Wolfgang Becker, 2003, Germany (9.2*)
This is a terrific and heartwarming comedy about the fall of the wall and the GDR, German reunification, and in time becomes a poignant tale of a son's love for his socialist mom. The mother, touchingly portrayed by Katrine Sass, turns her interest to the socialist government after her husband leaves her with two kids, defecting to the west.
One day she has a heart attack while witnessing a demonstration of students at the wall, and goes into a coma just when history is about to be made; she misses the collapse of the wall and the East German government. When she awakens (now in just Germany), her kids go to great extremes to hide the world-changing events from her, with hilarious results. A filmmaking buddy of the son, lovingly played by Daniel Bruhl, helps them in a way I won't spoil. You'll never see a son, go through this much out of love for his mother. A totally original story, reminds one of the old classic comedies, and like those, its a film you can watch again and again. One of the best German films.
This film still has a popular web site:
Good Bye Lenin Website
Other great German films: Nowhere in Africa, The Lives of Others (both Oscar® winners for foreign film), and Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Wolfgang Becker, 2003, Germany (9.2*)
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Grigori Chukhrai, Russia, 1959 (9.1*)
This is a simply beautiful black and white Russian film. Among the first to be released in the U.S. after the Stalin reign of censorship ended, it’s a simple anti-war tale of a nineteen year old soldier, played by Vladimir Ivashov. Really nothing more than a travel or ‘road film’, the story concerns a pass he receives to visit home after destroying two German tanks in the film’s opening sequence. From then on, we are away from the war, witnessing a young hero’s journey home to see his mother, at times having to bribe train guards with cans of food, which was that scarce, even for soldiers. Shanna Prokharenko plays a gorgeous,m wholesome young Russian woman he meets on the train and travels with.
Somehow, Chukhrai avoids sentimentality, but tells a story with a lot of heart and optimism, while at the same time showing the fortitude with which the Russian people, mostly rural peasants, faces the massive Nazi invasion of their homeland, which created a 1500-mile war front, something we can’t imagine here – akin to two armies facing off along the entire length of the Mississippi River. There’s much beautiful cinematography and amateur faces as much of the film involves a train trip, so the viewer is taken along the same journey home to the prairie. Some call it propaganda; then watch some John Wayne or other U.S. war films, even worse with lots of yankee bravado; this is far more subtle and effective. One of the best Russian films , unfortunately no other films of Chukhrai's are available.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Chen Kaige, 1998, China (8.1*)
This is another spectacular looking Chinese historical epic, similar in scope and look to the films The Last Emperor and Zhang Yimou’s Hero. Running over 2 ½ hours, this story concerns the emperor of Qin, wonderfully played by Li Xuejian, before the kingdoms of China are unified in 220 B.C. His consort, beautifully played, as usual, by one of the great Chinese actresses Gong Li, has an idea to return as a traitor to her province, at war with Qin, and get that king to send an assassin back to Qin in order to provoke a war that will allow Qin to take over Yan, where she is from, without the other kingdoms interfering. She ironically finds an assassin, whose story we also are shown, who has vowed never to kill again.
This is a long, complex plot that keeps you guessing, as no one seems trustworthy or loyal, everyone has a reason to kill the other. This has some terrific shots of ancient armies and attacks on cities, but spends a lot of time in the courts, and the acting is all superb, creating a Shakespearean level drama. Everything looks beautifully opulent, from the sets to the costumes. Any fan of epics, Chinese films, or historical costume dramas will not be disappointed.
Also check out Kaige's epic Farewell, My Concubine (1993), a three-hour epic that covers 50 years of Chinese history
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
One of the more sarcastic and humorous of the recent animated classics, the Incredibles actually referes to a family of ex-superheroes of that name, led by the voices of dad Craig T. Nelson and mom Holly Hunter. They are now in the witness protection program, and bored to death. Of course, unless they jumped back into action, we wouldn’t have a film, so you can expect the inevitable animated superhero action here to spice up the comedy. Samuel L. Jackson voices another superhero, Frozone, who works with ice, a reference to Ice Nine from Kurt Vonnegut’s A Cat’s Cradle, perhaps? This story has a script so good that it was nominated for an Oscar. Two Oscars, Sound and Animated Feature.
The Incredibles also won 16 awards for animated feature that year, and numerous other awards. Here is the awards page for it at Internet Movie Database:
Incredibles Award Page
Monday, March 23, 2009
Philip Kaufman, 1983 (8.9*)
This is the true story of America’s early astronaut program. The men who had the “right stuff” were test pilots, who were the first selected as astronauts, even though they weren’t really doing any piloting at that stage. Kaufman’s film has a big budget and a giant cast, and it shows. Admittedly a Hollywood version of a patriotic story, it’s nevertheless very exciting and realistic, especially the early sequences of Chuck Yeager, played by Sam Shepherd, breaking the sound barrier. The movie also has Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Fred Ward as astronauts, Barbara Hershey and Veronica Cartwright as wives, and many others. It manages to maintain a sense of humor and personality by concentrating on a small group of people in just the very beginning of the program. Based on Thomas Wolfe’s best-selling book. Along with Apollo 13, the best true stories among space films.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Jean Renoir, 1951 (7.5*)
The French master Jean Renoir discovered Ms. Rumer Godden's 1946 novel about living in India, The River, but couldn't find anyone to back the film as the story lacked the usual action elements of most western films about Asia. Eventually Kenneth McEldowney, a florist tycoon, who also loved the book, backed the film but they didn't have enough capital to hire big Hollywood actors (Renoir wanted Brando as the lead, but ended up with a non-actor war veteran who had actually lost a leg). The cast is actually part professional, part amateur. The book and film are really not about a strong plot (it centers on a young teenage girl's awkward coming of age), but are more like a documentary film on life along the Ganges, the river culture and lives along its banks; that and colonialist Britons trying to co-exist while basically occupying a foreign nation.
This was Renoir's first film in English, and first color film, released in 1951. As the son of the famous French impressionist painter, Auguste, he really laid on some beautiful, rich early Technicolor. Martin Scorsese was moved by this film at age 9 in the theater, and led the restoration effort, completed in 2004. The Criterion dvd edition is gorgeous. This is really the film's star, the glorious cinematography of a beautiful and colorful slice of Hindu culture. There are things westerners may learn about Indian culture from this film, such as the beautiful Festival of Lights. Renoir's own son Claude was director of cinematography, and though some of the techniques look a little dated, and the acting a little forced at times, this was the first color film shot in India, and as such, the movie takes on a more important societal role than mere entertainment.
For me the highlight of the Criterion dvd is the documentary done by the BBC, An Indian Affair, in which they returned to India with an 88 year old Rumer Godden to visit the locales where she grew up and that she hadn't seen in over half a century. Her own story is an amazing one, and she understood India better than any other western author. She apparently had an influence on Indian author Ruth Prawar Jhabvala as well, as it appears that a variation of Godden's own story was written by Jvabvala into her prize-winning novel Heat and Dust. This documentary is as well filmed as the Renoir movie (which is not as engrossing), and the dvd also features interfiews with Scorsese, Renoir, and producer McEldowney.
Part travelogue, part novel of a British girl's growing pains in a foreign land, The River remains an important early western look at the beauty and culture of India.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Karel Reisz, 1966, bw (8.5*)
This small and unique film made actor David Warner a star. He’s more lovable here than as Evil Incarnate in Time Bandits, or the evil computer program in Tron, as he plays Morgan, a zany but lovable psychotic who’s obsessed with giant apes, Communism, and ex-wife Vanessa Redgrave. However she’s moving on and about to get re-married, sending Morgan on a chest-thumping binge of jealous insanity. Director Reisz has made an original comedy that reminds me of the Charles Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine, Being John Malkovich) comedies. Uneven, but so original they remain in your memory. One of the last black-and-white classics as well.
Friday, March 20, 2009
This was the second film version of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Mr. Ripley, the first being Rene Clement’s 1961 French film Purple Noon. In this more sinister version from director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), ‘frat boy’ Tom Ripley is played by Matt Damon, going out of character. Tom is in Europe with his childhood friend Jude Law, trying to earn money from Law’s father back in the states if he can convince Law to give up his playboy ways and come back home and do something productive. Ripley has no money and is dependent on this bonus, until then he’s living off of his friend, hence his dilemna. He also finds himself falling for Law's girlfriend, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Philip Seymour Hoffman adds a lot to this version as Law’s friend Freddie. There are some unforeseen plot twists I can’t mention – but this version changes the story a little, and is a more menacing and disarming version. Fans of the book or crime and suspense films should watch both filmed versions, perhaps this version first.
Rene Clement, 1961, France (7.4*)
This French film was the first cinematic version of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Mr. Ripley. The blue-eyed matinee-idol Alain Delon plays Tom Ripley, who is in Europe with a childhood friend, played by Maurice Ronet. Ripley is there at the hire of his friend’s father to convince him to quit his bohemian ways in the Mediterranean and come home. Since Ripley has no money of his own, he’s living off of his friend, hence his dilemna. There are some plot twists that I won’t spoil, but I think I prefer the remake with Matt Damon, which is a more menacing and diabolical version. This version is sunnier and shot like a romantic comedy, I’m sure to add to the disarming and shocking nature of the crime, but I sometimes feel like I'm on vacation. Fans of the book should watch both films, perhaps the remake first, then the earlier version.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Mostly in English, with some subtitles.
There’s a very unique L.A. band called Dengue (‘din-gay’) Fever, whom you might have heard on NPR. They play a unique sixties-based 'L.A. filtered' Cambodian rock, which they say was derived from surf music, but you couldn’t tell from what Dengue Fever puts out, it sounds closer to psychedelic rock to me, with some almost Garcia-like guitar. The Holtzman brothers who formed the band hired a strong-voiced Cambodian singer, Chhom Nimol, who was famous there before immigrating to the U.S. Their music is actually covers of famous Cambodian rock singers, who, due to the massacres committed by the Kymer Rouge regime, sadly did not survive that turbulent era. Along with Nimol, they are keeping this music alive in the world, and in this film, they take the music back to its people.
Director Pirozzi has filmed an engrossing documentary of Dengue Fever as they travel to Cambodia for the first time to perform what is essentially that culture’s modern music, and for singer Nimol, it’s a homecoming after five years absence. Pirozzi often shows the band’s performances from a close and wide-angle view (see photo), making the viewer feel that they are seeing the music live themselves, sometimes from onstage, sometimes as part of the crowd.
Rather than concentrate on just the band, Pirozzi also shows many wonderful images of Cambodia and its people, successfully using a montage effect at times, like traveling is shown in old b&w classic films. Since the entire country seems to travel on motor scooters, a hand-held camera is often used from a scooter in the middle of the traffic so we get a feeling of how chaotic the streets are there, yet everyone seems safe enough that no one wears helmets, not even entire families of 4-5 people on one scooter. The band was lucky enough to be there during the Water Festival, celebrating the end of monsoon season when the Mekong River actually changes direction, so we get to see what looks like their Mardi Gras, as thousands pour into Phnom Penh from the countryside for a festival of fireworks, music, water sports, and food.
Pirozzi includes encounters with local Cambodian music masters, and we see some of the effort being made with young people to keep this culture alive, which barely survived the war years and in some cases has a lone surviving instrumentalist. The Cambodian people appear very outgoing and friendly, a friend of mine who lived in Thailand said as much. Director Pirozzi has created a wonderful film of cross-cultural meetings that created lasting impressions and immediate friendships.
My only complaint with this film is that at 65 minutes, it’s about half an hour too short, so it feels 'tv length'. Thankfully, Pirozzi added about another 45 minutes of short films to the dvd so viewers won’t be disappointed. In fact, one song, “1000 Tears of a Tarantula”, is a wonderful jazz excursion that blends the best of both American and Cambodian music into one ethereal musical journey – this is the best music on the dvd, and should have been included in the film. If you like the music, there’s an excellent soundtrack to the film on CD released as part of the dvd package. We need more music films this rare, stories that show good music, a joyous cultural exchange, and a window into a society that’s been overlooked far too long by the rest of the world.
Here’s the website for the film: Sleepwalking Through the Mekong
For artwork: Dengue Fever Promo Art
To be released in April 09
Sunday, March 15, 2009
This is an amazing documentary that is not like any other because the artist Andy Goldsworthy is so unique. It's slow to get started but once you see how and why he does what he does it all makes intuitive sense. Its all about time and the ephemeral nature of living things. He uses natural media he finds in nature, rarely planning anything in advance. Only his rock sculptures last longer than the day he makes them. Most are temporary: ice sculptures that glow then melt in the sunlight, leaf 'snakes' held with thorns that he sends down a stream, or autumn leaves arranged from dark to light creating an artificial hole. He sometimes build 'rock piles like people use to mark trails worldwide', but they're big egg-shaped and carefully done with no mortar, yet they hold together as if made to stand in this shape like silent sentinels. He has designed a permanent wall in a sculpture garden, but let professional “wallers” build that. You don't have to be an artist to appreciate this movie. It also has several short films as a bonus. Goldsworthy has done so much of this that a film of all his outdoor artwork could actually last weeks! Inspiring...
Saturday, March 14, 2009
Tony Gatliff, 1997, Romania (8.2*)
Now, when have you ever seen a film that shows the passionate lifestyle of gypsies, and not just the gypsy catfight in From Russia With Love? We finally have one, and it full of music, drinking, dancing, and passion. A young Parisian is seen walking in the beginning, and it turns out that he’s a gypsy descendent, and is in Romania searching for the singer of a song that his father loved to listen to while dying. He finds a great drunken musician named Izidor, who takes him under his wing, and begins to teach him the language, so he won’t be a “gadjo”, or outsider. He also meets the seductive beauty played by Rona Hartner, whose dancing, singing, and eroticism steal the film. Hartner, who also records music cds and does paintings, won two film festival awards for Best Actress for this film. Down a star for some unnecessary violence. Winner of 9 international awards.
Awards: Gadjo Dilo Awards
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Wong Kar-Wai, 1994, China (8.3*)
Redux Version 2008
This film is a work of art. Director Wong Kar-Wai never films a straight narrative story, but makes cinematic art: visually stunning, lyrical, a visual statement about time and memory, yet done with the seasons cycling around as if to imply all of life is circular. In a way, this is like a Chinese spaghetti western, about a man who hires swordsmen for contract killings. One can actually see visual homage to Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, with blurred action images and extreme closeups, and also Antonioni's Red Desert, with long slow tributes to abstract beauty in nature. Wong Kar Wai has never been one to disappoint me, even if the story is a little slow, the visuals are enough to keep me riveted, such as in Fallen Angels, the sequel to Chungking Express.
This is a poetic, haunting film, I'm glad that Wong recut it and made it a little more woven together, even as it is, it's free flowing like "the river of time", and even the narrative, usually boring, adds some poetry of its own. (Not sure about the addition of the Yo-Yo Ma score though, the music is actually distracting). I can't get one thought out of my mind, "a man's worst enemy is his memory", and since part of this film uses the plot device of a wine that makes one forget, it's a painful point that one cannot escape, as a character says "the more you try to forget, the more you remember".
This is a great cast, the last names reading like a haiku: Chueng, Leung, Lin, Lau, Leung, Cheung, Young, Chou, Cheung. There's even two Tony Leungs (Ka Fai and Chiu Wai for you real fans! ..also Maggie Cheung, thankfully). If you're not a Wong Kar Wai fan, start with Chungking and Angels, then In the Mood for Love - these films have a breathtaking beauty thanks to the cinematography of Christopher Doyle, who also works with Zhang Yimou.
Monday, March 9, 2009
I thought it my duty to warn people of some films to avoid. Here's a recent batch of forgettable wastes of time.
The Ninth Gate (Polanski, 2003?) - Occult garbage about rare books about the devil (who knew he was an artist to boot? I think his pseudonym was "Rockwell"!) with Johnny Depp and Frank Langella both wasted; Rosemary's Baby this isn't, awful it is. 3*
Untraceable (Gregory Hoblit, 08) - Sadistic internet killer plays with the police (Diane Lane, Colin Hanks, Tom's son) and the public; just an excuse for gory murders, not well done at that. 3*
Breach - true story of FBI mole/spy Robert Hansson should have been better with Chris Cooper in the lead; a numbing bore as most spies are boring anyway, which this shows. Watch The Good Shepherd instead (DeNiro directed Matt Damon). 4*
Tipping the Velvet (Geoffrey Sax, 02) - sensational BBC mini-series about male impersonators in London with lots of R rated Lesbian scenes, and even with Diana Rigg's daughter (Rachel Sterling?) in the lead, it's overly sentimental and over the top. Only for the prurient. 4*
Keeping the Faith (Edward Norton, 2000) - comedic fluff with Ed Norton (directing also), Ben Stiller, and Jenna Gelfman torn between a rabbi (Stiller) and a priest (Norton). Yep, it's a stretch, not funny, and you keep waiting for something interesting to happen. 4*
My Super Ex-Girlfriend (Ivan Reitman) - with a big director and Uma Thurman, you'd expect more from this, but it's not funny nor exciting in the least. super ex-bitch is more like it - a yawner. 3*
Le Professional (George Lautner, 81, France) - terribly lit and overexposed movie, you can see double shadows on the walls in every interior scene, distracts from the boring hit man story, which also has some awful music. Belmondo deserves better. 2*
Saturday, March 7, 2009
This Marx Brothers gem features probably their most famous scene: the stateroom on the ocean liner that is a phone booth to begin with (Groucho’s line) and they cram about 15 people in, from stowaways to maids to waiters, who fall out when Margaret Dumont (yes, she's on hand, thankfully) opens the door. However, like kissing scenes in your Saturday westerns growing up (when kids would actually boo in the theater!), this has some lengthy and pointless musical numbers to wait out before the comedic pace returns. Admitted that Chico had a humorous style on the piano and did his numbers in one take, but Harpo on harp is always tedious, and this also has some operetta-like songs and dances that do nothing for the Marx style except slow it down. In the better Duck Soup, the musical numbers were zany and made sense to the plot, “Hooray for Captain Spalding” was actually nominated for an Oscar. Still, one of their best in the comedy parts.
Quote: “That’s the sanity clause” – “You can’t a-foola me, there ain’t no sanity clause!”
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Jason Martin, 2008 (7*)
Remember the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys, Mike, Kevin and Bill? Well, they're back as Rifftrax! This collection that I saw is short films: old public service, industrial, and elementary school films - of course, with acerbic commentary from Rifftrax. Some of this stuff was gut-busting funny, especially the safety films, Down and Out, and Shake Hands With Danger, the latter featuring animated Riffers 'in the studio' during the film.
Down and Out is a safety film, about a guy in an empty basement, empty except for one item of danger, like a bolt or piece of chalk on the floor, and the intrepid stuntman would manage to step on that item and go down. After falling over a 3-step stair for the third time, one of the Rifftrax guys says "Don't go near the stairs - the stairs are satan!" Shake Hands With Danger, made by Caterpiller, shows some pretty dumb work stuff (lets get a handful of grease and stick it in the bulldozer joint) and actually lists a cast of 8-10 real stuntmen! Now we know where all that corporate wealth went: industrial films.
Drugs are Like That compares all sorts of stuff to drugs, like a baby's pacifier! Rifftrax said, "Yep - drugs are also like totally safe things that aren't addictive!" This is definitely something different you might want to check out with some friends and a six-pack. Like all comedy, some will have you laughing out loud, some aren't so funny - but that's comedy.
Quote: Drugs are also like ball peen hammers and fondue.
Monday, March 2, 2009
Based on a true story from the 50’s of East German swimmer Harry Melchior who defected to West Germany then enlisted the aid of an odd assortment of diggers to see if they could dig a 145-meter tunnel to the east to help their relatives also escape to the west. This is a riveting film, if lengthy (nearly 3 hrs), that manages to maintain its tension throughout, and is a better escape film than the obviously Hollywooden Great Escape, and without any big stars as well. Mixing dark color with some grainy black & white sections, director Ricther manages to maintain a near documentary feel in a story that should have been told decades ago. Reminiscent of the Leon Uris novel Mila 18, about trapped Jews tunneling out of the Warsaw ghetto.