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
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Dir: John Frankenheimer, 1998 (9.1*)
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.
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.
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.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
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.
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
Monday, September 15, 2008
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)
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)
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
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.
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)
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.
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
Thursday, September 11, 2008
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.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
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
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: 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."
Sunday, September 7, 2008
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
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
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)
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.
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?