Search This Blog

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Better to See You With, My Dear 12/25

Okay, I've got a handful of movies to talk about this week. The blizzard coupled with the fact that I live in the Benson Dubois Apartments (as in, "Shovel out yo' own damn self!") meant that I stayed in a bit more than usual this week, and, as such, had more time for movie viewing.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

The plot: A bizarre murder in the Louvre pairs an American Professor (Tom Hanks) and a French Detective (Audrey Tautou) in a race to unravel the cryptic clues before they are captured or killed by the police or a mysterious religious faction in Ron Howard's film of Dan Brown's best-selling novel.

Thankfully, the movie doesn't take as long to get going as the book did, and it is quite a ride. It's hard to say too much about what happens in this movie without revealing any of the surprises to those who haven't seen it or read the book, so forgive me if I'm a bit cryptic myself. At times the movie seems a little bit too proud of its own special effects, but a great deal of effort is made to dramatize the historical references of the story. Otherwise, it would be a little talky. If you haven't read the book, can you follow the movie? I'd say yes. If you have read the book, is the movie still interesting? Less so, but it's a fun way to re-live the story.

The Message (1976)

Plot: A biography of the prophet Mohammed and the birth of Islam.

It is highly offensive to the people of Islam to depict the image of Mohammed in any way, shape or form. So, how does one make a film biography of the prophet without ever showing his face? The answer, cliche though it may be, is: very carefully.
And if I were to sum up this movie in one word, it would be "careful." From a historical (or quasi-historical) perspective, The Message is an interesting film. Narratively, it's a bit melodramatic (even the masterful Anthony Quinn seems a bit soap-opera-ish at times). Is it particularly thought-provoking or challenging? Not really. This falls more into the "educational" category. Now, there are two terrific battle sequences, though a sword fight between Mohammed and an Arab enemy gets a little confusing (and almost hokey) since we can only see the prophet's sword. Even though the movie was made in 1976, the cinematography feels about ten years older, which isn't always a bad thing, but it is so often enough to drag down this film. The most difficult element, of course, is including Mohammed in the story as an active participant. There's a lot of scenes where another character comes out of a room, after ostensibly speaking to Mohammed, and says "The prophet says . . ." Another chosen solution is to have characters speak to the camera, as though the camera is Mohammed. But unfortunately, we can't hear Mohammed's voice either, so the "conversations" are mildly awkward monologues. (Thankfully, the director had the wisdom not to have the camera bob up and down for "yes" or side to side for "no.") One continual gaffe, though, is, right after one of these conversations where a group of characters is speaking to the camera, the director cuts to a wide shot, which Mohammed, of course is not in. Apparently, in addition to being a conduit of God's word, Mohammed was also a champion hide-and-seeker. (You know, sometimes I just ask for trouble, don't I?)
At three hours long, this movie is really only for the curious. If you want to spend more than a couple of hours watching a desert epic, rent Lawrence of Arabia.

Dracula (Spanish version) (1931)

Plot: Ancient Vampire Count Dracula purchases Carfax Abbey adjacent to Dr. Seward's sanitarium, and takes a particular interest in Dr. Seward's daughter, Eva, en espanol.

As an alternative to dubbing, Universal Studios opted to shoot a few of their films on the same sets with a different, Spanish-speaking cast. Dracula, was one of these films. Now, before I watched the Spanish version, I decided to watch the English version once again, and do a sort of side-by-side comparison. The trouble is that I couldn't decide whether to watch the originally-scored version or the newly-scored (1999) version with music composed by Philip Glass and performed by the Kronos Quartet. So I watched them both. (Don't judge me!)

I must say, though I prefer Bela Lugosi's count, Carlos Villarias is also very effective. (At times, I felt his interpretation was very similar to Christopher Lee's count, some 25 years later.) Overall, I'd have to agree with many of the critics who bow to the Spanish version as being superior. It's more passionate, the camera work is significantly more interesting, and Lupita Tovar (as Eva in this version instead of Mina) is far more charming and comely than Helen Chandler's Mina. (Who is no slouch by any means.) For Dracula fans and/or film buffs, this is one worth seeing.

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

Plot: A war-time love story between an ambulance driver (Gary Cooper) and a nurse (Helen Hayes) during World War I.

I'm not normally one for big, melodramatic love stories (and this is one of the earliest), but I do like this movie. This film literally shows its age -- the print from which it was taken is worn, and there may even be scenes missing, but the story (by Hemingway) ages well. Papa didn't care for the "ambiguous" ending the studio gave his story, but, hey, it's Hollywood. Touching, well-acted, and impressive special effects (especially considering the year) make this a movie for movie lovers.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Plot: I don't want to give too much away. Suspense and intrigue from Alfred Hitchcock.

As much as I like Hitchcock's own remake of this with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day in 1956, I really think I like the original best. Yes, this is early Hitchcock and some of his experimental photography misses the mark at times, but, mostly, this version is far more witty, suspenseful, and atmospheric. And Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role? Not to be missed. A real villain's villain.

The Brother's Grimm (2005)

Plot: Fictionalized portrayal of Jakob (Heath Ledger) and Wilhelm Grimm (Matt Damon) as a pair of goblin hunters from Monty Python's Terry Gilliam.

I follow the Pythons with a certain loyalty, so I've seen Jabberwocky, Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, and most of the other films that Gilliam has helmed. While I am usually a big fan of the atmosphere he creates in his movies, I tend to be disappointed by the loss of narrative thread midway through or the sometimes hackneyed resolutions at the end.
Not so with The Brothers Grimm. It's fun, fast-paced, and, though not all of the questions are answered, an overall fun film. Great performances throughout and a really great looking film.

Sweet Land (2005)

Plot: (from Set in 1920, Inge travels from Norway to rural Minnesota meet the man destined to be her husband. Bureaucracy and social morality cause major complications.

Though this movie has a 2005 release date, I was fortunate to still catch it at the Chez Artiste. Wow, what a beautiful and charming movie! I've seen a handful of independent films lately that I found to be very disappointing. They've felt rushed, amateurish, and a bit full of themselves. This movie is none of those things, and an absolute delight! See it. See it. See it! This movie is my highest recommendation of the week.

Okay. All for now. Relish life, support local theatre, and please, please, please, remember theatre etiquette: Hush, keep your feet on the floor (or at least off the seats in front of you), and ixnay on the origami with your Heath bar wrapper!

No comments: