The Birds certainly is an imperfect movie, with its tedious setup and abrupt ending. But Hitchcock succeeds hugely with the actual bird attacks, which, let's face it, is the main reason to watch The Birds. Hitchcock also wisely never gives an explanation for why the birds attacked. My 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book suggests that Hitchcock might have intended it to be a "misogynistic sexual allegory," but I don't buy it. No, I think he was just trying to scare us out of our wits. Mission accomplished, Hitch.

Verdict: B