Thursday, October 19, 2006

Recent Screenings

The Illusionist (2006) - Written and directed by Neil Burger, starring Edward Norton, Jessica Biel and Paul Giamatti.

One of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the cinema in a long time. How heartening that the film industry can still produce an intelligent, well-written, well-crafted and thoroughly entertaining film once in a while. It’s not an indie film – this is a classic Hollywood-style production that's actually aimed at adults, the kind of film you would have seen on a regular basis in the 1930s, 40s, or 50s. Norton plays Eisenheim, the Magician, who starts from humble beginnings and winds up giving private performances for the Crown Prince of Austria. There's a childhood romance with a girl of the aristocracy that is forbidden by her parents. Of course, he encounters her again, in a most surprising way, once he becomes famous. Will their relationship have a chance now? There is a murder (or is there?) investigated by Chief Inspector Uhl, head of security for the Machiavellian Crown Prince. Uhl happens to be an amateur magician himself and is thoroughly fascinated by Eisenheim. How does he do what he does? Is the supernatural somehow involved? The concept of “mystery” works on several levels in this film. There's also political scheming and intrigue. It all starts to blend together in this wonderful movie, which is in itself something of a magical trick. Paul Giamatti gives a terrific, multi-layered performance as Inspector Uhl. Though I haven’t seen many other current films, it’s hard to imagine him not getting nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Norton and Biel are fine, though neither rises to the same high level. The performances by Eisenheim are truly beautiful and poetic, with the exception of some CGI-created ghosts that appear later in the film. (CGI is like electronic drums were in the 1980s. At one point, people are going to look back at films from this time period and go, “Ooh, what were we thinking?”) But the twists and turns and the various “illusions” are really the stars of this film. Music by Philip Glass and on-location filming in Prague add to the moody, intelligent atmosphere. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Le Mépris (Contempt) (1963) - Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, cinematography by Raoul Coutard, starring Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance and Fritz Lang.

If you ever wondered what Godard might have been like as a Hollywood director, Le Mépris offers a fascinating glimpse of the possibilities. Though JLG has said that he had a miserable experience making his only big-budget production, the film holds up as well his other landmark work from the early and mid 1960s. Along with Bande à part (1964), it’s probably his most accessible film. It’s also one of his most entertaining. What would he do with pop icon and mega-star Brigitte Bardot? Well, he takes her sex symbol status head on and explores its various ramifications with a post-modern sensibility. When moneymen Carlo Ponti and Georges de Beauregard demanded that their director show more of their big investment’s . . . uh . . . attributes, Godard complied with a touching and quietly subversive sequence in which he literally explores every part of Bardot’s body through colored filters reflecting the colors of the French flag. His great visual sense, which often gets neglected in discussions of his work, also manifests itself more openly in this film, via Raoul Coutard’s masterful use of Cinemascope. The movie is an absolute pleasure to watch and deserves to be seen on a big screen. Le Mépris also turns out to be one of the greatest films ever about filmmaking. Piccoli, a terrific but unheralded actor, plays a screenwriter hired to rewrite Homer’s Odyssey for an American producer (Jack Palance in a brutal performance.) Legendary director Fritz Lang plays, well, a legendary director named Fritz Lang, whose artistic version of Homer has seriously displeased the commercially-minded American producer. Bardot is Piccoli’s beautiful wife, and their relationship, and her growing contempt for her husband as he sells out, forms the centerpiece of the film. The score by Georges Delerue is piercingly beautiful. The initial credit sequence, with Godard speaking the credits as Raoul Coutard rolls closer and closer to the viewer with his huge Cinemascope camera, is one of my favorite opening sequences. It all adds up to one of Godard’s most fascinating and enduring works. The Criterion DVD also contains a second disc of interviews with Godard and Lang, and some interesting documentaries. Highly Recommended.

'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945) - Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey.

I discovered the British filmmaking duo Powell & Pressburger via IMDB’s Classic Film Board, where several of their movies are included in an ongoing (and fairly interesting) Top 200 film list. To describe I Know Where I’m Going as a romantic comedy really doesn’t do it justice. First of all, it’s set in the stormy, moody Hebrides Islands of Scotland. It’s not a slapstick romantic comedy but something more natural, with touching performances by Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey. Hiller was also no ordinary actress but had been handpicked by George Bernard Shaw to star in his productions of Saint joan and Pygmalion. Her strong-willed Joan Webster “knows where she’s going,” only things don’t work out quite as planned. I hate to say too much about the plot because it unfolds so pleasantly and organically. I will say that La Reina liked this film very much, and we had to watch most of it again the next day. It’s just a marvel of good acting, good writing, good story and good filmmaking. A funny, very human movie. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Before Sunset (2004) – Directed by Richard Linklater, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy.

I enjoyed Before Sunrise (1995), Linklater’s first film with Hawke and Delphy playing these same characters (Jesse and Celine), but avoided this one for some reason. Maybe I wasn’t sure there should have been a second film. The idea of two young people meeting unexpectedly in Europe and having a brief but intense relationship seemed fairly realistic as it was portrayed, but those kind of fleeting relationships are exactly that – fleeting, and one doesn’t usually meet up with the same person ten years later. But I was pleasantly surprised when we finally watched Before Sunset. Written by Linklater, Hawke and Delphy, the dialogue-heavy screenplay works well and was nominated for an Oscar and three other film awards (losing each time to Sideways.) Basically, Jesse – a struggling writer - has finally published a novel that's based on his experience with Celine that was detailed in the first film. When he comes to Paris do a book-signing, she shows up, and they spend the afternoon walking around the city, discussing their brief relationship, what’s happened to them since then, and other topics of interest to two intelligent and cultured people who have the benefit of a screenplay to work from. My only real complaint about the film is that their conversation seems too natural and perfect. But they both imbue their characters with interesting touches of humanity, and Paris (the third actor in this film) looks stunning in her gown of late afternoon light. What saves the film from being overly precious is the heartfelt struggle of two people in their late 30s trying to see if their deeply romantic ideals have any place left in their increasingly mundane lives. It’s achingly and honestly nostalgic. And I could relate. Too well, perhaps. RECOMMENDED.

Pal Joey (1957) - Directed by George Sidney, music by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart, starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak.

Along with the Gershwins and Cole Porter, I love the music of Rodgers and Hart. If you don’t know or don’t remember how good they were, I suggest investing a little capital in Ella Fitzgerald’s Rodgers and Hart Songbook, Vol.1 & Vol.2, which were the first, and are still considered the best, of her songbooks of American composers. So when I saw the trailer for Pal Joey, I ignored Sinatra’s cheesy monologue and listened in amazement as one great Rodgers and Hart tune after another went by in 5-second blips. A few moments later, I was on the internet, reserving a copy of the DVD from my local library. As it turns out, the film version of this Broadway production holds up pretty well. Though sanitized for 1950s Hollywood, Pal Joey is still a slightly seedy, more adult musical. Sinatra may have found the perfect role for himself as the (not too) likable heel, Joey Evans. Rita Hayworth, whose career flagged in the early 50s, made something of a comeback with her strong performance as Vera Simpson, a former stripper turned wealthy socialite. Still beautiful and alluring, she seems older and wiser here. Kim Novak . . . well . . . the original New York Times review from 1957 called her “decorative” and left it at that. She’s about as exciting as brushing your teeth. (Actually, brushing your teeth is more energetic.) But there are some good secondary performances, especially Hank Henry as a nightclub owner, and a terrier who dunks bagels in a coffee cup, if you like that sort of thing. (See the New York Times article from March 21, 1957: “Terrier Is Signed to Film Contract. Snuffy Eats Way to Fame on Cream Cheese, Bagels, Lox for Role in ‘Pal Joey.’” Snuffy earned $500 a week for his role. And that’s in 1957 dollars.) The storyline of Pal Joey is good, not great, a little sexist, with some clever scenes now and then. The relationship between Joey and Vera is actually interesting and could have developed into something more, but the director pulls away right when it’s getting good. But this is ultimately about the music. As a vocalist, Frank Sinatra was in his prime in 1957, and with material by Rodgers and Hart, he delivers one great song after another. I never thought anyone could top Ella’s version of “The Lady Is a Tramp,” but Frank manages to be her equal on this tune. (See the clip here.) It ranks as one of the great vocal performances in a film musical. Another wonderful performance is Rita Hayworth (vocals by Jo Ann Greer) doing “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” (Alas, no clip.) Frank also sings “In a Small Hotel,” “If I Could Write a Book,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” and a few others. Rita (Greer) also does well with the fun burlesque song, “Zip.” All of the musical arrangements are by Nelson Riddle, who also worked on some of Ella's albums and knew how to swing. The only disappointment is that “My Funny Valentine” is given to the drip, Novak, instead of to Frank, who knew the song inside and out. RECOMMENDED, especially for Rodgers and Hart fans, and Sinatra fans.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) - Directed by Ken Hughes, screenplay by Roald Dahl (from an Ian Fleming novel), starring Dick Van Dyke, Sally Ann Howes and Lionel Jeffries.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang gets a bum rap, if you ask me. Slapped unjustly with the “kid’s movie” label, it gets stuck on a shelf where adults forget to look for it. At the public library, I literally had to go up into the Children’s Room to find the DVD. Yes, it is a great “kid’s movie,” but it’s also a highly imaginative and well-crafted film, period. Based on an Ian Fleming novel (yes, the James Bond guy), with a screenplay by Roald Dahl (yes, that Roald Dahl) and produced by Albert Broccoli, who produced the "Sean Connery" Bond films, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is really a magical comedy-adventure set to music. The delightful score is by Richard and Roger Sherman, who were nominated for nine Oscars for Mary Poppins, and won two, and were nominated for this film as well. I'll bet you money that you can't see this movie and not spend the next two days singing "our fine, four-fendered friend" while driving around in your car. Dick Van Dyke is wonderful as the eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts. I had forgotten what a complete performer Van Dyke really was, singing and dancing very well, and bringing great comic presence and timing to the role. Lionel Jeffries takes a fun turn as Grandpa Potts, and Sally Ann Howes, a Tony-award winning British stage actress, shines in the role of Truly Scrumptious, daughter of the candy factory owner. But the best performance of the film, and one that lingers longer than you want it to, may be that of Robert Helpmann, who plays the creepy and chilling “Child Catcher.” The film moves along at a good pace and, for dessert, offers the delirious architecture of Neuschwanstein Castle as one of its settings. Forget your preconceptions of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and watch it again. It’s worth it. RECOMMNEDED.


crystal said...

I'm looking forward to seeing the Illusionist. I wonder if The Prestige will also be good?

I haven't seen Pal Joey but the way you describe it reminds me of Can Can - also Frank Sinatra being a sort of loveable heel, with Shirley MacLaine, Louis Jourdan, Maurice Chevalier and Juliet Prowse ... music and lyrics by Cole Porter ... and dancing :-)

Thanks for the reviews.

Anonymous said...

We really enjoyed "The Illusionist" as well, I'm glad you recommended it. One thing though -- I agree Giametti is great, but I think you under-rate Norton when you say he's just "fine." It's a very understated performance, but he manages to have a cryptic and inscrutible mask on while allowing a kind of intensity burn behind the mask.

I saw "Le Mepris" a few years ago and enjoyed it, though I don't remember it much. I haven't seen "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" since I was a child, but I remember it better that "Le Mepris" and second your recommendation.

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for the Can Can recommendation! I've already ordered it from my local library.

I'm also curious about The Prestige. I liked Christopher Nolan's Memento, and the cast for this one looks good, though I find Scarlett Johannsen irritating at times. The New York Times calls The Prestige "a larger-scale, flashier — if ultimately less haunting — relative of 'The Illusionist.'" It was a somewhat mixed review, mostly positive. The Washington Post was more enthusiastic about it: "a classy, intriguing thriller that keeps viewers guessing but, unlike its less twisty but more opaque predecessor [The Illusionist], gives viewers a fighting chance to figure it all out before the third-act Big Reveal."

Was The Illusionist really that "opaque" or hard to figure out? I liked it precisely because the ending was somewhat ambiguous. But then the Washington Post may be writing for Beltway politicians, whose intelligence and subtlety are fairly suspect.


You may be right about Norton's more understated performance. I felt the same thing at times but wanted a little more, I guess. I know others have praised him for the same thing.

Did Lukas like The Illusionist? Has he seen CCBB? I'd be very curious to know his take on both.

Interesting that you don't remember Le Mepris very well. Given that opening scene with Bardot and Piccoli in bed, I could make suggestions about your mahood. But won't. :-) I am a bit surprised, though. I had the opposite experience - it was one of JLG's films that really stayed with me (I saw it a year ago and had been wanting to re-see it ever since.) Coutard's photography was particularly memorable - the scenes of Capri, that amazing house, those weird statues... the colors of the film. Visually, it felt quite different for Godard. And some of the great lines stayed with me: "Whenever I hear the word 'culture,' I pull out my checkbook." (Palance) My only real problem with the film is the ending. I'm not sure how to read what happens with Bardot and Palance.

Anonymous said...

I just asked Lukas if he's ever seen CCBB and he said no (he's also never been to CBGB's, and now it's too late). We went to the Illusionist without him -- he was off with friends.

Actually, I do remember all the things about Le Mepris that you mentioned. No, I did not forget the shots of BB.

John Schertzer said...

I'm adding all of these to my netflicks queue, though I'm slow to follow up these days. But thanks!

Finally saw Syriana (recommended from an earlier post) and agree with most of your comments, especially about it being hard to follow. It was frustrating, sure, but I feel it needed to be, because of the material. I draw a parallel with what Yeats said about resistance, in which case a poem needs to be difficult -- actually create the physical sensations of difficulty as one struggles for comprehension -- in order to embody the material appropriately. And Liam (my older son's name, btw), may I address you at this point and say that you of all people should understand that, being a medievalist. My, you must have been asking for it.

Thanks again, William. I have to say, I prefer you to A O Scott and Manohla Dargis, by a thousand miles -- and even to Jane Dark (

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for the kind words.

"actually create the physical sensations of difficulty as one struggles for comprehension."

I can't think of anyone who does that in cinema better than Godard. When I first saw Week-End at a cinema, the interminable traffic jam sequence literally caused people in the crowd to start yelling at the screen for it to end. It was one of the most dramatic moments I've ever experienced in a cinema. It was perfect. The intellectual/spiritual tension between Godard trying to depict something in a disturbing way and an audience screaming out for it to stop - partly, I think, because it made us realize how we really live. It was probably as close as I'll ever come to being at the Premiere of the Rite of Spring or some of the early Dada performances.

BTW, I don't think Le Mepris challenges the viewer intellectually like his other films from that time period do. It may be a disappointment for some people. But I actually like that he tried something different, that he gave in to aesthetics more than the intellect in this one. It makes a nice compliment to his other 1960s work. I actually like him going Hollywood. I only regret that he never made the big Technicolor Musical that he always wanted to make. That would have been something.
I'm not sure I feel the same way about Syriana, but I see your point. It IS hard to follow what's going on in the labyrinth of petrol politics. He connects some of the dots, but in a jarring fashion. Perhaps he wants us to "rewatch" the situation in the world, to pay more attention? I might buy that.