Volume 2, Number 16
This Week's Reviews: U-571, Gossip.
Retrospective Reviews: The Bicycle Thief.
This Week's Omissions: Family Tree, Love and Basketball, Not One Less.
(Dir: Jonathan Mostow, Starring Matthew McConaughey, Harvey Keitel, Jake Weber, Erik Palladino, Matthew Settle, David Keith, Bill Paxton, Jon Bon Jovi, Thomas Kretschmann, Robin Askwith, Terrence Carson, Derk Cheetwood, Will Estes, Tom Guiry, Jack Noseworthy, and Dave Power)
BY: DAVID PERRY
It has been three years since Jonathan Mostow made a film, an absence that I actually did notice. Back in 1997 he came out with Breakdown, one of the year's most thrilling and enjoyable action films. When he made a small appearance behind the camera for one of the episodes of the From the Earth to the Moon miniseries I wondered why he was not making another film. Unfortunately, his anticipated follow through was not near as good.
Yes, U-571 is thrilling, and does have some enjoyable moments, but for the most part it is rather lackluster. I was surprised at how simple Mostow's direction was. A simple Das Boot claustrophobic helming is expected, but to make the film based on the assumption that to homage is enough is a mistake.
The United States is in the middle of World War II and the Germans have a reign on the high seas. It looks like the best way to save the US Navy is to somehow tap into the lines of the German code, a code that is now open for grabbing from a vessel, the German sub U-571, that is awaiting help from German boats in the middle of the Atlantic. A US destroyed heads out to take over the sub, steal the code, and sink the sub, all before the German auxiliary can get there.
To go much beyond this would be a poor choice, much of the film's appeal is that it remains unpredictable at times (this is not to say that the film is never clichéd, which is rather often). But there is one thing that might be of note: after the fiasco over the historical inaccuracy of The Hurricane, U-571 has the exact same problem. Too often we suppose that films that call themselves non-fiction are actually true throughout, but there is much in The Hurricane, Erin Brockovich, and Boys Don't Cry that steer away from the true story. U-571 is an American propaganda film; it is a "look at how great Americans really are" film, even though the real people to note for this is the British. The film masquerades as the story of the first steeling of the enigma machine, even though Americans were probably the third or fourth to do so.
The cast is fine, for what it's worth, though there is really nothing in their performances to leave the viewer star struck. This is the first dramatic lead for McConaughey since A Time to Kill and his ill preparation is rather noticeable. I, of course, adore Harvey Keitel and he did give a certain essence to every one of his scenes, even if it is not one of his greatest performances. There were some performances in the lower ranks that could have been excised, but what do you expect, The Hunt for the Red October?
The screenplay is proper, however simple it may be. There is not a grand deal of dialogue in the film, but the scenario's are nothing to frown upon. Sure, we have seen some of these problems before in films, but sometimes a refreshing approach to an overused set-up can be, well, refreshing. Mostow did a better job writing Breakdown, but I think that the superiority of that film has been well documented.
To put it simply, U-571 is not as good as Crimson
Tide, The Hunt for the Red October, or many other adventure on the seas
films, but there is not that much to hate about.
(Dir: David Guggenheim, Starring Lena Headey, James Marsden, Norman Reedus, Kate Hudson, Joshua Jackson, Marisa Coughlan, Sharon Lawrence, Edward James Olmos, Eric Bogosian, Debrah Farentino, and Marc Hickox)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Slick, attractive, suave, engrossing, and disappointing, all words that could refer to Gossip. So much was on the side of the film, a fine cast, an interesting premise, an able director, yet nothing can save it from a horrendous ending. This marks the fourth time to my recollection that a sex-based dramatic thriller has left me with a frown at the end after a fine early portion. But this is the first time that the horrid ending has left me giving the film a negative review. In all actuality, it is a mixed review, but for all intensive purposes I'm not recommending the film.
Roger Ebert contintinually bashes films that finish with an ending that disregards the rest of the film. Hence the reason that many lying narration and dream sequence films are panned by him. I, of course, have come to terms with this, one of my favorite films from this decade happens to be a lying narration (I shall not tell what film for those that have somehow kept from seeing it). What really gets to me is when a film thinks that it is much smarter than the audience by throwing in twists that go far beyond plausibility. Gossip is merely culprit number four, but it is the hardest to handle. Where Palmetto, Suicide Kings, and Wild Things lost everything in a convoluted finale, they were only modest achievements in the first place. Gossip, on the other hand, was a truly interesting and enjoyable film before it took such a misstep.
The film's premise is interesting: a group of college students (despite angry New York critics complaining, there is nothing that says this film is actually set in New York, much less NYU) set out to start a rumor and trace it for a class (taught by Eric Bogosian, of all people). Their rumor spirals into a comparison of the truth and the lies, and finally one of the characters finds refuge in the local police. With this, the instigator of all this, Jones (Headey) begins to feel bad about what her idea has done and searches to fix her mistake. However, she does not know how into this rumor her two cohorts (Marsden and Reedus) have gotten and their unreliability.
The storyline is by far one of the more original ideas of the year; every single turn of the film's first hour and twenty minutes seem to come from nowhere with consequences and epiphanies that make up the heart of great films, but nothing can go beyond the loss of the audience in the final reel.
I liked the performers, a true surprise considering my normal disgust for James Marsden. Lena Headey gives a grand performance as the creator and, later, the denouncer of this rumor. She brought much to the film that was needed, a carefully crafted acting style from Shakespearean background.
And the film looks magnificent. The art direction by David Nichols and Michelle Convey capture that dapper, new age wealth of the college elite. I was somewhat reminded of the production design behind The Skulls, not as being the same, but as being the antithesis of it. While both ensured that the viewer understood the amount of cash behind these characters (at least in the case of Gossip, one character), The Skulls does so with a murky and dark design as opposed to the Gossip's lush and colorful design. Additional attention should be pointed towards Andrzej Bartkowiak, who went far beyond the work he had done recently with his directorial debut Romeo Must Die.
In many ways, my high pleasure from the film's first hour
and twenty minutes should be enough to call for a recommendation compared to Wild
Things, which remained mediocre throughout. But, for Gossip the fall
from grace was much more fatal.
Retrospective Reviews: A fine time to review a great film I saw recently, De Sica's The Bicycle Thief.
|The Bicycle Thief
(Dir: Vittorio De Sica, Starring Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda,Vittorio Antonucci, Guilio Chiari, Elena Altieri, and Carlo Jachino)
BY: DAVID PERRY
To consider a film to be a classic has become passé over years. Now just about any film older than 25 is considered to be a classic, and often critics and theorists, myself included, apply the oxymoron "modern classic" to new films. Look at the Kerr/Grant vehicle An Affair to Remember. There are many that would attest this film to be a classic thanks to its well liked leads and age (from 1957), but most any film aficionado would attest that it is merely a older version of recent day sob story romance films. It is pure melodrama mush that should never be placed against the likes of well-regarded "classics" like Citizen Kane and 8½.
Now look at The Bicycle Thief from Vittorio De Sica, a film that has been named one of the best films all time by the prestigious Sight and Sound Magazine poll of film critics and filmmakers. In fact The Bicycle Thief has been noted by many famous film directors as one of their favorites, names like John Huston, King Vidor, Fred Zinnemann, and Stanley Kubrick.
This is truly the heart of Italian films. I don't care who's toes I'm about to step on, but in my opinion, Federico Fellini never made a film better than De Sica's The Bicycle Thief. Yes, Fellini was the better director, producing many more films of note than De Sica, who would turn out making flighty comedies like After the Fox late in his career, but this single film is the best of Italian cinema, from the best period for the country, a period called the Neorealist period.
This time span was sparked off by the fascist regime of World War II erasing the economy leaving filmmakers forced to do their best with little funds. As such, the Neorealist films were shot outside of studios with minimal resources. For that very reason they tend to look better than the big Hollywood films of the time, having a certain realistic tone of production. It seems that directors work incredibly well under the pressure of economic digress, look at Orson Welles' Macbeth (in which he had to steal most of the set and costumes from others productions) and Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Caligari (in which he had to paint on shadows to the set to save on lighting).
With this film De Sica takes a problem that faced the country at the time, the lack of work and the utter importance of a single job. The film is about the frightful day for a man and his son as they search for his bike, an important part to keeping his bare minimum job. A young kid and a old beggar work together to get this bike away from well meaning Ricci (Maggiorani), who can only do his new job as a posterman if he has a bicycle. Now he dwells the city of Rome looking for this bike in dire fear of what its loss means. He goes everywhere from a mystery in a bike show to a confrontation in church to a painfully ambiguous meeting with a prophet.
Here is no story of love, no story of melodrama, it simply the story of loss and pain. What is so haunting about the film is its message, the way a man can be eaten by society. Ricci is no hero, he makes many mistakes through the run of the film. To put it simply, he is like a real person. There are no moments in the film of grand utterances by intellectuals, nearly every character is in poverty, no one says a word that could be considered to be fine thinking, yet the story progresses without flaw. This is done by the way De Sica and cinematographer Carlo Montuori move the film. There is that lost sense, that painful silence that makes a film here, all in the way people are shown, either as a close-up stance or long range, far from the maddening crowd.
In fact the film features my choice for the single greatest camera shot of the 1940's. It occurs towards the end as Ricci's son sees the extent his father has fallen from grace. There is a sullen approach to the shot that grasps me and never lets go, even beyond the film's beautiful closing shot. De Sica takes the fine acting from young Enzo Staiola (who had never been in a film beforehand) and extends it to tell what is happening. Part of the sequence's attraction is summed up in that single, two second shot.
Today, The Bicycle Thief, its tone, and its message can be pushed to the side as simply old politics, a saddening fact. We live in a state of economic bliss and rarely take the time to look back at when we were not so happy. To watch this film on a DVD in a nice air conditioned house feels lightly pertinent. I feel worse for Ricci and company when I think what if I was in that scenario, in that much fear over a small possession, with a life and family completely dependent on this piece of property.
I have only seen one print of this film, a poor quality print to say the least. The sound is incredibly muffled and the video is scratched beyond repair. Plus, there is the fact that only 75% of the film's Italian words are actually translated in the subtitles, much to my dismay. Yet this film goes beyond such impediments. It may sound flighty, but maybe there is a aesthetic feeling to such grainy quality, that this is the best that money can get, this is as far as material can go on such a cheaply made film.
Nevertheless, the film is testament to why we watch
films. It grasps the viewer and is never forgotten, justly called a classic.