Saturday, February 26, 2011

FLASHDANCE (Adrian Lyne, 1983)

Flashdance, USA, 1983
Dir: Adrian Lyne
Starring: Jennifer Beals, Michael Nouri

There is something unique about the 1980s in regards to the movies being produced, the music being recorded and the fashion and culture popularized during the time. The decades that preceded the 80s, the 1960s and 70s produced some of the great artists of the 20th century including The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Woody Allen, and the Bee Gees. The culture of the 80s washed away everything old and introduce something new and radical. The technological boom of the decade gave us game boys and walkman's, big hair bands and the franchise movie. Flashdance is one of those movies that tries to wash away the music of the 70s, the southern rock bands, and the disco ball, and showcase the music of the modern era which was synth-infused, energized pop.

The soundtrack is one of the most impressive assets of Flashdance, and film won an Academy Award for best original song for “Flashdance… What a Feeling.” The cinematography and editing also received nominations. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Adrian Lyne, this was his breakthrough and he would go on to direct other well-regarded movies such as 9 ½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction and Jacob’s Ladder. Despite being a huge box office hit (it grossed nearly $100 million in the United States alone), Flashdance remains an underrated flick that’s mostly known for its music and dance scenes. There is a lot more than makes up this film. It is evident that the filmmakers were trying to create something different and it ended up being that and much more.

Lyne and co. took a derivative plot and turned it into an iconic film. Flashdance is the story of a young woman who works as a welder in the day and dances at a bar at night, and retains hopes of being a professional dancer one day. Meanwhile, she is courted by her handsome, older boss, and practices for an audition with a top dance school. All you have to do is look at the images and you will see how shockingly distinctive this film is. The movie is a lot darker than it lets on. There is a lot of crude sexual imagery, such as when Beals removes her bra from underneath her infamous collarless shirt while on a date with her boss, or the scene in which she dines at a table, and erotically sucks on pieces of lobster meat. This is the work of a very stylish director, and Lyne had much practice as a commercial director in his native England before moving on to feature films.

Lyne’s movie career began in 1980, when he directed Jodie Foster in the female coming-of-age film Foxes. He followed it up with Flashdance, and soon turned to more serious fare. In 1987, he was nominated for Best Director at the Oscars for Fatal Attraction. He continued to make thoughtful, adult-themed films throughout the 90s including Indecent Proposal and Lolita. His last film, Unfaithful, scored its star Diane Lane the first Academy Award nod of her career. He has since taken a break from filmmaking and his first project in 10 years is said to be in production right now, Back Roads, based on the novel by Tawni O'Dell.

Flashdance is more than just a time capsule of the 80s. It is a musically-themed picture infused with eroticism, spandex and pop music. Most importantly, it’s great entertainment that can never fade away.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, USA, 1962
Dir: Robert Aldrich
Starring: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono

In one of my previous entries, a reader remarked how surprising it was that certain films, chosen by me, were amongst other films that were categorized as being underrated or generally unrecognized. Today, I’m going to discuss a little bit about a film holds a certain infamy, and some might question the authenticity of it being a film that holds place as an understated one, when in fact, it is a much celebrated and Oscar-winning production. The reason why I think this movie deserves mention as an underrated film, is because it has been miscategorized as a melodrama, when it should really be categorized as a horror film. In fact, I would probably list this film as one of the most frightening horror movies ever made. The movie I am referring to is Robert Aldrich’s 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

The film stars two classic, golden age actresses, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford. The two legends were in the twilight of their careers when this film went into production and studio chief Jack Warner even remarked that he "wouldn't give a plugged nickel for either one of those two old broads." The two old broads, however, were cast in the lead roles and the film, on release, became a hit and scored several Academy Award nods including one for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Bette Davis.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? deals with the Hudson sisters, one a former child performer and the other a former Hollywood actress who retired early due to an accident, supposedly perpetrated by her jealous sister, leaving her paralyzed for life. Baby Jane, the former child star, is now an old maid, with a gloomy, wrinkly face, whose lips cover a glass of whisky at every moment of the day. Blanche, her sister, is dependent on her, even though she is to blame for the accident and the end of her career. There are more secrets to reveal before the curtain falls on this picture, but be sure that this is a rather difficult film to watch. Although not initially recognized as such, this is a highly unnerving horror film.

This is, however, a horror film that does not depend on physical violence to scare audiences. This is not a horror film in the way we've become accustomed to it. This is not a slasher film like Halloween, it is not a sci-fi horror film like The Thing, or a tentpole film like Saw. This is a horror film of the mind. It is a psychologically disturbing film. At several moments, I simply could not watch, giving me a sense of claustrophobia, because I was unable to change the actions on screen, there was no way to right the wrongs because what I was experiencing was a fantasy, a piece of cinema, a piece of fiction, nearly 50 years in age.

In real life Davis and Crawford were bitter enemies, a known fact all throughout the world of celebrity and press. In one scene, Davis’ character had to kick Crawford’s character in the face. Bette Davis did it for real. Crawford, in retaliation, would put heavy stones in the pockets of Davis’ costumes making scenes more difficult for her. On Oscar night, Crawford promised fellow nominee Anne Bancroft that if she won, she would accept it on her behalf in case she could not make it. Crawford ended up accepting the award, and walked past castmate Davis telling her shrewdly “I have an Oscar to accept.”

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a shocking film that left me perturbed, and uneasy. The images are hard to forget, the actions are hard to visualize again. But it is an essential film for the serious film student or aspiring filmmaker. This is cinema at its best.

Monday, February 7, 2011

BIUTIFUL (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2010)

Biutiful, 2010, Spain
Dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez

Alejandro González Iñárritu and Javier Bardem are both incredibly talented people. They have such immense ability to move, and to shake, and to change audiences with their work. They possess God-given talent and they show it off in the remarkable 2010 film Biutiful that comes from Bardem’s native Spain. Iñárritu, is of course, originally from Mexico, but currently lives in Los Angeles with his family. Both men are of similar age, González Iñárritu is 47, Bardem will be 42 in March. Both have gained fame as brilliant artists within the last decade.

Javier Bardem rose through the ranks of actors in Spain during the 90s, working on several of Pedro Almovodar films. His break-through came in 2000, in the Oscar-nominated Before Night Falls. In 2004, he starred in The Sea Inside, which chronicled the life of Ramón Sampedro, a man who battled for his right to die after becoming a quadriplegic. In 2007 came his most acclaimed role, that of serial killer Anton Sugar in No Country for Old Men, which scored Bardem an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He worked with Woody Allen in 2008 on Vicky Christina Barcelona, and has since married co-star Penelope Cruz.

Alejandro González Iñárritu started his path as a DJ in the mid-80s. He became director of the most popular radio station among young adults in Mexico City by the end of the decade. He then went into film. He started a production company with a friend, which quickly became the number one production company in Mexico, Z Films. He directed an extended short in 1995, and then again in 1996. He met writer Gulliermo Arriaga and for three years they prepared the script for their first collaboration: the critically acclaimed Amoros Perros. They re-teamed in 2003, this time in Hollywood, and made 21 Grams. In 2006, their teamwork resulted in Babel, which was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. They’ve since stopped working together, and Garriaga went on to direct The Burning Plain, his debut, in 2008.

In 2010, González Iñárritu finally released the long awaited Biutiful. It is an emotionally deep and profound film. A journey of a man who is able to see the dead, forced to raise his two children alone, while his wife suffers from bipolar disorder. He runs a few illegal rackets, but makes enough that keeps everyone happy and is able to feed and house his family. Then he receives the blow that he cannot prevent: cancer. Told by doctors he has only “a couple months” to live, he falls into a depression. Faced with this death sentence, he quickly tries to wrap up enough dough so that his kids will have something to live on. His wife is a whore and an alcoholic and is untrustworthy.

Bardem’s character, Uxbal, is not a saint. He involves himself in the human trafficking market, is a recovering drug addict, and struggles to raise his kids on his own. He is also a man who is on a mission to salvation. He wants to keep his family safe long after he is gone. He also tries his hardest to help the families of the illegal immigrants who are caught selling drugs for him and are deported back to their countries safe and out of harms way as well. The other star of the film is Maricel Alvarez, who plays Marambra, Uxbal’s unstable ex-wife. This is Alvarez’s feature film debut, and she is utterly fantastic as a woman who desperately tries to balance her family duties as well as her constant urge for drugs and alcohol, and self-titled “fun.”

is a difficult tale but essential and important. It is an extraordinary portrait of a man on the way down, who tries everything in his being from falling too far close to the bottom. Co-written, co-produced, and directed by González Iñárritu and shot by Rodrigo Prieto, the vision of the two men, combined with a wonderful score by another frequent collaborator, Gustavo Santaolalla, creates an almost mystical, and transcendent experience. It is nominated for two Academy Awards this year, one for Bardem’s performance, and another as Best Foreign Language Film. Here’s hoping that it wins one or both. It certainly deserves it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

THE CRANES ARE FLYING (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)

The Cranes are Flying, USSR, 1957
Dir: Mikhail Kalatozov
Starring: Tatyana Samojlova, Aleksey Batalov, Vasili Merkuryev

I've started this review several times now. Each time I stop mid-way through and start over again. I don't know how to explain the brilliance of Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying, except to say that it is, in many ways, the Citizen Kane of Russian wartime romances. In as many ways that Orson Welles’s seminal film was technically brilliant, The Cranes Are Flying (Letyat Zhuravli) matches it with quiet and unassuming precision. Take a film, produced only a few years after the death of the world’s most famous dictator who censored all forms of art and film during his reign, a film that revolutionized the Soviet film industry before world cinema was changed by the fast talking French New Wave, and you have 95 minutes that will change the way you think about movies.

The tragic story trails the lost love of Veronika and Boris, a young couple torn apart by the eruption of World War II. The innovative cinematography brought gloriously to the screen by Sergei Urusevsky, is moving art at its finest. Hailed as a masterpiece after its release in 1957, The Cranes Are Flying remains the only Russian film to ever win top honors at the Cannes Film Festival, the prestigious Palme D'or award, in 1958. The film is a gut wrenching emotional ride that is as beautiful to look at as the most prized works of Michelangelo or Van Gogh.

Its lead star is the beautiful, vivacious, dark haired Tatyana Samojlova, who plays Veronika. The infamous movie starlet Norma Desmond, immortalized on screen by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Blvd. described the Silent Movie Era best, “We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!” I noted the French masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc in a previous review, which featured a stunning performance by its lead actress Maria Falconetti. Her performance was enhanced, not limited, by the fact that it was a silent film that featured no dialogue, and no music of any kind. It was her face that made the movie so memorable.

In The Cranes Are Flying, it is Samojlova’s appearance that drives the dagger right into our hearts. She is stunningly beautiful, but there is something unique about her facial structure. It is as if pain and heartbreak was already built into her face, hidden behind gorgeous eyes and lips and nose. Her bravura performance earned her accolades and she was invited to work in Hollywood with the best directors of the period. However, communism was still prevalent in the USSR and she was refused entry into America, a democratic state. Her career was cut short by the fact that she was not allowed to star in films made outside of the Soviet Union. She made only nine more films until she stopped acting altogether in 1975.

The Cranes Are Flying has endured as a landmark film in classic Russian cinema. My only fear is that words are incapable of doing the film proper justice. It is a harrowing account of the horrors of war, and a touching story of love that never came to be. Watch it for yourselves, and you will be pleasantly surprised at a lavishly put together film that speaks to the mind, body and soul of any viewer who observes it.