The Game (12/15/12)

The GameMovie Two Hundred Eighty One

A wealthy, emotionally distant investment banker receives a strange gift from his brother for his 48th birthday – a life-changing invitation to The Game.

Haunted by flashbacks from his father’s 48th birthday, which ended in the man committing suicide by jumping off the roof, Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), a hugely wealthy investment banker, is nearing his own 48th birthday. Estranged from his ex-wife, Nicholas is emotionally cold to everyone around him, seeming to only care about the bottom line on his investments. One day, his carefree younger brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), visits Nicholas and gives him a certificate to a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS) to participate in “the game”, saying it will change his life. Doubtful, but curious, Nicholas goes to CRS and gets rejected from participating, but the game has really already begun, leaving Nicholas guessing what the game is really about.

Simply put, David Fincher is one of my favorite directors but for some reason The Game has eluded me. Now I’m not sure why I never sought out The Game, I’ve seen all of Fincher’s other work, but I’m so glad The Game has entered my life. I don’t tend to watch thrillers often because it’s like eating a rich dessert and I never want to grow tired of the good films. When a thriller is made well, it’s hard to top and The Game literally kept me guessing until the very end. The mystery and tension surrounding “the game” is so thick it practically oozes from the screen.

I have a feeling that there will be strong feelings about The Game’s ending and whether it’s satisfactory. At the time I watched the film, I was a bit deflated by it because I kept thinking “how is this going to end?!” but after having some time to think about the movie as a whole, I think the ending is pretty great, if not a bit too abrupt. This may be a case where the journey is the important thing, not the destination, but I liked the whole of The Game.

Criterion’s treatment of The Game is nothing short of stunning. Fincher had his hands in the production of this release and it shows. The film is dark and crisp and the soundtrack is amazing. Supplemental features are great too, with some excellent behind-the-scenes footage. This is definitely the version of The Game to see, especially when compared to the much lesser Netflix Instant source.

Fincher is known for his dark, moody, psychological movies ever since bringing us Seven and The Game, his follow-up to Seven, shows us what a talented director he is. The Game is the type of film that is so exhilarating to watch that you simply can’t take your eyes off the screen, trying to figure out what the game really is. I’m sure that finding out all the secrets the film holds is impossible on a first watch. While The Game may not be Fincher’s strongest film, it’s one of the better psychological thrillers I’ve ever seen.

I give it 5 Consumer Recreation Services out of 5.

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The Royal Tenenbaums (11/15/12)

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The Royal Tenenbaums is the story of a family brought back together by their ailing, estranged patriarch.

The young Tenenbaum children are all prodigies; Chas is business savvy, Margot, who was adopted, wrote a successful play, and Richie is a tennis star. Their parents, Royal (Gene Hackman) and Etheline (Anjelica Huston), are getting a divorce. Twenty two years later, Royal is getting evicted from his hotel room where he has been staying. After hearing that his wife’s accountant, Harry (Danny Glover) is trying to marry Etheline, Royal devises a plan and says he is dying of cancer and wants to stay in their house and reunite the family. As adults, the children are all in post-success slumps. Chas (Ben Stiller), is still in business but has become obsessively protective over his sons after their mother’s death. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), is married to a neurologist named Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) but hides her life from him. Richie (Luke Wilson) had a breakdown as a tennis star.

When a film has a huge ensemble cast, it is easy for the plot to get lost in the mix but Wes Anderson not only keeps the characters unique and interesting in The Royal Tenenbaums, but the plot is one of his best too. Each character has their own cross to bear and when they are under the same roof again, their stories are interesting on their own, but together they become something special. Admittedly, there is a lot to take in and some of the quirk that is special to Anderson’s films may put some people off but I would argue that The Royal Tenenbaums is possibly Anderson’s most accessible film.

I watched The Royal Tenenbaums again after watching Moonrise Kingdom for a second time and when viewed back-to-back, the films are actually very different in some respects, though both very Anderson-y. Where Moonrise Kingdom cranks the ’60s nostalgia and colors all the way up, The Royal Tenenbaums is brightly colored but also kind of washed out. The Royal Tenenbaums feels more realistic but also has many of the same fantastical things that Anderson is known for. The Royal Tenenbaums is clearly intended for adults but Moonrise Kingdom would likely be enjoyable for young teens and adults for different reasons.

It’s difficult to speak of Wes Anderson’s films since he has crafted such a unique “formula” for his work. While, at times, this style can be a bit too much or get in the way of the storytelling, but The Royal Tenenbaums is more of a character story with great, innovative set pieces and shots. That’s not to say that The Royal Tenenbaums is a serious film, it’s actually quite funny, but the camp aspect is scaled back a bit.

The Royal Tenenbaums was recently released on blu-ray by the Criterion Collection and is an improved package over the DVD edition they also put out. The special features remain the same, but they are spectacular for fans of Anderson’s work. The commentary and behind the scenes footage are worth it alone, but the set offers much more. The picture and sound are both spectacular, as expected.

The Royal Tenenbaums was my favorite Wes Anderson film before Moonrise Kingdom came out. I had a guy stop me in Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago asking my opinion of the movies he was holding. He had Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums in his hand and said he had never seen a Wes Anderson movie before. I gave my brief impressions of each and asked which sounded the best to him, he picked Rushmore and I went along with it but urged him to check out Moonrise Kingdom if he liked it. If I had seen the blu-ray presentation of The Royal Tenenbaums before that conversation, however, I would likely have steered him differently.

I give it 4 Mordecais out of 5.

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Rashomon (11/7/12)

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In Rashomon, after the murder of a traveling samurai and the rape of his female companion, multiple versions of the story are told to find the truth.

A woodcutter and a priest are sitting under the gate at Rashomon during a storm and after are joined by a commoner, they tell him of the story of a murdered samurai and rape of his wife the woodcutter found three days prior. The story is told through flashbacks as testimonies in court from the point of view of the confessed murderer and rapist bandit, Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), the wife, the murdered samurai through a spirit medium, and the woodcutter. Each version of the story has slightly differing details offering insight to what really happened to the samurai and his wife.

Rashomon is the film that introduced the west to the great Akira Kurosawa and Japanese filmmaking in general. The style of storytelling used in Rashomon has been emulated many times since its release in 1950 but the original still has not been diminished with age. Though the multiple sides of the same story are a bit confusing since you are never quite sure what is really happening, the mystery of the actual events keep you guessing and involved in the film until the very end.

While the woodcutter seemingly has the least reason to alter the truth about the events, it’s still debatable if his retelling of the story is the “right” one. There’s a saying that I feel is used a lot in cop dramas (or maybe just on the TV show “Cops”) that there’s always three sides to every story; the victim’s, the accuser’s, and the truth. In Rashomon, we get extra sets of eyes and still are never sure if we are seeing the truth but the truth may not be what we are really seeking to find out, either.

The Criterion Collection recently released a new version of Rashomon aside from the amazingly beautiful new cover art (pictured), the set has some great special features included. Aside from the spectacular picture and soundtrack, my favorite feature is the included interview with famed director Robert Altman about the film.

It could be easily argued that Rashomon is Kurosawa’s masterpiece, but with a catalog as wide and diverse as his, choosing just one film is daunting. Rashomon is certainly one of Kurosawa’s finest films, though, and is still riveting today.

I give it 5 bandit testimonies out of 5.

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Rosemary’s Baby (11/2/12)

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When a young couple moves into a new apartment and gets pregnant, weird happenings cause the expecting mother to worry that something sinister is afoot in Rosemary’s Baby.

Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) move into a large, gothic apartment after the previous owner passed away. They meet their neighbors, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castavet (Sidney Blackmer), and the young woman staying with them named Terry (Victoria Vetri). After Terry is killed after jumping out a window and Guy and Rosemary decide to spend more time with their elderly neighbors. Guy immediately forms a strong bond with the couple despite Rosemary’s reluctance and when Rosemary becomes pregnant under strange circumstances, the Castavets take a strong role in the Woodhouses lives until eventually Rosemary suspects that there is much more going on to their story and suspects them of witchcraft.

Roman Polanski’s Hollywood debut, Rosemary’s Baby, is one of the most chilling stories put to film. There is a sense of dread from the very beginning, even if you know nothing of the story that *something* is going to happen. As small hints are dropped or strange things are happening, you start to wonder what exactly is going on and what is really happening with the Woodhouses and Castavets. When witchcraft and Satanism start coming up you almost don’t want to believe that it’s really happening; maybe Rosemary is just being delusional but you know that probably isn’t true.

The really haunting thing about Rosemary’s Baby, however, is that while everything happening seems a bit weird, it isn’t so weird that it would raise any red flags  in most of our lives, and that is what makes the tale so chilling. We can’t all go around assuming the worst of people or that their motives are probably evil. If we move into an apartment next door to an elderly couple we wouldn’t want to offend them. The progression of the plot is not at all far-fetched and even when Rosemary suspects witchcraft she is scoffed at. Even at its weirdest, Rosemary’s Baby is fairly grounded in realism which makes it all the more frightening.

I’ve long held an opinionated distinction between horror movies and terror movies, sometimes classified as psychological horror movies. Nowadays, horror films are filled with blood, guts, and gore – which is fine. I find movies like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, or The Shining to be more terror movies,where the reliance to chill is on mood rather than violence. The experience for watching these films is disquieting and difficult to shake even after the film is over. Rosemary’s Baby may not appeal to modern horror fans in the same way that it does to me, but I would rank it quite highly.

Criterion Collection recently released a new restored version of Rosemary’s Baby that gives Polanski’s film a fantastic presentation. The visuals and sound have likely never looked better, or at least not since it debuted on the big screen. The special features, which I didn’t fully dive into, include an interview with Polanski, Farrow, and producer Robert Evans on the film. As far as Criterions go, this is a brilliant set for a fantastic film.

Rosemary’s Baby doesn’t get the attention I feel it deserves, even when discussing classic horror films. There are few films that give the same sense of dread so well. Though I just missed watching it in time for Halloween, be sure that Rosemary’s Baby will make a solid place in my annual film rotation come Halloween season.

I give it 5 tannis root necklaces out of 5.

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Ikiru (10/13/12)

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A bureaucrat finds out he has terminal cancer and reevaluates his life, looking for meaning before dying in Ikiru.

After working as bureaucrat for over 30 years, Kenji Watanbe (Takashi Shimura) finds out he has inoperable stomach cancer and less than a year to live. He tries various ways of “living” like partying at night clubs, but gets no satisfaction from it. Finally, he is inspired by a young woman and decides to help people. He helps turn an small pool that residents have been complaining about into a nice playground. After Watanabe’s death, the film continues at his wake with his colleagues deciding to follow Watanabe’s lead and change their own lives, but have difficulty doing so.

When people think of Akira Kurosawa’s films, they likely think of samurai films starring Toshiro Mifune. Ikiru is a drastic departure from that, but still a wonderful little film. I was concerned that Ikiru (which means “To Live”) would be kind of a downer, but it was more comparable to It’s a Wonderful Life than anything droll and too serious. There’s a nice mix of comedy to lighten the mood and the takeaway of the film is entirely positive. The ending of the film was not sad, per se, I found it uplifting.

The film presentation of Ikiru is actually not that great for a Criterion Collection release, which is kind of surprising. There are lots of scratches and noise throughout most of the scenes and the soundtrack had a soft buzzing constantly. I’m assuming these are inherited from the best master available, which is a shame. It would be fantastic to have pristine master that a film that is so beautiful would look beautiful to match. I’m not deriding the Criterion release, Ikiru probably hasn’t looked better, but it’s still a bit disappointing.

I struggle having more to say about Ikiru without going in depth about the meaning of life and how one best lives. The film is about life but it’s also about doing what makes you happy and if helping others in that process works for you, all the better. Ikiru is a touching story and it’s the type of film that seems straightforward but each viewer may have slightly different reactions to the story. For that, I recommend Ikiru, especially for people that think Kurosawa only made samurai films.

I give it 4 Gondola No Utas out of 5.

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Umberto D. (10/10/12)

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Umberto D. is a film about an aging man trying to make ends meet to stay in his rented room.

Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) is a retired government worker reliant on his pension to make ends meet. He lives in a rented room with his dog, Flike, his only companion. The maid, Maria (Maria Pia Casilio), of building he lives in has a fondness for Umberto, but his landlady, Antonia (Lina Gennari) wants him out of the room so she can rent it by the hour to amorous couples. Antonia gives Umberto one last chance to stay, but requires all the back rent at once. Umberto has to sell all of his possessions and ultimately falls ill. Unable to bring himself to panhandling, Umberto seeks an alternative to his suffering.

Umberto D. is a film I have heard much about but never seen until now and while the plot is simple, it’s a touching look at a man’s life. At first, Umberto seems a bit of a scoundrel, trying to sell a watch of his to men he seems to know on the street or in a soup kitchen. At first, we don’t understand his reasons for needing to sell the watch and the change in heart we have for Umberto is even more drastic once we realize the truth. Umberto is not a bad guy, in fact, he seems like a genuinely good person that is just trying to get by. His landlady on the other hand, seems quite vile.

One thing I may have mentioned before is that movies with animals always get to me, and I was so concerned that something would happen to Flike while watching Umberto D. that the film had a tone of dread surrounding that poor little dog. I won’t spoil anything about Flike, but I will say that Flike is a truly effective character in the film. Also, since this was a Criterion Collection blu-ray, I will say that the presentation is the kind of perfection expected from Criterion but Umberto D. is a bit light on extra material this time around.

Shot with non-actors, Umberto D. isn’t an emotional punch in the gut nor is it manipulative. The camera lends a sympathetic view of poor Umberto trying to make his way in life, but the tone of the film is fairly neutral for most of the duration. Maybe its the indifference in the presentation that makes Umberto D. such a striking film or perhaps its simply one of the best character-driven films around.

I give it 4 begging Flikes out of 5.

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Vivre Sa Vie (10/6/12)

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Vivre Sa Vie is the tragic tale of a young woman whose aspirations to become an actress turn her to a life of prostitution.

Nana (Anna Karina) is a stunning Parisian in her early twenties. She decides that she is going to leave her husband to become a famous actress. We follow Nana through twelve chapters of her life as her dreams of acting slowly shift into making money as a prostitute.

Vivre Sa Vie (which translates to “My Life to Live”) is one of only two Jean-Luc Godard films I believe I’ve seen, the first being Breathless. As a fan of French New Wave, Breathless was pretty much required viewing, but I was not very taken with it as a film outside of its obvious importance in cinematic history. Vivre Sa Vie struck an entirely different chord with me and has made me want to delve further into Godard’s library.

The use of twelve chapters in Vivre Sa Vie have a distinct feeling and make it easy to experience Nana’s descent with small sections of her life on display. Some of the chapters are simple, like the fourth, which is basically just Nana in a police station explaining an incident with a woman who accused Nana of stealing money from her. Each successive division of the film shows Nana sliding further into the life as a prostitute and we hope dearly for her to make it out of this life. The chapters almost make Vivre Sa Vie feel like a novel in that we are somewhat removed from the action as its happening but we also are fully involved in Nana’s life. She is not a heroine, but she is a tragic figure.

While Vivre Sa Vie is probably not the first film I would point to for seekers of French New Wave cinema, I found it immensely powerful and enjoyable to watch. Godard has redeemed himself in my limited view of his talents and I look forward to seeing more of his work now. Vivre Sa Vie is a film that tells a sad tale in a heart-wrenching way and it’s a film I would easily recommend for people wanting to expand their viewing into French cinema.

I give it 5 fans of Mia Wallace from Pulp Fiction take note out of 5.

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The Third Man (9/11/12)

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In The Third Man, a pulp novelist travels to Vienna to visit an old friend but winds up investigating his mysterious death.

Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American pulp fiction writer, travels to Vienna, Austria to visit his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) who has offered Martins a job. Upon arrival, Martins finds out that Lime was killed by a car while crossing the street. Martins attends Lime’s funeral and meets some policemen and a man named Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) who says that he and another man carried Lime across the street after the accident.Lime’s apparent dying wish was for them to take care of Martins and Lime’s girlfriend, Anna (Alida Valli). After visiting Anna, Martins begins to suspect something is amiss with Lime’s death as the doorman tells him that Lime died instantly and that three men carried the body, not two. Martins then digs deeper into Lime’s supposed death to find the truth about Lime and the identity of the third man.

I have never quite seen a film quite like The Third Man before or since watching it. The film follows many great pulp/noir films but what really sets The Third Man apart is the score. Composed by Anton Karas, the entire score is made by a zither, which almost adds a comical whimsy to the serious nature of the film. If you’ve seen an episode of the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants, the soundtrack is almost reminiscent of that. The first time I watched The Third Man I was highly distracted by the soundtrack while watching but after the film had ended and I was still putting all the pieces together, I really appreciated the story. The second time through the music wasn’t distracting, but it still made me smile which seems almost morbid.

The plot of The Third Man was a bit confusing to me since it deals with crossing paths and deception, but that also plays into the film’s strengths. We don’t know Lime’s secrets and as we learn them it almost makes it unsure what is real and what is fabricated by Lime. Welles is perfect for the role, though he has minimal screentime for the high billing he receives. All the other actors shine just as bright, but Welles just has such charisma.

While I have the Criterion version of The Third Man pictured, it has lamentably been discontinued and publishing duties have been given to Studio Canal. The reason I point this out is because even on blu-ray, Studio Canal’s treatment of The Third Man is not great on a whole. The soundtrack is uneven, there were times when it was like the zither was on full-blast, but for the most part it was OK. I wish I had the gumption to get the Criterion, but I don’t feel like spending over $100 on one. I wouldn’t dissuade buying Studio Canal’s treatment, but I wouldn’t fully recommend it either.

The Third Man is a film that doesn’t fall neatly into just one bucket. It is mostly a pulp/noir mystery, but the score lightens the tone of the film and gives it a life all its own. With a different score, The Third Man wouldn’t be the same movie, I’m not sure for better or worse. If you haven’t seen The Third Man by now, I strongly recommend it. In fact, I recommend watching it a few times if you find the soundtrack too jarring at first.

I give it 5 Third Man themes out of 5.

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Down By Law (9/2/12)

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In Down By Law, three men are arrested and convicted of separate crimes and decide to escape from prison.

One summer in New Orleans, Zack (Tom Waits), Jack (John Lurie), and Roberto (Roberto Benigni) are arrested for three separate crimes. Zack, an out of work radio DJ, is given money to drive a car across town. The car ends up not only be stolen but with a body in the trunk. Jack, a pimp, is caught entering a hotel room based on a tip from a “friend” where an underage girl (and the cops) were waiting. The two men become cell mates and eventually meet their third cellmate, Roberto, a zany immigrant that apparently killed a man. Soon, Roberto tells Jack and Zack that he knows a way to escape from prison and the men break out.

Jim Jarmusch films have a history of being hit or miss with me. There have been some films that I can appreciate but never really end up liking, and others, like Down By Law, that I’m smitten with almost instantly. Down By Law is a film with very little plot, but with great characters and dialogue. The relationships between the three men are all unique but we know what they are thinking even if they are not speaking. Roberto is the wild card of the bunch, adding a mostly comedic twist to an otherwise fairly serious movie. Waits and Lurie both play the role of guys that are too cool to act like they care about anyone else, but actually end up depending on each other.

Shot entirely in black and white on a fairly miniscule budget, Down By Law is an indie film lover’s dream. Toss in Lurie and Waits and I would watch it even if it wasn’t a very good movie. I had procrastinated watching Down By Law because I wasn’t entirely sold on Jarmusch as a writer/director but now I need to rectify my indifference and get caught up on the man’s filmography. Writing about Down By Law doesn’t seem to do it any justice; and nothing I had read about it made it seem all that special. Upon viewing, however, I was instantly absorbed in the story and characters.  The black and white makes New Orleans seem dirty, prison seem dire, and even the swamp seem claustrophobic.

The Criterion Collection treatment of Down By Law is superb. The picture is so clear that the film looks like it was shot using the highest tech possible, though it likely was not. The film not only looks and sounds amazing but the special features were specially designed for the release. Fans of Jarmusch or Down By Law will not regret picking this one up.

I give it 5 Tom Waits makes the best DJ out of 5.

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Wages of Fear (8/6/12)

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A group of men are hired by an oil company to transport truckloads of nitroglycerin across rough terrain in The Wages of Fear.

In Las Piedras, a sleepy town in South America, work is hard to come by outside of the Southern Oil Company (SOC), which looms eerily in the background of the desolate town. After Mr. Jo (Charles Vanel) rolls into town, acting like a bigshot, Mario (Yves Montand) develops a close bond with his fellow Frenchman. Mr. Jo rubs the rest of the inhabitants the wrong way with his arrogance and attitude, including Mario’s former roommate, Luigi (Folco Lucci), and Bimba (Peter van Eyck). After an explosion at an SOC site several hundred miles away, the company decides to send trucks loaded with nitroglycerin to extinguish the fire. It’s too dangerous for unionized workers, so they gather up the best men from Las Piedras to make the harrowing journey for $2,000 apiece.

To call The Wages of Fear anything less than exhilarating and tense would be an understatement. From the moment Mr. Jo arrives, the tension begins to build. First, between the folks in town and then they set off for a journey none of the men expect to come back from. Be prepared because once those trucks full of the highly combustible material leave the SOC, the tension will likely make you sweat.

I had long heard of The Wages of Fear but had doubted the impact that it would have on me. A group of men driving trucks slowly across the South American landscape didn’t seem all that interesting or tense to me but the way that Clouzot sets up the story and characters is truly amazing. There are no “good guys” here, the men chosen have some likable traits but are, for the most part, jerks. They have become stuck in Las Piedras despite their differing nationalities and the money would go a long way for them.

The Wages of Fear also has an interesting censorship history outside of France. In several countries (the US included), the film was mauled by censors who deemed much of the film to be anti-American and even parts of the film were admonished for glorifying homosexuality. It should be noted that I picked up on neither of those themes throughout the film. The Criterion release of The Wages of Fear has some extras that detail the cuts made and the history behind this. They offer the film uncut as it was meant to be seen, and the release is amazing, as expected.

Few films have kept me on the edge of my seat the way that The Wages of Fear has, and it manages to keep the viewer firmly gripped by suspense for the entire second half of the film. This is a film I wish I had watched much sooner so I could keep revisiting it. Luckily, I will be reviewing The Wages of Fear‘s remake, Sorcerer, shortly.

I give it 5 loaded trucks on a rotting wooden platform out of 5.

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