Saturday, June 27, 2009


Alfred Hitchcock, 1958 (8.7*)
This is perhaps Hitchcock's most serious film, eschewing the usual tongue-in-cheek humor for a character study of a seriously flawed hero in James Stewart. Uniting with Hitch for the last time as a police detective, he has a sudden vertigo attack for the first time during a chase, which leads to the accidental death of a colleague, thus starting his emotional torments. He is hired after recuperating as a private investigator to follow a man's mysterious wife, played by Kim Novak, perhaps out of her league here, and she leads him into a thickly plotted crime story that becomes his next torment.

Without spoilers, I can't describe the action, just to say that there are a couple of major plot surprises that take a routine plot into the extraordinary, largely on the performance of Stewart. Some of the film is a little cheesy, such as a psychedelic dream sequence that looks like a Warhol acid trip, or worse, a Peter Fonda 60's trip movie. The film is also a little slow and lengthy, but it remains Hitchcock's most complex character study, and film with the most depth of his Hollywood period, which, to me, wasn't as critically successful as his earlier British films in black and white (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train).

The film is somehow ranked #2 on the critics consensus poll after Citizen Kane - how it's above The Godfathers, 2001, All About Eve, Lawrence of Arabia and others is a mystery. This is #41 at IMDB, ranked after North by Northwest. Personally, I prefer Hitch's b&w British films The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes to any of his Hollywood productions, though Vertigo is certainly just as good, certainly is more sophisticated. Oscar® nominations for art direction and sound. Hitchcock himself never won an Oscar® which some think is a travesty, but I can see why, as no one film excelled in any particular year, he's more respected for his entire body of work.


North by Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock, 1959, (8.0*)
The master of suspense as they like to call him branched out to pure action-adventure of the Hollywood variety with this audience favorite of his. Cary Grant proved not too old to play that era's equivalent of an everyman thrown into a Bondish plot involving secret agents from both sides. Eva Marie Saint is the bait used to ensure his entrapment, so there was more than a little romance as well, as the two spend the night together on a train, and as she says 'with nothing to do since I don't like the book I brought.'

This is the old fish out of water tale, with Roger Thornhill (Grant) as the fish. There are some baffling scenes, there just for action. My fave has Roger being chased on a deserted South Dakoka highway by a low-flying crop duster which apparently is trying to either chase him to death or catch him in a prop as they have no guns or grenades. The pilot manages to hit the only object visible for miles: a gasoline tanker strategically placed on the highway by Hitch. Later the two heroes end up climbing all over the heads carved at Mt. Rushmore without any equipment - nice stunt work. These shots and others, such as a pine forest, have a dreamy, special effect quality that has a sort of b-movie, studio look but also the stuff of matinee Saturdays, when you needed a little fantasy to escape the gray cold war world outside.

With Grant, we had enough humor that we knew not to take this all too seriously, and we also had Hitchcock's most-used actor Leo G. Carroll as the wise old watchdog. This is the Indy Jones of its era, and though it will look slow and tame by comparison, it still has enough action and plot twists to provide an entertaining popcorn flick as along with Vertigo, it's one of the best two of Hitchcock's Hollywood era. This is #30 at IMDB, #49 in the Critics 1000. Oscar® nominations for editing, sound, and screenplay.


Friday, June 26, 2009

La Haine

aka The Hate
Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995, France, bw (7.2*)
This is a beautifully shot black and white film with an almost documentary style, by young director Matieu Kassovitz in just his second film. The story takes place during riotous times in an urban French ghetto and involves three slacker, Gen X friends: one Arab, one Jew, one African. Lead actor Vincent Cassel turns in a remarkable performance as the angriest, upset over police brutality toward street people; in particular the three are worried about a friend, now in a coma after a well-publicized police beating following some nightly riots.

There's a lot beneath the surface in Kassovitz' drama (though detractors say "not much"), unlike Meirelles' City of God where it all spilled into the immediate action of open warfare in the streets. Here the times are tense but most try to co-exist and simply bear with the injustices of society. In truth, there are no simple answers and rather than try to provide superficial ones, La Haine simply opens the camera on the miserable reality of urban life for those trapped without hope. This film won some international awards when it came out, mostly for director Kassovitz from minor festivals.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Eagle Eye

D.J. Caruso, 2008 (6.6*)
You might call this a Patriot Act espionage film, it's certainly one about the new age of surveillance and waiving of individual rights in the name of national security to combat terrorism. This takes us into the near future, like Max Headroom's "20 minutes into the future", and an incredible plot unfolds that reminds one of several other films at once: War Games, Enemy of the State, The End of Violence.

This is actually a well-executed thriller, and even if you have seen similar films, it will still be entertaining - it has the stamp of producer Steven Spielberg. It is a fast moving action film from D.J. Caruso, especially in the beginning, then loses it pace in the middle like many others. However, it's far less brainy and plausible than the master's brand of fiction, likely due to the casting of Shia Leboeuf in the lead role. Somehow he just doesn't look like an action hero like Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, or even Matt Damon - he always looks like the modern answer to a new John Hughes film.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Virgin Suicides

Sofia Coppola, 1999 (7.9*)

I watched this film without knowing anything in advance, and was pleasantly surprised to find it was Sofia Coppola's first film. This starts like most other teen infatuation films, a group of male high school friends ogles a group of five sisters, each born a year apart, each with her own charms. Kirsten Dunst will be the most recognizable actress and of course has the pivotal point in the plot. The parents are the strictly religious Kathleen Turner and her whipped-into-submission husband James Woods. For awhile, you think this will be a Peggie Sue Got Married sequel, which was directed by Francis, then it abrubtly grabs you by the throat when the youngest sister hurls herself onto a fence spike rather than face her first party.

Then you know Kathleen is not Peggy Sue, but more like Carrie's mother, and from that point on, the film is decidedly a drama about actions and consequences. In a way, it's like a modern Jane Austen family gone totally dysfunctional. The story by Jeffrey Eugenides from his novel has been filmed by Coppola in a non-preachy, low key style that leaves much to the audience, it will appear as deep or as shallow as the viewer's interpretation. Coppola co-wrote the screenplay, and father Francis Ford produced, but I think her direction here showed a lot of promise, and she won a few awards, mostly for first film or new filmmaker.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ocean's Eleven

[Both versions]
Lewis Milestone, 1960 (6.4*)
In the original, we had the somewhat appealing, though often obnoxious original Rat Pack starring, of course led by Frank Sinatra as the mastermind (what else) behind robbing three casinos in Las Vegas at once. Danny Ocean, fresh out of prison, and eleven of his cronies. I think part of the appeal of that idea is that the whole group already robbed Vegas with huge salaries for being mildly entertaining on stage together, and adding Hollywood legitimacy to a criminal enterprise, based on bilking tourists at every turn.

The script had some light humor attached to an intricate robbery heist, which had a couple of plot twists along the way. Nothing terrific, just some entertaining fluff allowing Sinatra to play the gangster, and also the brains of the outfit. You had to be able to stomach Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr, and Joey Bishop in order to enjoy this heavily plotted film, but it's ok late night tv fare.

Stephen Soderbergh, 2001 (5.8*)
The curiousity here is why the remake? Other than, of course, that Hollywood never met a remake it didn't like (Vanishing Point, Bad News Bears did not need remakes, maybe Seabiscuit did). First of all, no modern rat pack. The cast assembled is George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Eliot Gould, Carl Reiner, Julia Roberts, and some unknowns, while Andy Garcia is being robbed. An affable but hardly daunting criminal group, and a waste of some Oscar-winners with little to do here - and certainly not an organized 'gang' like the rat pack.

Second, the original was hardly a classic, had no pace and plodded along until the major setup all happens at once. For the remake, the usually reliable Stephen Soderbergh updated the time, the casino names, made it the Bellagio, and two others who share that vault that they are robbing. They changed the plot, so if you're a fan of the original, it's not the same story, but you'd guess that ahead of time, else no surprises in the movie at all. There was also never a sequel to the first, thankfully, now they've already made a sequel to the mediocre remake, Ocean's Twelve - more of the same tedium, too boring to remember. This could get old very slowly, like the pace of the remake - if anything they found a way to slow down the original.

These films show what happens when they aim for the 'mass appeal audience'. The original is worth one viewing at least. As Sinatra would later say when playing solo, "I miss the boys."


The Assassination of Jesse James

By the Coward Robert Ford
Andrew Dominik, 2007 (7.8*)
This is a fictitious account of the last days of Jesse James, from a novel by Ron Hansen. A bit slow, the film nevertheless has a leisurely grace and almost epic length, and with some stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins, becomes another in the line of elegaic westerns (The Claim, Open Range).

Casey Affleck shines as the Ford brother who ultimatey shot Jesse James, and this film is really all about his life, as it continues after the incident. Brad Pitt is good as James, but Affleck is really the better actor in this, and garnered an Oscar® nomination, and several smaller awards as best supporting actor.

Director Dominik, in only his second film, evokes Terence Malick's Days of Heaven for style and pace. For me, down a star for length, 2 hrs would have been enough, and since his first film was Chopper, maybe next time he can find the middle ground with the title's length.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Night of the Hunter

Charles Laughton, 1955, bw (9.0*)
This is one of the creepiest, most blood-curdling films ever made, and the best from actor Robert Mitchum. Oscar-winning actor Charles Laughton directed his one and only film and it's a film noir masterpiece. Mitchum plays a convict who finds out about a woman alone with her kids who may have money stashed from another criminal's robbery. When Mitchum gets out of prison, he poses as the most evil preacher in history, with 'love' and 'hate' tatooed on his hands, one letter per finger, and he tells the kids they go hand in hand.

Robert Mitchum actually seems semi-passionate about something in a film for once - money in this case. A young Shelly Winters plays the mother, and Mitchum stops at nothing to terrorize her (and Lilian Gish later) and the kids just to get the money, especially the kids (this is not for the squeamish!) This is full of eerie and unforgettable shots: a victim gently floating underwater in the current, an interior lit like to appear like a church (see above), and some dreamy yet nightmarish images of shadows creeping in the night. The only negative here is that Laughton didn't make any more films as director! One of the best black-and-white films made as well, nearly every shot is a work of art.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Reader

Stephen Daldry, 2008 (8.9*)
This is Kate Winslett's finest performance in a stellar career, and was rewarded with her first Oscar® for best actress. She plays a woman, Hannah, whose spontaneous act of kindness to a sick teenager, Micheal, leads to his first love affair. Her favorite pastime when they are alone is to have Michael read classic literary works to her. Michael's life is changed by this women old enough to be his mother, yet she remains an enigma to him.

Later, at law school, he again crosses paths with Hannah, a defendant in an important legal case relating to the Holocaust, and certain facts are now obvious to him that only he knows. The film eventually includes Michael as an adult lawyer, played by Ralph Feinnes in a small but effective part. Kate Winslett shines throughout, making us understand this complex character, even if we cannot justify certain actions taken during wartime. The original novel by Bernhard Schlink was a favorite of mine, and director Stephen Daldry has done the novel justice, creating an intelligent and restrained of a deeply drawn female character, and her effect on the development of a young lawyer.

Unfortunately both producers Anthony Minghella and later Sydney Pollack passed away during the making of this film and never saw its completed form.

[Note: definitely an R for nude sex scenes]

For Kate Winslett's other best performances, check out: Heavenly Creatures, her first (directed by Peter Jackson), Finding Neverland (her favorite film of hers), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.


The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky, 2008 (8.2*)
Golden Lion, Venice
[updated 3.15.11]
This film represented a major comeback for actor Mickey Rourke. He's come a long way since his early films like Diner., Pope of Greenwich Village, and Body Heat. In this story of an aging wrestler, Rourke gives the best performance of his career, earning an Oscar® nomination for best actor and winning 14 other awards in the process. (his awards page at IMDB, he's won 21 acting awards! Most came for this, the others for supporing actor in 2005's Sin City and Diner)

Rourke's character is a former "world champ", still with many fans, though he's now a has-been in his mid 40's, and has been beaten down by life. His friend, stripper Marisa Tomei, tries to keep him grounded and alive, but it appears to be a losing battle. Realizing he may not have many years remaining, he attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood, in her first big film since blowing everyone away as the star of Thirteen. It's their big scene together that allows Rourke to do some of his finest acting.

This is probably major new director Darren Aronofsky's most personal, intimate film, yet also his least creative, especially when compared to Requiem for a Dream (2000) or The Fountain (2006), or even his first film, Pi (1998). It's a story that could have easily been filmed in the 50's, perhaps by Elia Kazan or Martin Ritt, a drama about a man well past his prime, trying to decide how to spend the latter part of his life, and to right the mistakes he feels he's made before it's too late. In that regard, it has something to say to us all.

The Wrestler is now #162 all-time on the IMDB top 250, and won 30 awards overall, out of 60 nominations, including two Oscar® nominations for Rourke (actor) and Tomei (supporting actress), who won 7 awards for her performance.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Throne of Blood

aka Spider's Web Castle
Akira Kurosawa, 1957, Japan, bw (7.9*)

In spite of the lurid title, this is another of the great Japanese director's early masterworks, it's not really a horror film. Based on Shakespeare's Macbeth, Kurosawa made it entirely Japanese, building his castle on Mt. Fuji, and mixing elements of Japanese theater into the film. Kurosawa even trucked in the black volcanic soil of Fuji into the studio lot to film the castle interiors.

The story involves the castle of the title, surrounded by a maze-like forest that adds to its protection. One day while lost in this forest, two military leaders who are lifetime friends receive a prophecy from a ghost that leads them into their own web of power seeking and mistrust, as they are each to become castle lords themselves. No medieval Japanese film can avoid war, and this has some beautifully filmed battle sequences, once again using stark black-and-white cinematography to show the power of horses and soldiers in battle, much like his earlier classic The Seven Samurai.

His new favorite actor Toshiro Mifune is featured in this one as well, though this film is not quite as artistic as Seven Samurai, it adheres to the Shakespearean story, so it's a bit more melodramatic and staged looking in comparison, though that's an honest cinematic interpretation of the play. With some haunting and huge-scale images, it's still a great example of the early Kurosawa style, and a worthy entry into the pantheon of Shakespeare transformed to film.


Sleeping Dogs Lie

Aka Stay
Bobcat Goldthwait, 2006 (7.7*)

Sometimes we do something we immediately regret, like Melinda Page Hamilton in this film, while alone at college with her dog. Later the question comes up, how honest and revealing do we need to be with those we love? This is such an outrageous premise, with some appropriately funny dialogue that when the final credits roll and you see written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, then it all makes perfect sense.

A Sundance grand jury prize award nominee (for drama), this film works first as a comedy, then as a romance-drama, mostly due to the engaging and believable performance of Hamilton, and Geoff Piersen as her father. A surprisingly original comedy in the days of the normal Hollywood tedium when dealing with romance, and also poignant in the right places. It was also a San Sebastian Film Festival nominee, and Hamilton was nominated for a Gotham award for breakthrough performance.

Original title was Stay, for all the festivals, now it’s Sleeping Dogs Lie on cable and dvd, but there are other films with that title. Stay, the link at Imdb


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Kingdom

Peter Berg, 2007 (7.6*)
This is a surprisingly good action-adventure from actor turned director Peter Berg, who also made the excellent sports docudrama Friday Night Lights. There are several gripping action sequences that will stand out from standard car chase fare. The film begins with a horrifying terrorist attack on U.S. residents at a kids softball game in Saudi Arabia. After all the carnage, an on the scene FBI investigator (stationed in Saudi Arabia) is among the dead. The FBI in Washington wants to send its own team in to investigate, but it’s against US policy, inflaming an already tense situation.

Well, of course the team gets there or we’d have no story. Jamie Foxx is the leader, Chris Cooper the bomb expert (there's two Oscar® winners), Jennifer Garner the eye candy, as a friend of the dead agent, and Jason Bateman, the comic actor from Arrested Development, here misappropriately used for a serious and violent role. Richard Jenkins is his usual pro self in a small role as their FBI superior, Jeremy Piven is miscast as the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia – I kept expecting an agent style rant about growing balls from Ari on Entourage.

There’s an exciting freeway sequence, and an urban shootout that are both riveting and involving. The crew also had access to shoot in the royal palace of Dubai (or was it U.A.E.?), so all locations look very authentic. Of course the plot is a predictable, down a star for that, but the Arab acting of Ashraf Barhom, best in the film [Supporting Actor nomination maybe!], more than makes up for the John Wayne style of the Americans.


Sunday, June 14, 2009


Bryan Singer, 2008 (8.7*)
Even if you know this story from history or reading William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, director Singer and screenplay authors Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander have made an excellent suspense film with a tightly woven story of an attempt to assassinate Hitler just after the D-Day invasion, July of 1944. You find yourself actually wondering what the outcome will be, as if suddenly plunged into an alternate history story.

The film begins with chief plotter Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) in North Africa, receiving battle injuries that would relegate him to a bureaucratic role for the remainder of the war. Along with many other Germans who could see Hitler destroying both Germany and all of Europe, they felt they owed it to humanity to forge a truce with the Allies immediately, especially before they reached Berlin. These included men within the German army and the government, who began to covertly plot together, and it was no small conspiracy. Von Stauffenberg is brought into the group by superiors.

The cast is excellent overall, especially Bill Nighy as General Friedrich Olbricht; other recognizable talents include Kenneth Branagh and Tom Wilkinson. Cruise is good enough, though a German actor may have been a better choice, he's just a little too American, better suited for Born on the Fourth of July, still his best role to date, receiving a best actor nomination.

Overall, an excellent suspense film, well-made, very authentic looking with just enough mix of plot development and action, while remaining pretty accurate to history. Singer is better at this type of film, like his The Usual Suspects, than the action films he's recently tackled; he's in his element again here.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Peeping Tom

Michael Powell, 1960 (6.8*)
I'm recommending this for fans of both Psycho and the Powell/Pressburger films, such as A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven), The Red Shoes, and Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. However, it's far more similar to Psycho than the other films of Powell's. This is an eerie story about a psychopathic film cameraman, who carries a handheld film camera around to photograph everyday events, almost as an obsession.

We find early in the film that his father was a scientist, who specialized in fear, especially in children. It apparently left Mark, played icily by Carl Boehm, with a decidedly Peter Lorre voice (it's uncanny!), a bit scarred emotionally and also voyeristic. He also enjoys watching people's emotional reactions, and especially on film. Of course, we also know early on he's a bit homicidal as a result, so the suspense comes in seeing if he will kill the women he's close to or if he's too close to bear hurting them.

For Powell, it's a bit overt compared to his more artistic films. As inspired by Psycho, it's actually quite good, as for me that film degenerated into a near laughable conclusion, while Peeping Tom never does that at least. Well filmed like all of Powell's, just not one of his best efforts to me.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Fountain

Darren Aronofsky, 2006 (8.8*)
This is yet another mind-bending film from the talented vision of young director Darren Aronofsky, in just his 3rd feature film, following Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), and preceding The Wrestler (2008). His films are intensely involved in each subject, usually involving a personal obsession, and The Fountain is no different. This ambitious story takes place in three distinctly different time periods: a 16th century knight’s quest for immortality for his queen, a modern day doctor searching for a cure for brain tumors (or cancer?) to save his wife, and a futuristic space traveler taking the Tree of Life to a dying star, in a mythical quest that is rarely seen in any genre.

In each case, the man on a mission is played by Hugh Jackman, while the lady he lives for is Rachel Weisz. As his present-time wife, Izzi writes the story called The Fountain, which relates the story of the renaissance knight searching for a legendary tree of Mayan mythology, the tree of life that gives immortality to one who drinks its sap. These two stars make the film believable with their acting, but it’s Aronofky’s unrelenting vision that makes the movie both a science fiction-fantasy and a spiritual journey, perhaps the best such combination since 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968.

This unique and artistic film won’t be for all tastes, as no Aronofsky film to date has been, as he never compromises his personal vision for commerciality. I think this will make him one of the few current young directors that will rise above the crowd over time.


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

In the Valley of Elah

Paul Haggis, 2007 (8.3*)
I was pleasantly surprised by this small film that got absolutely no PR at all. It quietly slipped past most people. Tommy Lee Jones turns in perhaps his finest performance as a dad hunting for his AWOL son who's returned from Iraq and disappeared, garnering a well-deserved Oscar nomination for best actor. Charlize Theron is also excellent, in little makeup, brown hair pulled back in a bun, as a no nonsense police detective - also one of her best performances. Susan Sarandon doesn't have a lot to do in this, as the mother of the missing, Tommy Lee's wife, but still, an excellent cast of three Oscar winners!

This is a story that slowly unfolds, and is a real mystery, the kind you don't often see anymore, as we normally know who the killer is, and when there's no mystery it becomes a crime/suspense story, such as The Silence of the Lambs. This one is not only very well made, but is based on a true story as well.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009


aka Nema-ye Nazdik
Abbas Kiarostami, 1990, Iran (7.5*)
This is a small, sub low-budget pseudo-documentary that has much of the story re-enacted by the original participants. It involves the true story of an unemployed Iranian family man, Ali Sabzian, who impersonates Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a director he idolizes and later meets, director of "The Cyclist", the film he admires. Meeting another fan on a bus, he gains entrance to a middle-class family's home as they all like Mohsen's films. Eventually asking for money, he arouses suspicion, so the family patriarch arranges to have him arrested when he returns to their house.

We join the story there in the film's beginning, following a journalist to the arrest. Later we're with the director of this film, Abbas Kiarostami, as they interview the accused, then Iranian court officials, who decide to let them film the trial. (or was it re-enacted?) Iran, opening up its primitive legal system to journalists with cameras - what's wrong with this story?

It would be a touching story otherwise, but I can't separate myself from the locale and the Iranian regime. This is not an earth-moving case either, mere hero worship and impersonation, perhaps for financial gain, as the man has a family to feed. Just about anyone would perpetrate a minor scam if it could feed their kids at the expense of those apparently well-off, and who would blame him. You feel for the criminal in this (his real crime is just poverty), who appears remorseful, as they all do when caught. I don't buy his self-proclaimed innocence in court myself, but then I'm from the nation with the most laws, most prisoners, most lawyers, most time spent in court in the world!

I wasn't as moved as most critics: the film quality is very poor, the sound perfectly awful, the worst I've ever heard. At times it vibrates into unrecognition, in one scene with director Makhmalbaf, it cuts on and off from his remote microphone, some dialogue being lost entirely. (see El Mariachi for a great example of low-budget excellence, so it can be done, and all in single takes)

I'm convinced this movie was Iranian propaganda. They let Kiarostami film in court because this case meant nothing - were any journalists allowed in Roxanne Saberi's so-called trial? I don't buy the veracity of this film, so it loses it's power without the viewer buying the premise. It's an interesting window into a closed regime, even if a cloudy, poorly made one, so in that regard it's worth seeing, just don't expect any decent production values, but the positive is some openly displayed emotions in a raw and human docudrama.


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Artist, photographer, composer, author, blogger, metaphysician, herbalist

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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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