Friday, March 26, 2010

Synecdoche, New York (2008) by Charlie Kaufman

In 2008 screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, perhaps the most creative and original screenwriter currently working, made his directorial debut and, what a debut it was. Synecdoche, New York is, perhaps, the most profound film that I have ever seen exploring the nature of love, lust, life, death, art and the meaning of all of it, whether art imitates life, or life is art, or any other combination of "art" and "life" that I can put together on the fly. On the surface the film follows Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) through his life from 40 - 80 (or 90 depending on whether you believe Hoffman's interview or the makeup artists) as he receives a McArthur grant and tries to make a piece of art that will define his life at the same time that it captures everyone's story.

The surface, however, is rarely what we're concerned with. The story gets at many deep ironies and intricacies of life. Whether its Sammy, the man who lives his life following Caden, knowing him more than Caden knows himself, or that Caden loves Hazel through the whole story, but spends his whole life desiring the woman or women that he's not with in at the moment, whether it be Adele (Catherine Keener), Claire (Michelle Williams) or even Hazel. Hazel's desire for Caden takes on more dangerous imagery, she lives in a house that is always on fire, a slow smoldering that never goes out and never consumes; it just slowly burns forever until she finally gets what she wants and the turn that it takes.

The film, which Roger Ebert named the best film of the last decade, is hard to describe properly without spoiling it for anyone who has not seen the film, or without having a proper dialogue, so I'll cut the review off here, but know that it is a labyrinth of emotions and ideas. Charlie Kaufman (writer of the wonderful Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) writes another gem, and gets to put a very personal stamp on it as his first film at the helm. Watch this film more than once, the more you watch it, the more you'll be able to get out of it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Alexander Nevsky (1938) by Sergei Eisenstein

1938 was a rough year for Europe. In represents the peak of the pre-war Nazi scare. A time between the Soviet-Zazi non-aggression pact and the Nazi invasion of Poland. Soviet Premiere, Josef Stalin, did not truly trust the Nazi's and he wanted the people of the Soviet Union to beware that there was a chance that the uneasy peace could be broken at anytime. Stalin turned toward his go-to filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, perhaps best known for his silent, Pro-Communist propaganda piece, Battleship Potemkin. This time Eisenstein takes on a less contemporary subject.

Alexander Nevsky was a grand prince in Medeval Rus, and has become a folk hero to the Russian people as a uniter of the Russian people as he helped them stand against the Swedes, Mongols and, in the case of April 5, 1592--The Germans. Which is the battle that is at the center of this picture. Eisenstein's film captures the highs and lows of warfare, and does a great job of propagandizing the historical scenarios to make them both fairly accurate and relevant to the situation at hand in the Soviet Union in 1938.

In 2008, Russia held a reality television program called I Say Russia... which allowed the Russian people to vote on the top Russians of all time. In this contest the Soviet premiere who ordered this film, Josef Stalin, came in 3rd; and, the film's subject, Alexander Nevsky, was named the number one Russian of all time. Eisenstein is one of, in not the most, important filmmaker of the Soviet Union (a strong argument could also be made for Andrei Tarkovsky) and this film shows why it is that he is a true master of the craft.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) by Woody Allen

Hannah and Her Sisters may well be the best of all of Woody Allen's films. If it isn't, it is right up there with his other masterpieces, Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. The film concerns itself with Hannah (Mia Farrow), Her ex-husband (Woody Allen), her current husband (Michael Caine) and her two sisters (Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest). Woody Allen's character is a neurotic, hypochondriac, middle-aged, New York TV Exec who is trying to live his life while being crippled by fear and anxiety that his life is so momentary yet will be meaningless as soon as its over.

In many ways, Allen's character is the character through whom we experience the film. He is our link into this New York lifestyle that many of us are probably unfamiliar with. The film is told in a series of vignettes that can be watched as separate short films but come together to make a coherent whole. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert mentions that this approach makes for an ironic statement at the end of the film that we try so hard to organize our lives into these neat little categories that we think make sense in our lives, and to an extent we can pull them out and make a neat little story out of them; but we, in the end, have to show that neat little story in the context of two full years or even a life completed in order to fully understand the gravity or the mundane nature of a given event.

Woody Allen was inspired to write this film after re-reading Tolstoy's beautiful Anna Karenina, and in many ways viewers who have read the novel will see similarities in character traits and plot events; however, it is not more than an influence. When first released the film had supporters lobbying to make it the first Screenplay nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, an honor still never bestowed upon a screenplay, though, in the end there was not a Pulitzer given out for drama in 1986.

In the end, Woody Allen has been one of the prolific of all American auteurs and has been, at times, truly great. This is one of his finest achievements.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I'm Back...

I graduated from college in December and had little capacity for cognizant thought after I finished, I read a couple of books but did not do a lot of movie watching. The little I did do was catching up on the big films from the current year (ie. Up in the Air, Precious, The Hurt Locker, etc. (two Latin abbreviations in one sentence...nice)). In any case, after a couple of months on the dismal job market I am still a free agent, and, as I had a few films in my collection, and HBO that I'd neglected to see to this point, I decided to pop them in. Over the past week I've done my duty as a cinephile that I had neglected for quite some time. I am ashamed of the little film watching I did for a period of time, but I am back.

So far, in the last week I've been able to watch World's Greatest Dad starring the oft-brilliant Robin Williams in a dark as night comedy that brings some awfully big laughs. Forgetting Sarah Marshall a Best-way-to-forget-her-is-to-turn-her-into-literature Comedy that runs toward the middle of the pack in the vast array of Judd "King of Comedy" Apatow's collection of involvement. Ivan the Terrible pt. II, the second part of the would be trilogy that capped Soviet master, Sergei Eisenstein's brilliant career about the parallels of the Russian Empire's first Tsar and the Red Tsar of the Soviet Union Josef Stalin. Sunshine and 28 Days Later... the Sci-fi and Horror masterpieces made by British director, Danny Boyle before his let down of a Best Picture winner. Vampyr, Carl Theodore Dreyer's horror classic follow-up to his silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc; the film is a visual masterpiece, with some visual effects that I was impressed with watching from my couch. O Brother, Where Art Thou, one of the very few films by the Coen brothers that I had missed seeing, this depression-era Bluegrass-musical-epic-Odyssey-Comedy about a couple of busted loose prisoners is one of the brother's finest comic moments. Hoop Dreams, this was the documentary that Roger Ebert named the best film of the 1990's, about two poor young black men in inner-city Chicago and their dreams of going to the NBA and being like Michael Jordan and Isaiah Thomas.

I still have a few more movies to get through on my list of catch-up, I may or may not write on all or any of these films, time will tell. Mainly I wanted anyone who may still be out there caring about my opinion on anything involving motion picture, that I am still alive and while I was on hiatus, I am back in the movie-watching game.

If anyone has a request for any specific reviews or any views I have on a particular movie listed above or in general, leave me a comment and I will try to get it up here in a timely manner if I've seen it and a little less timely manner if I still need to watch it.

Movies still to watch over the next few days: Alexander Nevsky, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Hunted and Glengarry GlenRoss.