Venus (Michell, 2006)

In Roger Michell’s Venus, the generation gap gets strung together with fleshy innuendo and smarmy charm. Maurice (Peter O’Toole), an elder statesman of English acting, gets smitten with Jessie, the teenage niece of an old chap from the theater. She’s somewhat of a dud and he’s a horny old man with a naughty history (Vanessa Redgrave’s turn as his ex-wife is a stirring indictment of the man’s past infidelity), yet each sees hope in the other. Venus tends to overlap cliches (the thuggish young boyfriend of Jesse, the opening painting of the seaside) with genuine moments of compassion between the aged and those willing to spend time listening. There’s something off-putting about Roger Michell’s directing style, which favors an obvious repetition of shot selection, pop music, and emotional outbursts. I can’t say the film really lives up to it’s reputation, especially as a centerpiece of Peter O’Toole’s illustrious career. It’s often callous, pouty, and overly sentimental in ways reserved for typical American romantic comedies. When Jessie finally wises up and comes screaming back to Maurice’s flat, the moment borders on ridiculous since her broad stares have yielded little dimension thus far. But O’Toole’s brilliant interactions with Redgrave, compatriots Richard Griffiths and Leslie Phillips, save the picture from being trite – old pros dancing words off one another with style and grace. I wish Venus had more of each.

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Days of Glory (Indegines) (Bouchareb, 2006)

The African soldiers brilliantly portrayed in Days of Glory fight endlessly for France in opposition to the Nazi’s, yielding little reward or recognition in the process. They are often treated as second class warriors, not worthy of the same hero status the anglo French receive throughout. Days of Glory is an unapologetic reminder of the important role these foreigners played in helping beat the Germans in WWII and it makes no qualms about painting the French Generals and military bureaucracy in a harsh light. Promises are made to these African soldiers to glean maximum results and it’s heartbreaking to see their disappointment in the regime which has convinced them to die for freedom. Bullets take all shapes in Days of Glory, whether it be words, glances, and tears. But the most piercing has to be the loss of faith in one’s ideologies. The final battle sequence clarifies the muddled air of the constant in-fighting and jockeying for power, testing the true glory of these soldiers as brothers in arms, not French pawns. It’s fascinating and indicting that the French townspeople of this burnt out village give the soldiers proper homage for their sacrifices, while the French Capt. tirelessly ignores them, driving on to the next battle. Days of Glory might enlighten just another casualty of war, but it’s one long overdue for some historical perspective.

Hot Blood (Ray, 1956)

A colorful slice of gypsy lore, Nicholas Ray’s Hot Blood resonates a steamy lust for passion and heat. Shot in wide-screen technicolor, every fame bursts with reds, browns, and oranges, producing a vibrancy which often overwhelms the somewhat tiresome characters. Marco (Luther Adler), the leader of a gypsy clan, wants his dance instructor brother Stephano (Cornell Wilde) to marry and take his place. He sets up an arranged hitch to Annie (the ravishing Jane Russell), and all hell breaks loose. Epic dance numbers often parallel the personal lives playing out and Ray lets the camera stay wide for the audience to relish these hypnotic moments. A few scenes raise the temp especially, like Wilde using a whip to entangle Russell during their beautiful wedding dance, and a cat fight for the ages between a pissed Russell and her blond, anglo competition. While the ending is somewhat unsatisfying – a far too easy conclusion to the spicy proceedings – Ray’s obsession with conflicting partners and ideologies comes into a new light, one filled with instinct and unrequited, hidden love. Hot Blood lives up to it’s title, a rousing entertainment infected with dance and melodrama.

Hotel Chevalier (Anderson, 2007)

In Hotel Chevalier, Wes Anderson manages to uncomfortably stuff 12 minutes of screen time with his standard operating procedures – artifice and irony. Needless to say, after four films obsessed with this relentlessly quirky style, it’s gotten quite tiresome. Anderson arguably peaked with his masterpiece The Royal Tenenbaums and has been playing copycat ever since. This short film, which supposedly is the first part to his upcoming The Darjeeling Limited, represents a perfect example of Anderson’s patented slow motion tracking shots and pop music parallels to character development. Except here, as with the previous Life Aquatic, Anderson doesn’t inject any humanity into his writing or performances. As coldly played by Jason Schartzman and a naked Natalie Portman (something good I guess), the protagonist couple give clues to their love and breakup, but in a way so stylized and vague it resembles more a Noir than Anderson lite. The artificiality of his set design and directing places a stranglehold on the story, and in Hotel Chevalier, the Anderson aesthetic snuffs it out in style. It makes one long for Max Fischer and The Tenenbaums and wonder where this wunderkind went so wrong.

Deliverance (Boorman, 1972)

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The harsh physical landscapes of John Boorman’s masterpiece Deliverance measure equal parts serenity and chaos. The rivers, trees, rocks, and gully’s are at once deceptively accommodating and menacingly savage. When Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Burt Reynolds, and Ronny Cox set off on their river canoe trip with smiles and naivete, the lush environment engulfs them with overwhelming beauty and uncertainty. The “dueling banjo” foreshadowing aside, it’s the diagetic sounds of nature which create the most haunting of warnings and lasting results. Boorman, with the help of the brilliant cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, utilizes a sense of wildness through picture and sound, letting their protagonists get lost in the natural shuffle of life and death. Considering the memorable and horrific scenes like Beatty’s “squealing like a pig” and Voight’s climb up the rock face, it’s what lies beneath the river that often feels the most devastating. Progress, as the men say in Boorman’s voice-over opening, has it’s price to bear, and the city boys pay more than their fair share. Deliverance remains one of those films able to recognize the dread in silence, personified directly by Voight’s lasting guilt of survival and natural opposite- the inevitable eerie moans of the glassy river surface covering up the humanity lost.

Bridge to Terabithia (Csupo, 2007)

Every once in a while someone (usually my girlfriend) convinces me to watch a film I normally would never consider seeing. Bridge to Terabithia, a sometimes affecting and always well meaning fantasy film for kids, falls into this viewing category. The CGI effects are used sparingly and it’s a good thing since the film obviously had no budget. The real discoveries here are the two young stars who save the film from becoming just another annoying kiddy flick. They are Josh Hutchinson who plays Jess, a quiet and refreshingly lonely boy with a skill for drawing, and AnnaSophia Robb as Leslie Burke, the girl who brings out his greatest emotions and imaginings. When these two are on screen, the film takes on a certain resonance of kids at play, learning about their own imaginations with gusto instead of fear. However, the film is directed so blandly the story ends up suffering as well. The great “open your mind” theme rings loud and clear with this writer.

Decision at Sundown (Boetticher, 1957)

Budd Boetticher, the great Western filmmaker who worked tirelessly during the 1950’s with star Randolph Scott, constructed brilliant character studies exploring the code of honor between heroes and villains and the complex blurring of iconographic incarnations. However, of all the Boetticher films, Decision at Sundown represents the first time he doesn’t hold a complete mastery of story and pacing. It’s always a pleasure to watch Randolph Scott chew on words of revenge, but the context with which he’s obsessed never gets fully fleshed out. His tragic character resembles a shift for the typical Boetticher/Scott hero in that he never admits the inevitable changes in character, nor does he have a strong grasp of the hatred he feels in the first place. In this sense, Scott’s Bart Allison and in turn his adversary Tate Kimbrough (John Carrol), who is supposedly responsible for the suicide of Allison’s cheating wife years ago and has now taken over a country town with corruption, don’t ring true with an authentic shared history. The whole film is a tough sell, a jumble of typical tales of Old West mythology that come and go whenever Boetticher feels necessary. Still, Boetticher’s genius for small scale dialogue scenes are apparent, and a thing of beauty for any fan of the director.