Tuesday, October 25, 2016

1998 Winner, Life Is Beautiful

Life is Beautiful

Director:  Roberto Bengini

Distributed by:  Miramax Films

Released:  December 1997

Country:  Italy

I generally don’t watch the Academy Awards, mostly because I can’t stomach the self-congratulations and self-serving moralizing.  But in 1999, I happened to catch the part of the ceremony when Roberto Benigni won the Oscar for Best Actor for Life Is Beautiful.  Benigni spazzed out, standing on his seat, almost stepping on Steven Spielberg’s head on the way to get his trophy.  He was so enthusiastic and jubilant, I couldn't help but think . . . man, is that guy annoying.  I honestly wasn’t much looking forward to checking this film out because of that memory.  I knew Benigni from this Oscar flip out and from playing the son of Inspector Clouseau in The Son of the Pink Panther, director Blake Edward’s last film, so the only reason I made myself watch this movie was for My BFF Project.

Chairs are not stairs, paisano!
Am I ever glad I made myself watch this funny and touching film.  The movie is essentially two stories about Guido, a Jewish man living in pre-WWII Italy, played by Benigni.  In the first part of the movie, Benigni is a goofball waiter working at his uncle’s restaurant.  He is a classic underachiever—witty, funny, and smart, but  just wants to goof off and make everyone mad at him rather than apply himself.  He meets the beautiful and wealthy Dora, way out of his league, and sets out to get her interested in him.  His detailed and elaborate plans to win her go off like clockwork and are very funny.  There’s a bit of cornball in this part of the movie, but once in a while, a little cornball is good, especially given the second, and main, part of this movie coming.

Flash forward several years, and Guido and Dora are married with a 7-year-old son, Geosue, played with cuteness-at-the-acceptable-level by Giorgio Cantarini.  Guido is a doting father who keeps the family entertained and loving life.  The problem is, of course, this is the beginning of the war and Jews don’t seem to be doing any better in Italy than they did in the countries Germany occupies.  Father and son get rounded up and sent to a concentration camp, with Dora, a non-Jew, following.  To shelter Geosue as much as he can, Guido pretends the whole thing is a game, and that the winning team will be rewarded with a brand new tank, an idea that delights the little boy.  There are moments of despair and disappointment, but Guido’s sense of humor is what keeps Geosue, and the movie, going.

Cute, but not too cute, Geosue
Concentration camps don’t seem like the appropriate setting for a comedy, and when it comes down to it, this movie is not really a comedy—more like an upbeat tragedy.  Stalag 17, Billy Wilder’s masterful 1953 film set in a German POW camp is a good comparison in terms of tone.  Benigni sets the table in the first half:  Guido is a comic figure, with not an ounce of tragedy in him, while courting his future wife.  Because of this set up, we can buy into Guido’s upbeat, yet realistic approach, to dealing with the grimmest of situations.

Note:  Fans of the John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven from 1960 will recognize German actor Horst Buchholz as a “good” Nazi.  Life Is Beautiful was Buchholz’s last film in his 45-year career.

The Title:  La vita è bella.   In can be even in a concentration camp.

Horst Buchholz
The Culture:  The Holocaust in Italy was not quite the same as in Germany and other German-occupied parts of Europe, though between 1943 and 1945 about 10,000 Jews were deported, primarily to Auschwitz.  Benigni intentionally made this film historically inaccurate so as to differentiate things from the actual Holocaust. 

Agenda Danger:  Some objected to the idea of making a film with this subject matter with comedic elements to it.  But the film is not focused on the evil of the treatment of the Jews, but rather, the resilience of the human spirit.

Best Picture that year:  Shakespeare in Love.  Benigni beat out Tom Hanks for his role in Saving Private Ryan, and I am open to the argument that Hanks only lost because of his prior two wins for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump.  However, I consider Shakespeare in Love’s win to be a travesty unequaled in Oscar history, and one of the reasons I don’t watch the Academy Awards.

She's a little bit Country
Rating:  When I was about 10 (when there were three channels to watch on TV), my family sometimes watched the Donny and Marie Show—you know, the “She’s a little bit country, he’s a little bit rock and roll” variety show (Don’t judge!  I was a kid!).  While we would watch, on occasion we would catch my little brother, who couldn’t have been older than 8 or 9 at the time, beaming widely whenever the pretty Marie Osmond came on.  He would get mad and his face would turn beet-red whenever we called him out on it, but try as he might to stay angry, within a minute or two the smile would return to his face involuntarily.  That’s how I felt when watching this movie, which I had gone into deciding I would not like.  I bet if someone had walked in on me watching this movie, they would have asked me what I was smiling about. So you could say Life Is Beautiful is my Marie Osmond.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

1999 Winner, All About My Mother

All About My Mother

Director:  Pedro Almodóvar

Distributed by:  Sony Pictures Classics

Released:  April 1999

Country:  Spain

“We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds, not simply in the sense of identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it, but by seeing the world as another person sees it.” --Roger Ebert

I always respected the work of Roger Ebert, critic for the Chicago Sun Times and the shorter, dumpier half of Siskel & Ebert, as much as I have any film critic.  I didn’t always agree with what he wrote outside of his reviews, but I always found him to be a great mixture of the scholar and the regular guy.  So after seeing All About My Mother, a movie that for me made no sense as an art film or as a story, hoping to get some insight, I checked out his review.  Ebert gave the film three and a half stars (out of four).  All I can say is, you can’t be right every time.

Ebert said of this movie, “You don't know where to position yourself while you're watching a film like All About My Mother, and that's part of the appeal: Do you take it seriously, like the characters do, or do you notice the bright colors and flashy art decoration, the cheerful homages to Tennessee Williams and  All About Eve (1950) and see it as a parody?”  And I say, well NO, not knowing if it is a heartfelt drama or a screwball satire means the director doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.

Agrado and Manuela
Okay, a brief description:  Manuela and her teenage son go see the play A Streetcar Named Desire at a theater in Argentina.  The son wants an autograph from the main actress, Huma, but gets thwacked by a car on the way and ends up posthumously and involuntarily giving his organs away.  Manuela decides it’s time for her to go back to her native Barcelona to tell the father, from whom she is estranged. During her quest to find the deadbeat dad, she befriends several characters along the way, including a young, pregnant nun-to-be played by a familiar face, Penelope Cruz.  Manuela meets up with Dad toward the end of the film to tell him the bad news.

Now I’m not dumb, but I couldn’t understand why he walked like a woman but talked like a man.  Well, it seems sometime after ditching Manuela years ago, the father became a woman called Lola.  But just because Lola did the old switcheroo doesn’t mean she didn’t like to still do some guy things once in a while, no sir!  Turns out it was Lola that recently caused young, innocent little Penelope Cruz to have a not-so immaculate conception.  In dealing with the crisis, Manuela also gets support from her transvestite prostitute chum Agrado as well as Huma and Huma’s druggie girlfriend.  A Frank Capra movie this ain’t!
You see?  It's all perfectly normal!

I previously reviewed the Iranian film and 2011 BFF Winner A Separation and commented on how despite the cultural chasm between the characters and me, I felt great empathy for just about every person in that movie.  In All About My Mother, I felt nothing approaching empathy for anyone.  I didn’t understand their motives nor their actions, and felt like everyone but Manuela basically acted on only their own impulses and self-interests.  Everybody seemed miserable and no character seemed to have any understanding of why or how to fix it.  Characters make choices in films, and you don't have to agree with those choices.  But if you don't relate with them on any level, you cannot root for them.  Roger Ebert, if he was able to see the world the way Manuela, Penelope Cruz, and Lola see it, had a more generous sense of empathy than I do.

The Title:  Todo sobre mi madre.  This is a play on the Bette Davis film, All About Eve.  That’s a movie that is completely different than the movies I usually watch, yet it is a dang good one.

Oh Brunhilde!  Be my wuv!
The Culture:  Apparently, in late 90’s Spain, girls will be boys, and boys will be girls.  It's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world . . . except for Lola.

Agenda Danger:  This film was released in 1999, and things have dramatically changed culturally since then.  This film features an actor who plays a woman who was (or still is?) a man, and an actress who plays a woman who was a man.  Not to mention a to-be nun who was impregnated by a woman who used to be a man.  I’m not sure what the filmmaker is saying here, but he sure was ahead of the curve.  You see, Millennials, in Olden Times this kind of stuff was usually strictly of the comedic variety:  Milton Berle, Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, Bosom Buddies, and Bug Bunny as Brunhilde were what most Americans thought of in terms of what was called “cross-dressing.”  Nowadays, everyone is very serious about the topic and such jokes cannot be made without peril.  As far as I could tell (see Ebert’s quote above), All About My Mother’s cross-dressing is not done for laughs.  But I couldn’t be sure of that.

Best Picture that year:  American Beauty.

Rating:  To be clear, Roger Ebert liked this movie.  But I give it a full thumbs-down.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

2000 Winner, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Director:  Ang Lee

Distributed by:  Sony Pictures Classics

Released:  December 2000

Country:  Taiwan

Suspension of disbelief is a must for screening movies, watching pro-wrestling, and voting for President.  One has to have the ability to put aside the obvious logical holes and buy into something that cannot be true.  In regard to the cinema, it is the baseline for viewing any narrative film (a movie that tells a fictional story) or documentary film made by Michael Moore (a documenatary that tells a fictional story).

Even the most realistic films require that you accept things that may not make logical sense—jumps in time and background music, for example, are aspects of a film that make the story work, but don’t necessary follow the rules of reality.  Films with magic or science fiction or singing dialogue are accepted by the audience because they know this is part of the deal.  But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a film with a realistic setting that asks us to put aside the laws of gravity for the sake of the story.

Flying through the trees
The movie is set in 18th century China and centers on two warrior-friends, one male and one female, played by Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh (I’m going to spare you the character names—no way I would be able to keep them straight).  Yun-Fat wants to retire and is ready to part with his sword, “The Green Destiny.”  He wants Yeoh (whom he has been in love with for years, maybe) to deliver it to an old friend of theirs.  While in Beijing, Yeoh meets a young daughter of an aristocrat (played by Zhang Ziyi—her character is Jen) who is supposed to marry some rich dude but really would rather be a warrior like Michelle Yeoh.  One night The Green Destiny gets stolen and Michelle Yeoh goes after the thief.

Bruce Lee
Here is where the suspension of disbelief comes in.  The next chase scene is just the first of a number of unbelievable actions scenes.  And when I say unbelievable, I mean the laws of gravity are completely thrown out the window.  People are literally flying all over the screen.  And it’s great to watch!  Like watching Pro Wrestling or TV reality shows, if you can shelve your logic, you can sit back and enjoy this film.

Director Ang Lee has made his name in mainstream films in a variety of genres: Brokeback Mountain, Sense and Sensibility, and Life of Pi, to name a few.  This movie is an homage to the old Hong Kong martial arts films with stars like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.  Just as Spielberg and Lucas honored the old serials from the 30’s and 40’s when they made Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars, respectively, Lee honors his genre without irony.  The cinematography and choreography are phenomenal, and the fighting and chase scenes would be enjoyable even if there were no story.  The point is, even if you don’t know what the hell is going on, it’s a fun one to watch.

The Title:  卧虎藏.  Now that’s simple Chinese; I didn’t want to confuse you by using the traditional script.  The title comes from an old Chinese saying about a situation with unnoticeable masters, as in tigers and dragons just around the corner.  Or else it means you have talents you should hide and pull out only when you need them, like the ability to run on treetops or do triple spins with your sword.  Again, I think if you are trying to figure out meaning here, you are probably the same kind of person who reads into the plots of shows like Kung Fu or CHiPs.  Let it go. 

The Culture:  More important culturally than learning about China in the 1700’s is the homage to Hong Kong movie-making that this film is.  The movie is of a genre called “wixia (pronounced WAHK-see-ya),” which concerns martial arts in ancient China.  The movie is actually based on a book in a series called the Crane-Iron series, which you cannot find in English.

Agenda Danger:  Harmless new-agey philosophy is on display; nothing you wouldn’t see get in watching an anime or playing “Zelda: Ocarina of Time.”
Link in Ocarina of Time

Best Picture that year:  Gladiator.  Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was actually also nominated, as was Ang Lee for Best Director.

Rating:  A very fun movie to watch, especially on the big screen (as I did when it came out), even if when you walk away you have no idea what happened.