Friday, December 31, 2010

The Pacific

TV miniseries for HBO, 2010 (9.0*)
Directors: Tim Van Patten, Carl Franklin, Jeremy Podeswa, David Nutter, Tony To, Graham Yost

[Happy New Year! I felt this to be a fitting tribute to 2010 overall as this series is from this year]

A worthy successor to the Spielberg-Hanks produced Band of Brothers (2001), which was perhaps the finest series ever filmed, and which would be ranked #1 at Internet Movie Database if included in their top 250 film list. Rated 9.6, it would be well above #1 film The Shawshank Redemption at 9.2, and #2 The Godfather at 9.1. The Pacific is rated 8.4 with only 13k votes so far, which would definitely place it in the IMDB 250 with a rank around 150.

While Band followed one company from training for D-day until the end of the war in Europe, The Pacific is based on the memoirs of two different privates in to units, named Leckie and Sledge. As a result, the story is not as cohesive nor as gripping as Band of Brothers, but viewers certainly get a feel for the hellish nature of the island-hopping, shifting frontline of the war against Japan from the marine point of view.

Much of the action takes place on Guadalcanal, Peleliu, and Okinawa. Once again, various directors filmed the different one-hour parts, so there's a bit of inconsistency of style. Also, the story shifts from the island fighting to the civilian stories in Australia and the U.S. which lessens the intensity. Another plus for Band of Brothers is that the survivors of the fighting were for the most part still alive for interviews that added both veracity and insight to that series. Unfortunately, in this case the principals had all passed earlier than filming; ironically both Sledge and Leckie died in 2001 (when Band was released), but each did complete books that chronicled their experience, all available now from the HBO site (see below).

Although overall the acting is not as good as Band, the unknown lead actors James Badge Dale (Pfc. Leckie), Jon Seda (Sgt. Basilone), and especially Joe Mazzello (Pfc. Sledge) are certainly all believable as soldiers. William Sadler (as famed "Chesty" Puller) and Gary Sweet (as Sgt. "Gunny" Haney) are terrific as older veterans. Gunny was my favorite character, the wiley older vet who has survived because of his skills, and the type of soldier that keeps others alive.

My favorite episode was part five, called "Peleliu Landing" on the dvd (when shown, none was titled other than "Part x"), which was filmed by black director Carl Franklin. That begins inside a landing craft of marines about to go ashore in a harrowing sequence that recalls the beginning of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Another harrowing part is nine, following the marines for months in Okinawa, directed by Tim Van Patten. Each of these episodes were singled out for Emmy nominations. Van Patten, Podeswa, and Nutter received directing nominations, but none won.

The intensity and impact of the series is also lessened by intervals away from the war, such as r and r in Australia and the searching for romance there, and following Medal of Honor winner Joe Basilone back in the states on a tour to promote war bonds and stamps. However, the overall series is an important contribution to the library of great war films, and valuable homage to the price paid by these soldiers, and is a must-see for all fans of history and war.

Winner of 8 Emmy awards out of 24 nominations. It's also up for a Golden Globe, yet to be awarded.

The home page for the series at HBO


Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Constant Gardener

Fernando Meirelles, 2005 (8.4*)
Ralph Feinnes investigates the brutal murder of his activist wife, Rachel Weisz, in Kenya. Told in flashbacks, he uncovers much more than he originally intended in this crime-espionage thriller from the novel by John Le Carre. Not his typical cold war intelligence fare, this is about corporatations involved in distributing medical supplies in Africa. This is more on the intellectual side, rather than action, and it's even more engrossing and to the point than most of his novels made into films.

Rachel Weisz won an Oscar® and Golden Globe and four other awards for supporting actress. Directed by brilliant Brazilian director Fernando Mierelles (City of God), who proves that he can direct films in English as well as his native Portuguese. Ralph Feinnes also won two acting awards for his performance, which I found to be a little spineless for my comfort.

Overall, Gardener won 21 awards out of 43 nominations


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy

Gore Verbinski, 2003-2007
The first pirate films in history to actually make money are based on the tame kid's ride at Disneyland, another first. The three films grossed over 2 billion dollars, and actually cost over 600 million to make. They succeeded by being unabashed mindless adventure films with plenty of violence, special effects, and no sex, the perfect PG combination allowing them to provide daycare for parents hoping to raise kids typically immune to violence to prepare them for the adult world, where, as Tarentino said, "if you kiss a breast, it's a R rating, but if you slice it off, it's only PG."

(1) The Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003 (7.7*)
[#233 in the IMDB top 250, rated 8.0 by 244k viewers]
The first film is named for the ship that is skippered by Johnny Depp in a drunken performance as Capt. Jack Sparrow, an engaging ne'er do well pirate with more makeup than an aging Keith Richards, who looks more like Cher than Depp. Ironically, he received a baffling Oscar® nomination for best actor. How cutthroat pirates are willing to follow a fairly effeminate buffoon of a pirate is never explained.

Olivier Bloom is only slightly more hetero as Will Turner, in love with Elizabeth Swann, played with vigorous anger by Keira Knightly, who somehow manages to keep from being mauled by shiploads of men as all battle the evil Dutch East India Trading Co, the first stock-based corporation in the world, which later went bankrupt in 1800. Here it replaces the British Empire, though seemingly run by British sailors, as the resident evil that has people cheering for the pirates. Geoffrey Rush shines as the former Black Pearl captain, intent on getting his ship back from Sparrow; to me, he actually steals the acting kudos for all three films.

26 awards, 73 nominations

(2) Dead Man's Chest, 2006 (8.2*)
[rated 7.3 by 155k viewers at IMDB]
Since these are really nothing but CGI based adventures for kids, I prefer the 2nd film due to two eye-popping sequences. Best in all the films is a swordfight with Depp and a company rep that begins on a water wheel, which rolls down the island hills and to the sea, while the two battle the entire time. Another involves the pirates being caught and bound in a giant net cage handing off a mountain cliff. The pirates rock it back and forth in order to grab land and pull themselves up. This also introduces us to Bill Nighy as Davy Jones, complete with a live beard of moving octopus tentacles, and a barnacle-encrusted crew.

30 awards (66 noms), 13 for special effects, including a special effects Oscar®. Two awards were for best film from MTV and People's Choice

(3) At Worlds End, 2007 (6.7*)
[rated 7.0 by 138k viewers]
The last film is the most disappointing, in spite of an eye-popping sequence at world's end where the ocean spills over into space, and two ships swirl downward into a giant vortex. This was a disappointing 'conclusion' to a story that had a promising beginning, a dreary slow-moving voyage to nowhere.
16 awards, 29 nominations

The three films totaled 72 awards out of 168 nominations, the lion's share for special effects and popular fan awards. In a hilarious dig at the series, on Family Guy, Peter Griffin wakes up and tells his family "I had the weirdest dream that I was on a pirate ship and the only one who wasn't gay was Oliver Bloom."


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Into the Wild

Sean Penn, 2007 (8.6*)
This is the true story of recent college graduate Christopher McCandless, who, after graduating from Emory U. in Atlanta, did not want to continue on to graduate school or join the work force hoping to achieve his own suburban dream like his parents. Instead he embarked on a spiritual quest of self-discovery like many others before him. Little-known actor Emile Hirsch turned in a subtle yet moving performance, and won some acting awards as a result, and made himself known around the world.

We get to see his story in bits and pieces, as he first leaves Georgia in a car, which is later found deserted after a flash flood in southern California, with no sign of Christopher, to the dismay of parents, former Oscar®-winners William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden. He then hitchikes to the Alaskan wilderness, within sight of Mt. McKinley, trying to survive in nature without any help whatsoever, armed with a book on edible wild plants, the optimism of youth, and an abandoned school bus as a home.

Two-time Oscar®-winning actor Sean Penn proved he could direct with this picture, making a seemingly simple travel story into a life changing voyage into the unknown, and a film not easily forgotten. Overseas, the film won some awards for best foreign film. The awards page at IMDB

Into the Wild moved enough people to be currently ranked #145 on the IMDB top 250.


Monday, December 27, 2010

No Country For Old Men

Ethan and Joel Coen, 2007 (9.0*)
Best Picture (AA)

Many consider this riveting crime drama to be the best film yet from the Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel. It certainly won the most awards, most going to the supporting performance of Javier Bardem, who created the 'bounty hunter from hell' in this, who leaves a trail of bodies in his wake. He is such a callous character, often making victims call a coin toss for their lives, that he became an immediate cult icon.

The film begins with Josh Brolin out hunting, and stumbling onto a group of trucks, bodies, and an apparent drug deal gone horribly wrong. This sets a chain of events in motion that baffles veteran sheriff Tommy Lee Jones, a worthy Oscar®-nominee for this himself.

It's almost as if an ill wind is blowing out of the prairie that no one can control; they can only follow it around but they can't stop it from blowing on everyone in its path. A hard film to pigeon-hole, it seems to be the perfect Texas crime story, and neo-noir for the new millenium.

Winner of Oscars® for picture, director, adapted screenplay (taken from the novel by Cormac McCarthy) as well as Bardem's (photo rt) supporting Oscar®. Accepting the award, Bardem said "worst haircut ever on film". Overall it won 94 awards, 20 of those for Bardem, out of 140 nominations, making it perhaps the most critically successful film of the decade.

Currently #119 on the IMDB Top 250


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Requiem For a Heavyweight

Ralph Nelson, 1962, bw (9.0*)
[posted on Boxing Day in the Commonwealth, and my birthday, as my dad and I were named for a boxer, William Lawrence Stribling, who lost to Jack Dempsey on a 15th round knockout while leading on all scorecards. Stribling was tragically killed just 3 wks later on his motorcycle before a promised rematch]

One of the best boxing stories ever, from a teleplay by Twilight Zone creator, author Rod Serling. This film was it's second filming, as it was originally a highly acclaimed tv playhouse drama special.

The terrific cast makes this film what it is. Oscar-winner Anthony Quinn plays an aging boxer named Louis Primera (too close to boxer Primo Carnera to be coincidental?) in the twilight of his career, his best days obviously behind him, and he'll never be champ. He's actually knocked out by Muhammed Ali in the beginning, called Cassius Clay at the time.

Jackie Gleason is superb as his manager, Maish, how they kept him from an Oscar is a mystery. Mickey Rooney is his cut man, while social worker Julie Harris optimistically has ideas for other careers.

There are some creative yet realistic plot twists that I won't reveal here, but suffice to say that this film deals with personal honor and dignity perhaps as well as any other sports story. That makes it perhaps my second favorite boxing film after Million Dollar Baby, as there's no performance in any boxing film as superb as Hilary Swank's; you can watch her actually become a boxer on film before your eyes.

This version is better than the teleplay for CBS Playhouse 90, which was actually done live, with Jack Palance in the lead role. For my money, Jackie Gleason, here and in The Hustler, is perhaps the most deserving of those shut out all-time for an Oscar®, he should have one for supporting actor out of these two.

[Other notables shut out include Peter O'Toole, with 8 losses, Richard Burton, Myrna Loy, and Edward G. Robinson, who never even got a nomination]


Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Stars Fell on Henrietta

James Keach, 1995 (8.6*)
This small indie film is the best film that is not available on dvd. I'm putting this review out as a hope to generate some interest in getting it released. The problem is that is grossed only 100k in the U.S., and at IMDB only 490 people have rated this movie - unreal.

Robert Duvall has one of his more likeable roles as a veteran oil man named Cox, who has been down on his luck in finding oil. He travels around with his pet cat, and comes across small rancher Aidan Quinn (as Don Day) and his family near Henrietta, Texas, who needs a miracle to survive. Cox tells everyone that he can "hear oil" deep underground, but only Day's very young daughter feels the same - Cox tells her that "she has the gift" as well. Frances Fisher is Quinn's disgruntled wife, and Brian Dennehy also has a major part.

This film reminded me of Frank Capra's optimistic depression-era films, and was directed by actor James Keach. We need more films like this sleeper nowdays, and it's a crime that it's still not out on dvd. Film companies owe it to the public to occasionally preserve an important piece of Americana without regard to profitability. I'm surprised that Robert Duvall hasn't used his clout in Hollywood to get this released, it's a minor classic to me and most who have seen it.

This is a much better oil drilling story than There Will Be Blood or Giant. I'm putting this out on Christmas because it's in the Capra tradition, and the story makes a good holiday gift to the world.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Mystic River

Clint Eastwood, 2003 (8.6*)
This is another riveting movie from director Clint Eastwood, one of his best. Sean Penn plays a distraught father whose daughter is murdered, and his emotionally powerful performance won him his first Oscar® for best actor. Tim Robbins is also excellent in a supporting role, and also won an Oscar®. The fact that each one turned in the performance of their careers is likely due to the directing of Eastwood.

It's hard to describe this film very much without giving away too much. Suffice to say that it's a homicide mystery with a terrific cast overall, and due to the emotionally charged performances, it's one of the better films of this genre in recent years. Eastwood really hit his stride after 2000, directing arguably his best works, beginning with this film.


A Christmas Story Trivia and Sequels

[The quiz part of this was originally posted here last Christmas Eve, 2009, also at World's Best Films]
Updated in 2010 with more trivia, film sequels, and more Jean Shepherd..

Click here for our original review of A Christmas Story

I thought on Christmas Eve that this would be a fun trivia quiz for fans of director Bob Clark's comedy A CHRISTMAS STORY, based on humorist Jean Shepherd's (who also narrates) first book of his collected stories, "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash".. The book is told from the point of view of Shepherd, now an adult, visiting his old home town again, but everyone has left, so he's sitting alone in a bar and reminiscencing about his childhood there, hence his memories are in adult vernacular. The title is a sign on the bar's wall that he keeps looking back at occasionally. [see below for more on Shepherd's books, they're all worth reading]

(1) what is Ralph's family name, and the street and town where they lived?
(2) name at least 3 items in the teacher's drawer where she puts the fake teeth, and her name?
(3) why does Flick lick the flagpole?
(4) who had yellow eyes and what was his toadie's name?
(5) why did Ralph's dad say he won the leg lamp prize and what country did he first think it was from?
(6) who was named Victor, in a contest for money?
(7) what's the first present that Ralph opens?

Bonus: name anything religious in the film...

OK - here are the answers, now that Christmas is past..

1-the Parkers, of Cleveland St, Holman, Indiana
2- Miss Shields puts the fake teeth in a drawer which has chattering teeth, a slingshot, a yoyo, Slinky, rubber frog, fake mouse, Groucho glasses, and a book called "Ace of Test Pilots" (with a rocket ship on the cover)
3-Flick has to lick the pole cuz he was "Triple dog dared", apparently avoiding playground etiquette but issuing the 'coup de grace' of dares - they used a suction device inside the pole for filming
4-Scut Farcus, the neighborhood bully, had yellow eyes and Grover Dill was his toadie
5-Ralph's dad said he won the lamp due to "mind power"; when he saw "Fragile" on the box, he thought it was from Italy, calling it "frah-gee-lay, oh look, honey it must be from Italy"
6-Victor was the Lone Ranger's nephew's horse (newspaper quiz his dad was doing, "on American literary characters" - too funny - his mom replies "The Lone Ranger is literary?")
7-Ralph's first present was a pair of socks, then the pink bunny outfit from Aunt Clara

The only 'religion' I could spot, other than mom's forgiveness for his fight (and constant tolerance of men), was the Salvation Army band playing carols in the beginning..

More Trivia

The most unusual thing was the constant intrusion of Wizard of Oz characters.. that seems more like a Halloween film, but it was shown on Thanksgiving when I grew up..

Thanks to the Bumpus Hounds (another story used is "Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds", about the Arkansas hillbillies who moved in next door, and immediately removed the back steps from the porch), the Parkers had their Christmas duck dinner at the Chop Suey Palace at the bowling alley. Our favorite Thai restaurant in CA was also at a bowling alley! of course, not the food inside the bowling alley, but in a restaurant adjoining said alley..

The house exterior they used was in Cleveland (passing for Indiana, in the stories the house was on "Cleveland St", so there is a literary connection), the interiors were shot in a studio in L.A... the house in Cleveland was bought by a fan, on E-Bay (!), and he restored it like the film, including interiors. Film fans now make pilgrimages there, usually around Christmas time.

There's a museum film across the street, with many of the original film props, plus you can buy the 'electric sex' leg lamps there, which was the Nehi Beverage Co. logo - that alone ought to make the trip worth taking! I've noticed that the Pardon the Interruption show on ESPN has the leg lamp in the background as a studio prop; now, for a sports talk show, that's just bizarre.

"What's that there", asked by Swede, was director Bob Clark. McGavin replies "that there's a major award".

The man who directs the kids to the rear of the Santa line, and the narrator, is author Jean Shepherd. He later had a hilarious show on PBS, a travel show called "Jean Shepherd's America". It began with the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, at night, with Shepherd narrating, "the primordial ooze from whence all life began".

More Jean Shepherd Films and Books

A sequel with Mary Steenburgen and Charles Grodin as the Parker parents, based on more stories of Shepherd's, most involving summer vacation, was My Summer Story. This film had more about the hillbilly Bumpus family next door. PBS also filmed The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Coznowski - (I believe it was a 1-hr film) of the story of his first big date in Chicago with a Polish girl. They also filmed Ollie Hoopnoodle's Haven of Bliss, about a summer vacation at a fishing 'resort'. Darren McGavin repeated the role of Ralph's father; I believe that one ran about 90 minutes.

Shepherd's story collections after "In God We Trust" are "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories", which are more high school oriented, and "Fistful of Fig Newtons", perhaps not up to the standard set by the first two. My favorite story of all is in the 2nd film (but the first and best book), "Leopold Doppler and the Great Orpheum Gravy Boat Riot", about a local cinema's give-away nights to lure crowds mid-week.

Shepherd had a way with names like no other American author, they're always funny and usually semi-describe the person already. "Ludlow Kissel and the Dago Bomb That Struck Back" is about a July 4th neighborhood fireworks show that goes awry. These would probably be best filmed for Cable or PBS as the original short stories, each about 20-45 minutes. Shepherd is, to me, the Mark Twain of the 20th century. He won numerous awards for humor. He captured an era of Americana like no one else, and his stories have made me laugh out loud more than any other literature; the films can hardly do them justice, Shepherd's prose is far funnier.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

Robert Aldrich, 1962, bw (8.4*)
Anyone who doubted that Bette Davis is the best actress of the 20th century only need see her sadistic domineering role in Baby Jane, where she plays a psychotic "American Sweetheart", a former child star gone mad who looks like a senile Mary Pickford or Shirley Temple with dementia.

Jane Hudson is former child star "Baby Jane", now retired in L.A. with only memories of her stardom. The object of adult Jane's ire is her partially paralyzed sister, Blanche, wheelchair bound and dependent on Jane's care, which includes being tied up and occasionally beaten. Long-time acting rival Joan Crawford is also perfect in this part, and based on the hearsay that they were never friends, one can actually feel Davis' hatred of Crawford, and imagine that she relishes the punishment she dishes out to her on celluloid. In one particularly creepy scene, she dumps Blanche on the floor then kicks her around like dirty laundry.

This is one of the more spine-tingling films ever put onscreen, for unlike a typical Universal horror film, here the violence and terror is all too real. We've all known elderly people who have a screw loose or two, but Jane has come completely unhinged altogether, yet is still in charge of her own life and her sister's. Blanche seeks help from outsiders, but is constantly twarted by Jane, often in the nick of time in true "Hitchkockian fashion".

The beauty of Davis' performance is that she can shift from demented anger to girlish charm as the situation demands, and yet she is especially creepy in either guise. Davis was only 54 when she played this part, but due to garish white makeup and especially baggy eyes, she appears to be in her 70's, yet still wears the dress and hairstyle popular when she was a child star. Only a true actor would allow herself to be filmed while looking worse than death itself.

She was nominated for numerous acting awards for this performance, including all the big ones (Oscar®, BAFTA, Golden Globe) yet won nothing. The film won 2 awards out of 12 nominations, one Oscar® for bw costume design, and was actually a runner-up at Cannes.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Black Stallion

Carroll Ballard, 1979 (8.5*)

One of the best horse stories ever, from the children's novel by Walter Farley. A young boy, played by Kelly Reno, on an ocean voyage is intrigued by a black stallion on board, when a sudden shipwreck strands them both on a deserted island. The boy and the horse become inseparable friends out of loneliness and mutual need.

After rescue, the two are returned home, and an aging Mickey Rooney, a former race horse trainer, gives a wonderful and Oscar®-nominated performance for supporting actor as he persuades the boy to race the almost wild stallion. Beautiful cinematography and an inspiring G-rated story make this one of the best family films. A classic in the Disney tradition established in the 1950's, this is my favorite Rooney performance on film; he's not so over-energetic and obnoxious in his older age.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Donnie Darko

Richard Kelly, 2001 (8.4*)
This version is the longer director's cut
Welcome to a "Harvey" from hell. Disturbed teenager Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) doesn't get along too well with anyone in his hellish life. His one friend is Gretchen, who, for some reason, agrees to date him. His psychiatrist discovers hypnosis can help unlock his secrets.

Donnie survives a bizarre accident, perhaps due to supernatural events, which of course will change anyone's life. His ally seems to be an imaginary rabbit named "Frank", which in this case is not quite so harmless and comical as Jimmy Stewart's friend. It sometimes causes him to do not quite the right thing.

This fantasy, bordering on science fiction, is also a mystery, a combination which has made it a cult favorite. Penned by director Kelly, it is a unique vision in recent cinema.

Currently #132 on the IMDB top 250 films, rated 8.3 (not sure I'd rank it this high, but it does have a cult following by now; the highest ranked film at IMDB has a rating of 9.2, because these are the averages of tens or hundreds of thousands of viewers, with 10 the top rank that can be given)

Winner of 11 awards out of 21 nominations, from film critics and festivals.


Sunday, December 19, 2010


Andy Wilson, 2000, TV, 4 hrs (9.0*)

A BBC production for PBS
A deep, complex adventure fantasy, Gormenghast was a trilogy of novels by British author Mervyn Peake about a huge castle and the birth and life of a new heir to the throne, Titus Groan, which was the title of the first book. The mini-series covers the first two novels, which are quite lengthy.

Describing the plot is futile. Suffice to say there are many eccentric and interesting characters, romances, treachery and machinations over the throne and governing of the feudal castle-state, and enough to interest even jaded fans of science fiction and fantasy. Some truly original ideas are here, such as the castle being built around a huge tree and two sisters who prefer to live in the "room of roots", a maze of giant organic forms.

It's very "Dickensian" in style, yet so unique and rich that it's really incomparable. This is a must-see for fans of these genres, one of the best SF-fantasy series ever made.

Some interesting trivia associated with this
- it was a 19 year project of the producer
- Peake's granddaughters appeared as extras
- Lady Gertrude's white crow was the only known white crow in the world
- the castle miniatures were placed in vats of disinfectant then photographed
- author Peake was also noted for his artwork, he illustrated the books with his drawings


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Runaway Jury

Gary Fleder, 2003 (8.2*)
Perhaps author John Grisham's best, this spellbinding trial story shows how juries are now manipulated by expensive trial consultants in order to pre-determine the outcome simply by jury selection and tampering. The impeccable Gene Hackman is the veteran pro at this, coming at a price of millions. Dustin Hoffman is the lawyer for the plaintiff, an honorable attorney who refuses to break the law like Hackman to gain advantage. Jeremy Piven is his jury consultant, a brash youngster compared to Hackman.

In this case, a shooting rampage at a stock brokerage firm leaves a widow suing the gunmaker, in a case that could provide not only millions but set a legal precedent that could see the weapons makers in court nationwide for years. John Cusack is an unwilling juror with a hidden agenda. We see him colluding with his girlfriend Rachel Weisz, who attempts to extort money from each side, promising to deliver a jury favorable to whoever pays the most money.

This film moves briskly for a trial film, as we see many crimes being committed in the name of 'justice'. For me, this is the best film of any Grisham novel, thanks to the cast, which includes three Oscar® winners (Hackman, Hoffman, and Weisz). With enough twists and turns, this one will keep you guessing until the unexpected outcome.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2009, France (8.8*)
aka Micmacs à tire-larigot

A wonderfully inventive and constantly surprising comedy film from Jeunet, director of the more famous Amelie, and the epic and beautifully shot war-romance A Very Long Engagement, his previous film (2004). The story begins with a soldier being killed disabling a land mine. His young son sees the logo of the arms manufacturer in an army photo of the site. Now an adult, Bazil, comically played by Danny Boon, is a video store clerk who takes a bullet in the head in a bizarre crime accident when a shootout occurs outside his shop. Doctors can't remove the bullet, but Bazil is given the spent cartridge, so he now knows the ammo maker as well.

Bazil becomes a street performer and beggar, and decides to seek revenge on the two companies, but doesn't know how. He meets a wonderful group of eccentric castoffs through a pardoned criminal named Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle) who have a hidden fortress (called 'Micmacs à tire-larigot') inside a junkyard - a group that fixes and recycles various items discarded by society. This makeshift family takes him in, and also takes on his goal.

With the help of a contortionist, Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier), who sometimes hides in the refrigerator, a human calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), an inventor (Michel Crémadès), a 'mama cook' (Yolande Moreau), a human cannonball (Dominique Pinon) and others, they devise a long, complex, Rube Goldberg-like plan, which often requires a "Plan B" as things often go awry.

This film often surprises and never follows a straight path anywhere, and is quite unlike any other film - think Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Time Bandits, Fisher King) meets Cirque du Soleil, yet it never takes itself as seriously as either of those. Jeunet, in an interview on the dvd, says that "Micmacs" is an invented word that means "shenanigans". He spends two years on average making a film, and it shows in all the little details you can spot in a world that always seems a little off from reality, as if you're seeing the world through circus-tinted glasses. He says he includes every little inspiration he gets from reality, logging them all on a computer, and part of this came from the tv-series "Mission Impossible".

Sadly, we need more inventive films like this one, which borders on fantasy, yet delivers a seemingly straighforward plotline that has one cheering it's eccentric gang of societal castoffs as they take on major worldwide arms dealers. Jeunet is establishing himself as one of the most visually unique directors in the world, perfect for a new millenium.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Oliver Hirschbiegal, Germany, 2004 (8.5*)
Truly one of the best WW2 films, based on the book by Hitler's last private secretary, Downfall tells of the last days of the Third Reich within Hitler's bunker. Alexandra Maria Lara (Youth Without Youth, Control, The Reader), a Romanian actress whose family moved to Germany is Trudl Junge, the woman who survived those final days in order to bring this story to the world.

Bruno Ganz is excellent as Hitler, without being a parody or impressionist, but capturing the moody personality in his darkest days. There are some side stories just as interesting, such as one of a kid of 12 who takes out invading Soviet tanks in the streets of Berlin with the Russian invention of Molotov coctails. He becomes one of the last heroes given medals by Hitler outside the bunker.

This would now make a good companion film to Judgment at Nuremberg, which placed those surviving war criminals on trial, those who didn't commit suicide along with Hitler and others who didn't want to face a world without their beloved Fuehrer.

This is now one of the highest ranked war films at IMDB, #93 currently on their top 250. It won 15 of 29 award nominations, usually from critics, such as Online Film Critics, London, and Kansas City; it was also nominated for the foreign language film Oscar®, losing to Spain's The Sea Inside.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Christmas Memory

aka "Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory"

Filmed for ABC Stage 67, a one hour teleplay, 1968 (9.5*)
Directed by Frank Perry
Adapted by Eleanor Perry and Truman Capote
Emmy Award, Peabody Award
[Now available on dvd]

This story by Alabama author Truman Capote is largely autobiographical. The photo I used is the hardcover book edition's cover, a photo of Capote and his cousin.

In the 1930's a 7 year old boy named Buddy (Donny Melvin) is sent to live with his elderly cousin Sook, impeccably and unforgettably played by Emmy-winner Geraldine Page. The simple story relates how she saves her money all year to buy whiskey from an Indian named Haha Jones and collect pecans to make fruitcakes for everyone on her holiday list, which sometimes includes people they've never met, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The story is superficially about the joy of giving and thinking of others rather than ourselves, yet it also poignantly reveals a lot about loneliness and loss. Originally a story published in 1956 in Mademoiselle magazine, it reminds me a lot of Capote's first novel, written as a teen, Other Voices, Other Rooms. This is about growing up in the south, and manages to be quite touching without sentimentality, and paints an accurate portrait of the rural south and its simple beauties.

Geraldine Page, one of the greatest actresses ever and winner of 11 awards in her career, makes this tv film for ABC Stage 67 a minor masterpiece, winning one of her three Emmys for leading performance by an actress. The teleplay also won an Emmy, and a Peabody Award. The story is appropriately narrated by Capote himself, and can be rewatched annually without ever growing tiresome because it's never preachy or moralistic, it's like looking at a family photo album. It's hard to watch this film or read the story without being touched in some personal way, of being reminded of your own grandmother, or aunt, or someone that touched your childhood indelibly.

A Christmas Memory - the original short story


Saturday, December 11, 2010

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Milos Forman, 1975 (9.2*)
Best Picture (AA, BAA, GG)
This excellent filming of hippie author Ken Kesey's novel of a brash mental patient, played by Oscar® winner Jack Nicholson, was the leading Oscar® winner for 1975 (five overall), winning best picture for producers Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas, the actor. The novel arose out of Kesey's own experiences at a mental institution where he worked in California in order to gain access to the drugs after LSD was made illegal by the FDA.

Nicholson's character McMurphy, who pretends madness to get out of prison work so he's really an intelligent schemer, becomes the leader of the other patients in their fight against a dictatorial nurse Ratched, perfectly played by previously unknown Oscar® winner Louise Fletcher, who uses her position to terrorize and maintain harsh control over a band of frightened yet safe patients, many of whom undoubtably could be released after more humane treatment. She seems to derive sadistic satisfaction in keeping the 'inmates' (as they are not treated like patients but criminals) both unbalanced and cowering in fear.

Though not a pleasant film to sit through, it makes positive statements about individual freedom and dissent at a time when the U.S. was heavily oppressed by the Nixon regime which was suppressing student anti-war protests and usurping individual Constitutional rights in order to maintain fascist control over all facets of American life by some die-hard right wing conservatives, most of whom had supported Sen. McCarthy in his anti-communist with hunts in the 50's, a committee on which Nixon himself had served. This is not a film for the squeamish, as it accurately shows how electric shock, heavy anti-psychotic drugs, and lobotomies are routinely used as punishment to control unruly patients.

Nicholson showed what an explosive actor he could be as well as giving voice to the complaints of the average citizen when faced with authoritarian control over their daily lives. As such, this film makes the most American of statements, that sometimes the only recourse is to organize people and stand united against tyranny together. The excellent screenplay adaptation, which condenses a longer novel into its essential elements, also won Oscars® for authors Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben.

Director Milos Forman, also an Oscar®-winner for this, and later for Amadeus (in 1984), came here to escape communism in Czechoslavakia, then under Russian control. There he made more light-hearted and comedic films, such as the hilarious Fireman's Ball (at which nothing goes according to plan, not even the beauty pagent, in which there are no contestants so the elderly firemen drag unwilling girls off the dance floor), so he injects much humor in the early minutes of this much more serious film. Also nominated for Oscars® was the terrific supporting performance of Brad Dourif, the cinematography of Haskell Wexler and Bill Butler, editing of Chew, Klingman, and Kahn, and the music of sometimes Rolling Stones member Jack Nitzsche.

Filmed for just over 4 million, it grossed 112 mil in the U.S. alone. Cuckoo's Nest also won six British academy awards, or BAFTA's, and 28 awards overall. The awards page at IMDB

On a personal note, I've had a hard time putting together a review of this film, as my own father was diagnosed schizophrenic during the Korean War, his second war as a navy aircraft mechanic. He was flown back to a V.A. hospital, and also given electroshock treatment and reduced to a shell of his former self, never again being able to use his engineering degree and reduced to doing menial jobs until his death at 46 from cancer, likely caused from witnessing atomic tests in the Pacific from the decks of U.S. ships without any protection. After the diagnosis, he was discharged from the navy and my family never received any compensation from the government, so it's hard for me to join the flag-waving patriotic bandwagon no matter what war we wage.

Note: Kesey's own LSD-driven lifestyle was the subject of Tom Wolfe's excellent novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, in which Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters drove around the U.S. in their bus freely giving out acid when it was legal. The psychedelic bus' destination was labeled as "Further", and Wolfe's novel is a touching ode to a bygone era of freedom, self-expression, and naive optimism.


Friday, December 10, 2010

La Dolce Vita

Federico Fellini, 1960, Italy, bw (8.4*)
Palm D'or Award, Cannes
This study of moral decadence and boredom among a group of wealthy film personalities is for many the best by legendary director Federico Fellini - it's certainly my favorite. Not as confusing as some others, like 8 ½, it is a simple, plotless story that puts us in the position of papparazzi with a motion picture camera giving us glimpses into unique personalities, primarily those in entertainment.

Led by Marcello Mastrianni and Swedish bombshell Anita Ekberg, we get to see the kind of life we imagine others live on a day-to-day basis. Depending on your moral mindset, this is either a depraved life of decadence or a glittering night life of fun and frivolity with the 'beautiful people'.

This film says a lot about the human condition, as most of us are trapped in a humdrum daily routine like Marcello, from which we imagine escaping to our own personal fantasies of happiness. Some may be bored by this, as it is lengthy at 170 minutes, but many find it a unique work of creative genius. Those who have trouble with Italian neo-realism should probably avoid this. For those who don't, also check out Antonioni's L'avventura, and De Sica's Umberto D.

Winner of 7 awards out of 14 nominations, including the Palm D'or at Cannes.
Awards page at IMDB


Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Raisin in the Sun

Daniel Petrie, 1961 (8.6*)
Winner of the Gary Cooper Award at Cannes

One of the first major plays to deal with the frustrations and economic plight of lower-class black families in urban America, from author Lorraine Hansberry, makes an emotional tour de force film for a terrific cast, led by Sidney Poitier as the sole-surviving adult male of the family, Walter Lee Younger. He shares a small two-bedroom tenement apartment in Chicago with his wife, his son, who is forced to sleep on the couch, and his mother and sister, who share the other bedroom.

Even though he has a steady job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, the other adults are forced to engage in part-time work in stereotypical jobs, such as kitchen, maid and laundry work. His sister, a part-time student, has dreams of becoming a doctor, while Sidney has dreams of making it big in some emerging business opportunity, as a friend did in dry cleaning.

Most of the film takes place in the small apartment, so we feel both the claustrophobia and despair of their situation. The mother immigrated there from the deep south when a teen, in order to escape racism and to find some opportunity for advancement out of poverty, which until her husband's death has been an elusive and unattainable dream.

The play and film begin as a glimmer of hope is on its way in the form of a life insurance check for ten thousand following the death of his father, who also lived in the apartment for most of his adult life as well. His mother, played by Claudia McNeil in a Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated performance as the new head of the family, hasn't decided yet what to do with all the money, while the rest of the family dreams what it could mean to each of them. Along the way we get to see a very young Lou Gossett, Jr., and Ivan Dixon in small parts as romantic interests of the sister.

It may seem a little stagy, but it's obvious that director Petrie wanted to keep the feel and intimacy of the play. At times it seems a bit overemotional perhaps, with some acting bordering on histrionics; nevertheless, the entire cast turns in excellent, heart-rending performances, led by Poitier and Ruby Dee as his wife. This is a tough pill to swallow, but if you've grown up poor or within a minority, it feels right on target and gives honest expression to the plight of the economically deprived in this over-abundant yet unequal nation. Given the current economic climate, it truly seems that some things never change.

Quote: "God seems to have only given black people dreams, but also their children in order to provide hope for those dreams."

Note: This was the first Broadway play written by a black woman and directed by a black man.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010


aka La Lengua de las Mariposas (Butterfly's Tongue)
Jose Luis Cuerda, 1999, Spain (8.5*)
A very warm coming-of-age film, in which a young Spanish boy, naturally played by Manuel Lozano, in a small rural village in Northern Spain is tutored in more than school by his teacher, veteran actor Fernando Fernán Gómez. A naturalist, and a leftist, he teaches the boy about the beauty of nature (and freedom), and together they spend spare time in the wild, looking at plants and catching butterflies.

Meanwhile, the Spanish society is being torn apart by politicians (so remote that only the radio brings the trouble home), as fascists are determined to make the new republic fail. This film deftly shows how the innocence of childhood, the beginning of romance, and the wonder and awe about life can be twisted by the times one lives in and the bigotry of adults, even before the advent of the next world war.

The acting is so natural that you soon forget that you are watching a movie; it seems as if the director used all local amateurs and simply put their lives on film. Gómez will win your respect and admiration, and young Lozano your heart. One of the best Spanish films I've seen, and one of the best about the positive influence of education.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Triumph of the Will

[Our 600th film reviewed]Leni Reifenstahl, Germany, 1935 (8.2*)
This is a hard film to recommend, but an important documentary for both historical events covered as well as pioneering film techniques. Leni is a former actress turned filmmaker as Hitler's chosen film propagandist. In her first major film here, she documents the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.

She later apologized for the film, but it's so eerie to watch today that it's effective as anti-propaganda as well, likely scaring far more people than it inspires. She went on to direct the documentary of the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, in Olympia, also a classic of film technique. She buried a camera in the earth to get a shot of the starting line of the 100 meter dash. In Triumph, she uses striking geometric compositions to amplify the impact of crowd scenes, into what could rightfully be called, in Clockwork Orange vernacular, real 'horrorshow', something so terrifying that you have to watch it.

Down a point or so in the rating for being blatant propaganda, but it's still cinematic art, and influenced many other directors.

Note: posted on Pearl Harbor day, as this film shows the seeds of war being sown in the 30's


Monday, December 6, 2010

El Alamein

Enzo Monteleone, 2002, Italy (8.1*)
A war film unlike any other you've likely seen as it covers the harrowing situation of Italian troops on the front line in North Africa. Little did we know in the west that the troops were basically given up for dead by the Italian command; men were forced to eat horses and drink their own urine when their water ran out. In spite of that, they bravely fought on as if they had a reason.

This film shows the nearly schizoid mindset of Mussolini, as instead of sending water to his troops, he sent a truckload of shoe polish so their boots would shine when they marched into Cairo, and his own personal horse so he could proudly ride in with the troops. Meanwhile the Italian positions were being overrun by Allied tanks, and the Italian soldiers were cut off from all supply lines.

This is a gritty and tough war film, one you won't easily forget. It is also a human story that follows one platoon, soldiers that were fighting on bravely in spite of the insanity of their government and military leaders. This should be on everyone's list of must-see dramatic war films, and on the large list of great Italian films, who seem to excel in realism.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Green Zone

Paul Greengrass, 2010 (8.4*)
This is another intense action film from terrific director Greengrass, best known for the award-winning docudrama films Bloody Sunday and United 93, and the action adventure Bourne Trilogy with Matt Damon.

The two are reunited here as we follow chief warrant officer Damon in the early days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq leading a special squad on a search of suspected WMD sites. The search keeps coming up empty, which leads Damon to question the validity of their intelligence. When he gets stonewalled, his quest leads him to a CIA field head, played by terrific Irish actor Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges).

Greengrass delicately balances action sequences with plot exposition, using an administration puppet, Greg Kinnear, and a Wall St Journal writer (Susan Lynch) who released articles about WMDs in Iraq, using an internal intel source called Magellan to protect their identity. This becomes a chase film, a nailbiter, and though light on character development, it's strong on plot and action.

Green Zone makes a good companion film to Kathryn Bigelow's best picture of 2009, The Hurt Locker, this one as we invade Baghdad, Locker following a bomb squad after we occupy the city.

Paul Greengrass [photo rt] has won 30 awards for his films so far, most for Bloody Sunday and United 93. IMDB awards page for Greengrass

Note: Roger Ebert gave this film four stars


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Gay Divorcee

Mark Sandrich, 1934, bw (8.5*)

My favorite of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical comedies, because this one is by far the funniest. The absurb plot involved bored Mimi, looking to get out of her marriage, a hired co-respondent Italian named Tonetti ("If you like-a spaghetti, stick-a with Tonetti!", is his professional motto), hilariously played by Eric Rhodes, who was in several with the dance team for comic relief - he was an expert, scene-stealing comic actor. Thanks to a very funny password phrase mix-up about fate, when she goes to meet him at a resort, she mistakes Astaire for the hired beau.

There's mucho dancing, romancing, and running around before the husband is due to arrive, including a monster 15-minute version of "The Continental", the song from this that won the Oscar® that year, beating out Cole Porter's "Night and Day", also from this film. Overall, 5 Oscar® nominations, this is a don't miss for fans of the screwball comedy and the musical era in Hollywood.

Quote: Fate is foolish, take a chance! (Tonetti) This was one confusion of their 'passcode' (of many): Fate is the fool's word for chance.


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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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