Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Last Station

Michael Hoffman, 2009 (8.6*)
Normally films about authors are tedious and uneventful, but The Last Station, due to superb acting and a very interesting, intimate screenplay, manages to remain engrossing until it's dying breath. It follows the last days of the author Leo Tolstoy, forever beloved in Russia due to War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Oscar®-nominee Christopher Plummer turns in his finest performance in a long career as the elderly author, well beyond his years of creative fiction and now more interested in creating a new world movement of pre-Communist 'Tolstoyans', who denounce private property, the superstition of religions, and even the pleasures of the flesh. Instead they strive to create peaceful communes where individuals are allowed freedom without attachment to personal wealth, material concerns, or nationalistic endeavors.

Helen Mirren, also an Oscar® nominee, is her usual perfect self playing his suffering wife, who fears that his new found asceticism may cause him to rewrite his will and give the rights of his creations to the public domain, thus robbing his widow and his children of their inheritance.

Thrown into this family dispute at Tolstoy's country estate, called Polyana, is James McAvoy (Atonement) as a new secretary for Tolstoy (Valentin Bulgakov) appointed by Paul Giamatti (as Chertkov), who heads the organization of Tolstoyans, but who is under 'house arrest' by the czar's agents, so he sends Valentin there as his eyes and ears, instructing him to write down everything and report even insignificant details to him.

Valentin, whose is really the subject of this film, is sent to live in a nearby commune of Tolstoyans, where he is thrust into a romance with the agressive Masha, sensually played by Kerry Condon, who initiates him into the new philosophy of 'free love', in spite of the Tolstoyans denouncement of sexual activity. Valentin becomes torn between his love for Masha and his adherence to the master's new philosophy, which Tolstoy himself admits he doesn't really follow, reveling in memories of a promiscuous sex life, even writing the details so his wife can read about his exploits.

For me, this was an enlightening expose of Tolstoy's private life. I found his prose difficult at best, finishing War and Peace only after two aborted attempts, and decades apart. The film claims he's the most celebrated author in the world, but for my money, Charles Dickens and James Conrad are infinitely more interesting and rewarding. However, I found Tolstoy's personal philosophy very appealing, and this film, in spite of some soapy dramatics, more rewarding for me than any of the films of his novels.

Ironically, even with 10 best picture nominees, this one was slighted, with nominations only for Mirren and Plummer. Mirren proabably should've have won her second Oscar®, and Plummer his first, but who can figure out Hollywood voters? (No one will ever convince me Sandra Bullock is in the same league as Mirren). This was easily one of the best five films of the year, in fact, second for me only to the winning Hurt Locker. It may be a little 'soapy' for some, but Tolstoy's novels were even more sentimental and melodramatic; this was less so for me, more compact and to the point.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Women

George Cukor, 1939, bw (8.0*)
This pleasant bit of fluff is one of the first, most archetypal of the all-talk films, where the characters don’t do a lot actually, they just talk about their lives, a style later copied by The Big Chill, Diner, Metropolitan, and My Dinner With Andre. This group of women congregate at a dude ranch out west, and discuss their philandering husbands, new romances, and other 'women's issues'.

What made this film was the expert direction of master George Cukor (My Fair Lady) and the cast: Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard, Bary Boland, Joan Fontaine, Marjorie Main, Hedda Hopper (as a columnist, naturally; she always plays herself). The dialogue and script are witty, never dull, and though hard to classify as comedy or drama, or to give it’s flimsy stories much weight, it’s still a sparkling film to watch today, and likely the first to feature an all-female cast - no doubt it's a film of a stage play, it has that look as a film.

In a year considered one of Hollywood’s best, this film stood above the more celebrated, along with Goodbye, Mr. Chips and The Rains Came.


Saturday, June 26, 2010


Deepa Mehta, India-Canada, 2005 (9.5*)
In India during the late 1930's , Young Chuyia is married at just eight, and her husband dies of disease, making her a Hindu widow, who basically have no cultural rights as they are considered "half dead" rather than still alive. They are committed to a small communal ashram which survives by begging. Life within the ashram is harsh for such a young girl, who keeps expecting her mother to come take her home. She's just gone from having a husband and parents to having no one but strange women around her.

She is befriended there by a beautiful prostitute, Kalyani, played by the gorgeous Lisa Ray, who has the grace of a young Audrey Hepburn. On a daily visit to the river, they meet Narayan, a handsome young lawyer, played by matinee idol John Abraham (photo left), who is struck by Kalyani's grace and beauty. Traditions threaten to interfere with their lives however, even though Naraman is modern, a follower of Gandhi, trying to help get beyond the caste system and other societal prejudices and treat all as equals on the eve of India's independence.

The film is stolen by young Serala as Chuyia, in her first film - she is captivating onscreen and you never feel that she is acting at all, just being a little girl overwhelmed by her childhood freedom ending far too soon, and chained to a culture's unbending traditional ties. Mehta frames every shot with a photographer's eye for beauty in lighting and color. Beyond the story, the artistic quality of this film will interest all serious cinephiles; one soon realizes that Mehta is one of the best directors around, certainly one of the best female directors of all time. Features beautiful music by double Oscar®-winner A.R. Rahman, not as pop as his Slumdog compositions and better-suited for the film's action here.

Note: This third film in Mehta's "trilogy", which began with Fire and Earth, caused quite a bit of controversy in India upon release; traditionalist Hindu organizations tried to get the film banned.



Deepa Mehta, India-Canada, 1998 (8.8*)

aka 1947: Earth

From the novel Cracking India by Sapsi Sidhwa, this courageous film from director Deepa Mehta on the 50th anniversary of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan proves that she belongs in the ranks of brilliant worldwide female directors.

A small circle of friends in Lahore (which will become Pakistani) that surround the beautiful Hindu nanny Shanta, perfectly played by Nandita Das, represent all the major religious factions of India, and they are worried how the upcoming splitting of India into two countries will affect the major sub-cultures. Each side accuses the other of being the more violent historically, and you can feel the tensions rise as the event draws closer.

Events eventually culminate that will leave you emotionally shocked, and I'm sure this film generated much discussion. Banned in Pakistan, and with major censorship in India, especially for a sex scene which was still allowed to show a lot for that nation which generally bans onscreen kissing.

Part of a trilogy by Mehta, begun by Fire (96, also banned for its Lesbian theme), followed by the even more artistic Water (review to follow), about Hindu widows. She has a terrific photographer's eye, as well as a sensitivity to the effects of a society and its customs on the daily lives of individuals.


Friday, June 25, 2010

The Two of Us

Claude Berri, France, 1967, bw (9.4*)

aka Le vieil homme et l'enfant
Originally: The Old Man and the Boy

One of my favorite French films by my favorite French director, Claude Berri (Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring), this is a joyous black-and-white classic. In occupied WW2 Paris, a Jewish couple are afraid for their young son's (Alain Cohen) safety so they send him off to the countryside to live with an elderly couple who become surrogate grandparents. Apparently they are unaware of his background, for the old man, Pepe, voices anti-Semitism during radio broadcasts of war news, repeating the propaganda he hears on the radio.
Pepe is wonderfully played by veteran actor Michel Simon, whom Berri coaxed out of retirement for this part (he looks like a French W.C. Fields with the red nose, just look at the dvd cover!), warms up quickly to the lad and becomes his partner in play as its obvious that having the kid around has given him a rejuvenation after a quiet retirement and slow country living.
Berri never makes this a sad or bitter war film, but a happy, joyful celebration of a child with a grandparent. The war, if it exists, is in another realm altogether, without the radio no one would know it was even occurring. Berri's first film is a beautifully shot b&w classic, instantly heartwarming without sentimentality or banality, one of those rare subtle masterpieces.
If you include it in the war or holocaust genres, which is really a stretch, it would be one of the more memorable of either. It's really a children's film, and a film for parents of all ages who love kids, yet children won't understand the reason that Claude is sent away nor for the mystery surrounding his background. All-in-all, this is a must-see treat for all cinephiles. Berri's epic two-parter, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, is my favorite French film and one of my fave epics of all-time.


Thursday, June 24, 2010


Roland Joffe, 2000, France (8.6*)

Based on a true story, King Louis XIV (Julian Sands) of France visits a bankrupt prince, who happens to be France's best general and Louis needs him for a planned war with Holland. The prince spares no expense, all from creditors, to entertain him for three days, all planned by his steward Vatel, played by Gerard Depardieu, a master of illusions, who can create a vase of flowers out of sugar and food dye.

The king's mistress Anne de Montausier is attracted to Vatel's honest dignity, played by Uma Thurman in a role almost a sequel to her's in Dangerous Liaisons, so we are treated to musical beds at night as nearly everyone is after the fair madame, including the king's Marquis, played by Tim Roth.

But the real star of this film is Depardieu, and the illusions Joffe creates with the sets. In one scene, painted plywood outside creates the illusion of being in Versailles; they drop to reveal a tropical tableau with man-made golden palm trees. Since this is based on history, one wonders if these are the exact set pieces designed by Vatel for King Louis. Entertaining costume and historical drama throughout, and one of the more opulent French films.
Quote: My brother hates tulips, he'll be delighted if we war with Holland


Monday, June 21, 2010


Coline Serreau, 2001, France (9.1*)Serreau, brilliantly weaves a complex tale of crime, friendship, romance, and revenge using one of the most engaging scripts (which she wrote) in recent memory. To say this is also an archetypal women's lib film is an understatement. A middle-class married couple on their way to a dinner witness the beating of a prostitute on the streets and don't help her. The wife, perfectly played by Catherine Frot, investigates out of guilt and begins to unravel the story of the young woman from her beginning in a male-dominant culture to her present life in Paris.

Serreau never lets the viewer tire as the film flawlessly shifts gears in a complex spiral until we not only get the complete background story but are propelled forward into a totally unexpected future involving all the main characters she introduces. This is one of the few films I've wanted to stand up and applaud when done, or at least give Serreau an imaginary high five for superb craftmanship throughout.

Winner of four international awards, two by stunning newcomer Rachida Brakni as the prostitute. Along with Diva and La Femme Nikita, the best of modern French crime cinema.

Note: on the dvd cover it says "think Run, Lola, Run meets Thelma and Louise", which basically means action-packed, but this story and screenplay are much better than those, even though nothing moves as fast as Run Lola (which is appropriate, as she's running more than not)


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese, 2010 (7.8*)

This is Scorsese's tribute to Hitchcockian melodramas, in my opinion, aided by an exotic island location which holds a maximum security asylum for the criminally insane, and an earnest if strained performance by Leonardo Dicaprio. The film is full of stormy atmosphere, disappearing psychos, mysterious doctors; in fact, all it's missing are the Universal logo and Boris Karloff and you'd have a classic 40's horror film if done in black and white.

I've actually heard people say that this is Scorsese's best film, while others have placed it closer to his worst (impossible with Bringing Out the Dead in his filmography), so it's obviously not an 'accepted classic' of his. I guess it really depends on how jaded a film fan you are, for this is really not a new story, the 'twist' is not that unexpected, and one gets the feeling that 'I've seen all this before'.

The most misleading marketing in recent history has all the ads touting this as a Hitchcockian suspense-horror film, yet it's far closer to A Beautiful Mind and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, being more about states of insanity than any horrific mystery. I'm not sure if Scorsese's real fans will find this as rewarding as his more serious efforts (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Departed), yet it's an engrossing enough story to hold one's interest until the cliched plot unravels. Look for terrific character actor Ted Levine, the killer in Silence of the Lambs, in a small part as a prison guard.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I'm Not There

Todd Haynes, 2007 (8.8*)
Done in the rambling style of a 60's Fellini film (notably 8 1/2) by director Todd Haynes and given the name of an unreleased song from Dylan's "Basement Tapes", this is an inventive and non-formulaic fantasy, not a docudrama, but an inventive art film that improvises on the various mythic personae (7 here, played by 6 different actors) of Bob Dylan, some self-created, such as an 11 yr old black "Woody Guthrie" based on Dylan's own tale give to NY journalists, and character "Billy" from the Pat Garrett/Billy the Kidd songs.

Cate Blanchett deservedly won 9 int'l acting awards (but curiously not the Oscar® or BAFTA) for her dead-on portrayal of the 'electric era' Dylan often at odds with his folk-purist fans, capturing his personality without trying to impersonate him; as always, she is simply brilliant. Christian Bale is also effective as the early folk singer making his mark in Greenwich Village, and as the later 'newborn evangelist'. Heath Ledger plays an actor made famous by playing Dylan in a mid-60s biopic, while Charlotte Gainsbourg is subtle and stunning as his troubled artist wife. Along with Ledger's, perhaps the most incongruous story line is the western "Billy", played by Richard Gere, seeking solitude in a mythic 1800's town and location (Riddle County); this storyline is not about Dylan but his musical characters, and his own occasional retreat into reclusivity to escape the media and fan limelight.

Often shot in 60's style black and white, often jumping from one character/story to another, sometimes feeling improvised, these variations in style actually help the film stay lively and interesting, as well as constantly surprising the most jaded of film fans. Only those expecting a straight narrative will be disappointed, and this should interest both Dylan fans and those who simply respect his amazing achievements, of giving a voice to the most important era of the postwar generations: the emerging movements for both civil rights and ending the Vietnam war. In fact, Dylan gave voice to both 'beatnik' and 'hippie' generations, when non-conformity and exercise of freedom became the battle cries of youth disenfranchised with the military-industrial war machine controlling the world's governments.

This deservedly WON a Rolling Stone magazine poll for non-documentary music biopics (over Ray and The Doors); even had Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" not given the name to both the magazine and the rock group, it still would likely have won this poll as it's the most ambitious and inventive rock film since Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night, which is itself parodied in one scene with Cate's "Jude" character cavorting in the grass with the Beatles on the set of that film. This is a film that almost immediately begs for a re-watch, and will certainly be on every list of must see rock movies.


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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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