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“The Prisoner:” Then (1967, McGoohan) and Now, (2009, AMC) November 1, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Prisoner Carton.indd

Number Two: “Let’s make a deal. You cooperate, tell us what we want to know, and this could be a very nice place. You may even be given a position of authority.”

Patrick McGoohan (Number Six): “I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own.”

Number Two: “Is it?”

Patrick McGoohan (Number Six): “Yes. You won’t hold me.”

From The Prisoner (1967), to watch the full series online for free, visit AMC.com

This exchange hails from the original British series, The Prisoner (1967), in which Patrick McGoohan, playing a character named Number Six, finds himself imprisoned in an old-style village. The opening sequence of the series has him driving around London in a fast car, driving up to his employer’s desk and slapping down a letter of resignation. He has been brought to this presumably secluded village because he has valuable information — what this information is, we don’t know. We also don’t know McGoohan’s occupation. All we know is that he’s trapped because he’s left his job, and he wants to leave.

(When the original series premiered, many viewers assumed, and perhaps were meant to assume, that McGoohan’s character was John Drake, whom he played in another British import, Danger Man (Secret Agent). This, however, was left ambiguous in The Prisoner, though American media magazines like Time and TV Guide stated the two were one in the same.)

Who is the prisoner? Who are his captors? What information does he hold? Will he ever be free? Now that AMC is remaking The Prisoner, viewers will have another chance to find out. Though, of course, they won’t. Nevertheless, in the age of Lost and Flash Forward, the remake of The Prisoner may be right on time, instead of light years ahead of it, as it was in 1967. (more…)

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FILM: Lonely Men: An American Encounters Sorrentino June 6, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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In honor of Il Divo opening in Philadelphia at one of the Ritz theatres…

Paolo Sorrentino, Italian auteur, stylishly depicts man’s existential crisis

Cinema loves impenetrable men. Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, a film forever collecting critical largess, proves this. So do other protagonists in other evidently great films, including Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Marcello Mastroianni in 8 1/2, not to mention less prestigious action heroes like James Bond, among dozens more and not all of them British. The trope persists: Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood and Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men are two recent instantiations. It is so pervasive that similarly opaque female leads become all the more outstanding: from Jean Seberg in Breathless, Tracy Camilla Johns in She’s Gotta Have It to Kate Winslet in The Reader.

From my eyes, Italian and internationally acclaimed film director Paolo Sorrentino is very aware of this history. His films, including Il Divo, now out in limited release, The Family Friend (2006), The Consequences of Love (2004) and L’uomo in più (2001), all focus on lonely often steely men undergoing existential crises. These are among the few of his films available for consumption in the United States (some are not subtitled, not formatted for the US or released on DVD). I’ll join the chorus of critics clamoring for full release of his work, which seems inevitable, given that Il Divo captured the Jury Prize at Cannes, and all three were nominated for the Palme D’Or.

Tony Servillo as Giulio Andreotti in Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo (2008), likely to become Sorrentino masterpiece for its depiction of a man tenaciously trying to contain himself and his power.

Tony Servillo as Giulio Andreotti in Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo (2008), likely to become Sorrentino masterpiece for its depiction of a man tenaciously trying to contain himself and his power.

Why now? Why Sorrentino? He happens to be half the duo of directors causing some critics to declare a revival in Italian cinema – Matteo Garrone is the other – both critically and commercially. The reasons are in the films.

(more…)

FILM: This Old French House: Summer Hours review May 8, 2009

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Summer Hours (dir. Olivier Assayas)

Summer Hours tackles surprisingly rich themes for its superficially stereotypical setting and concerns. (Grade: A-)

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The marketing for Summer Hours traffics in well-worn French clichés: a summer house in the south, plenty of wine, and well-aged French people with useless jobs in the arts, academy and design. There are museums. There are disputes over what to do with expensive artwork.

But writer-director Olivier Assayas digs much deeper, making Summer Hours, now out in limited release, the most surprising movie I’ve seen so far this year. Assayas, equally at home with spectacle (Irma Vep), grit (Clean, Demonlover) and quiet romance (Sentimental Destinies), is one of the more limber directors working today; not an auteur, but assured nonetheless.

I thought I’d see a thoughtless, sunny French drama. Not so. Moving calmly but never slacking, Summer Hours manages to pack a lot in. It is a family drama first. It follows the problems of Frédéric (Assayas favorite Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) as they grapple with the death of their mother, Helene, and the granduncle and world-famous artist Paul Berthier. They have to figure out what to do with their mother’s things, a house full of expensive and culturally significant works of art and furniture collected and created by Berthier. It’s so important the French government gets involved. Frédéric wants to keep their summer house with all its valuables, but Adrienne and Jérémie have other lives, marriages, children and jobs that take them outside of France and around the world. Frédéric teaches economics in France; he’s not going anywhere.

It sounds simple, maybe kind of boring. But it becomes rich. Summer Hours is about generational shifts. Their mother, Helene, lived in old France, where people painted gardens and sat at home. Her kids, however, live in a global world—Adrienne makes minimalist, mass-produced designer housewares, not her mother’s intricate silver teakettles—and they only visit the summer house twice a year. At the end of the film Frédéric’s teenage kids use the summer house one last time to throw a big party: smoking pot and listening to hip-hop, unaware of the history that’s gone by (a scene lyrically filmed with dignity in slow, sparsely-edited shots). History is ravenous, the movie suggests, and they are very few people who care to remember. Frédéric’s daughter, despite appearances, does. She seems to mourn the loss of her grandmother’s home. Those who do remember take it to heart.

So Summer Hours grapples with mortality. The mother has an interesting philosophy on life. When she dies, she says, the kids can sell all the objects in the house because they are filled with her memories, which die with her. She seems at peace with the fact that people won’t know her secrets—including a juicy family scandal—and all the memories that will go with her. She obviously wants her kids to know her history: she tells Frédéric many times about all the objects in the house, where they come from and what they’re worth. But she’s realistic. Death is death. History is unbiased.

Assayas reaches beyond quaint themes of family and death, though. He tackles globalization with Jérémie, who makes sneakers in China. Adrienne’s business is global as well, and her designs need to be minimalist enough to cross boundaries. All of their children look to America for inspiration; they go to English schools. They have no attachments to France. This is what globalization looks like on the ground. Their dead painter-uncle, the hidden center of all the drama, is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, which leads to arguments over whether his works should remain at home in France. France wants the notebooks of Paul Berthier. The Americans (Christie’s), they say, will “rip it up” and auction it off to the highest bidder. The question is raised implicitly: Is this the end of France? The breaking down of the house and the selling of its assets feels like the death of a kind of nostalgia for old France: bucolic, and withered at the walls of globalization. The house and the dead mother become elegantly metaphorical.

There is so much more in the film—the economic collapse, memory, even the sanctity of the art object—that makes Summer Hours feel more alive and bracing than it actually looks like on the surface. It is so elegant and delicate in its direction; Assayas cleverly masks all the drama and pathos driving his characters’ emotions and curious actions. Much more than your typical frothy French bobo flick.

Summer Hours, directed by Olivier Assayas. IFC Films, 103 minutes. Now playing in limited release.

FILM: Il Divo: If Scorsese Married Welles… April 30, 2009

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Il Divo is the best political mafia movie in years. (Grade: A-)

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It’s a cliché to label directors as sons and daughters of other ones, but it seems appropriate in the case of Paolo Sorrentino, because his films are so concerned with style—lighting, framing, camerawork—and creating a viewing experience that his technique instantly recalls classics. Sorrentino is the celebrated director from Europe you haven’t heard of. After you see Il Divo, out this week in only one theater, and I hope with plans for more, you’ll remember his name.

Most people compare his style to that of Martin Scorsese. It’s an appropriate comparison. Sorrentino loves to swoop into scenes with a dramatic flourish, zooming into characters’ faces clockwise and counterclockwise. His focus on bad men and the mob also begs the comparison to Scorsese and Orson Welles, perhaps also Brian DePalma. All three know how to depict the rage and angst of men whose worlds are filled with chaos, violence and misdeeds. His prior films—including L’uomo in piu (Man on Top), The Family Friend, andConsequences of Love—showcase leading men who have committed a wrong or whose lives are surrounded by despair. Sound dreary? None of them are. One word consistently applied to Sorrentino’s work is “stylish.” You will never be bored watching his films. He has the gift of Scorsese and Wes Anderson: he’s able to create a film technically sophisticated and wildly entertaining. Sadly, many are not available in US-formatted DVD.

Il Divo is the story of Giulio Andreotti, one of Italy’s most notorious politicians who has held numerous top positions in the government, including prime minister, and whose tenacious hold on power and connections to the mob (and high profile deaths and assassinations) make him a figure readymade for the Citizen Kane treatment. Sorrentino has fun with Andreotti, as much fun as can be had with a murderous and power-hungry despot; he films Andreotti’s inner circle, mostly political henchmen, in mob movie fashion, using red subtitles to announce their names and nicknames.

But the movie is ultimately serious. Andreotti (Tony Servillo, who has starred in many of Sorrentino films) is stoic, near emotionless throughout. He is banal, like a German SS guard, and, like those guards, evil. Weighed down by years of wrongdoing, Sorrentino—who writes and directs most of his movies—suggests he’s grappling with guilt: an opening shot zooms into Andreotti with acupuncture needles in his face. Another memorable scene has Andreotti pacing about his house like a madman, driven to insanity by his crimes.

Andreotti is the apotheosis of Sorrentino’s maddening protagonists. In The Family Friend, a loan shark similarly feels enslaved by his crimes—rape and usury chief among them. Not as impenetrable as Andreotti, the loan shark is a monstrous old man—almost literally a hunchback—who we manage to pity for his incredible loneliness and allergy to virtue. In Consequences of Love, Sorrentino brings us a man enslaved by his own trials with the mob who must learn to open his life to other people. We never really “know” these men, but Sorrentino draws us into their stories visually and makes us care, at least, about what happens to them, even if we hope they fail.

Il Divo is infectious; the music is fantastic, diverse and stimulating, the editing sharp. It has a major flaw, but one with a solution: for American audience members new to Andreotti’s story, the film can be irritatingly unclear: Sorrentino assumes his audience is generally familiar with main characters and the general story. I had a terrible time following the jumps in time and certain plot details. I strongly suggest anyone planning to see the movie spend 30 minutes with Google and Wikipedia to become familiar with Italian politics and government, Andreotti, his history and his close associates. It is a must.

That said, Il Divo is the most exciting political drama I’ve seen in years. Inventive and bracing, it is latest installment from one of the best filmmakers working today.