Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Cuckoo

Alexsandr Rogozhkin, 2002, Russia (9.0*)
One incredibly beautiful location, an alpine Finnish lake without a settlement in sight, makes this small, sparse anti-war film a rare treat. The story begins with a condemned Finnish soldier being chained to a rock as a sniper, and we follow his story in this locale, which appears to be a very rural area of Finland. The tale eventually involves another soldier, a Russian, and a local laplander woman, none of whom speak the same language.

Anni-Christina Juuoso is a delight as the widow they run into, self-sufficient pioneer who lives alone in the wilderness since her husband died. This simple plot device works very well to illustrate the futility of international hostilities, and that compassion and sharing are the true human virtues. One of the more austere, yet thought provoking films you will see, and the cinematography is breathtaking.


Friday, February 27, 2009

No Man’s Land

Danis Tanovic, 2001, Bosnia (8.7*)
Best Foreign Film (AA,GG)

This is a riveting story about the futility of war and how politics can sometimes reach unbelievable absurdities, using a really simple story on the surface. A couple of soldiers in the Bosnian-Herzegovinian conflict wander into the no man’s land between the two artificially and diplomatically drawn lines. Pretty soon one from the other side becomes trapped with them in an odd sort of stalemate involving a bomb placed under one while he was unconscious.

By the time they done little or nothing the whole event has been sniffed out by the media and becomes a major news event, threatening to have international consequences. More cerebral than action, director Danis Tanovic’s film deservedly won an Oscar® and a Golden Globe for Foreign Language Film, and numerous other small festival awards.

Awards page at IMDB: No Man's Land Awards


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Nine Queens

Fabian Bielinsky, 2000, Argentina (7.6*)
The title of this Argentinian con artist story refers to a sheet of nine stamps of Queen Wilhemina of Germany, now worth a small fortune, and a small-time con artist who has a chance for a big score. He runs into a street criminal after losing his own partner in crime (who disappeared) and the two pair up "for a day". Suddenly each is contributing their time and some of their own money in a high stakes game to sell some expertly counterfeited stamps to a millionaire. Gorgeously sexy Leticia Brédice provides some romantic interest, but the story here is the intricate plot, reminiscent of David Mamet's con artist films House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner. So if you like heavy plotting with little action, this is for you.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Life Less Ordinary

Danny Boyle, 1997 (8.2*)
I always liked this wacky romantic comedy best of all of Boyle's films. The story is just farfetched enough to be unique: two angels, now on probation, hilariously played by Delroy Lindo and Holly Hunter are being forced by the Big Guy to make two loveless people on earth fall in love with each other. Cameron Diaz is a spoiled rich girl, who likes to shoot apples off butler Stanley Tucci's head; her dad, Ian Holm, is a corporate CEO jerk, who fires janitor Ewan MacGregor, who then kidnaps Diaz with a little help.

The crime starts a chase, which maybe starts a romance, which becomes a musical fantasy (Ewan sings Beyond the Sea!), with the angels surveilling the entire story, for if they fail they have to be reincarnated into bodies again, and neither one wants that - especially Holly's angel, which gets banged up somewhat! Some won't like this farce, some will - fluff for sure, but I thought pretty danged hilarious fluff, especially the fantasies thrown in.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Heavenly Creatures

Peter Jackson, 1994 (8.7*)
This is one of the more compelling docudramas of a true crime you will see. The film is an early one for director Peter Jackson, and is the first film for Kate Winslet - I believe she was 17 at the time. You could already see that she was going to have major impact as an actress; at one point she even sings an aria to the sunrise. This story involves two teenage girls who gradually withdraw into a fantasy world of their own creation, involving princes and knights and they, of course, are damsels in distress. One girl’s parents think they are spending an inordinate amount of time together, especially for conservative New Zealand. What follows became a “crime of the century”, and the subsequent trial had reporters from all over the world attending, as big in its day as the O.J. trial for our generation. Gripping and emotionally brutal, not for the squeamish.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Gone With the Wind

Victor Fleming, 1939 (7.2*)
Best Picture (AA)
Much ballyhooed epic long considered the “most popular” movie is really just a too lengthy soap opera – it needs an hour-long trim as each scene runs on and on - with an overblown budget (and music score) and one good war scene: the train platform at Atlanta littered with hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers. Unfortunately, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning book Margaret Mitchell couldn’t convince Hollywood that it “couldn’t be filmed”; it is better as literature. Even at four hours, the film is just a synopsis of what seemed like decades in Scarlett’s life (maybe it was decades to read!). The film would have been better as a 10-12 hr miniseries, and with perhaps less-stereotypical characters all-around, not just the slaves either.

It’s ironic that the two leads, Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh in her Oscar-winning performance, and Rhett Butler, Clark Gable at his most wooden, are really two of the least likeable characters in the story. Each is arrogant, shallow, and self-centered, while their friends Melanie (Olivia de Haviland) and Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) have the real humanity and heart, along with Oscar®-winning nanny Hattie McDaniel, who steals the film and received the only Academy Award for an African-American actor until Sidney Poitier roughly 25 years later, and the only woman until Whoopi Goldberg half a century later! Ironically, she’s really better as a comic actress yet her tearful scenes here likely tipped the voters.

Directed by Oscar®-winner Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz), the film’s plus is a great epic look, which ironically makes some of the faked studio scenes stand out more, like a carriage ride with Rhett and Scarlett in Atlanta before the war with an obviousy filmed backdrop moving at a different speed than they are, or the overused silouettes of actors against giant painted or filmed backdrops. This film also screams for widescreen, but alas, “Cinemascope” had not been invented yet so we’re forever stuck with the square 35mm image – but at least they used color, which the remastering has faithfully maintained. Winner of a then-record 8 Oscars, with 13 nominations.

Quote: As God is my witness, if I have to lie, cheat, steal, or kill, I shall never be hungry again. - Scarlett (apparently losing all ethics in a dog eat dog world!)


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Vicky Christina Barcelona

Woody Allen, 2008 (7.8*)
Best Comedy Picture (GG)
Lightweight romance, heavier on that than comedy, from the Woodman about two friends, Scarlett Johansson, the more Bohemian (‘slutty’) one, with engaged friend, Rebecca Hall, the uptight one, who travel to Barcelona for a break because ‘soon-married’ Hall wrote her thesis on artist-architect Antonio Gaudi, whose work defines Barcelona. While there they meet Bohemian artist Javier Bardem, who announces he’d like a threesome with both on the upcoming weekend. Hall balks at his forthright demeanor, but not Scarlett, and they soon get together - but not until Hall spends a day with Bardem and changes her mind about him.

The fun times are thrown askew with the arrival of psychotic ex-wife Penelope Cruz (Oscar® winner for supporting actress!), hilarious in two languages as a homicidal rage-aholic, who once stabbed Bardem while they were married. now there are three women in Barcelona all interested in Bardem at the same time! Unlike the New York trilogy of Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah & Her Sisters, there’s not a lot here to touch the heart and really make you care for these quirky characters, but it’s pleasant enough entertainment for a light romantic comedy. For once we didn’t get Woody’s ragtime music, we got a terrific Spanish/Brazilian music score that was both light and upbeat enough to fit the subject and its time.

Winner of 2 Indy Spirit Awards for Best Screenplay (Allen) and Cruz for Supporting Actress (loved her in this! remember: she acted in two languages) BAFTA award for Cruz also (British AA). Golden Globe winner for Best Comedy/Musical Picture.


Friday, February 20, 2009

To Wear is Human at Muze

Just got a couple of shirts from one of our affiliates, Muze Clothing, and they are excellent quality - extremely soft and well-designed.

Muze puts classic film quotes on short-sleeve t's and long-sleeve thermals, each quote in a unique design. Some examples are:

"Sell Crazy Someplace Else... we're all stocked up here" (the first part is large, the second is a small afterthought underneath the big design) - As Good As It Gets

"Ever Dance With the Devil in the Pale Moon Light" - Batman

"Never Leave Your Wingman" - Top Gun

"You Talkin to Me?" - Taxi Driver

"It's Not a Motorcycle Baby, It's a Chopper" - Pulp Fiction

There's also a nice Muze logo shirt with "To Wear Is Human" on the sleeves. Many athletes and celebrities have been seen in these, Muze has photos of these people wearing their shirts (among many others): Matt Damon, Ryan Seacrest, Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, Martin Sheen, Paula Abdul, Kevin Nealon, Jason Kidd, Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice...

as they say... "you're in great company". check them out:
Muze Clothing


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Born Yesterday

George Cukor, 1950, bw (8.1*)
You’d have to look hard to find a comedic performance as funny as Judy Holliday in this film, which won her a well-deserved Oscar®. She has a perfect delivery, just the right lilt in her voice to show bored disdain. Wealthy junkman Broderick Crawford is in DC to “get the government he paid for”, renting in an expensive suite with girlfriend Holliday, his lawyer and a bodyguard-gofer. He thinks his slightly daffy escort could use an upgrade in manners and education for the DC elite, and hires William Holden, a local freelance writer hanging around for an interview, to tutor Holliday in proper conversational English, with hilarious results. Of course, with time together the pair develop a chemistry and develop some plot twists you won’t see coming. Holliday’s is one of the great performances in comedy history, one of the few to win an Oscar®.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Gloomy Sunday

Rolf Schubel, 1999, Germany (8.3*)
This is a very interesting romantic story that eventually involves the holocaust. In a gourmet restaurant in Budapest, the owner, pianist, and a visitor from Germany all fall in love with the ravishing hostess, played by Erika Marozsan. Over time, she, the pianist and owner all form a close knit friendship and agree having half of Erika is better than nothing. The pianist writes a song for the hostess, called Gloomy Sunday, that eventually becomes a famous song, with unexpected consequences. The rise of the Nazis also enters their lives as the stories of all four people are connected by the war. Very good sleeper film, good acting, sensitive and not overt like many of these, and with a major plot twist or two as well.


Monday, February 16, 2009


Andrew Stanton, 2008 (10*)
This terrific science fiction comedy is Pixar's best so far. It's rare that an animated film combines both a great story with terrific and imaginative artwork. You would think that after the Toy Story films, Cars, and Monsters Inc that the creativity there would slow down, but Wall-E tops them all. It's basically about a garbage compacting mobile robot living on an unpopulated earth. However, drones are being sent to try to find a return of life on earth, and naturally Wall-E comes into contact with life again (or there'd be no story), as we now know it, and with hilarious results. This film has a lot humor, as well as a lot of heart, making us all somehow care for what happens to a mechanical garbage man! Another rarity: a children's film that adults should enjoy just as much. Winner of over 35 awards already this year, for some odd reason it's not nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and will have to settle for Animated Feature as a consolation prize.

Link to Wall-E's awards page at IMDB: Wall-E Awards


Friday, February 13, 2009

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter.. and Spring

Kim Ki-Duk, Korea, 2003 (8.6*)
The title refers to the stages in a person’s life, as well as those in nature, and the cycles of both. The mandala or “wheel of life” is a common motif in Asian theosophy. Filmed in a national park, this Buddhist-Taoist allegory or parable is a stunningly beautiful and simple tale of an ascetic life as a monk aboard a floating monastery in a lake in the mountains. One couldn’t imagine a more beautiful yet hauntingly lonely setting for a parable on the nature of life, material attachment, and redemption.

The story is about a young boy being raised by the Old Master, lessons he learns in life, particularly when they are visited by a woman’s who brings her sick daughter for healing. There are some very simple truths and what’s often called “perrenial wisdom” here, told in a quiet almost non-action manner that mirrors the spiritual discipline of the monk. The movie was directed, written and edited by Kim Ki-Duk, who also plays the young boy as an adult monk! This is the type of film that could never get made in the west, but one which shows a simple, spiritual life lived without materialism, and without attachment to the sensory world.

[NC-17 for sexual content; as the old Master said “just nature taking its course, do you feel better?”]


Thursday, February 12, 2009

American History X

Tony Kaye, 1998 (8.2*)
This is a tour-de-force performance by Edward Norton, as a white supremacist who wants to keep younger brother Edward Furlong out of the same trouble he's had. As a boy, his fireman father was killed answering a fire alarm at a drug house, so Norton harbors deep racist convictions from this one incident.

The film is a searing indictment of a racist lifestyle, but unfortunately seems accurate at capturing a dangerous sub-culture operating within the United States. Norton's acting ratcheted up a level in this one, he looks and feels this part so well you forget who it is early on. How he didn't win the Oscar (he was nominated) is still beyond me; this is certainly one of the best performances of our lifetime.
Not a pleasant film, but like Boyz in the Hood, one that needs to be seen by everyone.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Monsoon Wedding

Mira Nair, 2001, India (7.4*)
This is, as director Mira Nair said, “organized chaos”, like life in India. Unfortunately I couldn’t tell this was a drama and not a big, enjoyable party film until about 90 minutes in. Nair weaves together several stories of people of different classes and circumstance as a family comes together for the hastily arranged marriage of the daughter of Lalit Verma (Naseerudding Shah).

There’s lots of dancing, aided by a strong pop soundtrack, attempted mating, family arguments and secrets (one dark one that turns the film's mood), but there’s no very cohesive story here, just a slice of Indian life in a large family reunion and wedding. There’s probably too much shaking, hand-held camera work throughout, it fits the dancing and street scenes but in a romantic interlude on the balcony, and almost every other scene as well, it becomes distracting. Still, a joyous, unbridled look at Indian culture that is all too scarce in western films. Half is in English, half sub-titles.

One character says, "Speaking in English makes one sound more important!"

[Note: I loved the reference to “that Booker prize girl became a millionaire overnight”, who is Ruth Jvabvala, who won that prize for Heat and Dust, then adapted her own novel for the excellent film by James Ivory, starring Julie Christie as the modern equivalent of her aunt in India, played by Gretta Scacci, my favorite film of 1983.]


Friday, February 6, 2009

Requiem for a Dream

Darren Anorofsky, 2000 (10*)

This film is without doubt the most intense movie I've ever seen – in fact, I had to take a break halfway and finish it later, one advantage of dvd over the theater. It’s a total work of art, but one that will leave you emotionally drained. It’s a story of addiction of all kinds: drugs, tv, food, hope. Ellen Burstyn, who is mind-blowing in this (and spent 4 hrs a day in makeup), her greatest performance (Oscar-nominated, it should have been her 2nd after Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), plays Sarah Goldfarb in Brooklyn, whose only son, played by Jared Leto, routinely pawns her tv to buy drugs, and Sarah buys it back each time. She dreams of being on tv, and may get her chance on a motivational program where huckster Tappy Tibbons sells optimism that he calls "juice" for one easy payment (a thinly disguised variation of Tony Robbins?), well-played by Chrisopher MacDonald. Before that she wants to lose weight, so she finds a doctor to give her diet pills.

Her story begins to parallel her son’s, who spends time with girlfriend Jennifer Connelly, in her most demanding and best performance (I now believe her Oscar for A Beautiful Mind was due to her snub for this), and friend Marlon Wayans, who is surprisingly effective in a rare dramatic part. Anorofsky uses machine-gun fire editing, odd camera angles, blurred fast-motion sequences, and a special actor-mounted camera to create a nightmare world of dreams blurring reality for all involved. For some this was distracting, for me it totally involved the audience in a world where reality is a vaporous vision, constantly shifting until you don’t know what’s real and what is imaginary.

This film may be too shocking to watch; it likely deserves an X-rating for emotional trauma. I’m sure it scared the heck out of Hollywood; it was made with the assistance of Sundance. Traditional movigoers and filmmakers wouldn’t go near this subject, based on major American author Hubert Selby’s novel from 1978. Selby is best known for this 1964 classic Last Exit to Brooklyn, which shocked the nation, but wowed book critics, and caused an obscenity trial in England. (see below for some Selby quotes from an interview on the dvd). Director Anorofsky’s only previous film was the engrossing intellectual drama in black and white, Pi (review upcoming), about obsessed numerologists hunting for the “key to the universe” hidden in the Bible in the numeric values of Hebrew letters (!) This is major art for a second film effort, for anyone’s film effort actually. This is more intense than Tarantino, Scorsese, or Cuckoo’s Nest, and likely too intense for the average movigoer - if you enjoy Adam Sandler, or Lethal Weapon movies, you probably won’t like this. But a film this visually stunning will be studied by cinema students for decades, and is a treat for the serious film connoisseur.

Here's Roger Ebert's longer and more descriptive review in the Chicago Sun Times, he agrees that it's "adults only", unless you know a kid doing drugs:
Roger Ebert's Requiem Review

[Note: I’m giving it a 10 for its mind-blowing visuals, overcoming any story faults. The scene they’ll discuss for years is Burstyn cleaning her apt from end to end in 25 seconds of film, in super-high speed, while the camera slowly tracks past each room. This took 40 minutes and was one take; when done, Ellen was disappointed with herself and wanted to do another take. The dvd will show you how it was done. I’ll have to admit that when the film was over, I needed a drink and a walk outside, I was shaking for half an hour.]

Hubert Selby Quotes (Selby has a brief part in this as a prison guard)
“About age 8, I discovered that the world was full of pain and suffering, and I decided I had to try to end that suffering.”

“I had tb after world war two; a doctor looked me and said, ‘there’s nothing we can do for you’, walked away and sent me a bill. Man, do I love the AMA.”
(This almost killed Selby, he had a lung and 10 ribs removed, but survived. He also had brain damage during childbirth, yet has become one of the most important American authors, compared to Dostoevsky)

“The Sanskrit and Hebrew word for eye is ‘fountain’, they say we project our souls onto the world through the eye, not perceive the world outside projected inward.”

“Suffering comes from the fact that life is pain, and we refuse to accept the pain that all must experience; the worst pain will be losing one’s mother, hence ‘I feel like a motherless child.’”

“I had a spiritual experience once; during that I knew that as I’m dying I’ll think two things: first that I wasted my life, then that I’d like to live it all over – and then I’ll die.”


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The More the Merrier

George Stevens, 1943, bw (8.7*)
Classic B&W comedies don't get any better than this one. Talented and terminally cute actress Jean Arthur actually thought of this story to get work, director George Stevens liked it enough to have the screenplay written and filmed. Washington DC has a severe housing shortage during WW2, and people are sharing their apartments, people are sleeping in foyers, and anywhere else you look. Charles Coburn, perfect in an Oscar-winning supporting role, shows up early for his hotel reservation and has no place to stay. At the same time, Jean Arthur is about to rent half her apt to 'help ease the shortage', and Coburn uses chicanery to worm his way into the rental, which Jean wanted to give to another woman. Coburn immediately decides to play matchmaker, and sub-lets his half to a aircraft worker, the handsome and available Joel McRea, but Coburn doesn't know Jean has a fiance.

The single women to men ratio is 8 to 1 in wartime DC, and Stevens uses this fact for one of the funniest scenes in film. Jean and her fiance go to a restaurant, and Coburn brings McRae to the same restaurant, where Joel is immediately surrounded by 7 single women at the bar. Coburn spots Jean and her beau and manages to not only share their table, but whisks her beau away on business, leaving McRea with the seven single women and Jean - so the 8-1 ratio is now a reality! This lengthy sitcom scene will leave you in stitches, and Arthur will steal your heart. Nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, but Coburn was the only winner.

This has always been one of my favorite comedies, and it never gets old, and is just as funny today. It was refilmed in 1964 with Cary Grant in Tokyo as Walk, Don't Run, with the Olympics causing the housing shortage, but that remake fell far short of the original.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Barbarian Invasions

Denys Arcand, 2003 (8.4*)
Best Foreign Film (AA)

This touching and poignant film is about the last days of a middle-aged Canadian man with cancer. Remy gathers his family and close friends around, and after abusing the healthcare system by occupying an entire unused hospital floor, the whole group moves to a peaceful country cottage on a lake for his final days. Instead of being morose and gloomy, Arcand manages to make us feel joy along with Remy to be so surrounded by loving companions and family for his final days. This is a tough subject to pull of, and the film bears similarities to both The Big Chill and Bergman's Cries and Whispers, but manages to make us feel better than either of those. This was made for Canadian TV as a sequel to Arcand's Decline and Fall of the American Empire, but won a well-deserved Oscar for Foreign Language film.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Bye Bye Birdie

George Sidney, 1963 (7.0*)
I recently saw this again in widescreen, first time since it bored me as a child. This time I understood it, and the ws format allow you to see the dancers rather than imagine them offscreen! It’s basically a campy satire of bad Elvis musicals, the story is even about every girl’s favorite heartthrob rock star being drafted! (when I was a kid, only girls liked Elvis, at least after his Sun Records rockabilly days). The music is really all over the map, a little rock, even more ‘boogie woogie’, a little jazz, some of that a little bluesy, and some typical Broadway-style songs. In that regard, it loses a star for not having a very cohesive score; after all, it’s a musical comedy.

The ‘not quite rock’ star is Conrad Birdie (Jessie Pearson, in the film’s weakest performance, too bad they didn’t get George Chakiris from W.S. Story) but before going into the army, he’s making a farewell appearance on Ed Sullivan, and giving a good-bye kiss to high schooler Ann-Margret, head of his fan club. Dick Van Dyke, who does some of his typical silly/stiff dancing (a la Mary Poppins), has written a song for Conrad to sing on tv that he hopes will save his sagging composing career, while his lady, Janet Leigh, in a rare musical dance performance, can’t pry Dick away from his mother, Maureen Stapleton, in a hilarious role that also includes singing.

Meanwhile, star Ann-Margret’s boyfriend Bobby Rydell, added as the only pop music star of the group, is freaking with jealousy over Conrad getting to kiss his girl on national tv. Some of the songs are worth the fast forward, but the musical play introduced the pop hits “Kids (what’s the matter with kids today?)”, sung by the hilarious Paul Lynde, and “Put On a Happy Face”, which is done on film with animation overlays. There also ground-breaking special effects in the opening number, “Telephone Song”, in which gossip gets around the whole town in a musical minute.

The real dazzler, however, is the eight-minute “I’ve Got a Lot of Livin to Do” (photo right), which begins with Conrad singing, then slows to a jazz-blues rhythm for Ann-Margret’s section, then goes uptempo into a jazzy boogie-woogie for Rydell’s comeback to her. It all ends with the whole chorus doing an exhuberant yet goofy modern jazz ‘bunny dance’ - it looks like Jerome Robbins (West Side Story) meets early Bob Fosse, and was so good that I played it three times in a row. It's also a clever parody of the gym dance from West Side Story, even copying the lighting used!

Her dancing and singing garnered Ann-Margret a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress; she kinda steals the movie, but there’s not much musical competition. This works if you don’t expect much, and get into the ‘campiness’ of the take-off on Elvis’ bad musical movies. Ironically, after this, Ann-Margret starred with Elvis in Viva Las Vegas!, and of course, stole that film as well. See my post on her here, at: Film Goddess. She was actually born in Sweden, and came to the U.S. at an early age.


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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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