Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Whale Rider

Niki Caro, 2003, New Zealand (10*)
Sundance Audience Award, World Cinema
One of those amazing films that comes along all too rarely in life, one that blends myth into reality, and one that exposes a unique culture, the Maoris of New Zealand, being swallowed up by modern society. Lovingly directed by Niki Caro, from a novel by Maori author Witi Ihimaera, with beautiful music from Dead Can Dance singer Lisa Gerrard, who also scored Gladiator and The Insider.

This film is the story of Paikea, a young girl searching for self-identity in a tribal culture dominated by males for centuries, and whose grandad is intent on finding the next male tribal chief to lead his people back to their ancestral heritage and maintain time-honored ritual as a connection to their identity.

The cast is amazing, the adult Maori actors are excellent, especially Rawiri Paratene as the grandad, Koro, but the entire film is stolen by newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes, a schoolgirl with no prior experience who was discovered in a classroom by the same casting director that found young Anna Pacquin for Jane Campion's The Piano.

Keisha Castle-Huges, a Maori who relocated from Australia to New Zealand at age 5, was nominated for 13 international awards for this role, including an Oscar for Best Actress, and was a winner of five awards: Broadcast Film Critics: Best Young Actor/Actress, Chicago Film Critics: Most Promising Performer, New Zealand Film and Tv Awards: Best Actress, Online Film Critics: Best Breakthrough Performance, Young Artist Awards: Best Actress in an International Film. In my opinion, this is one of the best performances I've ever seen by either a woman or a child, she definitely deserved some type of Oscar®.

Awards Page for Keisha at IMDB

Awards Page for Whale Rider, with 28 wins and 29 other nominations, including 9 New Zealand Film and TV awards, winning picture, director, screenplay, music, and four for acting


Monday, April 26, 2010

Il Postino

Michael Radford, 1995, Italy-France (8.8*)
This engaging romantic comedy was one of the most popular to come out of Italy. In a small seaside town, a local postman is having romantic problems, with unrequited love. Then the Nobel-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) moves into the highlands nearby; since the postman is a daily visitor, they eventually strike up a friendship, and the poet changes the postman’s life by advising him in matters of the heart.

This is a very unpretentious and engaging film that is enjoyable from start to finish – it doesn’t overreach and delivers perfectly by giving the viewer a breath of fresh air on an old theme. Plus it’s all just plain pleasant viewing, from the actors to the locations. Massimo Troisi is excellent in the title role, and died just twelve hours after shooting finished of heart disease.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Stalag 17

Billy Wilder, 1953, bw (8.6*)
William Holden stars as a gritty POW in WW2 Germany in perhaps his finest role, winning an Oscar® for best actor. Apparently the barracks in which he's placed has a stool pigeon supplying information about prisoner's escape plans to the guards. Holden is a suspect because he's not only a loner, but appears to have a thriving black market exchange going on as well.

Another classic from master director Billy Wilder, who actually fled to the U.S. from Austria to escape the German invasion. Here he has made a psychological war film that's as much about what war does to men's minds as their bodies. Shot in a film noir style with many night scenes, a war classic. #208 on the IMDB top 250.

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 Apartment, Some Like It Hot, Witness For the Prosecution, The Fortune Cookie.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Grapes of Wrath

John Ford, 1940, bw (9.0*)
Perhaps Ford's finest film, for which he won the directing Oscar® is this one of John Steinbeck's famous novel, both branded "communist" at the time for their favoritism shown to the common working man thrown into the great migration westward to California in search of orchard picking work during the Great Depression.

This is a very humane and touching story of the Joad family's attempt at survival from a parched dust bowl beginning in Oklahoma, their travels west, and trials in seeking out a new life elsewhere. The entire cast is perfect, especially the performances by Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, and Oscar®-winning Jane Darwell as Ma Joad.

Steinbeck grew up around Salinas, California, the "lettuce capital" of the U.S., so he witnessed firsthand the plight of migrant farm workers. For his part, Ford has been mostly true to the novel, while filming the story with beautiful lighting and b&w cinematography. A classic.


Friday, April 23, 2010


Darren Arnofsky, 1998, bw (8.4*)
Best Directing Award, Sundance

Very interesting puzzle movie that was brilliant young director Darren Aronofsky's first film, shot in b&w and obviously on a shoestring. The film is primarily a metaphysical one, about finding a mathematical key to order in the universe. On his search, he runs across a group of mathematicians who are inputting the numeric values of the Bible's characters into a computer for analysis.

This unusual film is about thinking, about the inside of the director's cosmic thoughts. Light on action, it's about as deep in intellectualism as a film can get, searching for a hidden meaning to life and the cosmos. We all do it, but it's a tough subject to film. At any rate, it's entirely unusual and creative, and is better than many big budget films, and was shot for just 60,000. (For the champion no budget film, check out Robert Rodriguez' El Mariachi, an action film of a mariachi guitarist being mistaken for a gang's hit man who carries a guitar case full of weapons)

Aronofsky's next film after this debut was the brilliant (and mind numbing) Requiem for a Dream (2000), starring Oscar winners Ellen Burstyn and Jennifer Connelly. Also worth seeing is The Fountain, a multi-level story about a brain cancer researcher and the search for the fountain of youth. He also directed The Wrestler in 2008
Awards page at IMDB



Leni Riefenstahl, Germany, 1938, bw (9.2*)

This historic documentary shot by the Nazi propaganda machine's chief filmmaker still looks modern today. The idea originally was to show the glory of Germany and document their many Olympic victories in a fine film by their top director, but the politics were taken out when black American Jesse Owens and others stole the thunder, leaving the Germans with little more than this filmed record.

Riefenstahl pioneered a number of techniques that will look more commonplace today. One that stands out here is burying a camera at the starting line of the 100-yard dash to capture a ground-eye view of that race's tension just before the gun. She always manages to interest the eye even when the action isn't so riveting, and is a master of b&w composition and lighting.

Denounced by many for being the film voice for the Nazis, Riefenstahl later apologized for making Triumph of the Will (1935) in particular, about the rise of Hitler and the party, and attempted a normal film career afterwards, but never again approached the artistic achievement of these two documentaries.


Thursday, April 22, 2010

American Splendor

Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, 2003 (8.6*)
This is such an intimate portrait of a nobody going nowhere that it's hard not to like it's honest openness. It's a near documentary about comic author Harvey Pekar, wonderfully played by Paul Giamatti, whose story of a boring life of obscurity was illustrated by legendary underground comic artist Robert Crumb and titled "American Splendor".

The narrative follows Pekar as he begins to break out of his terminal dullness by writing an intended comic strip about it. Former Cleveland resident Crumb revisits and likes Pekar's writing and decides to illustrate the story. The film covers Pekar's rise from obscurity with the same matter-of-fact tone that Pekar's comic covered his routine life.

The film cleverly mixes some animation with live action, so flawlessly that it's an enhancement and not a distraction, as it reveals more about the title series. This received a "Un Certain Regard" award at Cannes for "mixed media use". The directors also wisely chose to include the real Harvey and his girlfriend Joyce Brabner (brilliantly under-played by Hope Davis in a Golden Globe nominated performance) in some scenes, which gives this a "reality within docudrama" moments, like the actors watching the real people react to a play in L.A. based on Pekar's comics about his life! You just don't find layers of reality piled up this deeply very often..

Very humorous and unusual, justifiably a film festival favorite.. a must-see for small indie film fans.

National Society of Film Critics Award, Best Feature; several awards for screenplay. Paul Giamatti received National Board of Review Award for "Breakthrough Performance by an Actor".
Awards page at IMDB


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Crazed Fruit

aka Kurutta Kajitsu
Ko Nakahira, 1956, Japan, bw (8.9*)
This once-overlooked small Japanese film, once considered shocking, is now considered a modern classic. It follows the story of two brothers who are attracted to the same strange girl that one meets at a train station. The film establishes a languid pace that befits a leisurely summer romance filled with sunbathing and boating along the coastline, traveling to nearby islands, as characters seek more revelations about each other thus revealing themselves to the audience. We are eventually yanked from our summer meditation by a confluence of events that moves all the characters toward a resolution that becomes the focal point of the entire film.

Visually striking images and a seething undercurrent of emotions make this film the equivalent of the best of Antonioni, whom it visually resembles. Not to be missed by fans of Japanese or art cinema.


Short Cuts 4

Here are some more films I'd avoid, all these are recent viewings (2010):

  • Law of Desire (Almodovar, 1987) – avoid, surprisingly bad considering the director, but an early one of his. Antonio Banderas is a young gay male, can you buy that?
  • The Men Who Stare at Goats (Grant Heslov, 2009) – avoid; not funny, not much of anything, but I guess an ok parody of the CIA
  • The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009) – terrible, not funny and absolutely no comedic pacing whatsoever.. its fans are clueless, sophmoric.. (and this film disses women)
  • The Damned (Luchino Visconti, 1969, Italy) – avoid this boring, depressing film of Nazi industrialists.. Visconti's overrated
  • 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1967) – another pretentious Godard film, he has a long list of those to avoid, Weekend topping the list..


Tuesday, April 20, 2010


aka Guerreros
Daniel Calparsoro, 2002, Spain (8.4*)

A well-done and at times gripping war film that follows a small Spanish detachment in Serbia, which gets ambushed and separated from the main units in what begins a harrowing journey in hostile territory. The war action here is very well filmed and edited and makes the viewer feel that war is truly hell for all involved. The film also exposes the complexity of modern war in a region like this, when you have various armies, a "UN peacekeeping force", and other neutrals all thrown into a situation of conflict.

Calparsoro does a good job balancing the fact that war is hardest on civilians, yet soldiers under attack from all sides are also faced with human emotions and instant responses which may or may not have been the best in retrospect. Fans of war films with action, and fans of anti-war films alike will enjoy this Spanish classic.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Nelly and Mr. Arnaud

aka Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud

Claude Sautet, 1995, France (8.2*)
This is a must for fans of doe-eyed Emmanuelle Béart (Mission Impossible, La Belle Noiseuse), who burst into stardom with the title role in Manon of the Spring (and receiving a Cesar nomination), the completion of the novel begun with Jean De Florette, where she played Gerard Depardieu's daughter. Here she plays a young woman, Nelly, going through a divorce, and who meets a kindly (and wealthy) gent, wonderfully played by veteran actor Michelle Serrault (with over 100 films in his career), and agrees to become his editor for a book of memoirs of his days as a judge in the south Pacific, which preceded a more successful business career.
While working at his home, the relationship develops into a very interesting and complex friendship story, and an understated romance, and which also includes the Mr. Arnaud's publisher, who is Nelly's age and gently pursues her romantically. This is all very well acted and directed and may be a masterpiece of understatement; or it just may have been slowly paced, you'll have to access that for yourselves, but I would definitely check this one out.

Serrault deservedly won a Cesar Award for actor, as did director Sautet, while Beart (for actress) was among 9 other nominations for the film, which also received a BAFTA nod for foreign language film.

Note: if you expect to see Emmanuelle naked, that's not this film but La Belle Noiseuse, a lengthy (4 hr) epic in which she plays an artist's muse and nude model; she's naked for about two hours in that film, but it's a major bore and could have been half the length. She was very good in that film as well though, another Cesar nominated performance.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Floating Weeds

aka Ukigusa
Yasujiro Ozu, 1959, Japan (7.8*)

This is a beautifully filmed art film from master Japanese filmmaker Ozu, his first in color after a career of b&w masterpieces. His films are slow-moving yet carefully constructed visual set pieces that slowly reveal his characters motivations and emotions. Ozu has won many Japanese film awards, and the b&w film Tokyo Story is his best known, while Early Summer won the most awards.

In this story, a struggling traveling kabuki theater group (ie, the "weeds" of the title) arrives at a sleepy seaside village, a place they've been before, which revives old memories and relationships, including an important one for their leader Komanjuro. While most are simply trying to find local affairs, for Komanjuro, played by Ganjiro Nakamura, and a local woman, wonderfully played by understated Machiko Kyo, theirs is really a family reunion that involves a son they had together.

This is one of film critic Roger Ebert's favorite ten films, but is really more of an art house than a popular film, so it will please fans of Ozu and Japanese art cinema more than more general audiences, who will want more action and movement. That said, each scene here is carefully constructed visually with much emphasis on the importance of understated colors and compositional balance, something that Ozu excels at achieving.

Note: Ranked 1010 on our survey of net polls.. Tokyo Story is ranked 57th.. Late Spring next at 436.. Early Summer (aka Bakushu) won the most awards, is 978.. Depending on which list I check, I see Ozu is ranked 19th on one list with 7 films, but much lower on another with only 5 films.. hmmm..

The film's page at IMDB, the rating there is 7.9, practically the same as mine


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Red Cliff

International Version

aka Chi Bi
John Woo, 2008, 5 hrs, China (7.7*)

This is a giant-scaled and expensive war epic about a Han Dynasty war in 208 A.D. involving three Chinese empires. The Hans of the north invade a southern empire to quell smaller warlords, two of which form an alliance, but they are still overwhelmed in numbers by 800,000 to just 50,000. The invading king is really after the wife of the southern leader, a beauty he saw just once, but he also has a painting of her for inspiration. Lin Chi-Ling is appropriately breath-taking in this role, with a delicate flower-like beauty; she's a moving work of art herself and worthy of causing wars.

Lacking strength, the southern alliance, led by warrior Tony Leung and strategist Takeshi Kaneshiro decides to use a plan to force a decisive naval and land battle at a fortress on the Yellow River called Red Cliff, with the emphasis on attacking the invading fleet. Most of the film is a buildup to this battle, showing preparations in great detail. The special effects of the warfare are terrific, as this was one of the most expensive Chinese films ever made at 80 million, which means it looks like a 500 m film from the west. However, there is not much story here, at least nothing compelling, so this will please fans of war films due to the massive technical achievement but will not be that engrossing to more general fans.

There are two versions of this massive war epic from famed Hong Kong action director John Woo; make sure you see the complete five-hour film on 2 discs called the "international version", not the shortened "theatrical release".


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Promise

aka Mo Gik; Wu Ji
Chen Kaige, 2005, China (8.0*)

Though not Kaige's best epic adventure romance, certainly one worth seeing. This fairy tale of a princess begins with a little girl stealing a bun for her dead mother and having a goddess descend to make a deal with her which will make her "a woman men will fight wars over." We then see her adult life filled with romantic intrigues and a love triangle based on mistaken identity, as she is courted by two kings and a slave.

This is full of magical images, similar to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), yet somehow lacks the powerful artistry of that film; the story is just not as original or poetic. However, the epic look and feel are here, as well as romance, martial arts, fantasy settings, and ancient warfare, all done with terrific CGI effects, which makes this another Chinese epic war romance a "must see" for fans of this genre. They can usually make films like this for $5-10 million, so luckily fans get several per year of this caliber, while in the west it's more like one per decade at a cost above 100 million.

Chen Kaige excels at epic films, such as Farewell My Concubine (1993) and The Emperor and the Assassin (1998), yet his best, most rewarding film for me is the small, intimate father-son story Together (2002).


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Jeff Beck: Live at Ronnie Scott's (2007)

Stuart Watts, 2008 (10*)
..audio by Alan Branch..
Jeff Beck is an amazing guitarist, the best of the three from the Yardbirds (Clapton and Jimmy Page were the other two). He eventually moved into rock-jazz fusion, which this set from Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London in 2007 ably demonstrates. Even though there's not a lot of rock here, fans of Beck or rock history will still be surprised at the melodic virtuosity he displays here, now in his mid-60's! There are guest vocals from Eric Clapton, who kills the mood somewhat with some more of his wimpy blues vocals, Joss Stone, who does her best Aretha impression on "People Get Ready", and Imogen Heap, who mixes best of the three with Beck, especially on a rock-hard version of "Rollin and Tumblin", done ironically after Clapton leaves the stage, perhaps as if to show how much more rockin Jeff is than Eric, as this song was a famous Cream cover of Clapton's.

Adding more virtuosity are amazing 22-yr old Aussie bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, whose solo on "Cause We've Ended as Lovers"(perhaps Beck's best composition) dazzles both the crowd and Jeff - by this time she had already played with the Allman Bros, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea, after just three years of playing bass, switching over from lead guitar. Former Zappa and Sting alum Vinnie Colauita is perfect and complex on drums, and another Sting alum Jason Rebello is intricate and dazzing on keyboards. This will more resemble a Zappa show musically, being mostly jazz-rock fusion, than Beck's first group, the Yardbirds, but will amaze fans, guitarists, and rock historians alike. Look for Beck's Grammy-winning cover of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life".

This is a "must-see" music concert dvd, shot in an intimate club setting. Look for many rock luminaries in the crowd, including Jimmy Page, Steve Perry, and I believe Ian Anderson.


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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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