Review- The Round Up (La Rafle)

The Round Up (La Rafle) (Gaumont)

Any film that deals with World War II, more specifically the holocaust, fights an uphill battle. The film has to contend with not only the knowledge that we as a viewing public share but also with the inevitable outcome its story-lines share. These factors make any newly told tale, especially ones that may have been shared before, more daunting to tell than they have been in the past, however, what The Round Up (Le Rafle) does so well is tell a multi-faceted tale that most films that illustrate historic events tend to avoid. This film not only tells the tale of a single neighborhood, more specifically the Weismann and Zygler families, but also takes a look at the political sides of the equation (the ivory tower and backroom bargaining where lives were bartered and certain agreements were reached under a false sense of humanitarianism) which many films tend to avoid. Not only does that angle of the story get played but also as those rounded up start their unjustly imposed sojourn you also have the plight of the medical staff, illustrated by a nurse (Mélanie Laurent) and a Jewish doctor (Jean Reno) who have to try an keep the imprisoned alive as they are eventually transported to Poland. It is adding these layers to the story which makes this film different than other of the like at least on the surface.

The differentiation does not lie solely on the surface, however, while this film does not ever take place in an unoccupied France until its denouement it does start in a time where knowledge of what’s truly happening is scarce and children remain children as they are wont to do regardless of circumstance. You are shown very good illustrations of the sense that permeates the community of “It Can’t Happen to Us” and it’s tackled head on later as the eldest of the Weismann daughters tries to warn everyone a few times and wants to flee but calm is urged by her parents. Later at the first stop it is poignantly touched upon again. It’s one of the many times wherein the senselessness and unimaginable insanity of what the holocaust was is very well illustrated. Many of the characters in the film are in the dark willfully or honestly and it allows scenes we’ve viewed and facts we know to wash over us with newfound impact.

Some of these points are made with very cleverly written dialogue as well that is uttered by the right characters in the right moments and in the right context. Things being too on the head are a matter of context as much as anything else and the correct personages say the correct things to make points anew in a different way or ones that are often overlooked. The children, the nurse in her naïveté, Hitler amongst his inner circle and French heads of state all say things that were they assigned to other characters may strike you as too much commentary. Part of why auteur theory is not a popular notion in cinema anymore is that voice in a script as opposed to things like composition and genre can border preachiness but this one deals in the political and personal of a difficult subject matter makes its points about the absurdity of the situation in terse pieces of dialogue, visuals wherever possible but never to the detriment of the narrative, which helps it excel.

Conversely, when it speaks more loudly for the film not to say a word, when an honest question is better left unanswered, where a glare from an officer says more than words possibly could the film does so. The film visually puts pieces in place to set up the ending without dialogue, so as precise and purposeful as it is at some points it understands the necessity of silence also. There is also no fear in illustrating complexity in character without going overboard and simplicity in others without creating characters. The complexity is shown mostly with the families we know who start with different levels of understanding of circumstance and gradually though they don’t know exactly what lies ahead the gravity of the situation becomes exceedingly obvious, yet you also see them grasp for humanity whenever possible. The second part of that statement being most important because there isn’t an excessive myopia in this film as exhibited in something like Life is Beautiful. It creates moments where the human spirit can overcome but also illustrates the length to which human beings will go to be cruel and to be free.

As you can see by now this film us most definitely an ensemble work a few actors come to the fore as vital but it relies on many to convey its story as well as it does. In the family the patriarch and matriarch played by Gad Elmaleh and Sylvie Testud; the medical personnel played by the world renowned Jean Reno and Mélanie Laurent who many will know and love from Inglourious Basterds and The Beginners; the kids spearheaded by Hugo Leverdez in a most impressive debut, The Di Concerto twins as Nono and Adèle Exarchopoulos and lastly the political contingencies highlighted by Udo Schenk as Adolf Hitler each of these nuclei brings the film vividly to life and fully realizes their characters.

In the early stages the intercutting between these disparate worlds is at its apex but it stays rather persistent through the course of the narrative. There are great cuts aesthetically and with story in mind we never see more of the political discussions than we need to in them we are shown the steps than lead to the decisions ultimately made and clearly how things came about.

Where this film really gets to me is at its conclusion but it is effective throughout and evokes different emotions and remains compelling in spite of the aforementioned stumbling blocks the story has. It is a brilliant work that illustrates through its many facets the precipitous escalation of events in Occupied France and the lives it affected.


Mini-Review Round-Up January 2012

I had quite a review drought to end 2011 so I think the remedy for this kind of post would be to have the post be cumulative monthly. Therefore, after each qualifying film a short write-up will be added to the monthly post. The mini-reviews will be used to discuss Netflix and other home video screenings. Theatrical releases, regardless of how they are seen whether in an auditorium or on VOD, will get full reviews.

For a guide to what scores mean go here.

Film Socialisme

Mathias Domahidy in Film Socialisme (Kino Lorber)

It would be far too facile for me to sit here and offer you some kind of borderline sophism for or against Godard’s Film Socialisme. What the film seems to be is a tangential expounding of some concepts set forth in In Praise of Love with fewer constraints imposed by anything resembling a traditional plot. Perhaps what is most bothersome about the film, that I can quantify definitively as bothersome, is that the purposeful introduction of technical gaffes such as distorted audio, pseudo-poetic fragmented subtitles, pixelated video, in essence clouds an already opaque concept. However, the opacity is not the frustration but rather the willful misdirection.

Godard clearly has something (many things) he wants to say with the film and because I know some French and I was aware I’d need to pick up pieces as I went I got some of it, however, the method of telling was always likely to be indirect, therefore, his not-so-subliminal commentary on modern filmmaking technology muddles much more important sociological, historical and political points he’s making. What the film struck me as was a free form essay wherein the printer didn’t get everything on the page. However, maybe it’s due to these very frustrations that one might go back to it. To be certain I wouldn’t have mulled the film over as much if it were not for these obstacles. Non-traditional structure and technique are certainly not that new, neither are the ideas put forth but the way they’re put forth are a bit unique. While imperfect maybe they were most apropos.

After viewing the film it was next to impossible to score it. Prior to writing this I was prepared to give it a failing grade, however, it is its very lack of convention combined with its lack of a traditional storyline that makes it more compelling and more worthy of revisiting than the aforementioned In Praise of Love.



Hayden Byerly and Azurelia Scheppers in 11/11/11 (The Asylum)

This is a film that was completely unknown to me until it landed on Netflix recently. While it wasn’t very well distributed either I did manage to seek out and find Darren Lynn Bousman’s synonymous film last year. This film does benefit from the fact that it’s less oblique and let’s face it cutesy about its prophecy. However, what it lacks in pretentions it makes up for with overly transparent redundancies. However, I do have to hand it to this film for choosing to keep the proper thing clandestine and having a successful climactic sequence and a satisfying albeit somewhat confounding final twist and a good one before that. The success of the third act isn’t enough to make it good or something I’d recommend to a general audience but it’s worth a watch for open-minded genre fans for sure.


Cold War on Ice: Summit Series ’72

Cold War on Ice: Summit Series 72 (NBC Sports Network)

To accompany the launch of its new 24-hour sports network, which coincided with the conclusion of the NHL’s Winter Classic, NBC Sports Network also decided to debut a documentary about the Summit Series from 1972. It was a series of 8 “exhibition” hockey games between the Soviet Union’s vaunted team (a team that had won 10 consecutive world titles and four out of the prior five Olympic Gold Medals) versus a selection of Canada’s best and brightest (with very few exceptions) from the NHL. The importance of the series in the annals of hockey history is known to fans but is quickly illustrated to even the most lay of fan furthermore the piece really becomes about the series, it is in essence a sports film but it does a great job going back and forth between on-the-ice action and discussion and the off-the-ice intrigue of the series. While there is much interview footage it does a great job of letting the subjects tell the story and standing aside. Perhaps the most difficult thing this film tries to do, it accomplishes and that is to convey the gravity and the magnitude that this series of games carried for the Canadian people 40 years ago. Recently, ESPN has set the bar for televised long-form sports documentaries in the US. Here most if not all those 30 for 30 specials are surpassed. If NBC Sports Network continues to find compelling subject matter like this and convey it as well as they did they’ll be a bonafide contender in the sports documentary game.


The Innkeepers

Sara Paxton and Pat Healy in The Innkeepers (Magnet Releasing)

The Innkeepers is Ti West’s sophomore effort, following on the heels of The House of the Devil and it tells the tale of a pair of hotel employees left to their own devices in a haunted, rundown hotel on its closing weekend. They do some further paranormal investigating and get far more than they gambled for. While I can categorically say I like this film more than I liked The House of the Devil, especially upon second viewing, it still battles some of the same issues that film does. There are great performances by Sara Paxton, Pat Healy and Kelly McGillis which take this film up a notch above the prior by itself but as well as the film builds atmosphere and tension the incremental ratcheting up of incidents develops a bit too methodically to be as effective as possible. It has its occasional jolt but the ending leaves you wanting some. Leaving some details unexplained is fine but there’s a bit too much restraint throughout to have such a subtle payoff work ideally. Again, I stress that I enjoyed the film, West is clearly talented and I enjoy watching his films and seeing what he’s doing but at the moment his films play almost like the opening acts of Carpenter’s work. If he escalates and concludes a movie like Carpenter can he has classics waiting to happen in him. With that in mind I conclude by saying that I do anticipate highly seeing what he is capable of in a horror anthology where his running time is limited as V/H/S is one of the hot properties coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.


Short Film Saturday: Mixtape and Disco

Disco (UK Film Council/ Virgin Media Shorts/ 2 AM Productions)

Below you will find video links to two short films by Luke Snellin. The first, Mixtape, proves just how little time you need to tell a complete and affecting tale and that’s part of why it was nominated for a BAFTA award.

The second is a companion piece which came out the following year called Disco. They both feature a similar core group of actors and a thematic similarity of young love. Essentially, my reaction to having seen Disco was it was precisely what you’d want it to be after having seen Mixtape.

Disco expands the story from a first flirtatious romance to a triangle and being tongue-tied. Without over-explaining I also want to point out you may know some of the cast members here which help make the film what it is: Bill Miler (X-Men: First Class, Is Anybody There? and Son of Rambo), Charlie Rowe (Neverland and The Nutcracker in 3D) Lil Woods (Nanny McPhee Returns) and Izzy Meikle-Small will appear in Snow White and the Huntsman.

Snellin’s work in both these films is superb, so without much further ado enjoy…



Review- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Thomas Horn in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Warner Bros.)

It would seem based in part on some the reactions that this film has received that 9/11 is still a cinematic subject matter that is off limits in the minds of some. For my ruminations of the handling of the day and my thoughts on it go here, in this review I will try and stay on topic, which is the film at hand. As for the film itself it handles the day and its ramifications with about as much restraint and respect as possible with very few and minor exceptions.

The few minor missteps are taken in the realm of artistic license where our protagonist Oskar has fleeting visions of his father having jumped. Aside from that I just have a very minor quibble about the very closing shot, however, all told the marketing did not lie and much of the story does deal with the days after. When dealing with 9/11 itself it is usually over the phone or on voicemail. The buildings are not entered, the day is not painstakingly chronicled. There is one scene with a shot of the towers in the distance and one with the implosion on TV. This laundry list may seem a bit trite but when dealing with an actual tragedy in a fractured chronology you will, as in real life, repeat the tragedy many times so it’s key to see it as little as possible. I think it’s fair to say we all remember what it looked like.

Ultimately, breaking the timeline up starting with a burial then going back occasionally to just before it happened and then to the journey undertaken afterward is the most effective possible treatment. This rendition of the events of the date thus far this one has most closely replicated the range of emotions I felt on that fateful day. In its traversing time and displaying impacts then causes and moreover conveying the tangibility of the senselessness of the acts and the confusion and fear they incurred the film recreates the numbness, the gnawing in my stomach and the sudden floods of emotion triggered soon thereafter. In a manner of speaking it acts as a time capsule. As fantastical as the storyline is in certain ways it hits truths on many levels.

People have issues when raw nerves are hit. Hitting nerves is what art should do as long as it’s done tastefully and I think this film succeeds in that regard it just so happens that all the nerves on this event are still rather raw. This is likely a kind of story we won’t be comfortable with for a very long time but let’s face it the moratorium ended long ago. Whether one finds this experience cathartic or manipulative is quite subjective I’ll admit but I found it to be the former.

One thing that I cannot state clearly enough is that one ought not confuse Oskar’s character with Thomas Horn’s performance. Oskar, the character, is socially awkward and referred to as having undiagnosed Aspeberger’s, he’s an at times abrasive, smartass New Yorker who has ticks and next to no inner-monologue. He may make you laugh because he’s weird and unabashedly so or he may annoy you because it’s too much for you to handle. Yet his plight; his search for meaning, is universal and the quality of his performance is beyond reproach, particularly when he tells the story of his search to The Renter (Max von Sydow), granted that speech is aided by great edits where L-cuts have his dialogue chase itself but his delivery is such that he hit crescendos in the right spots as if he’s doing a topping exercise with himself. He’s positively brilliant.

The performances that support his lead are fantastic as well and in many ways really take this film up a level. Firstly, there is the slew of smaller appearances by those who Oskar visits in search of answers. Their interpretations make this concept plausible and their crew is spearheaded by Viola Davis. Similarly, Tom Hanks is absolutely perfectly cast in a role where his presence needs to far exceed his screentime and he excels enormously.

On occasion there are moments, whether they be lines or readings where actors will cut straight to the heart of me, some of the more memorable instantaneously induced reactions recently would have been precipitated by Marion Cotillard pleading that she has to sing in La Vie en Rose and Asa Butterfield’s pleas when he suspects he’s really been caught in Hugo. Sandra Bullock’s assurance to her son that “Some things just don’t make sense” is what got me here, in a heartbeat. Lastly, there’s Max von Sydow who stands out even amongst many recent mute performances and has a huge impact on this film and has perhaps even more gravitas for not speaking than he would otherwise.

In his past two projects Stephen Daldry has dealt with uncomfortable and controversial subject matter and while both are very different he’s handled each about as well as one could hope. He is, and will remain, one of the few directors whose name being on a project will be all I need to know.


Review- Underworld: Awakening

Kate Beckinsale in Underworld: Awakening (Screen Gems)

Going into this film in all sincerity I wanted the ceiling of its potential quality to be much higher than I expected it to be. To be fair I only saw the last installment prior to this so I came in dreading a similar experience and hoping for a better one. While I’ll concede it was a better film it wasn’t by very much at all.

The film starts immediately on the wrong foot with a tired recap that relies too heavily on voice-over and not enough on montage. Granted it is a storytelling crutch to introduce new viewers and/or refresh the memory of fans but even the Friday the 13th series, which practically invented the technique, was more visual and inspired than this attempt at backtracking.

The tonality of this film is, from the very first, off. When you combine the desaturated color palette with the icy, stiff performances and flat-lining storyline you’re in a situation that no stakes can raise. I do grant this film raises the stakes from the last chapter but everything is so rote and done with such little aplomb it has no impact whatsoever.

Essentially the problem that plagues this film is the same that plagued the last one: the conflict seems created to support the action sequences and the action does not seem to flow organically from the conflict. We are given the minimum information and development and expected to be fat and content from that as we watch yet another tiresome action sequence where we as an audience have little to no investment.

Upon looking at the cast list one can easily ask “What is Stephen Rea doing here?” Sadly, that question does not dissipate in my mind as the film progresses. It seems as if Rea wanted nothing to do with this film and that perception makes itself evident in every frame.

In technical terms the films fares slightly better than the narrative does. The 3D is serviceable but rarely exploited and hardly worthy of the upcharge incurred. The effects are decent in execution but in conceptual terms the same unfortunate choices are made and exacerbated like big, hairless, “werewolves” and so on.

The film like the prior installment overdoes gunplay and downplays chase and is always trying to be more action then horror and achieves neither. All it ends up being is an incredibly tedious exercise that minimally advances a muddled mythos.


Oscar Nominees, Comparisons and Predictions

Academy Awards (AMPAS)

Below you will find not only the list of Academy Award Nominees but also how frequently they matched my own nominations what I would like to win and what I expect will win. More commentary will follow as we approach the awards, likely in my live blog of the festivities.

Best Motion Picture of the Year

The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards: 3
My Pick: Hugo
Likely Winner: The Artist

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Demián Bichir for A Better Life
George Clooney for The Descendants
Jean Dujardin for The Artist
Gary Oldman for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt for Moneyball

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards: 1 (2 if you count Brad Pitt for a different film)
My Pick: Jean Dujardin The Artist
Likely Winner: George Clooney The Descendants

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Glenn Close for Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis for The Help
Rooney Mara for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams for My Week with Marilyn

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards: 0
My Pick: Viola Davis The Help
Likely Winner: Viola Davis The Help

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role


Kenneth Branagh for My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill for Moneyball
Nick Nolte for Warrior
Christopher Plummer for Beginners
Max von Sydow for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards: 1
My Pick: Christopher Plummer The Beginners
Likely Winner: Christopher Plummer The Beginners

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Bérénice Bejo for The Artist
Jessica Chastain for The Help
Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer for Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer for The Help

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards: 1
My Pick: Octavia Spencer The Help
Likely Winner: Octavia Spencer The Help

Best Achievement in Directing

Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist
Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne for The Descendants
Martin Scorsese for Hugo

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards
: 1
My Pick: Martin Scorsese Hugo
Likely Winner: Michel Hazanavicius The Artist

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

The Artist: Michel Hazanavicius
Bridesmaids: Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo
Margin Call: J.C. Chandor
Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen
A Separation: Asghar Farhadi

Nominees in Common with with BAM Awards: 1
My Pick: Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen
Likely Winner: The Artist: Michel Hazanavicius

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

The Descendants: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Hugo: John Logan
The Ides of March: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon
Moneyball: Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards: 1
My Pick: Hugo: John Logan
Likely Winner: The Descendants: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

I do not have a Best Animated Feature category nor have I seen the Foreign Film entries so I will show you those nominees without any attempted soothsaying:

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

A Cat in Paris
Chico & Rita
Kung Fu Panda 2
Puss in Boots

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Bullhead: Michael R. Roskam (Belgium)
Footnote: Joseph Cedar (Israel)
In Darkness: Agnieszka Holland (Poland)
Monsieur Lazhar: Philippe Falardeau (Canada)
A Separation: Asghar Farhadi (Iran)

Best Achievement in Cinematography

The Artist: Guillaume Schiffman
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Jeff Cronenweth
Hugo: Robert Richardson
The Tree of Life: Emmanuel Lubezki
War Horse: Janusz Kaminski

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards: 2
My Pick: Robert Richardson Hugo
Likely Winner: Emmanuel Lubezki The Tree of Life

Best Achievement in Editing

The Artist: Anne-Sophie Bion, Michel Hazanavicius
The Descendants: Kevin Tent
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter
Moneyball: Christopher Tellefsen
Hugo: Thelma Schoonmaker

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards: 1
My Pick: Hugo: Thelma Schoonmaker
Likely Winner: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter

Best Achievement in Art Direction

The Artist: Laurence Bennett, Gregory S. Hooper
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2: Stuart Craig, Stephenie McMillan
Hugo: Dante Ferretti, Francesca Lo Schiavo
Midnight in Paris: Anne Seibel, Hélène Dubreuil
War Horse: Rick Carter, Lee Sandales

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards
: 1
My Pick: Hugo: Dante Ferretti, Francesca Lo Schiavo
Likely Winner: Hugo: Dante Ferretti, Francesca Lo Schiavo

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Anonymous: Lisy Christl
The Artist: Mark Bridges
Hugo: Sandy Powell
Jane Eyre: Michael O’Connor
W.E.: Arianne Phillips

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards: 1
My Pick: Hugo: Sandy Powell
Likely Winner: Hugo: Sandy Powell

Best Achievement in Makeup

Albert Nobbs
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
The Iron Lady

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards: 1
My Pick: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Likely Winner: Albert Nobbs

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

The Adventures of Tintin: John Williams
The Artist: Ludovic Bource
Hugo: Howard Shore
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Alberto Iglesias
War Horse: John Williams

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards: 1
My Pick: Hugo: Howard Shore
Likely Winner: The Artist: Ludovic Bource

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

The Muppets: Bret McKenzie (“Man or Muppet”)
Rio: Sergio Mendes, Carlinhos Brown, Siedah Garrett (“Real in Rio”)

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards: 0
My Pick: Rio: Sergio Mendes, Carlinhos Brown, Siedah Garrett (“Real in Rio”)
Likely Winner: The Muppets: Bret McKenzie (“Man or Muppet”)

In the BAM Awards I combined the sound categories therefore I will list the nominees below and my predictions will follow them:

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
War Horse

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
War Horse

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards
: 1
My Pick: Hugo
Likely Winner: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Real Steel
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards: 3
My Pick: Real Steel
Likely Winner: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I thought I would’ve seen a nominated doc but I did not so I will not prognosticate there or in shorts but I will see those before the show.

Best Documentary, Features

Hell and Back Again
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Nominees in Common with BAM Awards: 0

Best Documentary, Short Subjects

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement
God Is the Bigger Elvis
Incident in New Baghdad
Saving Face
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

Best Short Film, Animated

Dimanche : Patrick Doyon
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore: William Joyce, Brandon Oldenburg
La Luna: Enrico Casarosa
A Morning Stroll: Grant Orchard, Sue Goffe
Wild Life: Amanda Forbis, Wendy Tilby

Best Short Film, Live Action

Pentecost: Peter McDonald
Raju: Max Zähle, Stefan Gieren
The Shore: Terry George
Time Freak: Andrew Bowler, Gigi Causey
Tuba Atlantic: Hallvar Witzø

Monochromatic Monday: Bobby Breen

Charles Butterworth and Bobby Breen in Rainbow on the River (RKO)

These are articles wherein I’ll profile a black-and-white film or films worth looking out for.

I couldn’t rightly tell you now how it was I discovered the films of Bobby Breen. It may well have been through Movies Unlimited’s catalog back when they had brick-and-mortar locations. They wonderfully subdivided so it was likely there that I first noticed his name. It’s not a name many will know among the pantheon of stars from the 30s but he most certainly should be.

He was touted as the boy soprano and, of course, there’s no doubt his voice is incredible but what’s really intriguing is the films are truly built around him and showcasing his singing. Genre definitions were rigid back then but in a way that simplified things and allowed accessible, quality star-vehicles to be created with a higher rate of frequency. Producer Sol Lesser was always heading up these productions and seemed to place things just right to make the projects successful. Four films Bobby starred in were nominated for Academy Awards in scoring categories so they were fine productions.

I have seen three myself: Way Down South, Let’s Sing Again and Make a Wish and have enjoyed them all. While all are similar enough each has its own feel to it: one being an antebellum southern tale, another a touching reunion piece and the last a light summertime romance. Sadly, based on what little information I can gather it seemed Breen, like all too many a child star back then, wasn’t accepted in films as anything but a kid act. The trend is more broken now than it was but it’s unfortunate, it seems he stayed in music in one way or another for many years but never did clear that hurdle in the minds of some. I admit I don’t have as much information as I’d like about the whole of his career and welcome enlightenment.

The goal of this piece really is to possibly introduce him to those who may not know of his work. Below you will find links to three of his films on The Internet Archive, all of which are in the public domain. I wanted to see them before linking to them but I will be watching them this week. I hope you enjoy and are seek out his other work as well.

Hawaii Calls (1938)

Breaking the Ice (1938)

Escape to Paradise (1939)

What My Film Reviews Mean

The Critic (Gracie Pictures)

In many ways it’s more important that people read the following than My Rating Scale for it will allow you to understand my philosophy on film criticism:

Anyone who claims they have nothing else to learn is a liar. Part of why I have found my time film writing valuable is because I am constantly learning and re-learning things because you can never really stop. Similarly, I will never disable commenting (no matter how much I may want to at times) because on occasion there will be a thoughtful reader who will engage you in an actual conversation and make you examine your thought process and have you come to realization. It’s not even a question of being right or wrong about something but just understanding how you reach your conclusions or a truth you couldn’t put into words yet, an epiphany if you will. Recently when discussing my piece on Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close I realized my philosophy on film reviews is as follows:

I just try as accurately as I can to convey what my feelings are and why such that the reader can draw his/her own conclusions. I never presume my opinion to be more “right” I just always try to logically explain it.

That’s as simply as I can put it but I’d add the caveats that I’m not a fan of synopses in reviews (they can be found in many places, I’d go to official film-related sources for those), I am also by the above definition not a consumer advocate in strictest terms. Many times when I read a well-written review someone’s reasons for disliking it will compel me to go for I know I may like it for those same reasons. The key to choosing critiques to read is clarity of opinion and not taking the writer’s word for it. There will be no one in the world who shares all the same thoughts on films as you. We all have slightly different perspectives. Therefore you want to find someone who can accurately convey rather specifically why they liked/disliked a film and read them. No one reviewer’s word is gospel.

Lastly, and this is a little similar to the above, while I apologize for this, I also cannot and do not provide parental advice regarding appropriateness of material. There are myriad reasons: first, each parent has his/her standards; two, the MPAA’s standards may not be yours or mine regarding appropriateness (they may either be too strict or too liberal). Third, it’s not something I often consider in terms of a review. If you ask me in a comment I will do my best to address specific concerns of profanity, nudity, etc. However, for better sources the IMDb usually has a parent’s guide for titles with very detailed explications of things that may be objectionable and also there’s Lights Camera Jackson the “kid critic,” who always comments on family friendliness of titles he sees.

I appreciate your readership and welcome intelligent discourse and just wanted it clear that my aim is to state opinion not shape it.

Short Film Saturday: Dym (Smoke)

Short films are an artform in and of themselves. Sadly, there are rarely avenues for these films to be displayed. While the platform I can offer is not a large one I do hope that by featuring short films on the weekend you’ll be encouraged to look for more that you do like or perhaps even work on your own. I will try to get these up on Saturday morning, which may be the ideal time to catch a short film: It’s a relaxed time and you’re in search of some entertainment but your attention span may not be as long as it will be later in the day.

The first film I am deciding to highlight is one called Smoke. It’s a film that was actually brought to my attention via an email from the film’s director. I’m sorry it took me so long to profile it here, however, I am glad he brought it to my attention as it truly is quite special.

The film is constructed in a stream-of-consciousness montage that is incited by the turning on of a tape recorder. What words are being spoken on the tape, or to it for that matter (if any), are left for the audience to divine as we don’t hear them. The images are rather surreal and at times completely disconnected and at others only connected by the common motif: smoke, be it in one form or another. While some images are Kubrickesque the film possesses a voice of it’s own that speaks to you in visual fragments seeking your input and associations to determine meaning. I’ve seen the film twice now and had two distinct, but both positive reactions to it.

Before I belabor it too long watch it for yourself:

Review- Contraband

Mark Wahlberg and Ben Foster in Contraband (Universal)

In the first incarnation of the Best Foreign Film Awards for the BAMs one of the winners was The Sea, a film from Iceland. While I try to keep tabs on former winners it does get harder as the years go on and the new winners accumulate. Combine that with the fact that Baltasar Kormákur, the director of the aforementioned film, continued to work in Iceland, a country that doesn’t always achieve international recognition and distribution, one could see how I lost track of him but that one film with its sharp direction, palpable drama and believable performances stayed with me. So when I saw his name on the opening credits of Contraband, which is itself an American remake of an Icelandic film, I was perhaps a little more hopeful than I otherwise would’ve been and I was not disappointed.

Contraband indeed does take a lot of familiar elements: an ex-con turned legit doing “one last job” (until the potential sequel) to protect his family because his brother-in-law got in over his head. The set-up is one we’ve seen but the film language and interpretation is a bit more artistic than one might expect. The precise relationship of the characters does not reveal itself right away, concepts that might be unknown to the audience are introduced then explained later, certain continuity is assumed therefore less-than-essential elements might be omitted and bother completists. It is this kind of telling that is almost required of a story that otherwise doesn’t offer much in the way of innovation.

One of the places wherein this film really does excel is in the portrayal of its villain both in the scripting of the film and in his interpretation. Briggs is not only ruthless and reckless but very well realized by Giovanni Ribisi. In this modern era there seem to be fewer black-and-white characters than before and a lot of navigating in the gray areas of humanity, which can be fine but it’s a lot more nebulous and difficult to get through it. Therefore to have a character who has no obvious redeeming qualities or seemingly no complexity is practically verboten but a good actor relishes this challenge. It can allow the actor to do a lot of work on the character’s story that could lead to his mannerisms and so on. I’m not saying Ribisi is method, I can’t confirm or deny but that what I am saying is a character so seemingly simple free of being judged can be a liberating experience and allow an actor to bring more than expected to a part. One way or another Ribisi goes above and beyond here and is a big reason this film works.

It seems every so often some way or somehow I’m reminded that Mark Wahlberg started in music and I do need to be reminded. Not only am I now accustomed to seeing him as an actor but have liked quite a few things he’s done. I think the key is creating a screen persona. He has one and usually he finds himself in films not too different than this and he also helps makes this film happen. Some action films need to work to have you believe the star fits in the milieu or builds up the world of the character and then the character but Wahlberg due to his persona and the types of characters he plays naturally fits therefore the film’s world and character can be discovered simultaneously. He always makes his characters identifiable and likable in spite of their flaws.

The supporting cast highlighted by Kate Beckinsale as the knowing yet vulnerable and worried wife, then there’s Ben Foster who’s very nuanced and Caleb Landry Jones who seems to be carving out his own niche as the engaging yet troubled youth.

Two other things that are a boon to this film are: it has a very good twist that propels it to a dramatic conclusion and it depicts an interesting and oft unexplored world of smuggling on ocean faring vessels. The conclusion gets quite dramatic and actually does leave you wondering how things will work out in the end.

The end did make me wonder how things turn out in the Icelandic version, however, that didn’t really adversely affect this film. What did was in the Panamanian episode there’s really the only pacing issue of the film and our leads are forced into a situation where they become passive observers, which makes that section quite tedious. That and a few other willful suspensions of disbelief are all that hold it back.

Despite its second act stumbles Contraband is a slightly elevated genre film with some good surprises in store and a nicely appointed denouement that should be a crowd pleaser.