31 July 2012

Film review: A Good year (2006), by Ridely Scott, ***

Synopsis

Director Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe--who first worked together on the Academy Award-winning Gladiator--are reunited in this romantic film, which is based on Peter Mayle's book A Year in Provence.

Crowe plays Max, a workaholic London bonds trader who doesn't know the meaning of vacation. When his uncle dies, leaving him a picturesque estate in the south of France, Max views it as an opportunity to cash in the vinery and pocket the profits. The film is reminiscent of Diane Lane's Under the Tuscan Sun in the way the scenery plays as much of a role in the film as its characters. The lush village and streaming sunlight portray Provence as an idyllic, magical place. Even Max falls under its spell. While not a particularly likeable character, especially in the early part of the film, Max also isn't a bad guy. Nothing that happens comes as much of a surprise. Still, while the film doesn't fully utilise Crowe's range of skills, the actor is charming in his role and A Good Year provides fine viewing. --Jae-Ha Kim for Amazon





Review

A feel good movie to take you to Provence for a couple of hours. Crowe is not at his best, whereas Marion Cotillard is the real star.

The moral of the story is one I share: work to live, don't live to work. The setting (ruthless London city trader sees the light and a pretty woman and turns good) is a bit trite. But then again the point the movie is trying to make is a simple one. But a strong one.

But this is also a movie about wine. You learn a bit about French wine making specifically, though American wines enter the fray when Max's cousin comes into the picture. A couple of references are made to the France-California rivalry: I would recommend watching the film "Bottle Shock" together with this one. This movie was made the same year as the rematch of the  Judgement of Paris, again won by California over France.

The ending is predictable, sort of, but with a fun twist...



29 July 2012

Film review: Egypt, Rediscovering a Lost World (2006), BBC, ****

Synopsis

Focusing on three of the most important discoveries from the world of the ancient Egyptians, this series journeys back in time to explore Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the Great Giovanni Belzoni's finds from the reign of Ramesses II and Jean-François Champollion's deciphering of the hieroglyphs. Join Carter, Belzoni and Champollion as they overcome immense obstacles to unlock the secrets of an as-yet undiscovered world and reveal their seminal finds. Then travel even further back, to the amazing period of Egyptian history unveiled by their astounding work.




Disc 1:
Episode 1 and 2 : Carter and Tutankhamon
Episode 3: Belzoni and Ramses, first part

Disc 2:
Episode 4: Belzoni and Ramses, second part
Episode 5 and 6: Champollion and the hieroglyphs

Disc 3:
The making of the pyramids
Extras: trailers, photo gallery, fact files, visual effects


Review

Tut Ankh Amun funeral mask, Cairo Museum
This is a fictional rendering of the life and work of the three most important discoverers of ancient Egypt. It is a comprehensive work, at least as much as can fit into three DVDs packed with action. The idea of a fictional narration instead of a pure documentary is a good one in this case, as it helps bring the characters to life. The three stories of research and discovery are interlaced with the personal lives of the three men, their strengths and weaknesses, and it all makes for an entertaining as well as instructive narration.

I am not sure why the authors chose this particular order of the episodes, in that Belzoni should come first, as his discoveries preceded the work of the two others. Carter's episodes should be the last: not only did he work a century after Belzoni and Champollion, but his subject, Tutankhamun, lived a thousand years after Ramses and the inventors of the hieroglyphs. The viewer might want to watch episodes 3 and 4 first, then 5 and 6, and finally 1 and 2.


Abu Simbel before restoration
Acting is not going to win any Oscars but that's not why one buys this set. The third "bonus" DVD on the pyramids is the worst of the three. The CGI are rather poor (more like 1990s than 2010) and the narrator's voice tries to be solemn but is just boring.

You can read my review of the book on Giovanni Belzoni by Marco Zatterin (in Italian) here on this blog.

Buy the European DVD set here:




In the US you can buy it here:

27 July 2012

Film review: The Odd Couple (1968) by Gene Saks, *****

Synopsis

Neil Simon's beloved story about two divorced men who decide to share a New York apartment. Felix (Jack Lemmon) is fussy and fastidious to a fault. He proves that cleanliness is next to insanity. Oscar (Walter Matthau) wreaks havoc on a tidy room with the speed and thoroughness of a tornado. An enduring and endearing picture with the intelligence one usually misses in comedies.


Review

Today I have seen this great film for the first time, nearly half a century after if was made, and I had a ball. Not only is the film superfunny. Not only it keep a nice clip throughout. It is actually a pretty serious analysis of many of the most common idiosyncrasies of men. All men, or at least most men, in any country. On the one hand we just want to be left alone, but on the other hand, when we are, we resent it and look for relationships.

Also, I sympathized a lot with oscar for setting up the two girls only to see them fall for Felix, who could not care less, at least in the beginning, and ends up reaping the fruits. It happened to me so many times! (I am usually the Oscar, not the Felix, in this kind of circumstances!)

Some memorable quotes:

[When Oscar can't take it anymore and asks Felix to leave]
Felix: In other words, you're throwin' me out.
Oscar: Not in other words. Those are the perfect ones!

Felix: I think I'm crazy.
Oscar: If it makes you feel any better, I think so too.

[When Felix is very tense]
Oscar: Look at this. You're the only man in the world with clenched hair.



22 July 2012

Film review: Chaplin blu-ray box set, *****

This is a collection of five films:

The Kid (1921) silent
A moving story of poverty and generosity.

The Gold Rush (1925) silent
Irony about greed. Poor man against poor man, in the hope of striking gold and turning the page.

The Circus (1928) silent
Love and desperation intertwined in a moving story.

Modern Times (1936) last silent film by Chaplin
A timeless classic about the dehumanization of man by machines.

The Great Dictator (1940)
Filmed as WW II was getting underway, it is a totally unveiled veiled satirical attack on Hitler and Mussolini. A movie about the need to speak up for freedom, then as now.

These are among the best masterpiecess made by Charlie Chaplin. They are timeless works, and each evokes as much emotion and humor today as it did almost a century ago.

The BD rendering is very good, even though I am not sure it justifies the expensive price tag. Perhaps a DVD set would be enough. Yet, I would still recommend this set, considering one is likely to view them again and again with undiminished pleasure.


20 July 2012

Film review: Julie and Julia (2009), by Nora Ephron ****

Julia Child in Time magazine
Synopsis

A culinary legend provides a frustrated office worker with a new recipe for life in Julie and Julia, the true stories of how Julia Child's (Meryl Streep) life and cookbook inspired fledgling writer Julie Powell (Amy Adams) to whip up 524 recipes in 365 days and introduce a new generation to the magic of French cooking. Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada) co-stars in director Nora Ephron's delicious comedy about joy, obsession and butter. It was to be the last of her movies, as she died in 2012. Bon appetit!


18 July 2012

Film review: Olympia (1936), by Leni Riefenstahl ***

Synopsis

A documentary of the 1936 Summer Olympic games held in Berlin.



Review

This is undoubdtedly great photography, and controversial director Riefenstahl was very innovative in her positioning of the camera, especially in the low angle. For its time, it was a masterpiece.

Today I find it a bit boring. The sequence of events is monotonous and repetitive.

Interesting to hear the British version commentator cheer for a "European" runner (who happened to be an Italian) runner when an American and a Canadian were in the lead in the 800 meters. An indication that at the time the ideological differences between fascist Italy and democratic Britain did not prevent him to voice sympathy for a fellow European when competing against an American.

Also interesting to hear him use of the term"negro" when referring to black athletes. This is of course politically incorrect today, but did not have a pejorative connotation at that time. Indeed, Martin Luther King and Leopold Senghor used the word even much later.

Funny to see swimmers as they swam "breast stroke" also with butterfly strokes, at will, as it was not differentiated at the time.

The audio in this DVD is pretty bad, could have been remastered better.

An interesting piece of history nonetheless.




Buy the US version here


17 July 2012

Book review: Prisoner of the Japanese, by Tom Wade, *****

English prisoners freed in Japan, September 1945 (AP Photo)
Synopsis

On 15 February 1942, the Japanese captured Singapore and took 130,000 Allied prisoners of war. One of those prisoners was British Lieutenant Tom Wade. For the next three and a half years he was to suffer the indignity and hardships of captivity and the torture and brutality of his captors, first in Changi, then in Korea and finally in Tokyo.

This book is the story of those years in captivity. They were years of horror and despair, characterised by harsh treatment at the hands of sadistic guards who believed that a soldier who has surrendered has lost all humanity. At Tokyo Headquarters Camp in particular, Wade and his fellow POWs had to suffer the paranoid beatings and victimisation of Sergeant Matsuhiro Watanabe, who successfully avoided prosecution by the War Crimes Commission at the war's end.

Wade's moving account of his period of captivity is characterised by the sense of determination, hope and endurance which sustained all those who shared his experience.


10 July 2012

Film review: Sand Pebbles (1966) by Robert Wise, ****

Synopsis
"The Sand Pebbles" tells many stories. It's the story of China, a slumbering giant that rouses itself to the cries of its people - and of the Americans who are caught in its blood awakening. It's the story of Frenchy (Richard Attenborough, passionate!), a crewman on the U.S.S. San Pablo who kidnaps his Chinese bride from the auction block. It's the story of Shirley (Candice Bergen, not her best performance here), a teacher and her first unforgettable taste of love. It's the story of Captain Collins (Richard Crenna), ready to defy anyone for his country's defense. Most of all, it's the story of Jake Holman (Steve McQueen, who does great, maybe his best ever!), a sailor who has given up trying to make peace with anything - including himself. McQueen gives what is probably the best performance of his career. It's not surprising that he, Mako and the movie were up for Oscars. Portraying a character with conflicting loyalties to friend and flag, McQueen expertly conveys the confusion that leads into his final line: "What the hell happened?" It's to his credit that we already know.

Review
A movie made at the time the Vietnam was escalating and beginning to raise questions in America. The parallel is obvious: China in the 1920s was a divided country with foreign powers meddling in its internal affairs and supporting the opposing sides of the civil war. Japan had invaded, the USSR supported the Communists, the Western powers supported the Nationalists. Western powers did not invade but had a military presence on the coast and, as this film shows, inland as well.

It is an anti-colonial film too. It shows how China, while not strictly speaking colonized, had been in fact the object of foreign interference and prevarication for many decades. Yet the film also shows the brutality of the colonialists' victims, with Chinese killing Chinese, sometimes for very little reason.

The human dimension of the film reminds me of Vietnam too. Frenchy falls in love with a Chinese woman and wants to marry her amidst many difficulties, just as it happened for many GIs in Vietnam.

The Blu-ray edition also contains interesting extra features, like an interview with the director and cut scenes, as well as a "the making of" featurette. This was before any CGI of course, so it is interesting to see how special effects were done in those days.




09 July 2012

Film review: Pushing Hands (1992) by Ang Lee, ****

Synopsis

Mr. Chu is a recently widowed tai-chi master who moves from Beijing to New York to live with his son. Chu's American daughter-in-law, Martha, can't stand having him around the house. He finds her Western ideas on raising children and keeping a home to be curious at best. These conflicts test family bonds and Mr. Chu's highly developed sense of balance. This was the first feature as a director for Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility) and has many of the hallmarks of his later, better-known works: finely observed characters, gentle yet pointed humor, and the ability to see and understand both sides of a cultural divide. The charismatic Sihung Lung (who also starred in Lee's The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman) plays Chu with strength and understatement, but Deb Snyder is miscast in a thankless role. The title refers to a tai-chi exercise that's at the center of the film's best scene, a standoff in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. --Geof Miller for Amazon


Review

Another great movie by Ang Lee and superb interpretation ny Sihung Lung. The eternal problem of how do deal with our elders. Difficult to keep them at home with our spouses, yet difficult to abandon them in a hospice for old people. It can be a lose-lose situation. Or it can be a win-win situation if all concerned make an effort. In the end, in this movie, the grandfather successfully blends his need to keep in touch with son and grandson, but without interfereing in their lives too much.

As always with Ang lee and Sihung Lung, food and cooking plays out all along the film. It is a healthy reminder of the central role food and eating together plays in family life in any culture. Tai chi is not a central part of this movie, and therefore I'd say the title is a bit out of context. Also, some of the fighting scenes where old Sihung Lung beats dozens of younger men while practically standing still are a bit exaggerated!

I found this movie thoroughly enjoyable and very perceptive. The movie is set in the US with a Chinese protagonist, and as such does provide insights into the problematic meeting of Western and Eastern minds, though the issues it addresses are really universal. Strongly recommended.

You can read a list of movies about China I have reviewd here on this blog.




06 July 2012

Film review: Bottle Shock (2008) by Randal Miller, ****

Synopsis
The build-up to the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris competition between French and Californian wines. Napa Valley's Jim Barrett (Lost Highway's Bill Pullman) has been plugging away for years with minimal success. A former attorney, Barrett runs Chateau Montelena with his wayward son, Bo (Chris Pine, the Star Trek prequel's Captain Kirk), who would rather do anything than assist his stern father. Bo's co-workers include Gustavo (Six Feet Under's Freddy Rodríguez) and Sam (Transformers' Rachael Taylor), who long to produce the perfect chardonnay. Naturally, the young men compete for the favors of the beautiful blonde (the movie's least interesting angle). Across the Atlantic, Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) struggles to keep his Parisian wine shop going (cheapskate American Dennis Farina is his only regular customer). Then Spurrier conceives a contest to attract customers.

Review
While based on a true story, the film takes some liberty at embellishing the facts with romance and family feuds, but this does not detract from it being highly instructive for wine lovers.

The competition itself should have been given more time in the movie in my view, as it was the event that justified making the movie in the first place and changed the world of wine ever since.

Also, the movie does not make it clear that the competition was only for Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvigons/Merlot varieties, and as such can in no way be interpreted to be an overall match between Californian and French wines.

Finally, one can not help but notice somewhat of a pro-Californian bias in the movie, but this is perhaps inevitable given the nature of the real historical events. I would like to see a film of the 2006 rematch, which California, again, won hands down, in fact by an even greater margin.



04 July 2012

Film review: Chocolat (2000), by Lasse Hallström, ****

Synopsis
Driven by fate, Vianne (Binoche) drifts into a tranquil French village with her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol, from Ponette) in the winter of 1959. Her newly opened chocolatier is a source of attraction and fear, since Vianne's ability to revive the villagers' passions threatens to disrupt their repressive traditions. The pious mayor (Alfred Molina) sees Vianne as the enemy, and his war against her peaks with the arrival of "river rats" led by Roux (Depp), whose attraction to Vianne is immediate and reciprocal. Splendid subplots involve a battered wife (Lena Olin), a village elder (Judi Dench), and her estranged daughter (Carrie-Anne Moss), and while the film's broader strokes may be regrettable (if not for Molina's rich performance, the mayor would be a caricature), its subtleties are often sublime. Chocolat reminds you of life's simple pleasures and invites you to enjoy them. --Jeff Shannon for Amazon

Review
A drifting single mother comes to inject a healthy does of laicism and joie de vivre in a sleepy French village soaked up in bigotry. The two are at first ostracized but then, slowly, people in the village, and eventually even the strict, hypocritical and controlling mayor, are moved to see the brighter, sweeter side of life that chocolate represents. You don't have to be a chocoholic to get the point!

Binoche is simply superb throughout.

This well paced film is an invitation to free ourselves from stereotypes, and enjoy what life has to offer. I don't know if Steve Jobs ever saw this movie, but he might have said it is an exhortation to "be hungry, be foolish". Don't sit back and watch life flow past you, but look at what is new, unusual, apparently useless or even frivolous, and go for it: much good could come out for you!





01 July 2012

Photo exhibition: Robert Capa in Verona

Today I went to see the Robert Capa photo exhibition in Verona. Organized by Magnum Photos, the historic photographic agency founded in 1947 by Robert Capa himself, the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and other great photographers of that time, the Verona photo exhibition intends to pay homage to Robert Capa, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century.

Sicilian farmer showing the way to an American soldier
Description

The Verona exhibition presents some of the crucial moments of the history of the past century, documented by Robert Capa during his many trips. Almost one hundred photogaphs are shown, all B&W, which represent a compendium of Capa's work over a quarter century.

Born in Budapest in 1913, Robert Capa (born Endre Friedman) started working as a photographer in Berlin, and soon got in contact with an important photographic agency. With the rise of Hitler Robert Capa left Berlin and followed his restless soul across Europe until the start of World War II when he decided to move to New York and started working for “Life”.

The earliest pics are the photos taken in 1932 during the Leon Trotsky conference in Copenhagen, when for the first time the violence of Stalin regime was exposed.

D-day landing in Normandy, 6 June 1944
We then move on to the Paris riots of the late 1930s. Capa then goes to war: first the Spanish civil war, then the Japanese invasion of China and finally the Second World War, where he followed the Allied landings in Sicily and then D-Day. On that fateful day he took over 500 pictures, but only a dozen or so survive because a technician screwed up the development of the rolls he sent back to England!

The exhibition in Verona also contains a display of photos showing some of Robert Capa’s friends, such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Matisse and Picasso.

We can also see photos taken in the Soviet Union in 1947, as well as the founding of Israel and finally his last photos taken in Indochina, where Robert Capa travelled to document the independence war and where he was killed in a mine field on 25th May, 1954.

Finally we see pictures of his lover Ingrid Bergman.


Review

I always loved his most quoted teaching to photographers around the world: "If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough."

He certainly did get close to the action. He risked his life in many a war theater, often at the front line, and eventually died doing so. It is then surprising that he seems to have faked the most important image of his entire career. But then, at that time he was not a famous photographer. He was trying to scrape a living and might have given in to the temptation of creating a moving image when he could not find one.

I had a conversation with the exhibition guide about the famous picture of the "death of a militiaman" or "falling soldier". She argued it is genuine, the true instant when the loyalist militiaman was shot dead by Franco's forces. The picture has been controversial for a long time, but now the majority of scholars agree it was most likely staged. Another argument is about whether or not, if the photo was indeed staged, Capa was nonetheless justified in publishing it to send a political message. In my view, he was not. There is a difference between a mock image and a fake one, as it has been argued very well in this article (in Italian).

Some disagree, like my guide today. One famous article to argue that Capa's photograph was not staged was written by Robert Whelan in 2002.

Be that as it may, Capa remains a towering figure of photography. Another of his quotes I like, and try to implement in my travels, is: "Like the people you shoot and let them know it."

You can buy books with Capa's pictures on Amazon:




Here is his autobiographical essay on his work at the front.