Friday, May 28, 2010

The Story of the Weeping Camel

Byambasuren Davaa, Luigi Falorni, Germany, 2003 (8.9*)

This German documentary follows a family of Mongolian shepherds' daily lives. After the camel birthing season, the last newborn colt, a pretty white boy, is rejected by his mother. The shepherd sends his two sons on a trip to a nearby town to find a healing musician to help the mother accept her offspring.

We follow the daily life of the shepherds, which is primitive and weather-beaten in the harsh, beautiful Gobi desert, yet they also have total freedom. They can simply move their animals to another location if they want and be elsewhere in a day. In the towns, satellite tv is available and many ride motorcycles rather than camels, so the modern world is there if they want it - they chose to continue to live simply.

This is a beautiful and unusual story in a beautiful setting, even more amazing since it's a documentary - we follow the story of the young rejected camel, played by Botok with Ingen Tenne as the mother camel, as it plays out for the shepherds. This story that seems a much legend as truth won several film festivals, usually the audience award for foreign film, and was an Oscar nominee for documentary. Awards page at IMDB


Thursday, May 27, 2010

Big Deal on Madonna Street

Mario Monicelli, 1959, Italy, bw (8.5*)

This spoof of heist films is one of the funniest Italian films ever made. If you've seen the French heist classic Rififi, you'll understand Monicelli's aim here - if you haven't, you'll still be able to appreciate this gang of low-budget crime misfits attempting a major jewel robbery, from the discovery stage, through the planning, then the execution.

A terrific all-star cast is led by Vittorio Gassman as the plan's leader, as he was given the details in prison from another convict who thought Gassman had been denied parole. When out, he recruits a local gang of cons who are all out of jail, including Marcello Mastrianni and Claudia Cardinale. Let's just say that none of the criminals is the sharpest tack in the drawer, so when they are all together it becomes a comedy of errors. Much of the humor is visual, and I found myself laughing out loud several times, which is rare for me, as most comedy is based on terrible one-line jokes and people being drunk.

As Rififi was an early heist classic that "defined the mold", Big Deal is one of the first spoofs of the newly popular genre, so it too defined a style that was later often repeated, with films such as Topkapi and Mad Mad Mad Mad World - think Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness, and the Ealing Brothers (The Ladykillers). Pure entertainment, a must-see classic of this style, and an Oscar® nominee for foreign language film.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Crazy Heart

Scott Cooper, 2009 (8.2*)

This is a simple yet effective story as old as country music: a jaded country singer is nearing 60 and is tired of life on the road playing bowling alleys and roadside bars for chump change as his best years are behind him. Jeff Bridges was not only perfect in this, doing all his own singing, but finally got a well-deserved Oscar after some near misses (four previous nominations) and a career of impeccable professionalism in his performances. This is as good as my favorites of his: as the cheating best friend in The Last Picture Show, as the jaded supper club pianist with brother Beau in The Fabulous Baker Boys, and as the air crash survivor who loses fear of death in Peter Weir's Fearless.

Maggie Guylenhaal nearly steals this movie with her excellent and believable portrayal of a young music journalist who falls for Bridges' inner man; this has to be her best performance. Colin Farrell, as a young hot attraction who was mentored by Bridges when starting out, actually outsings Bridges in a surprisingly twist to his stellar career - who knew Colin had this voice hidden within? (..but not many male country stars wear two earrings!)
Probably the only thing wrong with this film is what will make it more popular: a plethora of 'soundtrack ready' simple country songs that even Bridges and Farrell can sing, including the Oscar-winning song "The Weary Kind", co-written by producer musician T-Bone Burnett. Great for country fans, but a bit much for those of us who prefer bluegrass, rock, jazz, classical, or something where musicians actually play their instruments well. Thankfully on the dvd you can fast-forward the ones you don't like. Robert Duvall has a near-cameo as a bar owner, and he also produced, a story eerily simliar to his Oscar®-winning performance in Tender Mercies.


Saturday, May 22, 2010


James Cameron, 2009 (8.1*)

Basically, Avatar is another war/western in space, much like Star Wars and Starship Troopers. The story could easily be the U.S. vs the Souix nation, who are sitting on gold in the Black Hills, their sacred ground given to them in a government treaty, which was then ignored when gold was discovered. In Avatar, on planet Pandora (don't expect any mythology here, it's not that intelligent), the Na'vi are stting on "unobtanium" (silly name, right?), which is under their sacred tree, and of course, a giant earth-based corporation wants to mine the valuable substance like gold, oil, copper, uranium on earth; this 'evil empire' also uses ex-military misfits as a mercernary army to subdue the planet's natural dangers. The natives, like the Souix, the Incans, and countless others, are both expendable and primitive (they shoot bows and arrows for gosh sake!), therefore irrelevant to the profit-minded and anyone with more military power. (Here the big battle is helicopters vs. dragons, land robots vs. men on horses and angry rhinos)

One crippled soldier, played by Sam Worthington, is introduced to the Na'vi culture through use of a computer-connected cloned being, called an "avatar", hardly a God incarnate like the original meaning of the word. In this case, more like soldiers and scientists, who are led by a largely-wasted Sigourney Weaver, incarnated to both study then exploit these natives.

Though the special effects and animation design are superb, the story is not original, has nothing unexpected or new in it, and is actually predictable and frustrating. If you've read science fiction, it's a combination of Ursula K. Le Guin's novella "The Word for World is Forest", Roger Zelazny's novel "Lord of Light", and Cecelia Holland's aliens from "Floating Worlds". At least someone around Cameron has some science fiction literacy, but not much originality.

If you liked Star Wars, you'll like this, as it's aimed at the same roughly 12-yr old audience. Star Trek (the 2009 one) is actually a better sf film, and even won the Empire Award in the UK for "Best SF/fantasy Film" over Avatar. Three technical Oscars® (special effects, art direction, and bafflingly cinematography which won over the great work done in Hurt Locker) were about right for this - it is an obvious crowd pleaser 'yarn', but not very artistic, subtle, complex, or literate. Stephen Lang is terrible as the macho military commander (read "evil incarnate"), but then with lines like "On my mark", "light her up", and "take em out", he couldn't be very good no matter what. I'm not sure that 3-D would help this much, and I'm also not sure why people are going to see this over and over - I suppose because no one reads great science fiction novels any more. Cameron's Aliens is still a better sf film (so is Terminator 2), even that film's limited dialogue was better and funnier, as in "game over, man, game over!", and "then why don't you put her in charge?"

Note: Ironically, the IMDB avg fan rating is 8.4 - I didn't see this until after I ranked it, but that was my original rating, before rewatching it. It's currently #93 on the IMDB 250, but that will probably fall over time as fans are the first to rate these, then they slowly decline to their more proper place. Cameron's Aliens is ranked #53.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino, 2009 (8.2*)The world's wildest director has gone B-movie plus with this wild WW2 fantasy, in which he holds his imagination in check until the last reel, then the infamous Tarantino style is in full display.

A miscast Brad Pitt (a Tennessee officer with a bad imitation southern drawl) organizes a group of Jewish soldiers in a scene lifted from the Dirty Dozen, into a group of "Apache" styled renegage killers, who beat Nazis with a bat and take their scalps as well. The idea is to be so brutal in response to Nazi brutality as to send rumors through occupied France that some incarnate devil Jews are creating fear and mayhem while remaining untouched themselves. Along the way they get help from an escaped Jewess named Shosanna who now runs a Parisian cinema, which shows German films regularly, and also an expatriate German actress, now a double agent.

Most of the scenes here are almost painstakingly slow, then erupt in some sort of violent death. There are visual references to many other films, buffs will catch them. There are even more musical references, many stolen from other films outright - spaghetti westerns seem to be the top reference, making it hard to take this as a serious film, but more like a tongue-in-cheek pastische of subtle film homages.

Enjoyable if you don't look to deep, and don't mind some occasional brutality. The film is stolen by the funny and erudite performance of Christoph Waltz, who won the film's only Oscar® and dozens of other acting awards worldwide as the man known as "The Jew Hunter". The film's script also won numerous awards. Fans of Quentin's will love this, others will perhaps be bored and scoff, I was sort of in-between: there are much better WW2 films, but there are worse Tarantino films; in fact, this may be his best after Pulp Fiction.

Currently ranked #86 on the IMDB top 250


Friday, May 14, 2010


Lajos Koltai, Hungary-Germany-UK, 2005 (8.2*)
Based on the true story of 14-yr old Hungarian Jew Gyorgy, played by Marcell Nagy, who was sent first to Auschwitz then Buchenwald by the Nazis. Beautifully shot in b&w, from a novel by Nobel-winning author Imre Kertész. At the time he's coming of age, for a normal teen, Gyorgy is having to both learn to survive and also to learn what it means to be Jewish and persevere centuries of persecution.

Certainly not a pleasant story, but still an inspiring one. Nagy is excellent in the title role, aided by production being shut down for awhile to find new investors, giving the young actor the appearance of being severely aged by the travails of the concentration camps. This is an overlooked holocaust film, and Jewish Heritage Month is a good time to view this one if you haven't, as it's one of the better made films of this genre from a technical basis. Kudos to director Koltai for adapting the novel into a powerful visual statement of man's inhumanity.


Friday, May 7, 2010


Rob Marshall, 2009 (7.7*)
Like a Fellini film, this musical tribute to his classic is a bit surreal and disjointed, but is still entertaining to watch. The cast, featuring no less than seven Oscar®-winning actors, is very good throughout, even though many are here just to perform one musical number each. In particular, Kate Hudson and Penelope Cruz are surprisingly good singers, and Fergie, Nicole Kidman, and Judi Dench are also better than expected. We already knew that the superb Marion Cotillard, understated here, could not only sing but act.

Perhaps the biggest waste is that Daniel Day Lewis doesn't get to display his skills much, and the ageless Sophia Loren is relegated to a minor role as his mother, though she does deliver her song quite well - who knew she could also sing? Lewis plays filmmaker Guido Contini, who has no script but some exciting ideas in his head, which become this film, individually exciting but no cohesion, just like his life.

The best parts of this film are the art direction, the music, and the cinematography, which is partially done in b&w to simulate the look of Fellini films. There's also a touching scene with Lewis and Dench at the waterfront of a small coastal town. Fans of musicals won't be disappointed at all, as this is at the level of a Bob Fosse production. Though shunned by most critics, it received ten nominations from the broadcast film critics, but only four Oscar® nominations, including Cruz for supporting actress.

Find the video for Hudson's "Cinema Italiano" number, which took six weeks of rehearsal, and is terrific - she's even dressed like her mother, Goldie Hawn, a go-go dancer in the 60's, and who only wished she could sing like her daughter.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Fred Zinnemann, 1955 (7.4*)
This musical is so corny that it actually begins with Gordon McCrae as cowboy Curly riding beneath corn "as high as an elephant's eye" as he sings in the opening song 'Oh, What a Beautiful Morning'. Though not a Rodgers and Hammerstein fan myself (too simplistic and childish for me), I'll have to admit that I found myself singing this song for days afterwards, as it's definitely one of their best. In fact, this musical, their first, is probably their best overall, and I'd include 'Surrey With the Fringe on Top' as another of their best songs. Apparently in this obviously 19th century time frame, this was the best transportation available for impressing a woman on a date.

The story here won't hold much examination as it features the odd competition for Shirley Jones' affections (her first role) between McRae and the burly but thick-headed Rod Steiger as farmhand Judd. For some reason, director Zinnemann chose nearly an entire cast of non-singing actors, such as the awful Gloria Grahame (her singing may cause severe spinal pain) and Edward Albert as a traveling Persian salesman - no kidding. An odd choice, given that McRae is perhaps the best musical singer ever - his talent makes the others fairly unendurable, but may give one goosebumps as he hits all the high notes as well.

The pacing is pretty uneven, especially the unending picnic lunch auction-social dance scene, which unnecessarily seems to take up a third of the entire film - a scene which also implies that you can buy a woman for good, given that McRae and Steiger each risk their entire life's fortune for a meal of Shirley's - this also seems to border on the idea of 'women for sale' to the highest bidder. The story would probably have been better if made less serious (such as the final confrontation) and more humorous, for those lighter moments are the outstanding memories of this pleasant if hokey and cornball entertainment. The mouth-watering color in the dvd restoration makes this a must-see for fans of musicals of either the Hollywood or Broadway variety. Winner of two Oscars®

Note: I actually gave this a slightly higher rating than the fans at IMDB, where it's rated 7.1, but by only just over 4,000 viewers. One viewer wrote "a must for fans of Western musicals" - puzzling since the only other one I can recall is the terrible Paint Your Wagon, though I guess one can include The Harvey Girls, and perhaps Seven Brides for Seven Brothers as 'westerns'. Still, it's the tiniest of sub-genres, so this one is clearly tops. "Oklahoma, OK!"


Monday, May 3, 2010

The Fortune Cookie

Billy Wilder, 1966, bw (7.8*)
Ok, maybe not Wilder's best comedy, but it may well be the best performance by Walter Matthau, earning him a well-deserved Oscar® for supporting actor, after mostly undistinguished minor dramatic roles. This is also his first teaming with Jack Lemmon, as he plays the shyster lawyer brother-in-law of Lemmon's sideline football cameraman for CBS, injured on a punt return by Boom Boom Jefferson (Ron Rich). You can see the ambulance-chasing wheels turning in Matthau's every move as he seeks to extract a huge financial award from the insurance company for Lemmon's faked back injury.

For his part, Lemmon has to play mostly straight man with morals to Matthau's oily smooth orchestrations as nearly all the comedy comes from the parody of lawyers without any scruples when money is involved. The funniest scenes are when Wilder parodies our overly litiginous society, all the lawyers are hilarious caricatures of men with nothing but dollar signs in mind. The more serious issues injected here, such as Boom Boom's alcoholism, dampen the comedic flow somewhat and keep this from being as funny as it could have been.

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, The Seven Year Itch, Sabrina, The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, Witness For the Prosecution.


Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Major and the Minor

Billy Wilder, 1942, bw (7.6*)

This pleasant pastry is master director Billy Wilder's first as a director after several successful screenplays, with Ninotchka probably the best known. In the screwball tradition pioneered by Ernst Lubitsch, whom Wilder knew and admired, Hawks, Capra and others, this preposterous story has a thirty-something Ginger Rogers try to pass as 12-yr old Susan "Susu" Applegate in order to get a half-fare train ticket back home to Iowa from New York. On the train, she hides from the conductor in the sleeper berth of military major Ray Milland, who is not really a comic actor, on his way to a military academy though he'd rather be somewhere close to the impending war.

This plot is the perfect sitcom idea, even though it borders on tipping the prurience scale as Milland lets what he thinks is a 12 year old girl sleep in his cabin and hang out with him for several days, in spite of his fiance's suspicions that all is not as it seems. Of course, everyone falls for Ginger, including the 400 cadets at the academy, and of course Ginger slowly falls for Milland and is of course jealous of his fiance.

Not Wilder's best, and perhaps squeaky-voiced and petite Jean Arthur would have been a better choice for this role, but still a classic screwball comedy and one worth seeing. It's obvious that Wilder wanted to please the studio and audiences in his first film as director. He would, of course, soon shock the film world with the radical classics Double Idemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Stalag 17 - and would make better comedies in Sabrina and Some Like It Hot, but this film is still a must for Wilder, Rogers, and screwball comedy fans alike.


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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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