Friday, March 26, 2010


aka He Ni Zai Yi Qi
Chen Kaige, 2002, China (9.5*)
Perhaps the greatest father-son story yet captured on film. Chen Kaige abandons his customary huge-scale epic costume drama to make a small intimate film about the intensely personal affection of a father and son. A poor worker from a small Chinese city (touchingly played by Peigi Liu) has a talented musician son who wins all the local violin competitions. He decides to take his son to Beijing to find a world-class music professor for his son at his own expense in order to elevate him to the level of professional international musicians.

This is a very engrossing and touching film with just five characters: the son, his father, two different music teachers, and a pretty young woman who befriends the teenage boy, in effect becoming a surrogate mother, and pays him to play privately for her. For me, this is Kaige's most successful story, and also his most innovative direction, which seems to have a very European cinematic style. A must for fans of classical music, especially violin music. Director Chen himself plays the more noted professor.

Note: Kaige is best known for large-scale costume epics such as Farewell, My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin


Farewell, My Concubine

aka Ba Wang Bie Ji
Chen Kaige, 1993, China (8.2*)
A lengthy Chinese epic of three hours that covers 50 years in the lives of two Chinese opera singing stage brothers, and their romantic entanglement with the same woman. This ambitious epic weaves these stories around the history of China and its tumultuous changes over the entire 20th century. Perhaps a bit slow overall, this is nevertheless a huge scale accomplishment with a traditional epic look that is well worth seeing, featuring some classic scenes of war with thousands of extras.

Another epic of Kaige's worth seeing is The Emperor and the Assassin (1998), which won a technical jury prize at Cannes for production design. A royal courtroom where visitors approach the king by nearly walking on water is unlike anything else in cinema.


Monday, March 22, 2010

We of the Never Never

Igor Auzins, 1982, Australia (9.0*)

A beautifully filmed true story of the first woman in the Northern Territory of Australia, based on the memoirs of Jennifer Gunn, played with independent spunk by Angela Punch McGregor. An educated urbanite from Melbourne married Aeneas Gunn (Arthur Dignam), who managed a remote cattle station, or ranch, in the northern outback, known as "the never never". While there she faces both anti-female and anti-aborigine bigotry from the all male cowboy population. In spite of this, she grows to love both the rugged wilderness, which is green in this region due to the rainy season, and also the local inhabitants who live the same primitive lifestyle they have for millenia, and who are slow to adapt to more 'civilized' conventions.

This will remind Americans of our classic westerns, just sans gunfights, and substituting more friendly indigenous people who work for and help the white immigrants survive in a harsh land. This is a must-see for fans of classic Australian cinema, and makes the perfect complement to the film My Brilliant Career, from director Gillian Armstrong, about another strong-willed Aussie woman, but one who prized her career more than any man. This film followed that one by just three years, and displays a respectable homage to people with courage and heart

Note: nominated for six Australian Film Institute awards, including picture, actress, screenplay, and music, it only won one for cinematography, which is well-deserved as the film is beautiful to watch with innovative camera movement.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Philip Noyce, 2002, Australia (9.2*)

Best Picture, Australian Film Institute
Excellent adventure based on the true story of three girls from Australia's Stolen Generations of mixed-race children forcibly taken from their parents by the authorities in the interest of "aboriginal racial protection". The three sisters escape a school that is really more like an internment camp for juveniles, then head for their clan's outback home 1500 miles away by following the knee-high rabbit-proof fence that keeps rabbits on one side, farms on the other.

Kenneth Branagh has a supporting role as the Chief Protector of the Aborigines (as Mr. Neville, humorously called "Mr. Devil" by the girls). Everlyn Sampi is terrific as the oldest girl, Molly, whose savvy made her an elusive quarry for the white Aussies. This inspiring story is based on true events of 1931, and is taken from the non-fiction book by Doris Pilkington Garimara.

Rabbit-Proof won 21 awards, including Best Picture from the Australian Film Institute and the audience award at seven film festivals, and had another 24 nominations: Awards page at IMDB

If you like this film, it makes a perfect trilogy with the Australian films Walkabout and Australia, and is chronologically the centerpiece film. Aboriginine actor David Gumpilil, who starred in Walkabout, plays the tracker following the girls in Rabbit-Proof.


Thursday, March 18, 2010


Dir: Nicholas Roeg, 1971,
Australia (10*)

This beautiful nature story starts when a father abandons his two children (Jenny Agutter's first film?) in the Australian outback and kills himself. The children are found by an Aboriginal youth (David Gulpilil) on his rite of manhood, a walkabout, where one must survive six months alone in the wilderness. The story follows the three as they all fight for survival in the outback, while the white children learn the ancient wisdom that has allowed the aborigines to survive in this environment for at least 50 thousand years.

This adventure film, by British cinematographer Roeg (Performance), is simply beautiful and not like any other, a parable of urban man in the wilderness. The closing poem is one of the most beautiful in film history.

This beautiful film set a precedent for Aussie films to follow using Aborigines as a subject. Two more that make an excellent trilogy with this adventure are Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), and Australia (2007), which both deal with the "Stolen Generations" of mixed-blood children taken from their parents in the interest of "racial protection" of the Aborigines.

This poem was read as an epilogue at the end of the film. It is the complete Poem 40 from A Shropshire Lad by Alfred Edward Housman.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Complete text of the sixty-three poem cycle at Project Gutenberg


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Under the Sun

aka Under Solen
Colin Nutley, 1998, Sweden (9.5*)
An extreme rarity: an uplifting love story, and from Sweden no less. In this surprisingly simple story (from a novel by H.E. Bates), a lonely Swedish farmer, believably portrayed by Rolf Lassgard, who shared the family house with his now deceased mother places a newspaper ad for a live-in housekeeper. His simple and idyllic lifestyle is dramatically changed when the ad is answered by a beautiful and mature blond woman, perfectly cast by the director's wife Helena Bergstrom. When she doesn't immediately run away and moves in, his best male friend (Johan Widerberg) is both jealous and suspicious.

This film has many pleasant surprises, especially compared to classic romance films of the past, and when compared to the emotional angst prevalent in nearly all famous Swedish films, such as those of Ingmar Bergman. Here the nearly primitive pastoral setting is juxtaposed with the coming rock and roll age, as his young friend is a big fan of American rock and the new attitude shaking the world's more conservative traditions. There is a tension cleverly set up between the three by director Nutley, and an unsettling undercurrent that belies the pleasant romance occurring on the surface. I won't spoil any surprises for the viewers here, just make this a must-see foreign film and you'll be glad you braved the subtitles.

I love the metaphor of the silent airplane used in the film's opening, there's a forum discussion about this at IMDB for those interested in researching this film after viewing.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?

Mason Spurlock, 2008 (8.0*)
This is a more comedic than serious documentary that attempts to show that most people in the world are moderates, with a few extremist wackos on both sides stirring the pot of war.. Spurlock, the director of Super Size Me, takes the approach that he just wants the world safer for his almost newborn child, and travels to various nations in the middle east on a mock hunt for Osama to get the 25 million reward money. Along the way we see that most citizens are moderates who just want to work and eat and live comfortably and raise their children (so what else is new?), but that a few extremists on both sides, such as the Saudi faction of Islam and the Orthodox Zionists in Israel, will likely continue to keep the flames of war burning regardless of the rest of the world.

Not a particularly enlightening film, but is fairly entertaining as a lot of this is humorous, especially an animated Bin Laden break dancing to "Can't Touch This".. Here is a link to that excerpt from the beginning of the film at YouTube:
Osama break dancing

This film is more like a tv show than a film, but is an entertaining look at a serious subject, and perhaps will help defuse the anger that most feel about this subject. After all, the politics involved don't really affect many of us, just the few victims of terrorism (less than 10,000 so far) that the media and governments have exploded into numerous wars to benefit the defense contractors and military, who are making billions off this miniscule conflict.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Up in the Air

Jason Reitman, 2009 (7.6*)
This is pleasant fluff that spends a lot of time traveling but ultimately arrives nowhere. I suppose it's George Clooney's clout in Hollywood that got this film a much higher total of Oscar nominations than it really deserved. I can see maybe one for screenplay, maybe one for Vera Farmiga's supporting performance if you can overlook the fact that the two lead actresses here had perhaps the worst hairdos in a major film in recent memory - really, they were so bad that it was distracting to me.

Clooney plays a confirmed bachelor with no attachments who spends 80% of his time on the road as a corporate hit man, performing layoffs that the home companies don't have the guts for. His only stated goal in life is attaining the "10 million mile club" of American Airlines. He runs into Farmiga (hey, change your name!) on the road, who becomes his love buddy. His 'fresh out of college' cohort has a scheme to save all the travel expenses for his company: firing people over a webcam. The Oscar nomination for Anna Kendrick was hard to believe after seeing this - all I can say is "weak year for films" as this one defies belief.

This will entertain you for ninety minutes, but without much humor; then you'll forget about it when it's over. It makes a few comments about lifestyles but without digging too deeply or trying too hard, relying more on Clooney's charm than much else.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Ron Fricke, 1992 (9.5*)
This is a beautiful visual poem to the spirituality of the planet, mankind included. Director Ron Fricke has given us a film without narrative or even dialogue, yet it's the best description on film of, in his words, "man's connection to the eternal". In order to achieve his vision, Fricke created film equipment cabable of giving us time lapse sequences of both nature and urban settings.

The film primarily shows serene locales in nature (like Arches Nat Park in Utah), or of man's creation, such as temples, zen gardens, meditating monks. Fricke filmed in over 200 locations in 22 countries, many familiar sites, some not so familiar. The beauty is occasionally contrasted by images where we've interrupted the inherent serenity, such as the oil fires in Kuwait, traffic in a metropolis, a hand-rolled cigarette factory in Asia.

This film won't suit all tastes, but if you're of the meditative type, or just love the visual artistry of films, enjoy nature films like Planet Earth, which this preceded by a decade, then Baraka will strike a resonant chord in your spirit.


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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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