Oblomov_81

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Reviews

The Serpent's Egg
(1977)

An unfortunate blemish on several notable filmographies
When asked by an interviewer about his notorious 1969 flop `A Place for Lovers,' Italian director Vittorio de Sica, who had previously made some of the most influential films in the history of cinema, simply replied `I'm an artist. Artists make mistakes.' It was an honest, straightforward statement that acknowledged the necessity of failure in the business of moviemaking. Filmmakers have their boundaries, and when those lines are crossed it is only appropriate that they are shocked and prodded back into their proper place.

Like de Sica, Ingmar Bergman has made many stunning films that skillfully explore the facets of the human soul. `The Serpent's Egg' is not one of them. This is a clumsy, heavy-handed mess that fails to find anything interesting in its subject. I'm sure this story has something interesting to say about the suffering caused by war, poverty, and bigotry, but Bergman doesn't seem to know how to translate his own script's ambitions to the screen.

Certainly, there are elements present that always make for an interesting Bergman film: family tragedy, frustrated love, a protagonist fearing for his own sanity, and a hint of the supernatural. But these elements do not flow together as they did in Bergman's previous films; on the whole, it comes off feeling static, lacking the urgency so desperately needed. Character motivations are frequently illogical, and the more interesting figures (such as a priest played by James Whitmore) are given too little screen time while the more frustrating characters are given too much. The film is also weighed down by banal dialogue that spells out the emotions of the characters in an insulting and sometimes laughable way. The performances don't help either; to call them `overwrought' is a dire understatement. David Carradine spends much of his time posturing and pouting, Liv Ullmann shrieks her lines enough to set your teeth on edge, and Heinz Bennett scowls and sneers his way through his final confrontation with Carradine just to make sure there are no doubts that his character is the villain.

The only really effective element to `The Serpent's Egg' is the atmosphere, thanks largely to photographer Sven Nykvist, who gives the smoke-filled cabaret halls a lurid, grimy feel. The recreation of 1923 Berlin is convincing, effectively portraying a society that justifies evil by using it to pull itself out of poverty. But the visuals are a thin shell that cannot hide the emptiness of the drama. Perhaps Bergman's vision was at odds with the demands of producer Dino de Laurentiis, who, at the time, was better known for action fluff such as `Mandingo,' `Death Wish,' and the 1976 remake of `King Kong.' Or perhaps Bergman, who made his most personal films in and around his Swedish homeland, did not know how to transplant his ideas into so foreign a setting. In any case, Bergman, like de Sica, later acknowledged his `mistake' in his autobiography `Images,' where he rightly described the film as one of the most disappointing experiences of his career. `The Serpent's Egg' is only of interest if you want to see what results when a talented artist pushes his art in the wrong direction.

Quartet
(1981)

A serious disappointment
It's hard to say exactly why "Quartet" fails. There are certainly some good things to be said; Maggie Smith gives her character just the right mix of not-too-subtle cynicism and self-loathing, and the photography by Pierre Lhomme does a fine job of complementing the surroundings. But there is something missing. The Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala trio have always invested their stories with a strong compassion for their characters, lending a quiet urgency to the tone. Yet there is little of that feeling here.

The desperation of Isabelle Adjani's Marya simply does not ring clear, perhaps because her emotions are kept at a distance from the viewer when they should be brought to the forefront of the story. Marya views Heidler (Alan Bates) as a dominating force, but her fears and his intimidation never develop into anything effective. Bates is an actor who can always be depended on to provide a good performance, but his character is not given enough weight to dominate the screen when he should. In films such as `Howards End' and `The Remains of the Day,' the emotional conflicts between the characters drive the story and keep the (attentive) viewer involved; here, the conflicts do not spurn enough interest because the motivations of those involved are not very clear. The overall effect of "Quartet" is very cold and somber, with few, if any, memorable results.

The Talk of the Town
(1942)

An uneven story salvaged by three resourceful actors
Social commentary either elevates the value of a film or bogs it down, and with comedies it is generally the latter. "The Talk of the Town" is no exception; while it is a fun film that has much to admire, the pretensions of the film-makers often get in the way of what could have been a masterpiece of comic suspense. The tone becomes almost unbearably preachy at times, and some of the monologues on `justice' and the `pursuit of truth' are excruciating on the ears. Thankfully, the good people at Columbia hired just the right people to star.

The specific political stances of Leopold Dilg are never made clear; we're just supposed to accept the idea that he's a good guy who is put down by a corrupt system. Fortunately, Cary Grant uses his remarkable charm and talent to turn in a performance that allows us to sympathize with a character whose background is far too vague. Likewise, Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman are able to invest interest in characters that might otherwise have come off two-dimensionally. The charisma of the three leads fuels a love triangle that does a far better job of moving the story forward than any "serious message" that the film-makers were trying to impart to the audience. Grant, Arthur, and Colman are rightfully remembered as three of cinema's finest actors, but they deserve special credit for adding some much-needed pizzazz to this movie.

All in all, "The Talk of the Town" is a rambling, misguided movie saved by smart casting and disciplined acting, not to mention more than a few laughs. It is a classic example of skilled performers triumphing over flawed material.

Préparez vos mouchoirs
(1978)

A refreshing and surprisingly intelligent look at the perils of relationships
"Get Our Your Handkerchiefs" is a funny little film about the need for sexual gratification and all the insecurities and absurdities it entails. The humor is unapologetically raunchy, and yet the story retains all the sophistication of something by Lubitsch. But it's also quite touching; the dismal woman, it turns out, only wanted someone she could identify with, someone who felt the same need for intellectual companionship that was masked by her sexual dissatisfaction. The solution is provided by a 13-year-old wunderkind who, unlike the husband or his friend, knows how to relate to the woman, and their relationship is far more real and convincing that any other in the story. Bertrand Blier constructed a film that questions and ultimately debunks nearly every `rule' on relationships, and provides more than a few belly laughs along the way. In a nutshell, "Get Our Your Handkerchiefs" is one of the few sex comedies out there that actually has something to say about sex.

Wings
(1927)

An enjoyable footnote in cinema history
`Wings' arrived just as the silent era in Hollywood was coming to a close, and managed to sum up the pros and cons of the big budget `epics' that had become popular during that time. The story leaves much to be desired; it relies too much on coincidence, has an overly-simplistic `war is bad' message, and plays up its melodramatic aspects once too often. Nevertheless, it remains entertaining due to William Wellman's talent as a director and the genuinely exciting action scenes that interrupt the preachy tone with a much-needed jolt of energy.

This was the first movie to win the Best Picture Oscar, which is a perfectly appropriate place for it in history when you consider the kind of film that the Academy usually rewards with its top prize: something made on a big budget that can draw in a large audience and has just barely enough quality that critics can manage a thumbs up. It also had '20's superstar Clara Bow leading the cast, which gave it more than sufficient star power. Some of the people who worked on the film went on to do better things: director William Wellman improved during the sound era with "The Public Enemy," the original version of "A Star is Born," and the American classic "The Ox-Bow Incident," and up-and-coming actor Gary Cooper, in one of his first credited performances, would go on to win a pair of Oscars himself.

So is `Wings' an integral part of silent cinema? No; in fact, it even pales when placed next to silent epics like Gance's `Napoleon,' Griffith's `Intolerance,' or anything by Eisenstein. But perhaps that's setting the bar a little high; the silent era had its share of the good, the bad, and the downright ugly, just like movies today, and `Wings' remains likeable enough, perhaps because it is made with all the spirit of something by Gance, Griffith, or Eisenstein, albeit not with the same skill. It isn't great drama by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly isn't boring, either.

My Man Godfrey
(1936)

The butler did it!
"My Man Godfrey" successfully blends the two most prominent schools of film comedy from the 1930's: `sophistication' and `screwball.' It smears the conservative upper-crust milieu with the keen eye of `Dinner at Eight' and the pie-in-your-face irreverence of `You Can't Take It with You,' with as many witticisms as either and probably more sexual innuendos. Occasional predictability keeps it from being on par with "It Happened One Night" or "Trouble in Paradise," but it is still one of the most emblematic films of its era.

William Powell is pitch perfect as Godfrey Parke, the hobo-turned-butler, breezing effortlessly through every scene. Carole Lombard also turns in one of her most cherished performances as Irene Bullock, the spoiled socialite who pretends to enjoy her wealth but really just wants to be around someone human. As their relationship progresses, Godfrey's humility rubs off on Irene and ultimately frees her from her elite family, which offered her security but only made her unstable. `My Man Godfrey' has no mercy on the aristocracy of the ‘30's, skewing it as socially incompetent and morally bankrupt. `All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.' How terribly true.

L'assedio
(1998)

Lesser Bertolucci
"Besieged" plays out like a confused, misguided remake of Bernardo Bertolucci's much more assured "Last Tango in Paris." It is an ineffective combination of political and romantic drama, meandering back and forth between the two and never really concentrating on either. The film has an interesting setup, with the imprisonment of Shandurai's husband and the emotional instability of Kinsky, but the story gradually falls apart after that. There is no real emotional force driving the events in the film; the audience is kept at a distance by the cold, almost passionless tone, and there is never any satisfying realization of Shandurai's sadness or Kinsky's self-loathing.

Having said that, there's still a fine performance by Thandie Newton in the lead, and the always interesting David Thewlis does a fairly competent job as the eccentric pianist. But Bertolucci's inability to balance out the two halves of the story constituted by these performances impede the characters from reaching their full potential, and robs us of what could have been a fascinating drama.

Trollflöjten
(1975)

A theatrical experience made cinematic
Adapting theater to the screen is not easy. It is difficult enough to film a play; staying too close to the text can render the tone too "stagy," while "opening up" the story can cause it to lose its authentic feel. Filming opera is twice as problematic- there is so much that is rooted to the stage and simply cannot be pulled away. How is it possible to film something that has been performed in such a specific, disciplined way for hundreds of years and keep all the elements fully intact? The answer has been provided by Ingmar Bergman, a man known to most of the world for harrowing films which peer unsentimentally into the depths of the human soul. With "The Magic Flute," Bergman takes another great talent of his- theater direction- and combines it with his cinematic abilities to create an elaborate fantasy that even his detractors can enjoy.

Rather than just treating Mozart's opera as a story to be filmed, Bergman relies on familiar themes within the narrative to strike a balance between the stage and the screen while keeping the audience involved throughout. This is not to say that the story is simplified or made abundantly clear to any half-attentive viewer; the surprising accessibility of the film comes not from any reconstruction of the story but rather from an emphasis on elements that today's audience can easily recognize: sacrifices that are made for love, rebellion against the amoral nature of one's community, and magical occurrences that pop up just in time to save the hero, to name a few. Although the opera itself unfolds on a stage, with frequent reaction shots of the audience, Bergman's direction keeps us so deeply involved that tone is distinctly that of a film. Indeed, `The Magic Flute' proves to be a very cinematic opera, and there are moments when the imagery, theatrical as it is, becomes so overwhelming that Bergman has to cut to the audience to remind us that we are in a theater.

`The Magic Flute' is evidence that the `epic' existed long before movies, and that much of what we enjoy viewing today owes its style to stories that have been told through vastly different mediums for centuries on end.

Stalker
(1979)

Journey into Fear
The characters at the heart of Tarkovsky's "Stalker" are people who embark on an arduous journey only to discover that they had no idea what they wanted to gain from it. The central character is a "stalker," a man who makes a living by illegally escorting people through a restricted area to The Room, a place where their greatest wish will supposedly come true. Exactly why the area is restricted is never made perfectly clear; in the novel this film is partially based on, "The Roadside Picnic," it was a site where aliens briefly landed, and The Room was an object they left behind almost as if it were refuse. But Tarkovsky would rather not settle for such a flat explanation. To him, The Room is a place that means different things to the people who journey there, and the stark, ravished landscape they must journey through consists of the phobias and anxieties that they can hardly bear to face. The expedition the men experience is a long and often maddening one, and there are many scenes where the camera lingers on a beautifully composed shot so that the viewer can take time to understand how the characters fit into the settings and how those settings form both natural and supernatural obstacles.

Andrei Tarkovsky was an artist who did not like giving solid answers to the questions his films posed. He sculpted his stories so that viewers who had the patience and self-discipline to stay attentive all the way through could draw their own conclusions. If there is any specific meaning to "Stalker," it is that we have to fully understand anything for which we are willing to alter our lives.

Clockwatchers
(1997)

Suffering the day-to-day grind
"Clockwatchers" is a very funny little film that sheds light on the frustrations of spending eight hours a day in an entirely unexceptional environment where every action has been reduced to routine. The main characters are four women who entered the working world with hopes of making a life for themselves that would set them apart from the rest of the rat race, but had their dreams dashed when they realized that in today's crowded job market they had to take what they could get. They ended up with desk space in a sterile, faceless office where they depend on their sense of humor and respect for one another to get through the day.

This is a story that depends strongly on dialogue and character development to keep the viewer interested. It largely works, with a lot of amusing moments and sharp dialogue throughout, as well as keen observations about the humdrum existence too many of us lead. The always likeable Parker Posey has a terrific performance as the most rebellious and plainspoken of the group. There's also Bob Balaban playing his usual fussy nebbish character, this time as a meticulous number cruncher who can't let go of his pencils. In its second half, however, the story surrenders to the pessimism it tries to battle; the tone shifts from `Dilbert' to Kafka, and some of the characters suddenly become cold and unsympathetic. Nevertheless, it remains insightful and entertaining, something to which the average working stiff could relate.

Captain Blood
(1935)

Flynn and Curtiz at their best
"Captain Blood" represents the best qualities of Hollywood's 1930's swashbucklers. It was the first of twelve films that Errol Flynn made with Michael Curtiz and Warner Brothers, and maximized many of the now familiar staples of the genre: a totally likeable hero, beautiful locales, rousing fights, remarkably detailed sets, and lighthearted romance. But it also outdoes most of today's action flicks with its sharp, witty dialogue, and use of intrigue in the story that keeps the viewer interested in more than just the action.

The script by Casey Robinson (who did uncredited rewriting on Curtiz's "Casablanca") gives Flynn's character a sympathetic edge; he is not simply a muscular hero battling the bad guys, but also an intelligent and caring man who uses his wits to assist the less fortunate. Flynn is remembered today almost exclusively as an action star, but many of the scenes in "Captain Blood," particularly the ones developing his relationship with Olivia de Havilland's character, show that he had much more range. It's even more amazing to note that this was his first lead role, after only a few minor parts in earlier films; he shows remarkable confidence and ease in every scene.

Critics and audiences often overlook Curtiz when composing lists of the all-time great directors, perhaps because he was treated like a hired hand at Warners, basically doing whatever the studio assigned him. But after watching several of his films, it's easy to see that he had a very distinct visual style; he always stayed focused on the characters, even during the action scenes, never letting himself get distracted by the sumptuous settings that frequently appeared in his movies. He also kept his camera up close during the fights so that we see every swish of the sword. `Captain Blood' remains one of the brightest of Hollywood's many spectacles.

High Tide
(1987)

The powerful Judy Davis
There are very few performers today who can keep me captivated throughout an entire film just by their presence. One of those few is Judy Davis, who has built a successful career out of creating characters that are headstrong in attitude but very vulnerable at heart. She takes roles that most other performers would treat melodramatically and adds a fiery, deeply emotional intensity that pulls attention away from everything else on the screen.

Her skills are well displayed in "High Tide," a film that matches her up a second time with director Gillian Armstrong, who gave Davis her first major success with "My Brilliant Career." In that film, Davis played a young woman who was determined to make it in the world, despite the suffocation she felt from her community and upbringing. In "High Tide," however, Davis' character, Lillie, is roughly the opposite: she gave up on any hope for her future when she was young, and, after giving birth to a child, runs from her responsibilities and takes up a life without direction or meaning. When she finally meets up with her daughter years later, the thought of taking care of her child is petrifying; she knows this is her chance to atone for her failures, but how can she be honest with her daughter and still gain her respect?

Gillian Armstrong's films usually relate stories about characters who desperately want to communicate with each other, but face obstacles set up by their own personal habits and addictions. "Oscar and Lucinda," for instance, was about a man and a woman who desperately needed each other's love but were always blindsided by their craving for chance, represented by their gambling addictions. Here, we are immersed in the world of a family torn apart by the mother's inability to commit to a settled life and her struggles to redeem herself despite being fully convinced that it's too late to change for the better. This is not simply a film with a great performance at its center, but also a rare achievement: a fully convincing story of redemption.

J'ai pas sommeil
(1994)

Indifference Amid Chaos
Claire Denis' "I Can't Sleep" is a puzzling movie, one that is difficult to grasp because its simplicity makes it so daunting. The story is actually a study of an individual's ability to go about his or her everyday life while terror permeates the surroundings. The central character is Daiga, a Lithuanian woman who has moved to Paris and is looking for a job. As she moves about the city, she gradually begins to notice how the citizens are reacting to a string of murders that has been hyped up in the media; they do not express their fears outwardly, but instead seem a little detached and edgy. As she becomes settled, she begins to meet a few interesting people; they include a considerate landlady, a struggling musician, and two homosexuals who just happen to be the killers.

Denis takes a tricky approach to portraying the murderers. She does not condone their actions and clearly does not have too much sympathy for them, but still manages to depict them as ordinary human beings who are driven to desperate crimes because they fail to relate to anything in their environment. She does this by first showing the effect their actions have on the rest of the city, with the newspapers blaring sensational headlines and the citizens reacting by retreating into their homes. But, as the story unfolds, the killers are placed on the same plane as the rest of the characters, and we see their problems, insecurities, and apathy fit in with the day-to-day tedium of their lives. They do not have anyone else to care about, and spend their evenings wandering about the various below-level dives and nightclubs in Paris. It is not until later on that we learn these two men are actually the killers. And when we do discover this, it makes sense in a strange sort of way: their alienation from the rest of society has made them indifferent to everyone but each other. It's almost as if they killed not out of anger, hate, or insanity, but out of boredom.

Denis also makes it clear that such crimes have consequences not just for the victims, but for all of society. In the end, it is Daiga, the immigrant who has maintained indifference to the slayings throughout most of the film, who is forced to decide how to expose the criminals. Her `outsider' status gradually diminishes as she realizes that she is the only person who can change the course of events.

Still, the drama to the story is not as involving as it could be, and the characters' different stories are not always well balanced. Nevertheless, "I Can't Sleep" is still an intriguing tale about how people often remain indifferent to brutality until it affects them personally.

2010: The Year We Make Contact
(1984)

Concrete and Lifeless
Peter Hyams' "2010" suffers from the need to give solid answers to questions for which only a fool would want a flat explanation. Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" respected the viewers' intelligence and left all interpretation up to them. The most fascinating works of art are the ones that inspire intense conversation and debate, and to this day people are still arguing about what "2001" meant and what can be deduced from it. After watching "2010," however, there is not much to discuss. All the answers have been provided, and they are simplistic explanations that reduce the complexities of the original film to meager Hollywood plot devices. The worst example is how HAL is made out to be a victim and is eventually redeemed into a hero, a pathetic betrayal of one of the screen's most mysterious antagonists.

As for the whole conflict between the Americans and the Soviets in the film, it did not add any interesting dimension to the plot. It came off more as a product of the cold war era rather than something that could be read into years later. "2001" still shines bright after three and a half decades, but "2010" is a generic, concrete, and ultimately forgettable. If you want to see a much more interesting science-fiction interpretation of a classic, try watching Hyams' "Outland," which is a creative take on Zinnemann's "High Noon."

Escape from Alcatraz
(1979)

Subtle, intelligent, and totally involving
Don Siegel's "Escape from Alcatraz" is a small gem of a film, one that avoids most of the cliches of prison flicks by concentrating on the central character's struggle to break through the boundaries imposed on him. Clint Eastwood gives one of his most skillful performances as Frank Morris, a soft spoken, solitary prisoner who normally appears relaxed and docile, but can become deadly- and surprisingly resourceful- when backed into a corner. Eastwood is an actor who knows how to use silence very effectively, and we learn a lot about his character from simply watching his gestures and expressions.

Patrick McGoohan provides fine support as the warden, whose cold, subtley harsh attitude towards the inmates only seems to encourage Morris to rebel against the authorities. Roberts Blossom also makes a strong impression with his role as a man who manages to find art and beauty in his confines, only to have it stripped away.

Siegel takes an approach to the material that almost seems minimalist, focusing on how Morris calculates every move and ignoring the urge to speed up the action. The pace is deliberately calm, with slow camera movements and a soft score by Jerry Fielding that rarely rises above a whisper. Although this angle somewhat limits the dramatic power, it provides us with a unique, convincingly told story.

Chelovek s kino-apparatom
(1929)

A revolutionary experiment in cinema
Dziga Vertov's `The Man with the Movie Camera' begins with a prologue that explains that the director is attempting to stretch the boundaries of the cinematic medium, trying to achieve `a total separation from the language of literature and theater.' It accomplishes this by throwing out conventional storytelling and taking a non-narrative approach. Basically, the entire film consists of different series of shots that illuminate day-to-day life in Moscow and Odessa. The periods of the day- dawn, working hours, and resting hours- are represented by the activities of the ordinary people that make up the `cast' of the film, while the activities of certain citizens are contrasted with activities of others to create a panorama of Russian urban life in 1929.

The first thing we see is a projectionist threading film through the spools of a projector. An audience pours into the movie theater as the seats magically flip out; this stylized movement establishes a sense of choreography that will frequently reoccur. The projector comes to life and images appear on the movie screen.

Now we see the details of a woman's bedroom. The camera starts by focusing on her window, then moving inside and examining her belongings, such as pictures that hang on the wall and items scattered on her dresser. The woman herself rests in her bed. Then we gradually move outside to see the world in a seemingly frozen state; streets are empty, the parks and benches are unpopulated, telephones are silent, and the wheels and gears of the factory remain still. More people are seen resting in their beds. Then a solitary car moves out onto the street with a cameraman perched in it, and, as if the filmmaker was signaling the start of the day, the city comes alive. The woman wakes up, begins washing herself and attending to her appearance, and flickers the shades to her window. Intercut with this are the images of trolley cars leaving their stations and moving about in synchronized motion, as well as people arriving at factories to begin labor. The gears that were previously silent begin to shift and churn, and they grow more and more rapid in movement as the film progresses. Similarly, there are images of a train moving at high speed, quickly intercut with images of crowds in parks, cars streaming through the streets, and telephones buzzing with activity. They make the working hours of the day seem all the more hectic.

Another interesting aspect of Vertov's editing is the way he contrasts the upper-class members of society with the lower-class. One scenario involves the residents of a barber shop: women get their hair primped while men sharpen razor blades for shaving. This is intercut with images of workers in a factory: women get their hair dirtied as they shovel coal, while men sharpen axes for chopping. Shots of trolleys moving about in various directions are placed in almost every sequence, to convey the idea of people moving constantly, anywhere at anytime.

When the working hours end and the resting hours begin, the gears come to a sudden halt and, moments later, we see people's bodies at rest, this time on the beach. Athletic events are photographed in a way that makes them seem energetic, but still allows for slow-moving photography to show that such activities are intended to be relaxing. We see a buff athlete jumping a hurdle; his expression is very animated, but his body moves with slowness and ease. We see families on a merry-go-round intercut with bikers on a motorcycle track. Eventually, we are back in the movie theater, where the audience watches joyfully as stop-motion animation shows a tripod and camera moving about on their own.

There is no actual `story' to Vertov's film. It is an attempt to use the camera to capture things other mediums of entertainment, such as books and plays, cannot. It is fascinating for its dazzling technical skill, and noteworthy for its movement towards a new cinematic direction.

The Thief of Bagdad
(1940)

My childhood favorite
Words can hardly describe it, so I'll be brief. "The Thief of Bagdad" was my favorite movie as a child, and it has never ceased to astound or enchant me. I loved this film from the first moment I saw it, when I was a boy of six who had started reading "The Arabian Nights." I remember walking into the TV room in the middle of Sabu's battle with the giant spider and being instantly beguiled.

Rarely has so much beauty, magic, and wonder been captured on film. Sabu and John Justin are superb as the dashing heros, Conrad Veidt is throughly delightful as the wicked villain Jaffar, and Rex Ingram is a joy to watch as the sardonic genie. Georges Perinal's photography is some of the best use of Technicolor. One of the three credited directors is Michael Powell, a filmmaker who has been rightfully heralded by the critics but is often overlooked by audiences for his remarkable films, including "A Matter of Life and Death" (aka "Stairway to Heaven") and "The Red Shoes." He is one of the true masters of the camera, right up there with David Lean, Akira Kurosawa, and Orson Welles.

As with all great works of art, the beauty of "The Thief of Bagdad" lies in the detail. Every frame has its own magical charm. The story never lags, and the characters and their actions are always involving. Here is a film that will never grow old.

Citizen Kane
(1941)

A testament to the power of cinema, and the power of art
`Citizen Kane' is a film that begins with the death of a man's body and ends with the cremation of his soul. It is a story that is told through the memories of several people who each know only bits and pieces of Charles Foster Kane; none of them can honestly say they know him as a complete human being. The only thing they are all sure of is that Kane is a man who wanted something he could never give: love. The moment he left his mother's boarding house, his whole life became preoccupied with money, scandal, and politics. There was never room for anything else.

`It's probably a very simple thing,' says a newspaper editor in response to Kane's final spoken word: `Rosebud.' We have just seen a newsreel that chronicles, on a very superficial level, the life of one of the world richest and most powerful men. The images of his huge mansion being built, complete with swimming pools, tennis courts, gardens, and zoos, sharply contrast with the dark, gloomy, empty atmosphere that was presented at the beginning of the film and will be seen again at the end. Xanadu is now a ruin, a broken home for a broken man. The testimonies of Kane's friends and family strip away the gloss provided by the newsreel, documenting the emotional spiral downward for one of America's most influential people.

Kane mistakenly believes that the best way to win love from another person is through controlling them. This is best seen in the scenes where he tries, like Professor Higgins from Shaw's `Pygmalion,' to make his second wife an opera star. Of course, he could also be doing this to make her more `respectable,' so she can be placed on a pedestal like his first wife, who was the President's niece. But by this point in the film, it is clear that Kane is a very lonely man at heart, and desperately needs the honest affection of another person. He has become aware of the emptiness of his possessions.

Kane's anger towards his loneliness grows into an impassioned fury, and he tears apart his room in a scene that ends by partially repeating what we have seen in the opening: he finds a glass globe with the image of a shack in it, holds it for a second, and says `Rosebud.' Then he walks away, the last we will see of him in the film. Baffled, the reporters leave his Xanadu as its contents are being either sold off or burned. One of them refers to their unsuccessful search as `playing with a jigsaw;' they have found every piece but one. The camera pans past the statues, jewelry, antiques, and valuables to see the `scrap' items that have no monetary value being burned away. Among them is Rosebud itself, the sled Kane loved playing with as a child; earlier in the film, when he was visiting Susan Alexander for the first time, he mentioned having just traveled back from his mother's funeral with a few of his childhood possessions. Rosebud was one of those toys, the last thing Kane was holding on to before being dragged away into a life of gold and silver. Love, after all, is something that cannot be bought or sold.

Perhaps, then, Kane really had the ability to love the entire time. He just couldn't use it because it was buried beneath everything he had bought with his earnings. When Kane cries out for his sled in his dying breath, he is pleading for a return to the innocence of his childhood, before his life became a whirl of buying and spending. For all his financial and social power, Kane only wanted what every human being needs.

`Citizen Kane' is frequently ranked by critics and audiences as the greatest film of all time, or at least somewhere in the top five. It received the `no. 1' crown by the American Film Institute when they named their 100 favorites, which impressed me since I thought they would go the sentimental route and put `Gone With the Wind' or `Star Wars' at the top (although I was still a bit upset that none of Welles' other films, including `The Magnificent Ambersons' and `Touch of Evil,' made the list). Personally, I'm not sure what my `all-time' favorite movie is; I have seen many great films in my twenty years, and sorting them out in some kind of precise order is already too difficult. But there is no doubt in my mind that Welles' masterpiece is one of the truly mesmerizing achievements of cinema, right up there with Kurosawa's `Seven Samurai,' Renoir's `Grand Illusion,' Tarkovsky's `Andrei Rublev,' Bergman's `Wild Strawberries,' Disney's `Fantasia,' Truffaut's `Jules and Jim,' and my childhood favorite, the Technicolor classic `The Thief of Bagdad.' It is one of those few films that always has something new up its sleeve every time you watch it, a different present for each member of the audience.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
(1920)

A visually stunning work of early psychological horror
`The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' may not be the kind of film that would shock today's audience, but its fascinating and horrific use of surrealistic atmosphere clearly had an influence on modern filmmakers such as David Cronenberg and David Lynch. While the story is not as involving as other German masterworks of the era, such as "Metropolis," it can be appreciated for its unique vision.

The thing that really strikes me about this film is the way the set design reflects the unstable mind of the narrator. The exterior scenes often include painted backgrounds featuring houses with sloped roofs and jutting edges, along with mountains that seem to twist and curl upwards into the sky. Although these backgrounds are not three-dimensionally realistic, they convincingly depict the gothic, surrealistic atmosphere with imagination and verve. The interior scenes have a claustrophobic feeling that generates from the walls, which are often at odd angles and slanting inward as they rise. Much of the design appears to be influenced by cubism; even the sinister Dr. Caligari looks square-shaped. The lighting also reflects the chilling mood, with shadows haunting the nooks and crannies in the background.

The characters in the film sometimes seem equally freakish. All the actors wear makeup that make them appear as pale as a ghost, and the men are decked out in dark suits and capes. Ominous figures approach the camera directly in two haunting sequences early on: in the opening scene, when we see Jane walking towards us in a ghost-like white gown, and in the initial carnival scene, when Ceasre steps out of his box. In the end, we learn that it is really Francis who was insane the whole time; thus, the sets during the story, which is told by Francis himself, reflect his disoriented mind. Not surprisingly, the bookend scenes where he tries to tell his tale to an old man in a garden are the only ones to involve natural surroundings, such as trees and grass.

For a one-hour horror film, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" requires a lot of concentration on the viewer's part, especially since the story sometimes seems fragmented. Nonetheless, it will no doubt prove fascinating for years to come.

Independence Day
(1996)

For all the pizzazz, a very generic film
With all the money spent and earned, you would think that "Independence Day" might offer something different from other run-of-the-mill action movies. Not so. Despite the gung-ho attitude and Will Smith's sense of humor, there's really nothing unique about it. The aliens are given no background whatsoever; all we know is that they have the power to blow things up with powerful rays. The story is standard shoot-em-up with several interesting action sequences thrown in to keep our MTV-damaged attention on the screen. Yes, I did say "interesting;" I won't try to be a snob and say that none of the action scenes impressed me. In fact, a lot of them did. But I walked away from the film with an empty feeling inside, as if I had eaten a bowl of pasta without any sauce.

Back in the mid-90's, audiences attended these things in droves, watching the same homogenized schlock from May to August. It can easily be argued that not much has changed in the last five years, with "The Mummy Returns," "Hollow Man," and anything else that would insult the intelligence of a five-year-old still holding the #1 box office spot. But there are glimmers of hope, with idealistic films such as "The Sixth Sense" and "American Beauty" pulling in cash from the audience. Then again, such movies could be showered with all the success in the world and it still probably wouldn't pull Hollywood away from making routine movies like "Independence Day." Worse, it probably wouldn't keep people from paying admission price either.

Nybyggarna
(1972)

The continuation of an American saga
"The New Land" is the second half of a story started in Troell's "The Emigrants," which depicted the struggles of a band of Swedish peasants in their move to America. Here, several of the settlers- such as the priest and the prostitute- move away in the first half-hour and reappear here and there throughout the rest of the film. The plot focuses on Karl-Oscar, his wife Kristina, and the family they try to raise in the Minnesota wilderness.

Von Sydow and Ullmann are given a chance to embellish on their characters, and they both do excellent work. Axberg also does a fine job of lending more depth to the character of Robert, Karl-Oscar's rebellious younger brother. There is also material worked in that examines the mistreatment (and eventual uprising) of local Native Americans and the futile searches for gold in the north. These other elements do not always seem to fit with the central story, but they effectively add to the sense of time and place anyway.

"The New Land" does not have the same emotional impact that "The Emigrants" had, but it develops the two central characters more and intelligently explores how they learn to adapt to their new life. Put together, these two films convincingly illustrate the plight of those who forged our frontier.

The Deer Hunter
(1978)

One of the few really great films about Vietnam
I doubt that there ever has been or ever will be a greater movie made about the Vietnam War than "The Deer Hunter." The film succeeds not only in its truthful portrayal of how the "police action" brutally affected the ordinary lives of everyday Americans, but also in the subtle way in which the story is told. Whereas most Vietnam films have a tenancy to deliver their message in a strident and sometimes heavy-handed way, "The Deer Hunter" refrains from overdramatic moments where the characters break out into soapbox monologues about the horrors and immorality of war. It does not hit the same pot-holes that some generally well-made movies on the subject (such as "Apocalypse Now," most of Oliver Stone's contributions, and, for that matter, the same year's "Coming Home") have encountered. Rather, it respects the intelligence of its characters and its audience.

The people in the story are lower-class citizens who are content with their existence and do not think much of the world outside of their small Pennsylvania town. They volunteer for service in Vietnam because they still hold on to the belief of the pride and dignity of serving one's country in battle. The first act of the film concentrates on the strength found in male bonding, marriage, and sport. The story then cuts immediately to Vietnam. It does not bother with scenes involving sign-up, training, or deportment; instead, it gives the viewer a feeling of interruption, with the characters yanked out of their homely lifestyle and dropped into the middle of raging chaos. The prison camp scenes arrive with a quick, horrific shock. We ask, are these the same guys who were dancing at the wedding just twenty minutes ago?

Some critics have noted that there were no actual incidents of Russian-Roulette being forced on prisoners or played for past-time. Fine, that doesn't matter. It is used as a symbol of the random destructiveness that accompanies war; not simply in the physical death of the body, but the emotional death of sanity and spirit. The three men survive the camp and escape to safety, but they are not the same inside. Something about them was, indeed, left for dead on the battlefield. Nick (Christopher Walken) has lost touch with reality and can only live on in Vietnam through chance and violence. Steven (John Savage) is laid-up in a vet hospital after losing his legs and is afraid to return to his wife. Mike (Robert De Niro) is the only one who returns home, and is shrouded in a silent, withdrawn attitude that cannot be penetrated. The only person he really responds to is Linda (Meryl Streep), Nick's girlfriend, who provides him with sexual comfort. Mike has too much difficulty trying to re-connect with his old pals and eventually realizes that he cannot be a whole person again unless he brings Nick home. We often see De Niro in roles where his character is mentally unhinged and physically destructive, but here he displays a strong-and-silent performance in the style of Gary Cooper.

The final scene expresses a kind of patriotism that had not been present in film since the days of John Ford, and has rarely been seen since (if at all). The idea of getting such a fine cast to sit around a table and sing "God Bless America" may sound hokey, but it works perfectly when placed at the end of this story. Not once in the entire film is the audience yelled at or a message hammered into their heads. "The Deer Hunter" is a passionate, meaningful, and understated masterpiece.

Nybyggarna
(1972)

The continuation of an American saga
"The New Land" is the second half of a story started in Troell's "The Emigrants," which depicted the struggles of a band of Swedish peasants in their move to America. Here, several of the settlers- such as the priest and the prostitute- move away in the first half-hour and reappear here and there throughout the rest of the film. The plot focuses on Karl-Oscar, his wife Kristina, and the family they try to raise in the Minnesota wilderness.

Von Sydow and Ullmann are given a chance to embellish on their characters, and they both do excellent work. Axberg also does a fine job of lending more depth to the character of Robert, Karl-Oscar's rebellious younger brother. There is also material worked in that examines the mistreatment (and eventual uprising) of local Native Americans and the futile searches for gold in the north. These other elements do not always seem to fit with the central story, but they effectively add to the sense of time and place anyway.

"The New Land" does not have the same emotional impact that "The Emigrants" had, but it develops the two central characters more and intelligently explores how they learn to adapt to their new life. Put together, these two films convincingly illustrate the plight of those who forged our frontier.

Utvandrarna
(1971)

A realistic look at the pursuit of the American dream
When Jan Troell's "The Emigrants" was released in the U.S. in 1972, it opened to excellent reviews and received the honor of being one of the few foreign-language films to receive a Best Picture nomination. It didn't win anything, though, and seems to have been forgotten over the years. Perhaps this is because the public has since found other Swedish films to be more noteworthy, in particular the works of Bille August and the later works of Ingmar Bergman.

Sad to say, because "The Emigrants" is a film that closely examines two very different cultures in an effective and insightful way. A diverse group of Swedish peasants (among them a married couple, a priest, a prostitute, and a young upstart) endure back-breaking labor in their homeland to little profit. They decide to move to the states after being influenced by the exaggerated stories spread abroad (everyone has more than enough food, everyone is filthy rich, etc.). The audience sympathizes with them not just because they endure so much in Sweden, but also because they believe the stories they hear about frontier life in America. Yes, they will obviously have to strive and struggle to survive in their new home, but they are all the more admirable because of their adherence to the American dream.

"The Emigrants" is harsh and often unrelenting in the straightforward way it depicts the realities encountered by the Swedish settlers. The scenes where they travel across the ocean in a small, cramped, and diseased ship are appropriately claustrophobic and terrifying. Later, the family at the center of the story threatens to break up when Liv Ullmann's character, a fragile young mother, loses track of her daughter while hurrying to board a steamboat.

Although most of the characters were better developed in the sequel to this film, "The New Land," Troell's story is very moving in its sincere depiction of how outsiders came to this country to pursue their hopes and dreams.

Battlefield Earth
(2000)

My God...
I have seen plenty of bad films in my time, but I usually understand the reasons behind their being made. For example, "Saturday Night Live" rip-offs with actors like Rob Schnider, Adam Sandler, Norm MacDonald, etc. are cheaply produced and do not face much difficulty making back their cost at the box office. The countless plot-free action movies that pop-up every summer manage to pull in cash thanks to their good-looking actors and stylish visual effects. But "Battlefield Earth" baffles me. This is not simply a movie that fails in the acting and writing departments. It is also a failure technically, showing a total lack of skill in everyone involved.

For those of you who decided not to sit through L. Ron Hubbard's 1,000+ page novel, the "plot" (heh) involves Johnnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper), a young human who single-handedly rises up against a race of aliens that have dominated Earth for a thousand years and have almost entirely erased mankind in hopes of mining for gold. He is captured, learns of the true nature of the aliens' plans from their leader Terl (John Travolta), organizes a revolt, and so on. It's a good thing that the writers gave our hero the name "Goodboy," because it's about as far as they seemed willing to go with character depth.

The acting ranges from laughable to downright pathetic. Whenever something bad happens to Johnnie, Pepper is given the chance to look into the camera and shout "NOOOOO!" to express the emotional damage inflicted on his character. Distinguished actors such as Forest Whitaker and Michael Byrne are sadistically embarrassed in supporting roles. And John Travolta... sheesh. It looks like he didn't even bother to read over the script. He says his lines as if he were Snidely Whiplash with laryngitis, and can't even get the mandatory evil laugh ("HOO HOO HOO HA HA HA!") right.

As I said earlier, technical problems also abound. About twelve-too-many slow-motion shots are used during the fight/chase scenes, and they are handled with such clumsiness that it looks as if someone were using stop-motion movement instead. Most of the visual effects look like something you would see on a cheap cable TV series. The lighting in the underground scenes is so dark that I had a hard time figuring out whose face I was looking at. Even the camera angles are bad- every scene has tilted shots that appear to have been filmed by the cameraman from the old "Batman" TV show. Director Roger Christian should have stuck to designing sets for a living (yes, he won an Oscar for his work on the original "Star Wars"), because he can't even set up a shot properly.

"Battlefield Earth" looks and feels like one of those direct-to-video sci-fi movies that show on HBO at 3:00 in the morning, yet the budget was big enough to feed a small country. A critical and commercial bomb, this movie deserved every ounce of bad press it got and will be stuck somewhere between "Glen or Glenda?" and "Inchon" on the list of the worst movies of all time.

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