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


Friday, September 25, 2009


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.


Thursday, September 24, 2009


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)


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.


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.


Thursday, September 17, 2009


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.


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]


Friday, September 11, 2009

Elevator to the Gallows

Louis Malle, 1958, France, bw (8.2*)
This was 24-yr old Louis Malle's first film after being an assistant to Jacques Cousteau. It pays perfect homage to America's best film noir, as it begins with a rather boneheaded criminal, Maurice Ronet, who carries out a well-planned 'perfect murder' of the spouse of his adulterous lover, wonderfully played by a harried yet sensual Jeanne Moreau. All goes according to plan except for one minor detail, and from then on the plot spirals into a night of anguish for all involved, which grows to even more drastic actions as the night progresses, involving more criminals and victims.

The entire film is perfectly scored by the eloquent 50's jazz of Miles Davis, which is just right for the look and ambiance of a jazz-era Paris of the night. Even though the plot may stretch a bit, the acting and journalistic look make this a timeless window into a certain era which had the classy elegance we all miss. Certainly a noir classic, and an auspicious beginning to Malle's brilliant career, which included Au Revoir, Les Enfants and Atlantic City. I prefer this to the other French noir classics I've recently seen, it seems to have more plot twists and a humorous wit that most others lack. This should be ranked on the internet survey, I can't believe it's not on some of the lists.


Thursday, September 10, 2009


Edward Zwick, 2008 (8.0*)
They keep releasing holocaust films, and I, for one, keep watching them all; I find inspiration in the struggle of the of the common man against the fascist machine (Star Wars), usually the "freedom fighter" archetype. I saw Margaret Bourke-White's photos of Auschwitz at age 5, so the worst possible images are already seared into my psyche anyway; I recently posted a list of 100 at my Worlds Best Films site. I just saw Defiance, based on the true story of the Bielski brothers of Belarus, here played by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber (he really fits this part!), who escaped the Nazi invasion of their land by going into the forests, as the Germans burned everything their path: villages, people, livestock, farmland. Over three years, the Bielskis saved over 1200 people, and fought alongside partisans. Their knowledge of the dense Nibelofski (sp?) Forest allowed them to continue to escape capture, and survive the winter outside.

Even though the film is not as intense as I expected, it still tells an inspiring story of those who fought back with literally nothing to begin with but a few hunting rifles, then more and more captured weapons as time progressed. This group refused to give up, and lend more historical credence to the lesson all have learned: never invade even a part of Russia. Napoleon's army invaded with over one million soldiers, and only 5000 returned to France.

A similar Russian film also eerily documents the invasion of Belarus, Come and See (1985), and it reveals the Nazi atrocities in more horrifying images, approaching a dreamlike quality rarely seen in war films outside of Apocalypse Now. Defiance is more of a traditional war film, with a good mix of story and action.


Saturday, September 5, 2009


Baz Luhrmann, 2008 (7.8*)
This epic adventure, romantic western war film is actually an enjoyable piece of fluff, in spite of the mixed reviews (Roger Ebert gave it 4/5*, and it's got a 3.6/5 at netflix, I'm right between). The story takes place in the northern territory of Australia, around the coastal port of Darwin; beyond that is just desert, canyons, and huge cattle ranches. The first half of this 2.5 hr epic is a western, featuring an incredible cattle drive - you'll feel like you're in a John Ford film. The second half becomes a war film, as it's 1940 and the Japanese are advancing toward Australia.

Throughout each half, it's is also a romance, between a ranch heiress from England played by Nicole Kidman, who arrives to sell the property, and a contract drover, who gets cattle to market then moves on, played by buffed-up Hugh Jackman, who really should've been less Conan and more Indy Jones. Nice to see Aussie vets with meaty character parts here: Bryan Brown, as a competing cattle baron; Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant) as her boozing accountant; Road Warrior fans will also recognize gyro captain Bruce Spence. Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil from Walkabout plays a wise old shaman in the wild, named King George, who "has the magic".

A sidebar to the main plot involves the plight of mixed-race children (called "creamies" by the white racists), those with one white and one aborigine parent, who were taken away by officials and placed in their own type of orphanages, called "locky-locks" by the kids. One such child on Lady Ashley's ranch wants to hear a story one night, and Kidman, having just seen the film, recounts the Wizard of Oz to the child, teaching him Over the Rainbow, which becomes their special song. Now the story uses Oz as inspiration, and could even have been called "Ozstralia". This also "self places" the film in that historic era of film classics, whose look it emulates pretty well, thanks to modern special effects.

There's a lot of both cinematic and aboriginal magic here, with an almost painterly look at times, and it has the grand adventure epic feel. It's perhaps not as gripping or original as modern critics expected, and the war half seems in intrusion into a nice Aussie western, but it does have the old Hollywood formula and atmosphere - we even see big maps of Australia, like those in Casablanca and Indy Jones. Seen in that perspective, it's another grand entertainment in the over-the-top style of Cecil DeMille. Australia deserves their own grand national epic, for now, this is it.

Note: fans of this should enjoy see the four-hour miniseries "A Town Like Alice", based on Nevil Shute's romance novel of WW2 and Alice Springs, Australia.


Friday, September 4, 2009

Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood, 2008 (8.7*)
This is just another gripping and hard-hitting modern drama from actor-director Clint Eastwood, who seems to improve with age like a fine Carmel area wine. Here he appropriately plays a hardened, grizzled Korean war veteran whose wife has just died. His neighborhood is now mostly southeast Asian immigrants from the Hmong culture, a mountain tribe there. He avoids them, they mouth off about him under their breaths. Things change when a local Hmong street gang starts putting pressure on his neighbor's son Thao, played by Bee Vang, and Eastwood helps keep the gang from kidnapping him by showing up in the yard with his loaded rifle from the war.

From then on, he's broken through the cultural barriers and the Hmongs all now respect him, a stranger who came to their aid. His gruff facade is gradually broken down by Thao's sister Sue, an intelligent and straightforward teenage girl, superbly played by Ahney Her; she simply doesn't accept his rejections, and is persistant in an unassuming way. She quickly becomes a closer friend to him than his own relations, who seem to consider him an aging inconvenience.

The Gran Torino of the title sits in Clint's garage, and is something he once worked on at the nearby auto plant; it's also something the gang, his granddaughter, and Thao all admire. Here, it become's a metaphor of an idealistic America of the past, when things were well made and people took pride in making them - much happier and more secure times, with ideals worth holding onto; for Clint, he can at least hold onto the car, keeping it in mint condition as life deteriorates all around. This is a very gripping, believable drama, one that should have been up for the best picture Oscar, as Clint was for directing; he even wrote the title song, played over the closing credits.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ace in the Hole

Billy Wilder, 1951, bw (8.2*)
Just another notch in the genius belt of director-screenwriter Billy Wilder. Though not one of his important films, it's still a small gem of a story, and based on the media saturation of the recent Chilean mining story, the journalism techniques it condemns are still in practice today, namely "maximize the story for ratings".

Washed up big city reporter Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) ends up in Albuquerque with no real stories, when by chance he stumbles onto one, as local Leo Minosa gets trapped in a cave behind some ruins of cliff dwellings in a town of seven people in the desert. Douglas and his photographer are passing by on their way to a rattlesnake hunt, and Douglas sees a chance to milk a story all the way back to the big time.

Wilder accurately shows how just any human interest story becomes a literal circus in America, as hordes descend on the area when the story hits the press, including circus tents, rides, vendors, anyone out to make a buck, and of course the national media. Admittance to the ruins starts out free, and doubles each time they show the sign! Jan Sterling, as Leo's bored wife at the end of her patience, won a National Board award for actress, while Wilder received one of his 20 Oscar® nominations for the screenplay (he won six, 3 for screenplay, 2 for directing), and a directing award at Venice. This is another must see for his fans.

Here is our own article on the films of Billy Wilder, posted in 2008. He's one of my favorite directors, perhaps the favorite.

Wilder is one of the great directors, here's a small list of his best films:
The Front Page, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Lost Weekend, The Spirit of St. Louis, One Two Three, The Seven Year Itch, Sabrina, The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, Witness For the Prosecution, The Fortune Cookie.


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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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