Saturday, February 27, 2010

Devils on the Doorstep

aka Guizi Lai Le
Jen Wiang, 2000, China, bw (9.6*)
Absolutely terrific anti-war satire from China, is one of that country's best films ever, a grand jury prize finalist at Cannes. Wiang proves himself the consummate artist, writing the screenplay, then directing himself as the lead actor, putting himself on a level with Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen.

The story is simple on the surface: in a Chinese coastal village occupied by Japanese naval reserves during WW2, a peasant farmer whose prime concern is making love to his dead brothers' widow, receives a knock in the night (while fulfilling his goal) and is given two Japanese prisoners: a Japanese infantry soldier and his Chinese translator, by a resistance fighter, who instructs him to take care of them until New Year's, and to interrogate them, or he will kill all the villagers. When he doesn't return by that day, the villagers are faced with confusion and a major decision - what follows is a satire of war and moral dilemna, with much humor until the films concluding scenes. Watch for a hilarious scene where the translator has taught the p.o.w. how to curse the ancestors of his guards, as "the Chinese hate insults of their ancestors".

Wiang wisely shot this, beautifully, in black and white, recalling Kurosawa's masterpiece, Seven Samurai. Ironically, this film was banned in China, some say because the Japanese aren't shown as brutal enough, others because Wiang entered the film at Cannes without the government's consent. Whatever the reason, the entire world deserves to see this war mastepiece - there's no other film quite like it from inside or outside of China. Certainly one of that country's best films; only master director Zhang Yimou (Hero, To Live, The Road Home) has equalled this artistry.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Namesake

[This is our 500th dvd reviewed, and it's a great one ..]
Mira Nair, 2006, India-US (10*)
In English, so don't fear the subtitles

I was moved and inspired by this film, pretty much left speechless, and haven't wanted to watch another movie since! This amazing film is perhaps the best yet from famed Indian director Mira Nair, now working in the U.S. It's really just the simple story of a married Bengali couple from India living in the U.S., maintaining their cultural heritage while their children largely reject Indian culture to remain more "American", but it's such a rich and complex story that it's hard to describe, also so full that it's hard to believe it's only two hours and not four. The ensemble cast here is simply perfect and a revelation in subtlety. I was especially moved by Irfan Khan as the father who relocates to New York, and Tabu, who plays his arranged wife, who misses her native homeland but remains loyal to her family.
Kal Penn (Kumar in the Harold and Kumar comedies) has his best serious acting role as Khan's son Gogol, named for the famous Russian author, the subject of the film's title. [On the dvd, Penn said he actually uses the name "Gogol Ganguli" at hotels when on the road - before making this!] We only really find out the importance of his name near the film's end, in a superbly edited flashback that Nair moved from the beginning of the film in a decidedly brilliant artistic stroke.

This is a film of delicate subtlety, not at all what western audiences will be accustomed to seeing, but the overall effect is a story that grows on you until you suddenly realize that you are watching a literary masterpiece, from a novel by young Indian author Jhumpa Lahiri. This story is about transitions in life, as the only real constant is change. The narrative deftly covers about three decades in the lives of the main characters, yet somehow Nair's skill never makes us feel that we're getting a synoposis or skipping past events.

The music here is simply beautiful (as well as the cinematography by Frederick Elmes), and also diverse. No matter what the musical selection or even style of the music, it seems to perfectly fit the visuals without distraction. Be sure to watch the special features on the dvd, especially the class discussions held by Nair with graduate film students at Columbia University about the making of this small indie film, made for less than 10m dollars. She proves that a great director can make great cinematic art with almost no budget at all. In her words, one just needs a great cast, thanks to casting director Cindy Tolan (seen in one class on the dvd) for this one, who found all the Bengali extras that played other emmigrants to the U.S. at parties of Indian-Americans in the U.S., and all were perfect.

It also helps to have a great story, and an artist's touch like Nair's. She makes it seem so easy, why aren't there more films like this?


Thursday, February 4, 2010


Peter Docter and Bob Peterson

2009 (6.8*)

I'm not the first to jump off the Pixar bandwagon over this film. In spite of the Oscar® nomination for best picture, this is certainly Pixar's most disappointing effort, and many fans online agree. They forgot the two main attributes animated comedy films should have: good animation and funny humor. This film opts for the pseudo-realism of real 3-d objects rather than funny or even attractive characters. Ed Asner (usually great to me) voices Carl, a bitter elderly widower whose wife died before they could achieve their dream of moving to or at least visiting the adventurous Paradise Falls in South America, where an adventurer named Muntz (Christopher Plummer) discovered a rare bird skeleton, only to be accused of fraud, then driven out of the scientific community, and vanished, never to be heard from again. Sound like a great premise for a comedic animated feature? Well, if you think like me, you're right - it not only isn't a good premise, but the best parts of the movie are when Carl's wife Ellie are still alive, which are unfortunately only the first ten minutes.

Carl strikes a construction worker who destroys his mailbox, and before being forced by court order to a retirement home (more humor?), he floats his house away with thousands of helium filled balloons, which is really the best part of the animation. Once you've seen that, you've seen the best part of the artwork. There's a fat boy, Russell, fed on ice cream til he resembles "a tick about to pop" (to quote Jean Shepherd), who was under Carl's porch when this happens, tricked by Carl into a snipe hunt at night (more bad-natured attempt at humor), who is not only not attractive to look at but has not one funny line in ninety minutes of animation. (Ironically, this screenplay is Oscar-nominated; did they even see this film?)

To make matters worse, the film is full of the worst-animated and least funny dogs in film history. Give me Bruno from The Triplets of Belleville anyday - these dogs make one wonder if Pixar has ever even seen 101 Dalmations. I blame co-directors Peter Docter and Bob Peterson, who also co-wrote the terrible screenplay with about three mild chuckles (most involving Carl's elderly devices - there's a denture joke and a hearing aid joke - sound like more terrific comedy? believe me, it's as mediocre as it sounds). Even the big colorful bird running around, which they call Kevin, is not funny nor attractive looking as a character - it's just stupid and will only appeal to five year olds, who won't get the elderly humor. And don't get me started on Christopher Plummer's homicidal, self-centered adventurer character - totally despicable, never funny, and homicidal - a real "jungle fuerher"; what the heck were they thinking? Cruella De Ville (101 Dalmations) was classy, and an inspiration for Halloween costumes no doubt, compared to this monstrosity.

This film got lost trying to be an Indiana Jones adventure, only without even that much humor. The animation is just plain terrible for Pixar, nothing in the film is either unique, well-drawn, or funny. I can't believe they could ever sell any toys of these characters either, which I'm sure is their goal. Who's gonna want a fat kid in a boy scout uniform or a squat old man in a suit, with a walking cane? Watch Triplets of Belleville, for a hand-drawn masterpiece that got both points of classic animation: show us something unique in the artwork, and give us some funny characters. It has about 200 more laughs than this film. I was really looking forward to this movie - I loved Wall-E with a passion, and it should have been nominated for best picture in 2008. That film had a much better story, terrific animation (the robots on the loose, the spaceship tilting), much more creativity, and was far more touching as well - and made some hilarious comments about mankind, like "red is the new blue", causing everyone to instantly change their clothing color.

As for the 3-d realistic look, this is not even as good as either Toy Story, which were both even far below Nick Park's brilliant claymation series, Wallace and Gromit - four of those won Oscars® for Park, and if not for little or no competition, Up wouldn't win any, I'm afraid. WHY they didn't let Ellie survive to make this trip with Carl is beyond me - that would have made a much more likeable story as Ellie had 5 times the personality of boring and quiet Carl; that much was evident from the opening scenes of them as kids. If one had to die before this journey, it should have been Carl, not Ellie. I suppose kids and die-hard Pixar fans will like this, or at least say they do - but I'll wager that even most of them will be at least a little disappointed with this lackluster effort.

Pixar needs to get back to using imagination, and not resting on their software laurels. Just because they can now animate hair, or show all five fingers, that doesn't add to humor or make it artful. It's really impossible for any review of this to have "spoilers", as they've done that themselves. How this got nominated for best picture is beyond me - it must be on Disney's reputation or contribution to ads for the Academy Awards - especially when Wall-E and Finding Nemo were passed over.

[Note: I'm only reviewing this here because fans of animation should see this; and no doubt many easily pleased people will like it anyway - it's actually winning some critics awards for best animated feature, likely due to no competition. This film makes all the other Pixar and Disney films look great, so in that regard, it gives us something for comparison, making us appreciate the classics from Snow White, to Beauty and the Beast, Nemo and Wall-e, even Cars..]


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Triplets of Belleville

aka Les Triplettes de Belleville
Sylvain Chomet, 2003,

France-Belgium-Canada-UK (9.2*)

This is a brilliantly original animated feature done the old school way, by hand drawing each cell, which requires 1440 images per minutes, 86,400 per hour - just like the Walt Disney animated classics, before computers could do the "tweening", or the steps in-between the beginning and ending drawings. For those of us who grew up on classic cartoons, this comes as a welcome return to a nostalgic past.

This unique vision came from the mind of French animator Sylvain Chomet, listed as creator, producer, director - and it's unlike the typical family fare. In fact, most kids won't even get the humor, as it pokes fun at old b&w cartoons, the Andrews Sisters, Django Reinhardt, Fred Astaire, Josephine Baker (all in the first five minutes in a parody of early cartoons), the French penchant for eating frogs, square-shouldered Mafioso, the US tendency toward huge gluttonous rear ends, and bicycling enthusiasts obsession with the grueling Tour de France. Everything in this film is exaggerated, it's really a comedy of caricatures and hyperbole.

The nearly wordless (no subtitles needed!) story is about a tiny grandmother's love for her grandson, training for the Tour de France, kidnapped by underworld figures, and who eventually crosses paths with the jazz singing act The Triplets of Belleville, past their prime but not past their humor. This inspired insanity also rewards viewers with perhaps the most humorous dog in film history, a round, spindley-legged parody named Bruno, who constantly thinks of his food bowl, even dreaming about it, and whose favorite activity is barking at trains that regularly pass by the house. The most fully realized character in the film, we see his motivations by viewing his dreams, shown in black-and-white.

Winner of 18 awards out of 40 nominations; it beat out Oscar®-winner Finding Nemo for best animated feature at many festivals and critics awards, and even won best film in several. In any other year, it surely would have been the Oscar® winner for animated feature. The American Choreography awards gave it "best choreography in a feature film" (!), and the Motion Picture Sound Editors gave it "best sound editing in an animated feature film". The jazzy song "Belleville Rendezvous" was nominated for an Oscar®, and won awards, as did the score. Chomet is a genius of an artist, and he dedicated this film "to my parents". There's even another visual joke after the closing credits, and be sure to watch the crazy music video and special features on the dvd.
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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