> Volume 3 > Number 4

Volume 3, Number 4

This Week's Reviews:  Shadow of the Vampire, Apocalypse Now.

This Week's Omissions:  A Time for Drunken Horses, Sugar and Spice, The Wedding Planner.

Video Reviews:  An Affair of Love, The Five Senses.

Shadow of the Vampire

(Dir: E. Elias Merhige, Starring John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Eddie Izzard, Catherine McCormack, Ronan Vilbert, Aden Gillett, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Nicholas Elliott, Derek Kueter, Sophie Langevin, Tania Marzen, Myriam Muller, and Orian Williams)



E. Elias Merhige's fable on the production of Nosferatu is one of those Hollywood enigmas, those films that help people understand what it is to be a filmmaker, an insider. No, it does not strive to be The Player or stumble like An Alan Smithee Movie: Burn, Hollywood, Burn, but it does have its own little niche to fill. In all actuality, I cannot think of any film that I've seen exactly like it. It may be another film-within-a-film picture, but it does so much more with the film that historical precedence is thrown to the wind.

In fact, I would come much closer to calling Shadow of the Vampire a revisionist film than a satirist. It does not ploy with pithy values and self-aggrandizing moments -- it is more independent than most films to come out in the last year. Shadow of the Vampire is not a lesson in film history, but a loving memory of a film that changed so much so long ago. Seeing Shadow of the Vampire without having seen Nosferatu is admissible but certainly frowned upon. The love that this film feels for the F. W. Murnau classic can only be felt to its utmost when you too love that film.

And E. Elias Merhige without a doubt loves it. In fact, I'd say that he probably considers it to be one of the foundations to his film career. A cult-director, Merhige has strained to make a film that could be seen as testament to a director's love while bringing a great film to the fore.

But, for Merhige, the history lesson is much closer to a fractured fairy tale. In this world, Nosferatu's lead actor, Max Schreck, is much more than a character actor in makeup -- in fact he is a real vampire. Considering the lack of information these days about Schreck and the film's director Murnau, it is no surprise that a toying version of the film's production could be made. Schreck was never really well known, a German stage actor that only played two big characters in his career (Rasputin and Nosferatu's Count Orlock). It seems weird that he was a real person considering that his last name actually means "terror" in German.

Murnau, on the other hand, was a megalomaniac perfectionist that would do nearly anything to get his movies made. As I watched John Malkovich portray Murnau on the screen in such a fashion, I was reminded of the time when Murnau co-directed Tabu with Robert Flaherty and then bought out Flaherty's half of the film so that he could have the only word on the production. I have no doubt that Murnau would have done anything for the films he made, including the far fetched idea that transpires in Shadow of the Vampire.

So what is the twist that Merhige brings to his film? Well, according to Shadow of the Vampire, Murnau (Malkovich) hires a real vampire (Dafoe) to play his Count Orlock. That's right, Max Schreck is merely a figment of F.W. Murnau's imagination, a name given to a real bloodsucker impersonating a method actor. When the other actors question the unusual production times and AWOL lead actor, they are simply blamed on an unusual and demanding actor -- not knowing that it is really simply a problem with being out in the sun. In return for his performance, Murnau agrees to let Schreck really eat his leading lady, Greta Schröder on the last day of filming.

I like the route that Merhige has decided to go with -- it is quirky and entertaining. My only real complaint is the fact that it leans a little too much to campiness. The new story alone is off-the-wall enough, but the constant upstaging that unfolds becomes too upsetting to the structure of what could have been a truly magical film. There is one moment in which we see Schreck react to seeing his first sunrise in ages through Murnau's dailies. It is literally one of the most beautiful moments in cinema ever. The only problem is that it is moments before we are subjected to watching him grab a bat midair and suck the blood of it to the surprise and interest of his co-stars.

Willem Dafoe is a delight here -- the best performance in his long career. He seethes the characteristics of an elderly vampire lost on a film set, a character and a performance that I cannot say I've ever seen before. Dafoe is perfectly cast and should get an Oscar nomination for the film -- he has long deserved one, but never quite so much.

Malkovich, on the other hand, seems a little over the top for his own good. I really think that he is a fine actor, but it would be great to see him in something that does not leave the impression of play actor getting lost on a Hollywood set. He's about at wide-eyed off the wall as the Schreck character, just not in a good way.

Yet I still really liked this film for those moments that went beyond the obligations of a farce. Merhige has made a film that will probably be remembered very fondly in twenty years, something that might show with its predecessor in some college or art house with mad lighting and horrible seating. It'll be the perfect double feature: the magic of silent cinema and the eccentricity of modern cinema.


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Apocalypse Now

(Dir: Francis Ford Coppola, Starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, G.D. Spradlin, Harrison Ford, Jerry Zeismer, Scott Glenn, and Bo Byers)



One of the finest novels I ever read in high school was Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Its poignant story with a backdrop filled with more symbolism than a normal human can comprehend was just what enough to quench my thirst for flawless storytelling on the printed page. And, like most any novel I have ever read, I read it after seeing its film version -- I was a huge fan of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, a Vietnam parallel to Conrad's novel, long before ever turning the first page.

What made the two stories, which are different in as many ways as they are alike, so profound was that both stood so well on their own. Apocalypse was just as incredible after reading the novel and the novel was just as mind-blowing knowing what happened from the film. The genius of both Conrad and Coppola is found in each work, arguably the best of their respective careers (I happen to be a Godfather devotee, but I can see how some would consider Apocalypse Now to be better).

Where Conrad's Marlowe heads up the Congo River as an appointed captain of a ship en route to meet a highly respected chief named Kurtz who's treated as a god by his African lackeys, Coppola's Willard (Sheen) heads up the Nung River as an appointed assassin of a mission en route to kill a highly respected colonel named Kurtz (Brando) who's treated as a god by his Cambodian lackeys. Much of what happens to the lead character of Marlowe is Vietnamized for the screen, making an overzealous general manager into an overzealous bombing lieutenant (Academy Award nominated Duvall), an introspective Russian trader under the thumb of Kurtz into an introspective American photojournalist (Hopper) under the thumb of Kurtz.

Coppola brings the story to the screen in a fashion that is more fitting than a straight adaptation. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, so much of the story is in its literary mood, something that is incredibly hard to capture on celluloid. Turning the story into something that nearly every American knows, the film becomes more than simply a loose adaptation, retaining the aspects of Conrad's novel while being completely respectable on its own.

Apocalypse Now is still the story of a man journeying into an oblivion of darkness, not knowing exactly how threatening it can get, but also about the Vietnam War, and the way violence took over the hearts of people that had never held a gun before. There are characters so baby-faced in this film that it is harrowing to watch them shoot the guns that kill fellow beings. There's Lance (Bottoms), a famous surfer that cowers and screams when violence is at hand and there's 17-year old Miller (a 14-year old Fishburne) who holds a machine gun called 'Canned Heat' like it is a play toy.

The year before Apocalypse Now was released, America had just seen the war between two Vietnam films, which would go head-to-head at the Academy Awards a mere three months before Apocalypse Now was released at the Cannes Film Festival (where it shared the Palme d'Or with The Tin Drum). Nevertheless, Apocalypse Now took a role that was not fulfilled by either The Deer Hunter or Coming Home. Where those two films looked at what happened to Vietnam veterans when they made the journey back to the states, Apocalypse Now is about what they went through while still fighting.

Apocalypse Now was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, but only won two (for the incredible work of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and sound designers Richard Beggs, Mark Berger, Nathan Boxer, and Walter Murch), losing Best Picture and Best Director to Annie Hall. Perhaps it was too soon to look back at the Hell in Vietnam, for today, no one would ever question which of the two films is better.

It would be seven years before the Vietnam War was dealt with in such an adult manner with Oliver Stone's tour de force Platoon. For the early part of the eighties, films changed and the grand masters of the seventies (Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman) had to change with the times -- only two of them (Scorsese and Altman) still retain the respect they had back then. Today, people deal with harrowing stories of war like they are riding a carousel. If Roland Emmerich's The Patriot had just come closer to realism than patriotism, it might have been a grand achievement. Some might say that there will never be a war like Vietnam again -- with the youth of America dying on the field of some distant land. Technology is better, and weapons are more strategic than a flank of a thousand landing on a Viet-Cong village.

Francis Ford Coppola's film reminds us of why we never want that again. For all the war hawks in the world, it is tough to feel good about Vietnam after seeing it recreated on celluloid in films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Today, even having never served one moment in the trenches or in the swamps of some warring country, we have seen the darkness that eats the souls of mortal men and left them grasping for that one piece of humanity left.

When looking through reference material for this film, I found a quote by Nietzsche that perfectly fits the point of Conrad's novel and Coppola's film: "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze too long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."


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Video Review:  These reviews were supposed to be out last week when the films went out on video, but a problem in the mail kept me from seeing the An Affair of Love and The Five Senses until later.  Nevertheless, they are two very good films and they merited noting, so here they are in late reviews.

An Affair of Love

(Dir: Frédéric Fonteyne, Starring Nathalie Baye, Sergi Lopez, Jacques Viala, Paul Pavel, Sylvie Van Den Elsen, Pierre Géranio, Hervé Sogne, and Christophe Sermet)



"It was a pornographic affair -- that's it, a purely and expressly pornographic affair. That's pornography: it's sex, nothing but sex, only sex. We were there just for the sex. Well, a special kind of sex."

Frédéric Fonteyne's film An Affair of Love (Une Liaison Pornographique) is about so much more that simply an affair -- every facet of its appeal is in the characters and the emotions that plague them as they live through an affair.

Elle (Baye) is a relatively successful, Frenchwoman. All her life she has had fantasies, sexual fantasies that could be carried out. Some of them have come to life -- others have not. When one fantasy finally sparks her undeniable interest, she places an ad in a sex magazine. A few days later, she makes contact with Lui (Lopez) in a café and the two slip off to a nearby hotel room.

What happens in the room is not our business, neither is the fantasy. Afterwards, they agree to meet again the next Tuesday, which soon becomes a weekly and biweekly arrangement. But, of course, only one thing can come from people being so intimate for so long and the two begin to have something that might be considered a normal relationship. One afternoon, they agree to do more than a simply tryst and have real sexual intercourse. Only then are we present to see what is going on inside the hotel room.

Like Kenneth Lonergan's recent You Can Count on Me, An Affair of Love is much more about the people than the events. Following characters that are more realistic than Hollywood could ever create, Fonteyne's film is an exquisite look at the sociology of sex partners. Neither of these individuals know anything about each other -- Elle and Lui are merely the names that we are given in the closing credits, having never heard them shared between the two (somewhat reminiscent of the six speaking characters in Neil LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors).

From a screenplay by Phillippe Blasband, An Affair of Love is a beautiful story of adults dealing with the troubles that a relationship can stem, even when it's initial intent is for mere pleasure. It is definitely French, their style often sooths off the screen unlike any other country's productions. So often, American films talk below the intellect of the audience, but French films usually remain intellectually stimulating -- rarely ever talking up to the audience (with the exception of films like Little Indian, Big City, and Les Visiteurs).

Nathalie Baye and Sergi Lopez are remarkable actors, giving their all in roles that could have easily been lost in one-dimensional, quirky characters. Baye, who has an elegance that so many middle aged European actresses have especially the stunning Isabelle Huppert, could have made the part another sex-starved woman, a prostitute without the money, but the humanity that she puts in the character as the film continues is so near reality that it can only leave you in awe. Lopez does a fine job, doing just enough to keep from being completely overshadowed by Baye.

The film is never boring, never repetitive, and never cloying. The only problem is in the narrative, which is a mistaken use of documentary filmmaking. But it stands unmistakably beautiful nevertheless. An Affair of Love is one of the finest imports of 2000, giving a gracious look at life, regardless of language.


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The Five Senses

(Dir: Jeremy Podeswa, Starring Mary Louise Parker, Daniel MacIvor, Pascale Bussieres, Richard Clarkin, Brendan Fletcher, Marco Leonardi, Nadia Litz, Molly Parker, Gabrielle Rose, Tara Rosling, Philippe Volter, Elize Frances Stolk, Clinton Walker, and James Allodi)



Jeremy Podeswa's The Five Senses could have been an overbearing, pretentious mess, but in the end it comes off as one of the finest films of 2000. Looking at characters enshrined in their own obsession with one of the five senses, the film is about human emotions that can complete or tear us apart. Those little things in life, those choices that seem unimportant but make all the difference in the world.

The film surrounds five people as they deal with life in Toronto during a citywide search for a lost daughter. There's Ruth (Rose), a masseuse who was touching the lost child's mother during the disappearance; there's Rachel (Litz), Ruth's daughter and the person watching the child during the disappearance.

Meanwhile, across town, there's Rona (Parker), a cake maker oblivious to the fact that her baked goods taste disgusting; there's her friend Robert (MacIvor), a bisexual male that has become obsessed with finding the love of his life by smelling his lovers.

And, in the story that haunted me the most, there's Richard (Volter), an optometrist that has recently learned that he is losing his hearing. Where each story stood well on its own (with the possible exception of Rose's story, which is kind of lost in Rachel's story), Richard's was without a doubt the one that left me utterly astounded. His decision to record sounds and listen to them constantly to have a mental record of the sounds he will lose is heartbreaking. When he hires a prostitute, not knowing that her daughter was born deaf, and turns out simply listening to classical music with her is one of the finest moments in cinema this year.

But Richard's is not the only story that has a lesser character that changes much of what he does. Each story has lesser characters that make them. Rose has Anna (Parker), the mother of the lost child that blames Rose for the disappearance. Rachel has Rupert (Fletcher), the boy that took her to side of the park leaving the little girl alone.

Rona has Roberto (Leonardi), a lover she had in Italy that has followed her to Canada -- she fears that he is only there for admission into the country. Robert has Gail (Bussières), the owner of the house that he cleans for a living -- she happens to be a perfume maker working on a mix that could fulfill his desires for the stench of love.

For me, The Five Senses served as much more than simply a comparison of the different senses and how they touch different people. It is also a bit of a look at society in Canada. For those that are working class in this film (Rose and Anna, Rachel and Rupert), the problems are much deeper but not forever lasting. When they are in pain, it seems like it is horrible but something that they will make it through.

Those that are upper-middle class (Rona and Roberto, Robert and Gail), the problems seem so simple, so inconsequential. For them, these are some of the worst things that have happened in their entire lives, but in comparison they are really nothing. They ache and think everything over when these problems really do not matter in the whole body of the film. So what if Rona does not know how to make a cake? So what if Robert cannot find the smell of love on his ex-lovers? These are matters that really are nothing to care about compared to losing a child and worrying that it is your fault. Nevertheless, for Rona and Robert, these are matters of great trepedation.

But the one character that is upper class is the one that has a real problem that is life changing. Richard really does have problems that he cannot fix, that he cannot forget, and that he does not have a return. When he goes deaf, there is nothing that can be done. He should be the character with the happiest life, living in a swank apartment with a great deal of money. But he mopes around and worries -- he has nothing else to do.

I'm not considering Jeremy Podeswa to be as good as Jean Renoir or The Five Senses to be as good as The Rules of the Game or The Grand Illusion. But he does deserve some credit for retaining the respectability of this film. With most anyone else at the helm (I have Mike Figgis on mind at this moment), this could have been pretentious and cloying.

One matter of this film that really struck me was the score by Alexina Louie and Alex Pauk, which is as better than most of highly praised scores this year. It is better than the Gerrard/Zimmer music for Gladiator (which I was quite the fan of) and the Maurice Jarre score for Sunshine. Sure, it's not to the point of genius like Carter Burwell's score for Before Night Falls or Clint Mansell's work on Requiem for a Dream, but it is still remarkable all the same.

Nearly all the actors give performances that this film deserves. Young Nadia Litz could easily work in a Todd Solondz film; Gabrielle Rose gives another performance along the lines of her great The Sweet Hereafter accomplishment; Daniel MacIvor could have a great future in comedic roles; Philippe Volter gives a performance comparable to some of the great films he has had small roles in (Blue, The Double Life of Veronique, Cyrano de Bergerac); and even old Mary-Louise Parker does a respectable job, something that I would have never expected after seeing Boys on the Side or Fried Green Tomatoes.

The Five Senses stands as one of the better films to pop out of the woodworks this past year. Canadian feature or not, Jeremy Podeswa's film masters many cinematic techniques that would shame many a Hollywood producer. If directorial prowess is a sixth sense, Jeremy Podeswa certainly has something that Jerry Bruckheimer lacks.


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Reviews by:
David Perry