Monday, November 30, 2009

Nothing But the Truth

Rod Lurie, 2008 (8.2*)
This is a gripping and timely film that features the finest performance to date by British actress Kate Beckinsale as a Washington journalist who outs a CIA agent in a news story because the U.S. has invaded Venezuela after a failed assassination attempt, which the administration blames on that country. Does this sound familiar - can anyone remember Iraq, erroneously linked to the 9/11 terrorists? Kate is facing a jail term for contempt of court for refusal to reveal her source, based on an 80's law making it illegal to reveal a covert agent's identity, even though she hasn't broken the law, her informant has.

The excellent screenplay by director Lurie is another plus for the film, featuring some unforeseen plot twists. However, Matt Dillon is unfortunately out of his element as the prosecuting attorney here, though Alan Alda turns in an adequate job as Kate's defense attorney. There are excellent points raised here re national security vs. freedom and access to information for the public, a problematic issue in today's complex world, as either side can claim a threat to society, especially to our supposed freedom, which is an illusion at best. In a year with a large number of films worth seeing, this one seemed to escape notice but examines some important issues for all western nations, and is an intellectually rewarding political thriller.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Steven Soderbergh, 2008, two parts (8.0*)
Best Actor, Cannes

Ernesto 'Che' Guevara was a wealthy Argentinian doctor with a wife and five children, who gave up his comfortable life to help bring justice and dignity to the poorest classes in the Americas south of the U.S. If his was a U.S. 'pro corporate capitalist' story, he'd be a national hero here as well, rather than just in the rest of the world.

This bio of Che's guerrilla wars in Cuba and Bolivia is really two different films, but both are based on his diaries (he wrote five books). The first, originally called "The Argentine" is about the Cuban revolution, beginning with Che and Fidel in Mexico, then sailing for Cuba with just 82 men; it ends with the successful overthrow of military dictator Bautista, who fled Havana when it was obvious the rebels had succeeded. The cause was US corporations buying farmland from landowners there, and kicking off poor sharecroppers, who got nothing for their years of service. With 20% nationwide unemployment, many who had nothing else to do joined the guerilla army in the mountains in the east, and the movement steadily grew. This film also splices in media interviews and speeches of Che's at the UN after the revolution's success, all in black and white, while the war history is all in color.

The second, and more depressing half as it ends in failure and death, is 'Guerrilla', about the ill-fated and tiny Bolivian Liberation Army, which never exceeded 37 people, and was just 22 strong when he was finally captured and executed, after being hunted for a year by 5000 (or more) Bolivian army troops and US 'specialists' (meaning military and CIA intelligence personnel). What this film is lacking is showing the popular support in the cities, where over 100,000 were striking in support, as students, teachers, government, energy, and mining workers were all on strike in sympathy. Benecio del Toro gives a remarkable performance in these films, and was justly rewarded with the best actor award at Cannes. Unfortunately, the films fail to give us any other fully realized characters, including Castro himself.

These make a nearly exhaustive biography of Che when added to Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles' excellent film The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), about his travels around So. America on a motorcycle with best friend and fellow doctor Alberto Granada (who later founded the modern hospitals in Cuba). All these films are based on Che's own diaries, so we have an accurate first-person account of the important events of his life. Even though I would personally prefer Gandhi's non-violent approach to political change, I wasn't a doctor watching poor people dying daily from lack of healthcare, money, and food while U.S. corporations made billions in profit without sending a dollar of support, but rather syphoning off the wealth of these nations' natural resources for their own benefit alone. UN global economic experts today still bemoan this policy, enforced through the U.S. control of the Int'l Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, which make multi-billion dollar loans to governments, but often only if they enforce regulations that benefit only U.S. based corporations at the expense of the local citizens. (ie, Africa can export raw peanuts, but is NOT allowed to make the more profitable peanut butter!)

These will basically appeal to war and history buffs, and those with revolutionary sympathies, which pretty much means a tiny western audience. Che said "a true revolutionary has to have a love of humanity, and a desire to see justice and dignity for all - I can't imagine any true revolutionary without these traits". In a century with very few real heroes or anyone who caused political or social change, Che, ranks alongside Gandhi, Mao, and FDR, and will inspire generations of revolutionaries worldwide.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Star Trek

J.J. Abrams, 2008 (8.3*)
a.k.a. Star Trek Zero, Star Trek XI
This was certainly a pleasant surprise for me. In a nutshell, 'this rocks'!
This exciting 'prequel' came as a big surprise, and it has to be what creator Gene Roddenberry intended all along but was always missing: exciting action, believable heroic characters, and despicable villains, in this case a planet-destroying Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana). The cast looks amazingly like young versions of the original tv actors, especially Zachary Quint as Spock, while Chris Pine is adequate as Kirk, and John Cho makes Sulu a real character for once. The others are all better than the original actors as well, but the real attraction is the special effects, finally worthy of a major SF film for the first time in the Trek series.

Since childhood, I've been a fan of good science fiction and fantasy literature, but it took a long time (Kubrick's 2001 in 1968) for films to catch up with the writers to create anything worth seeing. Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed with the original Star Trek tv show, feeling like it was even worse than the intended "western in space". The Star Trek films fared little better, with only The Wrath of Khan being re-watchable for me, as I much preferred the technical class of Spielberg's SF films (Close Encounters, E.T., later Minority Report), or Lucas' simplistic battle in space Star Wars series just because they were so well done, even if poorly written.

TV producer-director J.J. Abrams was talked into directing this by Steven Spielberg, who advised him on the action sequences. Original fans won't be disappointed, nor those who hated the originals, like myself. This is more action, less amateurish moralizing, like it was intended to be. Having now breathed new life into a tired and cliched series, I'm sure many sequels will follow with this cast.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Grave of the Fireflies

a.k.a. Hotaru No Haka
Isao Takahata, Japan, 1988, anime (8.4*)
This is a tough film to watch, as it concerns the efforts of two children to survive in Japan in WW2, but is a very poetic war fable, rarely seen in films. While their dad is off in the navy fighting in the Pacific, a young teenage boy, Seita, is forced to take care of his 4 yr old sister, Setsuko, when their mother is killed by U.S. bombers. Times are harsh for everyone, the schools and factories have been bombed, there's no work, little food, and children like this, in both Japan and Europe, had to fend for themselves in order to survive, and many didn't.

This is done without much preaching or propagandising at all, which is one reason this film is #185 on the IMDB top 250, and placed #324 on our compendium of internet film polls. The story is a nice mix of reality and childish fantasy. The animation still has the cheap "doe-eyed" simplicity on the people, but the backgrounds, landscapes, rain, ponds, and fireflies are all very artistically done, and reminded me of early Disney cartoon art (Silly Symphony series) and actually have the quality of full-length films. The story is from a novel by Akiyuku Nosaka, based on that author's real wartime experiences, so it's a universally authentic war tale that is bound to tug the heart of those with compassion for children orphaned by wars, and the struggle of all the innocent civilians facing wartime deprivations.

[Note: one ignorant commentor at IMDB said, "hey, get a job" - typical uncaring American response. Hey dummy, the country had been bombed into oblivion, there were no schools nor jobs available. Are people really this stupid here? Even in our wealthy, non-wartorn society there are few jobs available and we don't have any excuse other than criminals running a system which is not working for the common person.]


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

13 Tzameti

Géla Babluani, France, 2006 (9.1*)
Grand Jury Prize, Sundance

This is one of the most riveting crime films you will ever see - one reviewer said "when done, the audience had to extract their fingernails from the armrests". It begins with a young man working to repair a leaky roof for an aging gangster, who overhears the criminal speaking of being able to earn lots of money overnight by answering a mysterious letter which contains a train ticket and hotel reservation. When the workman answers the request, he is plunged into a nightmarish scenario that may very well be his last job on the planet. I don't want to give away the surprise here, but if you watch the dvd's "interview with a witness", you'll find that this is based on an actual crime, making the plot even more astounding. Shot in black and white to give it the look of classic French film noir, director Géla Babluani has created a modern noir classic with a visual link to great crime films of the past. Babluani's son plays the lead role.

Winner of the grand jury prize at Sundance, it won 8 awards out of 11 nominations at various festivals (Awards page at IMDB)


Monday, November 9, 2009

Prisoner of the Mountains

Sergei Bodrov, 1996, Russian (8.9*)
This is a very touching and unusual anti-war story based on Leo Tolstoy's story Prisoner of the Caucasus. The story is updated to Russia's war with Islamic separatists in Chechnya, and begins with the ambush of a small Russian unit. Two soldiers are captured by guerillas, one a late teen named Vanya (Sergi Bodrov Jr.) who youth is accentuated by his attachment to his mother. Their captor is a man (Jemel Sikharulidze) who hopes to barter at least one in exchange for his son, arrested in town by the head of the local Russian army.

While held captive in a small, primitive yet beautiful stone village, Vanya develops a strong bond of friendship with his captor's young teenage daughter who oversees the captives, Dina (Susanna Mekhraliyeva), who thinks she will not be able to find a husband. At the same time, his mother works through the Russian army attempting to gain release for her son. Bodrov shows both sides of this story without bias, and allows the viewers to develop a rapport for all the characters and their predicaments. A foreign language film nominee for an Oscar and a Golden Globe, winner 5 "Nikas" (Russian film awards), including best picture and screenplay, and five other international awards.


Friday, November 6, 2009

Secondhand Lions

Tim McCandlies, 2003 (7.8*)
Ok, so it's a bit sentimental and perhaps a little unrealistic, but this is still a thoroughly enjoyable little film. Haley Joel Osment ("I see dead people..") does a credible job as a kid who fed up with mom Kyra Sedgwick's flighty lifestyle (always seeking a new husband in all the wrong men), and being left with "uncles", but this time the uncles in Texas are brilliantly played by Robert Duvall and Michael Caine (ok, so Caine struggles a bit with his Texas accent, one hardly cares, Duvall is perfect as always). These two characters sit on their porch with loaded shotguns ready to chase off salesmen and any other pesky visitors. They welcome Haley into their secluded lifestyle, which includes anything that strikes their whim, including ordering an airplane in pieces, and a used up "secondhand lion".

They fill Osment with stories of world travel and war, especially some tall tales of Arabia and a princess and a sheik's treasure. This is all wonderful and entertaining stuff, and reminded me of good 40's fantasies with lots of chidlish adventures. A beautiful and small film with many joys if you aren't looking too deeply for real meaning.

Quote: There are some things you need to believe in whether they're true or not: the good guys always win, and true love conquers all (Robert Duvall, talking to Osment)


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Turtles Can Fly

Bahman Ghobadi, 2004, Iraq-Iran-France (9.7*)
This is an amazing anti-war film which takes place in a Kurdish village on the border of Iraq and Turkey, just as the 2004 invasion of Iraq by the U.S. takes place. The star of the film is charismatic Soran Ebrahim, as a kid called Satellite because he sets up those dishes for remote areas who otherwise would have no tv. He's also the self-appointed leader of about 200 war orphans, organizing them into work details who earn most of their money by disarming land mines and reselling them, and harvesting spent artillery shells from two decades of war in the area for their scrap metal value. Into this village arrives a beautiful young girl (Ajil Sabari), taking care of her armless brother (who does amazing things with his teeth), and a near-blind infant her brother thinks deserves someone's care, who needs an ankle leash to keep him from wandering away.

This film is amazing for the amount of hope shown by the kids, all but ignored by the mostly shepherding adults, and how perseverance and ingenuity can allow survival in the harshest of conditions, amid a chaotic, war-torn environment. The Kurds are the largest ethnic group on earth without their own country or government, and they have been constantly attacked and persecuted by both Turkey and Iraq. This is one of the more memorable anti-war films ever made and should have a much wider audience, as it's been compared to Schindler's List for emotional impact.

All of the child actors were actual refugees, and this is the first film made in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Red Fish, shown throughout the film, are a symbol of the Iranian new year and symbolize life within life. This was Iran's submission for the Best Foreign Film category at the 2004 Oscars, and won 15 international awards out of 19 nominations.

Awards page at IMDB


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Artist, photographer, composer, author, blogger, metaphysician, herbalist

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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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