Thursday, October 15, 2009

In Bruges

Martin McDonagh, 2008 (9.1*)
This is a thoroughly enjoyable and creative black comedy, about two hit men hiding out in Bruges, Belgium, the best preserved medieval city in Europe. Rookie director Martin McDonagh got the idea for this film while visiting the city once, and the two characters represent his own split feelings about the town: beautiful and historic on one hand, then boring when that becomes the everyday routine. In two terrific performances, Brendan Gleeson is the older, wiser hit man who enjoys touring the historic town, while Colin Farrell, new to the profession, is bored, anxious, and needs more excitement, more booze, more anything.

The pair quickly discover a film being shot and befriend both a dwarf actor, and a crew member, the sensual Clémence Poésy, who offers Farrell just the escape he needs. The film escalates into violence, especially after boss Ralph Fiennes shows up, but is a dark comedy until then. It's really a film noir with some humor, and lots of swearing. The supporting cast from the hotel owner (Thekla Reuten) to a rude Canadian (Zeljko Ivanek, Emmy-winner for Damages) are all excellent.

The film has some artistic and even surreal moments, magically filmed. When you consider all the elements involved: a town as co-star, a dwarf in a surrealist film, drug-dealing con-artists, a hit on a priest, a kid-loving mobster - this turns out to be quite a unique script from McDonagh. Farrell won the Golden Globe for actor in a comedy (I think his most versatile performance to date, tho' Home at the End of the World was probably more difficult), and Gleeson (brilliant!) was nominated, as their onscreen chemistry was hilarious. Gleeson's performance is actually the more polished and professional, he's done this often. McDonagh's Oscar-nominated screenplay won several international awards, including the BAFTA®, for which the movie was nominated for Best British film.

Be sure to watch all the bonus shorts on the dvd, especially one with all the F-word outtakes from the whole movie, there's certainly over a hundred!

Update: Brendan Gleeson just won an Emmy in Sept 09 for actor in a tv film or miniseries, for "Into the Storm"


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Jodhaa Akbar

Ashutosh Gowariker, India, 2007 (8.1*)
Update: this just won 11 International Indian Film Awards, 2nd most ever, including picture, director, music, costumes, editing; it's now won 39 awards worldwide (link to its page at Wikipedia)

This has to be India’s Gone with the Wind (only better), an epic 16th century historical tale with beautifully ornate palaces, jewels, costumes – it even effectively mixes in some haunting and entrancing musical numbers (but not many). My favorites were a wedding night song and dance performed by whirling dervishes of the Sufi sect (trance inspiring!), and a beautiful romantic ballad from the second half when the lovers are alone (sensual yet very understated). Some of the dances have camera shots from overhead like a Busby Berkeley musical (only with 300 dancers instead of 30), performing ornate moving mandalas in bright colored costumes.

The stars are both very beautiful, the role of the Muslim Mughal Emperor is Hrithik Roshan (a strong, muscled warrior-king and swordsman), and his reluctant (and Hindu) Rajput Queen named Jodhaa is the breath-taking beauty Aishwarya Rai, in her finest here as a well-jeweled queen; this cements the argument that she is the most beautiful woman in the world (see photo), and she can also sing and dance (see Bride and Prejudice)

The story is multi-cultural and about the religious freedom and unification attempted by Akbar (a title of honor), who allows his Queen to build a Hindu shrine to Kali and maintain her religion. The story is fictionalized regarding the romance, turning it into a fairy tale love story, but the history is generally accurate about the unification of Hindustan. About an hour too long at 3.5 hours (Netflix inaccurately shows 450 minutes, or 7.5 hrs, yikes), with the better drama all in the second half (the first seems rushed and sketchy), and some of the martial arts are a bit slow and clumsy, rated down for these criticisms.

Note: Indian history buffs say that Jodhaa eventually converted to Islam to be totally acceptable to Akbar’s subjects.


Friday, October 9, 2009

I Am Cuba

a.k.a. Soy Cuba
Mikhail Kalatozov, USSR-Cuba, 1964, bw (8.8*)

This is a remarkable film about fifties Cuba that is only now getting its proper recognition due to western prejudice. It's admittedly socialist propaganda, but is so well photographed and tells such a touching story that one can hardly disagree with its message. The film begins with a quote from Columbus' diary about "the most beautiful paradise on earth", then shows sugar cane farmers at work. Soon, the landowners tell farmers they've sold the land to United Fruit Company, and they all must abandon their homes and crops with no compensation. This leads to demonstrations in cities, and the fascist police kill many, added to the growing resentment of big business and corrupt government. Many of the now jobless farmers join a growing army in the mountains - with machetes as their only weapons until they can capture rifles in battles. When the government starts bombing the mountains and more civilian homes, they add to the ranks of the growing guerrilla movement.

Everyone knows the story, but few have seen this film, which captures the point of view of the innocent victims of capitalists, who were so short-sighted that to save just a few dollars of compensation for those displaced created a nation of communists and lost a valuable market for U.S. trade as a result, costing them billions over time - a just reward for those who think with their wealth first and their hearts last.

This Russian film has narration written by the famous poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and was brilliantly directed by Mikhail Kalatozov. In 1996, it was voted into the archive films by the National Society of Film Critics, and nominated for an Independent Spirit award that year also, only 32 years after its release! Even Martin Scorsese has screened this film to talk about the cinematography and creative direction, which uses a lot of wide-angle, camera motion, and upward perspective to include the mountains and sky. Told in four major vignettes and running 141 minutes, the film does lack a consistent story line and will remain an "art" film, studied by professionals and students of film, but will always have limited appeal in a nation controlled by large corporations, as it exposes their guilt in their disdain for the laborers who do most of the work in every culture.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Susanne Bier, 2004, Denmark (8.2*)
Sundance Audience Award

Brothers (aka Brødre) is another gripping and emotionally charged drama from master Danish director Susanne Bier (see After the Wedding here), winner of 13 international awards. This film deals with the effect of war on civilian life, as the film begins as one brother, Michael, a major in the army, is about to embark for duty in Afghanistan. We see a family dinner with his wife and two girls, his parents, and midway through his alcoholic brother Jannik shows up, who is an ex-convict and the black sheep of the family, who hangs in bars and shuns real jobs.

However everything changes after the brother leaves, and Jannik changes and becomes a good friend to the family, especially playful with the little girls. (Describing much more would spoil the plot, which has some turns). The stunningly beautiful Connie Nielsen (photo rt) is terrific as the wife, and won five international awards, including one as part of the winning ensemble, which is excellent overall. In a way, this is a Danish Best Years of Our Lives, updated for a modern world where small wars are fought but undeclared, raising moral issues for all concerned.

For me, not as artistic or subtle as After the Wedding, but still another worthy volume in Bier's impressive filmography as perhaps the best living female director.
Awards Page at Imdb


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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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