Category Archives: Classics

Classic Movie Review: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

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It was round 1990 that posters of a pale-faced man with a red cross on his forehead, lying in a coffin and captioned: “Don’t bury me, I’m not dead”, started showing up everywhere at local video stores. It was a fantastic poster and it captured my attention immediately. But I was way too young for what appeared to be a terrifying film (notwithstanding that my parents probably would have allowed me and my sister to rent it had we really wanted to!), so I put it on the back burner.

The film was still lurking in my subconscious when I put together my 2011 list of 25 Films That Scared the Crap Out of Me When I Was a Kid as an honorable mention (just from the poster) even though I had never seen it.

Last week, and 25 years after I first saw the poster, horror master Wes Craven passed away. In the many tributes to the man who brought us iconic franchises such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, I read that one of his more notable solo efforts was The Serpent and the Rainbow. I was a little stunned because, first of all, throughout all these years I never realised that it was Craven who directed it. And secondly, I finally discovered that the terrified face on the poster is actually a young Bill Pullman!

Anyway, as a tribute to Craven, I decided to track down a copy of The Serpent and the Rainbow to put my childhood nightmares to rest. I don’t know what I had expected, but it certainly wasn’t the weird and trippy experience I was treated to last night.

The film was advertised as “inspired by a true story” and is actually based on a non-fiction book by Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who decided to chronicle his experiences in Haiti researching an alleged case of a man who had died and been brought back to life as a zombie. To turn it into a horror film, however, Craven and screenwriters Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman changed things up completely so that only basic elements of the true story remained.

The protagonist in the film, played by a surprisingly handsome young Bill Pullman, is a Harvard ethnobotanist and anthropologist named Dennis Alan. At the request of a pharmaceutical company, he heads to Haiti to research this alleged zombie case in the hopes of discovering some lucrative new form of anaesthetic. Once there, however, Alan is pulled into the world of voodoo and must fight local authorities who want him to stop digging into their affairs.

It sounds like an intriguing premise with abundant potential for horror, though The Serpent and the Rainbow never ends up really taking advantage of it. The vast majority of the film has a strange documentary-like feel with Alan going from place to place trying to track down whatever it is that can turn people into zombies. Prior to the final act, the only true attempts at supernatural horror come in the form of  dream sequences and hallucinations, and the most frightening scenes actually have more to do with brutal Haitian authorities than anything zombie-related.

The “climax” — which begins roughly when the scene from the poster takes place — turned out to be rather farcical and full of images that are more fantastic than horrific. I suppose I have to consider it in the context of the late 80s and the tackiness of horror films from that era, the lower budgets and less advanced special effects and so forth, though even taking that into account I can’t say I was particularly frightened or impressed.

It’s also a shame that the film doesn’t go deeper into the whole voodoo versus science debate. It touches upon the subject at various points but fails to grasp the question of whether there are some things that science simply cannot explain.

It would be unfair to say there are no scares to be found in The Serpent and the Rainbow. After all those years of being convinced that it must be one of the most terrifying movies I’ve never seen, however, the experience of actually watching it was ultimately underwhelming. In all honesty a film about voodoo and zombies could have and should have been much more scary and compelling. Just shows you should never judge a movie by its poster. As an entry on Wes Craven’s non-franchise filmography, The Serpent and the Rainbow ranks below many others I enjoyed a lot more, include The People Under the Stairs, The Hills Have Eyes and Red Eye. It makes me wonder how I would have received the film had I gone ahead and watched it when I was much younger.

2.25 stars out of 5

Classic Movie Review: Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)

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After watching Welcome to the Dollhouse again this week (my fourth time overall), I have come to the inevitable conclusion that this Todd Solondz classic is one of my favourite movies of all-time, an undisputed inclusion in my top 5.

I loved it the first time I saw it, by accident on TV probably a dozen years ago, and love it probably even more today. This black satire — about an awkward 11-year-old girl being an awkward 11-year-old girl — simply hypnotised me, and no matter how many times I watch the film it still makes me laugh out loud.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what makes Dollhouse such an unforgettable film, though I suspect it starts with the protagonist, Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo, in one of the best child performances ever), a shy, awkward, socially inept and extremely unpopular seventh grader. Even the victims of bullies tell her to get away from them.

You feel for Dawn, but at the same time you don’t, because instead of simply being a victim, Solondz paints her (and pretty much every character) as a emotionally honest person who takes out her frustrations on her “perfect” and beloved little sister, Missy, and her only friend, fifth-grader Ralphy. You feel bad for Dawn when she is being bullied, but soon after you see her doing the exact same thing to Missy. You feel bad for Missy for a second, but then you realize she’s just being a spoiled, manipulative little brat. The same thing can be said for the naughty school bully, Brandon, and Dawn’s older brother Mark, the “king of the nerds.” Each one of them pulls you in one direction and then jerks you in another. It’s brilliant but also unexpectedly poignant.

But back to Dawn. Sure, she is an exaggerated character, but she rings so true that her personality permeates the entire film, giving it a quirky, awkward and uncomfortable feeling all the way through. There are many cringeworthy moments, many of which involve the aforementioned Brandon and Dawn’s love interest, singing hunk Steve Rodgers. The dialogue is also impeccable — sharp, witty, painful,  hilarious, and undoubtedly honest. Solondz is a master of capturing the nuances of conversation, so much so that even a simple silence can speak volumes.

I’ve seen some of Solondz’s later works, such as the controversial Happiness (which I watched again the other day) and the equally controversial Storytelling. They are all great in their own way, but Dollhouse is, in my opinion, by far his best film. It’s just more innocent, pure, and quirky without being too dark, shocking for the sake of shocking, overstepping the mark of decency, or crossing the line into obscenity.

The end result is an 87-minute masterpiece of uncomfortable hilarity that is as wonderful as it is memorable, as cutting as it is sweet. Would it be correct to categorize Dollhouse as a cult classic? The independent film only had an US$800,000 budget and, according to Wikipedia, made just US$4.6 million, but I have to presume that is just the cinema box office receipts. Napoleon Dynamite is probably its closest contemporary comparison and is a much bigger commercial success (box office of more than US$46 million from a 400,000 budget), but to me the competition is not even close. Dollhouse is just a better-made, funnier, more consistent and captivating film all-round.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: Here’s the trailer. You can actually watch the entire film on YouTube these days (as with its sequel, the inferior but still very good Palindromes)

Classic Movie Review: The Lives of Others (2006)

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I’m not kidding when I say I had been wanting to watch The Lives of Others, the best foreign film Oscar winner of 2007, since the movie was first released in 2006. I blink and it’s 7 years later.

Well, I finally got the chance to catch the movie the other night and I’m glad to say it didn’t disappoint. It is without a doubt a film worthy of its “classic” status.

I’ll admit I don’t know as much about the whole East Germany/West Germany/Berlin Wall thing (even after my visit to Berlin in ’09) as I probably should, but the narrative is so expertly crafted that you don’t really need all the background knowledge to be engrossed by it. Set in the 1980s, it tells the story of a Stasi agent who develops a conscience while spying on a famous playright and his actress lover during the height of political tensions between East and West.

The introductory scene, a ruthless interrogation, sets the tone perfectly. The agent, Wiesler, is presented as a loyal Stasi agent dedicated to uncovering enemies of the state. But as time goes on and he becomes immersed in the lives of his subjects, he realises that his task is not is simple as it originally appeared. It’s a tale about the conflict between duties and morals, controlling feelings of sympathy and empathy, and having the courage to do what one feels is right.

The Lives of Others is so good because of its powerful and unassuming subtlety. Nothing is hammered home (like so many Hollywood films we see these days) but the film’s emotional impact is undeniable. When you think about it closely, there’s really nothing mindblowing about the plot, but the story knows exactly where it is going and everything gradually and skillfully falls into place like pieces of a giant puzzle. For a relatively slow film, there’s a surprising amount of tension too, a demonstration of what a filmmaker can do when he or she has a firm grasp of the nuances of pacing and structure.

The performances are impeccable, with Ulrich Mühe a standout as the lonely and conflicted protagonist. He is the heart and soul of the film, but Sebtastian Koch, who plays the playwright Dreyman, and Martina Gedeck, who plays his lover Sieland, are also both excellent as the vulnerable and fragile couple who drive the film’s emotional core.

The best compliment that can probably be paid to The Lives of Others is that it’s film that will resonate with viewers for a very long time. For me, it is the best foreign drama I’ve seen since the 2009 Spanish film The Secret in Their Eyes.

4.5 stars out of 5

Classic Movie Review: Battle Royale (2000)

I understand I have it backwards. I watched The Hunger Games, which I thoroughly enjoyed, then decided to check out its Japanese predecessor, which many say Suzanne Collins’ novel takes from quite liberally.

I must admit, for the longest time I thought Battle Royale, the movie, was based on the manga (of which I had read chunks) as opposed to the novel written by Koushun Takami. In fact, I didn’t really even know the novel existed.

Nonetheless, the premise is strikingly similar to that of The Hunger Games. Set in a fictional Japan where the structure of society has more or less broken down, a class of junior high school students find themselves in a contest called Battle Royale, created under the BR Act, which forces the 42 students to kill each other until only one remains. Each contestant is fitted with an electronic tracking collar, and anyone who resists the contest or walks into a randomly designated “death zone” (added as the game progresses) will have their collar detonated. Students are each given a bag of necessities and a weapon. Sounds familiar?

I don’t intend to get into a debate about whether Collins (who claims she never heard of the book until her publisher told her) copied Battle Royale, but I will say that both film versions stand up rather well independently of the other.

Battle Royale’s strength is in its relentless brutality, which starts right from the beginning and doesn’t ease until the very end, making The Hunger Games somewhat mild by comparison. Unlike the American film, which takes a long time to set up the contest, Battle Royale gets into it very quickly and efficiently.

The most amazing thing about the 114-minute film (there is also a 122-minute extended version) was how tight the script was. The story may have focused on handful of the 42 students but almost every single one had their own personality and served a different purpose. In fact, I found it incredibly easy to identify each of the characters despite the film jumping a fair bit, and this was notwithstanding that all the names were in Japanese!

Compared to The Hunger Games, Battle Royale had a much wider range of identifiable characters, which is quite a remarkable achievement considering the latter’s contestants are all from a single class, whereas the former’s are from various districts scattered across the nation.

Battle Royale’s lead protagonist would have to be Shuya Nanahara, who is played by Tatsuya Fujiwara (as soon as I saw him I was like, “Isn’t that Light from Death Note?”). The standout characters would have to be the sexually provocative Mitsuko and the psychotic Kazuo, both of whom are the main antagonists of the film.

Despite the similar ideas, I found Battle Royale to be a very different experience to The Hunger Games. The Japanese film was relentless its carnage all the way through, even though some of the violence appeared somewhat (and perhaps intentionally) fake, whereas the American film was more measured in its depiction of visceral violence and had a brooding kind of tension. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the different cultures, but the Japanese film also had some totally WTF moments (that bordered on horror or comedy or both) that underscored its “surreal” feel.

I guess that’s the way I would describe Battle Royale – terrifying in a “surreal” kind of way. While The Hunger Games was arguably more “realistic” from a technical perspective and in feel, I found the films to be equally satisfying but vastly different experiences. I’d definitely recommend the other film for those who have seen one of the two.

As for a rating, I suppose it would only be fair if I gave Battle Royale the same, though if I had watched it first, I think I might have given it a higher score.

 4.25 stars out of 5!

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfoNiIXTOgA

Classic Movie Review: A Time to Kill (1996)

After reading the book of the same name by John Grisham (my review here), several people have recommended that I watch the film adaptation of A Time to Kill, directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Matthew McConaughey (in his breakout role).  It’s one of those films that I really wanted to, but for whatever reason never saw when it was first released in 1996.

For those who don’t know the background, it’s Grisham’s first book but the fourth of his adaptations (behind The Firm, The Pelican Brief and The Client).  It stars McConaughey as a young hotshot lawyer, Jake Brigance, who is tasked with defending a black father who took the law into his own hands after two white drunks raped his little girl.  Due to the racial politics of the time and place (very important to remember when watching), Brigance not only has to fight a seemingly unwinnable case, but also has to deal with the dangers of representing a black man in a racist community.

I quite liked the book, but didn’t think it was anything special.  For me, the film version was a rare improvement on the book that addressed some of the things I felt the book could have done better.

For starters, Brigance is a much more likeable character in the film than the book, where he was more egocentric, obnoxious, and cared far too much about publicity.  In the film they really toned it down and made him more of a ‘hero’, which works well because the audience really needed to connect with him.

The second big alteration is that Ellen Roark, the brilliant college student played by Sandra Bullock, is given a much bigger role in the film than the book.  In the book, Roark doesn’t appear until halfway through, but in the film she’s there almost right from the beginning.  In fact, Bullock received top billing even though she was a secondary character — most probably because she was coming of the phenomenal success of Speed and The Net and was a huge cash cow at the time.  Nevertheless, I liked Roark’s expanded role because I always felt she was one of the more interesting characters in the book.

Plenty of scenes, characters and subplots were condensed or removed in the film version, which I personally thought was welcoming because they clogged up the central narrative and slowed the pace.  When I read the book I always felt there was something not quite right in the structure and the development of the plot, as though Grisham couldn’t figure out what was important to the story and what wasn’t.  In the film, they were able to adjust the equilibrium to create a smoother, less stilted delivery.  For instance, I was glad to see the actual trial commence relatively early, unlike the book, which waited until the final 100 pages or so.  The final climax, in particular, was reformulated to make it more about Brigance’s ability than luck, which made for much better cinema.

The most pleasant surprise for me was the number of stars or would-be stars in this film and outstanding performances they delivered.  Of course, McConaughey went on to be a big star after this film, and even though I’ve paid him out ever since Contact (‘By doing this, you’re willing to give your life, you’re willing to die for it. Whyyyyyyy?!!’), I must admit he was excellent here as Brigance.  It also made his solid performance in the more recent Lincoln Lawyer easier to comprehend.

I already mentioned Sandra Bullock as the top-billed star of the film, and she was probably at the height of her stardom at the time (some may say she was ‘bigger’ when she won the Oscar, but I disagree), just before Speed 2: Cruise Control knocked her down a few notches.

Of course, there was also Samuel L Jackson, one of my favourite actors in one of the best performances of his career as the father, Carl Lee Hailey (I’d still say Pulp Fiction was his greatest achievement, but others might say Snakes on a Plane or Deep Blue Sea or perhaps The Search for One-eye Jimmy).  In 1996, Jackson was coming off a string of less than impressive films (with the exception of Die Hard with a Vengeance) and this film helped boost him back up to where he belonged, as he would then go on to appear in a number of blockbusters/hits over the next couple of years, such as  Jackie Brown, Sphere, The Negotiator and Out of Sight.

The list of goes on.  There’s Kevin Spacey as the snooty DA, Rufus Buckley, who was, as usual, marvellous, and one of the highlights of the film.  He brought out the essence of Buckley without overdoing it, making him less of a caricature than he was in the novel.  Remember, in 1996 Spacey was coming off his masterful performances in Seven and The Usual Suspects,  and would go on to appear in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, LA Confidential and The Negotiator, right before his career defining performance in American Beauty in 1999 (personally, Verbal Kint is still my favourite).

What about the always-good-to-have-around Oliver Platt, who plays Brigance’s best buddy Harry Rex, or Donald Sutherland, who plays Brigance’s mentor Lucien Wilbanks?  What about veteran actor Chris Cooper as poor officer Dwayne Looney, before he rose to prominence in films like American Beauty, The Bourne Identity and Adaptation?  Or Ashley Judd as wife Carly, at the start of her strong career, before she broke out in films such as Kiss the Girls, Double Jeopardy and Eye of the Beholder?  Heck, there was even Mr Jack Bauer himself, Kiefer Sutherland, as a KKK redneck, before he became the butt-kicking CTU agent in 24.  I knew the film starred McConaughey, Bullock and Jackson, but it was a pleasant surprise to see just how much star power this film had.

In all, I enjoyed A Time to Kill (the film) a lot more than I thought I would.  Yes, it is a little self-righteous, melodramatic and contrived at times, but for the most part it was still an entertaining, thrilling, thought-provoking courtroom drama that was boosted by its awesome star power.

4 out of 5 stars

Classic Movie Review: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Thanks to the dozens of readers who expressed their disbelief that it did not make my most rewatchable movies list (and that I had never seen it), I finally went out and obtained myself a copy of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

It’s not easy watching a film as beloved as Ferris for the first time.  When everyone you know (and don’t know) rave about it, it’s natural to have inflated, unrealistic expectations.  So I did my best to keep an open mind and approach it from a neutral position.

For those who have been living under a rock since 1986 (like me), Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) is the coolest kid in school whom everybody loves — except for his sister (Jennifer Grey) and the dean of students (Jeffrey Jones), who is out expose Ferris as a truant and a bad role model for other kids.  The film takes place over a single, perfect day, as Ferris and his neglected best friend (Alan Ruck) and girlfriend (Mia Sara) skip school and go on a wacky adventure across Chicago, getting into all sorts of crazy mischief but somehow always managing to evade disaster at the last minute.

It’s the type of fun, joyful, carefree, sweet, heart-warming, coming-of-age comedy that John Hughes (RIP) is synonymous with, bursting with life, spirit and a truckload of heart.  They don’t make movies like this any more (last year’s Easy A was a homage to Hughes’s 80s flicks and had several Ferris references — but it just wasn’t the same).

Having now watched it twice within a week, I can say without reservation that Ferrs is indeed an undoubted classic that is highly capable of and deserves multiple re-viewings.  And watching the film for the first time 25 years after it was initially released, I also received plenty of unexpected surprises and shocks.

For starters, the Matthew Broderick I knew was the wimpy one married to Sarah Jessica Parker, but as Ferris Bueller he is utterly dashing, charming and affable.  The Alan Ruck I knew was the Spin City head, but he’s never been better here as the baby-faced best friend who steals the show at various times.  And Mia Sara?  Jennifer Grey?  Charlie freaking Sheen (as a drugged out delinquent, no less!)?  I had a big smile on my face all throughout the 103-minute running time.

I’ll be watching it again.  And again.  And again.

5 stars out of 5!

Lolita: Novel, 1962 Film and 1997 Film

Recently for class I had to experience Lolita in its three most popular forms — the original 1958 novel by Vladimir Nabokov and the two film adaptations, the 1962 version directed by Stanley Kubrick and the 1997 version directed by Adrian Lyne.

Novel

The 1958 novel doesn’t really need any introduction from me.  It’s considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, with one of the most controversial characters and storylines in literary history. I read it for the first time last year (review found here) and wasn’t surprised that Robertson Davies once wrote that the ‘them is not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child.’

The protagonist and narrator, the pathetic Humbert Humbert, is so clever and funny that you’re momentarily willing to put his transgressions in the background and go along for the ride.  Momentarily, of course.

1962 Film

The 1962 film by Kubrick was an interesting one.  It starred James Mason as Humbert, Sue Luon as Lolita, Shelley Winters as Charlotte Haze and Peter Sellers as Claire Quilty.  The screenplay was attributed to Nabokov (and he actually got an Oscar nomination for it), but in reality it was mostly re-written by Kubrick and James Harris.  Nabokov published his version of the script separately in 1974.

The 1962 Lolita was a product of its time, unfortunately, meaning it was heavily held back by censors.  Needless to say, Kubrick is no prude (one only has to watch Eyes Wide Shut) to know that, but his version of Lolita was very tame, with almost none of the sexual innuendos littered throughout the novel — in fact, there was very little physical contact between Lolita and Humbert, the scenes often fading to black before anything happens.

Kubrick in fact said that if he could have done it again he would have emphasised the erotic aspect of the novel with the same weight Nabokov did, and that if he knew censors were going to be so tight he might not have made the film at all.

I liked the 1962 film a lot.  I wouldn’t say it’s one of Kubrick’s best efforts but considering what he had to work with I think it was a splendid effort.  The film managed to capture both the tortured soul of Humbert and his cunning.  Obviously, it was impossible to replicate nuances of the book, but Kubrick came closer than I could have imagined.

I don’t know if this is a complaint, but Quilty was given a much bigger role in the film than the novel, which threw me off a bit.  He didn’t really feel like a character that deserved more screen time in the book, but I guess because Sellers played him Kubrick decided to give him free reign to do his impersonations.

The other thing was Sue Lyon’s Lolita.  It was a good performance but she looked too old to be the target of a paedophile.  I thought she could have easily passed for 18, which kind of defeats the purpose of the whole thing.

1997 Film

This one, directed by Adrian Lyne (who was at the helm of 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal and later, Unfaithful) was made at a much more liberal time, so it was more explicit in the eroticism.  It was also more faithful to the original as Stephen Schiff, the first time screenwriter who penned the script, lifted a lot more dialogue directly from the book and had more voiceovers from Jeremy Irons (who interestingly also voiced the audio book version of the novel).

On the other hand, this was a completely different film that didn’t capture any of the black comedy of the novel.  It’s beautifully shot, with long, sweeping scenes and this tender, moody tone.  As some critics pointed out, Lyne seemed to have missed the point of the novel, creating a pure tragedy that’s all emotional torture and no fun.

I think it’s unfortunate that people will always inevitably compare adaptations and ‘remakes’ with what has come before it.  It’s human nature, I suppose, but is it entirely fair?  Why can’t we judge them as separate and distinct works of art?

I didn’t really enjoy the 1997 version, but I could definitely appreciate the aesthetics of it.  Jeremy Irons is always good to watch on screen, and Dominique Swain showed so much promise in her first role — what ever became of her?

But anyway, I found it interesting that a lot of my classmates found the subject matter difficult to digest.  They weren’t able to read and enjoy the book because mentally they could not separate the fiction from the reality and repulsion of paedophila.  Stylistically, many also thought Nabokov was overrated, too clever for his own good and a bit of a one trick pony (at least in this book).  They thought maybe, and there’s probably sliver of truth in this, that the book has done so well because of the subject matter as opposed to the masterful writing.  I dunno.  I’m still mightily impressed by the man’s wordplay and the confidence with which he can weave sentences in a language that’s not his first.

Will Lolita ever be remade again?  I assume it will be, eventually.  Maybe someone like Roman Polanski or Woody Allen would be a good choice to direct a movie about paedophila?

Capote (2005) vs Infamous (2006)

Toby Jones (left) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (right) as Truman Capote. Source: Guardian.co.uk

A recent revisiting of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood sparked some interest in the two films about him that were released in quick succession in 2005 and 2006 — Bennett Miller’s Capote and Douglas McGrath’s Infamous.

Being the first released, Capote stole most of the limelight, especially as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote won him an Oscar for Best Actor (not to mention the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and SAGs).  The film itself was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (for Catherine Keener as Harper Lee), and was at the top of most critics’ lists for the year.

On the other hand, Toby Jones, who played Capote in Infamous, won high praise for his performance too, and physically he was closer to the real life counterpart.  Sandra Bullock’s portrayal as Harper Lee was also praised, but did not receive the same recognition as Keener.  Infamous also had an arguably better cast, featuring stars such as Jeff Daniels, Daniel Craig, Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, and a cameo from Gwyneth Paltrow.  But despite all of this, and the fact that most critics thought the film was pretty good too, Infamous could not avoid being compared to the earlier film, which they almost unanimously agreed was superior.

The real Truman Capote

Having read the book and watched both films in quick succession, I thought I would throw in my two cents on the two film versions.

Capote was based on the biography by Gerald Clarke, whereas Infamous was based on the book by George Plimpton.  Nevertheless, the story is essentially the same — Truman Capote is fascinated by a 300-word article about a family that was brutally gunned down in the small town of Holcomb, and decides to travel there to write an article.  He brings his good friend Harper Lee with him, and after a lengthy investigation, decides to turn that article into the “first” non-fiction novel (ie a non-fiction book written with fictional techniques).  In order to write the book, Capote gains access to the two killers in prison, Dick and Perry, who are facing the death penalty.  Capote befriends both men, and is particularly drawn to the sensitive and artistic Perry.  Despite becoming extremely close with the men over several years, Capote knows that the book’s ending can only be effective if they are ultimately executed for their crime.

Both films were good, but in different ways.  Capote is a classy production with a classy performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who really brings out the genius and the narcissism in the titular character.  It’s a slow burning film full of pain and contemplation, where the pauses are long but meaningful.

Comparatively, Infamous is lighter and flashier.  Toby Jones is a more flamboyant, less subtle Capote who is portrayed as a shameless gossip with the high society women in New York.  Jones also makes Capote seem like a prick, though Hoffman’s Capote is colder, more reserved but definitely more manipulative.  As good as Jones was, the edge goes to Hoffman in my opinion.

Catherine Keener and Sandra Bullock both make fairly good Harper Lees — but again, Keener is more subtle whereas Bullock is more in-your-face.  Not to say that makes her a weaker Harper, just a different one, though this was probably attributable more to the script than the actresses.  I’d say they were equally good.

I found it interesting that both films focused almost entirely on Capote’s relationship with Perry, even though Dick also played a very large role in the book.  Nevertheless, I thought Capote handled this crucial part of the story better than Infamous did.  In Capote, you really get a sense of the struggle Capote is facing — he clearly feels something for Perry (though exactly what that feeling is is left rather ambiguous) but he also knows he must finish his masterpiece — and that obsession, vanity and selfishness eventually gets the better of him.

As for Infamous, I thought getting Daniel Craig to play Perry was a bizarre choice.  He’s a very good actor, but having read the book, he does not exactly fit the bill (Perry’s supposed to be very short and half American-Indian).  I didn’t fully buy into the relationship, which lacked the emotional power of the earlier film, even though it actually depicted a physical relationship between the two men.

Ultimately, Capote is more serious and reserved, much like the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Infamous, like Toby Jones’s performance, is more “out there” and talkative, especially as we get to see more of Capote living his high society life in New York, and there are occasional mock interviews with his friends that remove a layer of realism.

So yeah, same story but different approaches and different results.

Capote: 4.25 stars

Infamous: 3.5 stars

Classic Movie Review: The Bicycle Thief (1948)

I’ll be the first to admit that I am usually a little prejudiced towards old “classic” films, especially the black and white ones.  Techniques, writing, acting and filming styles, not to mention technological improvements, have all advanced so much that it’s easy to conclude (without actually having watched many) that old films don’t compare to their modern counterparts.

While much of that is probably true, there are a few “true” classics out there that seem to defy the passage of time.  I recently watched, as part of my writing theory class, Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (also known as “The Bicycle Thief” or “The Bicycle Thieves”).

The point of watching the film was to learn about neo-realism, a style movement which attempted to give a new level of realism to cinema.  This meant shoots on location (as opposed to studios), non-actors in lead roles, and tackling issues of everyday life, such as economic and social difficulties.

The Bicycle Thief tells the simple story of an unemployed man in poverty-stricken, post-WWII Italy who is fortunate enough to be given a job putting up posters around Rome.  The job is contingent upon him having a bicycle, and of course, as the title of the film suggests, it is stolen from him.  Desperate to save his job and his family, the remainder of the film follows the man and his son as they trek through the streets of Rome to find the bicycle.

In my opinion, The Bicycle Thief is a “true classic” that can still resonate with viewers even more than 60 years after it was made.  I couldn’t believe it myself that they were capable of making such technically sound and emotionally power films back in those days, especially in Italy, where they didn’t have anything close to the big budgets of Hollywood.

Yes, there are some moments that are quite scripted, but somehow they still work.  Perhaps it’s the natural performances by the non-professional leads, Lamberto Maggiorani (a factory worker) as the man, and Enzo Staiola (literally a kid off the streets) as his son.  These actors bring an authenticity to the film that cannot be overstated.  It’s crazy to think that they almost had Cary Grant playing the man.

The touching relationship between father and son, the father’s increasing desperation and despair, and the son’s gradual loss of innocence, all carry timeless and universal messages.  There are a few scenes and images in particular that pack as much of an emotional punch as any Hollywood film I’ve seen, and yet the story itself and the relationships between the characters are remarkably simple.

Some films stand the test of time for a reason.  And thanks to The Bicycle Thief, I might just start watching more “classics” from now on.

5 out of 5 stars!