Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Alexander Nevsky

Sergei Eisenstein, Russia, 1938, bw (8.8*)
Memorial Day War-a-thon Film #22
In 1242, Russia in being invaded by two sides - the Mongols from Asia to the east; and by the Germans Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire from the west, the European side. Novgorod is the last free, unconquered city in Russia. The population, calls on the Prince Aleksander Nevsky for help in organizing the defense - he had defeated Swedish invaders in a previous battle.

His plan is to lure the Germans onto a giant frozen lake, which is one of the great battles in cinema, shot in beautiful black and white. [see photo below] This movie was made on the eve of a threatened invasion of Russia by Germany, just before the outbreak of WW2. The idea was to obviously make pro-Russian, nationalistic propaganda. Nonetheless, it is an overwhelming, marvelous, stunning powerful masterpiece.

If you can forget the ideology, which is that Russia will always use her winter to her advantage in repelling invaders, and watch it as art, you will witness perhaps Eisenstein's greatest work, and a black-and-white classic.

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Restrepo

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, 2010 (9.0*)
Memorial Day War-a-thon film #21
Documentary that follows The Men of Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, in Afghanistan's deadly Korangal Valley, as they work out of firebase they call Outpost Restrepo, after a fallen comrade, medic Juan Restrepo.

If you're interested about how contemporary American soldiers look in daily combat, this is as good a film as you'll get, shot with superb cinematography, as risk of the filmmakers themselves being shot. (Director Tim Hetherington was in fact killed while filming in Libya in March of this year).

The film is simply a journal, following the platoon with little narrative structure other than their building OP Restrepo, the 15-man outpost on a hill overlooking the entire enemy valley - and a patrol into the civilian population called Operation Rock Avalanche, during which the troops came under heavy fire. Through face-to-face interviews with the soldiers, we can see what this has done to their psyches, and many of the soldiers are just out of high school.

4 awards, including Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, out of 12 nominations, including an Oscar® nomination for documentary (Inside Job won). Tim Hetherington also won a Pulitzer Prize for a 2007 photo of the soldiers resting at Restrepo.

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Monday, May 30, 2011

The Last of the Mohicans

Michael Mann, 1992 (8.2*)
Memorial Day War-a-thon film #20
Based on the James Fenimoore Cooper novel, this is the definitive version of this American classic.

Daniel-Day Lewis has the title role as Nathanial Poe, known as Hawkeye, who was adopted and raised as a Mohican. Native American Russell Means plays Chingachgook, the title character. Means was an Indian activist who was at the last clash with the FBI at Wounded Knee. Lewis does a pretty good job, but it seems they could have found a real Native American actor for this part as well.

The story is about British and French troops warring in colonial America, with various Native American tribes helping on either side. Hawkeye seems to have his own agenda, which largely involves a British officer's daughter, played by Madeleine Stowe. Hawkeye, Chingachgook and his son rescue Stowe and some others from renegade Hurons and return them safely to a fort.

Unfortunately the film is more about this romance than the actual nation-shaping war. Michael Mann always seems to have more of a 'tv look' to his films (he created Miami Vice), everything is a little too clean, too pretty, but he escapes that for the most part here with a feature film that looks like a big budget adventure. The cinematography and the music are superb.

This finally brought color to Cooper's work, the previous best versions were all in black and white. Some say this was the first chase story in literature. The climactic scenes on a mountain were shot in the beautiful area of Chimney Rock, North Carolina, one of the nicest parts of Appalachia.

An Oscar® winner for sound, a BAFTA for cinematography, two for actor Daniel-Day Lewis. Winner of 6 awards out of 16 nominations

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Empire of the Sun

Steven Spielberg, 1987 (8.3*)
Memorial Day War-a-thon film #19
Based on the autobiographical novel of British science fiction author J.G. Ballard, this is the wartime story of a British boy named Jim, played by a young Christian Bale, caught in Shanghai when the Japanese invade, eventually ending up in a Japanese POW camp, along with some other families and some American deserters, led by John Malkovich. The Americans befriend Jim and he becomes a flunkie, or employee, of them - really more like a hired servant - they are black marketeers and live better than other prisoners.

This has some unforgettable scenes - one a collection of British possessions rotting in a large outdoor field. My favorite is a flyer in a P-38 going past Jim on a watchtower in slow motion as Jim waves at the pilot in the middle of wartime action. Much of this actually happened to author Ballard when he was this age, he spent part of his youth growing up in a Japanese camp for captured Brits.

11 wins out of 24 nominations, incl. 6 Oscar nominations with no wins.. some wins were for cinematography, director, actor Christian Bale..

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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Yves Simoneau, 2007 (8.6*)
Memorial Day War-a-thon Film #18
Tells the true story of the U.S. war against the Lakota Souix tribe, from the book by Dee Brown. We see a lead up of escalating events until there is the banning of the harmless "Snake Dance", and an eventual historical event the U.S. would rather forget - I won't spoil it here for those who don't know or haven't seen the film.

This intermingles the stories of three historical characters: Charles Eastman, aka Ohiyesa, a college-educated Sioux doctor, 'living proof of the success of assimilation'; the proud Sitting Bull, the Lakota chief who refuses to submit to U.S. policies designed to strip his people of their identity, dignity and their sacred land - the gold-laden Black Hills of the Dakotas, promised to them in a treaty, to 'remain untouched'; and Senator Henry Dawes, who was one of the architects of the government policy on Indian affairs.

This film goes even further by showing how we indoctrinated Native American children into our society - by forcing them to drop their Indian names and choose a "Christian" one out of a big book of approved biblical names. They were forced to denounce their heritage and change names and learn Christianity or they were not given an education.

Stars Aiden Quinn, Anna Paquin, Fred D. Thompson, Chevez Ezaneh, and August Schellenberg as Sitting Bull.
won 22 awards out of 42 nominations, including 6 Emmys out of 17 nominations, including best tv movie.

Note: What most historical records won't say it that it was really just a matter of gold, which was discovered on sacred Souix grounds in the Black Hills, home of their sacred ancestors. The U.S. was in one of its regular bankruptcies or depressions, the government having just borrowed 500 million from J.P. Morgan in 1875 - suddenly there was easy gold in land they could just take back from the Souix, conveniently ignoring any prior treaties.

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Gallipoli

Peter Weir, Australia, 1981 (7.8*)
Memorial Day War-a-thon film #17
Two sprinters from Ausralia, played by Mel Gibson and Marc Lee, are sent to the Gallipoli campaign in World War One, as battlefield runners, the speedy who carry messages between military commanders in days before radios and easier communication.

If you don't know the history of this battle, I won't spoil it here, but the battle footage is well done, fairly realistic (and without CGI). The main themes of the film will hit you like a brick wall at the film's conclusion, and they are the universal themes of all wars: on the whole, they are a futile exercise, but in some individual cases, heroes may rise from among average men and attain at least a moment of timeless glory.

Winner of 9 awards, 20 nominations, including 8 Australia Film Institute awards (Film, Director, Actor for Gibson, Supporting actor for Bill Hunter, Screenplay, Cinematography, Sound, Film Editing) - it didn't win any international awards, just Australian.Dur

Another in a line of excellent Peter Weir films, which include Fearless (my favorite), Witness, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, The Mosquito Coast, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

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Troy

Wolfgang Petersen, 2004 (7.7*)
Memorial Day War-a-thon film #16
Based on Homer's Iliad, this updating of the story of the Trojan war with Greece over the queen Helen has added CGI effects to finally look as if there are the reputed half a million Greek soldiers on the shores of Troy. (Well they say Helen "launched a thousand ships", so the total men involved may have been as small as 50,000).

Led by King Agamemnon (Brian Cox) the Greeks have united as one large army in order to invade Troy, and the most fierce and undefeatable of their warriors is of course Achilles, played by Brad Pitt. What sparked this war is that Paris (Orlando Bloom), has talked the Queen of Sparta and wife of Menelaus, Helen (Diane Kruger), into going back to Troy with him to be his wife, in spite of protests from future king Hector (Eric Bana). Bana gives the films most complex and interesting performance and a voice of reason from within Troy, that one woman is not worth war for the thousands, while to Paris it's now a question of Trojan honor.

There's a lot of primitive war, much of it mano-a-mano, as the Greeks laid seige to Troy for a couple of years, having brought shiploads of food with them. The war/siege appears to have stalemated, so the Greeks eventually resorted to the infamous Trojan horse scheme.

This was a major blockbuster, like 50's era Hollywood, with an estimated 175 million budget, and grossing around 500 million worldwide. Winner of only 3 awards, with its only Oscar® nomination for costume design

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Kingdom of Heaven

Ridley Scott, 2005 (7.9*)
Memorial Day WAR-a-thon film #15
This is the time of the Crusades in the Middle Ages, a 200-yr period of clashes between Europe and the Middle East (ie, Islam) basically for control of Jerusalem, central to what both sides claim to be Holy Lands.

A blacksmith named Balian (Oliver Bloom) has lost his family and almost his faith as well, yet he still is somehow pulled by destiny. A great knight, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a Crusader home from fighting, reveals himself as Balian's father, and takes him to the Holy Land to fight for Christianity there.

This is highlighted by some incredible special effects, never has medieval war looked so realistic, as huge balls of flaming oil [see below] are hurled by catapults that explode into airborn fire when they hit. Ridley Scott has used his technical expertise to create another real vision of an ancient world, like he did with Gladiator.

The positive here is there are no good vs evil people, just principled soldiers fighting honorably. Even though Bilian's story of personal journey seems to be sacrificed for the historical battle story, it's still a worthy film for giving us a look at what medieval war must have been.

© 20th Century Fox, for promotional purposes only

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Gettysburg

Ronald F. Maxwell, 1993 (8.1*)
Memorial Day WAR-a-thon film #14
Based on Michael Shaara's excellent novel The Killer Angels, about the leaders of the armies that met at Gettysburg. Actually filmed as a tv miniseries, this gives the three-day battle it's proper cinematic homage at nearly four hours. Even though made for tv, and it looks it at times, it's still probably the finest film treatment of Gettysburg to date.

In spite of some well-known actors in pivotal roles, which usually means "all-star ineffective cast", some manage to turn in remarkable performances, especially Jeff Daniels as Col. Joshua Chamberlain, the ex-teacher from Maine, who held Little Big Top in the battle's early fighting, thus saving the high ground for the Union cannons, and who was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and later served in Congress.

Martin Sheen turns in a credible performance as Gen. Robert E. Lee, with the proper accent, but without any of Lee's charisma. Some of the beards don't look quite real enough, like the one on Tom Berenger, but his performance is a good one so it's a trifling issue, just one of the many tipoffs of lower-budget, tv-level source of the production. Sam Elliott shines as Gen John Buford, the cavalry commander who initiates the battle, as does Richard Jordan (in one of his last roles) as Gen. Lewis Armistead, facing his best friend from earlier days in this battle. Stephen Lang perhaps chews the scenery a bit as Gen. George Pickett, forced by Lee to send his troops across exposed ground in the face of Union cannons.

It was perhaps a war deciding moment in just one huge battle, one that killed over 53,000 men, more than all of Vietnam. The film does a good job attempting this scale, using the help of a historical war re-enactment group. A war-weary Lee is shown saying "I leave this up to God now", which is often a big mistake, one that sacrifices your own war experience and rationale judgment, which had been used to Lee's advantage up to this point, offsetting the greater numbers and better equipment of the Union.

Gods and Generals
Michael Shaara's son Jeff finished his unfinished sequel novel "Gods and Generals" after Michael's death. It was also filmed, with Robert Duvall as Lee, a better choice than Sheen, and is about all the civil war years leading up to Gettysburg.

Bring the Jubilee
For those interested in Gettysburg, read Ward Moore's excellent alternate-history novel called "Bring the Jubilee", about a scholar who agrees to test a time travel machine if they'll send him back to the beginning of the famous battle, so he can see how the South won the battle, and thus the war, keeping the north and south as two separate nations and thus both second-level world powers, still dominated by European empires.

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The Longest Day

1962, bw (8.0*)
Memorial Day WAR-a-thon film #13
Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Darryl F. Zanuck (uncredited)
Annakin did the British exteriors, Marton the American exteriors, Wicki the German episodes.

A journalistic, little embellished story of D-Day, beginning with the build up, and the delays caused by weather, the men anxiously rocking with the waves below decks, worried about how much German force will be waiting for them at Normandy. We proceed from waiting troops, to the overnight paratrooper drop that actually began the assault.

This all-star cast is more of a Hollywood who's who than a tight narrative ensemble, but by shooting in black and white the producers tried to give this filmed story of D-Day a documentary look and feel, so in that regard having stars in every part negates the effect, but it's still a rewarding war film overall. From Cornelius Ryan's best-seller, and it has that feel as well.

The cast has some of the biggest names available at the time: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Peter Lawford, Robert Ryan, Sal Mineo, Eddie Albert, Mel Ferrer, with Curt Jurgens and Gert Frobe in the German scenes. Most have little to do however, other than ask questions about maps, or bark out orders. The film is made by the special effects, as it truly does look like "every ship in the world" off the coast of Normany when the invasion begins, as one German observer radios to Berlin.

won 7 awards, 2 Oscars (cinematography, special effects) out of 13 nominations

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They Were Expendable

John Ford, 1945, bw (8.5*)
Memorial Day WAR-a-thon Film #12
(Robert Montgomery, co-dir, uncredited, who took over for Ford when he was injured in a fall)
This unglamorous story of average sailors doing their job at war is actually a touching and memorable war film. It's about the men in PT boats defending the Philippines. The film is written around the real life escape of General Douglas McArthur from Corregidor around the beginning of the Pacific War. Remaining historically accurate, the film documents the collapse of American-Filipino resistance in 1942.

John Wayne plays Rusty, a cynical officer unhappy being on PT boats, he wants a bigger, more important station, so in this film Wayne is not the big hero in a famous battle at all, making it more realistic than most of his roles, and quite a satisfying performance as a result. Robert Montgomery as the squadron commander is understated and moving, one of his best performances as well.

The film is full of memorable war images: a Japanese air strike at Subic Bay, the scenes of McArthur's escape, the defeated American army retreating on Mindanao. This is not a heavy action war film, but has a tranquil pace with time for other real life moments. Perhaps the finest of John Ford's war films.

Excellent supporting cast includes Ward Bond, Donna Reed, Jack Holt, Leon Ames. The sound and special effects received Oscar® nominations.

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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Glory

Edward Zwick, 1989 (8.4*)
Memorial Day WAR-a-Thon Film #11
A pretty realistic civil war film with some real battle action, which places this in a handful of films that actually combined the two. This tells the true story of the all-black army unit that fought for the Union in the Civil War, led by white officer (naturally) Robert Gould Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick, who first has to fight prejudice within his own army.

The story follows the 54th Massachusetts from it's initial days until their first major action in the war in 1963. Denzel Washington won his first Oscar® this, for supporting actor, as a cynical yet heroic soldier. Morgan Freeman also has a supporting part. James Horner contributed a nice music score, as usual.

Even though most characters in the film were composites except for Shaw, Glory was based on a screenplay written by American screenwriter Kevin Jarre, which was based on two books:
(1) One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment (1989) by Peter Burchard, a novel that itself was based on letters written by Robert Gould Shaw, the colonel in command of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which entered the American Civil War in 1863
(2) Lay This Laurel (1973), a photographic tribute to the Civil War sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Winner of 12 awards out of 19 nominations, and three Oscars®: sound, cinematography, supporting actor.

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The Killing Fields

Roland Joffe, 1984 (8.2*)
Memorial Day War-a-thon Film #10
A western journalist, Sam Waterston, is trapped in Cambodia as the Vietnam war is winding down, but as Pol Pot's regime is beginning to massacre two million civilians in a 'cleansing' of that nations undesirables. He struggles to get out himself but will also not abandon his assistant and friend from Cambodia. This closely mirrored the story of co-star Haing S. Ngor, who was awarded with an Oscar® for basically playing his own life out onscreen.

This is a true story written by a journalist, so the effort was made to film this in a journalistic style. This is not for the squeamish, as rather than soldiers, innocent civilians are often the target of this war. This makes a nice companion piece with Oliver Stone's Vietnam films, Platoon, and Heaven and Earth.

winner of 26 awards out of 44 nominations, including 3 Oscars® for supporting actor (Ngor), cinematography, editing. The film lost best picture to Amadeus that year.

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The Thin Red Line

Terrence Malick, 1998 (8.0*)
Memorial Day WAR-a-thon film #9
Looks like director Malick tried to make another great war film from fiction, using another James Jones novel, author of From Here to Eternity. Unfortunately the film has little dramatic impact, especially for a major World War II battle, in this case Guadalcanal, a lengthy battle due to the rugged terrain, and size of the island. It does, however, concentrate on some weighty philosophical issues, mainly why has the evil of war and men killing each crept into the natural world, and introduced horror into what could be a paradise.

Jim Caviezel stars as a man who'd rather retire on a nearby island with natives than commit any more to the carnage of the war in the Pacific. Some of the opening scenes of this are among the more beautiful in cinema, an idyllic tropical paradise, untouched by modern man or war. All too soon for Caviezel, he's soon plunged back into the reality of war against dug-in Japanese troops who'll fight to the end without surrender.
Commanding officer Nick Nolte, who unfortunately growls all his lines, is an unsympathetic, result-oriented, no holds barred type of commander more than willing to send unnecessary men to death to make himself look good, as he feels "passed over" by the bureaucracy and is hoping to rise from colonel to general at any cost.

Whit, played by Jim Caviezel, would rather live in
a primitive paradise than face the modern world of war

This brings all serious questions of war to the surface, namely where does one draw the line between bravery and suicide? At what price are a few hundred yards of earth, all any of this ever amounts to on a microcosmic scale. How much impact can one man really have, as Sean Penn's veteran sergeant character. character asks Jim Caviezel.

Any Malick film is a rarity worth seeing, this may not be his best, but it's still another very good war film, just perhaps a little overlong, yet with a lyrical poetry missing in most films like this one. It's definitely not a gung-ho, flag-waving type of hero worship war film. Still, it won 18 awards out of 44 nominations, but won no Oscars out of seven nominations, which included best picture, director, editing, cinematography, sound, music, screenplay - so you can tell it was another superbly crafted film, hence it's inclusion here.

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The English Patient

Anthony Minghella, 1996 (8.8*)
Best Picture (AA)
Best Picture (BAA)
Memorial Day War-a-thon Film #8
A man is badly burned in a military hospital, and being taken care of by a beautiful young nurse, Juliette Binoche in an Oscar®-winning performance. We are told the story of Count Almásy in flashbacks from the present, a Hungarian mapmaker for the Royal Geographical Society, in their employ to chart the vast Saharan desert. He becomes involved in a tale of romance and intrigue, as he gets involved in an adulterous affair with Kirsten Scott Thomas with the backdrop of war looming, which leads to his present situation in the hospital. Colin Firth ably plays her cheated husband.

One of the more celebrated romances ever, it's in the awards realm of Gone With the Wind, twice as many as Casablanca. However, the two leads in this film, Ralph Fiennes and Kirsten Scott-Thomas, aren't quite superstar caliber yet nevertheless turn in career-best performances. The film is capably carried by the superb craftmanship of all the other arts, cinematography, sound, and editing in particular.

Some may find this a little soapy, because it is ultimately two romances, the Count's tale, and Binoche's nurse and a handsome, young Indian bomb squad officer, played by Naveen Andrews, which actually seems more real than the Count's romance, which may be fable. It's heavier on character and relationship development, so it will be slow for some wanting an action war film; it's not one of those, but it does have all the elements of classic war adventure as well. It's a bit reminiscent of David Lean, which is a good thing.

50 awards, including 9 Oscars® (picture, director), and 5 Baftas (best film) - out of 87 nominations.

Interesting that it's Oscar® losses were lead actor (Fiennes, lost to Geoffrey Rush for Shine), actress (Thomas, who lost to Frances McDormand for Fargo), and screenplay.

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Letters From Iwo Jima

Clint Eastwood, 2006 (8.4*)
[in Japanese w. subtitles]
Memorial Day War-a-thon Film #7
Using letters sent home to Japan during World War Two, Clint Eastwood has constructed the Japanese side of the battle for Iwo Jima island. This was filmed simultaneously with his English-language The Flags of Our Fathers, which followed the lives of some of those made famouse by the raising of the flag in that famous photo and now a statue at Arlington, so the two make a natural double-feature together.

This is all in Japanese with subtitles, as we are given excerpts of the soldiers' letters and that is mixed with live action. This presents a harrowing tale of war, in a stronghold that had miles of tunnels dug by the troops over time, so they were able to hold out a long time and move around underground, unseen on top. They were forced to live like feral animals, and vowed to fight to the death, surrender is a dishonor.

This has some amazing affects, the invasion of occupied Iwo Jima by the navy and marines, footage (obviously CGI effects) that was used in each film. Of the two, I found Letters to be the more intense, as it all takes place on the island, and mostly during the battle itself, while Flags followed the soldiers around in the state promoting war bonds long after their fighting was done.

No. 237 on the IMDB 250, winner of 17 awards

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Coming Home

Hal Ashby, 1975 (8.1*)
Memorial Day War-athon #6
A powerful anti-war film about Vietnam vets coming home to re-establish their lives which are forever changed by the war. Jane Fonda and Jon Voight each won acting Oscars® as two people who fall in love while fighting for the rights of returning war vets. He's now a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, which he uses in his anti-war speeches. Voight also won actor at Cannes, and a Golden Globe for his performance (six awards in all).

Bruce Dern, also an Oscar®-nominee, is unfortunately the loser in this triangle, as it's his wife, Fonda, that falls in love with another man while he's still serving in Vietnam. He's still a more traditional patriot, while Fonda has moved on to the anti-war side as the war has continued without an end in sight.

This had no combat scenes so it wasn't as powerful as some other Vietnam-era films like The Deer Hunter and Platoon, (both Oscar® winners for best picture) yet it provided an equally powerful anti-war statement, about life from peacetime, from the civilian side, and the lifelong effects the war will have on some participants.

Winner of 3 Oscars® (actor, actress, screenplay directly for the screen), and 13 awards overall

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The Night Porter

Liliani Cavani, Italy, 1974 (8.3*)
Il portiere di notte

[in English]
Memorial Day War-a-thon #5

This film deals with the dark side of human sexuality, one which grew out of a twisted relationship during World War II, so it's also a metaphor for the dark side of society itself. People may appear normal on the outside, but..

Charlotte Rampling plays Lucia, a concentration camp survivor who, twelve years later and now married to a famous orchestra conductor, meets her former captor Maximilian by chance, when they check into a Viennese hotel he is the night porter there. Dirk Bogarde turns in one of his most riveting performances as the night clerk, a man nonchalant and passionless on the outside, but who releases a torrent of sadomasochistic eroticicm when alone with Charlotte, as she is all too willing to continue what was started in the camp, when she was the teenage victim of s/m sex experiments with Bogarde. Apparently her present life, even though affluent and safe, isn't as passionate nor as fulfilling as her prior one.

This is the most interesting aspect of the story, the long term psychological ramifications of those surviving traumatic experiences, and those who become bonded to their captors. In one regard, since this relationship became necessary for Maximilian as well, it kept Lucia alive through the war, so he saved her life, even if as his sex slave. Bogarde still meets with other former camp officers in the present day, to discuss surviving in the present society and remaining anonymous, so their shared memories remain alive through the group.

Caviani did a good job of making all this complexity understandable, if not sympathetic. The films weakness is not making us care what happens to these characters; they seem self-absorbed and uninterested in normal society, likely as a result of surviving the camp. The films strong point is that it shows how dysfunctional society itself can be in creating people like this, how it's possible for personal demons to prevent people from change, and how their unchecked obsessions can consume the soul.

Some dismissed this as sensationalism, I found it a chilling expose of the dark side of the Nazi psyche, the need to control people totally, only deriving pleasure from inflicting pain.This film made Rampling an international star, but it wasn't until the recent Under the Sand that she lived up to her dramatic potential. In this film, a woman's longtime husband swims in the ocean while she naps on the beach, and after awakening finds that her husband has disappeared.

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Spartacus

Stanley Kubrick, 1960 (7.9*)
Memorial Day War-athon #4
Kirk Douglas plays the Roman slave Spartacus, who fought for his freedom, then organized a massive army of ex-slaves that actually fought against a Roman army legion. This epic, around three hours long, is the first of this scale from director Stanley Kubrick, who previously cast Douglas in his anti-war classic Paths of Glory.

Though it's lacking in the riveting story of Lawrence of Arabia or Gandhi, this is still a historical epic of the same scale, and another based on a real historical person - and though not as grandiose as those films, it's still an epic worth seeing. This is, of course, an American slant on the story, a man's gotta have his freedom, or give him death, that kind of patriotic story. It also came out a year after Ben-Hur, so Biblical era epics were hot property, these were merely two in a river of these (Ten Commandments, Quo Vadis, Greatest Story Ever Told, The Robe), with Cleopatra to follow and perhaps kill the genre with one blow.

This actually won four Oscars®: Peter Ustinov for supporting actor, costume design, art direction, and cinematography. It won 8 awards overall out of 13 nominations

This is likely to remain the most famous of all of Kirk Douglas' film roles. It's also an interesting work in the filmography of Stanley Kubrick, the one Hollywood-style epic unlike all his others, now that we have a restored and uncut edition, it's more like his original film.

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Enemy at the Gates

Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001 (7.8*)
U.S.-UK-Germany-Ireland
Memorial Day War-athon #3
Enemy at the Gates is a World War II story about the battle of Stalingrad. In the biggest battle of the war, German troops got bogged down in their Russian invasion at this city, and along with Russians, it's estimated that over 2 million troops died in a little over a year, as the war became a long stalemate, while winter tooks it's toll on the Germans (the Russian soldiers were prepared, and wore mink).

The battle became a city battle, block by block, and eventually became nothing more than a war of snipers. Those foolish enough to show their head got a bullet through the helmet. Each side calls on better and better snipers until they are down to the best teachers from each side, two legendary snipers, one German, one Russian. This is based on a true story, in fact, Russian Sergeant Vassili Zaitsev was a real person whose sniper rifle is still an exhibit in a Russian museum.

An excellent cast sells what would have been just another war film. Jude Law and Joseph Fiennes star as rival snipers, Ed Harris is a scary, high-ranking Nazi, and Rachel Weisz is a Red Army sergeant, Tania (a real historical war hero of Russia). Some Russians online say it's historically inaccurate in order to be a more sellable film, that's it's no longer historic information. If you can put that aside, it's a riveting war film, just nothing too deep.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

The Legend of 1900

Guiseppe Tornatore, Italy, 1998 (8.2*)
Happy Birthday, Guiseppe, May 27th, 1957!
The movie is definitely unique, about a man who spends his entire life on board an ocean liner and becomes a fantastic piano player for the ship's orchestra. The award-winning cinematography of Lajos Koltai coupled with the direction of Tornatore, director of the Oscar®-winning Cinema Paradiso, Malena, and Star Maker, makes this film happen for many, it's simply gorgeous to see.

The story begins with a man pawning a trumpet, the hearing of an obscure fragment of music on a recording, and the window to the memory of wonderful times is opened once again. We are invited into this memory through a magical tale.

Tim Roth has one of his most demanding and interesting roles in this - he plays the man whose lifetime home is the floating cruise ship, he never leaves it, fearing the outside world. Thus the ship becomes a supplicant mother, whom he never knew, he was found on the ship in a basket. Since a child, he has become an expert pianist on the ship through constant practice, and at one point Clarence Williams comes on board as the arrogant Jelly Roll Morton, who challenges Roth to a piano duel, certainly one of the film's highlights. Pruitt Taylor Vince has his best career role as Roth's best friend, a trumpet player on the ship.

The film is complex and can be said to be about many things, both physical and metaphysical. This ambitious semi-epic covers four decades in a man and a ship's life - it paints a picture of a world only this one man could know. It certainly has the air of a fable, a light fantasy, in which it's possible to live your lifetime within a cruiseliner, sheltered from the outside world like an unborn baby.

This got 7.9 at IMDB, but only 58 from Metacritics, so the public likes it more than the critics.

Winner of 15 awards out of 20 nominations

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Breaker Morant

Bruce Beresford, Australia, 1980 (8.8*)
Memorial Day War-athon #2
This the story of a war-time court martial, and is based on true events during the closing stages of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The officers are members of a mostly Australian unit called the Bushveldt Carbineers, created to fight the Boer commandos by employing their own tactics against them.

The charge is that the three men involved here committed murder by executing captured Boers, and also perhaps executed a civilian non-combatant. Their defense is that they were acting in accordance with standing orders, because the operational nature of the Carbineers would be hampered by having to keep prisoners under guard. Also, anyone escaping would be able to give their location and other information. Naturally, these are verbal orders only, so it's all based on heresay.

The British command sees the incident as a chance to give morale to the Boer side, embarassing their side, so command clearly wishes to portray the three protagonists as rogue elements and sacrifice them for political expediency. Similar to Kubricks Paths of Glory, this film examines the military practice of high command often sacrificing subordinates to cover for their own failures and indiscretions, in this case violating international accords by executing prisoners of war. Through the trial, we get the see the story told as flashbacks during witness testimony.

The overall quality of this film is impeccable, as is the cast - five were nominated for Australian Film Institute (AFI, equivalent of our academy awards) awards for acting: Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown won (for lead and supporting respectively), also nominated were Edward Woodward, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, and Charles 'Bud' Tingwell.

Winner of 12 awards, including 10 AFI awards, it's only 3 AFI losses were to other actors in the same film. This is both a powerful war film and a gripping legal film with a courtroom trial.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Nosferatu

aka Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens
(Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors)
F.W. Murnau, 1922, Germany, bw (8.4*)
One of the first freaky vampire films from one of the first great directors of the school known as German Expressionism, this character is truly horrifying. Admittedly a little dated in the modern era of special effects, but imagine seeing this type of film in 1922, there had probably only been a handful of scary films made by that time, so there was nothing as evil-looking as this in the early days of cinema.

Murnau designs his films like 19th century art, to control the mood and atmosphere of the story, and transfer that mood to the audience to enhance he story - remember they had no sound to make creepy horror effects, no squeaking board or doors, no howling winds or ghosts, no screaming, just silent horror.

This is No. 48 on our compendium of all film polls

Fans of Murnau or German expressionism should also check out Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans, winner of 3 Oscars® at the 1928 awards, for artistic picture, actress Janet Gaynor, and cinematography.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Touch of Evil

Orson Welles, 1958, bw (8.3*)
Whether you love Welles or not, you have to admit that this is one unique and bizarre crime film. True to classic noir, this one also has its seminal scenes at night, in fact most of the action is in the dark, like the souls of many in this film. It's a dark and almost dreary film, but that's true of much of classic noir.

Charlton Heston is Mike Vargas, a Mexican narcotics officer, whose honeymoon to Janet Leigh is interrupted by a murder in a border town that happens after someone places a bomb in the trunk of a car on the Mexican side of the border that then drives back across, while on the same street. Vargas is soon dealing with the police chief on the U.S. side, a long-time corrupted Hank Quinlan, to whom his law is 'the law', played with cynical gusto by Orson Welles. Quinlan is all too ready to convict an innocent Mexican-American, but Vargas begins probing into his checkered past.

Meanwhile his wife Susie (Leigh) is not only out of danger at a seedy motel, but right in the middle; this part is inexplicably broken up by a sudden comic appearance by Dennis Weaver as the dumbfounded but pruriently interested hotel clerk, in one of the more bizarre performances in cinema history.

This examines racism along the Mexican border as well as police corruption, and does it in classic film noir dark palette and lighting, with hardly a character you'd want to know personally, even Heston's, for he wouldn't last long in the real world by diving into the fire. More than a clash of individual personalities and ethics, it becomes an inter-racial and cross-cultural statement on mutual cooperation and understanding.

Those interested in Welles should by all means see Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Touch of Evil is No. 125 on the IMDB 250, and is No. 30 on our compendium of all film polls - so it's obviously ranked much higher by critics than the public.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Worlds Best Films Facebook Page

Please check out our new Facebook page for our World's Best Films blog, and click "like", and invite your friends! I'm getting over 500 visitors a day on my two film blogs, so getting to 1000 'likes' shouldn't take much time with your help! thanks!!

Worlds Best Films page at Facebook

check out the post links there and the album of film stills..



The girls are waiting for you there, lol..

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Sunday, May 22, 2011

When Trumpets Fade

John Irvin, 1998 (8.4*)
Memorial Day War-athon #1
Originally shot for HBO tv, this fine war film stars Ron Eldard as David Manning, who starts off as a private reluctant to risk his life, but who finds himself promoted due to attrition around him. He's suddenly burdened with increasing responsibilities he does not want, as he's really a cynic about the value of losing lives for what appears to be meaningless gains. Meanwhile his unit suffers catastrophic losses attempting to fight into Germany in late 1944. Based on a true story, the Hurtgen Forest Battle, where 24,000 soldiers died.

Manning's dilemma both contrasts and parallels that of his company commander (much of this film has parallel lines, or is circular in nature), Captain Pritchett (Martin Donovan), who has to balance achieving the objectives or his orders from above and keeping as many of his men alive as possible, and he seems to be failing at both. Unlike Private Ryan, the replacement troops here are all green recruits with no combat experience yet, which seems more realistic in a war of attrition. Dwight Yoakam plays the nameless battalion commander who is unapologetic about driving his men to the slaughter, but whose face betrays the weight of the death of subordinates under his command.

When Trumpets Fade reveals combat at its most gruesome and frustrating as Captain Pritchett's company batters itself against its target with nothing to show for the courage and bravery of the men but mounting casualties; this has to be a universal condition of war, as those losing must feel even greater angst. When we get to see the enemy, we see hopelessness in the face of a German squad leader portrayed by Frank-Michael Köbe, a man who knows that he is fighting only to postpone the inevitable, and to perhaps die heroically before facing the end as an army in total defeat.

Very good war action, though gritty, realistic, and depressing, but nonetheless an excellent war film, especially for tv. Many compare this film to Patton, it's certainly not the same scale or budget, but is just as much a revealing portrait of the carnage of war on both sides, victors and vanquished. George Patton once said, "I have but one military strategy - try to annihilite the enemy before he annihilates us"; this film seems all to aware of that philosophy.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

M.

Fritz Lang, 1931, bw (9.0*)
No. 11 on our compendium of all polls, No. 55 on the IMDB 250
M. is the classic Fritz Lang suspense thriller in which someone is murdering children in a German city, the police can't catch him, and the manhunt is so intense that it's interrupting all the normal crime, so even criminals enlist in the killer's search.

Peter Lorre is the psychotic serial killer, in a chilling performance, one that put him on the map as a creepy actor that can sell a sociopathic character. Lang did a great job capturing both the uneasiness and the complexity of the characters, as well as creating the atmospheric mood with lighting and cinematography, characteristic trademarks of German expressionism. Lang is more interested in the effects of the killings on the town than the actual crimes.

Like Murnau (Sunrise, The Last Laugh, Nosferatu) and Pabst (Pandora's Box), Lang is a must-see for fans of early cinema, particularly German, and before they came to Hollywood, which makes M. essential viewing as well. His 1926 masterpiece, Metropolis, is the most famous and significant early science fiction film, the same can be said for this film in the genre of crime.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

The Crying Game

Neil Jordan, 1992 (8.7*)
Not your average romance, nor your average crime film, and not an easy film to describe without spoiling it's secret.

The film begins with Miranda Richardson's character seducing a young black British soldier, Forrest Whitaker, and then's he kidnapped by IRA friends of hers. While being held hostage, gunman Stephen Rea takes a daily watch and gets to know the soldier, even though he's supposed to be the enemy, they start to connect while discussing their personal lives.

Suffice to say that not much in this film goes according to the plans of the participants. The hostage section is really just the first half of the story, the second half becomes a unique romance, about which I won't say anything. This is an intesting blend of terrorism, crime, and romance.

The acting, the writing, and Neil Jordan's direction make this film a notch above most others. Nominated for six Oscars®, including film, directing, actor for Rea, supporting actor for Jaye Davidson, supporting actress for Miranda Richardson (she won the NY Film Critics award), editing, and it won an Oscar® for screenplay. It won 19 awards total (out of 37 nominations), including a BAFTA for Best British film. Rea won the National Society of Film Critics best actor award, and on top of the Oscar, Jordan also won the Writer's Guild award for screenplay.

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Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven, 1992 (7.6*)
This film won't appeal to everyone, but for those who enjoy a Hitchcockian murder mystery updated with modern sensuality, this will be right up your alley. After the murder of a famous rock star, detective Michael Douglas is making the rounds of those closest to the victim, and he runs across a beautiful and seductive suspect  in Sharon Stone. After a now legendary and infamous interrogation scene, he becomes intrigued by Stone's charms. Even though he has a fiance, he becomes involved with Stone anyway, who, it turns out, may have more than one thing to hide. He may have met his match, I'll let you decide after seeing it.

This film put Sharon Stone on the map, she was certainly more believably seductive in this than any prior roles. Thanks to some better acted screen mayhem than usual, this rises above standard slasher fare and approaches the finest of that genre. This was one film that begged for no sequel, but they made one anyway, which I already know not to watch.

This won 5 awards out of 18 nominations, but nothing big, in fact a couple were MTV awards (both for Stone), so those don't count

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Raise the Red Lantern

Zhang Yimou, China, 1991 (8.7*)
In 20's China, nineteen-yr old Songlian, wonderfully played by Gong Li, China's best actress, is forced to marry a wealthy merchant after her father's death. The fifty-yr old 'Master', Jingwu Ma, already has three wives in a strictly ritualistic and traditional household. Each wife has her own home within the family compound, with the wives grouped together.

Each night he decides which wife to spend the night with, and the servants place a red lantern in front of that door. With favoritism from the master, wives gain more status within their own group, and of course any new wife is looked upon with suspicion and immediately jealousy. First Wife (Shuyuan Jin) tries to maintain her own superiority among the women; at least for seniority, her position can never be usurped. However, with each new wife, she risks losing more of the Master's favor, his time, and at the same time faces possible unions among her spousal rivals.

This is an interesting look at a culture not found in the west. As such, it was the first of Zhang Yimou's films to find large interest on our side of the planet. Add to that gorgeous cinematography, and the interest of women being considered little more than property in a patriarchal society, where their paths are chosen for them, and their lives are held under rigid and strict traditions, and you have a film that spoke of universal concerns and values.



Lantern won 15 awards, including 10 for best foreign film, a couple more went to the beautiful cinematography of Fei Zhao

For more of Zhang Yimou, see these reviews:
Hero (2002) China [my favorite]
House of Flying Daggers (2004) China
The Road Home (1999) China
To Live (1994) China [2nd favorite]
Not One Less (1999) China

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Spring in a Small Town

Mu Fei, China, 1948, bw (8.2*)
Spring is a gentle story of another era in Chinese films, one just after the war, in a world where this war reach out and touched even the lives of simple country people like the central character, Yuwen, movingly portrayed by Wei Wei, who is isolated in a small town, and in an arranged marriage with an ill husband, Liyan (Wu Shi).

The story revolves around memories: of love, and a period of promise, now being stirred to life again by the sudden visit of the husband's long estranged friend Zhang (Wei Li), who is now a city doctor, also a former beau of Yuwen. Zhang brings life back to the stagnant estate of Liyan, and renewed love and passion to Yuwen.

Complicating the story are the doctor's scruples and detachment, her husband's illness and depression, and his young sister's (Chaoming Cui) budding relationship with Zhang. Something subtle is happening and it's nothing as superficial as a straightforward romantic affair for anyone at the estate.

Spring is one of the most beautiful of all Chinese films because the beauty and love are just hints than actual expressions, as we'd find in films today. The world has been forever changed by war, and is coming out of it's winter, into a natural rebith of its own, mirrored by the natural spring all around. Liyan's younger sister provides the human metaphor for this natural springtime, one of renewal, spontaniety, and a natural reception to life and growth.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

King of Masks

Bian Lian, 1997, China-Hong Kong (8.4*)
In this true story, Xu Zhu plays an aging master of the ancient art of change, Sichuan Change Art, named Wang Bianlian who is known on the streets as King of Masks. He prefers to perform on the streets rather than seek more lucrative work in theaters or shows, as he seems to be inspired by the children in the crowds.http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115669/awards

His wife has long gone, his only child is dead, so Wang has no male descendent to teach his rare art; masters require students trained to keep their craft alive. One night he chances to purchase an orphan boy, and the story of their friendship begins.

For those that want a change of pace from Chinese films which have martial arts, huge casts, and epic feel, this simple, unpretentious story is one of a rare handful. This is a beautifully made and touching story. Winner of 19 awards

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Marwencol

Jeff Malmberg, 2010 (8.3*)
Marwencol is a documentary about the fantasy world of Mark Hogancamp. After leaving his local bar one night, Mark is beaten into a brain-damaging coma by five teenagers outside in the parking log. After coming out of his coma, he is on Medicaid and "the money runs out", so they tell him he is released, and is sent home with only partial brain functions. He has to relearn how to walk, eat, write, and think, with the help of his mother and friends. (He's divorced and was living alone)

In order for some spiritual as well as physical therapy, to help his shaking hands, Mark thinks he needs a hobby, so he builds a 1/6th scale World War II-era town in his backyard, which he dubs Marwencol.  Mark populates the with hobby dolls representing his friends and family and creates life-like photographs detailing the town's many relationships and dramas. Setting up scenarios like a miniature movie set, to illustrate an ongoing story (see photo at bottom), and then photographing the action helps Mark to recover coordination heal his psyche - he's still afraid of the outside world, now it represents possible danger. He only goes to work one day a week at a local restaurant-bar, and doesn't drink since the attack.

The town has American, British, and German troops all using it as a sort of neutral-zone r-and-r. There are also some blonde babes there, because Mark's ex-wife was a blonde of Eastern European descent. Mark has his own character, and there are five SS 'bad guys' that bother everyone and threaten the town. The conflicts in his psyche are played out in all the good soldiers in Marwencol trying to avoid the threatening SS. At one point, the women join the resistance and take up arms as well. There's even a character representing General George Patton. (see jeep photo below)


When Mark and his photographs are discovered, a prestigious New York gallery sets up an art show as Mark's creation is deemed art, forcing him to choose between the safety of his fantasy life in Marwencol, and keeping it private, and the real world that he's avoided since the attack, and sharing his own created world.

You won't see many stories this odd and this interesting, especially in documentaries. The biography of Crumb, about the underground comic artist, comes to mind, as well as American Splendor, a docudrama about another comic artist, that blends animation with real action, and includes the real people in the film alongside their life actor counterparts, with whom they sometimes converse, and sometimes comment about to the director.

15 awards out of 17 nominations

See more at marwencol.com

Mark Hogancamp setting up a scene in
Marwencol before photographing it

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Departures

Yôjirô Takita, 2008, Japan (10.0*)
Best Foreign Film (AA)
This is quite simply one of the most graceful, elegant, and lyrical films I've ever seen, and one of the most beautiful to watch. It's also one of the most emotionally moving and poignant ever made.

A young married cellist, Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) plays for a small orchestra that is not making enough money to survive, so its owner dissolves the group. Daigo and his wife (Ryôko Hirosue) decide to go back to the small town he grew up in because they can live in his mother's small house that he inherited.

When he arrives, he needs work, and he sees an ad that simply says immediate help needed, with no further information. It turns out that a corpse preparer, Ikuei Sasaki, needs an assistant, and has trouble keeping people. Apprehensive at first, he quickly adapts to the ritualistic and graceful tasks, and the respect shown for the departed as his own mother is dead, and his father left the family when he was six.

The screenplay is full of metaphors. Water is constantly in use, both in a ritual purification before burial, and as a healing cleanser for the living; a local public bathhouse and its proprietor are used prominently, for spiritual as well as physical healing. Snow is also used, for the pristine cleanliness and beauty of the natural world. Swans are shown landing and swimming on lakes. Along with snow, in the springtime there are flurries of cherry blossums. Both the interiors and exteriors are shown for the beauty inherent in each.


Stones are another metaphor - they are used to send messages to another by the type of stone given from person-to-person, something done in ancient times before letters. A rough stone meant the giver was worried about the recipient; a small, smooth one just the opposite. They also imply a permanence seldom found in the world of the living.

Food is also used to symbolize life; as the director (in a dvd interview) and a character says, "to eat is to live, life is impossible without eating". Also that most food is something dead, so the dead provide nourishment for the living. This is one of the more literary screenplays you will ever see.

This was a 15-year project for director Yôjirô Takita, after the idea was brought to him by one of the actors, Masahiro Motoki. Though screenplay credit goes solely to Kundô Koyama, in an interview Takita said that he did the first rough draft, then it was completed by himself and the actors together.

Overall, the film won 33 awards (out of just 39 nominations), including 10 of 13 Japanese academy awards for film, director, actor, cinematography, editing, screenplay, sound, lighting, supporting actor, and supporting actress. The only 3 it lost were actress, art direction, and score.

Departures won many other best films awards: Oscar® for foreign language film, Hawaii Int'l Film fest, Hochi film awards, Kinema Junpo awards, Mainichi Film Concours, Montreal World Film fest, Nikkon Sports Film awards, Palm Springs Int'l Film fest, Udine Far East film fest, Wisconsin film fest, Yokohama Film fest. The only awards missing seem to be BAFTA, Cannes, and Sundance. Masahiro Motoki won 5 best actors awards for his lead performance.

Awards (15) for director Takita, who said he was most pleased that such a personal and such a Japanese film meant something to viewers in other nations around the world.

Director Yôjirô Takita,
accepting his Oscar®

This is an instant classic, one of the best Japanese films of all time, and one of the best films about life and death ever made. Easily an all-time top 100 film for me, and I think for many others as well. This film more than any other captures the solemn, respectful Japanese ritualistic culture like no other.

Departures joins these other four Oscar winners from Japan:
1951: Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)
1954: Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa)
1955: Samurai 1: Musashi Miyamoto (Hiroshi Inagaki)
1975: Dersu Uzala (Soviet Union/Japan - Akira Kurosawa)

Note: I apologize for such a long review, I normally write capsule reviews that can be read quickly, but I was obviously very much impressed with this film, as was the film-viewing world. This  is only the 40th perfect 10 rating I've given out.

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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Shall We Dance?

Masauki Suo, 1995, Japan (8.7*)
One of my favorite Japanese films, about a commuter, Koji Yakusho, who nightly passes a dance studio on his commuter train and is increasingly attracted by a woman he sees there; he diligently watches for the studio on his daily trip. Eventually the shy man goes in and signs up for lessons. His attraction begins with the lovely instructor, but he begins to love ballroom dancing. This simple and unpretentious romance grows on you as you experience Koji's tranformation.

This is a very subtle, very Asian film compared to a western one, but it's popularity and uniqueness led to an inferior remake here with Richard Gere. One of the most critically successful Japanese films ever, it won 52 awards worldwide out of just 55 nominations; that means only three losses. In Japan, it won a record 14 of 15 Japanese academy awards - it's only loss was supporting actress, while actress Tamiyo Kusakari won 2 awards for her performance.

I find it amazing that this film is not ranked on the IMDB top 250, perhaps it just needs more to rate it - so by all means go there and give it your rating. This is one of the best romance films ever made, and one of the best G-rated films as well.

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Monday, May 9, 2011

Diabolique

aka Les Diaboliques
Henri-Georges Clouzot, France, 1955, bw (8.7*)
In this classic French suspense film, Michel (Paul Meurisse), the principal of a boarding school for boys has a wife Nicole (Simone Signoret), and a mistress Christina (Vera Clouzot, the Brazilian wife of the director), who are both teachers at the school. Michel is abusive, and his wife convinces the mistress to help her murder him.

Things go well at first, and like most crime films, things start to go wrong. First the husband's body goes missing, and then a retired police inspector shows up who is determined to help Nicole find her missing husband. He seems to be interested in Nicole himself, so he won't leave her alone.

This film is pretty Hitchcockian in its own way, it's just missing his trademark humor and brevity. This film doesn't spend much time developing the plot, it dives right in. It's actually more sophisticated than most murder films; it's more psychological than pathological, and displays more suspense (and no gore) than American murder films. It was actually poorly remade here with Sharon Stone, but I would definitely skip that poor imitation.

Diabolique is No. 182 on the IMDB 250, and won 3 awards. Director Clouzot directed the classic The Wages of Fear, also The Raven, made at the end of World War II, about a poison pen letter writer in a small town. Each of these films is a classic in its own way.

Véra Clouzot and Simone Signoret in Diabolique

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Quiz Show

Robert Redford, 1994 (8.6*)
This, to me, is Robert Redford's best film realization as a director, largely because he presents the story without much judgment or sentimentality, leaving it up to the viewers.

This is a true story about the quiz show scandal of the late 50's, when, at the time, there were 28 quiz shows on network tv in prime time (!) The one offering the most money was "The $64,000 Question", in which guests went into a sound-proof booth and answered a question - if correct they doubled their previous winnings, if incorrect, they went home broke. At any point, they could retire and take their winnings rather than risk any more, up to a grand total of 64,000 dollars.

This particular part of the story involved a nerdy Jewish intellectual, Alfie Stempel, brilliantly played by John Turturro, who has been unchallenged until the show's producers find a wealthy American aristocrat, Charles Van Doren (Ralph Feinnes), from a prominent New England family, and they basically groom him to become an even bigger draw with the tv viewing public. Even back then tv was more about ratings and money for sponsors than about anything ethical, legal, or fair.

The supporting cast here is uniformly excellent. Rob Morrow, who left the successful tv series Northern Exposure to take a chance at a film career, plays a government investigator of tv awards show corruption, in a performance that is undemanding but well done. (His film career subsequently went nowhere).

 Even better is Oscar-winner Paul Schofield as the ultra-successful father of Charles van Doren. David Paymer is a producer of quiz shows, who thinks it nearly unpatriotic not to stack the deck. Johann Carlo is the principled wife of contestant Stempel. Other good actors in the cast include Hank Azaria (The Simpsons), Chris McDonald (Requiem for a Dream, Lawn Dogs), Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite, Beautiful Girls).

This is a fascinating subject, and it makes us all wonder if all tv quiz shows are rigged in some way, even today. I once saw a blonde babe lose on Hollywood Squares, then three days later the same woman with a different name lost on Jeopardy as well. She was obviously some actress filling a part they wanted: beautiful babes for the viewers, proving to be intellectual airheads. Note that one of the hosts involved in a rigged show was none other than Bob Barker, who continued in the genre until.. well, did he ever stop?

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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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