Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Landscape in the Mist

Theodoros Angelopoulos, Greece, 1988 (8.5*)
This is one of those masterpieces that are unforgettable, yet are hard to recommend. This is basically a road movie: two little Greek kids are told by their mom that their dad lives in Germany, so they decide that they need to find him, and hit the road alone. The story begins with them boarding a train without tickets. What follows is a coming of age tale that brutally welcomes them to the real word: walking in bad weather, hunger (food costs money), rude officials with 'better things to do', and both help and abuse from strangers.

This is not a pleasant story, but is a cinematic masterwork filled with some unforgettable images that one will never forget. It's been called Angelopoulos' masterpiece, but it's fairly certain that it is also Greece's cinema masterpiece. Winner of 8 international film awards (but 6 came from Venice alone), and a little slow by modern standards, but still a rewarding parable of the individual's growing alienation in a cold, uncaring soceity.

#319 on our Top Ranked 1000 Films on the net compendium, and the top-ranked film from Greece, followed by another of Angelopoulos, The Traveling Players at #418

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Monday, December 28, 2009

War Photographer

Christian Frei, Switzerland, 2001 (9.4*)

[Partially in English, partially sub-titled]

As a photographer and visual artist myself, I've always admired those willing to risk their lives just to give the world photographs of war and other human tragedies as they occur, all on display here such as extreme poverty and starvation (Africa), hazardous working conditions (Indonesian sulphur mines), and war itself (Palestine). This story is a biography of photojournalist James Nachtwey, often called the 'greatest war photographer of all time'. As one who survived to see gray hair, he's had a longetivity that few others achieve, as most don't live to see 50.

This is a great story of a great artist and humanitarian, a film which will have difficult images to bear, but one which we owe ourselves as fellow human beings to bear witness to and never forget the injustices which our fellow humans can inflict on the innocent. This is the goal of war correspondents and other journalists, and is certainly the 'raison d'etre' of James Nachtwey. Hats off for the documentary filmmakers who followed Nachtwey on his assignments, often into the heat of battle itself. This is one of the most important political and humanitarian statements ever captured on film.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Visions of Light

Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy, Stuart Samuels, 1992 (8.7*)
For all students and fans of the art of cinematography, this documentary produced by American Film Institute not only shows great example of cinema art, but also interviews many directors of photography (DPs as they call themselves), many Oscar® winners. As any photographer knows, the camera captures light emissions on film, so lighting is extremely important, not only for proper exposure but also for creating the intended mood for the scene. This film even goes one step further, having these artists also explain their inspiration and possible symbolism for their compositions. They also talk about camera movement, an important aspect of film viewing that keeps scenes from being so stagnant they they resemble a stage play.

Oscar®-winner (and favorite) Vittorio Storaro has extensive examples shown from The Conformist (dir by Bertolucci), Apocalypse Now (Coppola), and The Last Emperor (Bertolucci), in which he said he used red for life, yellow for the embryonic emergence into the world, and green for knowledge. These metaphors are likely noticed by very few filmgoers. Another fave of mine is also featured: Oscar®-winner James Wong Howe, a b&w master who shot Hud and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Other prominent DPs are included such as Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane), Lazslo Kovacs, Gordon Willis (Godfather), Conrad Hall, Charles Lang, Vilmos Zsigmond, Nestor Almendros, Sven Nyqvist (Bergman's DP), and more. They also talk about how they had to light certain actors, such as Garbo, Dietrich, Cooper, and what those stars demanded. Though the film was shot in 92 and therefore missed some recent masters, such as Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, Hero), this is still an important documentary for serious students of cinema, and thoroughly enjoyable.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

God Grew Tired of Us

The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan
Christopher Dillon Quinn, 2006 (9.0*)

co-dir by Tommy Walker

Sundance Audience Award and Jury Prize
The story of the genocidal slaughter of the largely Christian southern half of Sudan by the Islamic north is one of the sadder stories of modern times. This film first documents the long exodus of at least 27,000 young men from Sudan to Ethiopia, then when that government fell, to a refugee camp in northern Kenya. Only 12,000 made it there, facing hunger and thirst along the way, forcing many to eat mud and drink their own urine. For some reason the UN and the U.S. both have decided to sit back and let this occur, even though the U.S. had no problem invading Grenada, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. (there is no oil nor any terrorists or communists in Sudan). Those who didn't flee the troops were burned alive in their villages.

This film begins with the story of a few lucky young men selected to be flown to the U.S. for education and jobs. Their first western food is on the airline, and they grimace and say that the survival camp food was better, that "this tastes like soap"! Things get better in the U.S., as they can cook their own food in an apartment, and most receive jobs, even though the pay is around minimum wage. The film, narrated by Nicole Kidman, follows the path of three men and their friends and their new lives in America.

Most find life in the U.S. lonely, as one named Panther says "If you're lost and go to a house in Africa they will help you; here they call the police - I feel alienated and lonely as a result. No one walking on the streets talks to each other." Most hope to send money back to the refugee camp for their friends, or to locate their families, missing since the civil war began. Even though the beginning is very harsh viewing, in spite of the singing and smiles of those in the camp, the remainder of the film offers hope that the "Lost Boys of Sudan" is a story that will belatedly find a larger audience, and the apathetic industrial nations will make a much larger effort to rectify this situation. The film won 6 awards at 5 different film festivals. More films like this one need to be made and seen by the world.

Quotes: "God must have grown tired of the unrighteous acts of mankind; God must have grown tired of us."
"I have never used electricity; when I get to America, I think I will have a hard time learning how to use electricity."
(re Christmas, after arrival here): "What does Santa Claus have to do with Jesus? Is he in the Bible? What does the tree have to do with this? In our country we sing and dance and prepare for the birth of Jesus in our hearts"

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Angels and Demons

Ron Howard, 2009 (8.1*)
The Dan Brown book for Angels actually preceded the more boring Da Vinci Code, and is what you'd call a "page turner", an engrossing mystery-thriller with literally a ticking time bomb, one in this case made from the first sizable bit of anti-matter generated by the super-colliding particle accelerator at the CERN labs in Switzerland. Using that science fiction as the impetus, the story has the same Robert Langdon symbologist character as Da Vinci, once again played by Tom Hanks (who just plays himself again), and also features the Illuminati battling the Vatican, the scientists who were supressed by the Catholics as "heretics", who were hunted down and killed like rabid dogs.

In this story, the best of the Renaissance art of Rome is highlighted (a great promo for tourism), as well as many famous churches, chapels, statues, and fountains, especially those designed by Bernini. Langdon is brought in to save some kidnapped cardinals, the "Preferenti", those most popular in the upcoming Papal election, as the story begins with the death of the pontiff.

Ewan MacGregor is the better actor here, as the Camerlengo representing the Pope's office until they elect a new one, and veteran Armand Muller-Stahl as the head of the enclave of cardinals. This film is non-stop action with nary a momentary breather, as a different cardinal will be executed each hour along a path of illuminati locations, each with difficult clues for the cognizenti detectives, such as Langdon to decipher, thus giving the heroes a chance as well. Much faster paced than Da Vinci, and with a few changes to made to the book, this should actually please readers of the novel as well as action-mystery fans.

Note: watch the documentary about the "Making Of.." on the dvd, as almost everything you see is special effects; the crew built one of the largest sets ever, two football fields long, in a parking lot in L.A., to recreate Vatican City, always off limits for filming. The scientists at CERN also liked this film, but let the public know that there isn't nearly this much anti-matter in existence, only enough to emulate a firecracker.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Gun Crazy

aka Deadly Is the Female
Joseph H. Lewis, 1949, bw (7.6*)
This is a classic film noir about two marksmen who connect at a circus, where the alluring Peggy Cummins has an Annie Oakley style performance nightly. After the pair get together, the John Dall character wants to go straight, but Miss Starr has a yen for the fast life and spending more money than they have. The only solution is to become armed robbers, so the two go on a Bonnie and Clyde style crime spree. Often innovative directing by Lewis, there's a terrific atmospheric sequence in a fog-filled swamp, as the two are inevitably hunted by law enforcement en masse. Screenplay was really by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. Even though the Dall character started with guns as a kid, he did not "shoot his eye out", lol..

#583 on our Top Ranked 1000 Films on the Internet compendium

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Longitude

Charles Sturridge, 2000 (9.1*)
Longitude is a tv miniseries dramatization of the life of British inventor John Harrison, a carpenter and amateur clockmaker, brilliantly portrayed by veteran actor Michael Gambon. In the early 1700's, ships at sea could not calculate their longitude due to the motion of ships which prevented pendulum clocks from operating accurately. Navigators estimated speed and current drift and estimated their positions on charts, and just one degree of error resulted in many shipwrecks and deaths. Queen Anne offered a prize of 20,000 lbs to anyone who could solve the problem, so in order to save lives, John Harrison, who made wooden clocks more accurate than metal ones, took up the challenge.

Juxtaposed with his story in perfect synchronicity is the modern story of Rupert Gould (Jeremy Irons), who is attempting to restore Harrison's clocks (to his neglected wife's frustration) and get them operative again so they can take their proper place in a museum of history. Director Charles Sturridge does a masterful job of not only integrating the two stories, but of also keeping us engrossed in a history lesson for nearly four hours. Only the British could pull this off, making what reads like a boring story of clock invention into a riveting drama upon which thousands of lives depend. Based upon the history book by Dava Sobel, one of the best history films ever made.

Quote: The watch beats five to the second, a slight recoil being perceptible at each beat, and goes for 30 hours. The plates are of brass, polished but not gilt. The pivot holes are jeweled as far as the third wheel, that is to say, those of the balance, staff, detente, contrate wheel, fly, fifth, fourth, and third wheels. The jewels are rubies, and the end stones diamonds. It is a masterpiece, weighing only slightly less than the brain that conceived it. (Irons, as Rupert Gould)

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Power of Nightmares

subtitle: The Rise of the Politics of Fear

Adam Curtis, 2007 (9.0*)
This three-hour BBC documentary details the historical and concurrent rise of Islamic fundamentalism, esp. Al Quaeda, and the neo-Christian right wing, both beginning around 1948 in the U.S. Most don't know that Al Q was basically started by a professor in Colorado that was disgusted by the lack of spirituality in the U.S., who "only worships the dollar". He went to Egypt to fight agains U.S. influence and imperialism in the Islamic nations of the Middle East, and was executed by the Egyptian government. The next day Al Quaeda had 5000 new members.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the right wing began to urge both politicians and the clergy to "perpetuate the myth that the U.S. is the moral police of the world" and to mobilize church-goers to vote, who had become so dis-enfranchised that they shunned politics altogether. This documentary shows how each side built power by broadcasting a fear of the "other side", and gains financial, government, and military support the more each attacks the other and the media broadcasts all the "messages of fear".

In one part, the CIA admits that it created the "myth of organized international terrorism" in the 80's to help bring down the USSR by linking them to the terrorists. After the USSR fell, the CIA was unable to convince the right wing and the Christians that it was their own fabrication from their "black ops" or disinformation department, especially the "Bushy" Republicans.

This is uneven, at times repetitive in its use of the same footage, but is a must see by all who are interested in how we arrived at the current situation of chaos in the world. This film is free at http://www.archive.org/, or can be rented or purchased on DVD.
Note: rated 9.1 at IMDB, this has one of the highest ratings there - in fact it's the same rating at the #1 rated film there, The Shawshank Redemption

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Friday, December 11, 2009

The Tiger's Tail

John Boorman, 2006 (7.9*)
This uneven but intriguing story gives superb Irish actor Brendan Gleeson a field day as a wealthy Dublin developer's aristocratic lifestyle is severely interrupted by the appearance of his doppelganger, who is at first just a hallucination, then a major intrusion. The plot has many twists and unexpected resolutions. Gleeson's own son, Briain Gleeson, plays the capitalist's socialist son, who quips that "many people had to become poor to make you rich".

These dual roles gave Gleeson a chance to show his subtleties, as each character looks the same but are slightly different. The weakest cast member is American Kim Catrall as his trophy wife - she just doesn't have the accent nor the skills to measure up to the rest of the authentic cast; she's better suited for Sex and the City.

What begins as a comedy turns darker about midway, before making some good statements about one's missed opportunities to be more human in our pursuits of careers and wealth. Not Boorman's best, that would be Hope and Glory, nor Gleeson's, I prefer him in In Bruges, but each is good enough to make this one worth the effort.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Mr. and Mrs. Iyer

Aparna Sen, 2002, India (9.6*)
(mostly in English with some subtitles)
This small film is one of the most inspiring and heartwarming you can see, so this makes the perfect holiday movie. Directed and co-written by former actress Aparna Sen, who has crafted an understated story about travelers on a bus, from a multitude of backgrounds, and who are able to forget their political, religious, and cultural differences in a time of need and simply become humane people befriending and helping strangers whenever possible.

The story concerns a young married Tamil Hindu mother, Meenakshi Iyer played by Konkona Sensharma, traveling alone with her infant son, Shandaman, beginning a bus trip by saying goodbye to her father. He meets a male photographer, Raja (in a brilliant and subtle performance by Rahul Bose), also traveling alone, so the concerned dad enlists Raja's chivalry in ensuring that his daughter and grandson arrive safely at their train to Calcutta to reunite with her husband. What follows is an often pleasant journey that eventually literally hits a roadblock and traffic jam at a river crossing with much confusion as to the cause.

There are many small stories here (with perfect casting, esp. the baby "Santa", as Raja calls him), interwoven into one tapestry of human kindness and caring in spite of unrest and turmoil in society, as this takes place in a world of warplanes, terrorism, and even community riots, which are sadly commonplace in parts of Asia. India alone has 17 official languages, so most people learn and communicate in English, as in this film. I don't want to give away too much here, as there are several plot surprises that propel and intensify the story and make it engrossing as well as inspiring.

This film won 9 of the 10 award nominations it received internationally, most were best film or screenplay at smaller festivals [Awards page at IMDB]. For me, this is one of the best Indian films I've seen, there are no Bollywood songs, just a couple of poems set to music as part of the terrific film score - even the music itself is inspiring, especially one song that is a 10th century poem from an Indian poet-saint, which also begins the film:

For what shall I wield a dagger, O Lord
What can I pluck it out of, or plunge it into
When You are all the World?
- Devara Dasimayya, 10th century

This film and its story are just as eloquent as this poetry, as director Sen has successfully risen above religion to create the most perfectly spiritual story imaginable about the selfless love arising from friendship.

[Note: for those not familier with Indian regional cultures, this will be a fine introduction into all the different people there, and the still too prevalent idea of the caste system, as you hear bigoted comments like "you don't know what kind of person cooked the food" - while I'm thinking: just be glad you have food at all!]

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

W.

Oliver Stone, 2008 (7.6*)

Though promoted as a comedy, this is such an accurate portrayal of the adult life of George W. Bush that it's a little eerie to witness. Josh Brolin is amazing, he has both the diction and even the look of "Dubya" himself, and was nominated for three international acting awards for his performance. The story is a little watered down however, based on accounts I've read. For instance, the opening sequence of his fraternity initiation at Yale has them drinking booze from watering cans and hoses, and reciting frat member's names, while insiders say that the "Skull and Bones" society drank from skulls (they claim one is Geronimo's!) and recite all the women they've made love with. His alcoholism is heavily emphasized, but no drug use is shown at all (he admitted to cocaine use).

Later political events are also glossed over, and there's no mention of either Bush's economic disasters, each leading to massive numbers of bank failures. However, director Stone does show Bush's imaginary baseball dreams, where "when I'm troubled I just stand here in center field" at the Texas Rangers' stadium. Stone does not reveal that he was basically fired as manager/owner of the team due to ineptitude, though he does mention that "I traded away Sammy Sosa, that was my big mistake".

The casting of actors is uncanny in some cases. Richard Dreyfuss looks just like VP Dick Cheney (in poor health), who is scarily megalomaniacal - when looking at a map of US troop placements in the Middle East, he states "Iran is the only place where we don't have a presence; once we go into that area, we can control the world's energy supply". Thandie Newton is a perfect butt-kissing, patriotic Congaleeza Rice with an offensive nasally voice; underused Stacy Keach shines as the preacher leading Bush's AA group; Ellen Burstyn is right on as a strong-willed and perceptive Barbara Bush; Toby Jones is perfect as campaign manager Karl Rove (and he got one supp. actor nod), getting Bush elected governor of Texas when he had failed at everything else. The only casting misstep to me is the usually perfect James Cromwell as his father (there was no attempt to even sound like Bush Sr), and the story shows nothing of H.W.'s intelligence work or genius in that area (helping bring down the USSR by a bankrupting arms race) - it just makes him look like an inept politician who needed Dubya's help to get elected president, while usually being a dis-approving parent, obviously favoring non-troubling son Jeb Bush over Dubya's lack of commitment to any career.

Most of Dubya's stupid comments are also omitted - just the "Saddam has mis-underestimated me" one was included, when there are dozens available. Also ignored was his being caught on tape saying he wasn't really religious, just "using Christianity to get elected" (a comment the White House said "wasn't meant for public consumption" - I guess not!) This is almost like an authorized and sympathetic version of his political life, making the audience see more of "the guy you'd have a beer with", as Rove puts it (as if our beer buddies would make good leaders), and less of the "evil minion of Satan", as many think of him now. In my opinion, the senior Bush should have been shown as more intelligent and conniving, and Dubya's stupidity, illiteracy, and economic failures emphasized more, especially his fights for deregulation of energy in California (leading to economic collapse there), his connections to the Enron scandal, and other pro-corporate criminality. Still, W. is an enjoyable, if unenlightening portrait of a man who wouldn't have been elected if a valid recount had occurred, as an independent election evaluation later found that TEN MILLION Gore votes had been tossed aside nationwide (likely with pressure from dad), vs. only two million Bush votes, and that Gore would have won every close state race that went for Bush, including Florida.

Quote: "History? in history we'll all be dead" (when asked how history would view his presidency by a journalist Bush calls "Miss China" - what an idiot!)
[Note: in JFK, Stone ignored public court testimony from the mid-80's by CIA heads who admitted to hiring the Mafia for the hit on Kennedy, so I'm inclined to think that Stone actually works for the "black ops" (disinformation) dept of the CIA - at the least, he's adding to their stated tactic of "confusing the facts with so much disinformation that only we know the truth". Who knows for sure? so they've achieve their goal..]
SEE my re-post below this one of Bush's infamous quotes..

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Bush League Quotes (in honor of "W.")

[in honor of Stone's film "W.", I'm copying this post of mine from my National Rage blog]


To be President, all you need is foresight and a clear vision of America's place in the world.


Subject: Bush-speak

"The vast majority of our imports come from outside the country."
-George W. Bush [Mr. President - where are the remainder from?]

"If we don't succeed, we run the risk of failure."
-George W. Bush

"One word sums up probably the responsibility of any Governor, and that one word is 'to be prepared'."
-George W. Bush

"I have made good judgments in the past. I have made good judgments in the future."
-George W. Bush [just as we suspected: he's a time traveler!]

"The future will be better tomorrow."
-George W. Bush

"We're going to have the best educated American people in the world."
-George W. Bush [this may be accurate, as those south of us are also 'American']

"I stand by all the misstatements that I've made."
-George W. Bush

"We have a firm commitment to NATO, we are a part of NATO. We have a firm commitment to Europe. We are a part of Europe."
-George W. Bush

"A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls."
-George W. Bush

"We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur."
-George W. Bush [like the 9.11 attack?]

"For NASA, space is still a high priority."
-George W. Bush [but not as high as getting funding]

"Quite frankly, teachers are the only profession that teach our children."
-George W. Bush [unfortunately, we also have politicians and preachers]

"It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities in our air and water that are doing it."
-George W. Bush [ya know - I think he's right! "Global warming sir? that sounds like a bunch of scientists talking" - Kenny, on 30 Rock]

"It's time for the human race to enter the solar system."
-George W. Bush [this last one is especially hilarious - exactly "where" have we been until now?]

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Finding Neverland

Dir: Marc Forster, 2004 (10*)

A beautiful and inspiring story, based on the life of author and playright J.M. Barrie, played by Johnny Depp in perhaps his best part, and his inspiration for Peter Pan and Neverland. Unfulfilled in a childless marriage (to Rahda Mitchell), Barrie meets some kids in a nearby park which he frequents, and their widowed mother, Kate Winslet (in her own personal favorite part and film). They begin a platonic friendship, in which Barrie becomes the surrogate father for her boys, and they in turn become the inspiration for his writing. Julie Christie also has a nice supporting part. A small but very touching film, wonderfully done. Nominated for 7 Oscars, but sadly only one Oscar for Music.
Note: as of Dec 8th, 2009, this film remains in the Netflix top 100, at #63 currently

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Girl in the Cafe

David Yates, 2005 (8.6*)
Emmy Award, best tv movie
This is a small, captivating film of an improbable romance, closely tied to political events surrounding a G8 economic summit in Iceland. Veteran actor Bill Nighy (who has been much better, he's a little too mannered and unnatural here) is an withdrawn economist for the British government, preparing some proposals and financial feasibility for their participation in the upcoming G8 summit in Reykjavik Iceland, who can't find a table at lunch and sits with a young woman, having coffee alone. Kelly MacDonald is terrific as the young Irish woman, slowly warming up to Nighy, as we watch her character change and come out of her shy shell over the course of this film and become more vocal about her concerns; she won an Emmy for actress in a movie.

The script by Richard Curtis tackles some tough political issues, especially poverty and hunger in the world, so some have dismissed this as "propaganda", an attitude I just don't understand. I guess most westerners would rather see a dumb Bullock or Sandler romantic comedy, than a serious film about society's shorcomings. If you're one of those, avoid this, but if you want an engaging romance on a intellectual level, with complex and real people, this Emmy winner for TV movie is a small gem. Also won a Humanitas Prize, and the Shanghai TV Festival award.

[Note: even though for tv, this features brief frontal nudity, but don't panic, it's neither gratuitous nor arousing]

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My Blueberry Nights

Wong Kar-Wai, 2007, in English (8.2*)
Wong is a Hong Kong director, and one of the most visual filmmakers in history, which makes him one of my favorites. He frames shots like still photographers, yet always keeps the camera moving so nothing is static. He also likes to slow the speed down sometimes (such a slow motion kiss), or speed it up a little (street crimes become blurred and fast), creating alterations of time only possible with cinema. His films all involve passage of time and relationships, and some even show the date or time as segment headings. This film shows its "chapters" as date and distance from New York City for the main character played by singer Norah Jones in a subtle, finely nuanced performance.

This is about relationships, close and long distance. The film starts in New York city, where Jude Law runs a diner frequented by Jones, hunting for a missing lover. She later hits the road, and the film moves to Memphis, where she meets David Straithorn, an alcoholic cop, while tending bar, and his estranged wife, Oscar winner Rachel Weisz. She later moves on to Nevada and runs into Natalie Portman as a poker playing babe with a hot Jaguar.

Wong tells simple stories where the art is in the cinematography. He has some of the richest color you'll ever see in modern films, and some of the most striking images of mundane subjects. In this one he shows almost abstract images of pie, elevated trains, cars, landscapes rolling by. His films have won numerous international awards, but this is his first one in English, and will be a nice introduction to his work for westerners not familiar with him. Chungking Express and its sequel Fallen Angels were the inspiration for Tarentino's Pulp Fiction.

This film also features a terrific soundtrack, with original music by Ry Cooder, and some pop songs, with "The Story" sung by Norah Jones at the film's close.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Atonement

Dir: Joe Wright, 2007 (8.9*)
Best Picture (British AA)
Best Drama Picture (GG)

[Updated 12/01/09 with the awards link]
This British war romance, based on an Ian McEwan novel, is one of the best recent films in the classic romantic novel tradition, and reminds me of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. Keira Knightly and James McAvoy star as the lovers, who grew up together on the same estate, but from different social classes. There's also a bit of sibling rivalry going on with Keira's little sister, brilliantly played by young Saiorse Ronan, who was rewarded with an Oscar® nomination for supporting actress. However, it's Vanessa Redgrave who takes your breath away with a five minute scene; this was short but worthy of award nominations, she was so incredible (she was nominated by one critics group). The long tracking scene at Dunkirk that follows three soldiers for about a mile is one of the most unforgettable war images on film. Also received Oscar® nominations for picture, director, art direction, costume design, screenplay, and won an Oscar® for music.

Update: Atonement went on to win 23 awards with another 67 nominations worldwide. Young Saiorse Ronan (Briony at 13) was terrific, and got several nominations for supporting or actress or newcomer. The awards page at IMDB

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Nothing But the Truth

Rod Lurie, 2008 (8.2*)
This is a gripping and timely film that features the finest performance to date by British actress Kate Beckinsale as a Washington journalist who outs a CIA agent in a news story because the U.S. has invaded Venezuela after a failed assassination attempt, which the administration blames on that country. Does this sound familiar - can anyone remember Iraq, erroneously linked to the 9/11 terrorists? Kate is facing a jail term for contempt of court for refusal to reveal her source, based on an 80's law making it illegal to reveal a covert agent's identity, even though she hasn't broken the law, her informant has.

The excellent screenplay by director Lurie is another plus for the film, featuring some unforeseen plot twists. However, Matt Dillon is unfortunately out of his element as the prosecuting attorney here, though Alan Alda turns in an adequate job as Kate's defense attorney. There are excellent points raised here re national security vs. freedom and access to information for the public, a problematic issue in today's complex world, as either side can claim a threat to society, especially to our supposed freedom, which is an illusion at best. In a year with a large number of films worth seeing, this one seemed to escape notice but examines some important issues for all western nations, and is an intellectually rewarding political thriller.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Che

Steven Soderbergh, 2008, two parts (8.0*)
Best Actor, Cannes

Ernesto 'Che' Guevara was a wealthy Argentinian doctor with a wife and five children, who gave up his comfortable life to help bring justice and dignity to the poorest classes in the Americas south of the U.S. If his was a U.S. 'pro corporate capitalist' story, he'd be a national hero here as well, rather than just in the rest of the world.

This bio of Che's guerrilla wars in Cuba and Bolivia is really two different films, but both are based on his diaries (he wrote five books). The first, originally called "The Argentine" is about the Cuban revolution, beginning with Che and Fidel in Mexico, then sailing for Cuba with just 82 men; it ends with the successful overthrow of military dictator Bautista, who fled Havana when it was obvious the rebels had succeeded. The cause was US corporations buying farmland from landowners there, and kicking off poor sharecroppers, who got nothing for their years of service. With 20% nationwide unemployment, many who had nothing else to do joined the guerilla army in the mountains in the east, and the movement steadily grew. This film also splices in media interviews and speeches of Che's at the UN after the revolution's success, all in black and white, while the war history is all in color.

The second, and more depressing half as it ends in failure and death, is 'Guerrilla', about the ill-fated and tiny Bolivian Liberation Army, which never exceeded 37 people, and was just 22 strong when he was finally captured and executed, after being hunted for a year by 5000 (or more) Bolivian army troops and US 'specialists' (meaning military and CIA intelligence personnel). What this film is lacking is showing the popular support in the cities, where over 100,000 were striking in support, as students, teachers, government, energy, and mining workers were all on strike in sympathy. Benecio del Toro gives a remarkable performance in these films, and was justly rewarded with the best actor award at Cannes. Unfortunately, the films fail to give us any other fully realized characters, including Castro himself.

These make a nearly exhaustive biography of Che when added to Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles' excellent film The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), about his travels around So. America on a motorcycle with best friend and fellow doctor Alberto Granada (who later founded the modern hospitals in Cuba). All these films are based on Che's own diaries, so we have an accurate first-person account of the important events of his life. Even though I would personally prefer Gandhi's non-violent approach to political change, I wasn't a doctor watching poor people dying daily from lack of healthcare, money, and food while U.S. corporations made billions in profit without sending a dollar of support, but rather syphoning off the wealth of these nations' natural resources for their own benefit alone. UN global economic experts today still bemoan this policy, enforced through the U.S. control of the Int'l Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, which make multi-billion dollar loans to governments, but often only if they enforce regulations that benefit only U.S. based corporations at the expense of the local citizens. (ie, Africa can export raw peanuts, but is NOT allowed to make the more profitable peanut butter!)

These will basically appeal to war and history buffs, and those with revolutionary sympathies, which pretty much means a tiny western audience. Che said "a true revolutionary has to have a love of humanity, and a desire to see justice and dignity for all - I can't imagine any true revolutionary without these traits". In a century with very few real heroes or anyone who caused political or social change, Che, ranks alongside Gandhi, Mao, and FDR, and will inspire generations of revolutionaries worldwide.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Star Trek

J.J. Abrams, 2008 (8.3*)
a.k.a. Star Trek Zero, Star Trek XI
This was certainly a pleasant surprise for me. In a nutshell, 'this rocks'!
This exciting 'prequel' came as a big surprise, and it has to be what creator Gene Roddenberry intended all along but was always missing: exciting action, believable heroic characters, and despicable villains, in this case a planet-destroying Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana). The cast looks amazingly like young versions of the original tv actors, especially Zachary Quint as Spock, while Chris Pine is adequate as Kirk, and John Cho makes Sulu a real character for once. The others are all better than the original actors as well, but the real attraction is the special effects, finally worthy of a major SF film for the first time in the Trek series.

Since childhood, I've been a fan of good science fiction and fantasy literature, but it took a long time (Kubrick's 2001 in 1968) for films to catch up with the writers to create anything worth seeing. Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed with the original Star Trek tv show, feeling like it was even worse than the intended "western in space". The Star Trek films fared little better, with only The Wrath of Khan being re-watchable for me, as I much preferred the technical class of Spielberg's SF films (Close Encounters, E.T., later Minority Report), or Lucas' simplistic battle in space Star Wars series just because they were so well done, even if poorly written.

TV producer-director J.J. Abrams was talked into directing this by Steven Spielberg, who advised him on the action sequences. Original fans won't be disappointed, nor those who hated the originals, like myself. This is more action, less amateurish moralizing, like it was intended to be. Having now breathed new life into a tired and cliched series, I'm sure many sequels will follow with this cast.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Grave of the Fireflies

a.k.a. Hotaru No Haka
Isao Takahata, Japan, 1988, anime (8.4*)
This is a tough film to watch, as it concerns the efforts of two children to survive in Japan in WW2, but is a very poetic war fable, rarely seen in films. While their dad is off in the navy fighting in the Pacific, a young teenage boy, Seita, is forced to take care of his 4 yr old sister, Setsuko, when their mother is killed by U.S. bombers. Times are harsh for everyone, the schools and factories have been bombed, there's no work, little food, and children like this, in both Japan and Europe, had to fend for themselves in order to survive, and many didn't.

This is done without much preaching or propagandising at all, which is one reason this film is #185 on the IMDB top 250, and placed #324 on our compendium of internet film polls. The story is a nice mix of reality and childish fantasy. The animation still has the cheap "doe-eyed" simplicity on the people, but the backgrounds, landscapes, rain, ponds, and fireflies are all very artistically done, and reminded me of early Disney cartoon art (Silly Symphony series) and actually have the quality of full-length films. The story is from a novel by Akiyuku Nosaka, based on that author's real wartime experiences, so it's a universally authentic war tale that is bound to tug the heart of those with compassion for children orphaned by wars, and the struggle of all the innocent civilians facing wartime deprivations.

[Note: one ignorant commentor at IMDB said, "hey, get a job" - typical uncaring American response. Hey dummy, the country had been bombed into oblivion, there were no schools nor jobs available. Are people really this stupid here? Even in our wealthy, non-wartorn society there are few jobs available and we don't have any excuse other than criminals running a system which is not working for the common person.]

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

13 Tzameti

Géla Babluani, France, 2006 (9.1*)
Grand Jury Prize, Sundance

This is one of the most riveting crime films you will ever see - one reviewer said "when done, the audience had to extract their fingernails from the armrests". It begins with a young man working to repair a leaky roof for an aging gangster, who overhears the criminal speaking of being able to earn lots of money overnight by answering a mysterious letter which contains a train ticket and hotel reservation. When the workman answers the request, he is plunged into a nightmarish scenario that may very well be his last job on the planet. I don't want to give away the surprise here, but if you watch the dvd's "interview with a witness", you'll find that this is based on an actual crime, making the plot even more astounding. Shot in black and white to give it the look of classic French film noir, director Géla Babluani has created a modern noir classic with a visual link to great crime films of the past. Babluani's son plays the lead role.

Winner of the grand jury prize at Sundance, it won 8 awards out of 11 nominations at various festivals (Awards page at IMDB)

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Monday, November 9, 2009

Prisoner of the Mountains

Sergei Bodrov, 1996, Russian (8.9*)
This is a very touching and unusual anti-war story based on Leo Tolstoy's story Prisoner of the Caucasus. The story is updated to Russia's war with Islamic separatists in Chechnya, and begins with the ambush of a small Russian unit. Two soldiers are captured by guerillas, one a late teen named Vanya (Sergi Bodrov Jr.) who youth is accentuated by his attachment to his mother. Their captor is a man (Jemel Sikharulidze) who hopes to barter at least one in exchange for his son, arrested in town by the head of the local Russian army.

While held captive in a small, primitive yet beautiful stone village, Vanya develops a strong bond of friendship with his captor's young teenage daughter who oversees the captives, Dina (Susanna Mekhraliyeva), who thinks she will not be able to find a husband. At the same time, his mother works through the Russian army attempting to gain release for her son. Bodrov shows both sides of this story without bias, and allows the viewers to develop a rapport for all the characters and their predicaments. A foreign language film nominee for an Oscar and a Golden Globe, winner 5 "Nikas" (Russian film awards), including best picture and screenplay, and five other international awards.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

Secondhand Lions

Tim McCandlies, 2003 (7.8*)
Ok, so it's a bit sentimental and perhaps a little unrealistic, but this is still a thoroughly enjoyable little film. Haley Joel Osment ("I see dead people..") does a credible job as a kid who fed up with mom Kyra Sedgwick's flighty lifestyle (always seeking a new husband in all the wrong men), and being left with "uncles", but this time the uncles in Texas are brilliantly played by Robert Duvall and Michael Caine (ok, so Caine struggles a bit with his Texas accent, one hardly cares, Duvall is perfect as always). These two characters sit on their porch with loaded shotguns ready to chase off salesmen and any other pesky visitors. They welcome Haley into their secluded lifestyle, which includes anything that strikes their whim, including ordering an airplane in pieces, and a used up "secondhand lion".

They fill Osment with stories of world travel and war, especially some tall tales of Arabia and a princess and a sheik's treasure. This is all wonderful and entertaining stuff, and reminded me of good 40's fantasies with lots of chidlish adventures. A beautiful and small film with many joys if you aren't looking too deeply for real meaning.

Quote: There are some things you need to believe in whether they're true or not: the good guys always win, and true love conquers all (Robert Duvall, talking to Osment)

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Turtles Can Fly

Bahman Ghobadi, 2004, Iraq-Iran-France (9.7*)
This is an amazing anti-war film which takes place in a Kurdish village on the border of Iraq and Turkey, just as the 2004 invasion of Iraq by the U.S. takes place. The star of the film is charismatic Soran Ebrahim, as a kid called Satellite because he sets up those dishes for remote areas who otherwise would have no tv. He's also the self-appointed leader of about 200 war orphans, organizing them into work details who earn most of their money by disarming land mines and reselling them, and harvesting spent artillery shells from two decades of war in the area for their scrap metal value. Into this village arrives a beautiful young girl (Ajil Sabari), taking care of her armless brother (who does amazing things with his teeth), and a near-blind infant her brother thinks deserves someone's care, who needs an ankle leash to keep him from wandering away.

This film is amazing for the amount of hope shown by the kids, all but ignored by the mostly shepherding adults, and how perseverance and ingenuity can allow survival in the harshest of conditions, amid a chaotic, war-torn environment. The Kurds are the largest ethnic group on earth without their own country or government, and they have been constantly attacked and persecuted by both Turkey and Iraq. This is one of the more memorable anti-war films ever made and should have a much wider audience, as it's been compared to Schindler's List for emotional impact.

All of the child actors were actual refugees, and this is the first film made in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Red Fish, shown throughout the film, are a symbol of the Iranian new year and symbolize life within life. This was Iran's submission for the Best Foreign Film category at the 2004 Oscars, and won 15 international awards out of 19 nominations.

Awards page at IMDB

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

In Bruges

Martin McDonagh, 2008 (9.1*)
This is a thoroughly enjoyable and creative black comedy, about two hit men hiding out in Bruges, Belgium, the best preserved medieval city in Europe. Rookie director Martin McDonagh got the idea for this film while visiting the city once, and the two characters represent his own split feelings about the town: beautiful and historic on one hand, then boring when that becomes the everyday routine. In two terrific performances, Brendan Gleeson is the older, wiser hit man who enjoys touring the historic town, while Colin Farrell, new to the profession, is bored, anxious, and needs more excitement, more booze, more anything.

The pair quickly discover a film being shot and befriend both a dwarf actor, and a crew member, the sensual Clémence Poésy, who offers Farrell just the escape he needs. The film escalates into violence, especially after boss Ralph Fiennes shows up, but is a dark comedy until then. It's really a film noir with some humor, and lots of swearing. The supporting cast from the hotel owner (Thekla Reuten) to a rude Canadian (Zeljko Ivanek, Emmy-winner for Damages) are all excellent.

The film has some artistic and even surreal moments, magically filmed. When you consider all the elements involved: a town as co-star, a dwarf in a surrealist film, drug-dealing con-artists, a hit on a priest, a kid-loving mobster - this turns out to be quite a unique script from McDonagh. Farrell won the Golden Globe for actor in a comedy (I think his most versatile performance to date, tho' Home at the End of the World was probably more difficult), and Gleeson (brilliant!) was nominated, as their onscreen chemistry was hilarious. Gleeson's performance is actually the more polished and professional, he's done this often. McDonagh's Oscar-nominated screenplay won several international awards, including the BAFTA®, for which the movie was nominated for Best British film.

Be sure to watch all the bonus shorts on the dvd, especially one with all the F-word outtakes from the whole movie, there's certainly over a hundred!

Update: Brendan Gleeson just won an Emmy in Sept 09 for actor in a tv film or miniseries, for "Into the Storm"

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Jodhaa Akbar

Ashutosh Gowariker, India, 2007 (8.1*)
Update: this just won 11 International Indian Film Awards, 2nd most ever, including picture, director, music, costumes, editing; it's now won 39 awards worldwide (link to its page at Wikipedia)

This has to be India’s Gone with the Wind (only better), an epic 16th century historical tale with beautifully ornate palaces, jewels, costumes – it even effectively mixes in some haunting and entrancing musical numbers (but not many). My favorites were a wedding night song and dance performed by whirling dervishes of the Sufi sect (trance inspiring!), and a beautiful romantic ballad from the second half when the lovers are alone (sensual yet very understated). Some of the dances have camera shots from overhead like a Busby Berkeley musical (only with 300 dancers instead of 30), performing ornate moving mandalas in bright colored costumes.

The stars are both very beautiful, the role of the Muslim Mughal Emperor is Hrithik Roshan (a strong, muscled warrior-king and swordsman), and his reluctant (and Hindu) Rajput Queen named Jodhaa is the breath-taking beauty Aishwarya Rai, in her finest here as a well-jeweled queen; this cements the argument that she is the most beautiful woman in the world (see photo), and she can also sing and dance (see Bride and Prejudice)

The story is multi-cultural and about the religious freedom and unification attempted by Akbar (a title of honor), who allows his Queen to build a Hindu shrine to Kali and maintain her religion. The story is fictionalized regarding the romance, turning it into a fairy tale love story, but the history is generally accurate about the unification of Hindustan. About an hour too long at 3.5 hours (Netflix inaccurately shows 450 minutes, or 7.5 hrs, yikes), with the better drama all in the second half (the first seems rushed and sketchy), and some of the martial arts are a bit slow and clumsy, rated down for these criticisms.

Note: Indian history buffs say that Jodhaa eventually converted to Islam to be totally acceptable to Akbar’s subjects.

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Friday, October 9, 2009

I Am Cuba

a.k.a. Soy Cuba
Mikhail Kalatozov, USSR-Cuba, 1964, bw (8.8*)


This is a remarkable film about fifties Cuba that is only now getting its proper recognition due to western prejudice. It's admittedly socialist propaganda, but is so well photographed and tells such a touching story that one can hardly disagree with its message. The film begins with a quote from Columbus' diary about "the most beautiful paradise on earth", then shows sugar cane farmers at work. Soon, the landowners tell farmers they've sold the land to United Fruit Company, and they all must abandon their homes and crops with no compensation. This leads to demonstrations in cities, and the fascist police kill many, added to the growing resentment of big business and corrupt government. Many of the now jobless farmers join a growing army in the mountains - with machetes as their only weapons until they can capture rifles in battles. When the government starts bombing the mountains and more civilian homes, they add to the ranks of the growing guerrilla movement.

Everyone knows the story, but few have seen this film, which captures the point of view of the innocent victims of capitalists, who were so short-sighted that to save just a few dollars of compensation for those displaced created a nation of communists and lost a valuable market for U.S. trade as a result, costing them billions over time - a just reward for those who think with their wealth first and their hearts last.

This Russian film has narration written by the famous poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and was brilliantly directed by Mikhail Kalatozov. In 1996, it was voted into the archive films by the National Society of Film Critics, and nominated for an Independent Spirit award that year also, only 32 years after its release! Even Martin Scorsese has screened this film to talk about the cinematography and creative direction, which uses a lot of wide-angle, camera motion, and upward perspective to include the mountains and sky. Told in four major vignettes and running 141 minutes, the film does lack a consistent story line and will remain an "art" film, studied by professionals and students of film, but will always have limited appeal in a nation controlled by large corporations, as it exposes their guilt in their disdain for the laborers who do most of the work in every culture.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Brothers

Susanne Bier, 2004, Denmark (8.2*)
Sundance Audience Award

Brothers (aka Brødre) is another gripping and emotionally charged drama from master Danish director Susanne Bier (see After the Wedding here), winner of 13 international awards. This film deals with the effect of war on civilian life, as the film begins as one brother, Michael, a major in the army, is about to embark for duty in Afghanistan. We see a family dinner with his wife and two girls, his parents, and midway through his alcoholic brother Jannik shows up, who is an ex-convict and the black sheep of the family, who hangs in bars and shuns real jobs.

However everything changes after the brother leaves, and Jannik changes and becomes a good friend to the family, especially playful with the little girls. (Describing much more would spoil the plot, which has some turns). The stunningly beautiful Connie Nielsen (photo rt) is terrific as the wife, and won five international awards, including one as part of the winning ensemble, which is excellent overall. In a way, this is a Danish Best Years of Our Lives, updated for a modern world where small wars are fought but undeclared, raising moral issues for all concerned.

For me, not as artistic or subtle as After the Wedding, but still another worthy volume in Bier's impressive filmography as perhaps the best living female director.
Awards Page at Imdb

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

After the Wedding


Susanne Bier, Denmark, 2006 (9.8*)
I was totally captivated by this film, which has a giant heart and is not afraid to show honest human emotions when dealing with all that life can throw at people. The film starts with a young Danish man in Bombay (Mads Mikkelsen) feeding street orphans, and we find out that he runs a small orphanage that needs more funding. He returns to Denmark to meet with a possible corporate donor (Rolf Lassgård), who invites him to his daughter's wedding the next day, saying they'll meet for a decision on the project the day after that. At the wedding, unexpected events occur that turn his life upside down.

This story has many surprising turns, so its hard to mention any more without spoiling some for the audience. Suffice to say that director Susanne Bier is a master at both plot subtleties and in showing human emotions honestly and openly. This is made possible by a super cast, all of whom were terrific. Rolf Lassgård as the CEO, is totally believable and won one best actor award; Mads, in the lead as Jacob, also won a best actor award. The CEO's wife, Helene, a very complex character, was brilliantly played by Sidse Babett Knudsen (photo left) and won two international awards; and young Stine Fisher Christensen (photo rt), who played their daughter Anna, the bride, was also brilliant in a very demanding and emotional part, and she also won two int'l awards for supporting actress. The film itself was nominated for 25 awards, including a foreign language film Oscar®, and it won 9 international awards. The awards page at IMDB

This is quite simply one of the best films ever directed by a female director, up there (for me) with Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay!, and Lena Wertmuller's Seven Beauties, but the acting, editing, and cinematography are better than those to me, it has a clarity and technical perfection rarely seen in films. Even the interiors are immaculately designed and lit, and Susanne uses some extreme close-ups that show only one eye, or a pair of lips, yet somehow you can still read the emotion emerging from what little portion of the face is revealed.

I can't imagine why I haven't heard more about this movie, nor how it could have lost the Oscar®. Susanne (photo rt), also directed The One and Only (also a winner of many awards), Brothers (also numerous awards, including five for actress Connie Nielsen), Things We Lost in the Fire, which starred Halle Barry and Benecio del Toro. Susanne undoubtably has many more great films in her future.

Update: Susanne Bier just won an Oscar® for Best Foreign Language Film for her 2010 film In a Better World

Here's is Susanne's personal page at Facebook

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Hara-kiri

aka Seppuku
Masaki Kobayashi, Japan, 1962, bw (8.2*)
Winner of the Jury Special Prize at Cannes, this is not a typical samurai film at all, but actually a critique of authority and a social system that trains and uses great numbers of samurai warriors during wartime, who are then unneeded and out of work in times of peace. In this type of era in the early 17th century this story takes place, and the plot is predicated on a starving samurai who shows up at a clan castle, asking to commit harakiri (ritual suicide) there in a place of honor. What follows is a winding tale told to the new arrival of a similar samurai in the recent past with the same request.

There is some action here, but it is as much about inaction as anything, and a society that discards and ignores those who would protect and sacrifice for it in a time of need, so it speaks to all generations who have dealt with war veterans. This also introduces much of the samurai culture to the world, and explains some of the thought behind the rituals. This is definitely one of the classics of Japan and martial arts films due to a great story, though not as action packed as Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, it is still engrossing and should be seen by all fans of that genre or of Asian films.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Veer-Zaara

Yash Chopra, India, 2004 (8.0*)
This is a legendary love story, an epic musical-romance in the tradition of Austen and Bronte meets Bollywood. Veer Singh (played by Shahrukh Khan) is an Indian Air Force rescue helicopter pilot, who meets a beautiful young Pakistani woman, Zaara Khan (Priety Zinta), who has come to India to scatter the remains of her loyal servent in her homeland (which is a great scene), when he rescues her from a bus crash on a mountain road. She wants to repay him, so he asks for one day to show her his home village; of course, in a musical-romance, one day is all you need to fall in love for eternity.

Thus begins a three-hour epic with about 10 songs, some of which are needlessly thrown in, but others are perfect for both setting the mood and opening up the culture of this area for filmgoers as well the visitor from Pakistan. I especially liked "This Is Our Land" for that reason, a colorful Hollywoodish outdoor musical number with lots of locations and people. This is a long and evolving story, told as a flashback to a lawyer, with several interesting plot twists, for Zaara is already engaged to an arranged and political marriage fiance (to a bore) in her home town, so the plot immediately gets sticky for the romance.

This is typical of Bollywood films today: three hours, and with 6-8 musical numbers with pre-made videos for tv, a couple are quite exhilirating. It's also a good example of their two styles of film: a light-hearted musical with dancing crowds and vibrant colors, then a long slow drama with serious societal and humanitarian overtones. This film, with an intermission, is pretty much divided that way into two halves, with most of the music and cheeriness in the first half.

This could easily have been done in two hours, with about 4-5 songs, so I'm downgrading it some for that reason, but it's still a classic love story and entertaining musical as well, in the tradition of 50's Hollywood musicals (Sound of Music, Oklahoma, American in Paris).

Winner of 8 International Indian Film Awards, including picture, director, actor, actress (a lawyer, not the lover), story, music director, makeup. The awards page at IMDB, 20 wins, 47 nominations (rated 7.3/10 at IMDB, a reader's poll open to all viewers)

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Cranes Are Flying

Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957, USSR, bw (8.4*)
Palm d'Or (Cannes)
This was one of the first post-Stalin films from the USSR that got distribution in the west, becoming a critical and commercial success in the US as well as winning the Palm d'Or at Cannes. It's a beautifully photographed black and white anti-war film that dealt with the effects of war on civilians in a realistic manner without sentimentality, similar to way Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives showed the effect of war on Americans.

The story involves a beautiful young woman named Veronika, played by Tatyana Samojlova, who has decided that Boris will be her fiance (not Mark), just as he gets sent off to WW2, along with best friend Stefan. His cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) receives a deferrment and remains behind, and is also in love with Veronika, who now must decide between remaining faithful or being practical. We first see the effect of the war on those who remain at home, and later for those who go off to war, as many return wounded, reminding Veronika the nurse of the absence of her love.

This is a heroic story about the struggle of the common man, and even manages to poke some good-natured fun at "the workers maintaining their work quota at the factory in spite of war". This is not a war story about heroism in battle, as we never see the war directly, but about courage and cowardice among the civilians.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

State of Play

Kevin MacDonald, 2009 (8.1*)
This is a surprisingly tense and riveting political thriller. Combining journalism, national security, homicide, and mystery is not easy to pull off unless you have a good screenplay. This was adapted by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Tony Gilroy from a BBC series by Paul Abbott, 'updated' to the U.S., and filmed by talented young director Kevin MacDonald, who previously helmed award winners Touching the Void and Last King of Scotland. There are also crew links to the Bourne films. Apparently this had "all sorts of actors wanting in", said MacDonald, so the cast is a stellar ensemble. Oscar winner Russell Crowe is a reporter for Oscar winner Helen Mirren, who is perfect as editor of a major Washington paper. Oscar winner Ben Affleck is a US Congressman investigating a company that does private security for the war on terrorism, at a price tag of billions per year.

Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams is a young reporter who does the paper's online blog; she ends up getting involved early and helps Crowe with the investigation. Oscar nominee Robin Wright Penn is Affleck's wife, and good friends with Crowe through the Congressman; this connection drives Crowe's character to dig into the story to help his friend. Jeff Daniels is also in the cast, as another important politician connected to national security. Jason Bateman even has a small but important part as a PR man with some weighty info. [He was also in
The Kingdom; what's with Bateman and suddenlyll all these national security/spy movies?]

This is just the background, the plot is even more twisty and involved, and begins with the homicide of Affleck's aid in the investigation, and some unrelated street homicides; thus the mystery begins and the plot quickly thickens. This story has come very eery national security implications, and the way MacDonald lets the story unfold through journalists, so that the audience gets information when they do, was reminiscent of All the President's Men. This is a more violent and potentially frightening scenario, but that one had the weight of being true and part of history. There is even a sly reference made in the story here with the Watergate building.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Heathers

Michael Lehman, 1989 (8.8*)
This is a rare and unique black comedy about high school. Remember all those snobbish cliques with the hottest girls? – well in this high school they’re all named Heather so they’re known collectively as 'Heathers'. Enter the picture a new student, dark and ominous, therefore alluring, played by Winona Ryder. For some reason the Heathers invite her in, even without the proper name. Her ultra-cool boyfriend Christian Slater decides they should prank one of them and the results are both surprising and unpredictable for all, an event that starts a chain reaction of crime that spirals out of control with hilarious results. This is one of the more unique high school comedies you’ll ever see, with an unforgettable cigarette lighting method, and is definitely wish fulfillment on film. Described as 'inventive, irreverant, and offensive', it the perfect comedy for the new millenium.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

The Memory Loss Tapes


Shari Cookson and Nick Doob, 2009, HBO (10*)
[Update: This just won an EMMY for "Exceptional Merit in Non-Fiction Programming" - congrats to all involved! updated 9.14.09]

The Memory Loss Tapes is the first part of the HBO series The Alzheimer’s Project, and it’s an extremely powerful documentary that touches on the most basic human emotions, those that flow naturally from love, caring, and mortality. The film was brilliantly constructed by producer-directors Shari Cookson and Nick Doob to slowly reveal the progressive stages of Alzheimer’s in seven different patients, and just as importantly, to show how the families of each have to cope with different aspects of the disease.

The first patient, Bessie, has only mild symptoms, so we get to see her as a lively, outgoing, and funny person. She knows what’s coming eventually but is still enjoying every day to its fullest. Another patient, Fannie, is losing her ability to drive her car, and with it her independence. Joe keeps a blog of his decline and can feel his mind slipping away. Yolanda thinks her reflection is a new best friend. Woody can’t remember his wife but can still remember song lyrics and sing with his old group.
Josephine’s daughter has had to fence in her property to keep her mom from wandering away. The patients shown exemplify the progression of the disease by revealing their everyday reality.

The most gripping part of this film deals with someone in the final stages of life, and the devastating effect it has on his family. In a heart wrenching revelation, the man’s wife admits feeling selfish for wanting to keep her husband with her as long as she can, despite the fact that he has "no life."

I don’t think I’ve ever seen mortality treated so realistically or with as much impact in any film. For parents, I would warn you to either pre-screen this for your children, especially those under ten, or counsel them before viewing. It’s something we’ll all face, but it may be distressing for young viewers to actually see in reality.

The saddest part of this illness to me is that it robs its victims of their memories at a stage in life when these are likely their most cherished possession. As a child, we would visit my great-grandmother in her nursing home, but she never remembered who we were, and she lived to be ninety-nine. I would have loved to have heard her stories that began around 1870, and just imagine the century she was able to witness.

Hopefully this film will instill a desire in many to become healers or medical researchers, and bring an understanding of the heavy cost of all terminal illnesses on the families and friends of the patients. We should all be aware now that new biotech research is necessary to cure this and similarly debilitating illnesses, and that money wasted on destructive goals is being diverted from these more humane purposes.

Many elderly patients don’t have any remaining family, as I found out when my mom was in a nursing home with Parkinson’s. Many eat alone and never have visitors, something we should never allow to happen. Visit as many of these people as you can, their smiles will be the best reward you’ll ever receive.

The Memory Loss Tapes should receive a handful of well-deserved Emmy nominations, and some awards. It's technically superb, emotionally powerful, and for me is one of the best TV documentaries ever made.

Producer-director Shari Cookson at IMDB
Producer-director Nick Doob at IMDB

[Though not yet on DVD, I'm reviewing this here in the hope that people will watch it on HBO or from their website: Click here for the HBO Link, and all episodes can be streamed from here as well.]

The Alzheimer's Organization is at http://www.alz.org/

Patients and families affected by Alzheimer’s can visit Icara Study to see if they might be eligible to enroll. [Thanks to Tracy for this]

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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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