Sunday, August 29, 2010

Curb Your Enthusiasm: Season 7

David Mandel, Larry Charles, Robert Weide, 2009 (9.0*)

Excellent season of Curb is their best ever. Not wild about the early seasons, in fact, I quit watching them as the non-stop self-degradation of creator-writer Larry David, who did the same for the Seinfeld series (the character of George was based on Larry himself), became a little predictable, tiresome, and unrewarding. Larry plays 'himself' and is perhaps too little talented a comedic actor to pull it off regularly. He seems to generally lack energy or commitment; he only has a self-centered arrogance delivered in the style of a permanent curmedgeon. Not even his younger (and hotter) wife seemed to make him happy.

However, this time Larry took a year off and wrote 10 brilliant episodes, which revolve around the fact that his wife, Cheryl Hines, has left him (small wonder! she's a gorgeous and younger blond), and he envisions putting together a Seinfeld reunion so he can write in a part for her and win her back by spending time with her on the set.

The series begins where season 6 left off, with a family of African-Americans still living at Larry's house, who were displace victims of hurricana Katrina in New Orleans. Ironically, it was his wife Cheryl who brought them there to begin with, now Larry is involved with the single mother. In fact, Leon steals several scenes he has with Larry, especially when heavily laying on the slang, even using Mitvah as a verb: "I totally Mitvahed his ass", when he impersonates a sick Jewish friend of Larry's to fool Michael Richards (Kramer).

Some of these episodes are the funniest in the entire series: Larry gets into a physical knock-down fight with Rosie O'Donnell in public at a restaurant; at Larry's golf club, he is attacked by the club's symbol, a large black male swan; he dates two women in wheelchairs to appear unprejudiced. The major bonus: we see the entire Seinfeld cast, including 'Newman', playing their actor selves going through a script read and rehearsals; we also see the 'reunion' episode being put together, but as a Curb story, not as a real reunion show. We even get to see Larry doing Jason Alexander (who's hitting on his ex) doing George, who is doing Larry! Is that complex enough Jungian comedy for you?

The actors, in interviews on the 2nd dvd, said this was the only way this could occur, as part of the Curb series, and they only did it because of the way Larry put it together, as a story within a fictional series, but one based on real lives. By the way, much of the original Seinfeld set was pulled out of the archives of the Warner-Brothers tv 'museum', and restored but also updated a little, as if ten years later Jerry is in the same apartment.

This season has some excellent guest stars: Rosie, Christian Slater, Meg Ryan, Elizabeth Shue, and others, along with the continuing stars Richard Lewis, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen playing themselves as Larry's Hollywood friends.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Book of Eli

The Hughes Brothers, 2010 (8.1*)
In a bleak, post-apocalyptic world not much different from the world of Mad Max, Denzel Washington plays a lone drifter named Eli, determined to follow his path of faith and deliver a secret book he's carrying to a place he's never been. Along the way, he comes across a town controlled by evil Gary Oldman, in one of his best performances, who's sending out patrols searching for all books in hopes of finding the one he desires, one that will give him control over the masses.

Oldman's slave, the blind Jennifer Beals (better than usual) is dependent on him while trying to protect her daughter, Mila Kunis, as much as possible, while Oldman uses her as a sex-slave to gain favors. There are some great small roles here filled by Tom Waits as the local pawn shop and engineer; Michael Gambon, who has survived with his wife and a minor arsenal; and the uncredited Malcolm McDowell as a curator of mankind's past.

Though maybe too violent for some, there are enough surprises in this story, good performances (from all except Kunis, whose talent and beauty totally escape me, I just don't see either), and a terrific electronic and futuristic music score, to make it better than the average apocalyptic dreariness, such as the dreadful The Road, from last year. In fact, add it to the imaginary list of top 10 post-apocalytic stories, as the pickings are lean after The Road Warrior.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

Era Notte a Roma

Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1960, bw (8.0*)aka Escape By Night
An important wartime film from Italian director Rossellini, who is perhaps not in the same league as Fellini and De Sica, but still a worthy entry into both WW2 and Italian realism genres. Rossellini is better known for his affair with Ingrid Bergman and producing offspring Isabella with her, but he also belongs on that short list of important Italian directors to emerge after the war.

In this story, three Allied prisoners, one English, one American, one Russian (how appropriate!), all escape and flee into the Italian countryside. There they are protected by locals out of a sense of Christian charity, and are smuggled into Rome, where they are hidden in an attic by black marketeer Esperia, wonderfully and credibly played by the beautiful Giovanni Ralli, who won best actress at the San Francisco Film Festival, and who dominates this film. The soldiers promise to leave as soon as possible rather than endanger Esperia, who risks a Nazi firing squad, but get trapped as they are surrounded by Nazis and collaborators, while being helped by Allied partisans fighting as anti-fascists.

Beautifully shot in black and white, with many dark but clear night shots very expertly lit. This has the feel of the ominous paintings of Italian De Chirico. The film bears the innacurate and misleading western title of "Escape by Night", while the accurate translation is "It Was Night in Rome", a more fitting description of the film's action. Don't be fooled by the misleading marketing that implies romantic interest in Esperia by the Allies, that's just bogus PR as the film is thankfully not that trite or soapy.

Quote: "Before the war, everyone was a fascist; once the Allies invaded Italy, no one was a fascist"

Note: the Russian soldier is played by Sergei Bondarchuk, who went on to become a director, who helmed the incredible 7-hour version of War and Peace in the late 60's


Monday, August 9, 2010

Tea With Mussolini

Franco Zeffirelli, 1999 (7.8*)
A nostalgic comedy with a bizarre twist as a group of ex-patriate, aristocratic British women live in Florence, Italy, in the 30s, and who love all things Italian, especially the Renaissance art, but also Mussolini and the fascists ("they brought law and order").

Maggie Smith, perfect as usual, leads the troupe as the widow, Lady Hestor, of a former British ambassador to Italy. She is actually invited to tea with Il Duce himself in one memorable scene, as Mussolini is pretending to befriend England well before the actual war begins and promises the ladies his protection no matter what happens. Even though this seems a bit farfetched and lighthearted, it's actually based on true events, centered around an Italian orphan named Luca (Baird Wallace when grown up), befriended by the ladies and instructed in the arts, and whose coming-of-age tale this becomes. The real life Luca was actually a technical advisor on this movie.

The cast is terrific, as it also stars Cher as an American entertainer beloved in Italy, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, probably the best of the actors here, and Lily Tomlin, as a tough, masculine archeologist. The cast also has a great dog, a little Jack Russell that is actually the director's dog Nikki. Excellent on detail like costumes, and a bit preposterous enough to be both a unique and a memorable tale, but also a bit lighthearted in light of the setting in history. It's not often that you find a comedy featuring a character like Mussolini.

Quote: "Il Duce has a right to his empire - we live in a time of great dictators"


Friday, August 6, 2010

A Prophet

Jacques Audiard, France, 2009 (9.0*)
Palm D'Or, Cannes
This is an excellent prison drama, the best since Shawshank Redemption, and it won the Palm D'or at Cannes likely because it sticks with you long after you've seen it. The pace takes awhile to become engrossing but once it does it has the viewer in a hypnotic spell.

Blurbs compare it to The Godfather but it's not about a family clan, nor multi-generations - it's a coming of age story for a shrewd survivor, wonderfully performed by Tahir Rahim as an 18-yr old suddenly thrown into prison for striking a policeman in a brawl. The prison is primarily controlled through bribery by the head of the Corsicans, Cesar, brilliantly acted by Niels Arestrup - after just one scene you forget he's acting; he even looks like a criminal, with greasy white-blond hair and a menacing glare.

Rahim is an Arab outsider, a non-Muslim, unwanted by both sides so he's recruited by Cesar to betray another Arab, and thus begins his education within prison, which is also mirrored by his own desire to take language classes while there. He also learns a bit of Corsican by observation, and quite a few more things about people, as this film is about culturally divided classes and complex inteactions among Arabs, Muslims, French, Corsicans, southern Italians. Everyone mistrusts all other groups yet are forced to interact for self-preservation.

This is superb piece of filmmaking all around, and an engrossing story. There's a little violence, hardly any compared to American films, and a couple of R rated sex scenes which some have compained about, and is perhaps a bit long at 2:30, so it's more like a diamond in the rough. I'll have to see the film that beat this out for the foreign language Oscar®, it's hard to believe this lost.


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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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