Thursday, September 25, 2008


Dir: John Frankenheimer, 1998 (9.1*)
A woman, perhaps an IRA terrorist, Natascha McElhone (the blonde ex-wife on cable tv's Californication), hires Robert de Niro and a team of professionals, which includes the terrific French actor Jean Reno, to retrieve a briefcase, without telling them what's in it. This vague information and other secrecy bothers the team, but that's just the beginning of their troubles. This is a heady, intellectual film that also packs some terrific chases and superb editing, a rare combination, a one of the few that begs for a sequel. Excellent all-around, one of the best of the genre.

This is Frankenheimer's high water mark for action films, perhaps his best film, which includes Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, Reindeer Games, and another of my favorites, The Train.

Natascha McElhone is one of the most beautiful women ever captured on film. She deserved much better than Californication, a lame comedy


Kind Hearts and Coronets

Dir: Robert Hamer, 1949, bw (8.7*)

Perhaps the best of the Alec Guiness comedies done for Ealing Studios, classic British black and white comedies (Man in the White Suit, Ladykillers, Lavender Hill Mob), all of which are worth seeing. This gives Alec a field day as he plays all the members of one family in a tontein, where the last survivor inherits all the familie's estates that participate. In this comedy, it's a race to survive all the plots and murders that are involved. Fluff, but as good as British comedic fluff gets.



Lasse Hallstrom, 2000, France (8.2*)
Unique and eccentric fantasy romance, about an outsider, Juliet Binoche, who comes to a small town in France and opens a chocolate shop. She is generally shunned by the locals, being an outsider and a beautiful woman, but manages to cook a special chocolate for each person that has magical qualities for that person alone. Johnny Depp, Lena Olin, and Judi Dench are all part of the terrific cast.

Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog) always makes interesting and quirky films, each one is worth seeing. This reminded me a little of Woody's Alice, another in which magic comes to those in need through ingestion of the right concoctions. All three actresses above (Binoche, Olin, Dench) were BAFTA nominees for this film. Five Oscar® nominations, including Best Picture.


Sin City

Dir: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, 2005 (8.1*)

This is how graphic novels should look! Incredible gothic, dark look to this film, using special effects, that overall makes it look almost an animated graphic novel. This is how the original Batman and Dick Tracy films should have looked. Rodriguez brought in the artist of the original, Frank Miller, to oversee the art direction, the result is stunning. The film is a trio of bizarre tales, the main one involving Bruce Willis, who once saved a child, now Jessica Alba all grown up into yummy eye candy. Elijah Wood goes WAY out of character as a speedy, silent killer. Benicio del Toro is a cop, who spends most of his screen time literally as a talking head (a scene directed by Quentin Tarentino for $1). A bevy of beauties led by Roxanne Dawson play hookers who control the inner city without police interference. Film noir with a graphic/comic look (up a * for the look alone), very updated and very violent, not for the squeamish. This is not like any other film in its look, something truly unique.



Dir: Peter Hyams, 1981, (7.7*)

This "space western" was based on the classis western High Noon, and may even be more appealing to some, due to the SciFi theme and terrific special effects. Sean Connery is the marshall of a despicable mining colony somewhere near Saturn, and it turns out that the company who owns it is selling a dangerous speed type drug to miners so they can work more. Peter Boyle is perfect as the company's bad guy on the scene. It becomes a "showdown at high noon" as the company sends assassins to take out Connery. Well-made and tense throughout, not a bad updating of a classic, but down a star for the same reason (unoriginality).


Smoke Signals

Chris Eyre, 1998 (8.4*)

Sundance Audience Award
Terrific all Native American comedy that takes place on a Montana or Idaho reservation, supposedly the first all Native American production. The story becomes a road trip when Victor (Adam Beach) must get to Arizona to collect the cremated remains of his estranged father.

This is a funny and heartwarming tale about friendship, that is also offbeat and unique enough to remain interesting. Look for Elaine Miles, the Eskimo receptionist on tv's Northern Exposure, as a woman whose car only goes in reverse, so she's always driving backwards, which has to be a perfect metaphor for something, like perhaps only being able to get somewhere in the present by going into your past. Adapted from Sherman Alexie's short stories.


My Brilliant Career

Gillian Armstrong, 1979, Australia (8.9*)

Judy Davis (who has won a trainload of Australian awards and one U.S. Emmy) has a star-making part, and deservedly won a BAA for Best Actress, as 19th century author Sybylla Melvin, a non-conventional woman who would rather pursue "my brilliant career" than simply seek out a husband, even though society keeps telling her that's the proper place for a woman.

She eventually falls in love with another free spirit, a landowner played by Sam Neill, also in a star-making role for him. This is both a terrific romance with lots of passion, and an incisive look at the creative mind; it also avoids sentimentality and compromise. Nice music score featuring Schumann's piano music. One of the best Australian films.

Update: for the perfect complement to this film, see We of the Never Never (1982), the true story of Jennifer Gunn, the first white woman to venture into Australia's Northern Territory, when she married a cattle station manager; based on her memoirs.


El Mariachi

Dir: Robert Rodriguez, 1992, Mexico (8.8*)

Audience Award, Sundance
Indy Spirit Award for Best Picture
This terrific action film put Rodriguez on the map, and he made the entire film using credit cards for an amazingly low price, something like $50,000 (his friends acted for free!); it went on to gross millions. The movie concerns an out-of-work mariachi guitarist on the road looking for work. At the same time, a drug gang war erupts, and they hire an assassin who carries his weapons in a guitar case. Gee, guess what? The guitarist becomes mistaken for the assassin and has to defend himself, and the ensuing massacre makes him a frightening legend to everyone in his path, as he must flee both gangs and the police! Rodgiguez' camerawork is very inventive and fresh, and even though this is lightweight, it's still far better than his big budget sequels, Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (which had Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayak!) On the dvd, be sure to check out "Robert Rodriguez' Ten-Minute Film School". Brilliant stuff and on a "shoestring".


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Train

John Frankenheimer, 1964, bw (8.6*)
For some reason, this is a WW2 action film that you don't hear much about, but one of Frankenheimer's (Seven Days in May, Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) best films. The story involves Frenchman Burt Lancaster trying stop a Nazi officer from moving a trainload of stolen French art (the national culture!) back to Germany before the war can end. The moral dilemna comes from having to decide if this is worthy enough cause to give up your life, for either side.

Lancaster does all his own stunts, mostly involving moving trains, and can often be seen limping from a shooting injury. Terrific cinematography and editing, with a screenplay that garnered an Oscar nomination, the film got a British academy (BAFTA) nomination for best picture, and deserves to be in the conversation of best war films.


The Counterfeiters

Stefan Ruzowitzsky, 2007, Austria (7.8*)
Best Foreign Film (AA)
Engrossing story of a true Nazi plot to counterfeit so many British pounds and U.S. dollars as to affect those economies by flooding the market with bogus money, inflating the currencies. This was possible due to master forger Salomon Sorowitsch, brilliantly played by Karl Marcovichs, being caught by a Nazi officer who knew his skills, and when promoted to head of the secret counterfeiting operation, he brings Salomon onto the team of the best printers, engravers, and forgers the Nazis could round up.

This film is immaculate in its details, and becomes a film about honor vs. survival as do many WW2 stories. Won the Oscar in 2008 for Foreign Language Film.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

You Can't Take It With You

Dir: Frank Capra, 1938 (8.3*)

Best Picture (AA)
This is one's of Frank Capra's signature films: a depression era anti-capitalist, pro avg joe type film. The story centers on businessman James Stewart, the uninterested, unmotivated inheritor of dad Edward Arnold's capitalist empire, the type of guy who's always so busy making deals he never takes time to know those closest to him. Stewart falls for peppy secretary Jean Arthur, whose lovably eccentric family is led by Capra favorite Lionel Barrymore, in probably his most appealing role, Spring Byington as his daughter, Ann Miller (an awful dancer as a parody) as another granddaughter (Arthur's sister), and a host of males in the basement inventing both new fireworks and other enjoyable toys. The funniest sequence involves an IRS tax collector in the family living room grilling Barrymore as to WHY he never filed any tax returns nor paid any taxes. The play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart won a Pulitzer prize, and this deservedly won Best Picture and Director in 38 but for some reason isn't seen very often anymore. Perhaps its lack of a strong plot. "Repression from corporate capitalists" also comes to mind, as the film would have been banned and then used as fodder by the HUAC had it come out 15 yrs later, but the anti-business attitude of the pre-war 30's depression era made it not only timely and popular but still relevant today. Noticed by the Oscars as well, 7 nominations, 2 Oscars
Quote: Did you ever notice how they try to use fear to control us? (Barrymore)


Monday, September 15, 2008

Breaking Away

Dir: Peter Yates, 1979 (8.5*)

Best Comedy Picture (GG)
This is a sports movie with everyday heros that we can all cheer for, namely some locals, called "Cutters" from working in the local stone quarry, that are living in the shadow of Indiana University. The small group is led by Dennis Quaid, the ex-quarterback and local ladies man, and the film’s star Dennis Christopher, a lonely and lovesick biker with a dream of racing with the big guys, the Italians, and backed up by funny-man Daniel Stern, and pipsqueak Jackie Earle Haley in his first major part.
Most of the comedy in Steve Tesich's Oscar-winning script comes from Christopher’s dysfunctional dad, Paul Dooley, in his funniest film role as the local used car lot owner who literally has a coronary when his son suggests giving a student a refund for buying a lemon there, while the patient mom, Barbara Barrie, wants her son be happy. We get a little sports, a little romance (with Robyn Douglass as the college girl Dennis fools into thinking he's Italian), but a lot of comedy about growing up, dreams vs. reality, and trying to make your place in the world, whether you break away from your home town or not. A G-rated gem, all done in good taste, without sentimentality. 5 nominations, One Oscar (Screenplay)
Quote: I'm tired of all this "ini" and "oli" food, I want some American food - bring me some French fries! (Paul Dooley)
Quote2: Well, my dad's birthday's coming up soon, I could fail the SAT's for him - then he could say "it's alright, Cyril" (Daniel Stern)



Dir: Peter Weir, 1985 (8.6*)

This is a tight, well-made thriller from Australian Peter Weir, almost a film noir. A young Amish boy visiting the city is accidently the only witness to a murder, so detective Harrison Ford goes undercover in Amish country to help protect the boy, and while there grows attracted to the simple lifestyle and anadorned country beauty of the boys widowed mother, Oscar-nominated Kelly McGillis. We get to sample the simple way of life along with Ford’s character, but eventually, of course, the criminals of the big city have to intrude or we’d have no real good vs. evil story. In a way, this is like a classic western, and seems to perhaps even be based on High Noon, but Weir always makes films more intelligent than even that classic. If you like Weir, check out my favorite of his: Fearless, The Mosquito Coast, Picnic at Hanging Rock, or even The Truman Show, with Jim Carrey. 8 nominations, 2 Oscars (Editing and Screenplay)


L.A. Confidential

Dir: Curtis Hanson, 1997 (8.4*)

Director and screenwriter Curtis Hanson has updated the film noir genre to the new millenium while remaining faithful to the period. In one scene, detective Nick Nolte beats a suspect into confession, as this was an era when criminals had no rights yet, and police pretty much had free rein.

The main story involves a police investigation into a mass murder in a restaurant, investigated by Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe and resented newcomer Guy Pearce, among others, who also uncovers a deep plot with lots of characters involved. Kim Basinger won an Oscar for supporting actress as a "Hollywood Hooker", without apparently a lot of acting involved, but she did look like 40’s screen siren Veronica Lake, which was her claim-to-fame as a working girl.

This may be a bit complex or slow for some, but the look and feel are straight from classic film noir but with rich, dark colors. Nine nominations, 2 Oscars (Supp. Actress, Screenplay)


The French Connection

William Friedkin, 1971 (7.8*)
Best Picture (AA)

Using a true story, Friedkin has created a believable story of a all-too-human narcotics detective, brilliantly played by Gene Hackman in his Oscar-winning role; this anti-hero, named "Popeye", could be insulting, rude, even racist. The story involves his chasing of a heroin smuggler that becomes his own personal Moby Dick. Roy Scheider had breakthrough as his partner, but the star is probably the Oscar-winning editing and directing of a massive chase scene, probably the best one in any picture up to that point, certainly the prototype for those that followed. It’s a tight and exciting police story, if that’s all you want; down a couple of stars for me because it doesn't have much heart. 8 nominations, 5 Oscars, including picture, director, actor.


Apollo 13

Dir: Ron Howard, 1995 (8.6*)
This is about as suspenseful and harrowing as any true film on the U.S. space program could be. True story of the Apollo mission that was to land on the moon, but which developed an oxygen leak, making the safe return of the astronauts the top priority. We watch in what feels like real time as the engineers on the ground at NASA, led by Ed Harris as mission chief, and the astronauts inside the capsule (Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinese) solve one problem after another with creative ingenuity. A real nail biter with an excellent cast.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Everything is Illuminated

Dir: Liev Schreiber, 2005 (8.3*)

Brilliantly offbeat and small comedy of a young man, Elijah Wood, from the U.S. who goes to Russia to seek out anyone who may have saved his grandfather in World War II. He is met by the "travel guide of all-time" in the movies, gypsy-punk rocker Eugene Hutz, an English-speaking (sort of) Russian whose accent and syntax add a lot to the comedy. Hutz is the guide, but his blind uncle is the driver, who has a "seeing-eye bitch dog" in the back seat. This is one crazy road movie, and the secrets are uncovered for Wood and the audience as the trip progresses. This is not your PBS travel show!



Dir: John Lassiter, 2006 (8.5*)

I loved this Pixar animated movie, from the same crew as Toy Story. The plot involves a young Nascar racer (the cars are characters), voiced by Owen Wilson, who gets dropped out of his trailer on the way to the next race, somewhere in the American southwest, and is basically lost along Route 66, in small town that somehow survived the freeway being built. He becomes trapped in the town, with some wonderful characters: Paul Newman as an old pickup truck who’s really a former Nascar champ, Bonnie Hunt as his lady friend, and a host of others (Cheech Marin, John Ratzenburger, Katherine Helmond, Larry the Cable Guy, George Carlin, Richard Petty) who have various businesses around a town that no longer has any tourists. Randy Newman wrote a beautiful song called "My Town", an Oscar nominee sung by James Taylor, about living in a small town like that time and freeways (and therefore people) have sadly grown beyond and passed by. Great script for me since I’ve been all the way across Route 66 twice, and crossed on the freeway (I-40) once, so the nostalgia of this story really hit home for me. For that reason, it's probably going to mean more to adults than kids, who won’t understand the references to America’s greatest highway. Look for the closing credits and all the towns the producers thanked, it reads like the songs "Route 66" and Little Feat’s "Willin" put together: Tucumcari, Tehatchopee, Winslow, Wynona, Gallup…


Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola, 2003 (8.5*)

This is one of those small, simple films that seems greater than the sum of its parts. The terrific screenplay by director Sophia Coppola deservedly won her an Oscar, but you have to bemoan the fact that star Bill Murray didn’t win, he was so understated and both funny and touching, you had to be pulling for him. Even though Scarlett Johansson had been a small star for awhile, this was her breakthrough in a big part. Murray is a U.S. star in Japan to make a whisky commercial, while Scarlett is at the same hotel with her husband, who is in Japan for but usually off working on a professional photography assignment, so she and Murray have time to kill alone in the hotel bar and start up a platonic friendship. Not an action film, but the cast and Coppola make this refreshingly small love story an addicting experience. One Oscar (Screenplay)


Much Ado About Nothing

Dir: Kenneth Branagh, 1993 (9.1*)

This is my favorite Shakespearean play transcribed to film, Kenneth Branagh did a terrific job on this one. Basically a romance, the story involves some soldiers who return home from a war, in a thrilling opening sequence where all the women on the estate are running for the baths, trying to beat the soldiers arriving on horseback; when they all come together, the romance begins. There are several courting couples, led by Branah and offscreen wife Emma Thompson, as two embittered and battling “never to be” lovers, who trade insults and barbs like sword thrusts (elements of Taming of the Shrew here). Another couple, played by Kate Beckinsale and Robert Sean Leonard, is engaged to be wed, while some schemers plot to break up that marriage with deceit and subterfuge, hence the play’s title. There’s a lot of good-natured comedy and romantic play here, with sparkling dialogue, played by a large ensemble cast led by Denzel Washington, an eclectic group (that includes Keanu Reeves and Micheal Keaton!) that somehow works well together. This is about as enjoyable as the bard gets, now if they'd only film The Merry Wives of Windsor, who stayed merry by swapping husbands.


The Motorcycle Diaries

Walter Salles, US-Brazil, 2004 (8.7*)
Very inspirational story of Ernesto Guevara’s (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) motorcycle trip around South America before he became "Che", along with his friend and fellow medical student Alberto Granada (Rodrigo de la Serna), training to be doctors, who decide to travel around their continent to see how best they can help the people.

Along the way, Ernesto finds that many natives are being kicked off their own land by corrupt governments in the pay of U.S. corporations who want the land for mining or oil drilling. There’s also an inspiring section during which the two are volunteer workers at a leper colony. There’s a lot here beneath surface of Che’s "travel diaries" upon which this was based. Very popular movie worldwide, rightly so.


An American in Paris

Dir: Vincente Minnelli, 1951 (8.5*)
Best Picture (AA, GG)

One of the best of the technicolor era musicals, making gorgeous and artistic use of the richness of color, finally available in a range allowing more artistic use of art direction, which works very well with Gene Kelly’s choreography in this film. Kelly plays an artist in Paris (not a dancer for once), but one who can obviously dance, or we might have seen Kirk Douglas (Van Gogh, get it?). Leslie Caron makes a very impressive screen debut as a terrific dancer at just age nineteen, it’s hard to believe she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination. Cyd (short for "sister") Charisse makes another star-making dance appearance in the title musical number, danced to the tone poem "American in Paris" by George Gershwin. This is the height of Minnelli’s creative direction, though he lost the directing Oscar. Six Oscars


Saturday, September 13, 2008


Dir: Alexander Payne, 2004 (8.7*)
Best Comedy Picture (GG)
Indy Spirit Award, Best Picture
This is a small, unassuming romantic comedy, with a brilliant cast and terrific script by director Alexander Payne. The story involves a soap-actor bachelor, Thomas Haden Church (Oscar nominee, Supp Actor), who decides to finally get married, so his friend, Paul Giamatti, decides a "road trip" is in order, and to keep his overly-romantic buddy safe for marriage, thinks a trip to wine-country for some vineyard sampling is a good bet. However, once there they meet Sandra Oh (Payne’s wife and an Emmy nominee for Gray’s Anatomy) at the winery, and Virginia Madsen in a restaurant, in her best role (Oscar nominated for Supp Actress), so there’s plenty of the opposite gender to go around. What bothers struggling writer Giamatti is that faithful guys like himself get no women, while philandering playboys, like Church, get women wherever they go. The story makes excellent and comedic points about commitment, dating, friendship, and sexual mores, and does it in an entertaining and involving film throughout. Won six Indy Spirit Awards, including Picture and Director. Oscar nominations also for director Payne and the movie for Best Picture. One Oscar (Screenplay)


Body Heat

Dir: Lawrence Kasdan, 1981 (8.5*)
Kasdan updates the film noir genre with a plot also based on legal moves and technicalities. Kathleen Turner provides the romantic heat in one of her best, most seductive parts. William Hurt is probably a little bland in his role as the lawyer Ned Racine, more than willing to bend a little for his desires, as she’s married to local millionaire Richard Crenna. Look for Ted Danson as a police detective, ‘sorta friend’ of Ned the lawyer, who inexplicably dances around onscreen like Gene Kelly – you can’t tell if he’s making a play on his name, showing off his Broadway chops, or Kasdan is having him say something about the plot without words. This one has more twists than any highway in Florida, where this takes place, causing more sweat than any film in memory.


Midnight Run

Martin Brest, 1988 (7.8*)
Robert De Niro’s first comedy was the perfect vehicle for him: he gets to play a jaded, ‘all-business’ bounty hunter, who catches a white-collar criminal, Charles Grodin, who actually has a flippant, wry sense of humor that works well played against De Niro’s character, and also to get the audience to root for him.

Grodin has actually ripped off a big organized crime boss, and keeps trying to convince De Niro to take a bribe and let him go, but De Niro keeps resisting as if he’s an "honest cop", determined to bring in his man before the deadline, and while being chased by the underworld (who want Grodin dead) and other bounty hunters simultaneously. This is actually a road trip movie, as the pair is forced to take various modes of transportation due to financial circumstances, which also adds to the comedy, as Grodin is handcuffed for the venture.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Blast From the Past

Dir: Hugh Wilson, 1999 (8.9*)

This fish out of water tale is one of the funniest recent comedies. Christopher Walken plays a paranoid, right-wing suburban dad who expects the Russkies to nuke us at any minute so he has a fully loaded state-of-the-art nuclear fallout shelter built beneath his house with supplies for the 35 years he calculates will be necessary to ride out the nuclear winter, and due to an accident (during the Cuban missile crisis), he seals in himself and pregnant wife Cissy Spacek, who puts up with all this with the quiet patience of a proper 50's wife, and after the 35 yrs are up, afraid of what they'll find, Walken discovers a world "populated by hideous mutant humanoids", so he decides to stay holed up, sending now grownup son Brendan Frasier out for supplies and a wife, armed with some baseball cards, shares of IBM stock, a love for Perry Como - well, you get the picture. Alicia Silverstone is attracted to his nerdy but trusting personality and takes him under her wing, not sure where he really came from. Refreshing, original and very funny, has a 40's Capra quality to it, rare these days.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Sixth Sense

Dir: M. Night Shyamalan, 1999 (8.8*)
A chilling and subtle study of the afterlife, as psychologist Bruce Willis meets a young boy, Joel Hayley Osmont in an Oscar-nominated role, who “sees dead people” - Osmont deserved at least a special Oscar, he was believable and carries this film. That’s just the beginning of this creepy film that slowly uncovers its secrets. Like a classic ghost story, the scares come from anticipation and not excess or violence. It’s been said that Shyamalan was trapped under a frozen pond over 20 minutes when a child and survived, and has “seen dead people” ever since, so this could be autobiographical; who knows, he stops interviews when anyone brings this up.


The Lady Eve

Dir: Preston Sturges, 1941, bw (8.5*)

This is one of the original con artist films, as Barbara Stanwyck and her scheming father, Charles Coburn, as good as ever, decide to bilk gullible and nerdish capitalist Henry Fonda, aboard an ocean liner. The pair steals the comedy, which also throws some good lines to William Demerest ("she's the same dame, I tell ya!"). Of course, it wouldn't be a classic bw comedy unless the lead stars become romantically involved. The terrific story has some twists and complexity that made it stand out from others of its era. One of the best from the heyday of Preston Sturges.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Jules Dassin, 1955, France, bw (7.8*)

This is a tightly plotted and gripping jewel heist movie, has the perfect film noir look, and appears very much a mid-40's American film, which stands to reason since director Jules Dassin was from Connecticut. Beautiful black and white photography, and lead actor Jean Servais actually looks like a criminal. Rififi, as we find out in an insane night club song, is "rough and tumble", and "the women like a little rififi". The 30-min heist sequence is superb, but the problem for me is that the last half hour of the film is almost anti-climactic by comparison, so the pace could be more even. Still, as the father of the heist genre, a must see, especially for noir fans.


Trouble in Paradise

Dir: Ernst Lubitsch, 1932, bw (7.8*)

This comedic heist film introduced what became known as "The Lubitsch Touch", his particular style of comedy, later brought to Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not To Be; however Paradise remained his favorite of his own works (so far, I agree with him). Herbert Marshall plays a lovable theif, Miriam Hopkins his pickpocket sidekick (and wannabe mate), and Kay Francis a perfume heiress (can you say "Chanel"?) that he runs across with the intention of robbing. However Francis hires him as her secretary, much to Hopkins jealous chagrin, and the trouble has just started in paradise. If you weren't a Kay Francis fan before, this should make you one, she's very seductive.

Made before the ridiculous Hays Code, intended to enforce some fascist idea of "decency", which then banned this film 3 yrs later and for 30 yrs or so; seeing the sly sexual ennuendo today and how tame it was makes you wonder just what they were trying to protect audiences from. (Meanwhile gangster films gunning people down with Tommy guns was apparently ok, after all, we were all planning another great war and we don't want to discourage rampant killing, we just don't want them to have sex afterwards.)


Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Ondrej Trojan, Czech Republic, 2003 (9.2*)
Zelary is a gorgeous and touching film. Anna Geislerova is simply breathtaking, a reddish-blonde with green eyes, reminding me of both a young Lee Remick and Liv Ullman. She plays a nurse who's also a courier for the resistance in WW2 Prague, and when her cell is broken by the Gestapo, a man she gave blood to in the hospital offers to take her to his mountain village for refuge, a place so remote that neither the police nor Germans go there. In order to fit in with the villagers, she must marry the man that she doesn't know, but she's a survivor.

Georgy Cserhalmi is also excellent as Joza, the simple and earthy sawmill worker who becomes her husband and savior, and he reminded me of Gary Cooper, one of those "strong, silent heroes". There are also some terrific child actors in the mountains, plus a goat and one acting dog, a big shepherd named Azor.

This is a 2 1/2 hr epic, which covers all fours seasons and then some, about three years in their lives; location shooting took 14 months. The documentary on the dvd of the making of the film shows the tremendous effort the crew made to film in the rural mountains of Slovakia, filming once at 20 below zero. This is both a war film and a romance that will remain unforgettable.

Along with Kolya, which DID win an Oscar, the best two films from the Czech Republic. Nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2003.


Monday, September 8, 2008

The Prisoner

Dir: Don Chaffery, 1967, 16 episodes, tv (8.9*)

Patrick McGoohan continued his "Secret Agent" (a.k.a. "Danger Man" in the U.K.) character for a one season epilogue that turned into the most thought-provoking mini-series of all time. It begins with McGoohan stormily resigning as an agent, then being whisked away to an unknown island where he remains a prisoner, known as Number Six. Each episode, a new Number Two (the best of which was Leo McKern, in two episodes, the only actor to repeat the role) attempts various psychological tricks to get Six to reveal any information – of course he refuses. The series blended science fiction, espionage, and psychology, something that hadn’t been attempted at the time. This has aged very well, and still appears both provocative and relevant. A must for SciFi and classic tv fans, and anyone who loves a good story about individual identity and freedom.
Try to view them in the following order, chronological within his story: Arrival, The Chimes of Big Ben, AB&C, Free for All, The Schizoid Man, The General, Many Happy Returns, Dance of the Dead, Checkmate, Hammer Into Anvil, It's Your Funeral, A Change of Mind, Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darling, Living In Harmony, The Girl Who Was Death, Once Upon A Time, Fall Out.


War and Peace

Sergei Bondarchuk, 1968, Russia (8.5*)
Best Foreign Film (AA)

This won’t be for all tastes, as it runs over six hours, but as epics go, it is the "most epic" of all, featuring over 250,000 extras (the Red Army), and costing at the time, a record 100 million dollars. They actually made the definitive film of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, maybe a little Hollywood influenced, but still far better than any other attempt at this novel yet.

If you haven’t read the novel, this film should suffice, it’s actually a little long and tedious so this shortens the effort by a few dozen hours, and you won’t miss anything! It is, of course, based on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia intertwined with the personal stories of some Russian aristocrats.



Dir: Carol Reed, 1967 (8.2*)
Best Picture (AA)

Somehow, making a musical based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist seemed like a bad idea to me, but then they pretty much pulled it off. A dark, scruffy drama, with a little music to cheer up the young orphans. If only Mark Lester as Oliver could sing! Not sure how they picked him for the part, certainly not on musical or acting ability. However, fellow pickpocket Jack Wild, the Artful Dodger, actually won an Oscar for Supporting Actor, and later starred in a tv show called "H.R. Puff’n’stuff" – no kidding! Ron Moody got an Oscar nomination as Fagin, leader of the gang of street urchins. Alan Bates was pretty evil as heartless Bill Sykes. The music is just average (lots of scales), but the art direction and direction more than compensate. Six Oscars (one honorary)


All That Jazz

Dir: Bob Fosse, 1980 (8.0*)
Palm d'Or (Cannes)
Fosse’s most self-involved film, so it may delight some, bore others, but it’s certainly autobiographical. Roy Scheider plays choreographer/director Joel Gideon who works hard, balances a heavy workload (completing the editing of a movie, which is Lenny, putting together a new musical, while trying to keep in touch with his only daughter requiring attempting to get along with his ex-wife and his new lover (Anne Reinking), a dancer in his musical), and he does all this with smoking, drinking, and popping pills. Eventually exhaustion and heart attack follow, which gives him visions of death’s angel (Jessica Lange), and musical numbers based on his life, kind of like this movie. Features some of his best dance scenes (Air Erotica), yet also stretches audience credibility. Received eight Academy Award nominations, winning four Oscars.
Quote: ...a fine humanitarian, and a close personal friend for many years (Ben Vareen)
At the Oscars, someone said, "when he died, an autopsy revealed that Fosse's ego had spread throughout his entire body."


Sex, Lies, and Videotape

Dir: Steven Soderbergh, 1989 (8.2*)
Palm D’Or (Cannes)

James Spader, as Graham, currently jobless and alienated, connects with old friend John (Peter Gallagher), is an attorney having an affair with the sister (Laura San Giocomo), of his wife, Andie McDowell. The wife finds a friendship with Graham, and finds that he makes videotapes of women being interviewed about intimate subjects, in a kind of video therapy. All are changed by subsequent revelations. A slow, intellectual film, this is mostly conversation, which will bore some people, but enthrall others, hence the awards it received. Excellent filmmaking.



Dir: Federico Fellini, 1974, Italy (8.4*)

Best Foreign Film (AA)
This is probably Fellini’s most accessible film, as he fondly recalls his childhood through cinema, perhaps rose-colored by time and distance, but enjoyable nonetheless. Here he paints a vivid picture of rural Italy, or more accurately 'village life', how one’s life is shaped by religion, family, school, early friends, and adolescent fantasies and dreams. Here, Fellini’s fantasies and artistic style make a more universal connection as he avoids the fantastical surrealism and religious allegory that pervades his most famous film, 8½, and some others, making them too abstract and difficult for the mainstream filmgoer.


Time Bandits

Dir: Terry Gilliam, 1981 (8.6*)

Terry Gilliam's most accessible and entertaining movie, produced by George Harrison's Dark Horse films. It begins with a small boy fantasizing about knights in his room, suddenly he is invaded from beyond the wall by a band of midgets, who, it turns out, have stolen God's map of the time portals and are using it to cavort through history. The boy gets gladly swept up into their adventure, and along their way meets Robin Hood (John Cleese), King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), and Napoleon (Ian Holm). We eventually meet Pure Evil itself, David Warner, and a peturbed but grandfatherly Creator, James Mason. In a funny recurring gag, whenever the dwarves fall into a new era in time, they always interrupt Shelley Duvall in a romantic interlude! A time travel classic for all ages.


Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Dir: Pedro Almodovar, 1988, Spain (7.8*)

This is a screwball comedy from Spain, one of the hottest European directors of the last decade, in fact he's usually known now by just his last name, Almodovar. Primarily a romance about a woman recently broken up, Carmen Maura, Almodovar throws in terrorists, weapons, airplane hijackings, completely over-the-top. Apparently getting past Franco loosened up the artists a good bit, as Almodovar seems to be inspired by the new "punk tabloid" philosophy, perhaps Telemundo soaps as well. Antonio Banderas goes out of character as a nerd.


Peggy Sue Got Married

Dir: Francis Ford Coppola, 1986 (8.5*)

One of Coppola’s best, an underrated comedic fantasy. Kathleen Turner (Oscar nominated) has the title part, about an unhappily married woman, whose husband Nicholas Cage, her high school sweetheart, has turned out to be a less-than-stellar mate. At their 20-yr h.s. reunion, she falls and hits her head and apparently time travels back to high school, where she can make her important decisions again, like going out with that weird poet biker dude. Of course, all her friends now think she’s mental, as does Cage, because she has her memory of being "all grown up", so she’s pretty sarcastic and world-weary for a teenage girl. Cage is pretty funny in his part as well, kind of perpetually adolescent, and definitely goofy. It’s been compared to Capra for its homey virtures and simplicity. You’ll see Helen Hunt, Joan Allen, and Jim Carrey in small parts.


Sunday, September 7, 2008

Lord of the Flies

Peter Brooks, 1963, bw (8.6*)
Based on William Golding's famous novel, Peter Brooks' beautiful black and white film has remained faithful to the book. A planeful of British school boys survive a crash on a remote and deserted island. What begins as an adventure turns into a parable of civilization, as the boys split into two rival factions, one is more civilized and organized, the other wilder and more natural; each survives his own way. Eventually of course, the two inevitably clash in this statement on the nature of mankind. The amateur acting was superb.


Saturday, September 6, 2008

Into the West

Dir: Robert Dornhelm, Simon Wincer, 2005 (10*)
This 12-hr tv miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg is now my favorite western. It's really six different 2 hour films, each taking a different era or event in the history of the west.

The story starts with a Lakota Souix sunwheel, where shaman receive visions of the future. It then blends into a wagon wheel being forged in Ohio, by a family named Wheeler, for pioneers heading west. The entire series will be held together by the symbolism of the wheel. which the author said came to him 'in a dream', just as the Wheeler family breaks up when some of the younger ones decide to head west themselves.

The Wheelers then interact with the Souix in their individual stories. The major Souix character we follow throughout is named Loved by the Buffalo after surviving a stampede, and he becomes a shaman who has visions of the Wheelers heading west. One troubling vision argued over by the tribe is one of the disappearance of the buffalo, followed by the Souix.

Various historical events are used as backdrops for the personal stories, such as the railroad, the gold rush, the Indian wars. The writers managed to keep it all connected by the individual lives and their offspring, plus there were hundreds of historical technicians on the crew, including over 25 experts in Native American linguistics alone. There's one beaded dress that took one woman six months to make. Only Spielberg could have the financial clout to pull this off and do the subject justice from all sides of the story. A not to be missed event.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Russians are Coming

The Russians are Coming

(yes, the title has it twice)
Dir: Norman Jewison, 1966 (8.5*)
Best Picture (GG)
Hilarious spoof of the cold war and patriotism, as a Russian submarine gets too close to New England and runs aground. Second-in-command Alan Arkin (Best actor nominee) in a starmaking role, is sent ashore to get a tugboat to pull the sub out and hopefully avoid an international incident. He first runs down the street yelling "Emergency! Emergency! everyone to get from streets!" - Yep, no one will know the Russians are here. Police chief Brian Keith tries to keep the town cool, but war vet Paul Ford creates a vigilante army immediately to repel what he convinces folks is a "real invasion" - homeland security at its finest. This also stars Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters, Eve Marie Saint and a battalion of others. In an era when "big crazy casts running amock" populated many comedies, this was probably the best one. Nominated for 4 Oscars, including Best Picture, won none.


Driving Miss Daisy

Dir: Bruce Beresford, 1989 (8.1*)

Best Picture (AA, GG)
Gentle southern comedy about a strong-willed, traditional southern widow, Oscar winner Jessica Tandy, and her chauffeur Hoke, Morgan Freeman, in what should have been his first Oscar winning role, based on Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Oscar nominee Dan Akroyd is the frustrated but loving son, in his best and only Oscar-nominated performance, who talks her into a chauffeur in the first place against her will after she has a minor accident in the driveway. Beresford has used terrific acting to make this a heartwarming and moving film, yet at the same time showing people of different backgrounds and races using kindness and humility to become close and loyal friends . Four Oscars


Terms of Endearment

Dir: James Brooks, 1983 (8.2*)

Best Picture (AA, GG)
Major film based on the Larry McMurtry's book; many say this is even better than the book. Oscar winner Shirley McLaine is the mother, Oscar-nominated Debra Winger is the daughter she's not sure she would claim, who falls for a cheating Jeff Daniels. Meanwhile widower mom is being courted by alcoholic ex-astronaut Jack Nicholson (Oscar for supporting actor), who lives next door. Eventually, marriage and health failing, Winger realizes that she may need the love and support of her mother after all. This is an offbeat story, a drama but with a lot of humor, and James Brooks (Oscar for directing) has pulled off a heartwarming film. 11 nominations, 5 Oscars.


The King and I

Dir: Walter Lang, 1956 (8.1*)
Yul Brynner
was born to play this part, and got his only Oscar. Deborah Kerr as schoolteacher Anna Leonowens would have been perfect except she couldn’t sing, so they dubbed Marni Nixon over her (she also did My Fair Lady and West Side Story). Otherwise this musical based on a true story of a British teacher hired to educate the offspring of the King of Siam – hence the remake with Jody Foster and Chow Yun-Fat called Anna and the King. One of the better "stagey" musicals (all shot on a sound stage), because of the performances and Rodgers & Hammerstein songs like "The Flower Drum Song" and "Getting to Know You". The King’s arrogant front is slowly worn down by Kerr’s gentility and common humanity, not a bad story. 9 Oscar noms, 5 Oscars
Quote: Is a puzzlement! (Brynner)


Hoop Dreams

Dir: Steve James, 1994 (8.9*)
Sundance Audience Award

What started as a short documentary would up being a four-year filming of two high school hoop stars, and a three-hour documentary film that could be the best one ever, also one of the best sports films. William Gates (no, not the computer nerd!), and Arthur Agee are the players, from Chicago. This was a dedicated filmmaker sticking with his obsession, and the results are tremendous. Sundance Audience Award for Documentary, why no Oscar? Likely ineligible for some stupid reason, as they sometimes enforce some ridiculously arcane rules (has to play in an L.A. theater for a full week?), like a foreign language film has to be in the language of its country, making Motorcycle Diaries ineligible, being in Spanish but a U.S. film.


Bull Durham

Dir: Ron Shelton, 1988 (8*)
Enjoyable romantic fluff featuring Susan Sarandon as a local minor league baseball groupie, for the Durham, N.C. "Bulls", hence the title. Former collegiate baseballer Kevin Costner was appropriately chosen as an aging minor league catcher, named "Crash" Davis, destined to spend his waning days away from the big leagues. He is brought in to groom "Nuke" Lalouche, hilariously stupid and naïve rookie pitcher, with a very young Tim Robbins in a star-making role. Sarandon picks Lalouche as this years bedmate, and Robbins also met wife Sarandon on this picture. Ken Wahl is also very funny as a coach. A realistic look at the minor leagues, do they have this much fun?


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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