Saturday, April 30, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Steven Spielberg, 1989 (8.5*)
After the critical flop of the second in the series, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, not very many people were likely waiting for the third. Perhaps in order to boost interest, Spielberg added Sean Connery to the cast as the father of Harrison Ford, which seems a bit of an age stretch to me, Connery's not that old is he?

But the two's comedic chemistry helped add a little spark to this entry, which also brought back more religious mysticism, in this case the "Holy Grail". Often speculated about, and if it's even a real object or a metaphysical analogy, this film defines it as the cup Jesus drank from at the last supper, which supposedly gave it immortal powers, similar to a fountain of youth concept.

Dad joins Junior in a search for the cup before the Nazis can find it; after all, we don't want Der Fuehrer to have everlasting immortality on earth, do we? Joining the search is a blond Germanic beauty, Alison Doody [photo below] who may or may not be a double agent, who of course dazzles Indiana as well.

There are some nice twists to the legend, and also some intellectual puzzles involved, but this adventure maintains the high standard of pace and action set by the original entry, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which single-handedly revived the "Saturday matinee" style of adventure films for kids. They mind-blowing climax was actually filmed in the hidden ancient ruins of Petra, Jordan, which is a canyon cleft in the desert, almost invisible from above.

Currently ranked No. 107 on the IMDB 250. Winner of one Oscar®, for sound effects, 5 awards total.

Quote: "We named the dog Indiana"


Friday, April 29, 2011

The King of Comedy

Martin Scorsese, 1982 (8.6*)
One of the most underrated of Scorsese's films. Robert De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a frustrated standup comic. (and with De Niro playing him, he's one of the creepiest standups ever) He wants to hit the big time, but seems to never get past the open mike level. He thinks if he just gets a few minutes on a major late night show, his natural comedic talent will carry him in a meteoric rise into stardom.

He tries to get a spot on a show hosted by Jerry Lewis, but never really gets a chance without any type of resume or a name agent. Harassing and stalking Lewis puts him off even more, so Pupkin decides that if he kidnaps the host and holds him for ransom, with the bounty being a five-minute spot on the show to do a standup routine, then he can break into the big time due to public acclaim.

Remarkably, Jerry Lewis actually shows some dramatic acting skills in this; I'd have to say it's his best dramatic acting that I've seen. So does comedienne Sandra Bernhard as a friend of De Niro's who becomes his willing accomplice in this plot. Just the very idea of this shows the type of half-cocked individual Rupert Pupkin is; he's just one gun shy of being Travis Bickle in Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

This is one of the more unusual crime films, as well as one of Scorsese's most unique. It's not a guns firing, blood on the wall kind of crime film - it's an almost too realistic, borderline psychotic type of crime, which has become all too real in the modern era.

This didn't go totally unnoticed, at least in Europe: the screenplay by Paul D. Zimmerman won a BAFTA award; Sandra Bernhard won a National Society of  Film Critics award for supporting actress, and the film won a London Film Critics award for best picture and was nominated for a Palm d'Or at Cannes. Awards page at IMDB


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

David Hand, supervising director (5 others credited as "sequence directors"), 1937 (8.7*)
Notably, the first full-length animated film, from Walt Disney Studio, features songs for kids like "Hi Ho, Hi Ho", without which the film would seem even longer than it does. Snow White is pursued by a queen jealous of her beauty, and she flees into the forest and discovers the house of the dwarfs while they are away at work and invites herself in. Of course, the dwarfs fall in love with her and want her to stay. She is later given a poisoned apple by the queen and falls into a sleep that only a prince can awaken with a kiss.

The best artwork was in the static backgrounds, in the style of the earlier Silly Symphonies cartoons from Disney Studios, probably the height of their talents (check out the Oscar®-winning Water Babies sometime to see what I mean), which provided an artistic setting for the simply animated characters to exist in. Here, the two styles blended together well, and became the Disney standard for a few decades, later copied by The Triplets of Belleville (2003), hand-drawn by Sylvain Chomet as a tribute to the early Disney style. animation

As innovative as this was, when it came out it only received special awards from the New York Film Critics, the Venice Film Festival, and an honorary Oscar®.

You know, as a kid, I always wondered about this film - I mean, a single babe of a young woman is suddenly living with seven adult dwarfs - it kinda makes you wonder.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Matter of Life and Death

a.k.a. Stairway to Heaven
Michael Powell, Emric Pressburger, 1946 (9.2*)
Not exactly your average war story: while returning to England from a bombing in 1945, pilot Peter Carter, played by David Niven, is too damaged to make it back, and his parachute is also destroyed. He has his crew bail out, and as what he assumes is his last act, he talks on the radio to an operator named June (Kim Hunter), a young American woman, who is touched by his situation.

Then he jumps out over the ocean, and instead of dying, he wakes up in the surf, walking to shore. It was his time to die, but his death angel (a 'conductor') couldn't find him in all that fog (see quote below). Of course, having already fallen for her, he soon meets June in person, and naturally they fall in love for real. When his angel finds him and tells him of the error, Peter argues that it's not his fault he's still alive, now he's in love, so just leave him in peace. The celestial beings who run heaven agree to a trial to decide his fate, so the trial becomes a matter of life and death for Peter.

He is sent back to earth to prepare for his trial, and continue his life there for a day anyway. There are some very innovative sequences when the angel appears, all the action freezes, but Peter and the angel continue in real-time, once during a ping-pong game with the ball in mid-air. The colors are sumptuous, Powell's attention to color details in small props like chess sets places his films a level above all others in their cinematic artistry. The heavenly trial and corporal earth-time are woven together flawlessly in the story.

This is another beautiful film from Michael Powell and Emric Pressburger, known as The Archers. It's generally assumed that Powell was the director and Pressburger the writer, but they shared each credit. Powell began as a Technicolor® specialist, a color film advisor trained by that company in the late 30's. This is one of their best collaborations, the others being Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. All are beautiful to look at, among the most artistic in the history of film.

The title was changed to Stairway to Heaven in the U.S., because they thought America wasn't ready for a film with 'death' in the title the year after the war was over. (That's so funny, the U.S. being the top homicide nation of all time). A Matter of Life and Death was Powell's own personal favorite of all his works. IF this had more ratings from viewers (only 7k so far), it would be in the IMDB top 250, the average of 8.1 is high enough to be ranked around 190-200.

Quote: The fog was so thick I could've stepped out of the plane and walked back to England.

Note: Martin Scorsese was heavily influenced by Powell and flew to England to meet him and he brought him back to the U.S. to meet all the other directors, like Coppola and Spielberg, that were also students of his films. Powell was surprised to find that he was this well-respected by the next generation of filmmakers.


Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Lucile Hadzihalilovic, France, 2004 (9.5*)
This is an amazing, mesmerizing, hypnotic film, with some of the most beautiful images in cinema. Newcomer Lucile Hadzilalilovic has adapted a novella by Frank Wedekind (I believe it's translation from the French is "The Physical Education of Young Girls"), and has created a coming-of-age story in a myserious world all it's own.

Zoé Auclair plays a new arrival, Iris, at a secluded school for orphan girls hidden in a deep forest park, isolated from the outside world. The other girls welcome her, and reassure her with their calm, protective aura of self-reliance. She is most comforted by the oldest girl in her house, Bianca, played by the beautiful Bérangère Haubruge, who becomes like a big sister. In fact, all the girls are beautiful in their own way; you get the idea that maybe they've been selected for that reason.

It appears that the girls' schooling consists primarily of dance, and Oscar®-winning best actress Marion Cotillard plays the ballet instructor in one of her early supporting roles. Hélène de Fougerolles plays the only other instructor that both the girls and Cotillard seem to have interaction with, as the children are usually left on their own with the eldest (young teens) taking charge; they seem to respect the rules and maintain a self-disciplined civility.

However, there are mysteries - Bianca goes off to a mysterious location nightly, and says it's a secret she can't mention. A certainly elderly woman simply called the headmistress shows up once a year and selects one girl to take away. The entire park is surrounded by a giant stone wall, in effect making the school a type of prison. Rumors abound; one is that if you try to escape, you'll never be let outside again, and that's why Cotillard and Fougerolles teach there.

There are numerous literate metaphors used here. The film starts with water bubbling, and it is constantly in use throughout the film - the girls swim in a pond, there's a major rainstorm, a rowboat, also a bath. In literature, water can be for cleansing, baptism, or represent the troubles of the material world, such as floods, rough waters, raging rivers. The girls are often shown caterpillers, butterflies, and even dance a ballet as butterflies - the tranformation from girl to woman is an obvious metaphor, but it's done with artistic grace if not subtlety.

This is a very sensual film, the images are accompanied by touch, sound, even smell, and the audience is thereby immersed in the film more than just cerebrally. This is an amazingly poetic and beautiful piece of filmmaking, captivating the viewer by its own private world like few in cinema history .

Winner of 8 film awards, most for film or director at film festivals, but one for it's beautiful cinematography. If the Oscars® really represented the best films, this would have had 6-8 nominations, it's easily a better, more artistic dance film and woman's film than Black Swan. It's amazing that Hadzihalilovic hasn't directed any films since this one in 2004.


Monday, April 25, 2011

The Fighter

David O'Russell, 2010 (8.3*)
Another good boxing film, maybe not the best, but another, like Raging Bull (1980) and Cinderella Man (2005),  based on a true boxer's biography, in this case "Irish" Mickey Ward, and his brother Dicky, a former boxer himself who trains Mickey in their Lowell, Massachusetts boxing gym. Mark Wahlberg does a pretty good job as Mickey, and at least the boxing looks real in this one, unlike some other unmentionable boxing films.

Christian Bale turned in an outstanding performance as Dicky, and was rewarded with an Oscar® and 19 other awards. Melissa Leo also won an Oscar® (and numerous other awards) playing Mickey's aggressive, optimistic mother. The near documentary style works, as crackhead brother Dicky is also the subject of a cable documentary about crack addiction, shot here in 16mm to make it look like an older documentary. Amy Adams also turns in another good performance as Mickey's barmaid girlfriend (she'll get an Oscar® soon), who receives the ire of Mickey's family when he starts making his own career decisions. His sisters (five of em? it was hard to keep count, they were everywhere) are something to behold; it's like they were perpetually competing for "family's biggest hair".

Boxing films in a way are like westerns - they each usually feature a man-to-man showdown (with usually one 'good guy'), one with fists, the other with bullets. At least boxing has a time clock, a referee, judges, betting, and the gloves are padded; but, even so, it's not a sport for the squeamish. But, as Mike Tyson once said, "would your rather see me in the ring or in a dark alley outside a bar?"

The Fighter has now won 34 awards overall, 20 by Christian Bale, either for supporting actor or as part of the winning ensemble cast. Add this to the list of boxing films (like the two above) that are better than Rocky but didn't win best picture - some others are The Great White Hope (1970), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), and Rocco and His Brothers (1964) from Italian director Visconti, which had a direct influence on the style of Raging Bull.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Gospel According to St. Matthew

Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964, Italy (9.0*)
Pasolini's intention was to film the gospel verbatim, without Hollywood scripting, without blue-eyed, blond Jesus actors - his actor was a Spanish student, Enrique Irazoqui, who'd never made a film - this works much better than using an established actor. Compare this to the U.S. films that used Max Von Sydow and Jeffrey Hunter (both blond and blue-eyed!)

The story is totally unembellished, so it appears fragmented and fast-paced. The extras are all Mediterraneans, so they look authenic for once. The settings are very sparse, primitive, and poor. Roger Ebert said "it looks like a documentarian with a low budget followed Jesus around", and gave it 5*'s, his top rating. It's like NO other religious film I've seen: grainy, gritty, realistic, almost manic and fanatical in places.

Make sure you view the subtitled, black and white original version. There's an awful dubbed version, and even a colorized version out there. The disk I rented had the original, and the colorized/dubbed one both - they managed to ruin it both ways in one version.

#103 on our "Top Ranked 1000" films compiled from internet polls

Pasolini was murdered in Italy in 1975 after making a dozen films, most say by the neo-fascist right wing. He had just completed "Salo", based on the Marquis de Sade.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Alexander Hall, 1941, bw (8.8*)
A man named Joe, played by Robert Montgomery, is grabbed by an angel just before his assumed death, but in heaven it's discovered that he wasn't due to die yet. So due to their own bureaucratic bungling, they decide to send him back down, only his body is no longer available and he has to get another body. He's a professional boxer, due for a title fight, so he's fairly picky and doesn't want just any old body. The head angel, a Mr. Jordan, or Claude Rains, tells him he can't dawdle around or the big guy may change his mind.

Unfortunately, the best one available is a recent murder victim, as his wife and her lover are trying to get rid of a selfish millionaire and live on his money. The one personality trait Joe maintains is his desire to play the saxophone, but he's not very good at it. This is the classic mix-up of godly proportions, and I guess to be accurate you could call it a 'fish out of his body' tale.

This is the original bw classic using this idea, which was later re-written and remade by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry in 1978 as Heaven Can Wait, which featured Beatty as a football player with a clarinet, Julie Christie, James Mason (as Mr. Jordan) and Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon as the hilarious would-be murderers.

Winner of 2 Oscars® (Story, screenplay) out of 7 nominations, which included picture, director, cinematography, and two for lead actor.


Friday, April 22, 2011

The Lavender Hill Mob

Charles Crichton, 1951, bw (8.5*)
This is one of a line of wonderful Ealing Studios British comedies in classic b&w, the best of which starred Alec Guinness, such as the futuristic spoof of capitalism, The Man in the White Suit, in which a scientist invents an indestructible cloth; and The Ladykillers, remade with Tom Hanks, in which a scholarly gang of bank robbers rents a room in a boarding house from which to tunnel into a bank. Also, my favorite, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), a hilarious spoof of tontines in which one member becomes a serial killer in order to hasten his collecting the booty.

In The Lavender Hill Mob, Guinness heads a small group of criminals who plot to steal a truckload of gold buillion (he works on the shipments, so he's the inside man), then smuggle it in a very unique way, which of course, cannot be foolproof, this being a crime comedy.
The cast is one of those typically talented veteran British casts, headed by Stanley Holloway, a later Oscar®-winner for My Fair Lady; Guinness would later win for actor in The Bridge On the River Kwai. The only time they still make comedies like these is when they remake one of these. These each had something unique for their time and became archetypal spoof of whatever they tackled. The general theme with most of these is 'greedy people, even if well off, will even resort to murder to gain even more wealth, and they aren't always the sharpest tacks in the toolbox either'.

If you like the crime spoof comedies, be sure to check out the late Italian master Mario Monicelli's hilarious take on heist films Big Deal on Madonna St (1959) Italy, bw with a gang that severely lacked a mastermind, or really any type of mind. Monicelli died last year at 95, after working on over 100 films as either director or writer.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

To Die For

Gus Van Sant, 1995 (8.9*)
For director Gus Van Sant, (My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy, Elephant) this is about as light as he's ever gotten, and this is still a black comedy. Nicole Kidman wonderfully (and hilariously) plays a woman who will do anything to get ahead in her television job, including recruiting some local teens to off her boring husband so she isn't involved directly.

She plays a local weather lady, who often changes her appearance to remain fashionable, as she has her sights set on bigger jobs, such as news anchor. One gets the feeling that she'd like to change husbands or men about as often; when one becomes a tired accessory, and divorce is so messy.. This is not a deep movie, but it is a refreshing comedy about murder, with a perfect cast. Buck Henry adapted Joyce Maynard's novel for the screen.

The supporting cast is pretty good: Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Illeana Douglas, and Dan Hedaya.

I was quite surprised that Kidman didn't get an Oscar® nomination for this part, which was equal parts comedy and homicidal madness, as her character seemed genuinely lost in a reality of her own imagination. She showed more versatility and spunk than any other part she's had. She did win a Golden Globe, for best actress in a comedy or musical, and won seven awards overall for her performance.


Monday, April 18, 2011

The King's Speech

Tom Hooper, 2010 (7.8*)
In spite of a stellar cast, and all the awards it's now won for best picture of 2010, this is primarily a boring, one-trick pony of a film with little real drama, since we already know the outcome (well, except for the history illiterates - this is basic World War Two history, everyone should know it by now).

Colin Firth plays Prince Albert (of England, naturally), who is being forced by his father, King George V, to give public addresses in spite of his public stutter (or is it stammer? he doesn't start a word over and over, he pauses and has a hard time continuing, so there are lengthy silences that try everyone's patience). His wife, Helena Bonham Carter, who earns perhaps the easiest Oscar® nomination of her career for supporting, seeks the help of a speech therapist, Geoffrey Rush (who also executive produced, and who also had an easy part for an Oscar® nomination), an emigre from Australia who had success with World War One battle victims, including those who lost their voice after gas attacks.

Rush proceeds to give the future King George VI a series of unorthodox speech lessons, which unfortunately comprise about 2/3 of this film. Jaw loosening babbling, rolling on the floor, screaming obscenities, other inane treatments. The other 1/3 is the more interesting - how his brother David (Guy Pearce, in perhaps the most interesting role in the film, but they waste the opportunity) first took the throne after George V's death, but then refused to give up an affair with a divored American woman and was forced to abdicate the throne, thus making Prince Albert the new King George.

The only real life in this film is when Michael Gambon is onscreen as the irascible old king, who yells at "Bertie", as the family calls him, "Out with it man! Like a good Englishman", as if berating and yelling at a stutterer will suddenly snap him out of it, like an army recruit at boot camp. Gambon plays the 'old school' style of monarch, the sword-bearing, duel-fighting type of soldier from un-mechanized centuries of war, and certain things royalty just didn't do, such as stutter, fail to bear whatever comes, fool around, or get divorced.

Well done technically, with an excellent, though pretty much untaxed cast (only Firth had to do much, and all he did was change his speech rhythms, and get slightly angry once or twice, but little else - a pretty easy Oscar if you ask me), this is only going to be interesting to history buffs, Anglophiles, and those who still think the motion picture academy chooses the best films for awards. It's obvious from this choice and Crash in 2006 that there's some behind the scenes wrangling going on, with favors called in, studio block voting and perhaps 'teams' formed, etc.. it's like any other politics, the winners aren't often based on merit, but how many votes that side can muster.

King's Speech won 47 awards out of 137 nominations, including four Oscars® (Picture, director, actor, screenplay). It's now ranked #103 on the IMDB top 250 (but well behind Inception at #6, Toy Story 3 at #33, and even lower than Black Swan at #73, to compare it with the other big films of 2010. Social Network is #190, but did win 84 awards, far and away the most of 2010).

Not a bad movie, just not a great one either, not worthy of this many awards in a season with better films: Inception (2010), Toy Story 3 (2011), Winter's Bone (2010), The Social Network (2010), Black Swan (2010), Inside Job (2010).


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky, 2010 (8.4*)
Natalie Portman is aspiring ballerina Nina Sayers, vying for the lead role in a New York ballet company's season opening performance of Swan Lake. The company's director, Vincent Cassel, is retiring their current star, Wynona Ryder, due to age, and he wants to move into a bold, new direction. He tells Nina she is the perfect white swan, but that her competition, a new dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis) is the perfect black swan, and he needs someone who can be both. He urges Nina to get in touch with her sensual side, which he can't see in her rehearsals, telling her she must become more intuitive, and lose herself in the role, unaware that this may send Nina over the edge in a leap into the void of madness.

Her mother, Barbara Hershey, is a former ballerina herself, who gave it all up to have a child - now she wants to control and dominate Nina, hoping to avoid the mistakes she made. The result is that Nina's entire world is her dancing, she has no lovers, and seems alienated from real human contact and affection altogether. We watch her try to cross this void and literally get in touch with her body, but as she does she descends into a neurotic self-absorption that borders on complete madness. Her desire for success on the stage threatens her tenuous connection to reality. Her fantasies, particularly erotic ones, drive her dancing toward the sensual side that Cassel demands, while at the same time hindering her quest for perfection, which was probably demanded by her mother from an early age. Her move to the dark side also demands a severance from her mother's domination. Like the daugher played by Evan Rachel Wood in Thirteen, her independence and tranformation into adulthood require severing a psychic umbilical that keeps each tied to their mothers; each feels pressured to achieve their mothers' dreams and neglect their own.

Natalie Portman drew on her ballet training from ages 4-13, and resumed training a year before principal filming began, working with former New York City ballet dancer Mary Helen Bowers. Professional ballerinas Sarah Lane and Kimberly Prosa were her dance doubles. Using special effects, Natalie Portman's head was placed on Sarah Lane's body in several scenes. According to interviews with Prosa and Lane, Portman's dance scenes in full body shots were the doubles. Often Portman was shown dancing from the waist up, showing only face and arms. It's questionable how much dancing she actually did, but the result is seamless - we never question the technical aspects as we get lost in the metamorphosis of her character from the light to the dark side.

There are some disturbing images here; as usual, an Aronofsky film is not for the squeamish. There are shots of self-mutilation that will haunt viewers long after the film is complete. Perhaps they are a bit over-the-top, but may have been necessary to show the inner changes to her character. At times, it seems a little Hitchcockian, as if a demented psychotic is struggling to gain control of a professional artist whose entire lifestyle is one of self-control and discipline.

Darren Aronofsky's direction shows in how driven the main characters are in his films; they are always intense, exhausting, and riveting performances to witness. He's gotten career best performances from Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream, Rachel Weisz in The Fountain, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, and here from Portman. His style won't ever be as popular as directors who won't take big risks, who rely more on safe, successful formulas. This is much more daring than King's Speech or The Social Network, the two films that won the most awards for best film this year. Neither of those held any surprises, telling historical stories in a typically straighforward manner that guarantees any audience can comprehend their stories. Of those two, I thought Social Network was more interesting (and also had a great music soundtrack); King's Speech just stuttered along (pun intended) with no pace.

Even though this is now ranked #73 on the IMDB top 250, a bit high to me (it will likely fall over time), it only won one award for best film of the year, at the Independent Spirit awards (where it also won for director, actress, and cinematography, while King's Speech only won foreign film there, and wasn't nominated for picture or director). Overall, it won 35 awards out of 124 nominations. Portman won 17 awards for her performance, sweeping all the big ones: Oscar, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild, and Golden Globe. Matthew Libatique's cinematography also won several awards.

Note: many complained that Kunis wasn't nominated for supporting actress, but she was bland and uninvolving and didn't deserve any awards. She was totally blown away by veterans Dale Dickey in Winter's Bone (the Indie Spirit winner), and Oscar-nominee Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom. Being young and popular doesn't equate to talent; I've yet to see any real acting from her in anything (I don't even think she's very pretty either, I just don't get all the popularity)

My favorite films from 2010 (so far, with The Fighter still to be seen..): 1-Winter's Bone, 2-Inception, 3-Toy Story 3, 4-Animal Kingdom (Australia), 5-The Social Network, 6-Black Swan, 7-The Tourist, 8-The King's Speech, 9-The Kids Are All Right
[Inception and Toy Story 3 are most likely the ones that will be rewatched the most; I've already gone back and watched Inception again, it's a very complex script]


Friday, April 15, 2011

La Vie En Rose

Olivier Dahan, 2007, France (8.8*)
Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in this biopic was jaw-dropping, beyond acting into art. I'd have to say best all-time top 3, maybe the best. The only other two that even come close for me are Liz Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Daniel-Day Lewis in My Left Foot, as far as actors being so immersed in the roles that they weren't recognizable as themselves after about 5 minutes.

The difference in the two is that Marion made me cry in happy scenes (when Marlene Dietrich came to her table after a song and told her she had "taken her back to Paris") and cry in sad scenes, something no one else has done.

Marion plays Piaf (a name given by a nightclub manager who found her on the street, Louis Leplée, played here by Gerard Depardieu, it means "sparrow") from about age 16 to her death at 47 of liver failure, after a lifetime of booze and heroin. At one point she was shooting up 10 times a day - she told the doctor "so my body will stop screaming" or something like that. This film also shows her childhood, which had a lot to do with developing her character, her singing, and her outlook on life.

Director Olivier Dahan (a young-looking 40 when he made this), read every published book on Piaf, and some unpublished manuscripts in the Paris Biblioteque as well. He said that he didn't want any one version to become the story.

Marion watched every interview and film of Edith, and didn't want to imitate her (her voice is much deeper but she made it work right away). Director Dahan said after 2 weeks they never spoke, Marion got it all intuitively.

The Oscar®-winning makeup, headed by Didier Lavergne after several others dropped out, saying "it can't be done", was about the best ever. She looked 65-70 in her 40's (and Dahan shot lots of closeups in the old face), bent over, shaking, half bald - this was very tough to watch but definitely worth it.

It's amazing to me that she only won 17 acting awards for this, and the Oscar® of course, when they give out about 30-35 (Helen Mirren won 30 for The Queen, that's the most for a lead role I've found, this has far more depth and real acting than that). I can't believe 13 others beat her that year. It had to be awards from people who hadn't seen it, that's all that makes sense.

It took me awhile (3 years) to get up the courage to watch this, as I already knew Piaf's life story; it's a tough, dreary one with little sunshine. (Personally, I would have given up about age 25)

The film won 2 Oscars®, 4 BAFTAs, 5 French academy awards (Césars). Overall it won 31 awards out of 64 nominations.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Bad Day at Black Rock

John Sturges, 1955 (8.8*)
In one of the more bizarre crime films ever, Spencer Tracy plays a one-armed stranger who arrives one day in the near ghost town of Bad Rock, somewhere in the desert southwest. He is not the only Oscar® winner in this incredible cast - others in the town include Oscar winners Ernest Borgnine, Walter Brennan, and Lee Marvin, and also features Robert Ryan (in one of his best performances), Russell Collins, Anne Francis, and Dean Jagger. Ryan, Borgnine, and Marvin all shine here as despicable bad guys; Tracy, in his dark suit and white shirt, is an open contrast to everyone else's languid casualness and bored apathy.

Tracy is mysterious about his visit, and the locals are all tight-lipped, unfriendly, and act very suspicious, especially when he names the man he is looking for, who is apparently long absent. As the story develops, the narrative evolves from mystery to thriller to crime. This is a short, fact, sparse film, without much dialogue or wasted footage. (Perhaps the real mystery of this film is why anyone would choose to live here in the first place)

This was one of the first films to openly deal with racism towards Asian-Americans, and as such it demands a place in the history of american cinema. It forces the viewer to witness those who take a moral stand vs. those who don't, much like a classic western. As such, it really is an updating of westerns, placing people in the same setting but a century later. The desert setting, and the resulting heat, work as metaphors for the type of ethical vacuum these characters live in.

The entire movie was shot in the Alabama Hills section of the Sierra foothills, near Lone Pine, California in the Owens Valley, east of the Sierras, with a view of Mt. Whitney in the background - it's a famous destination for campers and backpackers (I've been there many times myself - the sun setting on the Inyo Mountains, then rising on the eastern face of the Sierras makes the trip there a lifetime experience).

Nominated for three Oscars®, actor (Tracy, who won best actor at Cannes), director, and screenplay (Millard Kaufman), nominated for a BAFTA for best film, a director's guild award for Sturges. This film has only 7k ratings at IMDB, which is dreadfully low for a classic American movie. Ernest Borgnine won the Oscar® that year (55) for his performance in best picture winner Marty. Awards page at IMDB


Saturday, April 9, 2011

Witness For the Prosecution

Billy Wilder, 1957, bw (8.3*)  bw
This is my second favorite film of an Agatha Christie story (this was a short story, not a novel), after And Then There Were None from French director René Clair. I believe this story is unique for her, as it's a legal film, with the entire story unfolding in a courtroom, but it still has the Christie touch, meaning an unexpected plot twist that most can't see coming.

An excellent cast makes this film better than it would have been from the story alone. The impeccable Charles Laughton, a two-time best actor winner, here an aging attorney recovering from a near fatal heart attack, agrees to defend Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) in a murder case, in spite of the fact that his wife, Marlene Dietrich, is going to be a witness for the prosecution. Dietrich turns in one of her best dramatic performances, relying on acting in this film, not her beauty nor her sultry singing.

Though not one of Wilder's best (perhaps a little too 'Hollywood'), such as Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot (perhaps if it had started with an 's'), or The Apartment, it's still a very good mystery, and a good courtroom drama, and Wilder's only work with Laughton or Dietrich. Fans of Christie, or Laughton, who was one of the best actors ever on film, will not be disappointed.

Nominated for 6 Oscars® (Picture, director, actor for Laughton, supporting for Elsa Lanchester, who won the Golden Globe), 5 Golden Globes, and 5 other awards, and ranked #129 on the IMDB top 250, with a rating of 8.4, the same as I gave it - not quite as high for me as And Then There Were None.

Wilder is one of the great directors, here's a small list of his best films:
The Front Page, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Lost Weekend, The Spirit of St. Louis, One Two Three, Ace in the Hole, The Seven Year Itch, Sabrina, The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, The Fortune Cookie.


And Then There Were None

René Clair, 1945, bw (8.6*)
This would have to be considered the definitive film of any Agatha Christie mystery novel. Other than changing the ending (yes!), the rest of this black and white classic is very close to her original novel Ten Little Indians (the title was changed to be more 'politically correct').

Ten seemingly random people, including a judge and a doctor, are invited to a remote island as guests of a mysterious Mr. U.N. Own (unknown, get it?). The island appears deserted, and a recording is played at dinner from the missing host, accusing them each of murder. Immediately, one of them is dead, and the game has begun. The guests begin to die one by one, while the remaining guests each accuse each other of being the killer, perhaps even the missing host.

Of course, if you know Christie, then you know the plot hinges usually on one unexpected twist that the reader (filmgoer in this case) will guess about until revealed at the end. This was one of the best of her novels (The Murder of Roger Akroyd being the other), and her fans and mystery fans in general will enjoy this film, even if their suspicions are correct.

The cast includes Oscar winners Walter Huston and Barry Fitzgerald, and also veteran character actors Misha Auer, Roland Young, C. Aubrey Smith, Roland Young, Louis Hayward, and Judith Anderson. This won best film at the 1946 Locarno Film Festival, it's only award.

There's actually a newer updated version from Russia, made in 1987. Some say it's more faithful to the novel, including the original ending; others say it's more ponderous and the subtitling gets out of sync.

Another good filming of a Christie novel is Billy Wilder's Witness For the Prosecution, which we will review later.


Friday, April 8, 2011

The Yakuza

Sydney Pollack, 1974 (8.8*)
Though a little slow-moving at times, this is one of the best films in the long careers of Robert Mitchum and director Sydney Pollack. Mitchum plays a former U.S. soldier Harry Kilmer, once stationed in Japan, who returns to help an old friend rescue his kidnapped daughter from Japanese mobsters, known there as the Yakuza, or the Japanese 'mafia'. Veteran actor Ken Takakura turns in a credible performance as his longtime friend Eiko.

Mitchum, at 58, is perfectly cast as a world-weary retired detective, yet not insensitive or jaded enough yet to ignore a friend in need; his sense of personal loyalty overrides his cynicism. Co-written by Paul Schrader (his first, he later wrote Taxi Driver, Light Sleeper, Raging Bull) and Robert Towne (an Oscar winner for Polanski's Chinatown, released the same year), this is a believable crime story without the pretensions of so many western films, which normally mindlessly inject crowd-pleasing action sequences like car chases, designed more to attract fans than to provide essential narrative exposition.

Adding to the plot complexity is the fact that Mitchum had fallen in love with Eiko's sister when he was in Japan earlier, so we get a sense of his own personal motivation. We also learn a lot about the Japanese crime underworld, a subject rarely tackled in western films. The film also stars Brian Keith, Herb Edelman, and Richard Jordan (his first film) in the supporting cast.

Along with Kurosawa's 49 classic Stray Dog, this ranks as among the finest films about the Japanese crime underworld. Some accurately call this "the most Japanese of non-Japanese films". All in all, one of the neglected crime classics of all time. It's puzzling that it has only a 7.2 rating at IMDB - the fans there are usually sharper than this, hence it's status as an overlooked classic.


Thursday, April 7, 2011


aka Oldeboi
Chan-wook Park, South Korea, 2003 (8.7*)
I normally prefer films that are visually creative and not such a clear plotline that you know the result half an hour in (ie, Rocky and Star Wars). This very innovative and extremely watchable crime film is actually a sequel to Park's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (and followed by Lady Vengeance, to complete a trilogy), but it stands alone so you needn't see the first film, which isn't nearly the classic of this one.

One might say this is an Asian updating of The Count of Monte Cristo, about a man, Oh Dai-Su, played by Min-sik Choi (winner of a few acting awards), unfairly imprisoned, in this case for 15 years. When he finds his freedom, then sets out to find those responsible and if possible, wreak a little personal vengeance. However, this story has enough surprises and twists to remain unpredictable and entertaining throughout.

Though not for the squeamish (it has some torture and sexuality), it's one of those rare finds that you'll be thinking about long after viewing, and one that will make you want to tell your friends 'hey, check this one out', if you don't mind subtitles.

One of the best Korean films ever, Oldboy is ranked #99 on the IMDB top 250, with an 8.4 rating (but a lesser 74 from Metacritics). Winner of 17 awards out of 27 nominations, most for director Chan-wook Park.

Quote: What I am isn't important; WHY is important.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Blue Velvet

David Lynch, 1986 (7.7*)
A naive suburban teen, played by Kyle MacLachlan in a breakthrough performance, finds a severed human ear in a field near his house. After going to the police, he decides to do a little amateur investigating on his own, to the chagrin of his girlfriend Laura Dern (who doesn't have much to do here other than act astonished). He uncovers a sinister local underworld revolving around sultry lounge singer Isabella Rossellini, whose signature song is the film's title.

It turns out that even though married, she is persued by drug-huffing and freaky Dennis Hopper, who has more than a few screws loose in this film, even compared to his normal dysfunctionality. Her rejections of his disgusting affections have led to the seamy big city underbelly that Kyle has stumbled upon.

There are many unsettling scenes in this, beginning with a closeup of the fly-covered ear in the films opening scene, but it gets far worse than that. In a way, this is like watching a film of car wrecks and high school catfights - you are disgusted but somehow oddly attracted, thinking what the hell is coming next? This film is not for the squeamish, but innovative director David Lynch (Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive) has put his own personal stamp on crime films and has created an updated noir style for the new millenium.

This is now considered a cult classic, yet only has a rating of 7.8 at IMDB and 75/100 from Metacritics, so it's a film that is often discussed yet not universally praised. Like most Lynch films, your own feelings may vary widely, as he often wavers between brilliance and depravity. This is a film that could be accurately rated as both over-the-top pretentious garbage and as a uniquely different crime classic. There's a lot more unsettling disgust here than true romance (I felt embarassed for Isabella Rossellini and the demands placed on her performance), yet it's a film that won't go away, and despite my less than stellar rating, it's a must-see for die-hard fans of crime films.

One thing is certain: I'll never be able to hear this song again without this film bubbling up from the subconscious.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Krays

Peter Medak, 1990 (8.1*)
The Kray brothers were twin crime bosses in the London underworld in the 60's, here well played in this fact-based film by Gary and Martin Kemp, ex-members of the band Spandau Ballet (perhaps the worst name in the history of rock, after Strawberry Alarm Clock).

Though the violent film is based on fact, it gives a synopsis of their lives that would require a long mini-series to be fairly complete. Some viewers online (who knew the brothers) claim there are some factual or other errors, but that doesn't detract from the film for those of us not familiar with their story. Their racket was the common story of sellling 'protection'.

The Krays actually served as technical advisors on the film, Reggie suggesting Patsy Kensit for the role of his wife (she declined), played by Kate Hardie. Veteran Billie Whitelaw is a standout as mother Violet.


Monday, April 4, 2011

Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg, 2007 (8.5*)
Director David Cronenberg is usually noted for more experimental films that can sometimes expose the brutal underbelly of mankind in ways almost too gruesome to bear, such as J.G. Ballard's Crash (the one with James Spader bedding a number of crash victims, such as Holly Hunter and Roseanna Arquette), or Dead Ringers, in which Jeremy Irons turned in a career performance as twin gynecologist brothers who play with the lives of lovers and patients.

In this film, he gives a more straightforward narrative of the Russian mafia. A pregnant teen in London dies giving childbirth, but leaves behind a revealing journal in Russian, which details a rape at 14 and other crimes. Naomi Watts (excellent as usual) as Anna is determined to keep the baby out of the system and find the girl's relatives. She meets a mafia driver with a long criminal past tattoed on his body, played by Viggo Mortensen in his best dramatic performance. Though hardened by life, Nicolai still has enough compassion to give his character depth and complexity, and Mortensen was rewarded with an Oscar® nomination for best actor.

Mortensen and Cronenberg pull off a gut-wrenching and unique fight sequence that will haunt viewers long after the film's more subtle fine points wear off; this is more what we expect from Cronenberg, but the more straightforward narrative perhaps surprised some of his fans, as this is a more mainstream story, with an excellent screenplay from Steven Knight, than perhaps any of his films, including the excellent A History of Violence, also starring Mortensen. There are also fine supporting performance from Vincent Cassel and veteran actor Armin Mueller-Stahl as Russian mobsters.

As a result, this film won 24 awards out of 59 nominations overall. Mortensen won 5 awards out of 13 nominations, but his performance was the only Oscar® nomination for this overlooked crime gem. Cronenberg himself was nominated for 10 awards, but was once again overlooked by the academy.


Saturday, April 2, 2011


Enid Zentelis, 2004 (8.3*)
This is one of those small indie films that looks like one, with perhaps a budget of 200k. However, director Zentelis has actually captured the double angst of being both a teenage girl and being mired in abject poverty. She has a single mom, and due to low income work they both have to move into a ramshackle house that leaks buckets when it rains with granny, the mom's mother.

Abbie Land does a credible job in her first performance as the teen, who has a penchant for two-toned hair, and a wealthy boy she meets in her new high school. Embarassed to bring him to her granny's house, she starts hanging out at his house instead, actually becoming friends with his mother, played by Mary Kay Place, an agoraphobic who hasn't left the house in years.

This film was made with a grant from the Sundance Institute, and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at that film festival. Even though the film is a little raw, it's very unpretentious and achieves what it attempts, a realistic look at the plight of poor Americans vs. those who seem to have it all except happiness. Zentelis avoids judgment, the shortcomings and empty lives are shown on both sides of the economic fence.

Only a Native American card dealer, perfectly played by Gary Farmer (Powwow Highway, Smoke Signals), seems well-adjusted with his life, and he is so poor that he built his car by hand after stealing one part at a time while working at an auto plant, so only one door will even open and the hood is tied down with rope. And you thought that you had it tough!

People who liked An Education (2009), Thirteen (2005), and Winter's Bone (2010) will like this film as well.


Friday, April 1, 2011

The Company

Mikhael Salomon, 2007 (8.6*)
A rare miniseries from TNT, and one almost well done enough to be from the BBC. The title of course refers to the CIA, and attempts to weave some fictional characters within the framework of about 40 years of CIA history and a few real life characters as well. That's the backdrop anyway, the actual story is about the search for an elusive double agent, codenamed Sasha, an American version of Britisher Adrian Kim Philby, also a character here and portrayed by Tom Hollander.

The period covered is from the start of the Cold War to the fall of the Soviet Union primarily follows three fictional Yale graduates from out of college (class of '54), to their recruitment and years within the CIA. Jack McCauliffe (Chris O'Donnell) and Leo Kritzky (Alessandro Nivola) are rowing partners, and their Russian friend is Yevgeny Tsipin (Rory Cochrane).

This is a very absorbing miniseries, with unfortunately uneven acting. Michael Keaton steals the kudos here (with some of his best dramatic work ever) as real life humanoind James Angleton, the chief of the CIA's counterintelligence unit, and was awarded with an acting nomination from the Screen Actors Guild. Usually excellent Alfred Molina is a little over the top here (as operations mgr Harvey Torriti), Chris O'Donnell is his traditionally bland self (and is in nearly every scene), while Alessandro Nivola as his rowing partner and friend Leo came off a little better. Rory Cochrane is pretty believable, thanks to excellent accent work, as the Russian emigre Yevgeny Tsipin. I always like Natascha McElhone (she's a beauty), but she's not as riveting here as in John Frankenheimer's Ronin (1998), where she was mysterious, intriguing, and militaristic as a possible IRA terrorist.

Those who like this should definitely watch Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd (2006), starring Matt Damon, based on true CIA events. It's realistic and riveting and proves that De Niro can direct also. And, of course, the excellent mini-series Reilly: Ace of Spies (1983) from the BBC, starring Sam Neill as the real life model for James Bond, Sydney Reilly, a Russian defector to Ireland who created his name and his persona.

This series, even though on TNT, did not go unnoticed - it won 6 awards out of 19 nominations, many for it's excellent cinematography by Ben Nott. Director Mikael Salomon was also given a directing nomination from the Directors Guild of America, while Jeff Beal's music won an Emmy.


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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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