Saturday, February 11, 2012



Martin Scorsese again created a masterful work of cinema with Goodfellas, which follows the rise and fall of the Lucchese crime family associate Henry Hill and his friends over a period from 1955 to 1980. To prepare for their roles Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci often spoke with the author Nick Pileggi who wrote the non-fiction book Wiseguy in which the film was based. Pileggi shared research material with them and this caused them to improvise in rehearsals by adding and changing dialogue. Scorsese incorporated the actors changes into the script to give it a more authentic feel. Goodfellas is a tour de force cinematically with a constantly moving camera, multiple voice-overs and a non-stop soundtrack of music that reflects the time period the film is in. It is full of shocking violence and documents the Italian-American world of the mafia from an inside perspective.


Henry and June was directed by Philip Kaufman and was based on the book by the same name by the French author Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros). It tells the story of Nin's relationship with the writer Henry Miller (Fred Ward) and his wife June played by Uma Thurman. The film takes place in Paris in the early 1930s. Nin has a stable relationship with her husband Hugo, but is drawn to the freer, bohemian lifestyle of Henry and June. She bonds with Henry as they both are writers, but it leads her into an affair with them that puts her in the middle of their tormented relationship. Nin helps Miller publish his first novel Tropic of Cancer, but catalyzes the dissolution of the relationship between Henry and June. The film has beautiful cinematography and captures the time period wonderfully with its depictions of alternative lifestyles in the bars, brothels, bistros, and cafes of 30s Paris.


The Silence of the Lambs was directed by Jonathan Demme and is an excellent drama that mixes elements of crime and horror. Jodie Foster plays a young FBI agent named Clarice Starling who is sent to interview the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter played by Anthony Hopkins, in an effort to help find another serial killer named Buffalo Bill who skins his female victims. The film also features Scott Glenn as Clarice's FBI mentor and Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill. The Silence of the Lambs gets into the science of investigating crimes of this nature and it uses a distinct visual style to tell the story. It is very graphic and detailed in its depictions of the murders and their aftermath. An interesting and unique relationship evolves between Starling and Hannibal Lecter. The Silence of the Lambs is a masterful crime drama that uses horror techniques at times to create a frightening atmosphere and make a strong statement about awful events that happen in our society.


The Three Colors Trilogy is a collective title of three films directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. Two of the films were made in France and the other in Poland his native country, and are about the themes of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Blue was the first film in the trilogy and features Juliette Binoche as a woman who is trying to deal with the death of her husband and daughter in an automobile accident. Blue is about emotional liberty as Binoche tries to cut herself off from everything and live in isolation from her former ties, but she finds that she cannot totally free herself from human connections. Her husband was a famous composer, although it is intimated that she played a major role in his work, thus music plays a major role in the film, as she discovers secrets about his past. Blue is quite beautiful and moving and my favorite of the trilogy. White is more comedic than the other two films and depicts a man who has lost everything including his money, residency, friends, and his wife under humiliating circumstances. The film starts in Paris than moves to Poland where he is exiled. His wife is played by Julie Delpy and he tries to achieve equality by improving his station in life. Red is also a beautiful film about fraternity as it depicts a story of two people whose lives gradually become interconnected even though they at first have little in common. Irene Jacob plays a university student who accidentally runs over a dog. The dog is injured and she finds the owner who is a retired judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. There are various conflicts but over time they forge a relationship as friends. Red is the final film of the trilogy and there is a scene in the end where characters from all three films intersect. These films would be the final works of Kieslowski as he died in 1996.


Killing Zoe was directed by Roger Avary who was also a co-writer on the early screenplays of Quentin Tarantino. Eric Stoltz is Zed, a safe-cracker, who has arrived in Paris to help an old friend named Eric (Jean-Hughes Anglade) pull off a bank robbery on Bastille Day. On his first night Zed has an interesting experience with a call girl named Zoe played by Julie Delpy. Zed becomes trapped in a situation beyond his control because of heroin, poor planning, and a coincidental second meeting with Zoe. Eric's crew are a bunch of wild men, who decide to "live life" the night before the robbery, which has them doing drugs and hanging out in strange underground night clubs listening to Dixieland music. In one scene, one of the characters tells Zed if you do this drug, its as if you are in a glass bubble and you are rubbing up against the world like a bad windshield wiper. Needless to say, the robbery becomes a bloody disaster. Killing Zoe is an exciting and unique cinematic experience.

THE PIANO (1993)

The Piano is a beautiful and haunting film that was directed by Jane Campion, and features Holly Hunter, Sam Neill, Harvey Keitel, and Anna Paquin. It tells the story of a mute Scotswoman named Ada (Hunter) whose father has sold her into marriage to a New Zealand frontiersman (Neill). She is shipped off  with her young daugher Flora (Paquin). The narration is told by Ada from her mind's voice, not her actual voice, as she hasn't spoken since she was six, and instead expresses herself through her piano. There is an amazing early scene when they arrive in New Zealand where the piano sits by itself on the beach. As the story unfolds, problems arise between Ada and her new husband, and a more interesting character comes into the picture played by Harvey Keitel as a retired sailor who has adapted many of the customs of the Maori including tatooing. He falls for her after listening to her play the piano which is very important in her life. The characters, cinematography, and music all add to a narrative and mood that is powerful and haunting, and creates a beautiful work of cinema.


Pulp Fiction is a collage-like film that combines rich, eclectic dialogue, an ironic mix of humor and violence, a non-linear storyline, and a host of cinematic allusions and pop culture references. It is the second film by Quentin Tarantino, following Resevoir Dogs, and is directed in a highly stylized manner and joins the intersecting storylines of LA mobsters, small-time criminals,  a boxer, fringe players, and a mysterious briefcase. A lot of time is devoted to the conversations and monologues that reveal the characters' perspectives on life and are extremely funny. Pulp Fiction is known for resurrecting the career of John Travolta, and also stars Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Harvey Keitel, Eric Stoltz, and Rosanna Arquette. Tarantino would continue to make films in his idiosyncratic style including Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, and Inglorious Bastards. Pulp Fiction with its use of graphic violence, punchy dialogue, title cards, and its extensive use of homage and pastiche, combined into an unconventional narrative, made it a groundbreaking film that influenced a new direction in cinema.


Chungking Express was directed by Wong Kar-Wai and is about two love-struck cops in Hong Kong. It is told in two conjoined stories and in one episode the love interest is a big-time heroin dealer who is in trouble with her boss after a shipment disappears. The second episode centers around a take-out waitress played by Faye Wong who inadvertently gets hold of the keys to her admirer's apartment. The film has a loose narrative and its strength is in its use of image, sound, and music. Chungking Express is filmed in impressionistic splashes of motion and color and uses hand-held camera work to create a mesmerizing portrait of Honk Kong in the 90s.


The Shawshank Redemption is directed by Frank Darabont and based on a novella by Stephen King and takes place from the late 40s through the 60s at Maine's Shawshank Prison. The film centers around Andy Dufresne played by Tim Robbins as a man who has been convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, even though he maintains his innocence. The film is narrated by an older con named Red and is played by Morgan Freeman. The harshness of prison life is depicted early on with sadistic guards and clans of sexual predators. After surviving these early bad experiences, Andy finds his place in the prison because he is an accountant and he helps the corrupt warden launder money. Andy is hoping the warden will help him find evidence to prove his innocence, but he has now become too important for the warden to let go. There are strong performances by Gil Bellows as a young inmate who meets a tragic end, and an elderly inmate played by James Whitmore who eventually is released but finds that the world has left him behind. The Shawshank Redemption is an excellent prison film that is at times harrowing, and at other times extremely uplifting in its depiction of incarcerated men and their desire for freedom.

HEAT (1995)

Heat was directed by Michael Mann and stars Al Pacino as a detective who is trying to take down a professional thief played by Robert De Niro. Heat is a powerful crime film that features several outstanding scenes including an opening armored car heist, and an amazing 20-minute shoot-out after a bank heist. The film deals with the code of ethics that both the cops and criminals follow. There is a massive cast that includes Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo, Dennis Haysbert, and Kevin Gage as De NIro's crew, and Wes Studi, Mykelti Williamson, and Ted Levine as other cops working with Pacino. Jon Voight has a strong performance as a fence and there are other important roles by William Fichtner and Hark Azaria. There are several sub-plots featuring the women in the lives of these men. The female roles are played by Diane Venora as Pacino's wife, and Natalie Portman as his troubled step-daughter. Ashley Judd is especially strong as Val Kilmer's fed-up wife, and Amy Brenneman makes her mark as De Niro's love interest. Heat is powerful in both its content and style and creates a complex portrait of both criminals and law enforcement.

CRASH (1996)

Crash was directed by David Cronenberg and is based on the bizarre novel of the same name by JG Ballard. It is not to be confused with the film of the same name that won the Best Picture Academy Award in 2004. The film was shocking and controversial as it is about symphorophilia in which sexual arousal hinges on the staging and watching of a disaster such as a fire. In this case, the characters have a sexual obsession with car crashes. James Spader plays the central character James, but Elias Koteas is powerful as Vaughan, a former TV scientist, turned nightmare angel of the expressways. Ballard meets Vaughan after being involved in an auto crash near the London Airport. Vaughan leads a group of alienated former crash victims, that include Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette, and Deborah Unger as James' wife. They follow Vaughn's pursuit to re-enact  the crashes of celebrities such as that of James Dean and Jane Mansfield, and to experience a new sexuality born from a perverse technology. Vaughan's ultimate fantasy is to die in a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor. Crash explores such themes as the transformation of human psychology by modern technology, and consumer culture's fascination with celebrities and technological commodities. Cronenberg has made many interesting films about similar themes including Scanners, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, and eXzistenZ.


Trainspotting was directed by Danny Boyle and based on the novel buy Scottish writer Irvine Welsh. It follows the lives of a group of heroin addicts in the late 80s in an economically depressed area of Edinburgh and their struggles with drugs and trying to find some kind meaning and direction in their lives. The film features narration by Ewen McGregor as Mark Renton who is the main character. His friends are a diverse bunch and include the amoral con artist Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller), the simple-minded and good natured Spud (Ewen Bremer), the clean-cut athlete Tommy (Kevin McKidd), and the violent psycopath Begbie played by Robert Carlyle. Kelly Macdonald plays a young girl Renton meets in a rave club. Trainspotting is a unique view of a subculture in Scotland that is hilarious at times, but frightening at others and ultimately makes a powerful statement about the horrors of addiction.


LA Confidential is based on the James Ellroy novel by the same name and is directed by Curtis Hanson. It tells the story of a collection of LA police officers in the early 50s, and deals with the intersection of police corruption and Hollywood celebrity. It stars Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, and Russell Crowe as a cop who hates men who hate women. Kim Basinger plays a call girl who along with others has been altered with plastic surgery to look like a Hollywood starlet. In her case she has been cut to look like Veronica Lake. DeVito plays a sleazy tabloid reporter who is looking for dirt and is full of hep cat lingo. Through a complex narrative LA Confidential makes a strong statement about how power was attained through racism and corruption.


The Coen Brothers made two excellent films in the 90s. One was Fargo, which was an absurdist tale of a kidnapping gone wrong and the other was the singular The Big Lebowski. Jeff Bridges stars as Jeff Lebowski, but everyone knows him as "The Dude." He is an unemployed slacker and avid bowler and gets involved in a convoluted scheme of kidnapping, extortion, and mistaken identity. The film takes place in LA and is influenced loosely by Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. The Big Lebowski is full of idiosyncratic characters, unconventional dialogue, an eclectic soundtrack, and contains amazing and elaborate dream sequences. It is a strange comedy about the absurdity of existence.


Eternity And A Day is directed by the Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos and stars the German actor Bruno Ganz as a writer named Alexander who is terminally ill. He encounters a young Albanian boy who is a refugee, and goes on a journey with him back to Albania to find his home. As they travel, there are references to the history of the region, and the history of Alexander's life. They encounter a large variety of people and situations that trigger memories of the past. Eternity And A Day is told in a slow methodical way and is full of long takes of cinematic beauty, while revealing the strange and meaninful paths and episodes are lives can take.

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