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Here you'll find reviews of more serious, thought-provoking films and documentaries.
 
What's new?: Mansfield Park, Shadows and Fog reviews

Manhattan (1979)

 

With: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep

 

Regarded by many as Woody Allen’s best film, Manhattan is all in black and white (bear in mind Allen is a fan of Bergman and Fellini) and tells the story of Isaac Davis (Allen), a neurotic New Yorker who hates his job, who has a 17 year-old girlfriend he doesn’t love and whose ex-wife is writing a book telling everything about their marriage (she’s a lesbian by the way). One day, Isaac meets his friend’s mistress Mary (Keaton) and starts to have a relationship with her even though when he first met her he couldn’t stand her. Isaac then leaves his girlfriend (he had warned her not to fall in love with him repeatedly)  to be with Mary, for whom he’s started to have real feelings and he quits his job as a joke writer. It is a perfect film in every way. The performances are flawless: Allen and Keaton are as good as ever and Mariel Hemingway is impressive as Isaac’s young, sweet and sensitive girlfriend (she was nominated for an Oscar). Also, it is beautifully shot in a somptuous black and white, and the Oscar-nominated screenplay is terrific, not only deep but also very funny. I should also mentionned George Gershwin’s excellent score. It is Woody Allen’s love letter to Manhattan, a city where sex is not as intimate as it should be and where the gateway to true love is a revolving door. It’s a place where relationships are easy to come by but more difficult to cope with. Annie Hall may be most people’s favourite Woody Allen film but it’s with Manhattan that he truly impressed everyone. Stardust Memories, Allen’s next film, was equally visually ingenious but it didn’t have the heart of Manhattan or its sense of humour. Overall, this is the ultimate Woody Allen movie: funny, sad, intelligent, unforgettable, Manhattan is a real masterpiece, no doubt about it.

 

Overall: *****/5 
 

Shadows and Fog (1992)

 

With: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, John Malkovich, John Cusack, Donald Pleasance, Lily Tomlin, Kathy Bates, Jodie Foster, Julie Kavner, Fred Gwynne, Madonna

 

Unless you’ve been following Woody Allen’s career closely there’s a rather large chance you’ve never heard of this film. Shadows and Fog begins with a brutal murder committed in the foggy, deserted streets of an anonymous town in the 1920’s. Kleinman (Allen) is woken up in the middle of the night from a deep sleep by a group of policemen who tell him there is a strangler (who also cuts throats) on the loose in the streets and that they have a plan to catch him. Kleinberg gets dressed and goes to join the men but they have vanished into the fog and consequently, poor old Kleinman spends the most part of the film not knowing what his role in the plan is and what it is he has to do exactly. Meanwhile, a couple at the nearby circus are having problems of their own. Irmy (Farrow) is a sword-swallower who wants to have a baby with her clown husband (Malkovich), who is not too keen on the idea. Later, he is caught red-handed by his wife, kissing the sexy girlfriend (Madonna) of the strong-man in her trailer. Angry and upset, Irmy packs her bags and starts to walk in the streets where she meets a prostitute (Tomlin) who tells her she can spend the night at the brothel, where it’s safer. There, a young student (Cusack) offers Irmy 700 dollars to make love to her and, after having refused many times, she eventually agrees. Some time later, she meets Kleinman at the police station and they start to wander the streets together aimlessly, meeting unpleasant characters along the way. It’s a real shame this film is not very well known because not only is it visually sumptuous in a foggy black and white but the simple story is genuinely engaging and Woody Allen is particularly good and very funny in it. Actually, the whole cast is impressive: Mia Farrow, John Malkovich and John Cusack are unsurprisingly terrific. If Shadows and Fog had been made in the 50s or something, I believe it would have been regarded as a small masterpiece but, for some reason, it hasn’t received too much praise. Perhaps in time it’ll be recognised as the superb, entertaining work of art it truly is. Overall, Shadows and Fog is an underrated little gem that deserves to be much better known.

 

Overall: ****1/2 /5

 

Mansfield Park (1999)

 

With: Frances O’Connor, Jonny Lee Miller, Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola, Harold Pinter

 

Based on Jane Austen’s third novel, Mansfield Park tells the story of Fanny Price (O’Connor) who, as a young child, is sent to live with her wealthy aunt and cousins. As Fanny comes from a rather poor setting and hasn’t received the same education as her cousins, she is not regarded as an equal upon her arrival at Mansfield Park. She is treated more like a maid than a member of the family. Fanny has always been somewhat spirited and as the years fly by while she remains in the country estate and acquires a more complete education, her wit, her growing beauty and her talent for writing become more and more apparent. She is linked by a strong friendship with a boy, Edmund (Miller), she met the very day of her arrival at the estate and the innocent love they have for each other is clearly slowly becoming much deeper as time goes by. The arrival to Mansfield Park of a woman and her handsome brother Henry shakes things up quite a lot inside the aristocratic estate as Maria, one of Fanny’s cousins, immediately displays her interest in the flirtatious Henry. However, she is already married and he gradually turns his attention to Fanny. Similarly, Edmund seems to be attracted by the sister even though his love for Fanny is still very much present. Fanny is soon asked for her hand in marriage by Henry but she is obviously very much in love with Edmund and doesn’t find her “suitor” trustworthy. Will Fanny decide to marry for love, like her poverty-stricken mother did? Or will she take the Capitalist way out (hehe) and marry for money? Not having seen any film adaptations of Jane Austen novels I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Mansfield Park. I must say I was pleasantly surprised. This is a film that’s not hard to get into at all with a genuinely likeable, strong-willed character at its center. Mansfield Park also has an admirable screenplay which, I imagine, stayed close to the source novel and is consequently very entertaining, funny and literary. The directing is spot on and Patricia Rozema’s (who also wrote the screenplay) use of original camera angles and the hand-held technique is inventive and works perfectly. As for the cast, there are fine performances all round and the excellent Frances O’Connor really stands out as Fanny. Having said all that, the film can be a tad predictable: it’s relatively easy to guess what will happen in the film’s third act half an hour into the story. Overall though, Mansfield Park is a surprisingly entertaining, above average adaptation executed with great care. Well worth watching.

 

Overall: ****/5

 

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (1999)

 

With: Richard Dreyfuss, Hugo Weaving, Timothy Spall, Cathy Tyson, Victor Bottenbley

 

Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, Close Encounters) starred in this virtually unknown little film about an old man, Antonio Bolivar, who lives at the heart of the Amazonian jungle. We follow this wise yet troubled fellow as he tries to cope with life in a cruel, hidden world. Bolivar escapes this life by reading romantic novels brought to him by his dentist friend Rubicondo (Weaving) and his secret younger girlfriend Josefina. When the ripped-apart body of a hunter is found by a tribe, Bolivar explains that it isn’t the work of a man but of an angry jaguar seeking revenge from the men who killed it’s children. Every day, hunters are found killed by the jaguar and the mayor of the village Luis Agalia (Spall), a man hated by all the villagers, decides to organise a hunt for the out-of-control animal. Antonio Bolivar is forced to participate. Directed by Rolf de Heer, this film contains an impressive performance from the excellent Dreyfuss. The scenes where we see him avidly reading the romantic novels he’s been given in his cabin are particularly satisfying. Timothy Spall is terrific as the dislikeable, clumsy mayor and Hugo Weaving (Matrix, Lord of the Rings) is also good value. It is a compelling story with a heart told with great care and, even though it’s not exactly a masterpiece, it deserves a look. Unfortunately, the film has some fatal flaws: Bolivar’s numerous flashbacks may be interesting but they do feel a little random at times. Also, it’s a film which seems a little incomplete since we aren’t given enough information on Bolivar’s early days in the jungle and the character is sadly left unexplored. Having said that, it’s a little film with a lot of potential and a strong cast that’s very enjoyable nevertheless. Overall, The Old Man Who Read Love Stories may have a daft title and its share of flaws but it’s ultimately an interesting story and a good chance to see the great Richard Dreyfuss give another terrific, if forgotten, performance.

 

Overall: ***/5

 
The Passion of the Christ (2003)

With: Jim Caviezel, Monica Belucci          

  Yes, this is it, the Greatest Story Ever Told! Well, actually, thanx to Mel Gibson it is now the Bloodiest Story Ever Told! The film itself looks stunning and has some unforgettably impressive scenes. At times it is spookier than any horror flick and bloodier than...well...any horror flick! And that's precisely the problem: the film could have been a masterpiece if Gibson hadn't turned it into a slo-mo induced bloodbath that made me squirm in my seat all the way through. It's a shame. But other than that it is definitely worth seeing although I strongly suggest you see Martin Scorsese's way superior The Last Temptation of Christ. Oh, and ignore the last scene, I don't know what Mel was thinking.

Overall: ***/5

Seabiscuit (2003)

With: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper

 Successful Chicago businessman Charles Howard (Bridges) is trying to rebuild his life after a family tragedy when his new wife suggests they buy a racehorse. Enlisting the help of loner and horse expert Tom Smith (Cooper), he chooses a washed-up and troublesome horse called Seabiscuit and asks down on his luck boxer and jockey Johnny "Red" Pollard (Maguire) to ride him. Overall, a beautifully acted, touching and gripping feel-good drama.
 
Overall: ****/5
 
The Village (2004)

With: Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Bryce Dallas Howard, William Hurt and sigourney Weaver.

M. Night Shyamalan, director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable does it again with this excellent and surprising film. This is, however, not a scary horror film as we have been led to believe because of bad publicising. No. this is a creepy romantic drama with a great twist that will saw your legs off. M. Night is definitely one of the best directors around. Even though the ending has divised audiences, for me, it's an beautifully shot and underrated film.

Overall: ****/5

21 Grams (2004)

With: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts

 A very deep movie in which the lives of 3 people get crossed after a terrible car crash. Inarritu, the director, mixes up the present, the passed and the outcome in the first 30 minutes of the film which means you have to be concentrated non stop. You'll eventually get it but the fact that you spent half an hour trying to figure it all out can be an irritating thought. The film itself is beautifully shot, brilliantly acted by every actor but leaves you with mixed emotions after the end credits are over. I think it probably needs repeat viewing to properly make your mind up.

 Overall: ****/5 

Ray (2004)

With: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell

Jamie Foxx, who we already saw playing opposite The Cruiser in the great thriller Collateral in 2004 (see Film Reviews), here plays the late blind musician Ray Charles. Ray’s life was not easy from the very start: not only was he an African American, he was born in a poor family in Alabama (quite a racist place at the time), he was blind and he witnessed, as a young child, the tragic death of his little brother. But even though he never had it easy, he still became, thanks primarily to his natural genius and talent, one of the best musicians of the 20th Century. His music mixed gospel music with jazz and soul to create something which religious people at the time dismissed as “Devil Music”. The film deals with Ray’s very difficult childhood in powerful warm-coloured flashbacks. It also deals with how he came to produce such hits as “The Mess-around” and “What’d I Say?” as well as the beautiful “Georgia” and Cablo Gula’s favourite: “Hit the Road Jack”. We also see who were the women in his life and his tense relationships with them. It’s when the film looks at Ray’s addiction to drugs (notably heroin) that it becomes disturbing and obviously dark. What’s good about this biopic is that it doesn’t portray Ray as a saint (like in Gandhi for example) but tries to show his genius as well as his flaws which were caused, it is supposed, by his less-than-perfect childhood. Jamie Foxx, who was certainly very good in Collateral, outdoes himself as his hero Ray Charles who, before the filming of the movie, gave him the “ok” to play him. His performance is powerful, charming, uncanny and very moving: just give him the Oscar, he deserves it. The rest of the cast is also very good I must say. The last few scenes may not be perfect but I don’t like nitpicking so I’ll just say that the ending does have some flaws but they are quite tiny. The film is long but, to be honest, I was so absorbed by Ray’s story, that I didn’t mind. Overall, one of the best biopics I’ve ever seen which contains some excellent music and acting. A must-see for all soul, jazz, gospel music fans and, of course, Ray Charles’ fans!

 

Overall: ****1/2 /5

 

The Aviator (2004)

 

With: Leonardo Di Caprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly

 

Martin Scorsese, whose last film was the enjoyable Gangs of New York, directs this biopic about the eventful life of the famous millionaire, film-maker, inventor and aviator Howard Hughes (Leo Di Caprio). Hughes was the director of the aviation epic “Hell’s Angels” and also made “Scarface” in the 1930s. His ideas, wealth and inventions played a part, not only in the development of film-making techniques but also in the creation of new models of planes that revolutionised the aviation industry. The film focuses on Hughes in his 20s, from the very long and delayed filming of “Hell’s Angels” to his psychological deterioration. We see Hughes' crazy love life and his relationship with Katharine Hepburn (played to perfection by Cate Blanchett), Eva Gardner and other beautiful Hollywood actresses. Howard Hughes was an obsessive compulsive: obsessed by disease and bacteria, washing his hands to the point of bleeding, repeating the same phrase again and again, alienating himself in a cinema showing the same film clips repetitively. This is when the film works best, Martin Scorsese, as we’ve seen in Taxi Driver, can portray obsession to perfection and Howard Hughes troubled psychological state is brilliantly handled. The plane scenes, especially the jaw-dropping second crash, are excellent: as you see hundreds of planes filling the sky you feel like you’re in the plane with the aviator. This is Scorsese’s best since Casino but it’s still no Goodfellas or Raging Bull! The film is overlong and therefore contains some longueurs and at the end we don’t really feel like we’ve learnt a lot about Howard Hughes. Still, the acting, especially by Di Caprio, is very good, there are very entertaining scenes, short flashes of the old Scorsese’s genius and an amusing cameo by Jude Law as Robin Hood actor Errol Flynn. Overall, it’s good but not great. It’s enjoyable but not a masterpiece. It’s Golden Globe worthy, but not Oscar worthy.

 

Overall: ****/5

                           Documentaries

 

Tarnation (2005)

 

With: Jonathan Caouette

 

Jonathan Caouette, ever since he was a young child, has filmed himself and members of his family in order to create this film. From the offset, it’s clear that the film is not going to be principally about him but more about his long suffering mother. This powerful and highly emotionnal film is a sort of autobiographical documentary and when you think that everything you’re seeing is actually real and that Caouette felt the need, even as a young boy, to turn his life into a sort of pre-production it’s pretty disturbing indeed. He famously made the film for a mere 218.82 and it looks like, thanks to many including Gus Van Sant who attached his name to the film, Caouette will make a humongous profit. Tarnation is a sort of insight into the mind of a deeply trouble young gay man whose life in Texas has been dominated by mental illness, drugs and abuse. It’s never an easy watch, that’s for sure, and it’s often disturbing. The whole thing is very psychedellic and at the end, you’ll feel like you’ve just been in a terrible dream or rather a beautiful nightmare. Psychologists will have a ball with this film, so many things to interpret: if Freud was alive today he'd cream in his pants. It’s not for everyone and at the end you’ll need a couple of hours to get over it. The mixture of loud 80s music, flickering images, split-screens and text makes for a very overwhelming film that you’re not likely to forget any time soon. Tarnation is definitely a landmark in the documentary genre. Love it or hate it, it’s an experience and one you’ve surely never witnessed before. This is the closest you’re ever likely to get to actually entering someone's mind for 20 years…

 

Overall: ****/5

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