The Intouchables (2011)

Netflix has beefed up their foreign language film offerings lately, adding within the past few months a new cache of hundreds of popular films from around the globe. One such movie is The Intouchables (no, not the French re-make of The Untouchables starring a French Kevin Costner) a 2011 French film directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. In fact, by sheer numbers The Intouchables is the Mona Lisa of foreign language films, grossing $281 million worldwide, more than any other non-English movie in history.

The movie’s worldwide success raises the question: how did this film about the true story of wealthy quadriplegic Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his underqualified, rough around the edges, ex-con caretaker Abdel Sellou shine above the rest? For starters, the original story itself is fascinating. An old wealthy man taking a chance on a young criminal as the man responsible for his own wellbeing is intriguing, but, in most cases, would seem too far-fetched. In the case of The Intouchables, the story is practically completely true, even when it seems overblown.

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Before Sunrise (1995)

The first installment in Richard Linklater’s acclaimed “Before” trilogy, Before Sunrise is one of the most uniquely structured films in recent memory. Entirely dialogue based, the film discusses important social issues with great depth while examining the nature of a newly formed romantic relationship. Although Before Sunrise is masterfully written, acted and shot, there is no real plot; nothing really happens. Both Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy turn in exceptional performances that demand close attention, and yet all their characters do throughout the film is walk around Vienna and talk about life. Linklater’s aim here is not to make greatest film ever made, as one might assume is the aim of many directors embarking upon a new project. It is meant to be a simple film, a small film with a small scope. It is short and it is brilliant in its own right.

The only two real characters in the film, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) are total strangers that meet on a train and subsequently fall in love. The film is somewhat inspiring as a result. This detail of the film speaks to the spontaneity of love, the romance of romance, so to speak. Once the two get to talking, the film takes off. Their discussion covers the innate differences between men and women and the good and bad aspects of American and French society and everything in between. The dialogue is serious and provocative at times and humorous at others, and Hawke and Delpy’s performances are smooth and keep it realistic, despite the remarkable intelligence and obvious care put into the writing. A fantastic, stand-out moment comes in Jesse and Celine’s pretend phone calls to their friends back home, in which they reveal their thoughts about and feelings toward each other. Another comes when Jesse asks Celine to get off the train with him. This moment almost becomes a cheesy, cliche rom-com-esque scene, but Jesse’s actually quite intelligent reasoning for why Celine should oblige him makes it truly enjoyable to watch.

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Enemy of the State (1998)

Wait a minute – Aaron Sorkin wrote Enemy of the State? Before we get too deep into false advertising here, let it be known that “rewrites” and “script edits” are terms that are extremely broad and ill-defined in most cases. Yes, Sorkin was brought on for rewrites of the Enemy of the State script by David Marconi; no, it’s not clear how much of the film is “his”, at least not in any explicit way. Sorkin presently has no credit for his work on the film, no listing on IMDb or anywhere else, although an early poster (later redacted) did feature his name right after Marconi’s:

Enemy of the State Sorkin

“Written by David Marconi AND Aaron Sorkin AND Henry Bean AND Tony Gilroy” – phew.  That many cooks in the kitchen usually isn’t a good sign – maybe bringing to mind Stanley Kubrick’s quote about one man writing a novel, one man writing a symphony, and one man making a film – but Sorkin’s name would eventually be struck, as would Bean’s and Gilroy’s, and Sorkin’s reputation as a controlling “sole credit” scriptwriter would presumably grow from there.

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Boyhood (2014)

This is Boyhood. This is right now. This is no ancient Greek tragedy; there is no intricate or precise or necessarily coherent plot structure. What this film is all about is in the title: Boyhood is the narrative of a young man growing up in a difficult and harsh world. This film will make you laugh hysterically, and it will make you cry. Watch this film alone for the first time. That way, you can let yourself truly feel it. That’s important, because this is more than a movie. This is a therapeutic exercise.

It is possible that I am partial to Richard Linklater’s film because: one, I am a boy; two, I share some of the same experiences that Mason (Ellar Coltrane) has had. I know what it is like to have divorced parents, and I know what it is like to see my mom cry. I know what it is like to be bullied and I, too, have often wondered why the world has to suck so much. Many of us have. Many more will. That is why this film is so truthfully beautiful. It captures such incredible, emotional aspects of human life and brings you back in time to the moments in your own life that are relatable to what is going on in the film. I cannot even begin to think of another film that has brought me so close to tears so many times. Boyhood is able to give its audience that inexplicable Dead Poets Society vibe. Just that feeling that makes the film relevant to life in such an actual and immediate way. This is the type of film that leaves you unsure what there is to do next. When you decide to sit down and watch this film, you effectively decide to spend the next three hours completely and totally immersed in and consumed by the universe of Boyhood.

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Convoy (1978)

Sam Peckinpah’s penultimate film is Convoy, a Kris Kristofferson vehicle (sorry) about a bunch of truck drivers and their epic run-in with a corrupt lawman. The characteristics it shares with the other films from the late career of Peckinpah are not, unfortunately, anything other than the over-budget, highly confrontational, highly chaotic occurrences typical of the productions of Cross of Iron and The Killer Elite. The one difference in that regard is that Convoy actually did well at the box office, riding on the popular wave of truckerdom started by Smokey and the Bandit the previous year. But the uniqueness of that success is eyebrow-raising, too, for besides a chaotic production Convoy shares very few traits with any other film from Peckinpah’s career.

Kris Kristofferson is the sinewy truck driver known by the CB handle “Rubber Duck”, and his route across Arizona hooks him up with two of his trucker friends and a femme fatale played by Ali MacGraw. Their conflict with Ernest Borgnine’s crooked cop “Dirty Lyle” provides the main clash of Convoy, and the film’s title refers to the miles-long line of trucks that eventually forms in Duck’s wake as he crosses the Southern U.S. The escalation of the convoy itself isn’t too convoluted, which is to say that the pacing of this first chunk of the film is even and sensible. Preexisting animosity between Duck and Lyle leads to a situation of entrapment and extortion, which leads to the trucker retaliation at a diner, which leads to Lyle involving more and more policemen, which leads to the truckers involving more and more drivers. Ali MacGraw is just along for the ride (sorry).

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Hero’s Island (1962)

Long before James Mason was cast in the role of Stodgy Old Man in every movie ever, he once played Young Hunk in Hero’s Island. This somehow has nothing to do with his age – Mason was 53 when he played the island-bound Jacob Weber, which is far older than today’s Young Hunk standards – and instead has everything to do with Mason being one hell of an actor. In fact, he appeared as Humbert Humbert in Kubrick’s Lolita in the same year, a role which definitely leans more toward Stodgy Old Man than toward Young Hunk. One can imagine a remake of Hero’s Island casting Chris Hemsworth or Chris Evans or Chris Pratt – basically any of the Marvel Superhero Chrises – in the role of the brawny Jacob, sandy hair and strategically tattered shirt and all. This would be an entirely different kind of film (Superhero’s Island) because Mason’s Jacob is hunky, sure – but is he a hero?

Set on Bull Island in 1719, we meet the Mainwaring Family as they arrive on their new waterlocked home. The deed in Father Mainwaring’s hand entitles him to ownership of Bull Island, but standing on the dirt for the first time he states with a sense of wonder that “it doesn’t feel that I own this”. Ownership, of course, is entirely a matter of opinion – and in the opinion of the fisherman who’ve lounged around the island for years, the “right” of the Mainwaring Family’s presence is no right at all. They’re essentially Crusoe’s savages in the context of Hero’s Island, though their depiction in the opening scenes hews closer to this comparison than their actual function once the film is fully fleshed out. One of the first things the Mainwaring Family sees to is the construction of a large cross, which they kneel and pray in front of once it stands tall. The “savage” fisherman watch from afar, and before we hear them say anything more than a few words we see them bless themselves with the sign of the cross upon seeing the Christian symbol rising from their dirt.

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The Dark Valley (2014)

Aside from the title, the majority of Andreas Prochaska’s The Dark Valley is refreshingly original in the way it tackles a familiar story. Perhaps Das finstere Tal, the Austrian title, makes more sense in native tongue and context – but if you don’t care to brush up on your Austrian beforehand The Dark Valley is still to be enjoyed. Prochaska’s resume shows he’s been fairly prolific over the past few years, but most of his projects are horror flicks or TV shows. The Dark Valley looks to be his most mature feature effort thus far.

Sam Riley stars as the lone drifter Greider, largely the strong and silent type, recently arrived at a remote snowbound village high in the Alps. The aforementioned “familiar story” is really just that: mysterious stranger arrives in otherwise comfortable close-knit town, people become uncomfortable; secrets exist for the townsfolk and for the drifter, said secrets are exposed; drifter and young woman flirt with obligatory fling; things seem okay for a while until suddenly, one day, shit hits the fan. These by-the-numbers plot points are most at home in a Western, which is a genre that The Dark Valley is now a part of in spite of the snowy mountain setting (though, agreed, not technically a Western in the American sense – so, an Eastern?), but that familiarity is never crippling. As much as The Dark Valley resembles Once Upon a Time in the West on paper, it’s a starkly different kind of movie.

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Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven is that second album that is so hard to make. The album that has so much to live up to; the album that has such large shoes to fill. Days of Heaven, however, does not fall short of its predecessor Badlands – Days of Heaven is Led Zeppelin II to Badlands‘s Led Zeppelin I. Terrence Malick manages to dazzle his audience once again with his patient storytelling and epic imagery.

Taking home the Oscar for Best Cinematography, Days of Heaven was widely considered one of the most visually appealing films to ever be made at the time of its release in 1978. Under Malick’s impeccable direction, Nestor Almendros captures some of the most impressive shots that I  have ever witnessed. One particular scene took my breath away – in which the farmer (Sam Shepard) ignites his entire field of crops causing a massive fire. The screen of my laptop was engulfed in violent flames and I was truly stricken with a brief, but intense, sense of panic as I watched the fire rage.

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Malice (1993)

Malice is without a doubt the odd duck in the Aaron Sorkin filmography. More so than possibly any modern American screenwriter, Sorkin is now synonymous with “politics”, with work that peers into the lives of the men and women who already live under intense scrutiny – The West Wing is possibly still his greatest example in this regard, but The American President and Charlie Wilson’s War deal in similar arenas. A Few Good Men also exists in this vein, as does the tech-giant exploration The Social Network; neither are about politicians per se, but “politics” is broader than simply politicians. Sorkin’s politics exist in the hot topics of today, whether it’s the relationship between foreign powers or relationship status between two of your friends on Facebook. One can imagine that Jobs, Sorkin’s upcoming biopic on the late Apple founder, will continue this trend.

But Malice, Sorkin’s second produced screenplay, isn’t about famous people. Instead, it’s about incredibly moronic people. Bill Pullman stars as Andy, mild-mannered loving husband to Nicole Kidman’s Tracy. One day they meet Alec Baldwin’s Jed, a hotshot surgeon who used to go to high school with Andy. They hit it off and Jed rents the room above Andy and Tracy because he’s new in town. Meanwhile, a series of vicious attacks on local women occurs – and when one ends in murder, things begin to hit closer to home for Andy.

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Batman Begins (2005)

Most of the comic book influences on Batman Begins are fairly evident. Everyone points to Frank Miller’s Year One, the redefining four-part series that put the “Dark” back in Dark Knight, and they’re right to hold that book up as the major influence. Begins relies heavily on Year One for a number of things, not least among them the exploration of the Bruce Wayne/Jim Gordon relationship, the exploration of the Bruce Wayne/Alfred relationship, the Gotham Monorail, the mention of the Joker at the end, the entire character of Flass, the entire sequence where Batman calls a squadron of bats to his aid (a bat-talion, am I right? Guys?) and, of course, the entire bat-flies-through-window genesis of the hero himself.

So Year One is the obvious one. Nolan and David Goyer pilfered little things from other famous Bat-books as well, often just an image or a line of dialogue. Here’s the Scarecrow in Loeb and Sale’s The Long Halloween, another popular arc:

Long Halloween
The Long Halloween (1996/97)

Goyer brought this to Nolan and said “I think Katie Holmes and the little kid who will eventually grow up to be Joffrey from Game of Thrones would look really good if we added them in front of the horse here” (paraphrased) and Nolan said “true dat, brah” (not paraphrased) and ran with it:

Batman Begins (2005)
Batman Begins (2005)

The red eyes and flames are an admittedly nice touch.

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