Autumn Tale (Conte d’automne) — Review

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Béatrice Romand in a scene from Éric Rohmer’s Autumn Tale.

3Star

“The script glides blissfully through some well-tested concepts, and does so with abundant charm and knowing wit.”

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Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella) — Review

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3-5Star

by Ken B.

There’s a certain dignity and willpower that flows through Life is Beautiful, a wonderful movie by Roberto Benigni. It is a genuinely touching and greatly moving 116 minutes, balancing between the heavy and horrific with the light and comedic. In the wrong hands, such an idea could have been disastrous, but it is pulled off with skill and precision here.

The first half of the movie is set in 1939 Italy, where an optimistic and charming man named Guido (Benigni) works at a hotel as a waiter. By chance, he meets a schoolteacher named Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), and helps treat a wasp sting she had received. From that random encounter, he is immediately captivated by her, and seeks every opportunity to be near her. One of these is to take the place of an inspector from the Italian government (which at this point had allied with Nazi Germany) visiting the students at the school Dora works. When he finds out the intent of the presentation scheduled was to lecture the kids on the supposed superiority of the Aryan race, Guido, a Jewish man, gives an improvised speech, mocking and satirizing supremacist beliefs as the head teacher becomes suspicious, eventually leaving when the actual inspector arrives.

By 1945, Dora and Guido are married and have a young son, Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini). Guido (now a bookstore owner) sees anti-Semitic intent in the flow of local life, and attempts to downplay it, as not to expose Joshua to the true horrors behind it. However, the charismatic father and husband is moved to a concentration camp one day along with his son. Dora, because she isn’t Jewish, is spared initially, but forces the guards to take her as well. To most attempting to create a nonplussed illusion, this would be the end, but Guido dismisses all of his son’s concerns by explaining that everything in the camp is part of a big contest that the family has entered, where you have to earn one thousand points in order to win a big tank, which he tells Joshua is being built in the midst of the senseless labor actually occurring.

The lengths that this one man goes to in order to preserve the spirit and innocence of his son are, to say the least, inspiring. Benigni, who in addition to starring and directing, co-wrote the film, gives a truly marvelous performance. Through him, Guido is not just a caricature or an idea, but a real, full blooded and smart man who only knows love and hope. Rarely in movies does a character seem more genuine.

This is a love/hate kind of movie, and while the lovers far outweigh the haters, there are a fair number of critics who have complained that mixing comedy and the Holocaust was an exploitive failure. While everyone’s certainly entitled to their individual voice, this is a completely false statement. Perhaps they were not watching fully, perhaps they only wanted to push an agenda. An examination of Life is Beautiful reveals that the only idea that is explicitly mocked is that of Nazism itself, and its supporters. An example of this comes early in the film, where a scene at a dinner party sees one of the guests criticizing a math problem that seven year olds in Germany were given: if people like cripples and the mentally handicapped cost the state four marks a day, and there are three hundred thousand, how much money would it save to have them all executed? The satire displayed is how the only complaint risen by the guests who interact with this statement is the difficulty of the math involved – the message conveyed by the sequence portrays the Nazi supporters as foolish and oblivious, and this truth is the only thing specifically targeted as ridiculous in the entire film.

There’s a higher amount of light comedy that surrounds the first half hour or so, and there is a perfectly justifiable reason for its existence: to show what kind of an imaginative and funny person our protagonist is. The scenes at the concentration camp are handled seriously in form, only showing Guido’s attempts to protect his son through humor as anything to smile over. From this viewpoint, it’s an undeniable fact that there is nothing but respect for the ghastly events that occurred during the Holocaust.

Life is Beautiful is ambitious, and it works. Featuring a great score by Nicola Piovani along with the other great creative aspects in acting and writing, this is a spellbinding movie, a tale of devotion in times of despair and darkness. I wish there were more people in real life like Guido.

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Life is Beautiful

What Dreams May Come — Review

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3Star

by Ken B.

What Dreams May Come unmistakably wears its heart on its sleeve and doesn’t care what you think about that. For 112 minutes, this movie moves around from life to heaven to hell with a fair dose of awe-inspiring visuals among each.

The first act details the life of Chris Nielsen (ROBIN WILLIAMS), from meeting his wife Annie (ANNABELLA SCIORRA) in Switzerland, to their wedding, to their two children dying in a car crash. Chris and Annie are plunged into grief and despair, but eventually manage to move on, or as much as you can after something like this occurs. Four years later, Chris too is killed in a car wreck. He is led by the spirit of Albert, a man he knew in life (CUBA GOODING, JR.), first through his own funeral and the events following, and then to his own heaven, entirely reminiscent of a painting by Annie, who worked in art restoration.

As the story progresses, Chris learns that Annie is dead, and is in hell. According to his guide, this is what happens whenever someone refuses to acknowledge their existence or its cumulative value. Against advice, Chris ventures into hell in order to find his wife, regardless of what will stand in his way.

What Dreams May Come’s strongest suit is in its visual style. Shot on a film most used by landscape and nature photographers, the movie features vivid scenery. It is most notable when Chris first arrives in heaven, where the land inspired by a painting is made entirely of paint; when he grips a flower, it oozes out of his hand. When the scenes in hell occur, the visuals are fittingly surreal, horrific, and dark. At the risk of sounding like a cynic, the scenes in hell are the most memorable and admirable from a filmmaking perspective.

Bless this movie for its visuals, because without it, the fact that the script dissolves into nothingness as the end nears would be all the more obvious. Richard Matheson, who wrote the novel that this film is based off, was once asked what he thought of the film. He responded that he agreed with an anonymous Hollywood producer’s observation that “they should have shot [his] book”. After looking over some of the comparisons between the two, I find that the novel had few of the storytelling qualms that were there with the movie. When writing the adaptation, Ronald Bass apparently found it necessary to brush and wrap the story into an unsubstantive collection of ideas and plot points.

The acting also does part to save what may have been an even more underwhelming experience. Williams portrays Chris with great relatibility and skill, and Sciorra does a quite credible job, especially when Annie breaks down after losing both her husband and children. Max von Sydow has an important supporting part in the second half of the picture, and is excellent. Michael Kamen’s music is a plus, swelling and beautiful and enhancing the film upon several occasions.

It’s a shame when every aspect of a movie excels except its screenplay. For every legitimate moment of What Dreams May Come, there is another of cheap tearjerking and unfulfilled potential. And yet, I don’t regret having seen it. There is something fearless about its manner of existence, and that is what must be admired.

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The Siege – Review

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3Star

by Bret W.

This review was originally published to the now-defunct website The People’s Reviews in October 2000.

It’s every American’s worst nightmare: terrorism hits at home, and it hits hard.  When we are witness to these acts of violence in other countries, even when they are done to Americans, we can still displace some of the fear and feelings of being violated in the knowledge that these acts were still very far away.  But anyone who was alive and conscious at the time remembers the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, and of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and suddenly we weren’t so safe anymore.

The Siege is a movie that preys on this feeling of inadequacy, the fear that we are only a breath away from unnatural and uncalled for death.  In the film, we see a portrayal of the frustration at being impotent against the unseen threat, a threat that is very real and very close.  It’s unsure to FBI Agent Anthony Hubbard and his Lebanese partner Frank Haddad why these attacks are occurring, but they know that there must be some reason.  Enter the CIA agent who seems to know more than she’s letting on, including what her real name is – she introduces herself as Elise, but is later introduced as Sharon.  Suddenly the film is thrown into a three-way conflict: Palestinians vs. USA; FBI vs. Palestinians; FBI vs. CIA.  As the attacks continue with no apparent progress being made by the US agencies, the president calls for martial law in New York and sends the Army to secure Brooklyn and begin a systematic search for the terrorist cells.

Again, it’s the filmmakers preying on the audience’s greatest fears – martial law and domestic terrorism – that propel this film beyond that of a normal action or techno-thriller film.  The realism is incredible, and the believability factor is high, which makes this an even more disturbing and frightening film.  We see fear and paranoia striking at the hearts of well-intentioned Americans who turn their backs on the premise of the freedom they so greatly value, to bring the witch-hunt to a violent end no matter what the cost.  We find it hard to believe that any Americans could be so cruel, that we may mimic the actions of the Nazi’s in WWII Germany who herded the Jewish population by the millions into concentration camps.  Here, the US Army herds the Palestinian population of Brooklyn into a similar camp and, although there was no mass-extermination, treated the inmates with the same degree of disdain that the Germans did the Jews.

It’s frightening because it is so real, and the realism was aided greatly by the fine performances of the entire cast, particularly Benning, Washington, and Willis.  It’s a very topical and timely film that shows us what could happen, and what we as Americans should never let happen … and yet, it’s a film that shows more than the desperation of a nation with its back to the wall.  Excellent action and a gripping storyline make it a film that’s as enjoyable to watch as it is socially conscious.

Star Trek Insurrection – Review

Star Trek Insurrection

25Star

 

by Bret W.

When it comes to rock music, there are two types of listeners: those who love Elvis and those who love The Beatles.  Consequently, in the realm of science fiction film, there are two basic types of audience: those who love the Star Wars films and those who love Star Trek.  I happen to be one of the latter type.   In this offering, Commander Data seems to suffer from a general malfunction which causes him to reveal his presence to the Ba’ku, the populus of a planet that the Federation is monitoring in secret.  He breaks the Federation’s Prime Directive, which is specifically set up in the strictest of terms to prevent interference with the natural growth of a planet’s lifeforms.  In other words, those who are pre-warp capability in their scientific advancement are not to be helped in their quest for the stars.

Captain Picard arrives with his crew to examine Data and to find out why he malfunctioned.  It turns out that Data had experienced an event which caused his logic circuits to malfunction.  He had discovered the true reason that the planet was under surveillance by the Federation and another contingency, the So’na.  It turns out that the Federation is helping the So’na to secretly remove the Ba’ku from the planet so that it can be inhabited instead by the So’na.  Picard is given strict orders by the commanding admiral to comply with the So’na and proceed with the plan, but Picard instead takes the Ba’ku away from their village so that they may hide in the mountains.  The ensuing battle between the So’na and Ba’ku and its outcome will decide Picard’s fate in the Federation fleet.

The effects were, as usual, spectacular.  The folks who did the special effects and computer animation for these Star Trek films are extremely skilled and excel in making the effects look real.  However, the story falls a little flat by Star Trek standards.  Although it follows the formula of bringing the protagonist to the brink of destruction, with no apparent way out, and turning the tables at the end with some mental end-run, I couldn’t help but feel that it was merely an extended episode of Star Trek: Next Generation.  The difference in the first six Star Trek films and the following few, is that there was a ten year absence between the last TV episode and the next Star Trek movie, while the Next Generation cast had barely finished the cake from their wrap party before Generations was released in the theaters.  Plus, without the driving influence of creator Gene Roddenberry, the stories in the films were becoming mundane.  I enjoyed First Contact immensely, but was a little disappointed in the rudimentary storyline of Insurrection.