Interview: Luc Besson on Angel-A and Arthur

June 1, 2007

Luc Besson, one of the most powerful figures in French cinema, once told a reporter he would quit directing films after he completed ten features. Now, with the release of the animated Arthur and the Invisibles and the opening in the United States of Angel-A, the director has reached his limit. Picking at a plate of berries and crème fraîche in a hotel bar overlooking Battery Park in downtown Manhattan, Besson chooses his words carefully when talking about his future.

“I’m finished,” he starts. “I’m scared of saying the same things over and over, and at the same time I have less ambition or passion. Even athletes have to accept that one day they can’t keep beating their records.” Besson has worked almost non-stop for thirty years, and collapsed twice on the set of his previous directing effort, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. He claims to be satisfied just writing and producing films for his EuropaCorp production company. Then he offers a qualified hedge: “If tomorrow I fall in love with a script, if I have a new purpose, if I have something fresh to say, if I can take on another three-year project, then maybe I will decide to direct again.”

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Review: Apocalypto

December 4, 2006

With his personal life reduced to fodder for stand-up comedians, Mel Gibson tempts further derision with his latest film, an epic set during the collapse of the Mayan empire, with an almost exclusively indigenous cast speaking Yucatec Maya. Whatever his shortcomings, Gibson is a director with vision and ambition. Apocalypto takes place on a scale few filmmakers today would attempt, and it is a measure of Gibson’s talent and perseverance, as well as his respect for old-fashioned storytelling, that it succeeds as well as it does.

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Review: Deck the Halls

November 27, 2006

As bland as its title, Deck the Halls is a seasonal comedy with no bite and very few laughs. With rote performances by a cast of underperformers and an absurdly thin script, the film is as disposable, and as annoying, as SUV ads on TV.

Matthew Broderick offers another of his prissy, uptight caricatures, this time as Steve Finch, an optometrist in small-town Massachusetts. Oblivious or indifferent to the fact that he is alienating his family, Finch has reduced the Christmas holidays to a tightly regimented schedule of “traditional” events. His wife Kelly (Kristin Davis) goes along with his plans, apparently because the film’s three screenwriters couldn’t think of anything else for her to do. Children Madison (Alia Shawkat) and Carter (Dylan Blue) raise a few objections to their father’s overbearing manner before withdrawing into the background.

Finch recedes as well, in part because the writers don’t know how to deal with his cold, robotic nature, but also because used-car salesman Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito) moves in across the street. Yet another of DeVito’s good-hearted vulgarians, Hall is so bored by his job that he fixates on a new obsession: decorating his house with enough Christmas lights to make it visible from outer space. Hall generally ignores his airhead twins (Kelly and Sabrina Aldridge), typecast as jailbait. Lowering taste levels even further, stage veteran Kristin Chenoweth plays his wife Tia with the squeaky voice and out-thrust chest of a trailer-park hooker.

The film’s premise has DeVito and Broderick publicly profess friendship but secretly loathe each other, a timeworn ploy that requires at least a modicum of commitment on the actors’ parts. Sadly, but understandably, neither actor can generate much enthusiasm over the script’s trite examples of one-upmanship: brighter lights, louder shrieks, forged contracts, theft, arson, camel vomit. With no one to root for or care about, viewers are left to contemplate the film’s ghastly vision of consumerism run amok. Lip service is paid to family values and to celebrating the spirit of Christmas. That’s before onlookers rescue a blown-out display by holding their lit cell phones aloft.

You can’t even say Deck the Halls lacks the courage of its convictions, because it doesn’t have any. Unless the filmmakers are preaching that Christmas is just another occasion to buy things, to envy others, to ignore loved ones, and to allow the basest parts of your nature to emerge unchecked.

Credits

Cast: Danny DeVito, Matthew Broderick, Kristin Davis, Kristin Chenoweth, Alia Shawkat, Fred Armisen, Jorge Garcia, Dylan Blue, Kelly Aldridge, Sabrina Aldridge, Sean O’Bryan, Gillian Vigman, Ryan Devlin.

Crew: Directed by John Whitesell. Written by Matt Corman & Chris Ord and Don Rhymer. Produced by Arnon Milchan, Michael Costigan, John Whitesell. Executive producer: Jeremiah Samuels. Director of photography: Mark Irwin. Production designer: Bill Brzeski. Edited by Paul Hirsch. Music by George S. Clinton. Music supervisor: Patrick Houlihan. Costume designer: Carol Ramsey. A Regency Enterprises presentation of a New Regency and Corduroy Films production.

Twentieth Century Fox/Color/1.85/Dolby, DTS/93 Mins./Rated PG


Vitagraph Films at MoMA

November 2, 2006

Although New York City was the first center of the film industry, almost nothing survives from those early years. The Biograph studio on Manhattan’s Fourteenth Street, where D.W. Griffith perfected his craft, is long gone, as are studios erected in Westchester and Fort Lee. Surprisingly, one of the earliest studio complexes is not only still standing, but is still being used in part as a production facility. From November 9th to the 13th, the Museum of Modern Art celebrates the centennial of the Vitagraph Studio in Brooklyn with Vitagraph: The Big V on Avenue M, a series of representative films from the studio.

The company was formed in 1896 as American Vitagraph by British immigrants J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith. Its first successes were largely faked documentaries and travelogues, such as a view of Niagara Falls that was actually shot in New Jersey. Blackton directed one of the earliest fiction films, The Burglar on the Roof, in 1897, but for the next ten years the studio struggled to survive while fending off a series of lawsuits from rivals like Thomas A. Edison. At first Vitagraph sold its films outright to exhibitors, but in 1905 Blackton and Smith realized that they could earn more money by renting their films to “exchanges” that would take over the tasks of delivering and picking up individual films.

The producers’ decision to concentrate on making films instead of distributing them happily coincided with a boom in nickelodeons, which grew from a handful to thousands within two years. Since programs changed twice a week, theater owners were desperate for product. That August, Vitagraph started work on a new studio in what was then a largely rural area of Flatbush. When it opened over a year later, the Vitagraph Studio spread between East 14th and East 15th Street and between Avenue M and Locust Avenue in what is now called Midwood. It was a state of the art facility that offered glass-enclosed stages, a tank for water scenes, a self-contained laboratory for processing film, and areas devoted to editing, props, and costumes.

The building gave Vitagraph an edge over rival studios, one that it exploited with high quality films. Vitagraph appealed to upscale viewers with films based on literary heroes like Raffles and Sherlock Holmes, but also delivered crowd-pleasing car chases, trick films, and slapstick. With their large sets and lavish production design, Vitagraph films looked better than those from other studios. Blackton experimented with animation and stop-motion photography, and was one of the forces behind Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo (1911), one of the landmark early cartoons.

With The Life of Moses (1909), the studio may have released the world’s first feature film, although it was originally shown in five separate parts. There’s no disputing that Vitagraph was one of the key players in developing the “star” system. Florence Turner, better known to filmgoers as “The Vitagraph Girl,” is just one of many performers the studio nurtured. Others who started out at Vitagraph include Norma Talmadge, Rudolph Valentino, Adolphe Menjou, and John Bunny.

Spotlighted in a half-dozen films in the series, Bunny grew up in Brooklyn before touring the country in a minstrel show. Over the years he became an actor and director in legitimate theater, working with stars like Maude Adams. In 1910 he left the stage for Vitagraph, and within the year became a sensation in a series of comedies. Over a five-year period Bunny made almost two hundred shorts, predominately comedies but some dramatic works as well. Weighing close to three hundred pounds, and with a florid, expressive face, he was an expert mime and an even greater judge of comic timing. Dressed in a suit and vest, he is like a Tenniel drawing brought to life, and wearing a straw hat, drink in hand, he is a clear inspiration for W.C. Fields. In films like Stenographer Wanted (1912), Bunny is a revelation, playing with a restraint and intuition rare for his time. He was often paired with the gaunt, shrewish Flora Finch in domestic slapstick like Bunny Backslides (1914), which features an extended visit to the old Washington Park baseball field, home of the future Brooklyn Dodgers. Since dialogue didn’t have to be dubbed or subtitled, the actor was especially popular overseas, but sadly succumbed to Bright’s disease in 1915.

After writing and directing The Battle Cry of Peace, which imagined New York City invaded by foreign terrorists, Blackton withdrew from day-to-day operations at Vitagraph. The executives who replaced him made a crucial miscalculation by failing to establish a chain of theaters to show the studio’s films. Apart from comedies starring Sidney Drew and Larry Semon, Vitagraph floundered in the 1920s. Warner Bros. bought the company in 1926, and used the Flatbush complex to film many of its Vitaphone sound shorts. The original building eventually became the site of Warners’ Ace Film Laboratory before being sold to Yeshiva University High School in the 1960s. It is now being used as the Shulamith School for Girls.

Warners built a studio across the street from the Vitagraph complex at the end of the 1920s. NBC bought this building in 1952. It was used for everything from Mary Martin’s version of Peter Pan to The Cosby Show and Another World. Since 2000, it has been the site of JC Studios. Currently the space is being used to shoot As the World Turns, a soap opera that is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.


Review: Conversations with God

October 27, 2006

…or, religion as a second career

Neale Donald Walsch, a self-described “modern day spiritual messenger,” has built a religious empire around his Conversations with God books. These New Age self-help tomes have been world-wide best sellers, perhaps because Walsch positions spirituality as a no-fault path to wealth. Or, as he puts it early in this film, “Financial abundance and spirituality go hand-in-hand.”

This self-serving biopic presents a sanitized account of Walsch’s life from the moment when a car crash leaves him with a broken neck and no job. Living in a tent in a park outside Portland, Oregon, Walsch (played by Henry Czerny) struggles with feelings of anger and jealousy, searches fruitlessly for work, and faces the humiliation of eating out of dumpsters. He also embarrasses himself by pursuing two women, the ebullient Carly (Zillah Glory) and the engaged Liora (Vilma Silva), although the filmmakers are close-mouthed about what Walsch is trying to do with them and why it is wrong. Work at a radio station disappears when the owner goes bankrupt. Walsch is in a depressed fog on a sofa when he hears the voice of God encouraging him to start a conversation.

Walsch transcribes these talks onto notepads, has Liora type them up, then challenges a publisher to print them. From there it’s a small step to book tours, speaking engagements, television interviews, private limos, and the chance to offer advice to strangers who haven’t yet learned how to channel their inner voices into money-making machines.

Screenwriter Eric DelaBarre cuts back and forth between Walsch’s successful present and his destitute past, trying to chart some sort of moral growth in his character. But the lessons the author learns–it’s hard being unemployed, treat women as equals, pay the rent on time–are a bit too obvious for a daily horoscope, let alone feature film. For those unfamiliar with Walsch or his books, Conversations with God boils down to the assertion that God is that voice in your head, a fairly innocent concept until God starts telling you to do something wrong.

Wearing a soiled neck brace and what looks like a Halloween fright wig for a beard, Czerny glowers through Walsch’s down-and-out days like a Canadian Rasputin, fraught with feeling but lacking any real presence. He’s actually scarier when he hits the big time, his eyes darting wildly while his face is frozen in an expression of quiet concern. The rest of the cast is no better than grimly efficient, apart from the lovely Vilma Silva, who manages to bring some warmth and depth to her role as an admiring secretary.

Producer and director Scott Simon gives the film a professional polish it doesn’t really merit or need. Simon worked with Walsch in 2003 on Indigo, a film about a new generation of children whose third eye chakra psychic abilities are marked by their indigo life color auras. How seriously you take that synopsis will be a good indication of whether you are part of Conversations with God‘s target audience.

Credits

Cast: Henry Czerny, Vilma Silva, Bruce Page, Abdul Salaam el Razzac, Zillah Glory, Ingrid Boulting, Joe Ivy, Michael Goorjian, Carolyn Hennesy, Jerry McGill, Ruth DeSosa.

Credits: Produced and directed by Stephen Simon. Written by Eric DelaBarre. Based on the Conversations with God books by Neale Donald Walsch. Executive producer: Gay Hendricks. Director of photography: Joao Fernandes. Film editor: Sherril Schlesinger. Production designer: Renee Prince. Costume designer: Muriel Stockdale. Music by Emilio Kauderer. A Spiritual Cinema Circle and CWG Films presentation of a Spiritual Cinema Circle and CWG Films production.

Samuel Goldwyn Films/Color/1.85/109 Mins./Rated PG


Review: The Bridge

October 27, 2006

Early in The Bridge, director and producer Eric Steel offers a picture postcard view of the Golden Gate Bridge as it spans the bay from Marin County to San Francisco. It’s a sunny day with blue skies and puffy white clouds, and the waters of the San Francisco Bay glisten under the bridge’s rust-colored girders. Near the end of the shot, almost unnoticed at the bottom of the frame, something splashes into the water. One of the twenty-four people who jumped off the bridge in 2004 has just died.

Inspired by a 2003 New Yorker article about suicide notes, director and producer Eric Steel documented the Golden Gate Bridge for the entire year of 2004. (The bridge is by far the most popular place to commit suicide in the country.) Filming every day from multiple viewpoints, Steel and his crew recorded several of the over two dozen attempts that occurred in 2004. Steel then interviewed the victims’ families and friends. The resulting footage includes some of the most disturbing images you may ever see.

It is difficult to accept at first that the footage is real, that it hasn’t been doctored in some way by special effects or computer animation. Suicide is so culturally taboo that seeing people perform it evokes contradictory impulses of shame and revulsion but also empathy and fascination. This would be an uncomfortably voyeuristic experience if Steel weren’t so careful not to exploit the material. It’s an almost unbearably sad one instead.

Steel eschews a voice-over commentary that could soften the impact of the suicides. Nor does he offer the solace of a professional opinion. No psychiatrist or police officer provides explanations or excuses. The workings of the bridge–how it is maintained and patrolled, for example–are barely noted. No one mentions efforts to build a “suicide proof” barrier along the bridge’s pedestrian walkway.

Instead, much of the film consists of shots of pedestrians, filmed as they cross the bridge from cameras stationed on shore. Flattened into anonymity by telephoto lenses, the potential suicides look just like anyone else, like the tourists and joggers who pass by indifferent to what happens next to them.

Quiet, understated interviews give glimpses into the lives of the victims. “He always fell in love with the wrong person, ” one mother says. “She thought our dogs were devils,” reveals another. A friend offers an opinion that could apply to anyone: “Only love could have saved him.” Although stunned, the families seem to have adjusted to their losses. Some even show relief. Few are angry or judgmental. It is a measure of their confidence in Steel that they divulge so much to his camera.

Steel has been criticized for romanticizing suicide, even for showing people how to kill themselves. But if The Bridge has a moral, it is that the people who suffer are those who are left behind. And in one scene at least, as photographer Richard Waters helps a potential victim back over the railing to safety, the film offers a measure of hope.

Credits

Featuring: Gene Sprague, Carolyn Pressley, Dave Williams, Matt Rossi, Jen Rossi, Elizabeth “Lisa” Smith, Rachel Marker, Tara Harrell, Lyle Smith, Philip Manikow, Wally Manikow, Mary Manikow, Keith Glenn, David Paige, Shelley Albar, Gordon Smith, Daniel “Ruby” Rubenstein, James “Jim” Singer, Ginny Matthews, Kevin Hines, Pat Hines, Richard Waters.

Credits: Produced and directed by Eric Steel. Inspired by the New Yorker article “Jumpers” by Tad Friend. Executive producers: Alison Palmer Bourke, Evan Shapiro. Director of photography: Peter McCandless. Editor: Sabine Krayenbuhl. Music by Alex Heffes. Music supervisors: Christopher Covert, Jim Black. Sound design: Margaret Crimmins, Greg Smith. An Independent Film Channel presentation of an Easy There Tiger production.

IFC Films/Color/1.85/Dolby Digital/94 Mins./Rated R


Review: Flicka

October 27, 2006

Based on a 1941 best seller by Mary O’Hara, Flicka shows how a young girl matures while trying to tame a wild mustang. The film’s themes, updated a bit but still fairly true to the novel’s, may be simple, but they are still worthwhile ones. A committed cast and sensitive direction help lift Flicka above its niche market of young horse lovers.

The biggest change from the novel is the lead character, once a boy but now the rebellious, hotheaded daughter of a Wyoming rancher. Katy McLaughlin (Alison Lohman) is failing at the expensive boarding school her parents can barely afford, and capturing and training a mustang may be just another way of ignoring her responsibilities. Katy has trouble communicating with her equally headstrong father Rob (Tim McGraw), and is trying the patience of her mother Nell (Maria Bello). Her brother Howard (Ryan Kwanten) hasn’t worked up the courage to tell Rob that he wants to go away to college. The ranch, dedicated to training quarter horses for rodeos, is on its last legs, and the presence of a wild mustang could threaten the purity of the herd. By keeping Flicka, Katy will not only be disobeying her parents, but threatening their livelihood.

Director Michael Mayer doesn’t push the plot’s morals, focusing instead on location scenery and some well-staged action scenes. One stampede along the edge of a cliff is beautiful and thrilling at the same time, and Flicka’s training sequences have moments that seem genuinely risky. When they arrive, the family arguments are persuasively tight-lipped and restrained, with more left unsaid than resolved. Credit should go to the strong supporting cast, especially Dallas Roberts as a taciturn ranch hand and Kwanten as a son who feels trapped by his obligations.

This is country singer Tim McGraw’s second film role, after a significant supporting part in Friday Night Lights. His screen presence is undeniable, but he still needs to learn how to modulate the way he delivers his lines. (He does contribute an excellent tearjerker, “Where Did I Go Right,” to the soundtrack.) Lohman nails the headstrong aspect of her character, but neglects somewhat to bring out Katy’s softer side. Maria Bello, on the other hand, seems to be overcompensating. Her acting is so brisk and professional that it tends to throw the film out of balance.

The big sky, windswept plains, and drifts and folds of the Wyoming mountains captured by J. Michael Muro’s cinematography forgive a lot, if not all, of the film’s shortcomings. Flicka‘s simplicity may be its best attribute, that and the opportunity it provides viewers to imagine life on a ranch today. (For the record, Roddy McDowall starred in the original 1943 film version, My Friend Flicka, and in its 1945 sequel, Thunderhead–Son of Flicka.)

Credits

Cast: Alison Lohman, Tim McGraw, Maria Bello, Ryan Kwanten, Dallas Roberts, Nick Searcy, Danny Pino, Kaylee DeFer, Jeffrey Nordling, Dey Young.

Credits: Directed by Michael Mayer. Screenplay by Mark Rosenthal & Lawrence Konner. Based on the novel My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara. Produced by Gil Netter. Director of photography: J. Michael Muro. Production designer: Sharon Seymour. Film editor: Andrew Marcus. Co-producer: Kevin Halloran. Music by Aaron Zigman. Music supervisor: Jason Alexander. Costume designer: Molly Maginnis. A Fox 2000 Pictures presentation of a Gil Netter production.

20th Century Fox/Color/2.35/Dolby, DTS/94 Mins./Rated PG