2003-2008 Film Reviews
by Dr. Bob Blackwood

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            "King Kong"


"Apocalypto": A Comment on the Bloody Actioner

by Bob Blackwood

 What I didn't like about Mel Gibson's "The Passion" was its emphasis on the liters of blood shed by Christ.  Oh, I know He must have bled a lot, but, if he lost THAT MUCH blood, he never could have carried a cross around Jerusalem .  On the other hand, some actors (such as Marlon Brando in the 1960s "One-eyed Jacks"), love to be whipped onscreen.  Well, I guess if you can't do the wild thing onscreen, whipping is as close to something physical and visceral as you can get if you have a certain affinity for it.  (I prefer sarcastic comments, myself, but that's the academic coming out, I guess.  Not enough physical, too much between the ears, etc.)  I thought "The Passion" was a valid re-working of the Christ mythos, but He was supposed to be a human as well as divine.  I don't think someone was giving him a heavenly liter of blood ever 15 minutes after that whipping.

 So, today I saw Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto."  He sure likes to see the soldiers grab the girls and do them dirt--a la "Mad Max," “Road Warrior” and "Braveheart."  I thought that opening sequence where the baddies looted and pillaged the native village in "Apocalypto" was a bit too much.  But at the middle of the film, the "good husband," Jaguar Paw, is wounded with a projectile weapon--a big arrow or a light javelin.  He has a hole in his back; a hole in his front about 4-6" in on his right side roughly parallel to his belly button.  Despite this, he runs the distance back to his home village; the soldiers had travelled it in about two days after they hit the village.  During this run, he was chased by about 6 soldiers in good shape.  He bleeds very little--hmm--but he still has that hole in him and somehow manages to stay ahead of all of those healthy soldiers.   

Well, I just didn't believe it.  It was a great chase, well filmed, but I didn't believe it for a moment.  Nor did I believe Christ dragged a cross through Jerusalem after dropping one-half of his blood in the courtyard of the Roman governor.  So, I appreciate the ending (no, I won't spoil it); it shows a sort of irony.  But I just don't believe it. 

And I don't appreciate all of the graphic brutality of the village scene; more can be done with imagination and a scream than with closeups.  Mel has done it to me again.  Well, if he does something different, such as a new version of "The Importance of Being Ernest," I will give him a shot, or if he does another biography of a famous person. But, folks, he won't get me to an action film like this one again.  If I hadn't liked the Mayans and found them fascinating, I wouldn't have made a point of going to see this film.

To condense my thought, this film reminded me of a motorcycle gang exploitation film--a la "Mad Max"--without the motorcycles.  I liked "Road Warrior" better anyway.


        Robert DeNiro’s “The Good Shepherd” (2006)

By Bob Blackwood

 Robert DeNiro’s previous achievement as a director was Chaz Palminteri’s script of “A Bronx Tale” (1993), a rich, character-driven study of a boy growing up in a neighborhood in the 1960s supervised by the mob.  It never received the attention it deserved.  

DeNiro’s second achievement is “The Good Shepherd” (2006), a study of the early days of the Central Intelligence Agency, written by Eric Roth, as seen through the eyes of its “special operations” executive, played by Matt Damon.  The challenge was for Damon to play a role whose central character excelled in not revealing a lot on his face nor in his tone of voice.  This kind of role does not give any actor a lot to do, but Damon does what he does every well.  Angelina Jolie has the underwritten role of his wife, but, since the man is married to his job rather than to any women, perhaps “underwritten” is too judgmental. 

 This, like “A Bronx Tale,” is very character-driven, the sort of film that actors love to make and that film critics usually love to review.  I don’t know how most of the reviewers have evaluated the film, but I know that many of the people who saw it when I did were disappointed.  It was an espionage film without the usual murder or sex every 15 minutes.  Well, too bad, folks, but any action flick can give you that.  What this film gives you is complexity in its characters and ethical questions.  It gives you more in ethics than Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana” (2005).  It gives you far less in acting out than Richard Burton’s role in Martin Ritt’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (1965), but then Burton’s character was supposed to be feigning (if not actually being) a violent drunk who is sickened by his feigned undercover role.  It gives you fewer murders per minute than Sidney Furie’s “The Ipcress File” with Michael Caine but only because “The Good Shepherd” runs 2 ¾ hours in length vs. 109 minutes for Furie’s film.  

DeNiro’s film presents many moral and ethical choices; the character, being so well drawn, leaves you little doubt about what he will do.  The drama is not in what he will do but in how he will live with himself afterwards.  In other words, though the character is rightfully called by John Turturro’s character a “cold son of a bitch,” you still see that there is a real person there not just a collection of right wing beliefs with a haircut and glasses.  

“The Good Shepherd” is worth seeing, but not if you prefer seeing “Die Hard V.”   

Also, great performances by Alec Baldwin and DeNiro himself illuminated the film periodically.  Surely Baldwin will get an Oscar for this film or for his supporting performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” (2006).  

Just a thought. Espionage films are something like fantasy films. They are not easily evaluated by mainstream critics. If they were very easy to understand, like any action film, they would not be very good. "Layered" is the correct description for the best of them--much like "The Departed" as well as "The Ipcress File" and "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold." Wahlberg's role in "The Departed" was well played, but it was an easy role to pull off. Baldwin always makes the most of the more difficult roles he gets; that's why he is so good on those skits on "Saturday Night Live." 



So Diane and I, pumped full of an antibiotic and a steroid to keep our colds under control, drove up in our 1998 black Buick LeSabre to Highland Park (about 20 miles north and east of here) to see Peter O'Toole (an Oscar nominated performance) and Jodie Whittaker in Roger Michell's "Venus," a tale of a very aging actor and a beautiful young woman with sort of a happy ending. I only know Michell's work from "Notting Hill," a humorous pleasantry. Much to my great pleasure, the screenwriter, Hanif Kureishi, who also wrote two good leading roles in "My Beautiful Laundrette," created two more very good leading roles and a moving work of art about life and death.

"Venus" portrayed an interaction that was both inevitable and interesting moment-to-moment (just like Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," Oscar nominated for "Best Foreign Film, I believe), thanks in great part to Leslie Phillips as another aging actor and Vanessa Redgrave as O'Toole's only somewhat estranged wife. Phillips and Redgrave both gave different yet, in some sense, compatible points of view. The script was strong. It stands in contrast to so many badly scripted films produced recently because the studio felt the film featured a hot issue or designed the script to have the five necessary factors that make big DVD and video sales and rentals in 2006 (yes, they make their serious money these days on DVD sales and rentals, though good box office sales help draw fans' attention to the films much more effectively).

As we were driving back down Interstate 94 in second gear in the face of an ice storm, I was wondering what often made me go to films at all hours and at any place within driving distance. The answer is I am a cinephile, a person who needs to experience a film that is meaningful, that reflects something of my life and of the life of the people around me. At a certain point in the film, when Diane placed her hand it mine, I knew that one of the reasons why I was the way I am and why I appreciate her so is that we are both open to this experience. I often find it difficult to find contemporary novels or plays that have the same effect upon me, despite an education and personal interests that certainly gave me exposure to them. Most of the serious literature I read is over 50 years old.

I guess I am a cinephile because in many eras, one medium will be more a creature of its time and place than others are. I love the edited images, the motion, the placement of the actors, the dialog and its delivery, accompanied by music with the impact of color and other artistic forms--in this film, particularly, paintings.

Peace. Stay warm. The ice accumulates but the life is underneath.



      Pan's Labyrinth


"Pan's Labyrinth."  I liked the comparisons as well as the startling contrasts between the seemingly moral black and white world of Falangist Spain in 1944 and the fantasy world of the faun, fairies and magic. It was a splendid film, a great achievement for Guillermo del Toro who both wrote and directed the film. I liked his "Hellboy" and "Blade II," but "Pan's Labyrinth" is a major achievement in storytelling and in visualization. It was also good to go back to the post-Spanish Civil War Spain I had only glimpsed before on film in Alain Resnais' "La Guerre Est Finie" (1966) and Fred Zinnemann's "Behold a Pale Horse" (1964).



When I read that the title of Olivier Dahan’s film bio of chanteuse Edith Piaf would be “La Vie en Rose,” I wondered how he would pull that off.  Her life was far from rosy. 

 Piaf was raised in a provincial whorehouse by a grandmother who was emotionally removed from her.  She scuffled on the streets of Paris as a young girl with a pimp for a boy friend.  She hit it big as a singer in a café before World War II and then survived the war with an admirable record with the French Resistance.  But in 1949, she lost the love of her life, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, in an airplane crash while he was coming to see her at her request.  (Note: I believe Jake LaMotta beat up Cerdan’s face in the ring when LaMotta’s wife found Cerdan attractive.  I got that from Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.”)

 “La Vie en Rose” is the American title probably because that song was the biggest hit of “The Little Sparrow” in the USA .  The French title is “La Môme,” loosely translated as “The Kid.”  In a certain sense, that’s what she was and only 4’8” tall too.  She never had anything resembling a normal childhood, and she seemed to be emotionally pretty much in her early teens, at best. 

 Yet, the high and mighty of her culture paid her court (Yves Montand [he actually was her discovery], Jacques Cousteau wrote a play for her, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Aznavour [another discovery], etc.).  When her drug and alcohol-ridden body finally gave up her spirit, she was given a regal burial procession.  But she was denied a Catholic funeral mass because of her lifestyle; well, as she sang, she didn’t regret a thing that she did. Forty thousand Frenchmen joined in her funeral procession.   Aznavour said her procession was the only thing that ever brought the Parisian traffic to a stop. 

 But, in her heart, she was just a girl looking for the right guy, but she was hell on wheels when she could not find him. 

 Marion Cotillard gave a masterful performance as Piaf, covering her from her early 20’s to her death (Piaf only made it to 48, though she looked like a very bad 68 in the film).  The look that Piaf had toward the end of her life in this film reminded me, very much, of the Judy Garland that I saw on late 1950s and 1960s television.  Cotillard should be nominated for an Oscar.  (She was and she got it.)

 There is no mention of Piaf working with the Resistance in the script.  She saved many lives, but this film was a love story and a lack-of-love story.  Dahan and Isabelle Sobelman’s script took some liberties too.  It was the aftermath of a car wreck in 1951 which led to Piaf’s morphine addiction, not Cerdan’s 1949 airplane crash. 

 The film is being well received by the critics, but I fear that most Americans won’t relate to it too well.  The movie-going audience is a young one, except for a few buffs like me and my friends.  I’ve always enjoyed Piaf’s singing and appreciated her good deeds.  She always sang of hope and love, the things that she needed.  As a Christian, I never felt the need to judge her, unlike the Archbishop of Paris.  I remember that Dante placed sinners who were lovers in the uppermost circle of Hell; he had a far deeper place for some clerics and one pope. 






Back in the 1960s at St. Joseph ’s College, the Rev. Alvin Druhman, assisted by the Rev. Rufus Esser, taught me that there were two types of satire: Horatian and Juvenalian.  The Horatian was lighter in scope marked by laughter; the Juvenalian was darker in intention, aimed at ridiculing social values or individuals or both.  The last film I saw that attempted to do both types of satire was Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog” (1998), which also focused on the U.S. government and its frequent attempts to block knowledge from the American public.  Levinson had a good cast, but he could have used a better script.

Mike Nichols in “Charlie Wilson’s War” has a great cast: Tom Hanks as Congressman Charlie Wilson, a liberal party animal who also had a genius for deal-making; Julia Roberts as the sixth richest woman in Texas and a conservative with a yen for a good-time Charlie Wilson.  And Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Greek CIA official who cares more about doing his job well than advancing his career.  She wants an Afghanistan free of the communists.  Charlie wants to help the people who the world has forgotten, the Afghani refugees.  The CIA dude intends to do his job well.  Anyone who doesn’t like it, can just kiss his ass. The fact that he is very competent certainly keeps him employed, if not promoted.

 They all succeed in their desires in this film, but not without a lot of external and internal conflicts.  The dialog is sparkling.  Hanks has found his best role since Jonathan Demme’s “ Philadelphia ” (1993).  Julia Roberts may have given her best performance to date in this film as a fundamentalist Christian billionaire with a yen for men.  Hoffman gets to finally shed the sleazy screen persona of “Capote” (2005) that he did so well.  Aaron Sorkin created a screenplay that gave us a laugh every three minutes and something to think about along the way too.

When the film ended, we were left with a reminder that we lost the opportunity to really do something to bring Afghanistan into line with American perspectives in the 20th and the 21st centuries.  Everything was just “business as usual” after the Russians left Afghanistan , which meant that when it was over, it was over.  Back to making money and getting re-elected in Washington , D.C.   That was too bad, but this film was very good.


    The Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

 The Coen Brothers have created three wonderful films in my opinion: “Miller’s Crossing,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “No Country for Old Men.”  “Miller’s Crossing” (1990) shows us a corrupt American town in the 1920’s ruled by an Irish gangster, but the main focus is on his chief advisor, played by Gabriel Byrne.  “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) shows us the politics of a southern state during the Depression (a setting just as bizarre as the film’s source, Homer’s Odyssey) with the focus on a rapscallion escaped convict, played by George Clooney. 

 “No Country for Old Men” (2007) takes its theme from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium .”  “No Country” is narrated not by old Irishman, but by a 1980 old Texas sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones, who deserves another Oscar.  The question is in what category?  He already has one for Best Supporting Actor for “The Fugitive.”  In this film he is involved in the action as well as both the narration and commentary, but he is in the running for the main character.

 The film is based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy.  I suspect the Coen Brothers took quite a few liberties as this film is very cinematic.  Not a shot is wasted, nor a line of dialog.  The pursued, a hunter played by Josh Brolin who stumbles into a drug deal gone bad and walks off with $2 million in hundreds, is chased by a professional killer, played by a Spanish actor, Javier Bardem, who was Brother Lorenzo in Milos Forman’s “Goya’s Ghost” (2006).  The two men have very similar lines of dialog on at least two occasions, but they have very different views on life.  Woody Harrelson pops in as a self-confident “cleaner”—like Harvey Keitel in “Pulp Fiction” (1994)—who pretty much exists just to say to the killer’s face: “You don’t know how crazy you are.”

 There is a lot of understated horror in this film, but not senseless gore.  The Coen Brothers have a real sense of humor, the ability to build tension and release it, and to keep my interest in every second of the film.  No, I won’t comment on the controversial ending, except to say that it fits in perfectly with the theme of the film and the parallel structure between the hunter and the hunted.  It is poetry, folks, not a 19th century novel by Thomas Hardy.  Don’t judge it by those standards.


          Martin McDonagh’s Comedy/Drama   

                        “In Bruges” (2008)

If you thought that the best part of Quentin Tarentino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994), Tarentino’s best film, was the conversation between the bright quasi-religious Samuel Jackson character and the grab-the-moment junkie John Travolta character, then writer-director Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” (2008) is for you.

After several years of fairly run-of-the bill Hollywood big budget productions, often even with fine directors—such as Michael Mann in “Miami Vice” (2006), Terrence Malick in “The New World” (2005), and Oliver Stone in “Alexander” (2004)—Colin Farrell shows us he can act in a character-driven comedy.  He is a hitman who has screwed up his first big job. 

Luckily for Farrell and the audience, McDonagh has paired Farrell with Brendan Gleeson, the star of “The General” (1998), in which Gleeson played the real-life Martin Cahill, an Irish gangster and cultural icon for the Dublin Irish on the dole.  Gleeson’s character roles have kept him as busy as anyone in the business—e.g. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (2007), “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005), “Troy” (2004), “Gangs of New York” (2002), etc.

 The disgruntled young man and the perhaps gay older man, who is more interested in the culture of Bruges than in sex with any of its citizens, have a relationship due to their work—killing people at the command of London Gangster Ralph Fiennes, whose acting talent is unquestioned.  Whether as a voice on a long distance telephone call or as an angry man with a gun walking the streets of Bruges , whether the film creates comedy or drama, Farrell, Gleeson and Fiennes are at their best.  How can the audience lose?

They can’t, but don’t come to this film with any false expectations.  Yes, there are religious and philosophical overtones in the dialog, just as in “Pulp Fiction,” but always in the context of two Irish gangsters and a formerly working class English boss—lots of the “f” word.  Don’t bring small children and be selective in bringing children in their early teens.  They may react like Farrell’s character and not understand the humor of taking two Irish hitmen and dropping them into a “fairy tale” Belgian city.  Farrell’s character’s description of Bruges is “a shithole.”

Just be ready to laugh.  You know what is coming, and the anticipation is as pleasant as the often underplayed delivery of the lines and the finality of the action.  Have a good time.