Saturday, April 30, 2005

Movie Review: Raging Bull

United States, 1980
Running Time: 2:09
Rated: R (profanity, graphic violence)
Cast: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Colasanto

Director: Martin Scorsese
Producers: Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff
Screenplay: Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin based on the book by Jake La Motta with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage
Music: Robbie Robertson
Studio: United Artists

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A marvel of a movie; a spot-on analysis of one man’s aggression and insecurity; an eternal cinematic treasure: Martin’s Scorsese’s 1980 black-and-white bio-pic of a middleweight boxing legend is stark, striking, and nothing short of brilliant. Raging Bull is by far the premium product of the Scorsese/De Niro tandem and one of the finest films ever made.

The film chronicles the rise and fall of Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), a middleweight boxing legend during the 1940s and ‘50s, whose bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes) put him at both the top and bottom of his game. Throughout the picture, LaMotta is depicted as a man of accessible rage and disheartening jealousy, and it is his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) and brother Joey (Joe Pesci) who stir these emotions. The boxing ring merely serves as an arena for LaMotta to unleash his anger without remorse.

Scorsese’s choice to shoot Raging Bull in black-and-white (except for a few home-movie sequences) perfectly complements the gritty storyline. Scorsese’s decision to make his boxers’ blood look inky black versus bright red is alone a testament to his sensational style. His direction here is absolutely superb. In fact, the final bout between Sugar Ray and LaMotta, that closes with both the line, “You never got me down Ray. You never got me down,” and a shot of the blood soaked rope, is my favorite sequence by any director, in any film, in any genre. It is a crying shame that Scorsese did not win the Oscar for best director in 1980 and even worse that Raging Bull did not win Best Picture.

On the upside, De Niro did take home the gold for best actor. His performance is single-handedly the greatest male acting I have ever encountered. De Niro’s work here is near equivalent to a master course in theater. From his chiseled animalistic form in the ring, to his overweight pitiable figure who quotes Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront at the film’s close, De Niro is at his best and his performance promises to wow the dreariest of viewers.

In addition, Cathy Moriarty and Joe Pesci dish out phenomenal performances. Cathy, at age 19, pulls off Vickie as both a 15 year-old girl and an aging distressed wife, while Joe Pesci plays Joey with the same demeanor he later applied to his Academy Award winning role in Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

Finding faultless direction and flawless all-around acting occurring in concert is truly an unconditional indulgence. Raging Bull represents cinematic excellence; it is a heat-seeking missile of a movie. It is an unavoidable knockout that will eventually cross your path, and when it does, you will not only feel its impact, but you will also come to appreciate how utterly perfect and unmerciful movies can be. (**** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Movie Review: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

United States, 1975
Running Time: 1:38
Rated: R
Cast: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Nell Campbell, Jonathan Adams, Peter Hinwood, Meat Loaf, Charles Gray

Director: Jim Sharman
Producers: Lou Adler, John Goldstone, Michael White
Screenplay: Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien based on the play by Richard O’Brien
Music: Richard O’Brien
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show is more of an experience than a film. To this day, the 1975 cult musical inspires enthusiastic audience participation in countless midnight showings across America. This token annual event typically comes packaged with cross-dressing patrons who paint the town red by squirting water, throwing rice, and shouting obscenities at every opportunity. And, while these interactive components may be incomprehensible to some viewers, Rocky Horror is still a perversely original picture that juggles its sexuality and corniness quite well.

All-American Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and his prim-and-proper fiancée Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) venture off to visit a past professor. Along their journey, their car breaks down in the pouring rain. They seek shelter and find an old castle, where an apparent pack of bikers have congregated. Once inside, Brad and Janet ask to use the phone, but instead they are invited to join a party full of mad “Transylvanians.”

Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) steps onto the scene, and decides to show his two guests his latest creation. With a change of clothes and scenery, Brad and Janet are introduced to Rocky (Peter Hinwood), Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s finely-tuned boy-toy. At this point, the lovely couple is a bit apprehensive, but once they are asked to stay overnight, the pair’s inhibitions are lowered and they are strapped in for one wild ride.

Tim Curry is absolutely brilliant as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. His “Sweet Transvestite” is the surefire highlight of the film, and his performance alone is enough to both etch his character into your head forever and hike this film up to recommendable level. However, the question is: does Curry’s panache have the capability to rouse any moviegoer to slap on some make-up and a garter and mimic this B-horror endeavor from beginning to end? Well...almost any moviegoer—considering each year, hordes of both males and females flock to theaters dressed like rainbows ready for bondage.

With obvious references to films like Frankenstein, King Kong, and A Clockwork Orange, Rocky Horror makes itself high in pop-culture and camp. However, with an ending that craps out in the company of aliens and cheap-looking lasers, it makes you want to rewind the film back to its sweeter moments—when those big red androgynous lips sing the opening credits ("Science-Fiction Double Feature") or when the swarm of “Transylvanians” sings “Time Warp.”

Albeit Rocky Horror’s opening and closing scenes are perfunctory and stale, the meat in-between the bread is substantial. And, even though there is way too much cheese on this sandwich, Rocky Horror’s over-the-top and flamboyant approach is the leading factor that makes this film fun. Like it or hate it, you’re bound to have an entertaining time. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Movie Review: Cinema Paradiso

Italy, 1988
U.S. Director's Cut Re-release: 6/02 (limited)
Running Time (original): 2:03
Running Time (director's): 2:54
Rated: PG (Mature themes)
Cast: Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin, Antonella Attili, Pupella Maggio, Agnese Nano, Leopoldo Trieste

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Producers: Franco Cristaldi, Giovanna Romagnoli
Screenplay: Giuseppe Tornatore
Music: Ennio Morricone
Studio: Miramax Films
In Italian with subtitles

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Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso defines poignancy. In many circles, this picture is considered the greatest foreign film ever made. Touché! Cinema Paradiso is a virtuous concoction of love, faith, and film that spans two special relationships between a boy and his mentor and a man and his love of the movies. It is the type of surreal, sublime, and nostalgic motion-picture that can put your approbation on a pedestal to a sheer state of elation. All the while, it can tickle your funny bone, result in a multitude of warm smiles, and even inflict a tear or two. If you have a passion for great cinema, you will adore Cinema Paradiso.

Through an extended flashback, Salvatore DiVita (Philippe Noiret) recollects his adolescence as a cinephile in the village of Giancaldo. As a youngster, Salvatore– nicknamed Toto (Salvatore Cascio) - builds a lasting friendship with Alfredo (Jacques Perrin), the projectionist at the village’s movie theater. As a young adult, Salvatore (Marco Leonardi) becomes increasingly immersed in the magic of cinema—eventually taking over as projectionist and even doing some filming of his own. However, after experiencing both his first love named Elena (Agnese Nano) and the troubles of war with the Italian army, Alfredo convinces Salvatore to move on to a better life—out of Giancaldo. When Salvatore finally returns to his hometown thirty years later, his mother sees that her son’s mentor made the correct recommendation, and Salvatore develops a better understanding of Alfredo’s intentions.

If there is one picture that can eschew any personal distaste for subtitles, it is Cinema Paradiso. Twenty minutes into the feature, you forget that you are even required to read. That, is proof in itself that Cinema Paradiso is entrancing enough to appeal to all crowds. However, the bona-fide cinema connoisseurs will undoubtedly take the most pleasure in this Italian paradise.

Vis a vis the “kissing montage”, Cinema Paradiso’s sine qua non is both gratifying and invigorating. This scene in particular comes close to holding dominion over my all-time favorite cinematic sequences. However, this one touching scene is not the only reason why Cinema Paradiso succeeds.

Sometimes it’s the little things that make people smile, and in the case of Cinema Paradiso, there are plenty of moments that evoke a warming grin. For instance, the scene where Salvatore, as young-adult, creates his own dialogue to his footage of Elena is pleasing. Both the story of the 99 nights of waiting and then Salvator’s eventual interpretation are interesting. And, the shot where Salvatore’s mother drops her knitting needles, runs to greet him at the door, and undoes the garment she was working on – is absolutely beautiful.

Incidentally, this film is viewable in two different versions—the U.S. theatrical release and the director’s cut. Both editions of the film earn my highest recommendation; yet, if I were forced to choose a version, it would definitely be the director’s cut. While it is a full 51 minutes longer in length, it is worth every additional second. This 174 minute journey is three-hours of film at its absolute finest. Be it one version or the other, make time to see this foreign treasure; it is a fine example of a flawless feature, and truthfully one of my all-time favorite films. Amo questa pellicola. (**** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Movie Review: Dogma

United States, 1999
U.S. Release Date: 11/12/99 (wide)
Running Time: 2:05
Rated: R (Profanity, sexual references, violence)
Cast: Linda Fiorentino, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Alan Rickman, Chris Rock, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, George Carlin, Salma Hayek, Jason Lee, Alanis Morissette

Director: Kevin Smith
Producer: Scott Mosier
Screenplay: Kevin Smith
Music: Howard Shore
Studio: Lions Gate Films

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When Kevin Smith began his writing, directing, and acting career with the independent film Clerks, he amazed all with his brilliant ideas and witty dialogue. He then downgraded a bit, with the John Hughes-inspired Mall Rats, but eventually regained his stature with the mature and unblemished Chasing Amy. Following his first three successful, yet small-budgeted, films, Smith was finally handed a handsome hunk of cash to make his fourth feature, Dogma. With its blockbuster budget, well-written screenplay, and A-list of actors, Dogma provides a satirical and comedic depiction of religion and faith that rewards more than it blasphemes.

Two angels Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), who have been banished from heaven for their past transgressions, have found a dogmatic loophole enabling their re-entry into the divine kingdom. Apparently, if the angles enter the gates of Cardinal Glick’s (George Carlin) newly reformed Catholic Church, in Red Bank, New Jersey, then their misdeeds will be erased and they can die with souls that are free of sin.

However, considering the exiled angels’ admittance into heaven would unprove that God is infallible, and in doing so would unmake the universe, Metatron (Alan Rickman) - God's messenger - appears to unite a team to put a stop to Loki and Bartleby. He first recruits "The Last Scion" – a young woman who works in an abortion clinic named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) – and tells her that it his her job to prevent the cataclysmic apocalypse from occurring. Bethany journeys to New Jersey; along the way, she is accompanied by two stoner prophets named Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), the 13th Apostle named Rufus (Chris Rock) - who is still bitter about being left out of the New Testament - and a muse named Serendipity (Salma Hayek). In order to save creation, this crack-squad of heroes must stop the two errant angels before it is too late.

Kevin Smith does a fine job with the screenplay—incorporating apt movie references, zingy one-liners, and clever conversations on creed. The writer’s references to Star Wars, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Karate Kid, The Piano, and many more, are a treat to see on screen. In addition, Smith’s "shit demon" not only shows a hint of homage to the demise of Chip in John Hughes’ Weird Science, but also creates a comedic sequence mid-film.

Above and beyond the film’s hilarious sequences, just about every one of Jay’s lines is raucous, yet riotous. Even though Smith assigns Mewes to deliver all of the film’s funniest lines, Chris Rock ad-libs a few good ones to boot. But again, Kevin Smith shows his shimmer by stepping out on the right foot with the greatest opening disclaimer of all-time.

As far as the religious components go, Dogma discusses the ubiquitous hypocrisy associated with modern-day followers of religion. While the film isn’t preachy, it certainly isn’t pro-organized religion either. Dogma asserts, "It doesn’t matter what faith you have; it is just that you have faith." Dogma touches on the importance of celebrating your faith instead of mourning it, and the picture tackles the roots of misogyny by selecting an "ironic" choice to play God.

On the whole, it is rare to run into an appealing comedy concerning the end of the world, but Dogma provides an intelligent, non-fundamentalist elucidation of the day of reckoning. It may be soiled with potty humor and foul language, but it is topped off with good quality writing. Overall, Dogma is a comedic fantasy that should be taken with a grain of salt. It is one wild ride that bridges both earthly and ethereal planes. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005