Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Italian

aka Italianetz
Andrei Kravchuk, Russia, 2005 (8.4*)

Based on a true story, you might call this a realistic, modern version of Oliver Twist. The story is about Russian orphans, and this centers on a six-year old boy named Vanya, realistically portrayed by Kolya Spiridonov. The title comes from his nickname, given after a visiting Italian couple decides to adopt him, and he then awaits the two months of bureaucratic paper shuffling. He becomes the envy of most of the others because few will be adopted, and almost none go to warm climates like the Mediterranean.

The orphans go out daily and make pocket change however they can, with some of the teenage girls prostituting themselves. At night, they pool their money in a common fund, and discuss their dreams of a better life. Some simply want to be adopted, but most would like to find their birth mothers. The adults here are mostly shown as alcoholics and mercenaries, though most truly wish a better life for all the kids.

This is a harsh reality, yet a story filled with optimism and simple pleasures, when an ice cream or chocolate candy can literally make someone's day. Spiridonov has done a remarkable job with both casting and directing non-professional actors. You probably will not find a more realistic look at modern orphans, and along with Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay, one of the best post-Dickensian orphan tales.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Beyond Silence

Caroline Link, 1996, Germany (8.5*)
Director Link's first film, and a very good debut film as it won 10 international awards at various film festivals, and garnered a nomination as best foreign language film, an award Link later won in 2002 as director of Nowhere in Africa.

This is a very unique family film, as Lara, wonderfully played when older by Sylvie Testud, who won one acting award for her role, is born to deaf-mute parents, and grows up in a world of silence, as she communicates to them using sign language. Her aunt Clarissa, a beautiful readhead played by Sibylle Canonica, is a clarinetist and catalyzes Lara's interest in music by giving her the first clarinet she owned as a child for Christmas. Lara quickly takes to the instrument, which gives her rather drab life something meaningful.

Her dad, well played by Howie Seago, has been at odds with music since childhood, as his sister often played with their dad, who played piano, leaving the deaf child out of the interaction, so he prefers a house of silence. This drives Lara to seek a music education in Berlin, where she moves at the invitation of her aunt.

This is a beautiful story, without histrionics or sentimentality, something rare in films of this nature. Link always shows a deft touch in daughter-parent relationships, something she explored again in Nowhere in Africa. This is a very rewarding, touching story of a young girls coming-of-age amid harsh circumstances.

Awards page at IMDB

Note: if you like this film, be sure to see Chen Kaige's Together, about a young virtuoso violinist in China and his father, who will go to any length to see his son succeed in music.


Thursday, September 16, 2010


Danny Boyle, 2004 (7.9*)

Long before he did Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle explored the same idea of rags to riches with the comedy Millions. Two brothers are playing in an empty box next to the railroad tracks, one saying he would wish for a big bag of money to come their way. About the same time, a train passes and someone throws a big bag of money off the train, which tumbles down the hill and into the boy's makeshift clubhouse!
Thinking the money fell from heaven, the boys hide the money, and begin using it to help others, a la Robin Hood. Soon complications arise, however, as some adults begin to get suspicious of the boys' activity.

This film raises ethical issues not bothered with in Slumdog, as in that film the money was legitimate. In this case, the origins of the loot may be criminal, making the kids accessories after the fact for not turning it in. Being rather poor, it also asks if people would 'do the right thing' or help their own desperate situation when given the opportunity.

Not as engrossing as Slumdog, but along with his first film Shallow Grave, yet another examination by Boyle of the theme of sudden riches presented to the downtrodden, and how it would change multiple lives.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It's Complicated

Nancy Meyers, 2009 (8.1*)
This was a surprising romantic comedy, as director Nancy Meyers' screenplay has enough comedy to overcome the tendency of this type of 'middle-aged' sex comedy to get serious about relationships. Divorced for 10 years and with her last child moving out for college, French pastry cook Meryl Streep is having a hard time living alone, while ex-hubby Alec Baldwin has re-married to a woman half his age, a domineering Hispanic woman (Lake Bell), whose main interest in him is as an insemination factory.

The two run into each other in New York at their son's college graduation, and while reliving old times have far too much to drink and fall into bed with each other. Thus begins the complications for each. Meanwhile, Streep is having an addition built to her house, and finds architect Steve Martin a pleasant and non-threatening possible romance.

Alec Baldwin is hitting his comedic strides, and carries the comedy here, while Streep carries the drama. Ironically, Martin is the straight man, but with one hilarious scene with Streep at a party, as the two begin the evening by smoking a doobie given to Streep by Baldwin.

This was nominated for some awards (though overlooked by the Academy): a Golden Globe for comedy, a BAFTA for Baldwin for supporting actor, and actually winning best ensemble cast by the National Board of Review. Definitely fluff, but pleasant and funny enough to make it worth seeing, as the cast is superb, and the script by director Meyers is both witty and engaging.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Touch the Sound

Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2004, Germany (8.2*)
The most sought after percussionist in the world is Dame Evelyn Glennie, a dimunitive woman from Scotland who was voted "Scottish woman of the decade". She is considered to be the first person to have a career as a solo percussionist. She can play anything that can be beaten with sticks, plastic tubes, horsehair bows, or really anything handy she happens to pick up. Even more amazing: she started going deaf at age 8, and by age 12 was designated to be 'profoundly deaf'. She wanted to continue her music career, so she was taught how to feel the sound of drums by touching them with her hands, and she can now perceive tones in her body.

In this film, director Riedelsheimer explores not only her music, but also what drives her creativity internally. She knows how to appreciate a Zen-like silence, saying that 'silence is one of the loudest sounds she's heard'. We are shown Dame Evelyn playing solo, creating improvisations with fellow experimental musician Fred Frith in a large vacant warehouse, and playing drums with some Japanese koto drummers, who say that it all comes from breathing.

She is an amazing woman, knighted before age 40, and is unlike anyone else you will see on film. A virtuoso adult musician, she seems to have the same inquisitive curiosity about sound that children have exploring their surroundings. This film won 5 awards at film festivals, most for best documentary. I lowered the rating a little due to less concentration on Evelyn's music and more on the visual aspects of her life.

Thomas Riedelsheimer makes gripping documentaries about uniquely talented individuals that most will never hear in the mass media. Rivers and Tides is about environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, and is an arresting visual film, while this one is more awe-inspiring for it's audio.

Here is a clip of Evelyn playing a marimba solo from the film:


Thursday, September 9, 2010


Clint Eastwood, 2008 (8.2*)
This Eastwood film is probably not as perfect as others of his recent films, such as Gran Torino and Million Dollar Baby, but thanks to Angelina Jolie's best performance it is still a rewarding crime-mystery film. She is the mother of a child who disappears while she is at work, and the L.A. police, who are corrupt and getting nothing but bad press, try to give her a different child to accept as her own in order to get some good press.

She refuses to accept the charade in spite of being incarcerated in an asylum by police order, and enlists as much help as possible to get to the truth. She receives much support from a local preacher with a radio show, John Malkovich, who agrees with her and drums up a storm of publicity on his radio program.

Without giving away too much, this gets pretty creepy (of the flesh crawling type), and is based on a true late 20's crime case, with only the standard "some characters are fictitious", while Clint claims that 95% of the story presented is based on historical documents. The film's only real weakness is that is runs about 20 minutes too long at 2:20, with several anticlimatic epilogues - every time you think it's over we get more followup. This story is tough to review spoiler-free.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Beetle Juice

Tim Burton, 1988 (8.4*)
Sure, it's silly and uneven, yet this comedy of Tim Burton's is perhaps his funniest film. A young newlywed couple, played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin, who excels at comedy, move into a very nice New England country cottage, then nearly immediately drown in a freakish car accident. They wake up as unknowing ghosts, apparently still alive, yet soon realize that they are not in reality any longer.

A new family led by spouses Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones, and with a young, nihilistic teen played by Winona Ryder, buys the house and moves in. The newlywed ghosts want the family to leave, so they try haunting them away. They fail and enlist the help of "the ghost with the most", Beetlejuice, wonderfully played by a hilarious Michael Keaton.
Actor Glenn Shadix [photo rt] has a wonderful turn as the interior designer, Otho, who dabbles in the occult, pretending to be an expert when he has no real experience. [This review is being posted in his honor, as the actor was found dead today in his Alabama home, at 58, apparently after falling from his wheelchair]

Basic comic nonsense ensues to the delight of the audience. Don't look for much here other than comic fantasy, which this delivers quite well. Actor Keaton chose this film (over Burton's Batman) as the one of his work he'd put in a time capsule if limited to one.

Quote: "Go ahead, make my millenium!"
Quote2: "Hey, this could be a good look for me" (after having his head shrunken)


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Carrie's War

Coky Giedroyc, 2004 (8.8*)
Thankfully the British never tire of two things: filming Masterpiece Theater, and WW2 stories. This is another film about child evacuees from London being sent into the British countryside, in this case Wales. From the excellent novel by Nina Bawden, this story is an engaging family-safe story about a teenage girl, Carrie, excellently played by Keeley Fawcett, who ends up with her brother at the home of a stern, religious shopkeeper, Alun Armstrong, and his widowed sister, Lesley Sharp.

Soon after arriving, they are sent on a short journey to nearby Druid's Bottom, owned by the shopkeeper's sister, to fetch a Thanksgiving goose, and meet the wonderful self-proclaimed white witch Hepzibah, lovingly created by appropriately named Pauline Quirke, who fills the children with timeworn tales of a curse on the house and a 'screaming skull' which must be kept in the house of ill befalls the homeowner. They also meet the shopkeepers estranged sister, named Mrs. Gotobed, Geraldine McEwan, an engaging elderly widow who's wearing a different ball gown daily that were gifts from her husband, saving his favorite for her last day on earth, which she seems to know is coming. Add Carrie's evacuee friend Albert Sandwich, Eddie Cooper, who is staying at Druid's Bottom, and you have some wonderful Dickensian names.

This is another coming of age story during wartime, a subject brilliantly explored in Goodnight Mister Tom, starring the late John Thaw of Inspector Morse fame in his finest film performance. These two Masterpiece Theater films would make a great double-feature for the whole family. Carrie's War won four BAFTA awards, for makeup, design, costumes, and music. It's hard to believe that no actors won supporting awards.


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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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