Saturday, October 30, 2010

Half Moon

aka Niwemang
Bahman Ghobadi, France-Iraq-Iran, 2006 (8.6*)
A legendary elderly Kurdish musician named Mamo (Ismail Ghaffari), living in Iran, has finally received government permits, after months of trying, to travel to Iraqi Kurdistan for a final reunion concert with his sons.

They set out on the journey in a derelict bus, but Mamo feels he needs a female singer (Golshifteh Farahani), who are banned in Iran, one he remembers who has the 'voice of a siren'. This excursion to a town of exiled female singers leads to one of the most unforgettable scenes in all of film, as hundreds of women line the rooftops of the town and sing in unison. This scene alone makes this film a must-see for all cinephiles, as there is nothing like it in any western film.

Mamo's journey becomes a metaphor for life, with the old bus becoming a symbol for old, failing bodies. Ghobadi's films are eye openers for those of us in the west - his Turtles Can Fly is perhaps the best anti-war film ever made, in which he used real Kurdish war orphans as the cast to tell an unforgettable and poetic tale.


Friday, October 29, 2010


Majid Majidi, Iran, 2001 (8.4*)
aka Hamsay-e Khoda
A locan Iranian teen, Latif (Hossein Abedini) loses his position at a construction site to an illegal Afghan refugee named Bahrat (Zahra Bahrami, who does all her acting with just her eyes, never speaking a word), hired because an accident injured his father with a broken leg. He seeks revenge through a series of pranks, only to discover that Rahmat is actually a girl. Local officials are constantly raiding the site, searching for illegal Afghan workers, who work for less and take jobs away from Iranian citizens (gee, sound familiar?)

Latif begins to feel for the girl, forced to lift heavy bags of cement and to do other demanding labor, and begins to seek out her family in a nearby village of refugees. He discovers more about himself as he finds out about the plight of Raman's family.

This is a small unpretentious film, perhaps a bit light on story development, that says a lot about the universal human condition, and especially about war refugees forced out of their native lands and to seek survival any way they can. It manages to be touching without sentimentality, and loving without romance or personal concerns.

Majidi's films (Children of Heaven) concern the poor and working classes and their struggle for survival, and hopefully can help westerners dispel their prejudices against this part of the world and other religions.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Almost Famous

Cameron Crowe, 2000 (8.8*)
When he was a 15-year old teen, Crowe convinced Rolling Stone magazine through some letters that he was an adult rock music critic. Surprisingly, he was selected to follow an up-and-coming rock band on the road and report on the tour. This film humorously documents that period in Crowe's life, and Crowe himself won an Oscar® for the screenplay.

Patrick Fugit plays the teen, William. Frances McDormand is terrific, as usual, as his mom, Mrs. Miller. Kate Hudson, daughter of Goldie Hawn, was a breakthrough as groupie "Penny Lane" (obviously named after the Beatles song); she steals the movie, and garnered an Oscar® nomination for supporting actress as a result. [photo rt, w Fugit]

Jason Lee and Billy Crudup are the singer and guitarist in the band. This is a funny and at times touching take on the lifestyle of rockers, from the band to the fans to the critics. This is one of the more fully realized rock music films, which should make it of interest to all film fans, not just rockers. If you like this, check out his earlier (and even funnier) grunge rock comedy Singles, from 1992.

Overall, the film won 44 awards and got 120 nominations (awards page at IMDB), making it one of the biggest critical successes of any rock film. Both Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand won multiple acting awards for this, and Crowe won several for his screenplay, several for film.


A Hard Day's Night

Richard Lester, 1964, bw (8.6*)
Perhaps dated a bit by time, talented British director Richard Lester attempts to comically show the world the typical day in the life of The Beatles at the height of the mania inspired by their combination of pop music hitmaking and photo-congeniality, which made them the new Elvis in the hearts of teenage girls worldwide. This movie was in such demand that I remember having to buy tickets in advance, like a music concert, that every showing sold out, and we had to try to hear the film over the unending screaming of all the girls in the theater, especially when they showed Paul onscreen.

Lester does a great job combining the wackiness of silent era comedies, particularly Buster Keaton, with the quirky personalities of the individual Beatles, which was more on the side of amiable British eccentricity rather than frightening sociopathic menaces. These were guys that our moms wouldn't mind having over for dinner, even though, of course, they'd like to give them haircuts first.

This film will remain a seminal rock history movie, as the world could barely take another bad Elvis film, and this gave the genre a needed shot in the arm. The film's cinematography and editing are top notch, placing it levels above all rock music films that preceded it. The film ends in a short version of a Beatles concert, so we're given basically a live performance rather than the canned and dubbed fare that Hollywood was dishing out to pop music audiences. Unfortunately, it also spawned the tv pop pablum beginning with the Monkees, which almost made one hate Lester for what he started.

This will remain a must-see for Beatles and 60's music fans, for others it will be a shallow and silly mockumentary style slapstick comedy, with hardly the weight of a guitar pick. There's no real story here (the Ringo attempt at drama is laughable), it's just an excuse for a dozen music videos, and to introduce the world to more Beatles songs and a ready-made multi-million selling soundtrack.

Unfortunately, this refreshing and well shot black and white classic was followed by the atrocious color disaster Help! That had an even worse pseudo-plot about a magic ring of Ringo's, him being chased by primitives, and there the music videos seemed entirely injected and out of place, so neither the story nor the music worked in that one. At least it produced one of John Lennon's best songs, "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away".


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Youth Without Youth

Francis Ford Coppola, 2007 (8.3*)
Francis Coppola's first directorial effort in ten years is a complex, science fiction edged story based on the novel of Romanian author Mircea Eliade. Underused veteran actor Tim Roth, who is always interesting, plays an elderly linguistics expert, Dominic, whose true love has died, and his own research is at a standstill, when he's struck by lightning while crossing the street one night in Austria in the 30's.

He emerges from the burns a much younger man, and apparently oblivious to aging. His first task is to avoid Nazis and scientists, for he realizes his freedom and life would effectively be over. Dominic eventually meets a woman whose own catharsis is born of lightning, so he finds a new purpose in his research.

Much of the film uses the science of linguistics - languages used in the film include English, Romanian, French, Italian, Mandarin, German, Russian, Latin, Armenian, and ancient (and authentic) Sanskrit, Egyptian, and Babylonian.

This film is another that is not straightforward chronologically, and therefore will anger many viewers who need a nice neat storyline. Here the effort will be rewarding to the more diligent viewer, as the haunting and original story will linger for days afterward.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Paper Chase

James Bridges, 1973 (8.2*)
From the novel by John Jay Osborn, Jr., this is a realistic look at the competitive and stressful nature of the first year of law school for a group of freshmen at Harvard. Led by Timothy Bottoms, he and his friends learn they must survive Prof. Kingsfield, an autocratic and tyrannical professor of contract law, who bases his evaluations on the daily browbeating of students using the 'Socratic method'.

While wondering if he's in the right career, Bottoms meets and gets a crush on Lindsay Wagner, without knowing her true identity, which I won't spoil here. The stress of academic life is relieved occasionally with this romance, which some may find unnecessarily distracting, and some light humor, yet the overall tone of the film maintains the stressful nature of law school. Students get summer jobs as apprentices at law firms which could hire them after graduation, so the pressure is on from year one.

Former producer John Houseman (Julius Caesar) is the perfect overbearing yet respectable professor (the epitome of aristocratic haughtiness), earning an Oscar® for this former producer who's rarely seen in front of the camera (Three Days of the Condor), and who certainly steals this movie. Houseman repeated his role for a successful cable tv series based on this film that ran for four years, but it lacked the bite of the original film. The first film directed by James Bridges, who would follow this with The China Syndrome and Urban Cowboy.


Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Sam Wood, 1939, bw (8.6*)
Based on the novel by James Hilton (Lost Horizon), this is perhaps the quintessential Hollywood film about a teacher, in this case a Mr. Chipping, wonderfully played by Robert Donat in a career defining role, an uptight professor at a private boys school. Over time, he opens up and gains the affection of literally thousands of students in a heartwarming story of transformation. On a vacation (and around age 50), he meets the enchanting Greer Garson (half his age, in the supporting role that made her a star) hiding out from a storm, and she changes his life, as well as giving him his nickname, Mr. Chips.

Perhaps the one flaw in the film is that we get a lot of detail in the beginning and end of his teaching career, but the central portion that forms the core of his adult life is shown as a montage of calendars and images of time passing in just a minute or so. I felt cheated of the stories that would have made the students revere and honor him. We're visually led to believe that simply time moving by is responsible.

Mr. Chips was nominated for 7 Oscars®, including picture, director, screenplay, actress, actor - and many today feel that it was a better picture than winner Gone With the Wind. Robert Donat did receive a well-deserved best actor award, upsetting the more popular Clark Gable. Don't bother with the musical remake starring Peter O'Toole; it's one of those that lends argument to prohibiting remakes at all.

I suppose were I to rank the top films of 1939: (1) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (2) Goodbye, Mr. Chips (3) The Rains Came (4) The Wizard of Oz (5) The Women
The Rains Came actually won the special effects Oscar® over favorites Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, for it's incredible depiction of an earthquake, dam collapse, and flood in India in 1916 - it's an underrated and under-viewed classic, featuring perhaps Myrna Loy's finest dramatic performance.


The Chorus

Christophe Barratier, France, 2004 (8.8*)
One of the few really good films about teachers, a worthy successor to 1939's classic school drama Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Clément Mathieu, a new teacher, played by Gérard Jugnot, volunteers for a remote music teaching post. He thinks it's maybe a small private school, but it turns out to be a near prison for juvenile delinquents, and he's basically a warden as well as a teacher.

This story is about how he gains the affection of his students, as well as shaping their dormant musical talents. This simple story never overreaches nor preaches, but remains perfectly within itself. This heartwarming film was nominated for two Oscars, foreign language film and music, and won 11 international awards (Awards Page at IMDB), 3 for music, 7 for director Barratier. On a short list with Mr. Chips and The Paper Chase (James Bridges, 1973) as great films about influential teachers.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Werner Herzog, Germany, 1972 (8.6*)
German director Werner Herzog often became obsessed with films about obsessed men in pursuit of personal dreams above all other concerns in life. He often chose German actor Klaus Kinski because, as Herzog said, "he was quite mad", and his elastic face seems to project the madness outward for the world to see. Their confrontations are legendary, with the crew having to save Herzog from Kinski's homicidal attacks on occasion.

Kinski is the perfect choice to play Aguirre, an obsessed Spanish conquistador in South America who leads a small band of explorers on a quest for the golden city of legend, El Dorado. This is an adventure of Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) proportions, as the descent into the wilderness coincides with Aguirre's spiritual descent.

Herzog and Kinski work best together when filming Europeans in primitive settings - Fitzcarraldo is perhaps their best and most fully realized adventure, about an opera lover determined to bring a steamship into the jungle rainforest to provide a floating platform for opera performances. The documentary Burden of Dreams shows just how obsessed Herzog became to achieve this film.

Here, in a film made during a hiatus in the Fitzcarraldo shooting in South America, we get to witness some of Kinski's best acting as a madman descending further into madness in search of the yellow metal. Fans of Herzog, Kinski, or John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre will like this one.


Cobra Verde

Werner Herzog, Germany, 1988 (7.8*)
Another of director Herzog's adventure films in South America with madman actor Klaus Kinski. Kinski here plays a local Spanish bandit, named Francisco Manoel da Silva, but called Cobra Verde by the locale natives, a man avoided by all when he wanders into town.

A local plantation owner decides he is just the sort of man to oversee his slave operation for his massive sugar cane farms. He soon impregnates all his daughters, and as punishment, is sent to Africa to manage slave procurement there, work not completed in a decade due to local uprisings. The authorities are certain they are sending Cobra Verde off to his death.

However, like Herzog's other films with Kinski, this is about a white man surviving and interacting with local indigenous populations. Though not as fully satisfying as Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath of God, this is the last of their five films together as Kinski died soon after this release, and is still a worthy entry into what could be called the "South American Trilogy" of the Herzog-Kinski collaborations.


Sunday, October 24, 2010


Gillo Pontecorvo, Italy, 1959, bw (8.4*)
A long overlooked holocaust story is now available on dvd. Director Pontecorvo is best known for the ultra-realistic war docudrama The Battle of Algiers, which is a must see for fans of both war films and Italian cinema. Before making that classic, he gave us a smaller war film, yet a universal story no doubt enacted over and over in World War II.

Susan Strasbourg gives a strong and realistic portrayal of a 14-year old Jewish girl thrown into a concentration camp with her parents. She quickly realizes that children and the elderly are being executed, so she assumes the identity of an adult criminal in order to survive. She becomes a favorite of the SS officers due to her youth, and they eventually make her a kapó, prisoners who are quasi-officers above the other prisoners, who basically work for the Nazis and against their own brothers in order to get more food and other benefits.

This is not a pleasant tale, but a heroic and realistic one. Those who enjoyed Schindler's List and Stalag-17 should also like Kapó, it's that good, and belongs on the short list of excellent holocaust and prison films, and films with strong women.


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kaufman, 2008 (7.6*)
Many will be confused and maddened by this complex and epic dark poem to one man's creative and spiritual abyss. Charlie Kaufman is best known for writing some of the most interesting screenplays in the last decade: Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which won Kaufman a screenplay Oscar®. However, unlike those films, here Kaufman also directs his own work, and he seems less reigned in than when directed by Michael Gondry and Spike Jonze.

The story is about theater director and playwright Caden Cotard, brilliantly but sadly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who receives a 'genius grant' and builds a hugely complex epic play about his own life. The cast, sets and growth of the main set to gargantuan proportions are as complex as this story, as over 200 sets were used as the play grows to last most of Cotard's adult life, as he seems to become dissociated from time, with years compressed into what he feels are days.

The supporting cast of women is superb - Catherine Keener, Dianne Wiest, Samantha Morton, Emma Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh are all standouts. Keener is Cotard's artist wife who takes their daughter and flees to Berlin, a failure which haunts the rest of Cotard's life, especially his romances, as Cotard is more consumed by his artistic creations than any woman he encounters.

Only Kaufman could write a story this complex about a small life, featuring literally a hundred characters, getting to the level of one playing Cotard directing the play about himself, working alongside him daily like a Doppelganger shadow, who also knows intimate details of Cotard's personal life. This is not a pleasant film, but is a richly conceived and complex dark comedy on the consumption of an artist by his self-indulgent obsession with his own life. This will interest cinephiles and fans of Kaufman's other works, but will likely bore the masses and those more desirous of an easy to follow and happier narrative.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Fall

Tarsem Singh, India-US, 2006 (7.8*)
This visually striking film from Singh (The Cell) really requires two ratings, as others have done, as there are two distinctly different stories here. The main story is that of an injured, semi-paralyzed stuntman (Lee Pace) recovering in an L.A. hospital in 1920. He befriends a curious little girl of six named Alexandria, wonderfully played by Romanian Catinca Untaru, who is there for a severely fractured arm. Much of her dialogue was ad-libbed, as director Singh said 'she won't buy any words written by screenwriters anyway'.

Roy has lost his career, his fiance, and as a result has become suicidal. He tells the girl a fantasy story in fragments each time he sees her, tailoring the story to suit her expectations and to keep her interested. His fantastic tale involves five mythological heroes, starting with Alexander the Great, since his audience is named after him, who is lost in a desert land without water for his army.

This tale eventually expands to include a freed slave, a masked bandit (who is Roy in disguise), a mystic born from a tree, and naturalist Charles Darwin and his pet monkey, who gives him many ideas which Darwin can apparently understand, even though spoken in 'monkey'.

Various scenes of this tale are shot in Italy, India, Chile, South Africa, Spain, and other worldly locations, making this a visual treat to devour - a veritable smorgasboard of cinematography. People are often dwarfed by immense landscapes or opulent palaces. Detracting from the fantasy is the story set in the reality of the hospital and Roy's depression.

At times feeling like a fantasy from Fellini or Antonioni, or a painting from Magritte or Dali set in motion, the visual feast offsets the hospital story and the two are interspersed enough to keep the viewer engrossed. The acting from child newcomer Untaru, with a wonderful Romanian accent when speaking in English, is simply amazing - you can't help but fall in love with her. However, the acting from Lee Pace, better known as the pie chef on tv's wonderful fantasy Pushing Daisies, leaves a lot to be desired. I kept thinking this would have been a perfect part for versatile actor Tim Roth, but it's above the dramatic talents of Pace, who's better suited to comedy.

As soon as I saw the visual landscape, I thought, 'this is simliar to The Cell', and as it turned out, it's from the same director. Where that film was dark and foreboding, the fantasy portions of this one are light and airy, like a balloon trip over wonderland. Not many films are this visual - it brings to mind Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Cell, Antonioni's Red Desert, but it's much lighter than all of those; just don't expect a very satisfying story from the reality side.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Time Traveler's Wife

Robert Schwentke, 2009 (8.2*)
This science fiction romance poses an interesting dilemna, how does a woman maintain a solid relationship with a man who pops into her life at various times, beginning in childhood, while he himself is various ages?

Rachel McAdams is the woman in adult age, who has to cope with husband Eric Bana (Munich) at times being near, at times being out time traveling beyond his control. He at least seems to pop in and out of his own timeline rather than zip all around the universe or world. One advantage to this phenomenon is that she knows ahead of time that this will the love of her life.

This is both an engrossing science fiction tale and a tender romance. Based on the Audrey Niffenegger novel, I have a feeling that like most novels set to film that her book is likely deeper and more involved than this film, but it's still good entertainment, and far more interesting than the average romance, when the major problem seems to be how to work in 'business time' between all the self-centered interruptions of kids and relatives. This scenario thankfully avoids anything normal.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Zhou Yu's Train

Zhou Sun, 2004, China (8.1*)
This multi-layered romance will confuse some western audiences, boring many, and stimulate thinking and discussion about film style in others. A lot of what viewers will get from this will be based on what they take into it as experienced filmgoers.

On the surface, this is a simple romance about a porcelain painter, wonderfully played by Gong Li, one of the greatest Chinese actresses, who takes a long train journey twice a week to visit her lover, a poet (Tony Leung Ka Fai) who wins her heart with his tenderness and simple romantic poems to her he publishes in the local newspaper. She wants him to publish them in a book, feeling that he deserves a wide audience. She is also hounded on the trips by a brash but realistic vet, Honglei Sun, who begs her to quit traveling to a man not interested in commitment and stay closer to home, like with him. So she is pulled in two directions, one from the heart, one more from the body.

What makes this story more complex is that Gong Li plays a more modern woman with short hair, who also takes the train, and who is told this story from a third-person point of view, so we begin to wonder if this actually happened or is a fabrication of the poet as an author of a romance, perhaps based on the inspiration for his poems.

If you want a linear and clear story moving from A to C to get to conclusion D, this will frustrate you. If you enjoy Chinese films that are more about feelings, visual poetry, and life constantly in motion and change, then you will likely be haunted by this film for days to follow. I could make a case for either argument. Fans of the visual non-linear films of Wong Kar-Wai should enjoy this one from director Zhou Sun. Think French New Wave, a la modern China, with the rolling landscape and train also being major characters, as life is as much about the journey as the destination.

Note: Gong Li is so amazing that, as some said, I could watch her read the phone book. Her best film is Zhang Yimou's To Live (1994), winner of the Palm D'or at Cannes.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Vantage Point

Pete Travis, 2008 (8.2*)

Getting it's inspiration from Kurosawa's Rashomon, this action thriller involves the President, William Hurt, being shot in the beginning of the film while appearing in public to address the crowd at an international summit in Spain. We are then shown the same event in small flashbacks from the points of view of various characters each with a different perspective and role in the crime.

We see the events unfold live at first from a CNN-type media command center, led by Sigourney Weaver as the director of the live tv newsfeed. Dennis Quaid plays the lead secret service agent on the site (Matthew Fox his assistant agent), and we begin with his viewpiont of the crime from eyewitness level. Before we are done, this gripping story is unfolded from the points of view of 8 characters, including the perpetrators and ground-level crowd eyewitness Forest Whittaker. We are eventually brought up to the present again, and the action continues forward from there.

Don't expect anything cerebral here, this film is about action, violence, stunts, and politics - as a book it would be called a 'classic page-turner'. The fact that it modernizes and politicizes Rashomon makes it worth seeing for classic film buffs, and it should also please the action-adventure crowd that enjoyed such films as The Kingdom, The Parallax View, and The Manchurian Candidate.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Children of Huang Shi

Roger Spottiswoode, Australia, 2008 (8.8*)
Mostly in English, with some Mandarin and Japanese.
Due to high production value and exotic locations in China, director Spottiswoode has put together a modern war epic that recalls some of the biggest of the past. This is the story of British journalist George Hogg in China in 1937, who sneaks into the war zone by posing as a Red Cross worker delivering supplies. Caught by the Japanese shooting photos of their atrocities in Nanking, he is saved from beheading by a local Communist guerrila leader, an engineer educated in the U.S. named Jack Chen, played by Chow Yun-Fat. He has the film's best quote: "I'm now using my skills to blow things up; I find it somewhat more rewarding."

He is taken to a boys' orphanage for safety, where he becomes a teacher, helping a volunteer and war hardened Australian nurse, Rahda Mitchell (Finding Neverland, Miranda and Miranda) take care of the sixty boys. Michelle Yeoh is perfect as a local trader and drug dealer who also helps Hogg, providing seed for food and morphine ("You know what they say about opium - you still feel the pain but it no longer hurts"). Caught in the middle of the invasion, and with Jack's advice and help, they decide to move the boys overland to a location out of harm's way, on the edge of the Gobi desert.

This film encompasses a wide scope and scale, turning the war into a major adventure story. While I found lead actor Jonathan Rhys-Myers (The Tudors) a bit less than subtle, I was inspired enough by the story of Hogg to find this film to be among the best war biographies, ranking somewhat below Lawrence of Arabia, but above The English Patient.

This is similar to the story recounted in Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), which was the story of nurse Gladys Aylward, who also moved some orphans due to the war. Viewers who enjoyed those films should find this one to be just as well made but not as long. Look for a visual reference to The Last Emperor as well. Filmed in China and Australia.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Good Year

Ridley Scott, 2006 (8.0*)
Who could have imagined Oscar® winners Russell Crowe and sensational French actress Marion Cotillard in a romantic comedy? Apparently action director Ridley Scott did, who is best known for Alien, best picture winner Gladiator, and Blackhawk Down. Even though this is just plain fluff, it's enjoyable and heartwarming enough for most fans to get over any initial trepidation. I believe it is based on Peter Mayle's novel "A Year in Provence", though no one credits that book, which was previously filmed as a British mini-series.

The film begins with Crowe's character Max as a young boy, played by Freddie Highmore (who was much better in a more demanding role in Finding Neverland in 2004), an orphan who is living with his uncle Henry, played with a gusto for wine and women by Albert Finney, at the latter's French chateau in Provence, complete with a vineyard. Henry doesn't balk at educating young Max on what it takes to enjoy life, and produce a fine wine, as well as how to taste one.

We immediately jump to a grownup Max, who is now a callous, cutthroat bond trader in London, with no time for Henry, vacations, or a relationship. When he gets the news of Henry's death, he grudgingly goes to the chateau to see what state it's in so he can quickly sell it and come back to work. However, he unexpectedly meets and falls for local restauranteur Marion Cotillard, who unabashedly bares her bottom in public [photo rt] to show him a bruise caused when he unknowingly ran her off the road on her bicycle as he fumbled with his GPS while hunting for the chateau.

What follows is an affable (and more classic film style) story with a great supporting cast, especially Didier Bourdon as Francis, his vigneron, his irascible elderly father, his terminally cheerful wife, and his hilarious Jack Russell terrier, Tati, who takes an immediate dislike to Max, first biting his leg, then peeing on it. An unknown, illegitimate cousin also shows up, surprising everyone, the cute and sexy Abbie Cornish, who also has "quite a nice bum", as all note; of course, the skeptical Max suspects a goldigger who heard of Henry's demise. Of all the characters in the story, only Max wants to sell the chateau.

Don't expect much here but entertainment, beautiful scenery, and fine wine and French food; unfortunately you can't sample the latter two unless you bring your own. Scott and Crowe surprised me with their subtle handling of comedy, which is gentle and never over the top, except perhaps an early scene when Max is trapped in the bottom of an empty swimming pool. All in all, "very easy on the eyes", and the brain.

Perhaps I'm a sucker for Marion Cotillard; I could watch her cook or just sit still and be perfectly happy. I think she is the best actress since Meryl Streep, and can certainly sing and dance a lot better, as she proved in La Vie En Rose (winning an Oscar® for actress and 18 other awards) and Nine. She also won a French César for supporting actress in A Very Long Engagement. I just did a post on her life at World's Best Films, calling her "the actress of the century". For my money, there is no finer combination of beauty, talent, and sex appeal alive today.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Blood of My Blood

aka Sangre de Mi Sangre
(originally titled Padre Nuestro)
Christopher Zalla, Mexico, 2007 (8.2*)
Grand Jury Prize, Sundance

This is a gripping suspense story of a illegal teenaged immigrant to the U.S., Pedro (Jorge Adrián Espíndola), who heads to New York in a semi-trailer with other illegals to find his father (Jesús Ochoa), armed with a letter sent to his mother and a locket with their picture as proof that he is his father's son. Unfortunately, he befriends a criminal in the trailer, Juan (Armando Hernández) who steals these at the end of the trip, and who begins to pose as the son himself, finding the father through the address on the letter.

The illiterate Pedro ends up lost on the streets, and enlists the help of a drug addicted prostitute, Magda (Paola Mendoza), who helps him, but of course for money, which Pedro doesn't have, as that was stolen also. The film follows the stories of all four, which are eventually interconnected through the father.

This gritty streetwise story, perhaps a bit overlong, has an excellent screenplay, realistic cinematography, a unique music score, and the acting is right on target - one feels that the actors are pulled from real life and not film auditions. This is unlike most U.S. films, since small realistic endeavors like this won't make enough money to get filmed here, yet it's similar in style to early Scorsese, notably Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.

A nominee of several awards at film festivals, and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival.


Friday, October 8, 2010


Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland, 2006 (8.0*)

Grand Jury Prize, Sundance
This small indie film (in Spanish w subtitles), shot in the Hispanic district around Echo Park, Los Angeles, revolves around the Mexican title ceremony for a young girl turning 15, when she "becomes a woman". The film begins with one such ceremony, for a member of the middle class, who can afford the expensive dresses and limousines to the dance. I suppose this is similar to the debutante balls usually given for upper class white girls to present them publicly as marriageable young ladies to a group of eligible bachelors.

However, in Magdalena's case, played by Emily Rios, she has discovered she is pregnant at 14, thus dishonoring her father and family (and before her own quinceañera), who is a rather strict part-time preacher who runs a local grocery store. She goes to live nearby with her great-uncle Thomas, wonderfully played by Chalo González, who emigrated to the U.S. decades earlier. Also there is her troubled gay cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia, whom you've likely seen before), both of whom find acceptance without judgment by the elder family patriarch, while being disowned by their own parents.

The film was shot by directors Glatzer and Westmoreland in the same neighborhood where they live, and locals loaned them their houses and acted in the film, which lends much veracity to this simple yet heartfelt story. Those unfamiliar with the Hispanic sub-culture in L.A. will learn a lot from this film, which won several awards at film festivals, including the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival. Both Rios and Garcia were nominated for acting awards, but for me the film's best is Gonzalez as uncle Thomas.

Awards page at IMDB.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Very Long Engagement

aka Un long dimanche de fiancialles
Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France, 2004 (9.2*)
One of the best French films in recent years stars Audrey Tautou as Mathilde, whose fiance, Gaspard Ulliel, a Cèsar award winner, is serving at the front in WW1. This film of the novel by Sebastian Japrisot is one of the best yet made about this war, along with All Quiet on the Western Front and Kubrick's Paths of Glory; some even prefer it over Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan as a modern war film. I would have to admit that this film is more surprising, more innovative, and interesting, to me at least.

Jeunet deftly blends a romance, a mystery, and a war story by constantly shifting from one character to another as Mathilde searches for her fiance. At times the screen is split, and we see Mathilde's fantasies, along with events happening at other locales, to other characters.

This is such a major film that Oscar® winners Jodie Foster and Marion Cotillard each play supporting characters, with Foster speaking French. Cotillard is very effective as a vindictive lover out for revenge on all who wronged her man. One unforgettable scene has her using mechanical ingenuity as a weapon.

Well-deserved Oscar® nominations for art direction and cinematography (it won the American Society of Cinematographers award) makes me wonder why it received no nomination for foreign language film; the BAFTA awards did not make this same mistake. This has the feel of all great war epics, without being overlong at just 133 minutes. One would be hard pressed to find a more powerful WW1 film.

It won 16 awards overall, five Cèsars in France, losing best picture there to Games of Love and Chance. Awards page at IMDB


Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Secret in Their Eyes

(El secreto de sus ojos)
Juan José Campanella, Argentina, 2009 (9.5*)
Best Foreign Film (AA)

A retired couselor, played by Ricardo Darín, who worked for the court system in Argentina, is writing a novel about a homicide case that haunted his career. He goes to visit a former female colleague, Soledad Villamil, to discuss the case and get some input for shaping the story for his novel - he wants credibility, he's not just writing a memoir. The original homicide case, as well as the couple's work history, is then shown in flashbacks, from the time the politically connected Irene is newly hired into the office of a court judge where Benjamin is a dedicated and determined mid-level bureaucrat.

What follows is a complex and sophisticated crime story, which takes the viewers on a serpentine path that wanders from past to present. At times this is a mentally engrossing puzzle, but at others can be a brutal, conscience churning exercise in trying to understand the will and methods of governments, especially one controlled by police state fascists.

Mixed with the homicide investigation is an undercurrent of romantic intrigue, as the older bachelor, mired in a anonymous obscurity, has an obvious attraction for the younger, attractive, but engaged Irene. This is understated but to some may seem an unnecessary sub-plot that detracts from the crime story; it's for this reason that I didn't rate this a 10. Still, the screenplay, from a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, is terrific, as are the cinematography, editing, and Campanella's superb directing. This is one of the best crime films of the first decade of the new millenium, some are saying 'of all time'.

Including the Oscar® for Foreign Language Film, Secret won 34 international awards, and had another 19 nominations (awards page at IMDB). It's currently ranked #170 on the IMDB top 250, as rated by regular reviewers. It won 13 Argentinian academy awards with another 4 nominations.


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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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