Thursday, May 28, 2009


aka Ugetsu Monogatari
Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953, Japan, bw (9.1*)
This is one of the greatest Japanese cinema classics. Moody, atmospheric, bewitching, you'll be mesmerized by the beautiful visuals and the camera of director Kenji Mizoguchi which seems to always be in motion. The story is about some village peasants in war-torn 16th century Japan. A farmer who also is a potter (Machiko Kyo) for extra income must flee an army with his wares to sell them in a nearby city, accompanied by another couple from the village. This begins an excursion into ambition, desire, and delusion with unforeseen consequences.

The story's plot, which has some unexpected twists, is hard to describe without spoilers, so suffice to say that this is perhaps the best Japanese film after Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. Many consider Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff his masterpiece, but I much prefer this one. It reminds me of the German expressionists, like Murnau and Lang, with perhaps less surrealism and a more modern camera technique, which appears to be often on a moving crane. Fans of classic cinema should love this one, which is a masterwork of modern fables. Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

John Adams

Tom Hooper, 2008, 7 hrs (8.4*)
Emmy for Best Miniseries
This was my Memorial weekend film selection due to the historical tie-in, and I expected a boring seven-hour history lesson about our first VP and second president. I was pleasantly surprised by some action in the early episodes, and an absolutely incredible performance by Emmy-winner Paul Giamatti in the title role, his best performance by far. It begins with a literal bang with the Boston Massacre, when lawyer Adams defends the British, and also includes a well-done naval battle in part 2. This was produced by Tom Hanks, and won five major Emmys and a record 13 overall, so it's not a low-budget PBS series - it's a high budget HBO series!

Laura Linney, also an Emmy-winner, is good as wife Abigail, but she speaks as if giving speeches or elocution lessons, so I'm not sure about her Emmy. Veteran character actor Tom Wilkinson (Emmy-winner for supporting), always impeccable, was a standout as Benjamin Franklin at the royal palace in France; some of the locations in Europe are stunning. The series starts strong and gets a little slow in the Presidential years with some family dinners, and a cotton-chewing David Morse didn't do much as George Washington. However, to cover decades in a founding fathers life still must be done with only important episodes in that life, so that keeps the series moving. A must for history buffs, maybe too slow for the action-adventure, shoot em up crowd.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Man on Wire

James Marsh, 2008 (7.8*)
Best Documentary (AA)

[Note: hard to be a spoiler here, it's on the dvd cover and the film description]

This was an amazing event in 1974, and James Marsh has done an admirable job in assembling the story from the present day to re-create a documentary looking backwards. He's used the technique of interspersing interviews with the participants with documentary footage, similar to the style Warren Beatty perfected in Reds, and taken to its extreme by Ken Burns, best used in his Civil War, Jazz, and Baseball series for PBS.

Philippe Petit is a French tightrope walker who liked to dazzle crowds and thumb his nose at authority by doing things like walking between the two towers of Notre Dame. He has to prepare these events at night when no one can see, then perform in the daylight to the delight of people below, then go to his expected arrest and public scolding. When he saw the plans of the World Trade Center, he became obsessed with walking between them when they were near completion.

Marsh carefully re-constructs the story leading up to the final event and tries to add as much drama as possible, but such an event is hardly earth-shattering in light of the events of 9/11, which oddly are never mentioned here. This is more in the realm of Cirque de Soleil, which is dazzling and athletic entertainment, this performance carrying a bit more risk of death than usual but as Philippe begins the film being interviewed from the present day, we already know the outcome from the beginning. However, this is a well-crafted film by Marsh and won the Oscar® for best documentary of 2008.


Saturday, May 23, 2009


a.k.a. Chinaman
Henrik Rueben Genz, Denmark, 2005 (8.6*)
This is a small Chinese-Danish film, yet manages to tell quite a poignant tale about loneliness and affection. An everyman-type plumber named Keld, played by Bjarne Henriksen, finds that his wife of 25 years (Charlotte Fich) has decided that their marriage 'is a funeral', and moves out. Keld remains optimistic, hoping its just a separation, and he finds some solace in a daily routine of eating at the neighborhood Chinese grill.

There, he is befriended the gregarious and affable owner, who has a plumbing problem that Keld can fix. He then offers Keld a small sum to wed his sister, the ravishing Vivian Wu, who is visiting from China and will have to return otherwise, where 'single women have it tough'. This is an unpretentious story about friendships in a lonely urban setting, as well as a cross-cultural statement about the universality of human emotion. Those who liked Peter Weir's Green Card and Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor should also enjoy this touching film.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Shallow Grave

Danny Boyle, 1994 (7.6*)
After best picture Slumdog Millionaire, I decided to check out the few Danny Boyle films I hadn't seen, really only Shallow Grave, an early one. I expected some sort of crude cheap-looking B movie, like Bogdanovich's early Targets, which was cheesy and cheap in spite of a retiring Boris Karloff (playing "Orkov"). Instead what Grave showed me was a clever tongue-in-cheek parody of the best of Hitchcock's homicidal thrillers.

The film begins with three snobbish flatmates interviewing potential roommates for the fourth, and empty, bedroom. Ewan McGregor is perhaps the most obnoxious, Christopher Eccleston the more bookish and reserved (yet arrogant all the same), while Kerry Fox is slyly seductive while playing along with both guys. Due to her persuasion, they take in a mysterious writer, and find that he has a heavy suitcase full of quite a surprise.

Without any spoilers, let's just say at that point the games begin, and being a Boyle film, this includes homicides, bodies, police, and general mayhem disguised as urban normality, as the probable state of decay of modern life. I loved the comedic undertones to what is really a suspense film, Boyle's attitude here keeps the movie enjoyable on either level. Nothing deep here, but good entertainment, not to be missed by Boyle fans.


Thursday, May 21, 2009


Gus Van Sant, 2008 (8.9*)
Terrific and inspiring film from Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy) about politician Harvey Milk, brilliantly played here by Sean Penn, who really captures his mannerisms. I was in SF when all this happened, and I was appalled by U.S. voters. The U.S. Constitution protects the state from religious domination - religions have freedom but cannot interfere in government, and vice versa; just the way you want it. Democracy does not give a majority the right to suppress the rights of minorities; we set up our system to protect all individuals in spite of their beliefs. The Webster definition of bigotry begins "opposing someone primarily on the basis of religion". Anita Bryant is featured in Milk in documentary footage, and seems to preach the religion of bigotry and hatred (and sounds eerily like the Nazis). Milk realized all this and fought for gay rights as an American Constitutionalist, so he was either going to win or American was going to lose its foundation.

First an aimless corporate worker in New York when gay men were forced into the closet, he moves to San Francisco, looking for a more open attitude. There he becomes a storeowner and facing daily bigotry even there, decides to try to change at least the city government, so that at least one city would be safe for homosexuals. We see him start his political trail by gaining the support of other minority groups, and eventually becomes the first openly gay politician to get elected, to a city council seat.

This is based on the Oscar winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, but Van Sant makes it into a mythic fable of freedom and American democratic folklore, as it should be. Much of this is due to the cast: Sean Penn won an Oscar® for best actor. Oscar®-nominee Josh Brolin as Dan White, was terrifying as the voice of middle-class morality, who resort to guns and violence when they fail to get their way. Milk has the ring of a Capra film, with normal citizens taking steps to make government listen to their rights. Best of all: it’s a true story. Everyone who believes in freedom or just great films should see this one!


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mrs. Miniver

William Wyler, 1942, bw (8.2*)
Best Picture (AA)
This was the first William Wyler film to win best picture after a slew of nominations. He would eventually be nominated for director 13 times, with 12 best picture nominations, by far the most for one director. Mrs. Miniver is a beautiful woman, played by Greer Garson, in a beautiful film about a small coastal town in England at the onset of World War II. Garson won best actress for this, the middle of five straight nominations. She was only 33 but played the mother of a now adult son, and became the top box-office draw because of this role.

We see the pastoral village setting in the beginning as the town is getting ready for an annual garden festival with awards eagerly sought by the locals for the best rose, the best crysanthemum, and down the line. When the war starts, we see how the entire town responds. Mr. Miniver is played by Oscar®-nominee (actor) Walter Pidgeon in perhaps his finest performance, and he reeks gentility and proper British mettle in doing the right thing for king and country, so he becomes a member of the civilian guard, eventually taking his boat to Dunkirk. His son, now 18, joins the army and pilot school, as England is under attack from the air almost daily. His young bride, Teresa Wright, won a best supporting Oscar®. We get to see the early part of the war from the point of view of civilians, and the effect on them, we don’t spend time with soldiers at the battle front. That seems to be Wyler’s point as a filmmaker: war affects innocent civilians as well as brave soldiers – all are changed, no one can simply hope for it all to pass.

Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, the Best Picture of 1946, did this brilliantly and cynically, and remains my favorite anti-war film. Mrs. Miniver was filmed as the war began, and showed a pro-war propagandistic tone, as a scene with a downed German pilot made it clear that they were bent on destruction and had to be met with the same kind of determined force in return. Seven Oscars®, including actress, director, screenplay, and picture.


Monday, May 18, 2009

Paths of Glory

Stanley Kubrick, 1957, bw (8.8*)
This early film from master director Stanley Kubrick is one of the few classics of the anti-war war film genre. The story is about World War I, when the armies were locked in trench warfare. This was really a stalemate, as neither line could advance in the face of heavy machine gun emplacements and the defensive positions of the other side. This didn’t prevent the commanders from trying, wanting to show some progress or at least an effort.

Kirk Douglas, in one of his career-defining roles as a French captain, is to lead a charge up and out of the trenches, into no man’s land. He does so but his batallion is driven back by heavy fire and massive losses, eventually retreating back to their trench. This is seen as cowardice by the higher command, so they decide to pick three men at random from the unit and try them for cowardice. Adophe Menjou is superb as one of the superiors battling with Douglas. This is a gut-wrenching examination of the motivations and reactions of career officers in the face of the reality of war. The battle sequence is brilliantly shot, putting the viewer into the action and moving along with the soldiers. This film put Kubrick on the radar as a serious director of important and artistic works that make a statement about mankind.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Little Princess

Alfonso Cuarón, 1995 (9*)
Sometimes you get one of those little unexpected gems of a movie, and you ask where the heck did that come from? This wonderful and magical children’s film came from a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett and has the look and feel of a 50’s Disney film that adapted a Victorian novel. The story is a about a little girl named Sara, whose dad tells her all little girls are princesses. They move from India to New York, so she can attend the same private school for girls her late mom once attended, as her father goes off to World War I for England. Eleanor Bron is perfect as the strict headmistress of the school, Miss Mitlin, not allowing the girls to speak a word during meals or really enjoy any portion of childhood. Much of this movie works because the kids are all excellent actors, especially newcomer Liesel Matthews as Sara.

The story evolves into one of class barriers, when Sara befriends an African-American servant and they later become best friends. She also becomes friends with the chubby girl with glasses that's shunned by everyone including the teachers. Sara dazzles the girls with fairy tales of her own invention and is able to transport herself and those around her into a more magical place, in spite of Miss Mitlin ire. The special effects of the fairy tale of an Indian princess and Rama coming to her rescue have a beautiful storybook feel, as they should, coming from the mind of a young girl, and in one brilliant sequence Rama’s arrows emit a yellow gas as we are shown Sara’s father in the trenches fighting poisonous gas himself.

There are a couple of plot twists that I won’t reveal, only to say that the story seems to evolve perfectly into the final conclusion, and you find yourself wishing there was a sequel. This is one of the best serious children’s stories, made better by excellent music from Patrick Doyle, which always seemed to be perfect but without distracing. Director Alfonso Cuarón showed a nice sensitivity to the literary touch here, and later made some big films: Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Children of Men; all of these are worth seeing, yet they're all so different as well.

They need to make more intelligent family films like this, it’s becoming a rarity in the age of instant musical divas, characters ready for simultaneous video game and toy spinoffs, when the major media companies don’t seem to be interested in just good films, they want a blockbuster enterprise. Oscar® nominations for cinematography and art direction.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Sydney Pollack, 1969 (7.8*)
This is a gut-wrenching indictment of the exploitation of everyday people during the Depression, in the name of entertainment. Does this sound familiar? Using the lure of a contest prize of $1,000 or more, venues were able to get average folks to dance non-stop (except for short restroom breaks) for days, with the last couple standing getting the prize, the rest go home empty. In this movie, emcee Gig Young, in an Oscar®-winning supporting role, shows the limits the emcees went to in order to attract fans and make the contest more interesting.

Jane Fonda burst through with her first important dramatic role here, gaining an Oscar®-nomination as the jaded dance partner to Michael Sarrazin, who is new to marathons and Fonda’s despair. Red Buttons and Bonnie Bedelia (Oscar®-nominated) are another persevering dance couple, Buttons playing a marathon vet who gives his fatherly advice to keep others going. This is a bleak but honest look at hopeless people living in desperation, grasping for the last brass ring before leaving the circus.


Friday, May 15, 2009

The Earrings of Madame De

Max Ophüls, France, 1953, bw (8.4*)
This is a gorgeously crafted and beautifully filmed truffle about what else: a romantic triangle among the French aristocracy. The Madame De (we aren’t given her last name to protect the guilty) begins the film rummaging through some jewelry, and finds some earrings to sell. We don’t know why, but we see the innovative direction from Max Ophuls right away as the camera follows her eye, the wonderful actress Danielle Darrieux. She is perfect for this part, always appearing elegant but letting her body language do her acting. I would compare her to Garbo, but the Swedish goddess didn’t have the acting skills of Darrieux. (Don't be misled by the dvd cover, Darrieux is much more beautiful than the cheesy artwork)
After she sells the earrings, a wedding gift from her husband, the Count who’s also The General, wonderfully played by Charles Boyer in perhaps his finest performance, she set a chain of events in motion that seem to force her life to spiral into a web of deceit to everyone in her sphere. She meets an Italian diplomat, played by an appealing Vittorio de Sica, taking a break from directing classics like The Bicycle Thief (1949), and they start a whirlwind flirtation, seemingly blessed by her jovial husband. Here the camera of Ophuls really shines, as we track them dancing through three rooms of opulent French artifacts. The story becomes typically entangled, as only the French seem to encourage, yet the stars of this film are really the Oscar®-winning costumes, the incredible art direction, and the innovative direction of Ophuls, which has the camera in constant motion so the pace never lets up.

Ophuls' masterpiece, as well as the best of a certain type of costume romance that reeks of a lifestyle of aristocratic opulence with little substance or heart. These people seem to possess each other like jewelry, which can be given away, sold, or even re-bought. Madame’s earrings become the perfect metaphor for her affairs of the heart. Before this film, cameras just didn't move this way; film buffs and artists will be entranced by just the camera movement alone.

Also see our review of his triptych of De Maupassent stories, Le Plaisir


Dead Ringers

David Cronenberg, 1988 (6.8*)
This is an acting tour-de-force by Jeremy Irons, who plays twin gynecologists, one of whom has a decidely warped sense of reality. The brothers don’t let people know they are twins, which allows them to switch off with a new lover, played by Genevieve Bujold. It also lets them play around in a world of their own fantasy creation for the most part. Somewhere down road to bliss one brother takes a definitely wrong turn, and ends up somewhere between Salvador Dali and Marquis de Sade. Irons makes both brothers just slightly different, and turns in not only a career best performance but one of the best of all-time.

Puzzlingly, Irons wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar®; a group of actresses led a write-in campaign in protest but the Academy refused to accept the ballots. When he won the Oscar® for his next, and definitely inferior performance in Reversal of Fortune, he said “I have David Cronenberg to thank for this, and some of you out there know what I mean.” Like most Cronenberg films, this one is very disturbing and has some gore, which detracts from an otherwise interesting psychological study, but still worth seeing for the Irons performance alone.


Thursday, May 14, 2009


Ron Howard, 2008 (7.6*)
Reliable director Ron Howard tackles the anti-climax to this pivotal point in American history, as Richard Nixon was the first U.S. president to resign, forced to by impending impeachment by Congress for his part in the authorization and cover-up of crimes that flowed like a river after the Watergate break-in, not just that incident but a whole litany of other civil rights abuses as well. After his pardon by President-apointee Gerald Ford, the entire nation felt robbed of a criminal trial or an admission of guilt and an apology from Nixon.

Australian entertainer and talk-show host David Frost seized an opportunity to outbid other networks with Nixon’s agent for the rigtht to inverview him "live, on tape". Nixon was a Hollywood-style individual with a penchant for the big-time for the big fee, so a lot of the movie is about the financial wranglings made in order to set up the interviews, then we see a re-enactment of the actual interviews, conducted in a mundane, middle-class Republican businessman’s house.

Perhaps it’s the locale, or the staleness of this as a news event as many of us saw this when it happened in reality, but this film lacks the punch and intensity of other Howard docudramas like Apollo 13, Cinderella Man, and A Beautiful Mind. Frank Langella is brilliant as Nixon, deserved the Oscar for capturing his demeanor and style without actually imitating him. Michael Sheen (The Queen) is barely adequate as Frost, giving the character no personality whatsoever, which may have been accurate but hardly dramatic. Down a star for the overall lack of intensity as Nixon is treated more like a kindly, aging grandad, though a vital part of history that should be witnessed as a serving President circumvented the U.S. Constitution at every opportunity. Screenplay author Peter Jordan (an Oscar®-winner for The Queen), but for Howard, a competent but not outstanding volume in his overall filmography.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Visitor

Tom McCarthy, 2008 (9.1*)
This is an excellent little indie film, with some powerful performances by the entire cast. Richard Jenkins, an overlooked character actor (he played the dead father’s ghost on Six Feet Under), received a well-deserved Oscar® nomination for best actor for his best career role. Director Tom McCarthy (Central Station) has written an intelligent and emotionally gripping screenplay about the plight of immigrants here, especially Muslims, affected severely by the backlash created by the 9/11 disaster. The story also shows how people can still mange to communicate and understand each other in spite of different backgrounds, in this case with music as the common link.

Jenkins plays a Connecticut professor, Walter, in New York to give a paper, and when he arrives at his seldom-used apartment, a young couple is living there: a man, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman in his first role), a djembe (hand-made west African goatskin drum) drummer from Syria, and his girlfriend, a street vending jewelry-maker from Senegal. Walter befriends the couple, begins drumming with Tarek’s tutelage, and later tries to help Tarek with his immigration status. The actress Hiam Abbass (Munich) is especially touching as Tarek’s mother, who shows up from Michigan to help her son, and grudgingly becomes friends with Walter. This is well-done all around, not sentimental or mundane in the least, and uses drumming as a metaphor for the universality of the heartbeat and a method of non-verbal communication between different cultures.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Control Room

Jehane Nouhaim, 2004 (8.9*)
This is an excellent documentary, obviously shot by director Jehane Houhaim with a modest budget and crew, but one given a wide degree of access to all concerned. The film attempts to show the coverage of the Iraqi war from both sides of the issue, and expose the bias inherent in all newsmedia. We see more of the Al Jazeera coverage, who broadcasts to 40 million in the Arab world, but we also see the US Army's head media (ie, propaganda) liaison officer and hear the standard US pitch on events (liberate the people, make em safe, etc). We also go into the front lines of the war for at least one harrowing incident.

The filmmakers don't make a judgment but show some indicents that didn't get full coverage here in the US, such as the suspicious targeting of three different journalists outposts with missile attacks, killing three from Middle Eastern news sources. So much for freedom of the press, as the US said they shouldn't have been in war zone to begin with, preferring to brief the media themselves daily with the US version of events.

This is an important work for both sides to see, no matter what your own political stance, this is simply good documentary filmmaking and concerning an important era in history. As a BBC journalist states, "all media coverage is biased, they slant the news the way their audience wants to hear it. You listen to Fox for the right-wing, U.S. patriotic view, you watch Al Jazeera to get the opposite view for the Arab world."

As the director of 7-yr old Al Jazeera states, "this war will be a footnote in a few years, no one will still be talking about it, such is the attention span of modern man." Let's hope that films and other media keep it as alive in public consciousness as they have WW2.
[In English, with some subtitles]


Monday, May 11, 2009

Drugstore Cowboy

Gus Van Sant, 1989 (9.8*)
[Our 400th review - I was saving a great one]

This is just about the perfect anti-drug film. Matt Dillon, really in his element here as a disaffected youth without any goal in life other than getting high, leads a small group of junkie friends, including girlfriend Kelly Lynch in her best role, in robbing pharmacies in order to get the drugs. They use a number of ruses to pull some robberies, and they’ll take anything within reach, then later swap the stuff they don’t want with other drug users in their network.

This is a sordid and grisly story, but is somehow made hypnotic (the perfect cast helped a lot) by director Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting), in his masterpiece, adapted from an unpublished manuscript that he bought from a convict in prison which recounts his life on the outside as a habitual drug user. This also has some funny dialogue revolving around the everyday delusions and phobias of the characters, such as Dillon’s paranoia about a hat on the bed, his ultimate harbinger of bad tidings. This has the look of a small indie film, yet sends a more powerful jolt than big budget projects. Along with Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2000), the best films about drug abuse ever made.

Quote: Didn’t I always tell ya, never put a hat on the bed?


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Some Like It Hot

Billy Wilder, 1959, bw (8.4*)
A ludicrious premise like this in the hands of anyone short of a master director like Wilder and this classic comedy could have been another forgettable farce, or even a tv show like Bosom Buddies, which obviously borrowed from this. Two musicians, played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, witness a gangland slaying and flee to avoid being the next victims. Naturally, the best place to hide out? An all-female big band, with none other than Marilyn Monroe around to tempt the guys to shed their female impersonations and reveal their macho studliness. They occasionally forget and speak in deep male voices.

In a funny twist, to top off the insanity, the wealthy Joe E. Brown falls for Jack Lemmon as a woman, so we get some great gender-bending jokes about the aggressive male tactics in romance, as well as the film’s hilarious closing line. This is another Wilder gem, and they’re still trying to make a similar film today, as Tootsie and Big Mama and Mrs. Doubtfire all proved. How ironic that gay heartthrob Tony Curtis was both in drag and played the debonair playboy courting Marilyn on the side. This pokes great fun at the superficiality and materialistically driven American romantic ritual.

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, Ace in the Hole, Sabrina, The ApartmentWitness For the Prosecution, The Fortune Cookie.


Saturday, May 9, 2009


Luis Bunuel, 1961, Spain, bw (7.9*)
For those who would like a more normal, non-surrealist intro to the surrealist friend of Dali, Spanish director Luis Bunuel (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), this is a good early film with a nearly straightforward story. A nun named Virigiana, played by Silvia Pinal, gets word that her uncle, played by Bunuel favorite Fernando Rey, is ill and aging, which isn't entirely true. She doesn’t really want to leave the convent just before her consecration but the Mother Superior orders her to go.

There at her uncle’s estate, she realizes the wealth he has and that she can do some good with it after all. She visits the town and invites several of the local homeless beggars to come live at the estate as long as they respect everyone and don’t fight and follow simple rules. The ensuing events test her faith as well as faith in mankind. Rather than an apparently wandering film like Discreet Charm, this story has a cohesive progression to an end, which should delight those who haven’t found Bunuel understandable to this point. He admits in interviews that he rarely has a story in mind, and just largely improvises when the cameras roll. In this film, he apparently had more of a script and perhaps it shows as this is his most critically acclaimed film.


Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

David Fincher, 2008 (7.8*)
I'm usually a fan of David Fincher's films, each one has an element of fantasy, yet is made to seem real. Fight Club had Ed Norton battling his insanity, with friends; The Game found Michael Douglas running from unseen enemies as a birthday present from brother Sean Penn. Only Zodiac attempted to be factual, and that was based on the theory of a journalist. Here Fincher films an F. Scott Fitzgerald fantasy story, thanks to an excellent screenplay by Eric Roth, an Oscar®-winner for the Forrest Gump screenplay. This script is not as sharp or crackling with lines, but does treat its subject with a certain reverent gentility.

Benjamin Button is born on the day World War I ended, and his mother died in childbirth. His dad, taking a look at the infant, who was born old, leaves him on the steps of a nearby house for the elderly, and mama for Benjamin becomes an African-American who works in the house, played by Oscar®-nominee Taraji P. Henson. While growing but remaining old he meets a little girl that becomes his lifetime friend, later played by Cate Blanchett. Even as a short, old-looking child, the role is played by Brad Pitt in an amazing Oscar®-winning makeup job.

We eventually discover along with Benjamin that he's not growing older but younger and he adapts to feeling better daily by taking his first job on a tugboat. Fincher makes both the river journeys of the tugboat and later some shots of Lake Ponchetrain look like the old hand-tinted postcards, so the early parts of the film are steeped in Americana. The later parts chronologically, and how the film actually begins for the viewer, use a plot device of having Julia Ormand read Benjamin's diary to an invalid in a hospital who knew him, so we get Benjamin's story in retrospect and from his own words.

This is a gentle, if lengthy fable, running about 2 hrs, 48 minutes. The length kills the pace a little, but fans of film fables such as Field of Dreams and Big Fish should enjoy this, as well as fans of David Fincher. The cast is excellent and also includes Tilda Swinton. The film received 13 Oscar® nominations, the most for 2008, but lost to Slumdog Millionaire in nearly every major category, a film with admittedly more energy and better pace. Three Oscars® for art direction, visual effects, and makeup.


Monday, May 4, 2009


F.W. Murnau, 1927, silent/bw (9.0*)
This film is #12 on the critics consensus top 1000.

Normally I'm not a fan of silent movies. In complete silence, there seems to be something lacking, throw in a honky tonk piano and I'd just as soon turn the sound down, or even strangle myself (like Dr. Strangelove). That leaves the dvd's that have a music soundtrack added, which makes them a little more palatable. F.W. Murnau's masterpiece Sunrise is such a beautiful movie visually I'm making an exception. In fact, the cinematography of Kari Struss and Charles Rosher won a well-deserved Oscar®. This movie looks like an 18th century painting in motion, and often uses special effect done so well you can't tell they're effects.

The story is almost a distraction, a typical lover's triangle. George O'Brian is a philandering husband to Oscar®-winner Janet Gaynor (lots of arching eyebrows and sorrowful looks in silent films), and his cosmopolitan girlfriend from the city (Margaret Livingston), who is vacationing in the married couples' country resort village. Together they plan the wife's murder so the lovers can be together.

F.W. Murnau's first film in Hollywood brings his European background and influence into full focus. There are some eerie expressionist scenes outdoors, and some near surreal cityscapes as well, as Murnau proves equal to the legendary master Fritz Lang. The story takes a back seat to the cinematic art of Sunrise, and this is a treat for all students of film history. Three Oscars®, the most given the first year, including one only given this one time (for 1927) for Unique and Artistic Film.

Recipient of one of our first World Film Awards, as we started with 15 silent films.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Cider House Rules

Lasse Hallstrom, 1999 (8.5*)
This is my favorite John Irving novel transformation to films, and earned Irving an Oscar® for adapted screenplay. The title refers to a set of rules in a workhouse at an orchard where Tobey McGuire (in an effective dramatic part) goes to work after growing up in a nearby orphanage. Delroy Lindo has a terrific supporting part as one of his co-workers with a past.

Michael Caine, in one of his best roles, won a supporting acting Oscar® as the kind doctor who runs the orphanage. Tobey is in love with a glamorous young Charlize Theron, who brings back memories of a young Grace Kelly, sparkling, refreshing beauty. Swedish Director Lasse Hallstrom usually brings a warm-hearted touch to stories that also have some depth and psychological complexity, and this ranks with his best, which I consider the comedy My Life As a Dog. Two Oscars®


Friday, May 1, 2009


Alexander Payne, 1999 (9.0*)
This was the surprise comedic hit for me in 1999. Reese Witherspoon hit her stride as an agressive high schooler who will do just about anything to get elected class president. She's ambitious and knows how to use her femininity to get what she wants. Matthew Broderick is well-cast as a jealous young teacher who puts up a dim-witted opponent but a popular athlete (Chris Klein) against her. Rather than just another sophmoric high school film however, director Alexander Payne (Sideways) gives this film enough bite to make a dark statement about American politics at the same time that he also makes incisive points about the state of relationships and sexuality. One of the best and most overlooked films of that year.


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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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