Mandel Maven's Nest Masterpiece Theater:
Movies as Medicine





Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.


This category is my inconsistent designation for serious and pseudo-serious films, those that succeed at being “Masterpieces” but don’t fit in my other arbitrary categories and those that aim to be serious but succeed only at being pretentious, as well as sober documentaries.

Dawson City – Frozen Time (previewed at 2016 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center courtesy of MoMA)

In Flint (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/11/2017)

The Foster Portfolio (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)

Wasted! The Story of Food Waste (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)

Warning: This Drug May Kill You (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)

The Reagan Show (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)

The Last Animals (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)

Sambá (previewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/15/2017)

The Departure (previewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/12/2017)

From False to Legal in One Take (De falso a legal una toma) (seen in On Resistance: International Avant-Garde Films & Videos 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)

Out There (documentary/fiction cross) (Notes on 9/11 reference) (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)

Silêncio (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)

After the Storm (Umi yori mo mada fukaku) (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) > (2/4/2017)

Chevalier - Best Woman-Directed Foreign-Language Film 2016

Bobby Sands: 66 Days (11/30/2016)

Blood on the Mountain (11/19/2016)

The Crossing (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/27/2016)

Do Not Resist (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/27/2016)

When Worlds Collide) (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/13/2016)

The Maias: Scenes from Romantic Life (Os Maias - Cenas da Vida Romântica) (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (6/16/2016)

Babai (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (6/4/2016)

Lampedusa in Winter (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (5/23/2016)

You Can Go (short) (seen at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/2/2016)

Tickling Giants (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/1/2016)

Solitary (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (reviewed at Film Society of Lincoln Center and at IFC Center) (5/1/2016)

Shadow World (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/30/2016)

After Spring (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/30/2016)

The Return (to be an episode of PBS’s POV) (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/2/2016)

Icaros: A Vision (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/1/2016)

Long Story Short (short seen in An Evening with Natalie Bookchin at MoMA’s 2016 Documentary Fortnight) (3/31/2016)

Gyre and Navigator in “Films by Bjorn Kammerer” (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)

The Tower (A Torre) (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)

The Lighted Field (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)

Lou Beth Zayma: What Eyes Are Pretending To See (Ce Que L’œil Pretend Voir) (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)

Abandoned Goods (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)

Maestà (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)

Pawel and Wawel (Pawel i Wawel) (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/8/2016)

Ozoners (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/8/2016)

Toponymy (Toponimia) (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/8/2016)

The Project of the Century (La obra del siglo) (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/8/2016)

I Am the People (Je suis le peuple) (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (1/31/2016)

Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom (Note: Netflix is streaming this in 50 countries, with narration in many languages. So while the protesters proudly claim that the demonstrations drew from all ethnic groups (there’s also a quick shot of a Jewish group), an American can’t tell what languages are being spoken, so one can only assume that included Russians. (The two martyrs are an Armenian and a Belorussian.) Similarly, several times participants enthusiastically recall people from other cities beyond the capital driving into the city with needed supplies; while some of the locales are quickly mentioned by name, it’s difficult for an American to gauge the distance or if any were from eastern Ukraine which is usually considered to be more pro-Russian than pro-European integration. The eloquent interviewees are seen during the protests and later reflectively walk the same blocks and plazas. (1/8/2016)

Censored Voices (a.k.a Siakh Lokhamim: Ha'slilim Ha'gnouzim (The Hidden Tapes: Soldiers Talk)) (previewed at 2015 Other Israel Film Festival) (12/30/2015)

The Pearl Button (El botón de nácar) (My edited capsule “Best of 2015” review) (12/20/2015)

Sembène! (Commentary on the missing Jewish women) (11/6/2015)

Labyrinth Of Lies (Im Labyrinth Des Schweigens) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (10/29/2015)

The Iron Ministry (previewed at Museum of Modern Art) (8/22/2015)

This Is My Land (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: Preserving Cultural Identity Under Stress at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/18/2015)

The Wanted 18 (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: NonViolence & Revolt at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/18/2015)

The Look Of Silence (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: Violence & Vigilantes at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (My capsule “Best of 2015” review) (previewed at 2014 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/19/2015)

Cartel Land (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: Violence & Vigilantes at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (previewed at 2015 Tribeca Film Festival) /see with Western (previewed at 2015 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (6/19/2015)

3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets /The Armor of Light (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: Violence & Vigilantes at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/19/2015)

Life Is Sacred (previewed Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: NonViolence & Revolt at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/18/2015)

Autism In Love (So, nu: my commentary on the putative Jewish woman) (previewed at 2015 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/16/2015)

In Transit (previewed at 2015 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: The photographer from New York turning his camera first on the scenery, then on the pregnant young woman seems like a stand-in for the late Maysles himself when it’s revealed, finally, that this is the last trip of his life. The age range includes rueful male and female oil boom workers and a marine entertaining a little kid with his tattoos, in ironic counterpoint to rambunctious kids playing war.) (4/16/2015)

Selma (Note: I distinctly remember watching Judgment at Nuremberg on TV, presumably on ABC the night of Bloody Sunday. But as a 12-year-old who grew up for over three decades without realizing that I was the same age as “the 4 little girls” because I didn’t consider my 12-year-old self “little”, I was evidently more struck at seeing my first movie about the Holocaust, that set me on a personal quest for understanding, so somehow the news footage didn’t make the same separate impression on my life. (I was proud to hear Coretta Scott King speak twice: on 11/27/1965 at the then largest anti-Vietnam War March on Washington, D.C., sponsored by The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) to show not just SDS-ers were against the war, along with my dad, who was an active member, and in 1969 at Montclair (N.J.) High School.) The civil rights movement songs missing from the film were my camp songs. The appellation “priest” is not only confusing applied to the religious people called to join the second march when it’s married with children Unitarian minister James Reeb who was killed, but with only brief glimpses of a couple of men in the second and/or third row wearing yarmulkes, the iconic image of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linking arms with Rev. King is unfortunately omitted and will be forgotten for the younger generation who prefer to watch history in color.) (1/12/2015)
)

Last Days In Vietnam (9/1/2014)

A Master Builder (7/24/2014)

Closed Curtain (Pardé) and Manuscripts Don't Burn (Dast-neveshtehaa nemisoosand) (7/9/2014)

Burning Bush (Hořicí Keř) (previewed at 2013 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Holland interview at Director Talk.) (6/15/2014)

God Loves Uganda and Mission Congo (previewed at 2013 DOC NYC Festival) (5/28/2014)

Manakamana (previewed at 2013 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (4/18/2014)

The Missing Picture (L'image manquante)) (Note: The version I saw at the 2013 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center had a dispassionately read English narration by Jean-Baptiste Phou, where the director explained why he could finally make the film: “"I'm 50. It’s the first time I can say ‘I’” to individuate out of the masses.) (3/31/2014)

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (briefly reviewed in Witches & War at 2014 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (Note: I was astonished that none of my colleagues at press screenings had heard of this legend! I looked forward to each monthly installment in Jack and Jill Magazine, though I wasn’t able to find a good book collection of the folk tales about her for my sons. At least now there’s some editions to scare my grandchildren. Interspersed between the animated chapters are poetic, Polish-narrated travels through Eastern European towns and fields, markets and herds, orchards and buildings, churches and cemeteries, some burned-out, some overgrown, some sparse, some lively.) (3/31/2014)

Kids for Cash (2/28/2014)

The Last Of The Unjust (Le Dernier Des Injustes) (previewed at 2013 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Director Talk interview is a useful supplement.) (2/7/2014)

Good Garbage (previewed at 2013 Other Israel Film Festival) (12/7/2013)

The Fading Valley (previewed at 2013 Other Israel Film Festival) (12/7/2013)

Green Dreams (previewed at 2013 Other Israel Film Festival) (12/7/2013)

It’s Better to Jump (previewed at 2013 Other Israel Film Festival) (12/7/2013)

You Will Be My Son (Tu Seras Mon Fils) (8/18/2013)

Blackfish (Note: The documentation of the maulings by orcas at marine shows made much more realistic the awful accident portrayed in Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os), briefly reviewed in best of year- scroll down) (7/26/2013)

The Undocumented (briefly reviewed at 2013 Death & Politics at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/23/2013)

The Act Of Killing (previewed at 2013 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (briefly reviewed at 2013 Death & Politics at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/23/2013)

Camp 14 – Total Control Zone (briefly reviewed at 2013 Death & Politics at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/23/2013)

My Afghanistan – Life In The Forbidden Zone (Mit Afghanistan: Livet i den forbudte zone) (briefly reviewed at 2013 Islam & Women’s Rights at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/22/2013)

Born This Way (briefly reviewed at 2013 Faith & Filmmaking at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/12/2013)

The New Black (briefly reviewed at 2013 Faith & Filmmaking at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/12/2013)

Deepsouth (briefly reviewed at 2013 Economics & the 24th Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/10/2013)

Fatal Assistance ((Assistance mortelle) (briefly reviewed at 2013 Economics & the 24th Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/10/2013)

Aasinki: The Story Of Arctic Cowboys (briefly reviewed in Shout Out for Quiet Documentaries at Tribeca ‘13 at Tribeca Film Festival) (kudos to the interactive scenery) (6/6/2013/addition 1/25/2014)

The Trials Of Muhammed Ali (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (Notes: Though the introductory context by the last surviving member of the Louisville Sponsoring Group, the hometown businessmen who bankrolled and managed his early career, is a first but would be apropos to a sports documentary, that establishes Clay’s amicable dealings with white folks who treated him fairly. So it’s that much more interesting that misinformed television critics are already negative about HBO’s fictionalized version Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight as having too many whites.) (6/4/2013)

BIG JOY: The Adventures of James Broughton (briefly reviewed in LGBT Cinema at Tribeca ‘13 at Tribeca Film Festival) (5/29/2013)

Cape Spin! An American Power Struggle (5/16/2013)

Raw Herring (Hollandse Nieuwe) (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/4/2013)

Oxyana (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/4/2013)

Let The Fire Burn (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/4/2013)

The Color Of The Chameleon (Tsvetat na hameleona) (briefly reviewed at 2013 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (Notes: The fabulist spy network he creates is actually a lot like the elaborate fictions spun to the Germans in World War II by the film mad double agent profiled in the documentary Garbo The Spy. How the informer system was embedded into everyday Bulgarian life is well-shown in the bio-doc Tzvetanka I saw at MoMA’s 2013 Documentary Fortnight. Scripter Vladislav Todorov also adapted his Zift into a much more violent “Socialist noir” than this film.) (3/25/2013)

The Battle Of Pussy Willow Creek (Notes: The faux name of the cinematographer is “Jean Culdesac”, and the ex-slave’s Jules Verne crossed with Rube Goldberg designs, including escaping via his re-jiggered “Aerial Planter” balloon and then developing weapons like “the Dope Bomb”, are meticulously drawn by the director’s engineer boyfriend. My long-time participation in a real American History Reading Group is how I know just how funny this is!) (2/25/2013)

West Of Memphis (1/25/2013)

The Pirogue (1/23/2013)

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God (Notes: With beautiful religious music continually heard on the soundtrack, Gibney also interviews frustrated activists who are going after the Vatican City’s legitimacy as an internationally recognized nation-state, as first demarcated by Mussolini, because the church uses diplomatic immunity when it’s convenient to avoid legal action on the abuse cases. PBS’s Frontline has shown two notable reports: Joe Cultrera’s first-person account in Hand of God from the notorious Boston archdiocese and priest abuse of Native Americans in Alaska in The Silence. (11/24/2012)

Chasing Ice (11/9/2012)

Leviathan (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/14/2012)

Last Ride (7/6/2012)

Call Me Kuchu (briefly reviewed at 2012 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/16/2012) (See with God Loves Uganda for background.)

Silenced Voices (briefly reviewed at 2012 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/16/2012)

Special Flight (Vol spécial) (briefly reviewed at 2012 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/16/2012)

Five Broken Cameras (previewed at 2012 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (Notes: For the son’s third birthday, his mother teaches him that lemons ameliorate the effects of tear gas after a children’s demonstration is disrupted by soldiers in riot gear. The trip to Tel Aviv is for his father to get continuing expensive medical treatment after his crash. (5/30/2012) Ralph Seliger’s interview with the director notes he wrote the script for his collaborator Emad Burnat. Judy Gelman Myers’s interview provides additional background on the creative process.
Julia Bacha’s short film My Neighbourhood, that I previewed at the Tribeca Film Festival, covers other nonviolent anti-wall protests through a young Palestinian boy’s eyes.
This documentary figures in a funny plot point of the “Signals” episode, in the 2nd season, of Veep, teleplay by Simon Blackwell, story by Armando Iannucci and Blackwell, where she has to negotiate with her college student daughter to make her apologize for a favorable review that criticizes the Israeli occupation.

High Tech, Low Life (briefly reviewed in Award-Winning Docs at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: The older video blogger, at least for the first few years, hid his criticisms through his cat.) (5/9/2012)

Generation P (briefly reviewed at 2012 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/23/2012)

Good Times, Wonderful Times (1964, restored) along with Man’s Peril: The Making of Good Times, Wonderful Times (on Milestone’s DVD release of On The Bowery) (3/12/2012) (Note: It’s like time machine traveling to the real Mad Men.)

This Is Not A Film (In film nist) (Notes: In the spirit of the film’s theme of anti-editorial interference, here’s my original sentences: “When a genial young man comes to take out the garbage, recognizes the director and is flattered by his attention, Panahi impulsively and irresistibly does something simple, dangerous, and forbidden –he picks up the camera and follows him into the elevator. As the rubbish collector is drawn out about his ostensibly non-political problems--his hopes, his family, and the neighbors-- that obnoxious dog and owner reappear to nag in the background, and the details of daily life outside the apartment take on a heightened significance.” (previewed at 2011 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (3/2/2012)

The Pruitt Igoe Myth: An Urban History (My additional notes.) (1/20/2012)

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (previewed at 2011New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/16/2011)

Tahrir: Liberation Square (briefly reviewed at 2011 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/11/2011)

Patience (After Sebald) (briefly reviewed at 2011 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/11/2011)

The Tiniest Place (El Lugar Mas Pequeño) (seen at 2011 DocuWeeks) (9/11/2011)

Impunity (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, dedicated in memory to my activist dad) (Notes: testimony requires a complex courtroom choreography between perpetrators and victims' families, especially when pointed questions are raised about who ordered how many killed when and where in what mass graves. No, writer Kathy Reichs, the model for TV's Bones, is not one of the forensic anthropologists seen at work here.) (6/20/2011)

The Siege (La Toma) (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center, dedicated in memory of my activist dad) (6/20/2011)

Granito: How To Nail A Dictator (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center, dedicated in memory of my activist dad) (6/20/2011)

12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center, dedicated in memory to my activist dad) (6/20/2011)

This Is My Land… Hebron (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center, dedicated in memory to my activist dad) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (6/20/2011)

City Of Life And Death (Nanjing! Nanjing!) (5/13/2011)

Our School (Scoala Noastra) (briefly reviewed in Final Roundup of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/13/2011)

Give Up Tomorrow (briefly reviewed at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/22/2011)

Korkoro (Liberté) (Notes: The portrayals of "Les Juste" are based on the actions of a real, surviving school teacher in the Resistance and a notary who tried to subvert French laws against Romas' lifestyle. Director Gatlif recruited Albanian, Kosovar, Romanian, Russian and Serbian actors, and one of the brothers leading the troupe is played by the Georgian Georges Babluani, who starred in his brother's 13 Tzameti (2005). Much more appropriately than Roberto Benigni's clowning in Life Is Beautiful (Vita è bella), Thiérrée tries to set himself free by climbing trees, even as he finds on the train tracks a watch with Hebrew numbers that signals the fate he and his family cruelly face at the end of the film. While the remembrances of survivors who were a child and a portraitist in Auschwitz in Hilary Helstein's As Seen Through These Eyes (2008) are among the few witnesses of the "Gypsy Holocaust", various activist groups now label it in different languages, including porajmos and Samudaripen. How they are still persecuted today can be glimpsed in Eugene Hütz's tour of destitute walled settlements in Pavla Fleischer's The Pied Piper Of Hützovina.) (3/25/2011)

Curling (briefly reviewed at 2011 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/25/2011)

Even The Rain (También La Lluvia) (previewed at 2010 Spanish Cinema Now of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (2/19/2011)

Shoah addenda: Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 p.m. and The Karski Report, with revival of Claude Lanzmann in Our Nazi (briefly reviewed in 2011 Film Comments Selects of Film Society of Lincoln Center (2/18/2011)

The Way Back (1/21/2011) (Note: As the girl draws out hallucinatory flashbacks about the men, and individuates them for us, their personalities, mutual support and different language skills are complementary, though most of the film is in English accented by the characters' native tongues. The bit heavy-handed politics is also visualized when they see the ancient Silk Road into Mongolia and China surmounted by a hammer and sickle – "So it's here too"-- and they have to decide where to proceed. The desert scenes go on so painfully that I shamefully felt like the thirsty theater audience in the 1957 Ealing comedy The Smallest Show on Earth. While the guards sneering "Siberia is your prison", more background on Stalin and his gulag society is also shown in Marleen Gorris's Within the Whirlwind, based on the memoirs of Eugenia Ginzburg.)

The Time That Remains (1/10/2011)

Rabbit à la Berlin (Królik po berlinsku), where the rabbits are like Chris Marker's cats (previewed at MoMA’s 2010 Academy-Nominated Documentary Shorts) with Loss (Vaters Land), where the train imagery is stronger than what the intellectuals say.) (12/8/2010)

Mysteries of Lisbon (Mistérios de Lisboa) (briefly reviewed at 2010 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (11/8/2010)

Budrus (10/10/2010) (also briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (5/7/2010)

Nuremberg (previewed at 2010 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Note: The 1948 documentary also emphasized the defendants' right to have lawyers present their cases, even as they nervously turned on each other for responsibility after this first full revelation of Nazi actions. The far less public trials of Nazis in Eastern Europe were far more about summary judgment.) (9/29/2010)

Pale Flower (Kawaita hana) and Silence (Chinmoku) as part of Elegant Elegies: The Films of Masahiro Shinoda, along with Fernando de Fuentes’ Mexican Revolution Trilogy: Prisoner 13 (El prisionero trece), My Buddy Mendoza (El Compadre Mendoza) and Let’s Go with Pancho Villa (Vamanos con Pancho Villa) (briefly reviewed at 2010 New York Film Festival Masterworks of the Film Society of Lincoln Center (9/24/2010)

Red Alert: The War Within (7/9/2010)

War Don Don (The War Is Over) (briefly reviewed at 2010 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival) (See with other films about these courts vs. genocide that screened at last year's Festival.) (6/15/2010)

Moloch Tropical (briefly reviewed at 2010 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival) (seen at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: The title is a comparison to Alexander Sokurov's Moloch about Hitler in his bunker, and there are references to Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. The fortress is Citadelle Laferrière.) (6/15/2010)

Convention (6/4/2010)

John Rabe (5/21/2010) (fictionalization of Nanking)

Babies (Bébés) (5/7/2010) (Note: While the documentary's release in time for Mother's Day has been jumped on by eager commercial product sponsors, the producers are also commissioning minute-long shorts by indie filmmakers who are new parents. The first directors featured include Caveh Zahedi (I Am a Sex Addict), Jennifer Reeves (The Time We Killed), and Sascha Paladino (Throw Down Your Heart). But they are far more proud parents than Balmès' dispassionate observations.)

The Other City (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010) (Note: The cross-section also embodies single/parent, young/old, homeless/with family support, ex-prisoners/recovering addicts.)

Into the Cold (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010)

Have You Heard From Johannesburg (4/20/2010) (Note: In the Fair Play episode, the testimony of the activists from the U.K., Australia and New Zealand is particularly fascinating in seeing their gray-haired memories supported frame-by-frame with news coverage of the actions of their youthful selves).

The Greatest (4/2/2010)

Forgotten Transports: To Poland (Zapomenuté transporty: Do Poland): The Human Spirit (seen at 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (Note: This expands the historical understanding of just how extensively the Nazis confidently used that country as a locus to conduct atrocities. In completing his Forgotten Transports quartet of documentaries extensively researched over ten years, with his doggedly uncovered visual, archival and witness confirmations that meticulously confirm the fates of Czech Jews (his superb Forgotten Transports: To Estonia (Zapomenuté transporty: Do Estonska): Women's Friendship was shown, and I briefly reviewed at the 2009 Festival ), Lukás Pribyl uncovered additional camps and ghettoes in eastern Poland that were way stations for 14,000 Jews to the Final Solution. Fifty men survived and their first-time telling of miracles of luck, pluck and quick-wits are each worth a Hollywood film; at least one was made as Escape from Sobibor. (4/16/2010)

My Enemy’s Enemy (4/10/2010)

Waiting For Armageddon (1/8/2010) (Note: The CT computer geeks work on military jets -- evidently a belief in Christian end-of-world theology isn't considered as much a security threat as Islamists'.)

Sweetgrass (also brief preview review from 2009 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (1/5/2010)

Sweet Rush (Tatarak) (briefly reviewed at 2009 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/9/2009)

The Baader Meinhof Complex (Der Baader Meinhof Komplex) (emendations coming after 2/21/2009) (8/21/2009)

The Stoning Of Soraya M. (6/26/2009)

Defamation (Hashmatsa) (previewed at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) vs. Look Into My Eyes (seen at 20th Human Rights Watch International Film Festival ) in a comparative review (6/12/2009)

Which Way Home (briefly reviewed in Part 2: The Kids Are Alright at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/4/2009)

Garapa (briefly reviewed in Part 2: The Kids Are Alright at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/4/2009)

The Burning Season (briefly reviewed in Part 1 Recommendations at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/26/2009)

Birdwatchers (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)

The Milk of Sorrow (La teta asustada) (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)

Paper Soldier (Bumaznyj soldat) (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)

Paradise (reviewed at 2009 Film Comments Selects of Film Society of Lincoln Center (2/20/2009)

Katyn (2/18/2009)

The Class (Entre les murs) (Notes: I commented on the IMDb message board that I thought that Sony Classics should have shelled out for English subtitles in American slang as the Brit slang is a bit confusing – starting a lengthy discussion as to whether "skank" was the best translation of the key French word "pétasse" (with others suggesting "bitchy" or "slut"). Here's just a sampling of the response: camprena posted the following paragraphs in response on 1/31/2009: "Actually, I'm the person who wrote the English subtitles for this film and I find your comments extremely interesting."
"The big problem with translating French films into English is that, as translators, we are often required to produce an 'international' version as the English-subtitled print of the film is the one that is used for sales to the rest of the world - be it to the rest of Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, etc. You won't believe the number of times that sales company's here have requested changes because the buyers won't understand certain terms. "
"Surely American slang would have been just as off-putting coming out of French teenagers' mouths? That would certainly be the case for all non-US viewers.
In an ideal world, there would be different sets of subtitles for each market. But it wouldn't be just two: English is not the same in the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, South Africa, etc. And yes, it would cost more as they would need to pay a different translator each time, strike new prints, pay the subtitling lab costs, etc. Usually what happens is that the distributor in the country concerned makes changes that they feel are required to suit the local vernacular. In the case of "Entre les murs", Sony Pictures Classics made no changes to the subtitles that I wrote, so they must have felt that there was no problem for the US market. "
". . .The word "skank" is more US slang than British. Very odd that you should find the subtitles were in British slang. I'm British and I found them more American than British. . .Concerning the use of 'skank', every dictionary that I consulted while working confirmed that it is definitely more US English than British English. Maybe it isn't used much in your part of the US. A British person would probably use the word "scrubber" or 'slapper' "
"'Bitch' as another commentator suggested would not have worked as the French original word 'pétasse', in the context of the film, is not as strong as 'bitch'. I won't go into all the reasons for the choice of 'skank' here but countless other solutions were tried and, with the producer and director, we all felt that 'skank' worked best."
Kirena added to the discussion: "Pétasse doesn't have the 'sex - whore' notion that bitch, slut or whore' have. It's more about being stupid, vulgar and interested by shallow things so i guess that skank works ok but without the sex undertone. Actually if the teacher had said 'salope' then you could translate by slut or whore. But 'pétasse' is really quite mild (not really foul language) nonetheless not nice unless you are friends. I read the subtitles tonight in London as i watched the movie and despite the obvious good work that was put into it, i noted several things that just didn't work in the subtitles. I really think it's quite an impossible movie to translate. The only option would be to actually not translate all the dialogues but to explain the context or literally go around to explain what is meant. For instance about the conjugations, 'the disrespect references' (in english) when in french it's about 'tu' and 'vous', 'succulent'. The disrespect one is important because i don't see how anglo-saxons speakers could see that the student said anything inappropriate and disrespectful. His/her whole sentence, in terms of meaning, could be acceptable but said with 'tu' (i, YOU, she, we) instead of 'vous' (we, YOU, they). The translation doesn't convey that, which then can lead viewers to think that the teacher was being picky when considering some sentences as non proper." (updated 3/14/2009)

Waltz With Bashir (Valse im Bashir) (previewed at 2008 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (12/23/2008)

The Reader (12/10/2008) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)

Dust (Staub) (12/3/2008)

Ballast (previewed at 2008 New Directors/New Films at Lincoln Center/MoMA) (10/1/2008)

Flow (9/12/2008)

Trouble the Water (previewed at 2008 New Directors/New Films at Lincoln Center/MoMA) (Notes: This film made me really think through how much disaster-planning has a "blame the victim" bias, including all those years when border-line Holocaust-deniers would say to me "Why didn't they leave?" (including about the uncle I’m named for). Not to compare the Shoah to Katrina, though there's man-made elements in the latter, but this starkly shows us how human nature responds when faced with horrific catastrophe-- how ties that bind influence who leaves and who stays, and who recovers. This film definitely gives you "There but for fortune goes you or I" perspective. The title is a repeated line from the traditional gospel tune “Wade in the Water”, heard here in several versions, including by Dr. John and Mary Mary.) (8/22/2008)

The Exiles (7/13/2008)

The Children Of Huang Shi (5/23/2008)

Under The Same Moon (La Misma Luna) (3/21/2008)

Blind Mountain (Mang Shan) (Notes: Touchingly portrayed is how kidnapped wives are tied down by the babies they are forced to birth.) (3/12/2008)

Chicago 10 (David Dellinger and other emendations coming after 8/29/2008) (2/29/2008)

The Duchess Of Langeais (Ne Touchez Pas La Hache) (Notes: I spent the summer between college and graduate school commuting a long distance to a disastrous internship, and spent the train and bus rides reading Balzac's interconnected oeuvre La Comédie humaine, at least what I could find in paperback translations. I had to read this one in hardcover, so long ago that I imagined Sean Connery and Diana Rigg in the lead roles. Penguin came out with the paperback a year later, so it was easy for me to re-read it to do this review of the adaptation.) (2/22/2008)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (scroll down for my capsule review)

Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and The Holocaust (12/28/2007)

Nanking (emendations coming after 6/12/2008) (12/12/2007)

Darfur Now (11/2/2007)

O Jerusalem (10/17/2007) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)

My Brother’s Wedding (9/14/2007)

The Devil Came On Horseback (7/25/2007) (emendations coming after 1/25/2008)

Manufactured Landscapes ( 6/20/2007) (emendations coming after 12/20/2007)

Pierrepoint – The Last Hangman (6/8/2007) (Spall’s performance is comparable to his excellent portrayal in another made-for-TV film Mr Harvey Lights a Candle

Adam’s Apples (Adams æbler) ( 3/16/2007) (emendations coming after 8/16/2007)

Beyond the Gates (3/9/2007) (emendations coming after 9/9/2007)

Amazing Grace (2/23/2007) (emendations coming after 8/23/2007)

Bamako (2/14/2007) (emendations coming after 8/14/2007)

The Italian (Italyanets) (1/19/2007)

The Tiger and the Snow (La Tigre e la neve) (12/29/2006)

Letters from Iwo Jima (12/20/2006) (emendations coming after 6/20/2007) (Notes: I saw Fires on the Plain (Nobi) afterwards and it’s an important influence.)

Home of the Brave (12/15/2006) (emendations coming after 6/15/2007)

So Much So Fast (12/10/2006) (emendations coming after 4/11/07)

Days of Glory (Indigènes) (12/8/2006) (emendations coming after 6/8/2007)

Forgiveness (12/8/2006)

Deliver Us From Evil (11/3/2006)) and scroll down for my capsule review (Pair viewing with Hand of God)

The Bridge (10/25/2006)

The Clay Bird (Matir moina) (10/26/2006)

Jesus Camp (9/22/2006)

The Hidden Blade (Kakushi-ken: oni no tsume) is filmed in a deceptively old-fashioned and leisurely style to make pointed observations of Japanese society, much as Far From Heaven did for the U.S.
Director/co-writer Yôji Yamada again adapts Shuuhei Fujisawa stories as he did so beautifully in Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei). Taking place just a few years before Hollywood's The Last Samurai, this feels like a rebuke and response to that very Westernized interpretation of some of the same issues of how changes in military technology impacted feudalism and imperialism, as well as visually referencing many classic Japanese samurai films, but from a more individualized point of view then Kurosawa, Kobayashi or Inagaki. (You can catch up on the genre, as I did, on IFC's weekly morning and afternoon repeats on "Samurai Saturdays."
The first half of the film establishes the complicated domestic life and frustrating work of the struggling samurai (a solid and sympathetic Masatoshi Nagase, channeling Toshirô Mifune). The broadly comic scenes of fumbled rifles and cannon training recall similarities with the Sharpe TV series of the just a bit earlier Napoleonic wars. Particularly lovely are household hearth scenes of warmth between generations and between master and servants.
But this is not the idyllic village where Tom Cruise sojourned, as darker abuse is revealed and the samurai flaunts rigid social protocols to do right by those he cares for, especially the young maid "Kie" (Takako Matsu channeling the three little maids from The Mikado a bit too much). He is slow to reveal emotions or take action (the romance goes beyond Jane Austen in its cross-caste sidling and very slow resolution), suppressing vivid childhood memories we see very briefly in flashbacks in contrast to his voluble friend who rebels, including against traditional suicide.
The emphasis throughout the film is on generational conflict, as elders who are to be venerated are constantly shown to be fools or much worse -- old uncles complain about younger people (whose names they can't keep straight) using the new Western weapons, but place a higher priority on eating; a mother-in-law viciously mistreats her daughter-in-law to increase profits; a corrupt senior retainer (the feudal titles do not seem well-translated in the subtitles) lies and manipulates while enjoying geishas and complaining about his prostate problems. But a teacher derided as a "crazy old man" who can still best the young swordsman passes on more useful stealth techniques than the martinet drill sergeant who has inherited the honorific "sensei" with his British guns.
While as usual in such films, I simply cannot follow the Byzantine shogun politics even with a superfluous narration, as I've never studied Japanese political history, the second half ironically builds on the iconography of the genre with unusual sights and sounds. Macho conflicts are filmed voyeuristically, with sidling camera angles that indicate a passing from mano a mano duels to the anonymity of modern weapons, and thus justifying the use of the titular vengeance.
The exquisite cinematography and sound design create a special environment. With a look of faded epic cinematography like the passing of an age, we see snow falling on parasols, cherry blossoms on the path and rain fall on unrequited love. We hear them too, as the breezes, wind, crickets, birds, rain and the household sounds of tools and crackling fire punctuate long silences and dominate more than the conventionally soaring score that is used judiciously. But a prison and eventual bloody fights in a heavily symbolic fog are not minimalized.
The production design is much more elaborate in showing us traditional architecture than most such Japanese films.
I'm sure some of the social and historical commentary just goes by a Western audience unfamiliar with particulars, but the themes of individuals caught up in social proscriptions who rebel and seek love, respect, peace and, most of all, control over their lives is universal and very involving. (7/12/2006)

Set in stunning scenery on the titular Tibetan plateau, Mountain Patrol: Kekexili recreates an extraordinary grassroots effort in the 1990's by supremely dedicated idealists to stop poaching of the Tibetan antelope -- mano to mano with no satellite phones or navigation equipment or much in the way of weapons.
For all the thrilling nobility of the volunteers and grueling challenges they face from man and nature, the film naggingly feels like a propaganda effort supported by the Chinese government to show how it supports Tibetan initiatives (including a somewhat smug statement at the end that they have now taken over the protection job from the volunteers). I felt complicit in the occupation as I got caught up in the film.
Their struggle to save the antelope vividly recalls scenes of how the buffalo was decimated in Dances With Wolves, though we get no inkling of the role of the antelopes in Tibetan culture, so saving them just seems either altruism about a rare animal, nationalism, obsession, stubbornness or macho independence.
While we meet several of the volunteers in their isolated monitoring stations and frustrating chases who have a range of personalities and relationships, it is a bit hard to differentiate them other than by the vehicles they are driving or jewelry they're wearing. The exceptions are the patrol's charismatic leader Ri Tai (Duobuji captures the screen) and our entrée to this world, a Beijing-based investigative journalist with Tibetan roots (Ga Ju played by Zhang Lei who effectively communicates his transformation by his experiences).
While the sense of swaggering male camaraderie is well captured in a military-like bonding of living, traveling and partying hard, they say the area's name translates to "land of beautiful women" and that's supported by the few we see during brief respites.
In addition to the breathtaking scenes of the Tibetan plateau, better seen on the wide screen than on TV, in a range of extremely challenging weather and geographic elements (one scene in quick sand is particularly harrowing), the views of Tibetan towns and quotidian life in the mountains are an intriguing sidelight.
The subtitles were only hard to read as white on white a few times, though a couple of times they lingered on the screen too long past a dialog, blocking views. (5/29/2006)

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is an effective satire of History Channel-type documentaries.
To illustrate an alternative reality of the past hundred years as if the Confederacy had won the U.S. Civil War (with foreign help) through a faux British TV documentary, writer/director Kevin Willmott makes excellent use of detailed research and archival footage to seamlessly create dead-on parodies of decades of movie styles (D.W. Griffith here makes The Yankee instead of The Clansman, to a 1930's style hagiographic bio pic of Jefferson Davis, to a World War II-style movie here set in a war to take over South America as the Confederates dreamed to do, etc.).
Particularly chilling throughout this supposed televised presentation are the "commercials" of racist products and horrifically cheerful slave controls, where ads for reruns of the old sit com Beulah fit in comfortably (the syndicator may now pull this one just as CBS keeps Amos and Andy in the vault as she sure does look like a mammy). The footnote coda chillingly demonstrates that representations making use of the most exaggerated stereotypes were not fictional but were actual racist artifacts or activities, though producer Spike Lee also used them in his parallel Bamboozled of a satirical TV minstrel show taken at face value. (A recent episode of Nip/Tuck also had a pleasant extremist mom have an Aunt Jemima collection.)
Some of the historical imaginings are creatively scabrous, such as exporting slaves to get the U.S. out of the Depression, and raises intriguing issues of slavery in an industrial economy. The film is particularly nasty about "traditional values" and Christian hypocrisy. While there are many Daily Show-type jokes, there is plenty that can't be laughed at.
The script's imagination falls flat and finally trails off as it imagines how a CSA would fare in world affairs, spreading its racist gospel to the Japanese and the Africans, less thought out than Philip Roth's take on allying with the Nazis and what the U.S. actually did to Japanese-Americans was worse than described here. But it's not always clear what this CSA's foreign policy would have been, other than "Red Canada" where the talking head black scholars can lash out from the safety of Montreal.
A story-telling mechanism of the film that falters into personalities as it heads into the 1970's is focusing on a fictional first family of the Confederacy who is meant to be the Adamses or Kennedys in public service, with plenty of borrowings from the life of Dixecrat Senator Strom Thurmond.
Until it fades off, this is a very sophisticated and imaginative satire. (4/27/2006)

The Fallen at first seems like an old-fashioned World War II movie, opening with almost Hogan's Heroes-like humor with "Milo Minderbinder" of Catch-22 like wheeling-dealing, but gradually develops into a moving and complex portrait of soldiers.
Most English-language films we have seen about GI's interacting with locals have been in French forests, but this is set in the more complex social, political and military environment of northern Italy at the close of the war, dealt with superficially in Captain Corelli's Mandolin and almost contemporaneously in Roberto Rossellini's Paisà, which was also a series of vignettes.
The very large ensemble that gets hard to differentiate individually includes Americans closing in on the Germans who are equally allies and occupiers to Italians buffeted by deposed fascists, Communist partisans, displaced peasants and apolitical criminals, an unusually diverse array of characters who all claim to be nationalists.
Like a Bill Maudlin cartoon, this is war from the GI's eye view; we don't see generals or hear discussions of strategy or tactics, just orders to follow. The American soldiers, as drawn by the script of Nick Day and Caio Ribeiro, are the most stereotyped from old movies, the hulking hillbilly, the Italian guy from Brooklyn who is delegated to do translations and community relations as the locals eagerly ask if he knows their cousins, the alcoholic officer in charge, etc. In the second half of the film, the Americans' portrayal sharpens up as the supply guys in the quartermaster corps are thrust into the front lines for the first time and there's less dialog and more taut action.
The German soldiers are the least stereotyped, despite many close-ups on their black crosses and Heil Hitler salutes. They are shown as professional, competent soldiers doing their job far from home in a crumbling situation, with limited supplies and manpower. Though sounding more like World War I trench movies (and characters on all sides recall relatives who were inspiring veterans), their discussions of the futility of continuing to fight are plausible and add complications to their actions.
The Italians are a mix of stereotypes and complexities. The sex-starved peasant women are just plain silly, and the Army, regardless of accurate issues of unpreparedness, looks like buffoons. The Mafiosi-like thug and his henchmen are the usual, but their interactions with the armies are interesting, even if it is never explained how they've avoided the war up to now. The refugees are both as haunted and resilient as "Mother Courage".
While far less bloody than Saving Private Ryan, it is unpredictable what will happen to characters we get to care about and is unsparing in showing the personal devastation of war. Debut feature director Ari Taub does the fight scenes very up close and personal, and very effectively portrays a real sense of actual combat, particularly for a low-budget film.
The developing serious tone is undone many times by the melodramatic score which overemphasizes comedic elements of the absurdity of war. Period songs by interesting voices are used effectively throughout.
With each nationality speaking in their native tongues, the subtitles are black-lined and always legible. The subtitles are also thoughtfully provided even when characters are speaking English but with thick accents. Language communication issues are a key part of this story.(3/23/2006)

Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo) is a heavy-handed symbolic linking of class colonialism with sexual obsession and violence.
We get a lot of nationalistic symbolism as the central "Marcos", bodyguard to the General, spends a lot of time supervising the raising and the lowering of the Mexican flag (and I assume the various double entendres of up and down the flagpole and a lot more phallic images penetrating vulva stands-in).
We see sudden bloody violence spurred by sexual and other frustrations or just that writer/director Carlos Reygadas has seen a lot of Asian Extreme cinema with similar themes.
We get a lot of controlling religious symbolism, culminating in a self-flagellating pilgrimage. Cynicism about celebrity and soccer players is thrown into the mix as well.
Compared to Bubble, the use of nonprofessional actors here seems like an exploitation of their faces and especially of their bodies, with very long close-ups of every part of them in unsympathetic poses, as the camera is almost as documentary-like static as in the work of Michael Haneke. Filled with tawdry, explicit male fantasies that could be construed as misogynistic, it wasn't a coincidence that I was the only woman in the theater, let alone that most of the older men were wearing long raincoats (though two did walk out half way through as even they could figure out it was much more political than erotic).
Other than as symbols, none of the characters make much sense as human beings, with the possible exception of Marcos's wife, who I felt somewhat kindly towards about her involvement in a bizarre kidnapping. The General's daughter's, "Ana"s somewhat older boyfriend "Jaime" was at least cute, but her sexual appetites seemed a lot more fantasy than even realistic as a criticism of the teasing of the pampered upper class leeches.
The sound design is intriguing, as sounds from a radio, a tractor, a religious procession and service all seem to set Marcos off in his existential acts.
Commendably, the subtitles were black-outlined for legibility, so one could focus on reading those instead of looking at boring full frontal nudity. (3/15/2006)

Sophie Scholl - The Final Days (Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage) feels more like a docu-drama recreation from the History Channel than a film.
There are a few scenes that rise above the meticulous use of newly uncovered documents, which are extensively listed in the credits, to find the people behind the words and situations, and those scenes are quite involving.
Perhaps writer Fred Breinersdorfer and director Marc Rothemund just assume viewers have already seen Michael Verhoeven's 1982 film The White Rose (Die Weiße Rose), which I haven't, as little background is provided before we are thrust into the students' clandestine newsletter production. It even took me awhile to figure out that Julia Jentsch and Fabian Hinrichs were playing siblings not romantic partners.
By the time of their furtive distribution at their college campus I was hooked, mostly through the suspenseful directing, including the excellent use of the same building in Munich where the original protest took place, up and up then down stairs under a dizzying classical dome. How fortuitous circumstances get them caught is very tense, even though you know what will happen.
The exact details of their capture is a profound lesson in how a totalitarian state operates through the scary cooperation (some would say co-optation) of its citizens. Individuals versus a totalitarian state is much more emphasized throughout the film than against Naziism specifically.
As a German film that seems more aimed at a domestic audience than an international one, interesting emphases are made about the protesters that I have not seen made clear in other films that included any resistance. The students articulate first and most vociferously that they are anti Hitler's "Total War", particularly after the disaster at Stalingrad, which these medical students witnessed due to compulsory medic service, more than any other aspect of Nazi policies. Their youthful anti-war remonstrances do sound universal - and would be treasonous to any imperialist warmonging government. But they also tell of eyewitness accounts of SS brutalities from the front, as well as Jewish neighbors' disappearances, that intriguingly belie the usual "we didn't know" excuses of the traditional "good German."
The film also emphasizes their strong Protestant religious beliefs in contrast to the Nazis, and I was surprised there was a chaplain in their prison. I had thought the parallel Communist cell-mate was a stiff contrivance to emphasize for the former East German audience how the Communists were an anti-Nazi force, but evidently the character was based on a real person whose remembrances were used for the film.
The core of the film and the most fascinating is Sophie's series of interrogations by Robert Mohr (a terrific Gerald Alexander Held in a subtly complex performance). Not only is this based on recently recovered transcripts, but also on interviews with Mohr's relatives that uncovered the person behind the functionary. This could have been a scene we've seen many times in either World War II or sci fi or other representations of fictional totalitarian enforcers, let alone many cop shows.
Mohr at first is as much a detective effectively building a case through the accumulation of evidence and eventually confession as in fictional cops played by Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer or Andre Braugher in Homicide. It is only as he keeps up the interrogation that you see him sense that this is no longer just a job that he's had for many years but that the system he has succeeded in as a good bureaucrat has changed in a profound way. He becomes a paternal human being.
At first Sophie just seems like the bravura very young woman she is, caught in foolish lies that are no match for CSI like forensics (though it is a bit confusing that we don't see any of her brother's interrogation) as she desperately tries to avoid incriminating anyone else. Then Jentsch's performance rises to an extraordinary level and she seems to be channeling the past and the future, as if she's vocalizing that single protester in front of the tanks at Tian'anmen Square in 1989 as much as a February day in 1943. Jentsch was wonderful in The Edukators (Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei) but here she grows into a stirring adult in what could have been a very static situation.
The show trial, in the same hall of "justice," is such a farce that it is hard to believe it is accurately portrayed, even as based on transcripts and that it was intended for theatrical propaganda purposes. André Hennicke plays the judge, Richter Dr. Roland Freisler, like a broad martinet, but his oratorical style isn't that different from Joseph Goebbels' that we've seen in newsreels, so maybe it is an accurate representation. The passionate speeches that each defendant delivers covers a different aspect of the sources of their protest that is quite revealing about the reasons behind the resistance. Their articulateness keeps these scenes from just being melodramatic.
The English subtitles are commendably large, but are irritatingly white on white such that us unilinguals have to infer the final verdict because we certainly can't read it.
It is virtually impossible not to tear up at the original, happy photographs of Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst that are shown with the closing credits.
This is not about violence as a control agent despite the horrific enactment of the verdict, but about the essence of a police state and how free thinking challenges its basic tenets. While we do hear more about National Socialist Party theory than in most films about the era, including Downfall (Der Untergang), the film demonstrates that governments rule more by hearts and minds than politics and therefore has intentional resonance to today's war against terrorism that sacrifices other human rights. (3/2/2006)

About half of Why We Fight covers very similar ground, even with a comparable personalizing techniques, as Fahrenheit 9/11. Writer/director Eugene Jarecki's unique contribution is taking the long-term view of American military policy. Unfortunately, his clarion points tend to get lost amidst the obvious agit-prop, where capitalism is presented as the antithesis of democracy.
The most powerful elements of the film are the prescient speech and analysis of the point of view of President/General Eisenhower. As one interviewee notes, we are all familiar with his coining of the term "the military-industrial complex" but had not seen more of the speech nor how he followed that up with additional warnings. This film also puts his views in biographical context, through interviews with family and historians, that emphasize how his military experience colored his policy views (an indirect cut at the non-veteran Bushies and neo-cons). Other historical elements are presented with little complexity, such as Truman's reasoning behind dropping the bombs. I would have liked to have seen more excerpts from the Frank Capra and Walt Disney World War II propaganda films, but those have probably been included in other documentaries over the years.
Jarecki well integrates international television footage of the war in Iraq that U.S. audiences have not seen before, particularly of civilian casualties. While the footage is presented completely uncritically, it does very effectively contradict the Bushies and the military. However, many of the criticisms of the excuses and bravado for the war have been already widely aired, and more adroitly presented, including nightly on The Daily Show. And Jarecki doesn't even include the fall of Colin Powell's credibility in his criticisms. There is only a frisson that the current mess is blowback from European colonialism in the region for centuries.
Another strong element of the film is showing how Congress has become integral to the effective functioning of this force like a third leg on a stool, with the giant contractors parsing out their work by Congressional district. The visits to their trade shows, though, come across like the gun shows Michael Moore visited in Bowling for Columbine, just with scarier fire power. The financial analysis of the industries involved is nowhere near the sophisticated level of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
Adding in the Beltway Think Tanks as some new element just comes across as naive - the Brookings Institution was for years considered the font of Democratic policy, and staffed the JFK and LBJ administrations, so now it's really just the neo-cons' turn after using their experience in the desert usefully. Jarecki, unfortunately, doesn't even explain the targeted funding by the conservative foundations such as the Scaifes that was crucial to this organized approach by providing operating support to general conservative outposts while the liberals frittered away their efforts through splintered project funding to dozens of specially focused groups. In general, right wingers are not given equal time with the liberals, as they are mostly represented by Irving Kristol.
Like Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11, Jarecki hones in on a grieving parent, here a retired cop/Viet Nam vet whose son was killed in the World Trade Center. There is a very similar angle on military recruitment, though we do get to understand one teen's decision more individually than Moore provided. It's just a cheap shot to have the running insertions of little kids and folks in All American mise en scenes answering the titular question.
Robert Miller's score is very effective, especially as it's used to under gird some of the interviews.
The film will be as effective viewed on TV/DVD/video as in a theater.(3/2/2006)

About three-quarters of Darwin's Nightmare is a damning study of the unintended consequences of messing with Mother Nature in the name of economic development.
It is a comprehensive examination of the natural and human ecosystem --fisherman and their families, processing factory workers and owners, corrupt officials, exporters, and the desperate men, women and children attracted to money -- around Lake Victoria, whose very name symbolizes the vestiges of colonialism as Tanzania becomes a pawn in the new global capitalism. Dedicated documentarian Hubert Sauper does not take the easy fictional movie out of pointing a finger at a single company (like The Constant Gardener) or even a single industry (like Syriana), but looks at the whole system of exploitation and human failure.
It is a mostly fascinating look all around a boom town created by the extraction of a natural resource for export (that ironically was unnaturally introduced into the lake, the Nile perch). While it is refreshing that the European Union is the Great Satan here and not the United States for a change, Sauper implies this is a new or uniquely African situation rather than repeating the sins from centuries of mercantilism around the world since the 16th century, as the ghosts of native populations in the Americas and Asia would bear witness. (It was Benjamin Franklin's observations of the colonial populations that inspired Malthus who inspired Darwin.) He implies a recognition of how cultural imperialism is part of this economic change by including extended looks at the work of Christian missionaries. It is disheartening that by the 21st century, though, we still have not learned how to prevent or fix such calamities.
Sauper is at his strongest when he sticks to what is unique here. He is weakest at his most visually manipulative, lingering the camera on the maimed, dead and dying as, to be brutally frank, the same shots could be made of other African disasters such as famine and AIDS, though those are complicating factors here as well. In terms of employed people who do benefit from the cash crop, we hear more from the well-fed company owners and contractors, than the workers.
He is unusually sympathetic to the prostitutes he interviews and really finds their humanity, which I have otherwise only seen in Nahid Persson's documentary about Iran Prostitution Behind the Veil.
He is otherwise unfair to many of his informants by not bringing along a translator so they are forced to try to communicate in broken English, which of course makes them sound overly simplistic. This is particularly true for the mercenary pilots from former U.S.S.R. countries (invariably identified as Russian even if they are from the Ukraine etc.) who dangerously carry overloaded planefuls of processed fish from the primitive local airport to Europe as he relentlessly hones in with them on where those supposedly empty planes are really coming from and what they are carrying in, pushing them to reveal gun trading machinations like in Lord of War.
While he resists including any ironic health promotions on why fish consumption is going up in the E.U., he effectively moves his perspective wider as he reports on the famine in other parts of the country while the fish planes stream out. But, surprisingly, one of the weakest interviews is with a local print journalist who evidently first uncovered the links but who goes on a long screed against non-governmental agencies as war and food profiteers. It is also a weak technique to have an ex-school teacher (who for an unexplained reason appears now living in a shantytown) read aloud from newspaper articles and we're supposed to believe unprompted goes on about survival of the fittest. Clips from other organization's films are used effectively for background information.
The subtitles are excellent, not just that they are black-lined which could be a model for low-budget foreign-language films, but are visible even when people are speaking English, as between the accents and sound quality it would be difficult to understand them. However, the film will be just as effective on TV/DVD/video as it comes across like a television news special. (2/26/2006)

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada personifies border issues between Texas and Mexico through the iconography of the obsessed man in the West genre, such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Lone Star, and Tommy Lee Jones' own performance in Lonesome Dove. The director/star brings his own powerful movie images with him as much as Clint Eastwood does, including from The Fugitive and his craggy face is flintily expressive. We absolutely believe that "Pete Perkins" would undertake a monomaniacal, possibly crazy, odyssey for his own frontier justice.
The stark environs are as commanding as the very strong actors, with each set off in sun-blinded cinematography by Chris Menges. Small town life in Texas is portrayed as evocatively as in Last Picture Show, but those teens have grown up into bored and lonely adults with secrets (a maturely vamping waitress Melissa Leo and a bit too foolish sheriff Dwight Yoakam) and the assumption that things will never change. "We were popular in high school" pouts the surprisingly good January Jones about her now border patrol officer husband (a bit stereotypical square-jawed bully Barry Pepper who is only given some humanity towards the end).
It takes a few scenes to adjust to the time-cutting back and forth. But it's far less than in scripter Guillermo Arriaga's 21 Grams or Amores Perros, and the shifts are clearly related to explaining characters' point-of-view, showing us what prejudices, miscommunications and misunderstandings brought each character to a confrontation and shattered lives. While there are almost as many coincidences of people crossing paths as in Crash, they are used to illustrate how differently each character is perceived on the other side of the Rio Grande, where one becomes "the Mexican" in the U.S. and the other "the gringo" in Mexico, though, as has been satirized in several other movies, everyone seems to watch the same telenovella soap opera.
Framed by titles setting each burial as a chapter heading, this is mostly a road movie brimming with ironies and colorful personalities, including Levon Helm as a blind guy who seems as dangerously trusting as the girl in the Frankenstein classic. Left unresolved is if, as one character says, each is "beyond redemption," if that's what Jones's screen-dominating character is seeking.
There are bizarre images and quick scenes of graphic violence.
The music selections are marvelously representative of the border culture, from country Merle Haggard to Hank Williams, Jr., Tex Mex Augie Meyers, to the bi-lingual Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez.
This and Brokeback Mountain are vividly demonstrating that cowboy movies can still resonate with new insights and passion. (2/23/2006)
From: Tommy Lee Jones Is Not Acting by Skip Hollandsworth, Texas Monthly, February 2006
But he did tell me that the year that Men in Black was released, he learned that a boy named Ezequiel Hernandez Jr., who lived not far from a ranch Jones owned in far West Texas, near the Texas-Mexico border, had been shot to death by a camouflaged Marine who had been sent to that part of the state to look for drug smugglers (see “Soldiers of Misfortune,” August 1997). It was said to be the first killing of an American citizen on American soil by a U.S. soldier since the shootings at Kent State University, in 1970. The Marine claimed he had shot the boy in self-defense, and he was not prosecuted. “Anyone knows that if the kid had been killed in Dallas and his name was Bobby Johnson and his skin was white, it would have been a different story,” Jones said.
For the first time, there wasn’t the usual tone of disgust in his voice at having to answer humdrum questions from a reporter, but a genuine anger. “I decided it was time to make a movie about a part of the world that many people haven’t experienced or don’t understand,” he said. “I wanted to give people a glimpse of a world that has its own character, its own quality, its own struggles and disappointments, its own harshness, as well as its own beauty. I wanted to portray the social and cultural contrasts between the land that’s south of the Rio Grande River and the land that’s north of it, and in the process, I wanted to show how things are different on each side of the river and how they are surprisingly the same.”
He paused. “I wanted to make a movie about my home country,” he said, “my home people.”

Fateless (Sorstalanság) has to answer the question: Why make yet another non-documentary film about the Holocaust? While of course every victim and survivor had an individually horrific experience and are essential witnesses, for film viewers, what unique viewpoint or story is there to watch that we haven't seen through tears before?
It takes quite a while for the viewer to understand that the point of Nobel-prize winning Imre Kertész's adaptation of his debut, semi-autobiographical novel is to tell the specific story of Hungarian Jews, as zero context is provided for the opening, anecdotal scenes, no dates, no background information on where in World War II we are starting from and not even how much time is passing in the first third of the film as the Nazis' net tightens on Budapest's Jews.
Perhaps director Lajos Koltai's goal in not providing the kind of context that was carefully established on films where he was the cinematographer, Sunshine and Max, was to help us understand the bewilderment of the diverse Jewish community-- observant and secular, capitalists and workers, young and old, and the randomness of what happened to them. Families coalesce in confusion as they are buffeted by scraps of information, changing government directives, amidst anti-Semitism and collaboration by their fellow Hungarians. We're also supposed to believe, however, that amidst these confusions the young teen protagonist (the very expressive Marcell Nagy) has extensive philosophical discussions with his play mates, and the girl next door who he of course has a crush on, about Jewish identity. Without that intellectualizing, his experiences are eerily identical, including its arbitrariness, to the boy's we already saw half a world away in another adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel's war time round up and imprisonment in one of Spielberg's other World War II films Empire of the Sun.
The next third of the film is gruesome experiences in concentration camps as we have seen before, even though these are extremely effectively re-enacted as the huge cast of actors and extras desiccate before our eyes. The production design in recreating the bare shelter and their work detail is the most realistic I've seen in a fiction film, as compared to documentaries and as described to me by a cousin who was the sole Holocaust survivor in our family (I'm named for her father who died in Auschwitz).
Halfway through these horrors, the theme of the film as to the uniqueness of the Hungarian experience starts to come through more than the usual Nazi sadism. Survival is linked to mutual dependence, camaraderie and bonding that comes from their national identification, even more than their shared religion (we see a few inmates nobly strive to maintain Jewish rituals). Individual personalities vividly come through and attitude and the help of one's fellow man turns out to be as important as food, as life is reduced to its most basic elements. The only other film I've seen that communicates this as emotionally was Peter Morley's documentary Kitty: A Return to Auschwitz, but that was about an essential mother/child bond.
Even during the camp experience, though, some subtleties are lost by lack of context for an English-speaking audience, as a few scenes were confusing to me as there was evidently significances if a character was speaking German or Hungarian, and that difference went by me. The German signage was not translated, so the last part of the boy's Buchenwald experiences was also confusing, unless the point was that he was mystified as well. The voice over narration throughout is, unnecessarily, for philosophical ruminations and does not communicate any additional information than the stark visuals and conversations.
With liberation indirectly providing the first date reference in the film as we presume it is 1945, Daniel Craig has a cameo as an American soldier, in his second appearance in a film in the past year as a Jew, after Munich. His role recalls Montgomery Clift in Fred Zinnemann's 1948 The Search, as one of the few films to also portray the wandering Jews as Displaced Persons amidst the rubble of Europe and their destroyed lives and communities.
The last section is movingly unique and vital viewing as we see Europeans, who we know from France to Russia but here particularly Hungarians, will settle into their amnesia and denial of responsibility, what a survivor in a documentary called "the 81st blow" that is the worst of all. The survivors seem like ghosts in their tattered prison garb as haunting images that affront and challenge returning normality like echoes of a nightmare that should go away in the light of day. While issues of vengeance are included in passing, the survivors are suffering from post-traumatic stress and cannot communicate what happened to them in language that the curious, whether family, friends or strangers, can understand-- or want to understand. The visceral impact is again marred by duplicative philosophizing.
Ennio Morricone's score emphasizes the potential for humanity, with beautiful vocalizations by Lisa Gerrard.
As to the cinematography, Mark Urman, head of ThinkFilm's U.S. theatrical department, explained in an interview with indiewire, that the film used bleached-bypass color prints, with laser-applied subtitles: "In the concentration camps, it becomes more monochromatic. And after the liberation, the color comes back in." I saw it still in first run at NYC's Film Forum and the print was already scratched quite a bit, and there were frequent white on white subtitles. (2/17/2006) > (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)
Additional background from Anny Dietz on February 7, 2006 (a fellow member of Forest Hills Jewish Center), posted with her permission:
I agree with you that not knowing Hungarian or being of Hungarian origin may have been to your disadvantage, but being a daughter of Holocaust survivors and having been raised in the shadow of the Hungarian genocide, understanding every innuendo, every move and word, for me this movie was a masterpiece.
Why were there Jews left alive in Budapest? Because if you were aware of the history of Hungarian Jews during WWII, you would have instantly known why: there was not enough time to destroy them. The Germans entered Hungary on March 19, 1944. They had exactly one year to do there what they did in Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc. in 6 years. The deportations started around Shavuot (April-May) of 1944 from the outskirts of the country leaving Budapest to the end and since the war was over the following May, there was no time to deport them as well. Jews from Budapest had to be terribly unlucky to be sent to the chambers. It was very haphazardly done from the capital.
That's why my parents, who survived, and grandparents, who did not, were sent to the camps because they did not live in the capital. My father-in-law, who did, was sent to labor camp and only from there was he sent to the camp where he perished. My mother-in-law with [Anny’s husband] was an infant (17 days old) when the Germans came in, were hiding in one of Wallenberg's protective homes and survived.
There were several groups of Jews who were taken from labor camps to the front in the Ukraine. They worked most of them to death. I just sponsored the publication of the memoirs of a gentleman from my home town. He dealt with his forced labor camp experience in the Ukraine and has an entire chapter dedicated to my uncle who was with him there. My uncle survived, too. It is written in Hungarian.
This was an historical and autobiographical movie which recreated the atmosphere of the time with few words. Having had a little background in the history of the Hungarian Jews of the time, would have made your cinema experience different.
My only problem with the movie was that it was done by Hungarians per se, who do not deserve to have the ability to create such a magnificent work. They are still Jew haters (Eichman had very little to do in Hungary because the Hungarians themselves were very willing executioners) and I personally cannot understand how they could reflect the pain, the somber reality of the time. Perhaps, the Hungarian who kept on asking the kid upon his return if it was true that there were gas chambers and his satisfied face when the boy did not give him a direct answer, is a reflection of their refusal to admit their own guilt.

Spirit of the Beehive (El Espíritu de la colmena) is a lovely insight into the mind of a child, where fantasy mixes with reality and stories with dreams. This is a beautiful metaphor for the magic of the movies and co-writer/director Víctor Erice illustrates the connection further by having the impact of the film Frankenstein with Boris Karloff on a young girl as the pivotal plot point.
Ana Torrent is a wide-eyed innocent who carries the film, as we completely enter into how she integrates her daily life, both the quotidian happenings and the unusual with scary stories her older sister teases her with and the film. Her beautiful eyes are expressive and haunting. As someone who had an older sister with all kinds of outlandish tales that were gullibly believed, the sibling teasing is the most natural I've seen on film.
Erice has a completely original take on the Frankenstein story, no matter how many times it has been referenced in other movies. "Ana" powerfully relates to the little girl in the film, even though she does not understand any of the darker emotions or outcomes. The film inspires her to seek out misfits and outcastes, with unintended consequences and impacts on the adult world.
But the adult world is the weakest part of the film. While sometimes we only see her parents, teachers and servants seemingly mysterious behavior from her perspective, their obliviousness and self-involvement in their own intellectual and romantic pursuits isn't really explained, even as her father's pompous hobby somehow gives the film its title. It might be some sort of commentary on how adults have their own way of blending fantasy and reality.
Seen in a new 35 MM print at NYC's Film Forum , the cinematography was beautiful. The rural scenes of fields and horizon are lovely.
I wonder if this insightful look inside a child's mind influenced such films as I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura) and Paperhouse. but the film seems so fresh and creative I was surprised that it was made in 1973.(2/16/2006)

Bubble is Steven Soderbergh's clear-eyed, humanistic, non-didactic illustration of Thoreauian lives of quiet desperation in the heartland of America. It works very effectively as an authentic response to Lars Von Trier's theatrical screeds.
His creative use of non-professional actors also shows up all those de-glamorized efforts of Hollywood actors, such as in North Country. The film is very realistically set in the rust state of Ohio (and briefly West Virginia), that we first see almost like snap shots of double wide trailers, the donut shop, church, bar and, well, not much else in the town. There is a visually startling and somewhat disturbing interlude in a McMansion suburb that seems like a foreign country compared to their environment.
In particular, the setting reminds us that not all light industry has left for China, that there are still a bare few dead-end jobs for school drop-outs. The doll factory at the center of the story is a powerful visual metaphor with its component body parts gradually worked on -- from the latex molds into popped heads, through the eye painting, lashes and hair gluing, and assemblage, not unlike a Mr. Rogers episode that tours how toys are made. The second workshop we see of shovel-making seems to continue the metaphor to Sisyphus.
TV sitcoms try mightily to make work place relationships the new family, but Soderbergh does a wonderful job of showing these folks in the context of both their family and work environments, like a dramatic, blue-collar take on The Office. The characters' back stories and relationships are quietly revealed through casual conversations. I particularly liked the film's sympathy toward realistic family arrangements that drag on their lives -- care giver responsibilities, health issues, ex's, lack of cars, etc.
Scriptwriter Coleman Hough's set-up is dramatically simple and as classic as Picnic -- the lives of two friends who have established a routine are suddenly disrupted by the appearance of a very different, attractive, very complicated, possibly prevaricating, third person, putting the differences between the first two in sudden sharp relief. In one week, their lives are changed forever.
Soderbergh is particularly good at showing us the view points of essentially inarticulate, non-introspective characters. So we can see that how they describe a situation is not exactly how it really happened, because they don't have the words to express themselves, or perhaps the self-awareness to understand manipulation. The actors' pregnant pauses are used very meaningfully. While there is a mystery to keep our attention, the why and who dunnit (which I've heard is explained more on supplements on the DVD) are less important than the visual character studies.
The tensions in these interactions are created more by Soderbergh's sly editing (as well as the Americana-tinged background music) than with the emoting. There is one very exaggeratedly lit scene in a church to tip us off that one of the characters may be a bit more unstable than we think and doesn't quite fit into the kitchen sink realism of the rest of the film.
I made a point of seeing the film on the big screen, at the Landmark Sunshine in NYC, and was rewarded with lovely cinematography, particularly in the shades of the factory and work environments.
Stay through the end credits as the images come together to continue the commentary on dolls and the American Dream. (2/15/2006)

The Libertine takes place during the reign of England's Charles II, in movie terms at the same time as Restoration and Stage Beauty. But this far darker and literally muddier view of the impact of the fall of the Puritans on culture and, like The Crucible, is intended less to be an historical pageant than to defend artistic and sexual freedom in the late 20th century, with syphilis standing in for AIDS, a point that gets confused at the end.
Adapting his own play, Stephen Jeffreys emphasizes its theatrical origins with extensive defenses of the role of the theater. Johnny Depp as the titular nicknamed Earl of Rochester, who is very much not the fop in extensive wigs, is a witty, sexy, seductive Oscar Wilde type with bon mots and intellectual vulgarisms.
So it's a bit disappointing that the Earl's king-commissioned piece de resistance is more like a tableau by Karen Finley crossed with the Open Theater and Caligula than as lasting literature which Wilde did produce while also making his life his art and artistic statement. Maybe the Earl was making the point that in a licentious and jaded Gilded Age one has to go to extremes for political protest. His articulate but disease-wracked defense of the king at the House of Lords is moving to show that politics itself is theater, but seems a sad finale for a broken man, if I'm interpreting it correctly.
Depp is the center of attention, but this could be promoted as Samantha Morton Talks! While she has been captivating in pantomimes or virtually nonverbal, suffering roles in Sweet and Lowdown, Code 46, Morvern Callar, In America and Minority Report, here she is womanly and feisty as the Earl's protégé. Certainly this is her first strong woman with a lot of beautiful hair.
So it's ironic that Depp actually has less chemistry on screen with her than with Rupert Friend, playing his third released pretty hunk role of the year after Pride & Prejudice and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.
There are several other cast members from P & P who get to fully unleash other sides of their talents, such as Tom Hollander and Rosamund Pike as the Earl's loyal wife (and there's an implication at the end that the family's bitterness may have resulted in destruction of his literary legacy). Claire Higgins is marvelous as a cynical theater manager. John Malkovich is the best Charles II on screen yet, making him a real man and politician despite the costumes.
The location shooting on English estates is beautiful. Either it was a very rainy season or mud was intentionally shipped in for realism. The dark interiors authentically recreate a pre-electric environment.
While Michael Nyman's music doesn't seem to make any period effort, it is beautiful.
There's extensive memorial tributes in the closing credits, including to Marlon Brando and Hunter S. Thompson. (1/24/2006)

In Yesterday, South African writer/director Darrell Roodt illustrates the crises of AIDS, health care in the third world, the hope of education and the role of women in Africa with vivid visuals and a simple story.
While some characters are drawn in the script as too nice to be believable --in moving but restrained acting the titular mother is too saintly, the fluent Zulu speaking white public health doctor she finally reaches after four days of waiting shows no strains for the demands on her time, the school teacher who literally suddenly appears and befriends her is too helpful -- this quiet story poignantly communicates a lot of information and humanizes statistics.
The opening shots emphasize the vastness of distances in rural Africa as a prime impediment to the delivery of modern heath care -- even for those determined women who try to seek it for the benefit of their children. The camera is a passive observer of the personal and social details of the mother's life with her treasured young daughter "Beauty," even as it is substantially into the film before we get insights into her seemingly superhuman strengths and how she came to be so independent, with very brief flashbacks.
We get a matter-of-fact view of the arduousness of subsistence living village life--gathering water, food and laundry-- and the down side of "it takes a village" as the ignorance, fear and gossip are even more powerful than in urban Philadelphia. One weakness in the film, though, is not identifying if it is happening now as it's hard to believe South Africans, urban and rural, are still this naive about AIDS, though the recent Cape of Good Hope also showed South Africans still insisting that AIDS was a foreigners' disease. Similarly, there are interstitial labels of seasons to show time passing, but what happens seems too concentrated than can really happen in a single year, so may be metaphorical.
The film takes a jarring turn to another layer of social issues when the mother, probably uniquely in her community, concedes to the doctor's insistence to confront her miner husband in the city about their condition, a request that seems simplistically basic to the doctor but the wife has to surmount enormous odds to accomplish. Even simple medical instructions are mountains to climb. We get a graphic impression of the difficulties of the husband's life and their relationship, even as over time it changes under the overwhelming pressures of reality.
The cinematography of rural to urban South Africa geography, from endless horizon to city buses, is stunning.
The songs by Mpahleni Latozi, performed by Madosini, are particularly evocative.
The film is inevitably a tear-jerker, but not a sentimental one. One can't help but lose it when the wife and mother finally breaks down and cries -- before picking herself and doing what needs to be done.
I viewed the film on PBS TV and the concluding panel discussion by experts was way too boring to sit through compared to the visceral impact of the film. (1/12/2006))

The Intruder (L'Intrus) is a visual pilgrimage through a mysterious life.
Grizzled Michel Subor plays "Louis Trebor" like Jason Bourne as an old man with a hidden past, living simply in an isolated hut in the woods for justifiably paranoid reasons (but attracting pretty young women who can be useful to him). We learn more about him through dreams, flashbacks and a journey that may unfold chronologically or not, as well as through his brusque interactions with family, lovers, business associates and a striking nemesis. Like The Limey, the film resonates with parent/child regrets and a suspicious past revealed through clips from an old film with the same actor as a young man (here Paul Gégauff's 1965 adventure film Le Reflux).
In a complete contrast of moods, we meet his son Sidney (Grégoire Colin) who has to be the sexiest house husband in the world, as he sweetly and seductively does household repairs and cares for a baby, a toddler and every need of his working wife. Surely director/co-writer Claire Denis must have created him as a woman's fantasy if ever there was one and a lesson to other filmmakers on filming foreplay. There's an additional extended scene where he seeks his father in the woods while carefully carrying his angelic baby in a pouch. He is everything his father is not and has every relationship his father is incapable of sustaining; no wonder he thinks his father is "a lunatic." I spent the rest of the film in dread that something bad would happen to him as the true nature of the heart of his alienated father is very gradually played out before our eyes.
The film is a puzzle, but Subor is ruthlessly fascinating as we watch him traverse countries and negotiate nefarious deals, and the voice-over narration for Denis's Beau Travail was annoying anyway. We have to figure out from skylines and incidental signage that he is traveling to Geneva, Korea and the South Pacific. Time passing is indicated by the seasons changing and scars being created and healing. There are lots of images of water for cleansing and for distancing. Continuing her fascination with the morphing of colonialism into globalization, as well as playing a bit on stereotypes of the Mysterious Orient and Russian criminals, Denis has incorporated elements from Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Gauguin and Marlon Brando's Tahiti idylls and a 40-page memoir by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, the last for the title and heart-transplant plot used for an ironic theme of limited immortality which does have consequences.
While "Louis" thinks he's succeeded in being above boundaries, rules and morals, there is some amusement in the last act as the locals don't quite know what to do with him and try to help him solve his quixotic odyssey, even as he again lies in isolation.
Several people in the audience left in frustration at the elliptical, but strikingly beautiful, story telling method. The unconventional narrative does raise a lot of plot questions on details. (1/11/2006) Interview with Director

No. 17 Is Anonymous is a gripping cross between CSI and the post-9/11 Portraits in Grief bios of the victims that were in The New York Times. But where in the U.S. we're used to TV shows about murders of "John Does" in Cold Case files, this is Israel and so a bombing of a bus between Tiberius and Tel Aviv in June 2002 is just another terrorist attack.
What is different is that for the first time there is An Unknown Victim. And that there was a documentary filmmaker intrigued by this anonymity; David Ofek seems to be the only who cared, month after month.
Whereas U.S. forensics shows focus on high-tech equipment and data analysis, with almost no information available from the completely burned body, Ofek finds that thinking of the victim as a distinct human being, with a personality interacting with other people, is the way to try to solve his identity. With a very low tech video technique (we see him and his microphone and equipment throughout, and he serves as a model for a sketch at one point), suitable for an Independent Lens episode on PBS, Ofek not only conducts an investigation but serves as a guide through the fascinating assortment of people who each contribute to a piece of the puzzle in his search.
While we meet in depth a few of the diverse survivors of the attack, with the fascinating accidents of chance for who was on the bus, most of the self-portraits talked to the camera, with their home photos to illustrate their stories, are from key people who try to provide clues - a forensic anthropologist, a disabled employer who had reported a missing home health aide, a sketch artist who marvelously puts the lie to the usefulness of computer facial analysis, a disabled veteran who runs a profit-making business from these deaths, etc. They are of a broad range of ages, family situations, ethnicities, religiosity, years in Israel, etc. The characteristics they use to identify themselves are in contrast to the information that can be collected about the anonymous victim.
The search is absolutely riveting. While the police seem apathetic and careless (there are funny scenes where the filmmaker tracks the official investigators down on vacation and at self-congratulatory promotion ceremonies), they seem as overwhelmed by the number of attacks as cops in U.S. big cities who have to shrug and move on with homicide cases.
There is no question that it is due to the filmmaker's obsession that the case is pursued. He gives up on one of the busy contacts and sets out on his own to find an avocational expert who provides key advice on how to proceed. He's the one who thinks to look through unclaimed items from the bus for clues. He tracks down translators in unusual places to help him identify one possibility. He's the one who puts up notices at bus stops and in the newspapers and gets radio interviews to promote the case. His passion creates sympathy as folks help him more and more with either expertise or fresh nuggets of information. We hear in the narration "one month has gone by," "three months has gone by," and so on for six months.
In what is almost a travelogue through Israel's diverse communities, of visitors, foreign workers and immigrants, of the religious and the informally secular, what turns out to be important are the vagaries of memory -- a casual comment, a cute guy's flirtation with a pretty girl-- and the there but for fortune - getting on a wrong bus, an impromptu vacation day.
It's about not making presumptions about people without knowing them. It's about what makes us human and individual.
This documentary is ripe for fictionalization as a movie, but it is very moving as a fascinating real-life tale.(12/5/2005)

The first half of Private is frustrating as a set piece of European intellectualism and inauthenticity strained to establish a logic puzzle mind game, but the second half rises to the level of universal humanity.
There have been many movies about the stubborn old idealist who infuriates his family with his implacability (Man of La Mancha, The Field, Straight Story, etc.) but co-writer/debut director Saverio Costanzo sets this one as a barely-believable Shakespeare-quoting, educated, middle class, secular Palestinian holding on to his house and his very large family amidst the volatility of the West Bank territories. Each member of the family represents a type that has some similarity to the family in Raisin in the Sun -- the exhausted housewife who just wants her kids to be safe, the beautiful eldest, enscarfed daughter who argues against leaving for a European education to the apathetic sports-mad teen boy radicalized by his conflicts with Israelis to the traumatized little girl and the big-eyed curious, adorable little brother.
With much of the film shot in dark as shaky, pseudo-documentary digital video like night vision goggles, the forced comparison to Diary of Anne Frank doesn't quite hold up as the family is locked into their living room only at night by occupying Israeli soldiers as it is a principle not survival itself that the father is insisting upon. They seem to have complete daily freedom to shop and go to school (they say "madrassa" on the soundtrack but we see them do math homework not rotely memorize The Koran), but not to host friends. While the film does well build up the tension of this nightly, stressful ritual, that is also true in nonpolitical hostage films from Petrified Forest, to Key Largo, Desperate Hours, and on and on.
The Israeli soldiers are as much types as the soldiers in the TV series Over There. There's the barking sergeant, the sensitive intellectual and the bored joker just doing his job, but with the casual mention that these frustrated reservists are commuting distance from home, as was seen in Kippur. The film is also unfair in only hinting at what attacks they, let alone their families at their home towns, have endured from Palestinian civilians to make them so aggressive and jumpy.
While it is ironic that the Palestinians and the Israelis have to speak broken English to each other to communicate, the larger themes are confused in perception to the audience because it is not clear what the participants do and do not understand as most of the conversations are translated for us in the subtitles. This is important because the second half of the film reaches an intriguing point where each side slowly starts to perceive each other as individuals and not as just "the other."
The turning point is when the oldest daughter breaks the rules restricting the family downstairs and spies on the soldiers billeted upstairs. Motivated initially by some kind of revenge fantasy, she is gradually overcome by natural curiosity and perhaps voyeurism as they are hunky young men, and begins to parse out their relationships from their body language and activities, which she later relates fantastically to her equally curious younger brother. Shot only from her viewpoint, we begin to realize that a narrow sliver is really how each side has been seeing the other all along.
The film leaves no doubt that such insights are brief blips in the ongoing struggles between both sides that leave tragedy in the wake of the continued cycle of miscommunications and misperceptions.
Oddly, this is the second recent Italian film about terrorism (Good Morning, Night (Buongiorno, notte)) that uses a Pink Floyd-related song too heavy-handedly on the soundtrack (here a cover of "Perfect Sense, Part 1" from Roger Waters's Amused to Death). (11/26/2005)

Innocent Voices (Voces inocentes) is a beautiful looking dramatization of the impact of civil war on children and families, in this case the drawn-out war between the U.S.-backed government of El Salvador vs. guerrillas. It is pretty much the old anti-war poster "War is unhealthy for children and other living things" come to life.
The stark, gripping images and evocative rain forest cinematography, however, are undercut by a socialist realism style of noble peasantry that is stereotypically pedantic and this horrific war could just as well be taking place in a galaxy far, far away for all the individuation it is given. Probably the same film could be made about U.S.S.R. involvement in Afghanistan in the same decade, which had similar disastrous results on humanity.
The gorgeous matriarch, played by Leonor Varela. is a noble Mother Courage who will go to any lengths to protect her children like a lioness, recalling Sophia Loren in Two Women. She is in the impossible situation of living in a village on the border between the two combatants who recognize no civilian free-zones even as the residents try desperately to continue their normal lives of work, church and school, particularly for their children.
The noble village priest is a lot like Henry Fonda's in The Fugitive from 1947 (director John Ford's film version of Graham Greene's novel The Power and the Glory). The guerrilla uncle is not only a bearded sensuous hunk, but he carries around a guitar with his rifle and sings mournful, banned songs.
The central boy hero is captivating as played by Carlos Padilla, as he switches back and forth from playful boy (and the scenes of youthful optimism amidst the war are funny and sweet) to "man of the house" to infatuated boyfriend to radicalized recruit. The brutal irony of the fear of reaching his 12th birthday as the point of eligibility for forced recruitment into the army is palpably conveyed, with striking visual imagery, explosive interruptions of daily life and slow motion horror. However, he is, sadly, virtually identical to the resourceful young survivor of Iraq's wars in Turtles Can Fly (Lakposhtha hâm parvaz mikonand), and recalls World War II's Anne Frank and the boy Montgomery Clift befriended in The Search or the boy soldiers of the last gasps of Germany and Japan who have recently been portrayed. The lengthy closing scroll finally makes the point that boys are being violently robbed of their childhoods all over the world, and doubtless we'll be seeing films about Sudan and the dirty diamond wars.
Some of the secondary characters have more personality, such as a local bus driver, and the playmates.
The opening scroll points out that this civil war stopped having any ideological or policy meaning and the film shows how brutality and revenge carries on with an inertia all their own, driving out those who want peace.
The score and song selections are beautiful, though tracks by Ozomatli and Bebe probably aren't of the period.(11/8/2005)

Proof hones in on the emotional relationships in the play. With Rebecca Miller jointly credited with David Auburn on adapting his play, this is less coy about who did what to whom when in reality or delusion than it is about connections between people.
The flashbacks cut effectively back and forth and smooth out where each character is coming from.
"Catherine," the daughter of a brilliant mathematician who is somewhat modeled on John Nash's struggles with madness which were portrayed in A Beautiful Mind, is still the focal point of attention. But with the other characters fleshed out more Gwyneth Paltrow has more to naturalistically react to than the stage actresses (I saw it on Broadway with a mercurial Anne Heche). Paltrow brings unexpected fragility to the role and makes her sarcastic accusations to her sister come out of personal pain and not just spitefulness. You really see that she is emotionally ravaged from putting her life and mind on hold for a father with a very strong personality.
Anthony Hopkins is unusually paternal as the father and you understand her attractions and fear of him, as well as why the sister had to flee how insecure she felt there, as Hope Davis manages to breathe some life into a strident character. We see very clearly the demands of being a caregiver to a legend. Unlike in Iris at the end of careers, we do ache at the sacrifices the young caregiver has made and how this claustrophobic existence has led to her own crippling doubts about her work, her life and her sanity.
Jake Gyllenhaal is the hunkiest, most adorable, rock 'n' rollin' math graduate student since Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting and could help increase math enrollments around the country. But as irresistible as he is, and their relationship is literally more believably fleshed out as young people than in the play, we also can share Paltrow's suspicion of him. But we see more of his activities, as the film opens up the play, so we too clearly know before she that he has regained in our credibility as he seeks his proof. I don't mind that the film adds to the romantic aspects and drawn out coda as I thought the play tempted unfulfillingly in that direction and it is a means to help her regain the multiple meanings of proof -- as evidence, as trust, as confidence.
Director John Madden keeps the camera moving actively during long dialog interchanges, reflecting "Catherine"s agitated state of mind.
The house and academic setting well establish the atmosphere, particularly when there's more people around, though some of the outdoor shots seemed like filler.
The score is occasionally intrusive, but the concluding voice-over is even more annoying and unnecessary. (10/12/2005)

Everything is Illuminated is a simplified interpretation of something more than half of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel. This version is more about changes in Eastern Europe from World War II through post-Cold War and how the younger generation relates to that history as a family memory.
Debut director/adapter Liev Schreiber retains some of the humor and language clashes of the novel, mostly through the marvelous Eugene Hutz as the U.S.-beguiled Ukrainian tour guide. He is so eye-catching that the film becomes more his odyssey into his country and his family as he goes from his comfortable milieu in sophisticated Odessa to the heart of a cynical, isolated land that has been ravaged by conquerors through the Communists and now capitalists, with both Jews and non-Jews as detritus. As funny as his opening scenes are when he establishes his cheeky bravura, we later feel his fish-out-of-waterness in his own country when he tries to ask directions of local yokels.
Shreiber uses Elijah Wood, as the American tourist, as an up tight cog in a visual panoply, as his character is less verbal than as one of the narrators in the book. He and Hutz play off each other well until the conclusion that becomes more sentimental in this streamlined plot. Once the grandfather's story takes over in the last quarter of the film, marvelously and unpredictably enacted by Boris Leskin, the younger generation does not seem to undergo any catharsis, as they just tidy up the closure.
Schreiber does a wonderful job visualizing the human urge to document history. One of his consultants in the credits is Professor Yaffa Eliach and her style of remembering pre-Holocaust shtetl life through artifacts clearly inspired the look and it is very powerful and effective.
The Czech Republic stands in for the Ukraine and the production design staff were able to find memorable symbols of change in the cities, towns and countryside, as this is now primarily a road movie, and the long driving scenes do drag a bit. Schreiber retains some of the symbolism from the book, particularly of the moon and river, but having cut out the portions of the book that explain those, they just look pretty or ominous for atmosphere and no longer represent time and fate.
As W.C. Fields would have predicted, the dog steals most of his scenes for easy laughs. In general, Schreiber does go for more poignancy than the book. It is irresistibly touching, especially those who haven't read the book, but less morally and emotionally messy.
The film is enormously uplifted by its marvelous soundtrack, which ranges from songs and instrumentals from Hutz's gypsy band Gogol Bordello to traditional tunes to contemporary tracks to Paul Cantelon's klezmer fusion score.
This is not a Holocaust film per se, being a kind of mirror image of The Train of Life (Train de vie) as about memory of a time that is freighted with meaning now, but will resonate more with those who have an emotional connection to that history. Such as the dramatic parallels with the experiences of a member of our Fiction Book Club Tamar Rogoff, who choreographed a dance piece The Ivye Project in Belarus around some similar themes.)(10/6/2005) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)
For more on Hutz and his music see: The Pied Piper Of Hützovina.

You don't have to wait for the final credits of Chain to see that Jem Cohen was funded by the New York Foundation for the Arts as it is painfully obvious that this is an artsy New Yorker's discovery of the malling of the country and that he read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich as he didactically puts those quotes in his characters' mouths, as well as the other listed sources.
Cohen must not have spent a lot of time out of cities as he is shocked, shocked to discover that malls are the same the whole world over, as this picaresque tale splices together images from everywhere (like Walter Kirn's Up in the Air posits Airport World) that older independent stores and motels get knocked down for chain stores and suites, that less profitable chains get replaced by bigger behemoths. His insights can be attained by anyone sitting for 15 minutes in any mall food court or suburban traffic jam. He doesn't distinguish visually or sociologically between malls that are suburban downtowns to category-killers like Wal-Mart that have no modern agora at all.
The structure of this faux docudrama is intriguing. Cohen alternates monologues by two fictional characters, a runaway teenager, "Amanda" (Mira Billotte), working pick-up jobs who sees the endless consumerism of American malls as half-empty promises, and a Japanese company woman on a business trip, who sees the malls as half-full frozen upbeatness, which she compares to cherry blossoms falling at their peak. However, the two actresses speak with such droning monotones that I worried that they badly needed anti-depressants, though Miho Nikaido's very thick accent as "Tamiko" may excuse her lack of affect.
I kept expecting these two to meet in their final limbos but there is no such climax. A self-conscious night vision video commentary by the teen squatting in an abandoned structure looks cool, but recalls Marc Singer's urban portrait of the homeless in Dark Days. The Japanese business woman's quest to develop a business plan that would replace a failing steel mill with an American-style amusement park she wants to call "Floating World" duplicates a notion from China that was much more effectively and ironically portrayed in The World (Shijie) and cross-cultural rapaciousness of the landscape was poignantly portrayed in Japanese Story.
Cohen spends a lot of footage photographing sunrise and sunset of modern cities' profiles, to make them look futuristic as in Code 46, suburban highwayscapes stretching into the horizon and mall signs. He does capture some amusing and poignant shots, like the birds nesting in a Sam's Place sign, with some very heavy-handed points, like a shot of the Enron symbol.
Cohen is an accomplished photographer and cinematographer but as a writer, his substance is just too weak. (9/30/2005)

I saw Harakiri (Seppuku) as part of the Summer Samurai festival at the Film Forum because it has not been included in IFC's Samurai Saturdays.. And am I glad that I saw this new print on a big screen. This is a brilliant use of a narrow period genre to explosively indict politics and culture. Writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Yasuhiko Takiguchi surely must have been as inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo, Ambrose Bierce and Howard Hawks' Westerns as much as by samurai literature and movies.
The film begins deceptively as a story within a story, seemingly providing a traditional example of upholding samurai honor, such as in the conventional, oft-retold tale of The 47 Ronin. The context is set at a time when the central government, the shogunate, is supplanting local clans and arbitrarily unemploying thousands of people, notably their samurai, forcing them into the mercenary mode of ronin at best and begging for food at worse. But the parallels to the 20th century are made repeatedly explicit as the samurai who comes to this clan seeking help is from Hiroshima.
Very gradually we get further insight on the tale within a tale, as we see more flashbacks within flashbacks into what each character has been doing before these confrontations and we get uneasy inklings that the moral of the story may not be what it appears at first and the stakes get higher and higher with almost unbearable tension.
It is almost halfway through the film until we see a female and we suddenly see an alternative model of masculinity, where a priority is put on family, support, education and creative productivity. In comparison to the macho opening relationships, with their emphasis on formal militaristic loyalty to a hierarchy, a loving husband and father is practically a metrosexual. Seeing the same stalwart samurai making casual goo goo sounds to his grandbaby puts the earlier, ritualized scenes in sharp relief, particularly the recurring image of the clan's armor which seems less and less imposing and is finally destroyed as an empty symbol.
The psychological tension in the confrontations in the last third of the film is more excruciating than the actual violence. Even when we thought we already knew the outcome from the flashbacks, the layers of perception of relationships and personalities are agonizingly peeled away with each thrust of a sword to reveal the depths of the horrifying hypocrisy of the political and social structure. And those are just the overwhelming cultural resonances that a 21st century American can glean. Like Downfall (Der Untergang), it reveals the inhumane mentality that led to World War II.
The repeating motif of long walks then confrontations down empty corridors emphasizes the stultifying bureaucratic maze that entraps the characters. The revenge motifs are accented by startlingly beautiful cinematography that recalls traditional Japanese art, including drops of blood like first snow flakes then a waterfall.
The over all effect of this masterpiece is emotionally draining. (9/16/2005)

2046 takes a central character from Days of Being Wild (A Fei jing juen) and In the Mood for Love (Fa yeung nin wa) further on in his life, but as a hook to meditate on the roots of memory, love, artistic imagination and the impact of the passage of time.
While it is not essential to see the films as a trilogy for their plots, they do provide background on the fairly inscrutable character played by Tony Leung and give a context to the visualizations of the memories of love that haunt him to help explain how he treats each woman differently in the continuous roundelay of A loves B who looks like C who left D who has the same name as E who pines for F, or something like that as I did have a bit of trouble keeping track of the women, each one exquisitely beautiful and captivating to us if not to him (Ziyi Zhang tears at your heart though not his), in flash backs and flash forwards as he examines how each relationship is unfulfilling. He seems to resent it when a love is successfully requited.
Leung's "Mr. Chow" moves from tabloid journalist to a pulp science fiction writer much like Kilgore Trout in Kurt Vonnegut novels, where the imagining of the traveler's story serves as commentary both on the passage of time and how, like "Keyser Soze" in The Usual Suspects, artists take elements of their lives and the people they meet like a God to create whatever society, relationships, fate or luck they want.
Writer/director Kar Wai Wong draws on images from other international films as well, such as references to Marlene Dietrich's look and the train in Shanghai Express, Hitchcock's Vertigo and even Blade Runner. He continues to play on male fascination with the seductive stereotyped image of Chinese women in cheongsam, from the past to the future, as this callous yet romantic gambler treats one lover as a prostitute, plays cupid for a neighbor he finds fascinating and fictionalizes women into spiky-haired androids with the open-eyed blankness of anime characters with flashing high heels. He has these robots of a possibly future 2046 have delayed emotional reactions - much as it is only through this long narrated introspection that he can therapeutically process his own feelings from the past, particularly from all that happened in hotel room #2046, the opposite of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
I'm sure I only got some of the cross-cultural or political or historical resonances as characters are identified as coming or going to Hong Kong from Japan or Singapore or Cambodia, or the religious contrasts with Confucianism as the film is set on different Christmas Eves during the 1960's (emphasized by wonderful use of American pop tunes, such as by Nat King Cole), that seem in Proustian style to set off his reveries. "Mr. Chow" caustically comments about celebrating birthdays several times a year by different calendars, which I presume implicitly refers to different impending New Years as well. Silences and the swelling instrumental score are also used beautifully.
Christopher Doyle repeats his gorgeously lush cinematography from his earlier pairings with Kar Wai Wong that recreates classic film noir for color, evidently helped by using decades-old lenses, that contrasts with the sharp angles of the imagined future. (8/18/2005)

Tony Takitani is the first full length adaptation of a Haruki Murakami tale and it beautifully translates his ethereal prose themes to visuals. There's his characteristic isolated man, mysterious women who come and go and recur, American jazz and obsessions that all link to Japan's post-war experiences and the prisons we make for ourselves. The film begins like a narrated slide show as we see biographical images of "Tony" as a child and his father. Gradually, the stills move for longer periods as we learn more about each man and focus on "Tony" as a young man who has gravitated to free-lance mechanistic illustration as a perfect professional emotionless counterpart to his internal condition. The characters occasionally take up the narration in almost the only dialogue we hear. The second half of the film explores the nature of loneliness and love. The younger woman he falls in love with literally comes with baggage, as each have a fear of emptiness that they assuage through their own means. While how she wore her clothes attracted him in the first place, the world is divided between those who are pack rat collectors and those who are not - a division "Tony" thinks he can cross and suppress, only to have those feelings reappear with resonances, with a bit of a spooky reference to Hitchcock's Vertigo trying to morph into Here Comes Mr. Jordan with almost an O. Henry twist. While most viewers will think the woman's clothes shopping is a fetish (and the montage of her luxuriating in shoe after shoe is humorous), I thought this film was the best since Ghost World to make an effort to capture the sensual, addictive feelings of a collector of objects and not as outsiders for an Errol Morris documentary. As it visually relates her fear of emptiness to the father's and the son's claustrophobic lives, the film lyrically shows how not only is love not enough and how asking one you love to give up something they love destroys love, but the objects themselves will now carry different and unexpected emotions for whomever comes into contact with them. While Ryuichi Sakamoto's gentle score reinforces this meditation on loneliness, I thought we should have heard more of the father's jazz.
The film re-enlivened my own experience. I ran a charitable Used Book & Music Sale for The Forest Hills Jewish Center for 15 years, attracting donations and purchases from obsessives. I did a large pick-up from a recently passed away collector with the exact same hobby as me - taping live broadcasts off the radio. I literally channeled him as a kindred spirit and have kept his tapes ever since -- finally taping my selections over his. (8/3/2005)

The World (Shijie) is one of the saddest films I've ever seen and is a moving visualization of the tragedy of rising expectations.
While it is set very particularly in China, it achingly proves the universality of the twin globalization pulls of modernization and immigration over the past three hundred years around the world, recalling films from Hester Street to The Emigrants (Utvandrarna) , and films about cities in throes of developmental change, like Atlantic City.
These are universally recognizable young people - they rebel against and yet feel tied to their families, regretfully break ties with old friends; they fight with their siblings but bail them out; they get lonely, a bit homesick, and bored; they are jealous and ambitious; and they constantly compromise, particularly the women bargaining with the oldest currency.
With what is a bit heavy-handed symbolism, the film is specifically set in a real amusement park called "The World" on the outskirts of Beijing that replicates landmarks in scaled miniature and focuses on the employees and their extended, inter-connected network of friends and family.
At first, they look to us as swaggering city sophisticates, as they dress-up in international costumes for a park revue, surrounded by emblems of international commercial culture, like fake Louis Vuitton bags and movie posters, such as of Titanic. They jealously and zealously call each other constantly by the most modern cell phone and text messengers, particularly from the encircling monorail that at first seems like a symbol of modern technology, though it is cobbled together from airplane parts--though one woman wistfully notes that she doesn't know anyone who has been on a plane- a frequent response to a call is "I'm on the train." -- but by the end the canned voice of progress is emblematic of the dead end circularity of their lives as they can't get passports to leave, let alone to see the real landmarks.
Travel is a constant theme visually and of conversation - when a country bumpkin shows up, the surprised greeting is "How did you get here?" such that "I bought a ticket." is not self-evident. -- to the security guards riding camels around the fake pyramids and horses around the fake castles, to the six hour bus ride it takes to another city to pay off a relative's gambling debts, and emphasized through fanciful animated interstices. The ironic geographical headings of the chapters emphasize a character's quixotic goal -- "world.com", "Ulan Bator Evening," "Belleville", "Tokyo Story." Striving as they all are, for these folks even Ulan Bator, the depressed capital of Mongolia, looks like a step up.
There are moving scenes when immigrants with different languages try to communicate to share the commonalities in their lives -- a Russian immigrant is terrified when her passport is taken away, while the Chinese woman is envious that she even has one. It is a bit confusing keeping up with the various characters, in and out of their work costumes, especially when the two main characters seemed to change so much without explanation, but they are enormously sympathetic so it is devastating as we see their hopes and dreams, however unrealistic or selfish, defeated. And those who succeed do so on very compromised terms.
They are also not very articulate, which writer/director Zhang Ke Jia compensates for by spending a lot of time setting up individual scenes and watching people interact, as we see how different they are in different contexts with different people, as body language becomes more important than words, whether spoken or in text messages.
While the cinematography was beautiful, the print I saw in New York was a bit scratchy and the English subtitles had several misspellings.
I'm sure a lot of subtitle-dependent viewers lose a lot of the significance of different accents and regional differences among the employees from all over China.(7/15/2005)

Me and You and Everyone We Know is a uniquely quirky take on relationships.
Through an oddball constellation of children, teens, siblings, working stiffs, artists and senior citizens, it comments on consumer society, museums, communication, parenting, and especially sex and romance. As a living tableau of non-Euclidean geometry, the parallel universes of its very individual characters intersect with each other in frank and unexpected ways that are as funny and poignant as they are alarming and charming.
Each person uses language that is literally terms of art grounded in their own age and gender appropriate frames of reference that they create to face the world, as particularly demonstrated in handwritten notes, dots and dashes, computer chat rooms and reconstructed photographs, reminiscent of the blind photographer in Proof documenting surroundings he can't see to be described by people he meets accidentally.
Debut writer/director/star Miranda July ties it all together with an overall sweet tone and through her character's wide-eyed combination of trusting naïveté and Panglossian optimism as she creates her own ideal relationships through living her performance art dioramas. As eccentric as they are, the deftly-edited, inter-connected characters are in touch with reality by having a good relationship with at least one other character, even if they are alienated from another while indomitably exploring a challenging relationship with a third. Each is mature or immature, wise or foolish, daring or complacent, beyond or below their years along different axes of their lives.
July fluidly plays with all the elements of the film medium in visuals, sound, editing, movement, close-ups and creative use of letters, video tapes, optical illusions and computer chats, as well as a lovely soundtrack score and song selection. One of the best scenes is a simple walk down a street that turns into a philosophical metaphor of two people over a lifetime.
The placid settings in a suburban development, a garden apartment complex named Eden Roc, a senior citizens residence and a department store, bathed in cotton candy colored cinematography, emphasizes how the consumer and technological society doesn't fulfill their restlessness, curiosity and need for real human contacts, no matter how hard some of the characters try to make it, including a girl's very modern hope chest.
As a basically responsible, somewhat sad sack divorced dad also dealing with an existential crisis, John Hawkes gets to shine here more than he does in Deadwood or in A Slipping Down Life, which also featured eccentric characters. The child actors, from very young through older teens, are wonderfully natural, individually and in their interactions with siblings, parents, friends and strangers, and reinforce the film's child-like appreciation for where fantasy meets reality.
July uses some of the same dreamy look and threats to suburban complacency as Todd Solondz, but with more humor, humanity and affection, as her collection of misfits are far more lovable, in a Napoleon Dynamite kind of way, even if we're not sure what they've learned from their experiences. We root for them and for her future as a filmmaker. As her character says to another: And I'm not even sick of you yet.(7/9/2005)

Palindromes is a fascinating visual thought experiment.
Very parallel to Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth in covering some of the same territory about abortion, writer/director Todd Solontz mostly eschews that film's satire and easy jabs for a protean look at an issue that has a more complicated emotional landscape than advocates on either side usually concede. He does this by literally taking us inside the mind of a young malleable adolescent who intentionally gets pregnant and is surprised at the reactions of those around her. Sometimes we see her as she sees herself, as if we are reading her diary, with her body-hating hopes for a change in hair, skin, age or family, and sometimes we see her as others see her.
Every one wants to control "Aviva" and their hypocritical selfishness is laid bare, regardless of their various good intentions. Her mother sees her still as a baby (a welcome back to the screen for Ellen Barkin who manages to add maternal warmth to hostile dialog) to the discomfiting sexualization (Britney-ization?) of just barely teens that is just barely a step above pedophilia, to how she is seen by pro-life advocates (whose Sunshine Band for "special children" seems almost as exploitative as JonBenet Ramsey's performances) and on in a picaresque dreamscape that crosses a nightmare that is a bit extreme, especially for fans of Welcome to the Dollhouse.
Solontz pulls this off by having every image of "Aviva" (according to the director's production notes) "portrayed by two women, four girls (13-14 years old), one 12-year-old boy, and one 6-year old girl" of widely variant size, shape, color and just about every other possible outward characteristic, even though one haranguer points out that no one can ever really change.
Solontz in a hand-out at the theater defined his use of the title as meaning "a condition of stasis and/or immutability; that part of one's personality or character that resists change, stays the same," but I'm not sure that successfully comes through in this odd but provocative film, especially with some of the acerbic dialog and disturbing actions.
Nathan Larson's music is appropriately eerie, with spooky vocalizations by Nina Persson.
Releasing the film without a rating will probably keep it from being seen by young teens which is too bad as it is a frank and fresh look at the pressures on girls from friends, family and society.(6/8/2005) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)

Yes, Crash is theatrical and full of coincidences, in an Amores Perros roundelay as people from a broad array of races and classes are set off by the contact of their cars and then their stereotyped perceptions of each other to bounce off each other. But with this concentrated yet diverse group writer/director Paul Haggis is able to represent sprawling Los Angeles in a manageable and searingly effective ensemble, and show up how non-diverse most movies and TV series are.
The initiating premise is similar to Lawrence Kasdan's 1991 Grand Canyon, but that film looks sunnily optimistic and utopian compared to race relations in L.A. today, as a city where people don't even have to rub shoulders with each other on mass transit. From the superficial exteriors of race, gender, dress and language, each character instantly judges the others out of context, usually to devastating consequences; the layers are pulled back as each is rubbed raw by their contact with the other.
Each action leads to unpredictable consequences that unexpectedly affect another person and no good deed goes unpunished. No one is left unscarred, though not everyone learns a lesson from their experiences, from the most naive (Ryan Philippe putting his preternatural baby face to good effect for a rookie cop) to the most jaded (Don Cheadle using a whole new body language than his other films for his police detective). Every character has flaws, either from their past or present, and almost none are quite the stereotype they seem at first, especially as each is pushed in unexpected directions to do unpredictable actions.
Virtually the entire ensemble is note perfect, particularly Terrence Dashon Howard as an African-American man who frantically adjusts (and misadjusts) his style to fit into his various social environments. Sandra Bullock has surprising dramatic authority, even if her character is less revelatory than the others, and Brendan Fraser as her husband has the only one-note of less credibility as a too young and too stiff district attorney.
The language is frank and lacerating in its confrontations, bordering on Mamet and LaBute territory for its bluntness about American society, but I never cry at those playwrights' works and I cried here out of hopelessness and despair.
Oddly, the soundtrack selections make little ironic note of the Christmas season setting, but there is some quiet commentary of each character listening to separate songs, such as hip hop or country, to subtly indicate the different musical environment they create around themselves (but not, oddly, Lyle Lovett's "L.A. County" though his music would have been more appropriate here than in The Interpreter). There is also the ethereal world music that Haggis used similarly atmospherically in his groundbreaking E Z Streets television series. I saw the film with an integrated, multi-ethnic audience in Queens, NY that in the first half reacted in turn in support of seeing themselves represented on the screen, but throughout the second half was dead silent.
This film will make for good discussion groups, particularly in contrast to Do The Right Thing as that phrase takes on many more layers here. I do wonder what input the cast had in the dialog; if Haggis had used a Mike Leigh-style involvement as with Vera Drake, the language could be assured of authenticity as well as electricity. (6/2/2005)

I saw a "screening print" of Bastards of the Party at the Tribeca Film Festival.
It's helpful to understand the full arc of the documentary as a longitudinal exploration of the roots of gang and police violence in Los Angeles in order to get past the opening section to when the theme is finally declared.
The first part is a salute to the Black Panther Party in California in the 1960's that is at first repetition of the usual history and then degenerates further into interviews with self-aggrandizing, middle-aged survivors posturing for posterity in an effort to preserve the images of themselves they want to project as a legacy that becomes my-eyes-glaze-over cliché-ridden rhetoric for the viewer.
Then director/on screen narrator/participant-witness Cle Shaheed "Bone" Sloan comes on the screen to explain his thesis and the movie really starts getting interesting - that the gangs of L.A. are the titular descendants of the Panthers. He then proceeds to go through the changes in Los Angeles decade by decade, though not strictly chronologically, sociologically, culturally, economically and politically (as well as very personally) to demonstrate how the current volatile racial situation step by step resulted from the destruction of the Party.
It serves as chilling non-fiction background to TV series The Shield, for L.A., and The Wire, for how applicable it is to many inner cities across the country.
This very much comes across as a story about outlets for testosterone as basic as throughout human history, here channeled in the late twentieth century through the police, politicians, the media and the drug and violence dealing gangs they in some sense created.
Rather than focusing on the usual truisms about single mother-headed families, though we do hear some ranting about dysfunctional family clichés, we see what happened to the men in the African-American community from childhood on under oppressive economic and political conditions, though no mention is made of whatever impact the welfare system had, laid out as if it is a passionate Ken Burns documentary on Reconstruction.
We also don't hear much about nonviolent alternatives rejected or wasted, because the camera focuses on the most charismatic spokesmen -- even if what they are saying is preening bull for the camera.
I think that at a certain point even the director realizes the gang members' strenuous comparisons of themselves to the Panthers sound like delusions of grandeur and self-justification. The older gangsters reflecting on the world they want to make now for their children is touching, as it contradicts stereotypes of African-American fathers in the inner city. But we don't even hear from a woman until near the end as a mother cries about the funeral of her son.
And then the funerals mount up, as movingly as any film about genocide. The finale, however, weakens the impact of the film as the director appears on screen as a former gang banger (and in excerpts from TV interviews, such as with Larry King) just as self-aggrandizing as the opening subjects so we start questioning his credibility.
The film is also weakened when the changes are explained in left-wing jargon, especially as mouthed by white professors (and it's a shame that virtually no non-white academic experts are interviewed for at least visual balance), though a Senate staffer is very convincing about conspiracies by just factually summarizing a report.
The astounding archival photos and videos capture the zeitgeist, especially in striking material from individuals as we see hair and fashions authentically change.
The film was executive produced by Antoine Fuque, for whom the director acted in Training Day, but other credits were missing in the print and I assume some music as the lack of much hip hop on the soundtrack was inexplicable otherwise, particularly as rap gets zero mention in the film as any kind of influence.
With the extreme language and images in the film, PBS is not an option as a future outlet. (5/28/2005)

The Ballad of Jack and Rose almost works as it examines the pitfalls of extreme idealism.
Writer/director Rebecca Miller sets up an archetypal situation, of an isolated utopian who thinks he can create and control a perfect living environment with his daughter. Daniel Day Lewis makes him too sympathetic, particularly his Pyrrhic politics, while his character's nemeses are too simplistic, even as he finally is defeated by mortality and human nature, or perhaps what some theologians would consider original sin. Lewis as the dad is even more creepily naive than J. M. Barrie in Finding Neverland in wanting innocent children to never grow up, even while indulging his own adult needs.
As with Personal Velocity, Miller well captures conversational dialogue within broken families, particularly across genders, and she is uncannily good at giving us young and older teens, as puberty is presented here as a palpable enemy.
Beau Bridges's good old boy developer is an overly stereotyped builder of ticky tacky McMansions; it would have been more interesting if he was threatening the wetlands with solar powered, energy recycling houses.
The continuing image of poisonous snakes is a bit heavy-handed symbolism of women as the cause for the fall of Eden. While Miller in a Q & A at a showing at the Landmark Sunshine Theater in NYC said she was inspired by the Gnostic Gospels, I saw ironic parallels with Lot's daughters, who coming from Sodom and Gomorrah have much in common with this daughter of a failed commune.
Camilla Belle is excellent as a girl who gradually, albeit a bit scarily, discovers her powers, and her male counterparts are very believable as kids with their own problems. Most of the audience was disquietingly dissatisfied with the ending and coda of the film, so much of the questioning to Miller focused on those aspects, as she claimed they were not after-thoughts or revisions. But the writing and characterizations shown did not support the changes she claimed the characters had gone through to justify the denouement.
An interesting comparison can be made with Off the Map which also views an alternative life style through the eyes of a budding teen age girl, but whose family is held together by an earth mother.
The Dylan and other singer-songwriter selections on the soundtrack are very effective. For info about the closing song from a posting by the soundtrack composer. (4/4/2005)

Downfall (Der Untergang) is a gripping docudrama that brings the History Channel to life, though I missed the contextual-providing talking heads and pop-up explanations, especially to know if there was anything new or revisionist in this German view of Hitler's last days in his bunker with his inner circle.
As I am not a regular devotee of military channels, I frequently got confused and misplaced among the ensemble, such that I really needed the closing snapshots to tell me who was whom and what happened to them after the film ends at surrender (documenting that suicide preempted many from being Nuremberg defendants). While I thought these might have been tenacious yes men, my husband does watch those programs and he explained that these advisers were with Hitler from the beginning, unlike Stalinist purges.
My husband also pointed out that some of Hitler's rants, chillingly portrayed by a dynamic Bruno Ganz, are not just paranoid ravings but accurately reflect his clashes with the upper class Prussian career military men who were naysayers to his pre-Stalingrad military successes, whereas his perceptions of the final military situation were quite delusional, especially once the top brass were afraid to tell him the truth.
Evidently, what are new are the quotidian insights of life in the increasingly bizarre bunker provided by Hitler's secretary, which were revealed before she died in a book and interview documentary Blind Spot (Im toten Winkel - Hitlers Sekretärin), an edited version of which was shown on U.S. TV; my husband objected that even she didn't witness some of the scenes that are particularly tense so some poetic license is probably taken.
While it is these personal touches that some have complained make Hitler human, I found it more interesting to learn about the inner circle, as he obviously couldn't conduct his reign of terror alone. The film distinguishes among a spectrum of Nazi ideologues and fellow travelers at all levels-- the most fanatic are shown here as strident caricatures, particularly a scary Frau Goebbels who makes "Livia Soprano" look like fun and games, career soldiers, patriots and civilians, including child recruits, while Eva Braun is shown to be naive to the point of lunacy.
Like Rosenstrasse, another contemporary German director's take on the period, director Oliver Hirschbiegel is determined not only to go beyond the old ignorance disclaimers to show the impact of World War II on ordinary Berliners as Hitler dismisses their plight (including, disconcertingly, a symbolically blond, blue-eyed boy whose travails outside the bunker we tensely follow throughout the film) and his loyalists throughout the ranks continue revenge until the last moments, though his insistence that there are no longer any civilians in this war could also apply to the London Blitz he fomented or the Allies' firebombing of Dresden.
Just as the film seems to identify many reasonable Germans, including some at high levels, disgusted with war and the Nazis, both Hitler and Goebbals point out that they have been in power for decades with the acquiescence of the German people.
While the script also carefully includes Hitler's paranoid anti-Semitism as part of his rabid philosophy until the end, the documentary coda about the facts of the Holocaust seem tacked on to assure audiences that the genocidal aspect of the Third Reich is not being ignored amidst choices of tactics, strategy, personality and loyalty.
It's amazing that a docudrama whose outcome we already know can be so taut and riveting, such that you come out of the theater drained. (3/21/2005)

Walk on Water piles layers of personal, family, religious, cultural, historical, employment, geo-political, sexual, geographical, guilt and responsibility issues on two men -- and still makes it work as the gripping story of two individuals whose lives affect each other.
I saw an interview with director Eytan Fox where he said he wanted to imagine the two most opposite men possible and make them deal with each other. With his partner/writer Gal Uchovsky, he focuses on two men who are almost philosophical constructs of dissimilarity yet they come across as real people whose actions and reactions are unpredictable. The central character Eyal is the quintessential sabra, a craggy, macho Mossad agent unable to discuss his feelings about his ravaged marriage, a child of a Holocaust survivor, fatigued with terrorist attacks and revenge, but in the opening moments efficiently murders a Hamas leader.
He is sent by his mentor/father figure on a rogue mission that annoys him in every possible way -- going undercover to gain the confidence of a young German fully integrated into the EU whose every opinion, action, lifestyle and family background he despises, a continental take on Donnie Brasco. They personify Faulkner's dictum that "the past is never dead. It's never even past." as each man learns that the measure of a man is not just what he does today, but the genetics and heritage that make up his identity and does influence his choices -- choices that we hold our breaths to see played out.
Lior Ashkenazi captures the screen projecting the relaxed casualness of male camaraderie comfortable from years in the military and then his reactions as he gradually realizes he's been thrust into more complex situations.
Though the situations get a bit too artfully complicated when their somewhat picaresque adventures range from the German's kibbutznik sister to Palestinians to skinheads and a somewhat unnecessary though emotionally satisfying coda, the dialogue does refrain from a couple of the most obvious ironies as each man gradually reveals their true nature to each other.
An Israeli's view of Berlin through a Mercedes Benz hood ornament and hearing "Achtung!" amidst Israeli folk dancing is among the unusual juxtapositions in a movie where the characters can only communicate across the divides in English, amidst the three languages they speak among themselves, as various characters speak Hebrew, German and Arabic.
While the original music by Ivri Lider is particularly good at emphasizing the underlying emotional content and the diverse cultural environs they find themselves in, the selection of popular music they are listening to adds an additional level of knowing commentary, from the agent's preference for Bruce Springsteen, the avatar of rock 'n' masculinity (particularly the symbolism of him favoring "Tunnel of Love", Bruce's bitter elegy on the end of his first marriage before he found True Love and Fatherhood with his home girl), to European pop and oldies novelty songs to Israeli folk and popular songs, including the agent's great discomfort at having to translate a poignant romantic song from the Hebrew. (3/20/2005) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman)

Turtles Can Fly (Lakposhtha hâm parvaz mikonand) is a mesmerizing cross between the Mad Max movies and the old Little Rascals serials - except as bizarre as it looks it takes place in a real, contemporary place, not a post-apocalyptic future where kids are all suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
It is a real life Peter Pan story where children really do take on pirates, but these kids have had to grow up too fast in stomach-turning ways, even as they are still childish in their immature and misguided judgments and playful distractions.
As in Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai), that was set in a diametrically opposite urban environment, a man-child rises to broker between children he takes under his wing and the incomprehensible world around them. This is an upside-down world where tuning in CNN on satellite TV seems both as magical and as plausible as psychic predictions and makes as much sense to physically and emotionally traumatized children who earn their living by harvesting land mines.
Startlingly, this takes place at the exact same time as the documentary Control Room that was filmed not far away, as the Americans are just about to invade Iraq, so that we with growing dread know more of the broader context about what is about to happen than those on screen, even as a U.S. invasion looks like literally an alien invasion in terms of cultural contrasts. The child actors are extraordinary, particularly those who have or are enacting disabilities.
The shell-shocked look on the mysterious young girl at the center of the story is unforgettable, and is as captivating as any on any adult actress. The story line is simple and involving as we through nightmare flashbacks learn more about each child, though there are some factual impossibilities that are annoyingly jarring and disturb the documentary feel of the film.
Set in almost the same beautiful Kurd border terrain as Bahman Ghobadi's previous film of personal lives amidst geo-political chaos Marooned in Iraq (Gomgashtei dar Aragh)), the images of life going on in villages and refugee camps are as striking as those in the film Kandahar (Safar e Ghandehar)).
The English subtitles are atrocious, with misspelling and obvious inaccuracies (a truck is called a car for example) and virtually none of the credits are translated, which is not fair to the creators or to the audience. Surely if the distributor wants a wider audience that could be dealt with.
The film feels like it should end with information on where to send contributions to help kids like these - UNICEF?(3/7/2005)

Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai) is a heavy-handed indictment of urban anomie for ignoring the problems of unfortunates in our midst.
Unusually for a polemical screed, it nags at us through our hearts, by focusing on the most innocent members of modern society. The set up is particularly manipulative, even if based on a true incident, of positing a child mother who is at least borderline developmentally disabled or some paranoid mental illness and does not seem old enough to have had an oldest child of 12, let alone that no one noticed she then had three others following.
Exposition is only fleetingly provided later on as to how their isolation and then abandonment happened, perhaps to emphasize the children's perspective and perhaps because some of the explanations may be more lost on non-Japanese audiences who have no idea about Japanese laws, compounded by lack of translation of signs and other communication that could provide more context for how this gross example of child neglect could have happened, though the main credits are tellingly translated.
Agit-prop aside, the film is most effective at slowly showing us how children manage to live on their own as they re-create family structure, with time indicated by the passing of the seasons through a window and the children's only very gradually increasing haggard appearance and grown-out clothes, even as we anticipate that tragedy could happen at any moment.
Most touching are the moments when they just want to be kids, from playing video games to baseball to eating candy. It is somewhat reassuring that some of the other children who are at first attracted to their Peter Pan-like freedom from authority, end up repelled by the lack of structure that results, though the true situation was more callous.
We have seen glimpses before of self-reliant children taking on grown-up responsibilities, such as in Rabbit-Proof Fence or The Wire, but those are in societal extremis, not the quotidian of daily middle-class life.
The look of the film is beautiful, even as it slowly breaks your heart, but it's mostly like an elegiacally extended episode of Judging Amy before the social worker finally shows up. The actual case that inspired the story was even more brutally tragic. (2/25/2005)

Assisted Living is a subtle and moving portrait of individuals trying to reach out to each other within the rigid, bureaucratic realities of a nursing home.
Brilliantly filmed within an actual facility, using long walks down endless corridors much as Gus Van Sant did in Elephant, the realism is palpable, framed by The Office-style mockumentary interviews with the staff and other interactions that have the honest feel of situational spontaneity.
But debut writer/director Elliot Greenebaum lets us gradually understand each quirky character, literally warts and all. He raises some of the same issues of bland, controlling institutionalization of the disabled that Rory O'Shea Was Here (Inside I'm Dancing), but that focused on the young with options, or like a less exaggerated One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and this focuses on how the elderly have fewer options, particularly as Alzheimer's and physical ailments can slowly overtake them. He lets us quietly-yet with intense trepidation-- understand what assignment to different parts of the facility mean to the residents and the staff as he demonstrates how an institution becomes a complete social order.
Until I checked the IMDb I wasn't sure if the cast even had SAG cards or were excellent local amateurs. While Michael Bonsignore is very good as the stoner orderly whose simple human kindness in opening a door or picking up a telephone has unintended consequences, Maggie Riley as "Mrs. Pearlman" is breathtaking as the resident who connects with him, outshining Gena Rowlands The Notebook, let alone Gloria Stuart in Titanic, for creating a complex portrait of woman who is still holding on to some reality before she goes out not gentle into that good night.
The cinematography was fairly grainy, though that added to the documentary feel of a video diary.
The music was excellent in helping to build up the tension around little things that are very emotional.
While you will cry, you are left less depressed than sympathetic for the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of the inevitable. I remember a seminar I went to about the disabled where the facilitator said that we are all only temporarily abled. This should be required viewing for anyone who has (or will have) institutionalized relatives -- yes my sons, that means you!(2/15/2005)
A documentary film, Sunset Story, which was shown in a truncated version on PBS, is like a nonfiction version. (So, nu: my commentary on the putative Jewish woman) (2/13/2005)

The Sea Inside (Mar adentro) successfully accomplishes what few movies do -- create an enthralling entertainment out of a debate about a serious intellectual issue.
The key to how writer/director Alejandro Amenábar has done this is by giving each component of the debate a visual and emotional counterpart with very individual characters who have personable, understandable idiosyncrasies. This is both a very particular situation of one man and a universal one.
The discussion of assisted suicide is partly opened up by beautifully entering into Ramón Sampedro's mind as he remembers his old life before he was quadriplegic from a diving accident and fantasizes what life could be like if he could move. As played by Javier Bardem, he also is full of wit, dynamism and humor to keep our attention throughout.
The court room scene that is the usual centerpiece of Big Idea Movies with its convenient verbal duel is only a minor event as the issues are more nuanced and complicated as we care about so many different well-acted characters with their own feelings, reasons and tangled relationships. We see the full panoply of types of love -- paternal, familial, filial, fraternal, celebrity worship, platitudes, professional respect, romantic, loyalty, and unselfish open-heartedness.
We also see people of different classes who have different resources available to express themselves, from selfless deeds done day in and day out to poetry, though we can only presume that Ramon became an intellectual through his long years of no physical activity as the rest of his family is not.
But the active camera is also key. For example, one debate with a quadriplegic priest is shouted from the ends of a winding staircase that neither can navigate. When Ramon leaves his room we feel the effort of many people involved and the blast of a newly opened environment.
There are a few factual points that are a bit confusing and we can only infer time passage through such background counterpoint as a developing romance, pregnancy, birth and growing child and another character's gradually increasing disability.
The use of opera is a bit heavy-handed but the cinematography is lovely. (2/8/2005)

The Woodsman is a tour de force character study by Kevin Bacon.
He is brilliant at showing the internal struggles of a man who has of necessity shut down, then is pushed to struggle with the dangers, to himself and others, of gradually opening up again. He both captures our sympathy and has us in agony that the monster within could be unleashed. It is as good as Mystic River in showing how the cycle of abuse damages victims and the people around them throughout life.
Kyra Sedgwick very effectively reminds us just how few movies show working class women other than waitresses with hearts of gold; here she's a no BS forklift operator with issues of her own. Surprisingly for real-life married couples on screen, they develop the characters' relationship with subtle and sexy chemistry that adds poignancy and meaning to the dialogue.
Debut director and co-writer Nicole Kassel incorporates both Hitchcockian suspense with 360 degree character insight as the camera both sees the emotional triggers that Bacon's character sees that others don't perceive in the same way and the social context he misses.
Every now and then the script betrays its original incarnation as a play by co-writer Steven Fechter, particularly in Mos Def's monologues (including providing the stretched titular metaphor), but he's so good as a suspicious cop that he carries them off very well. Eve and Benjamin Bratt in secondary roles very comfortably help to make the web of relationships real and painfully complex.
The excellent production design and location shooting help by setting these characters in very particular places, whether in a playground, bus or lumber yard, though perhaps with a little overuse of blurry distances gradually coming into focus.
The music of Nathan Larson, of Shudder to Think, is excellent at building up the tension.
The film is unblinking at looking at a rightfully scary perpetrator, but Bacon is superb at making him a complete person.(1/28/2005)

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a tour de force character study by Sean Penn.
Set in the same time period as the contemporary Scorcese's Taxi Driver and Altman's Nashville, it revisits a similar but middle-class, white collar character from our perspective of three decades later, with the alarming irony that those were fictional and this is loosely based on real events.
How quaint it seems now that we lulled ourselves that this was as bad as things could get -- race riots, assassination attempts and a president declaring he wasn't a crook.
Co-writer/debut director Niels Mueller is particularly good at conflating private and public morality and external violence in the news with internal turmoil as set off by the heat of Watergate summer. The story effectively plunges us into the internal life of Penn's "Samuel Bicke" when he has already begun his downward spiral, such that the other people in his life are already leery of him and we gradually infer his back story of work and family failures.
"Bicke" is set smack in the heartland of suburbia and salesmanship whose rigid world view can't handle the slippery slope of glad handling morality and white lie relationships and we get to connect the dots of his tortured logic. He buys into all the self-made man myths, as self-help tapes play in the background, amidst visually well integrated media barrages of U.S. society falling apart at the seams. It is heartbreaking how he fixates on how the solution to his problems will be to set up his own business, such that getting a Small Business Administration loan looms large in his life. His relating to the Black Panthers reminded me of the self-delusion of The Commitments that the Irish were the Blacks of Europe.
Penn is absolutely superb at revealing the agony of struggling for normality and sanity just as it all slips away into failure and madness. I hadn't really believed he was a math professor in 21 Grams, but he's dead on as an ineffectual salesman, brother, husband and friend here, completely negating his usual alpha man presence on screen.
The ensemble is generally excellent. Naomi Watts in a secondary role as his ex-wife communicates well that his downward spiral is not recent. Jack Thompson is a terrific Babbitt of a boss, though his accent does flicker now and then. Don Cheadle is his usual chameleon, here comfortably inhabiting a mechanic who is absolutely secure in his identity, at work, at home and within society.
Even if it's biographically accurate, it was a bit head-scratching making "Bicke"'s brother an Orthodox Jew and completely oblivious to his brother's mental instability.
For a small budget film, the production design and music are good at recreating the period, though not particularly the costumes and hair, such as Mykelti Williamson lack of an Afro in his cameo as a Black Panther. (1/25/2005)

Notre Musique could be either a late night college bull session or one of those Monty Python skits where historical warmongers sit around rationally comparing their various atrocities with a coolly objective BBC moderator.
Maybe it's a French intellectual's reality show pitch: we'll set up a dialogue between a Jew and a Palestinian at a literary meeting in bombed-out Sarajevo as observed by living ghost Native Americans after bombarding them with images of war and genocide through 19th and 20th century history. Amidst this trumped-up pretentiousness, Godard the filmmaker does make some good points about war and memory and literature.
While the historical images, both from fiction and journalism, are colorized to contemporize them, one easily concedes, yeah, war is hell and hey didn't Saving Private Ryan prove that to us, when Godard cannily trumps that thought by discussing how war in fiction - from legend and poetry to movies -- touches people more than the reality.
Then just as you're about to protest, hey, you're showing all these war images without their raison d’être, Godard springs into a profound verbal and visual illustration of the importance of context, leading to an appreciation of how history is written by the victors. The points about the impact on Western psyche of the Trojans from Homer's perspective were more insightful than all of Troy.
However, those debaters that are translated in the subtitles talk in didactic epigrams that will make more sense when one can rewind the DVD for reflection (including the explanation of the title).
The French intellectual smug superiority gets annoying -- we don't see any images of WW II collaborators vs. Resistance fighters, let alone colonial legacy issues in Algeria or Muslims in France today.
While I'm not sure if the images of discarded books amidst the ruins of war were about the hopelessness of literature and the arts or its unquenchable survival as some are salvaged, Godard has an intellectual's faith in the power of dialogue (and cigarette smoking), though pessimistic about the ability of the media to communicate it effectively, as he sets up an overly freighted discussion between an idealistic and ambitious young Israeli woman of Russian descent, whose grandparents were saved from the Holocaust by a Righteous Gentile, and an articulate Palestinian writer, as translated by another Wandering French/Israeli Jew.
I think he was also trying to incorporate suicide bombers into the trajectory of French intellectual thought from Durkheim to Camus that sees it as an existential act of protest against anomie, but well, Jean Luc, we can't all be French.
Typical for a Godard film, the woman to my right gushed that it was her second screening and it was her favorite of his films, and the woman on my left said she couldn't figure out what it was about.
The actual soundtrack was beautiful, with classical selections including Sibelius and Arvo Part. (1/11/2005)

A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiançailles) combines several genres.
There’s the soldiers' view of the vivid absurdity of war movie, a childhood sweethearts' romance within a small town of eccentrics and a complicated mystery. Just as one part of the story flags in this long film, another grabs our attention.
While there’s been many British movies, particularly based on novels, that emphasized how World War I devastated a generation such that it led to the philosophy of peace at any cost in trying to prevent World War II, I’ve only seen a few French movies that deal with the War to End All Wars.
Like Grand Illusion this focuses on the rigidity, class biases and general incompetence of the officers insisting on outmoded rules of engagement for draftees, then goes on like a French take on Kubrick’s adaptation of Paths of Glory.
The romance is sweet and Audrey Tatou does have a lovely, albeit briefly seen, chemistry with Gaspard Ulliel (who was also memorable in Strayed (Les Égarés) in capturing a man-child). The small town is full of warm touches, though many characters and incidents are used just for comic relief, including Tatou's mournful tuba-playing.
The mystery of what happened to five court-martialed soldiers in the gruesome trenches, during pyrrhic battles and the painful post-war recovery gets very confusing. I, and in comparing notes as I left the theater others too, couldn’t keep track of the key players as they are each referred to by different appellations, such as their rank, their first or their last names, their original profession or their hometown. Each time I thought I was following the clues right, I’d get confused and couldn't quite grasp the significance of new discoveries, including that provided by a fluently French-speaking Jodie Foster in a surprise small role.
The period-toned cinematography is beautiful with many memorable camera shots, such as a climb up a lighthouse. (12/31/2004)
I read a translation of the 1991 novel by Sebastien Japrisot and am impressed by how the movie visualized the complicated story, including keeping the tone of cynicism, poignancy and humor. The film does change some major plot elements for simplification's sake, as well as condensing time more. It is easier, however, to follow the various characters in the novel, which is so very much worth reading after seeing the movie. (2/14/2005)

Dolls is a gripping lesson in film as a visual medium, even when exploring territory that Beckett and Bergman handled verbally.
Takeshi Kitano wrote, directed and edited with astonishing beauty and poignancy, way beyond the audience pleasing romp of Zatôichi: The Blind Swordsman. With minimal dialogue, he is in a great partnership with the breathtaking cinematography of Katsumi Yanagishima, which uses seasonal changes as powerful visual and emotional metaphors as did Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom), and the moody music of Joe Hisaishi, which effectively switches back and forth from traditional to Western instrumentation, as the film opens with a Bunraku puppet theater performance and then the stories of three casually intersecting couples gradually enact the sensibility of this what I presume is a traditional tale.
The senses are so powerfully called upon that when two blinded characters stand in a rose garden I practically smelled the flowers. While I am sure I missed a multitude of references and symbols, particularly colors, to elements of Japanese culture past and present, the very powerful themes of the spectrum of ambition destroying love such that love becomes a guilt-filled responsibility at one extreme and obsession at the other are similarly hauntingly recalled in Western culture, such as in old English ballads and more contemporary versions like "The Long Black Veil" and Springsteen's "Reason to Believe."
I also felt resonances from Waiting for Godot to classics sensitively sympathetic to love-tossed women as Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.
Flashbacks are used powerfully in a Joycean stream of consciousness way, so that we see the memories, dreams and disturbing nightmares of the characters' associations, literally showing us the Faulknerian dictum that "The past is never dead. It's never even past." This adds considerable emotional build-up for each character as they restlessly return to geographies with meanings to their lives and we gradually see what they were like before their current emotionally (or in some cases physically) stunted states so we heartbreakingly understand their personal iconography, particularly for those two unforgettably bound beggars.
There is no Hollywood happy endings for these couples, only acceptance of the fates they have consciously and willingly chosen and committed themselves to. But their resignation is thrillingly moving in its very graphic representation. (12/17/2004)

La Petite Lili is a delightful, visually enticing reinterpretation of Chekhov's The Seagull through a very Gallic sensibility, similar to how Clueless updated and Americanized Austen's Emma.
While retaining most of the original dialogue and plot as a droll commentary on the more things change the more they stay the same, co-writer/director Claude Miller cleverly updates the artistic medium of debate from literature to film and uses his visual powers to very sensually illustrate the sub-text that in most productions is stifled under 19th century Russian costumes. Because for all the high falutin' talk of aesthetics and generational conflict, and intellectual art vs. commercial pandering, lust is the primary motivator.
Essentially, all the men are led around by their dicks and the women are empowered by controlling them (and it was suspenseful as to which of the competing women would succeed at it for the long run as to whether any of the men could remain faithful to them). For all their intellectual pretensions, all the characters are ruled by their emotions.
Miller wonderfully sets us up for the hot indolence of a country home weekend with a nude nubile Ludivine Sagnier, triggering a much more effective mise en scène than Bernardo Bertolucci did in Stealing Beauty. The effect Sagnier has on all the gathered extended family members is palpable and her brazen manipulations are consistent through to the ironic conclusion.
I thought through most of the movie that the director was possibly unaware of just how equally visually mesmerizing her counterpart Robinson Stévenin is on screen, as only one character responds to his, until I saw that James Dean is thanked in the acknowledgments and realized that Miller was using this brooding hunk as an archetype as well (his one final smile is almost a shock).
The last act is a culminating commentary on Chekhov's jarring denouement, claiming that "this is how it should have turned out."
Miller softens some of the punishing sexism of the original while putting together a film-within-a-film like Hamlet's play-within-a-play that revenges on the ex-girlfriend, the mother, the mother's lover, etc. full of both comedy and tension.
The sub-titles are many times white on white for difficult reading. (11/22/2004)

Undertow is an update of The Night of the Hunter, as influenced by the father/son/brothers dynamics of Sam Shepard.
Director David Gordon Green pretty much only adds the color to a familiar tale of a gruesomely violent chase. The cinematography is beautiful and Green has a painterly eye in his camera shot composition.
Green, through previous movies such as All the Real Girls, and most of the cast (except for the now muscled grown teen Jamie Bell of Billy Elliott) are native Southerners who usually take care not to perpetuate stereotypes of isolated, inbred hillbillies, but the script by Lingard Jervey and Joe Conway pours squirmy cliché on top of gutbucket cliché.
At least questions we have in one scene are usually answered in the next, for example as to why the kids aren't in school or if they have any income for food and clothes (when pig farming doesn't pay the bills, the dad does taxidermy), and there's some passing implications about depression to explain family dysfunction.
But even when the chase begins, the odyssey becomes Cold Mountain-like in meeting up with more and more mentally damaged, if not out and out deranged, or at least weird, collections of individuals and "families" who live outside of civilization as if they are in a post-apocalyptic heart of darkness.
Women, who are few and far between anyway, are of marginal influence in this world, for example we witness the wedding of a mail-order bride, and are ineffectual and inconsistent nurturers to the point of being traitors, amidst a confusing story line about eating disorders-- one girlfriend expresses her affection as a desire to wield a knife for blood.
The Philip Glass score is excellent at reinforcing the very creepy mood, as if the threats and visuals of stomach-churning violence weren't enough. (11/4/2004)

Vera Drake makes us realize how few of the classic kitchen sink, working class dramas of post-war Britain, whether in film or theater, were from the viewpoint of women (Georgy Girl and A Taste of Honey were among the few). Oh, girlfriends got knocked up in those works, but they were always seen as manipulative strangleholds to the freedom of the Angry Young Men; they should just take care of it.
With exquisite attention to complete period detail in body language, coloring, clothes, physical surroundings, etc. that fill the screen as much as he did theatrically in re-creating The Mikado in Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh takes us to the other side of that doorway that the older movies rarely showed us, (though in the '60's the original Alfie and the schmaltzier Hollywood Love with the Proper Stranger gave us an exaggerated view).
The film also works in tandem with Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters in showing how cruel life in Ireland and Britain could be for women with unwanted pregnancies, though evidently this film is not a docudrama.
This complete mise en scène (including contrasts with the upper crust families she works for as a domestic) very gradually gives us the matter of fact quotidian of "Drake"'s mundane life of caring for her family and the neighborhood unfortunates, including girls she "helps out." Imelda Staunton's self-effacement into the role and her character's into her environment doesn't prepare us for how she comes to completely overwhelm us. It is wonderful to see a character actress get to fill the screen for long, emotional close-ups.
Leigh created a similar working class world in All of Nothing, but that film had no trajectory, virtually nothing happened to those characters, and none of the characters were as completely sympathetic as naive "Drake" is.
The audience in the almost sold out theater I was in was completely gripped in silence and holding their breath as her life played out. Too bad the hot subject matter of abortion will probably keep her from getting an Academy Award.
Because of the vivid realism in the film, it is frustrating that there is no factual information provided, for example, as to when abortions became legally available to all women in Britain. A few facts are thrown out about enforcement and consequences, but those are anecdotal, though the class differences are portrayed vividly.
One is left with complete sadness that for all the specificity of time and place in the film, we could easily go back to a time like this when abortions are illegal and unsafe, because there will always be women who feel that is their only option, whether single, married, poor or rich. The past is prologue to the future. The sobering facts(11/2/2004)

Stage Beauty is a clever and moving combination of the period feel of Shakespeare in Love and the themes of A Double Life.
In the latter, Ronald Colman is an actor who immerses himself into his role as "Othello" and, as in Beauty, continually repeats and reinterprets the murder scene, with increasing realism. The emphasis here is on male/female gender roles on stage from just before to just after women are allowed on stage.
Playwright/screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher’s choice to use Othello as his prism is significant on many levels. All the characters agree that the productions of the play at this time in the 1660’s already included the artifice that the Moor is portrayed in blackface, though this is a serious drama of passion and not one of the lighter comedies or romances with hidden or mistaken identity. The final presentation of the key scene does have the on-screen audience terrified that the actors’ animosity has led to all pretense being abandoned.
Hatcher simplifies the gender issues by focusing on a play where the leads, "Desdemona" and "Othello," are unambiguous in their sexual poles, which makes Billy Crudup’s "Ned Kynaston" tortured self-discovery to move from one role to the other particularly fascinating.
The movie includes a brief, comic debate about the ramifications of "Rosalind" in As You Like It in a time where a male actor would be portraying a Shakespearean heroine disguised as a man, in what we now consider “trouser roles” (like "Portia" in Merchant of Venice or "Viola" in Twelfth Night).
Set in the period of the Stuart Restoration when kings are in and out of exile and a brash cockney mistress masquerades as the queen, though Nell Gwynn’s influence is doubtless exaggerated, the mise en scene is a society where all are play-acting in wigs and make-up. Ben Chaplin’s Duke of Buckingham, in a much more leonine role that his milquetoasts in The Truth About Cats and Dogs or Birthday Girl, wryly demonstrates as he cynically moves from an affair with Kynaston to a rich marriage.
Claire Danes’s contrasting naturalness is luminous as she has no doubts about her femininity, but is frustrated in getting "Kynaston" to perceive it, and not just as another artifice. While it is an asymptotic flirtation as his sexuality is left indeterminate, it is marvelous to watch Kynaston tentatively and painfully learn to explore his masculine side that was suppressed since childhood, on stage and off.
The conclusion seems a cri de coeur for audiences to accept gay actors as "Stanley Kowalski" in A Streetcar Named Desire, to get across that no matter how naturalistic the acting, it is still pretend.
Director Richard Eyre’s camera work swirls around a bit too much to animate the choice dialogue, but there are also outdoor scenes of dirt, violence and cruelty that open up the action from the play, thus showing the theater as a refuge from reality.
George Fenton’s score sounded marvelously appropriate to the period.
Crudup’s and Danes’s British accents are unfortunately a bit too bland, but convincing. (10/28/2004)

Untold Scandal (Joseon namnyeo sangyeoljisa) is the best all-around adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses.
Others have struck the right note with singular elements, but went flat on others. This has terrific, believable, very attractive casting -- from the young love-struck innocents to the older central cynics; an appropriate mise en scene of a rigid society with strict, hypocritical rules about women's behavior, here 18th century Korea; the epistolary format of the original to drive the machinations, helped by beautiful calligraphy and even writing positions; a varying tone that ranges from Shakespearean romantic comic bashing of human foibles to the diabolical thrusts that playing with people's hearts can really hurt, particularly communicated through the changing tone of the music.
This very frank version is particularly good at closely examining the full ramifications of lust vs. love, chastity vs. celibacy, experience vs. naïveté, foreplay vs. consummation, and of course, men vs. women. This is a battle of the sexes with a lot of sex.
While it is a bit slow, the lush costumes, production design and settings fill the eye.
Though the opening credits are translated into English, the closing ones aren't -- but you must stay past them as the plot concludes devilishly with closing images that demonstrate that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
I wasn't sure about the accuracy of the English subtitles in describing the familial relationships among the characters as I was a bit confused about who was an in-law of whom how. (10/23/2004)

Incantato (Il Cuore altrove) is a beautiful looking film with an odd set-up and story line.
It's set in the Northern Italy of pre-World War II as that's about the last point one could have such naive characters, particularly the central man, a 35-year-old virgin classics teacher whose idea of love is what he's learned from the Latin poets. He is a misfit everywhere - from his earthy family of Papal tailors, from beloved choruses because he sings too loudly, from his boarding housemates and their assignations, from the school administration about curriculum and especially from women.
He is under orders from his father, Giancarlo Giannini (in a virtual cameo whose comically vulgar language is not fully translated in the English subtitles), to get laid and get married, not with the same woman, so that he can follow dad's lifestyle in business, marriage and affairs. He becomes infatuated with first one then another inappropriate woman, for opposite reasons.
While he is sweet, and he wins over his students and all who he comes in contact with and his improbable courtships are charming to a point, but as we feel more and more sorry for him as we hope he won't but are sure he will end up in heart break, the movie just gets too unreservedly bittersweet.
The ending is simply a head-scratcher. The movie titles certainly don't help -- the original Italian title translates as The Found Heart while the U.S. title translates as Enchanted and neither is helpful to interpretation. (One member of the audience came to the movie not realizing it would be the same film she had already seen under the former title.)
The subtitles are not only annoyingly white on white, but put up both parts of a conversation at the same time. (10/15/2004)

Zelary fits into two new sometimes intersecting genres of World War II films that reinterpret history as inspired by true stories -- Eastern Europeans ones that claim their territory was full of anti-Nazi Resistance conspirators and protesters and Western romantic ones that exaggerate women's roles, as exemplified in the recent Charlotte Gray and Rosenstrasse.
Both genres tend to focus on the deprivations of noble gentiles rather than the genocide of the Jews. In Zelary we only hear in passing about "those who left." Gee, I wonder who had to leave.
We follow a sophisticated medical student as she flees the city and her doctor lover co-conspirator because of their clandestine courier activities. Her escape to the countryside and arranged cover marriage to a kindly lug seems to dumb down her brain through the beautifully changing seasons as her very long sojourn in a primitive village is peopled with what in the U.S. would be hillbilly, peasant stereotypes of tolerated drunkards, abusers, rapists, pedophiles and idiots such that I could not figure out why the Nazis bothered to patrol every now and then.
So not only do we get the usual Paris Hilton in the boonies incompetencies, but she forgets her education during this idyll and is taught from scratch by the local midwife. We do get some flashes of protective women's solidarity among some independent women, especially with only some of the menfolk off to war and the ones who are left ravaged by alcohol, but people's motivations are pretty inscrutable, including why all it takes is a nice bath to make her sham marriage genuine, in scenes very like Under the Sun.
Or maybe it's just her falling into the native fatalism that pervades the village and grounds down the movie as well. The drama perks up towards the conclusion in a touch of Cold Mountain as the bloody chaos of the war's ending portends worse problems with the Russians than they had with the Nazis. (10/15/2004)

The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta) works more effectively as a bio-pic than on its own as a road movie.
The scenery throughout Latin America is beautiful and the two leads are very affecting, especially Gael García Bernal as Ernesto Guevara de la Serna when "Che" is still nascent.
But it's surprising how undramatic what happens that turns a sweet, middle-class med student into a revolutionary. He was already a liberal who wanted to help leprosy patients, so what happens isn't a complete turn-around -- even when they are broke, they can wire home for more money.
Rather it sets off an internal thoughtfulness that is difficult to catch on film. Mostly just leaving his sheltered life, particularly being dropped by his wealthy girlfriend, and seeing the continent, especially his first exposure to the indigenous peoples who suffer the most in every South American country even while tourists are visiting the ruins of their ancestors, becomes the nexus of his pan-continental political ideals.
He is mostly an observer and inconsistent protester of injustice, not a victim -- it's startling that his culminating noble sojourn at the leper colony, where he can put his skills and indivisible warmth to specific good, is only for three weeks.
So there's no eye-opening Grapes of Wrath conflict, though he is always contrasted with his carefree companion, Alberto Granado. Their close camaraderie is well-captured and Ernesto has a profound impact on him, as we learn in a final biographical summary.
It is amusing that Ernesto contradicts the stereotype of the Latin male sensualist and is a terrible dancer to the lovely soundtrack.(10/15/2004)

John Sayles repeats himself in Silver City, borrowing very heavy-handedly from his much more effective takes on local politics and the environment that spawns it, from his City of Hope (urban NJ), Lone Star (Texas)--which also featured Kris Kristofferson in a not dissimilar role-- and Sunshine State (Florida), though now he's taking on Colorado.
Other actors also seem to be present for their resonance from other features, Michael Murphy from Tanner 88, Daryl Hannah almost as crazy as she was in Kill Bill, Volume 2, and Richard Dreyfuss channeling Duddy Kravitz as a campaign manager. While Chris Cooper is very effective in capturing a George W. Bush-type politician from a family dynasty, Danny Huston switches confusingly from cynical ex-journalist/investigator to naïf as he uncovers a scandal with ever-widening yet encircling entanglements of class, ethnicity, media, real estate, wildlife, etc. etc.
While the satire is scarily amusing, the final scene of this overlong film is literally overkill.
Sayles as usual carefully picks the songs on the soundtrack, here there's frequent Cowboy Junkies tracks.(9/29/2004)

Good Bye, Dragon Inn (Bu san) is something of a Taiwanese Cinema Paradiso and Last Picture Show in its love of old movie theaters and evoking the unfulfilled longings we project onto movies and their showcases.
We take refuge (and I have no idea how we were supposed to know that one of the characters we are following in is a Japanese tourist, per the IMDb plot description) during a rain storm on the last night at a huge theater, and the camera slowly leads us through every inch of the place.
The vast scale of the place is brought home to us (and it will have less impact when not seen on a big screen) as virtually every inch is navigated painfully by a lame employee, clumping (as we only hear ambient sounds) up and down all those stairs, from the red velveteen seats around every nook and cranny and down long hallways and seedy passageways.
I don't know if only a Western viewer thinks at first one character is a pedophile or another a transvestite, as the theater certainly looks like the old ones that were in Times Square, or if writer/director Ming-liang Tsai is toying with all of us, as he brings other assignation attempts closer (in what must be the longest time any men have ever spent leaning against a urinal), but they are as unreal as the movie-within-a-movie, the swordplay flick "Dragon Inn" which is just a bit more stilted and corny than the current Warriors of Heaven and Earth (Tian di ying xiong).
There is one especially lovely moment of reaction within beautiful cinematography throughout, to the flickering screen when the employee pauses in her rounds to look up at the huge image of the warrior princess and shares our view of the screen with her.
Amusingly, the only fulfilled feelings are hunger, as various characters noisily eat a wide variety of refreshments. The projectionist is as much an unseen power as Herr Drosselmeier in The Nutcracker, as we don't even see him until the theater is almost ready to close. He is as oblivious to interacting with real people as every other member of the sparse audience.
The major events in the film are when two characters even acknowledge each other's existence, let alone speak the only three lines or so of spoken dialogue in the entire film, reiterating what we've seen visually -- "No one goes to the movies anymore."
The closing nostalgic pop song is jarringly intrusive at first to this quiet film, but the lyrics are very appropriate.(9/24/2004) [Evidently I missed references to other movies: Kurasawa's 1960 Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru -The Bad Sleep Well also features a lame young women walking painfully slowly across the screen. ](updated 9/28/2004)

Bright Young Things is a mostly effective satire, with some jarring seriousness thrown in, of Masterpiece Theater Jazz Age costume dramas for its first seven-eighths.
Set in the same period as Gosford Park, its conflicts are just within the sexual and financial eccentricities of the empty-headed leisure and wannabe leisure class, where titles don't match income or outflow.
It is more of a visual evocation of Noel Coward songs and incorporates some of his numbers, as well as original sound-alike songs. The frolics have some similarities to the simultaneous Weimar Republic portrayed in Cabaret.
Stephen Campbell Moore as the protagonist is almost too good in his film debut, as his character's captivatingly serious eyes and demeanor conflict with his insouciant company, particularly Emily Mortimer as his dispassionate lover, though that justifies the stuck-on denouement, that even without having read the Evelyn Waugh book this is adapted from, Vile Bodies, I can tell didn't have this too neat and comeuppance tying-up.
The most pointed parts of the movie are its acid documentation of the birth of the tabloid gossip press, including Dan Ackroyd as a Canadian press baron with a more than passing resemblance to today's lords of Fleet Street.
James McAvoy is very good as a more upper-class betraying precursor to his scandal-seeking scion reporter in the mini-series State of Play, and manages to seem like a real person, unlike so many of the characters who are just types or plot conveniences.
The production design and costumes are delightful. (9/8/2004)

Almost Peaceful (Un monde presque paisible) uniquely focuses on a slice of time hitherto unexplored in film.
It's set in Paris in 1946 as co-workers in a tailor shop just try to have normal lives. But they are only physically recovered. They are each survivors in different ways, whether from the camps, hidden, accidentally escaped, or joined the Resistance, or, for the non-Jews, compromised with the occupiers.
All are youthful (the most likely demographic to have survived), whether during the war they were children, teens, young adults, or had started families. They are just trying to pick up their pieces, re-learning the quotidian.
But the tiniest things bring back uncontrollable memories, as powerfully as Proust's madeleine to use a French cultural comparison. Particularly noteworthy are the Jews' relationships with gentiles. Where in most movies somehow all Frenchmen were members of the Resistance, here they recognize their informers, or the apathetic stand-byers, those who had gladly taken over their apartments, etc. etc. And those who think that it doesn't matter anymore and accidentally stumble into more emotions than they bargained for.
Over the gradual unfolding of the film, each fully developed and emotionally damaged character very individually adapts to breathing more freely and assertively, and we cheer each quiet, little step in their progress.
The movie serves as a beautiful illustration of why so many survivors' stories didn't come out for another 50 years. While it is based on an autobiographical novel, a neighbor of mine who was a child in France in 1946 supported its realism.
However, I booed when the subtitler's credit came up as they were awful -- literal translations of French idioms that made little sense in English, as well as misspellings. (9/8/2004) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women)

A Home at the End of the World shows that Colin Farrell doesn't have to do intense to anchor a film.
Here his "Bobby" is a very effective Billy Budd, an affection-tropic naïf whose experiences linking love and death lead him to assuage his and other's loneliness and unhappiness. "Bobby" adaptably makes no distinction or boundaries between kinds of love -- maternal, fraternal, sexual orientation, parental -- and simply doesn't understand privacy or hurt, just knows that he doesn't want to be alone. He just never understands that others can't cross those boundaries. While it strains intellectual credulity a bit, Farrell even projects virginal, albeit still charismatically, where usually in such films the irresistibility of the central magnet is a cipher (as in Bloody Sunday). Unusual for such a sensual character is how committed and responsible he is within relationships as ever optimistically tries to create home.
The film very leisurely shows us how "Bobby"'s childhood and adolescence shaped him in the very specific '60's and '70's, and the child actor is amazingly recognizable as young Farrell, though one can't tell from the credits who is responsible for the awful wigs.
While I haven't read his novel that Michael Cunningham adapted for his screenplay, Robin Wright Penn's and Sissy Spacek's mature performances add more depth to their characters than the script explains about women's relationships through the '80's within these complex and rotating triangles, especially as mothers. Cunningham is giving the gender issues more thought than most threesome movies, and sensitively and even more frankly goes the next step beyond Y Tu Mama Tambien, as here the characters do recognize the emotional and physical consequences of their actions and feelings, even as "Bobby" still thinks he can keep creating a home.
The emotional context of a triangle over time, though one with straight lines as I recall, reminds me of Arthur Penn's Four Friends. (9/3/2004)

Maybe if I had seen the first film in director Aleksandr Sokurov's trilogy, Mother and Son, then Father and Son (Otets i syn) as Part 2 would have made some sense.
Instead, I found the beautiful imagery contradicting the limited dialogue. The camera loves the two lead actors to the extent that I simply could not figure out if paternal love was crossing over into incest or just homo-eroticism. Andrei Shchetinin is one handsome, presumably widowed father and he spends a lot of time shirtless and working out. Aleksei Nejmyshev as his 20 year old son has mesmerizing blue eyes who understandably makes his possibly current or ex girlfriend weak in the knees by his penetrating stare. And that's about all that happens.
The lead characters and their male friends spend a lot of time urgently telling each other they need to talk and then staring into space, or down at their shoes, or at each other. They do kick around a ball like such a pair would in American films, but they don't even talk about sports as a substitute for real interchange. I was sorely reminded of Andy Warhol films, let alone satires of Ingmar Bergman films, but the cinematography was warm and lovely.
I did get to see some of St. Petersburg and Lisbon, which I think is standing in for parts of St. Petersburg, while they are wandering around emoting and inarticulate. (At least all the final credits were in English.)
The intensity of the central relationship is shown very effectively as they enter each other's dreams, but the repeated parables about father's and son's roles in crucifixion sounded pithier than was demonstrated metaphorically. (7/7/2004)

Coffee and Cigarettes seems to be Jim Jarmusch riffing like Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm.
He places various celebrities from mainstream and underground music and films in different restaurant locations to sort of play versions of themselves in structured improvs with lines repeating around the theme of sharing coffee (or occasionally tea) and smokes.
Much of the humor is based on simplistic contradictions between the dialogue vs. the celebrity's public persona, such as Cate Blanchett playing herself and her ne'er do well jealous cousin, Bill Murray and Steve Buscemi moonlighting as waiters, Alfred Molina as a sycophant, Tom Waits and rappers dabbling in alternative medicine, Jack and Meg White evincing enthusiasm for Tesla the scientist, etc.
There's some funny lines and unpredictable background music, including a wonderful evocation of Mahler.
No reason not to wait to catch it on cable or video.(6/21/2004)

It is worth not waiting for Control Room to hit cable or DVD both because the issues it deals with are important right now and because even worse events could overwhelm it and make its lacunae even more frustrating.
This is a clear case of journalism being the first draft of history. What starts out as a fairly conventional, liberal documentation of what is Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite news channel, turns into a fascinating visualization of the dictum that truth is the first victim of war as the invasion of Iraq takes place while documentarian Jehane Noujaim and her crew are at the U.S. Army Command Central's media headquarters in Qatar and Al Jazeera becomes a verbal and perhaps physical target of the U.S. government.
The filmmaker over and over and over and over makes the point of how the channel is parallel to Fox News in patriotism to its pan-Arabism and in endeavoring to filter out Western biases to make events understandable to the typical Arab man in his cafe and bring the Arab viewpoint to U.S. officials. While we hear again and again how they are the only media outlet inspiring the parsing of the truth behind the U.S. propaganda and one quick claim that they've done so in the past to Arab governments (but not to Saddam?), we only get mumbled passing insights that these journalists learned their perfect English in Western schools and journalism under Western tutelage and wistfully would like their kids to be educated in the U.S.
Just because the well-meaning U.S. Army lieutenant press liaison has beautiful, big blue eyes doesn't mean he represents the banality of evil when he politely points out that the Arab press made things in the Middle East worse in 1967 by puffing up the strengths of the Arab armies vs. the reality of the Israelis which is virtually silently replayed when the Al Jazeera reporters who we've gotten quite sympathetic to by the end of the film are still stone cold shocked that there is in fact no Iraqi Republican Guard to stop the march of the Americans into downtown Baghdad (while the embedded U.S. press corps chillingly unobjectively cheers).
While there are many unique and important insights, the questions the filmmaker didn't ask and the points she didn't challenge are very frustrating. (6/14/2004))

There have been many movies, usually bittersweet comedies, about movie-making with the director as the put-upon ringmaster of eccentrics, like Truffaut's Day for Night or Living in Oblivion, or bio-pics that show the director as eccentric visionary, like Ed Wood or Matinee. But I think Baadasssss! is one of very few to show the filmmaker as a driven artist, more comparable to the intense look at a ground-breaking creator like Pollock.
Writer/director/producer Mario Van Peebles eerily reenacts how his father Melvin wrote/directed/produced the seminal Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song, one of the first indie movies that also virtually created the potent blaxploitation genre and guerrilla moviemaking; I thought I had seen it back in '71, but as soon as this film started I realized my memory was, embarrassingly, confusing it with Robert Downey Sr.'s Putney Swope, so now I do need to see the original.
The production design, including costumes and hair styles, exquisitely recreates the era, but the editing and cinematography suck us even further into Melvin's head as he incisively surveys the state of the image of blacks in movies up to that time and story boards his response.
Melvin's obsession to create and complete the film according to his vision and on his terms threatens his health and his personal and business relationships, but we are caught up in his whirlwind and root for him no matter how ruthless and prickly he becomes as the odds get ever longer and more frustrating and he refuses to compromise, taking offense at lame, well-meaning suggestions, for example, that he might get further if he would at least smile.
But he everywhere, rightly or overly sensitively, only sees racism and condescension, including when he has to part layers of irony to beg Bill Cosby for help. Recalling the spirit of Werner Herzog's documentary My Best Fiend about his tortured collaboration with Klaus Kinski to portray obsessives in Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Mario adds layers of Freudian issues as this filial tribute unflinchingly includes the father's treatment of the son on set and off in the original film and unsparingly brings to life everyone around them.
Mario effectively borrows other bio-pic techniques, such as the camera-facing interviewees in Reds, first by their portrayers, then, next to the closing credits, the real people, concluding with a loving portrait of his father.
Contrary to the original film, which boosted the careers of the fledging Earth, Wind, and Fire, the soundtrack instrumentation here is surprisingly traditional and sentimental.
The Portrait of the Artist can rarely be a Portrait of a Nice Guy and Baadasssss! beautifully and honestly shows why.(6/14/2004)

This So-Called Disaster (the on-screen credits had an additional, secondary title that I can't find documented online) is a fascinating look at the rehearsal process, particularly between actors and a director.
It would make a terrific double feature with Al Pacino's Looking for Richard because here we have the additional angle that the playwright is very much alive -- Sam Shephard-- and he actively cuts lines based on what the actors can embody without words. He trusts these actors because they include Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, and James Gammon, who has channeled Shephard's alcoholic father in other plays before finally expiating his Eugene O'Neill-like obsession in this play, The Late Henry Moss, as produced in 2000 at San Francisco’s Magic Theater.
The fly-on-the-wall camera work is supplemented by Shephard's first-time willingness to discuss the autobiographical elements of his work, with details on his family, including photographs and film, and some informal discussion by and formal interviews with the actors. (We also see him not providing the same information to a very nervous AP reporter.)
Documentarian Michael Almereyda has captured an important element in Shephard's and these particular actors work: their roaring masculinity and how they have and are continuing to struggle with the themes of the play in their art and in their lives, how to be sons, brothers, and fathers. Working on this play is forcing all these sexy, combative guys to come to grips with mortality and family, even though the play itself doesn't seem particularly effective at expiating that for the audience. For example, we get a languid yet intense Penn protesting that the heavy rehearsal schedule has to allow time out for him to take his kids trick-or-treating, as clearly this play has heightened all of their consciousness about parental responsibilities.
Though Penn clearly enjoys relating a classic line of stage direction from Shephard: "When a woman comes to your door at 2 a.m. she has just one thing in mind." I now would certainly like to see Russell Crowe take on a Shephard play.
T-Bone Burnett is also interviewed about the background music he put together for the production.(4/29/2004)

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom) is a beautiful fable, both visually and thematically.
Taking place on and near a Buddhist temple in an isolated lake (filmed in a national park), virtually all human emotions are gradually revealed through the cycle of the year and the cycle of life and redemption.
It feels so much that it could be based on an ancient Korean legend that I was startled when characters suddenly appeared in modern dress (and, okay, where does she get all those changes of clothes when she didn't come with a suitcase? And the diagnosis of her problem was a bit simplistic and sexist).
Virtually dialogue-free, the film is at its most crowded when four people are on screen, let alone if they all talk. Written, directed, and acted in by Ki-duk Kim, the film is eloquent through the crystalline simplicity of its slow minimalism.
While the credits were translated into English, I had to check the official Web site to be sure who did the lovely music (Bark Ji-woong) and cinematography (Baek Dong-hyun). (4/30/2004)

The subject matter is too serious for me to categorize United States of Leland under Ogling Teens and 20somethings, but Ryan Gosling's career is worth watching as a talented young hunk eschewing the usual teen flicks.
Much like his excellent performance in The Slaughter Rule was a seamy take on the usual high school athlete movie, this film is much more a meditation on inexplicable violence in post-Columbine American suburbia than his Leopold-and-Loeb type killer in the Hollywood Murder By Numbers.
Same kudos to Michelle Williams, who post-Dawson's Creek has been building up theater and indie movie cred, even if no way do she and Jena Malone seem like sisters.
Altogether, writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge has assembled a superb ensemble--Kevin Spacey's chillingly effective acerbic dad is a small role that plays on his own visible fame but he's also listed as a producer-- for what is basically a very American take on an Eric Rohmer-like talk fest.
But whereas in French movies the talk is intellectual socializing, here it's like therapy that gradually reveals each character's truths, hidden feelings, and past and present emotional and physical abuse and exploitation. Here, good guys (particularly Don Cheadle, in a performance that grippingly centers the film, and Chris Klein's character, who at first seems out of the TV show 7th Heaven) commit bad acts for bad motives, a contemptible character can do a right thing for despicable reasons, and others can have very mixed motives and actions, in very individual responses to a horrific act of violence.
The directing is a bit pedestrian, basically going in for close-ups in the monologues, but the power of the story and the revelations carry the movie forward despite some lags. (4/16/2004)

Broken Wings (Knafayim Shvurot) is a frank, involving portrait of a family coping with grief and stress.
Even more than such films as Ordinary People, debut writer/director Nir Bergman has a sure touch in showing us the pressures and responses of a full range of individual family members, from the depressed working mother to her children -- five year old daughter, ten year old son, and their teen brother and sister.
Within very realistic crowded and complicated living, working, school and peer friendship environments, we see each as distinct individuals with guilts, needs, issues, and talents, and as the dependent members of a family unit dealing with past and present pain and crises, including through music.
I don't know the technicalities of the film stock, but the grittiness of the cinematography contributes to the naturalism, as well as the un-Hollywood, un-pretty look of the actors.
As an Israeli film what also adds to how touching it is is its non-political, non-geographically-necessary-specific content. This is just a beautiful human story of love and responsibility.
While the opening credits are bilingual Hebrew and English, the closing credits, annoyingly, are not. (4/9/2004)

Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran is a picaresque coming-of-age story that sets up a colorful situation and doesn't do much more than observe its quaintness to finally find a conclusion.
The whole movie is just the fact that a Jewish kid is left to his own devices by his depressed father in a colorful neighborhood of early 1960's Paris and he turns to a Turkish grocer for a paternal role model.
It manages to skirt the cloying sentiment of the similarly-themed recent Chinese film Together (Han ni zai yiki), especially through the boy's exposure to prostitutes and new rock 'n' roll, in an exuberant soundtrack.
We learn almost nothing about his mother, who seems incredibly easy to fool. Let alone whoever his landlord is.
Omar Sharif makes a wonderful old sage. (4/8/2004)

Dogville is a dogmatic satire of Our Town done like Brecht's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
But where Brecht employed gangster imagery to attack capitalism and corruption as an outgrowth of the inevitable "greed is good" tendencies within cruel human nature, Lars Von Trier seems to think that it is American democratic capitalism that is intrinsically evil and violent. His fictional Rocky Mountain town is as off-kilter as his lost in translation view of American industry in Dancer in the Dark.
One indication of his European-bent view is that the central counterpoint in town to Nicole Kidman's lovely, fragile abused stranger, of course named "Grace," is a resident ineffectual, hypocritical intellectual liberal named "Tom Edison," played earnestly and thereby ironically cruel by Paul Bettany -- a Shavian, European type that is simply not present in American literature, and barely in films other than maybe nobly in To Kill A Mockingbird, let alone in real small towns, to be satirized like this. Evidently Von Trier hasn't read Sinclair Lewis, let alone Mark Twain, who were puncturing the tyranny of American town meetings a long time before he was.
While the step-by-step transformations were carefully built up to through the three hours to reveal the ugly character truths, as the bullying and exploitation piled up, I tuned out so missed some of the stilted dialogue that the excellent cast really tries to bring to life, especially James Caan, until the revengeful conclusion that was more Carrie than Pirate Jenny.
Judging by his concluding photo montage of American economic and military atrocities shown to the tune of David Bowie's "Young Americans," that was reminiscent of the ending that Spike Lee tacked on to Malcolm X just in order to make a longer movie that year than Oliver Stone, Von Trier must think that Lord of the Flies was only a criticism of English boarding schools.
Pick a decade or a century or a continent and human physical and economic debasements have taken place anywhere in the world, and have been evoked by artists throughout millennia. Von Trier only sees one Great Satan. (4/2/2004)

The Return (Vozvrashcheniye) is an odd, taut and scary, family drama mix of Picnic at Hanging Rock, for all that isn't explained, with Deliverance, for the male interaction in the wilderness motif.
It's done intriguingly from the constantly changing perspective of angry teens like a rugged guy version of Thirteen, at the conflicted age when one minute a kid can strike out with bullying bravado and the next tearfully crumple into whimpering fear.
My dad saw it like a set of Russian dolls, as we keep getting deeper into the story of their lives but never to the final one as we still don't get to the real truth, as so much is left mysterious.
I saw it as a boy's confused view of his father (and fatherhood and masculinity), symbolized by the Pulp Fiction-like locked box that could explain the adults' motivation.(3/7/2004)

Sylvia is not quite just a slow, straightforward bio-pic of poet Sylvia Plath.
While screenwriter John Brownlow has a long background in TV documentaries, director Christine Jeffs has previously made a young woman's mental disquiet dreamily visual in the superb New Zealand film Rain. She has her Rain cinematographer John Toon bathe the entire film in a nostalgia-tinged amber glow, like the extended flashbacks to the young lovers in the Australian film Innocence. I think the point is to determinedly place Plath and her husband poet Ted Hughes into their specific time at the cusp before The Feminine Mystique put a name to Plath's frustrations and contradictions as a Fulbright scholar - experimental poet turned wife and mother who ultimately turned on herself. (Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts deals with a parallel time and place in a much more Hollywood interpretation.)
As played alternatively languid and aggressive by Gwyneth Paltrow and a Byronic Daniel Craig, they are an actively sensual couple, but notably not Bohemian. They are part of an intellectual but not counter-cultural set. While they are competing for editors' accolades and print space, she's setting her hair, arranging her pearls and cleaning house, like a proper Smith graduate of the time who is perfectly at home visiting her Boston mother (played by real-life mom Blythe Danner) and amidst the books of her late bee scholar father (My friend the PhD in English tells me that the original film title of The Bee-Keeper's Daughter would have been fraught with much more significance about Plath's paternal obsession.)
Hughes celebrates his first big break by asking her to marry him and kids follow one after the other; when they need money he looks to write a children's series for the BBC. Yes, she gets more and more difficult and paranoid, but he is having affairs (and another child) as he attracts more fawning women acolytes.
An earlier suicide effort is referenced a couple of times yet her increasingly heightened mental imbalance as shown here could be post-partum depressions or a Laingian response that insanity is the only rational response to an insane, unfair world. (The film does not seem to side with her loyalist cult which Margaret Atwood satirizes in The Blind Assassin).
It is always difficult to show a writer at work, but I would have liked to hear more of her poetry than a few passing sentences, which I gather their daughter would not permit the filmmaker to do.
Gabriel Yared's music is lovely and unsentimental. ( updated 12/1/2003)

I usually put in this category movies that are more good for you than good to you, but Lost in Translation is otherwise non-categorizable, as it finds the human touch between identity crises of both middle age and young adulthood.
Sofia Coppola has sensitively written and carefully visualized a very subtle story that ranges from out and out comic to immensely touching. Who would have thought that in this day and age another big city could seem so foreign and in a McDonald's world that cultures seem so far apart, but she does this for Tokyo and Japanese culture vs. us with the lead characters.
The fish-out-of-water feel for Japan, from its most refined high culture and religion to its low life and pop silliness, becomes a wonderful visual metaphor for how we feel out of place in our own skins as we change as individuals and within personal relationships. (I doubt this film will work overseas.)
The IMDb credits don't match the ones listed in the film that her brother Roman was the Tokyo unit director, but the dreamy look is similar to Sofia's opposite suburban environment in Virgin Suicides, which he also worked on. Key music on this soundtrack is again by the band Air, here "Alone in Kyoto."
Scarlett Johansson has captured the camera for me since Manny and Lo, but she's now the same age Bacall was when she burst on the screen and the voice now matches the sultry look.
Bill Murray bravely takes on references to his past work, from the lounge singer in Saturday Night Live to a clip of some forgettable flick, as he enlivens a fading Hollywood star. (I never thought of him as particularly tall, but his towering above the Japanese is a continuing joke.)
Notably, their spouses are not portrayed as out and out buffoons or uncaring clods, but are trying to make up for communication problems in their own ways, adding to the tensions with their bumbling, well-meaning efforts to revive the relationships while the two leads become closer and closer in their ability to communicate, particularly through silences and looks.
Keanu Reeves is thanked in the credits, doubtless for permission to use his first name in reference to a satirical scene that pokes fun at "his" bimbo co-star on a press junket for a fictive action film. This touch is one of many that are unpredictable in this sweet movie about a week in the lives of two people who are probably changed forever. (9/21/2003)

The Magdalene Sisters is a stark Irish docu-drama, that recalls the Canadian The Boys of St. Vincent, a not dissimilar tale of shameful doings at a Roman Catholic institution well into the late twentieth century.
The difference is that Boys told a story of secret abuse by priests that was hidden until the adults the boys became were haunted enough to expose the horrors; in Ireland, the culture was complicit in the hiding away of girls and women who attracted male lust, such that not until the end are we told of the impact on the adults they became.
Based on a documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate, this film is like watching a Holocaust movie for its stark showing of prisoners subject to unremitting work and stifling of human spirit as it follows four very individual young women, before, during, and after. But the additional layer of horror is that the "prison guards" were pious nuns and manipulative priests and the girls' own families enthusiastically committed them to these hell holes for the rest of their lives as punishment for crimes ranging from flirting to rape to mental retardation.
When a girl's much younger brother contacts her, she screams, "Where have you been for four years?" He blusters in response: "Growing up!" When she snarls back, "That's not a good enough answer!" it serves as a metaphor of criticism for the entire country, let alone the Catholic Church. What is missing is some context. We're told that the last of these institutions, that were set up throughout the country, didn't close until 1996 -- but was there any outcry over the years? What did it take for the country, and the Church, to grow up and to shut them down? How did the country, let alone the families, face up to this horrific treatment of women? For example, Regina Kunzel's book Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890 - 1945 documents how American society over the past 150+ years viewed unwed mothers, from being victims of unbridled men to being temptresses. The Taliban's burkhas seem mild in comparison, but have the same purpose.
Actor/director Peter Mullan provides no answers -- maybe Ireland still hasn't faced up to sex-- but he meticulously recreates a sordid situation in virtual black and white. (9/6/2003)

The Montana of Northfork is located west of Wim Wenders and east of the Coen Brothers.
The Polish Brothers are saved from complete leaden pretentiousness by actors who enthusiastically manage to think there are some metaphors about the West and progress in this highly stylized tale of the last days of a town about to be inundated by a reservoir in 1955, particularly by James Woods.
The cinematography is beautiful enough as a reason not to walk out (I didn't notice any matte special effects in the credits), while the art direction ranges widely between the '30's and the '50's, with Grant Wood portraiture stuck in for exaggerated quirky characters.
The tale continues after the credits.(8/2/2003)

Respiro is an odd coming-of-age story. We are introduced to the pre-teenager Pasquale who we gradually realize is the real focal point of the story through scenes of juvenile delinquency that are almost as cruel as the youthful murderers in City of God (Cidade de Deus).
As we see him alternate between affection and nastiness, we see that he's being torn apart by all kinds of contradictions in his life. He lives on the blindingly beautiful island of Lampedusa off the northern coast of Sicily that is stunningly poor and so alienated from Italian life that he can barely communicate from his dialect with the ineffectual Italian-speaking police officer. They all scoot around on tiny motor vehicles, but are restrained by centuries-old customs, particularly in a rigidly sexist and macho culture enveloped in sensuality, including his father's deep love for his wife, and fervent religiosity. His play time is scrambling with the neighborhood kids for whatever might make him a few bucks, when he's not required to help with the family's backbreaking fishing business.
And he's both protective of and embarrassed by the atypical behavior of his luminous and sexy manic-depressive mother, Valeria Golino who returned to her Italian roots after getting fed up with her limiting Hollywood roles. Is she really as crazy as the family and neighbors think she is or is she just a free spirit? Or just a myth come to life, like the legend of the patron saint of Palermo, St. Rosalia.
Pasquale manipulates them all such that his snarling superiority leaves more of a bad taste than the beautiful photography, including underwater scenes, especially with a Madonna statue, that may or may not be fantasies. (Additional facts, thanks to Cathy Constantino) (revised 6/21/2003)

Three Marias (As Três Marias) is a lush, highly stylized, operatic story that acts as if it's telling a traditional, mythic tale of thwarted love and violent revenge with lots of Biblical references, but in modern dress and cars in rural Brazil.
Medea comes to mind as an antecedent for the matriarch who sets in motion violent feelings and their brutal aftermath. The characters are types, not individuals, each representing a strong emotion, with much less seduction than I had anticipated by her "by whatever means necessary" instruction to her three titular daughters.
I thought I either wasn't following the chronology, let alone keeping the somewhat similar characters straight, or that the projectionist had mixed up the reels, until I realized that the repetitions were supposed to be ironic as destiny takes unanticipated turns.
The subtitles are full of misspellings and typos. 5/31/2003)

Marooned in Iraq (Gomgashtei dar Aragh) has a really awful English title that they somehow thought was more marketable than whatever the Farsi or Kurdish original undoubtedly was; the print I saw was annoyingly constantly flickering and shifting; the white-on-white sub-titles were so illegible that folks in the audience who could make them out were reading them out loud to those who couldn't; and the meager sentences were inadequate to the lengthy shouting proceeding in the film.
And it was still a captivating movie.
While there's obvious ethnographic interest, like with Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) and Kandahar in seeing first-hand a culture we don't regularly see humanistically, this picaresque quest could rank with Huckleberry Finn's down the Mississippi.
Here it's the arbitrary Iran/Iraq border dividing the Kurdish community around 1991. We're given almost no background information, but we gradually glean relationships.
A continuing joke is that in a community with only cast-off modern conveniences, rumors and reputation spread faster than humans can travel, even without robbings, Saddam's bombings, kidnappings, and familial arguments that thwart them. Hence, as they trudge from desert to snowy peaks, every one knows about their musical family that seems to be the Fleetwood Mac of Kurdistan, where their intertwined friendships, lovers, loyalties, and rebellions are as well known as their talents and become a passport through the frustrating literal and figurative mine fields of politics, greed, love, and devastation, they accidentally find their hearts' desires in unlikely places. Their music is not only an identity card, but a unifying force as an uprooted people scatter from the serious and maintain the mundane, amidst a tyrant's gassings and family squabbles.
Each character is memorable and distinctive, with unique motives, personalities, failings, and strengths. It's a man's world here, but the quest is initiated and resolved at each crisis by strong-willed, practical women who are fiercely ensuring the survival of the next generation, culminating in a line straight out of Cameron Crowe's Singles: "What took you so long?"
We are left in tears urgently hoping for the best as the quest leads to a surprising turn in the road for people we now care about very much.
The only credit translated into English is writer/director/producer Bahman Ghobadi. (5/10/2003)

Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika) is a magnificent cinematic experience on many fronts.
It is a clear-eyed view of a marriage mostly from their child's viewpoint and yet the parents are full-fledged three-dimensional people with complete emotions and mixed motives.
It is a Holocaust survival story without visual horrors; instead we see the psychological impact on secular German Jews who were convinced they were comfortably embedded in the cultured land of sophisticated literature and cuisine with only a few clear-eyed Cassandras who land in Africa.
It is an unusual view of colonial British Africa from the view point of other strangers in a strange land caught unawares between racial, class, and geopolitical boundaries pre-during-and post-WWII. The African characters are also fully realized people, and even the National Geographic anthropology lessons are within the context of character explication, such that one of the most moving scenes contrasts how each culture deals with dying and death. So we care deeply about every complicated character in this very well-acted film as they literally grow and change in front of our eyes.
The cinematography is beautiful and the variegated Kenyan scenery should be seen on a big screen.
This almost stranger than fiction tale was directed and adapted by Caroline Link from an autobiographically inspired novel by Stefanie Zweig that is invariably described as "popular" and "acclaimed" yet is not yet out in English, though the author is fluent in the language; I look forward to reading it. (3/23/2003) (So, nu: commentary on the Jewish women)
The English translation of the book was finally published in the U.S. in 2004, by U of Wisconsin Press; though the author once considered herself fluent in English, the translation is by Marlies Comjean using British terms, such as lexicon for dictionary, though we get less sense of the multiplicity of languages surrounding the girl than we could hear from a film. There is also a forward that carefully explains that this is an autobiographical novel and differs from the film, and describes people's reactions to the author post-film. The book effectively gets inside each character's head, with even more a complex array of types and anti-Semitic attitudes than we could see in the film. Particularly moving was a section on responses from German and Jewish ex pats around the world when the father publishes a notice on the birth of his son in Aufbau, which really captures how desperate survivors were to find family and friends post-Holocaust. (3/26/2006)

Director David Cronenberg and star Ralph Fiennes made a big promo push for Spider as an accurate representation of schizophrenia, in contrast to what they decried as Hollywoodization in A Beautiful Mind.
Aw come on, this movie is just a spook fest using mental illness, with equal dollops of The Others as much as the vivid hallucinations in ABM, which, yeah, didn't show a lot of the decades when Nash functioned like Fiennes's character here.
There's equal numbers of false representations in this fiction, based on scriptwriter Patrick McGrath's novel, from too early onset of the disease, in a nine year old, to continuing violent tendencies, to no mention of medication.
We do effectively get into the lead character's head, even as Fiennes is in mumbling in Rain Man mode.
The cinematography is drained of color and Howard Shore's music is barely heard as there are long patches of suspenseful silence to dramatize his complete social isolation.
Miranda Richardson provides the color and variety as she is portrayed vividly in Fiennes's thoughts, in several different modes.
It's nice to see Gabriel Byrnes in a serious drama instead of the B drek he's been making lately. (3/17/2003)

City of God (Cidade de Deus) may be the most violent movie I've ever seen. And just when I thought I was inured to the shooting and the murders, such that I couldn't even keep track of them anymore or who was getting killed by whom for what reason or carelessness, it topped itself and got more violent and made me start caring again.
It's not just the socially conscious Brazilian true story line of abject poverty creating an army of desperate children with guns that makes this so captivating and meaningful beyond the endless bloodshed. Directors Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles have a relentless, in-your-face camera style that circles around somewhat similarly to Amores Perros.
The story, based on a novel based on true facts, if I could figure out the non-translated credits correctly, whips around in time to show us how each mini-gangster in the huge, differentiated ensemble of extraordinary amateur actors got to be the way he is.
The voice-over narrator, and what happens to him as a budding photo-journalist, is a bit precious and is virtually the only bordering on cliché element, but he is a convenient window into a world of children who literally cannot separate fantasy from reality, (who have no access to violent TV, movies, or video games as a scapegoat) and have no impulse control whatsoever.
The pulsating samba, funk and Brazilian R & B music helps push the pace even faster; the action mostly takes place in the '60's and '70's so there's no hip hop though it's like illustrations of gangsta rap's most extreme tendencies.
Props to the distributor for black outlining the white subtitles, as much of the visuals are a bleached-out landscape of hopelessness. (3/16/2003)

I read The Hours, which inspired me to read Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. And I was left with a completely different impression from the movie than I was from either book. Neither book was as depressing as the movie is.
The components of the movie celebrate our senses as it is spectacularly beautiful.
The editing is brilliant in demonstrating parallel lives. The cinematography is breathtaking.
The art design, costumes, and make-up (including Nicole's controversial nose) are meticulous in letting us completely understand the (stultifying) environment of objects of each of the women living in different decades.
Philip Glass's music surprised me in by helping to connect the stream of consciousness of the stories.
The acting is superb, particularly Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep and Ed Harris (Nicole's is really a supporting role), but even the minor characters played by Jeff Daniels and Claire Danes are perfect.
I was thus aghast that the film celebrates death as a choice over life. Depression is not shown as an illness, except in the most patronizing way, in the way that "kleptomania" used to be treated with a hysterectomy. I think any one who has suffered with a depressed relative or friend will be horrified by such a theme enveloped in such beauty and portrayed as a liberating choice.
It is confusing to follow --several people walked out during the showing-- and no one else in the audience gasped with me when a key plot point connection was revealed.
No Bloomsbury society context is provided for Woolf's life. In general women who chose life (and nurturing family) are denigrated.(2/17/2003)

The Grouch demurred going to see The Pianist as he "didn't want to see another Holocaust movie."
Besides that every survivor's story is unique, besides the beautiful cinematography where color looks like browning black-and-white photos, and the tremendous performance and physical transformations by Queens home boy Adrien Brody (and it's nice to finally see a real Jewish nose on a Holocaust movie star), Roman Polanski does have a different perspective to give.
This is the first time I can recall a specifically Polish Jewish viewpoint, even though other films have also dealt with the Warsaw Ghetto's creation, uprising, and city-wide destruction. While Wladyslaw Szpilman's personal story is no way identical to Polanski's similarly accidental personal survival of the Holocaust, the film is suffused with what are clearly Polanski's vivid memories, particularly of pre-war Warsaw, the round-ups, and then the post-war devastation.
The Szpilman family's urbane integration into secular Polish society is made clear at the outset; Wladyslaw is flirting with a non-Jewish colleague and the Nazi restrictions mostly interfere with his dating routine at first. Strong family ties, even among adult children, are beautifully portrayed.
But what is most startling throughout is the sympathetic view of Poles, unlike any similar movie. We hear frequently from Poles who are saddened by the restrictions, only see one glimpse of a Polish anti-Semite, and we frequently see Polish resistance fighters and their sympathizers, though they come out of the woodwork mostly due to Szpilman's fame.
The infamous, compromised Jewish policemen in the Ghetto are given harsher treatment by the filmmaker.
My ignorance of classical music made me miss a key point in one scene as I didn't know what piece he was playing and wanted to know if he was playing a Polish or German composer, though I inferred from the closing credits that it was probably German (though in a TV interview Brody explained it was Chopin). But that was evidently a fictive scene.
As I saw the film in Kew Gardens, Queens, settlement of many survivors, an elderly man on the line said, in a strong accent, when he was 15 in Warsaw after the war he'd met Szpilman, who recounted his story to him, and that the German who saved him did so for him as a human being, not a pianist. Would that have been more moving?(2/2/2003, updated 3/30/2003)

Can there ever be too many filmed versions of Nicholas Nickleby?
Certainly the video of the nine-hour theatrical marathon would probably be definitive, along with the about half as long mini-series. But people keep re-doing Shakespeare and Dickens is similarly such a fine storyteller that I can see how it's irresistible to reinterpret it once again.
The current version, at about 2 1/2 hours, is like the Cliff notes with a cast that's simply marvelous.
The characters are such a lot of fun, and one can certainly see inspirations for Rowling's Harry Potter books. The comedy works the best, particularly Nathan Lane, with the evil-doers appropriately dastardly, particularly Juliet Stevenson and some dirty-minded old men, though the romantic and fatal melodramas are a bit weak.
Rachel Portman's music is surprisingly restrained. (1/14/2003)

Rabbit-Proof Fence is a deceptively simple, moving tribute to plucky girls challenging cultural genocide.

Director Philip Noyce tells a horrific story mostly in the extraordinary faces of three "half-caste" Aborigine children set against the daunting landscape of Australia's Outback.
As their nemesis "Mr. Devil," played with logically-scary restraint by Kenneth Branagh, finally admires "Just because they use Neolithic tools doesn't mean they have Neolithic minds." While Branagh is in effect playing a monster, he's shown in the context of the country's endemic racism for most of the twentieth century, which also compromised other natives.
And not all whites are bad, as occasionally those doing a waltzing matilda help the girls, and some of the cops clearly find their capturing mission distasteful (though partly it's their stupidity at dismissing "women's business.")
The audience held their breath time and time again in suspense for the girls' fate and many cried at the true-story revelations coda. Many only came in because The Pianist was sold-out and I think it should appeal to the same audience.
Even with a defective and scratched print, the cinematography was beautiful, and Peter Gabriel's music was both propulsive and haunting. (1/6/2003)

Russian Ark is an extraordinary docu-drama approach to bringing architectural history alive. It brings the "living history" approach of "Colonial Williamsburg" etc. to cinema.
Dafka, it would have been enough that the director got extensive access to the Hermitage Museum in Petersburg to show it to us.
Dafka, it would have been enough to have authentic costumes, choreography, and make-up for several centuries of Russian history. (I was reminded that the Grouch's grandmother was a young seamstress for rich folks like these, making this extravagant lifestyle possible.)
Dafka, it would have been enough to have literally a cast of thousands because how else can one really know how those fantastic ballrooms and grand staircases were meant to be used and seen without a full orchestra and gowned and uniformed participants as far as the camera can see?
Dafka, it would have been enough to come up with a cute gimmick of a time-traveling two-some to glide us through the rooms of the Hermitage to show the tsars, aristocrats, curators, and ordinary Russian tourists who have passed through over the years, with humorous commentary on Russia's changing relationship with Europe over these centuries as shown through the art and architecture of the building while wars and revolutions loomed outside.
But then, dafka, it would have been enough that it's all done in a single take over just an hour and a half with luscious cinematography.
There was a slow line to get in the theater so I missed the opening historical background, and I've learned most of my Russian (let alone European) history from novels and movies so I did get a bit lost here and there wandering the corridors of history, but the unseen narrator posits that this is all a dreamscape anyway.
I made a point of seeing this in Manhattan because a fellow cinephile who I frequently bump into at my local art house had directly called the distributor asking when it would be playing elsewhere and was told they can't afford to make more prints available so one can only see it there -- but luckily her source was wrong so make a point to see it on a movie screen and not just wait for when the History Channel shows a reduced version. (12/28/2002)

I went to see Talk to Her (Hable con ella) twice and I'm still not sure what Pedro Almodóvar is up to.
I think he's pulling off a magic realism, surrealistic social satire disguised as a straight-forward narrative such that I heard three different versions from audience members in the lobby of what they thought who did what to whom.
The images are powerful but are very confusing, including swimming and special effects interludes.
It's something about male/female communication (including through music and dance) and something about the power of desire to manipulate people.
It's something about two self-deluded men, one a sweet nurse, one a cynical, snake-killing journalist, who totally mis-perceive their relationships with women, one a sweet dancer and the other a flamboyant snake-fearing bullfighter.
It's something about parent/child relationships as each character is either living up to or rebelling against his/her own parents or his/her objects-of desire's parents.
And everybody's talking and nobody's listening.(12/25/2002)

The Crime of Father Amaro (El Crimen del padre Amaro) is half-way between The Thorn Birds and the current scandals sweeping the Catholic Church in the U.S.
It examines the slippery slope of morality among priests in Mexico as each makes decisions based on perceptions of personal ambition and community needs, including inflated notions of where that intersects. Into a rural nest of accomodationist parish priests, who have made deals with drug dealers, guerrillas and local politician (who rues that the "black politics" of the cassock-wearers is the worst), comes straight from the seminary young, hunky Gael García Bernal (of Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien) with instructions from his very political bishop to read them the riot act. The young padre sees only the sins and not the community benefits, and gets attracted to the dark side, giving in to his selfish lust.
The sex is pretty plain vanilla heterosexual (the elders keep calling her a child, but she was of marriageable age with her boyfriend, so I guess they're using that as a synonym for virgin), compared to the current scandals. What makes it different from the usual soap operas is showing how the sensuality of the church's rituals heightens the sinners' attraction, as he wraps her in the robes of the Virgin and recites "The Song of Songs" for seduction, while she (a "wafer-eater" as her ex-boyfriend's father mocks her) is specifically in love with him as a priest. When he consults about abortion morality with the liberationist theologian to whom he has brought excommunication orders, he gets a blank look and a practical response: "That's not an issue in this parish. Is it in yours?"
But these serious issues are overwhelmed by the soap opera (the movie is based on an 1875 novel), and we mostly see "Amaro"s passions and desperate, self-serving actions, like praying for a miracle to save his career, not his character changes.(12/16/2002)

Ararat is a multi-faceted look at the intersection of family and tribal memory, and an individual's responsibility to carry on a heritage of hate. We've seen films exploring this in terms of Jews and the Holocaust, a bit for Native Americans and Manifest Destiny, and even Faulknerian Southerners and the Civil War for whom the past is never dead. But this is the first that looks at Armenians' relationship to the genocide of the early 20th century in Turkey.
Obviously a heart-felt labor of love by writer/director Atom Egoyan, he features not only his wife Arsinée Khanjian, as he does in most of his films, but also other actors of Armenian descent for whom these themes obviously resonate, including Eric Bogosian and Charles Aznavour, as the obsessed writer and director, respectively, of the titular film-within-a-film that is filled with stock good-and-evil stereotypes.
While I learned a heck of a lot about Arshile Gorky's Armenian-memory paintings, that parallel-story line made one realize how much the women in his portraits look like Cher Sarkisian.
Though the historical epic film-within-the-film unfortunately dominates the visuals, it is the complex, intersecting ensemble that makes the movie more interesting.
The emotional center is the intimate story of raffish young David Alpay as Raffi (in an attention-getting debut) coming to terms with his intellectual mother, politically-engaged martyred father, sexy/crazy French-Canadian step-sister, and so on by sorting out when family ends and history begins.
The non-Armenian characters (such as a very effective Elias Koteas as a gay actor of Turkish descent who gets the movie role of the macho Turk general) all get caught up in different ways in the forces of revenge and retribution and interpret it through their own ethnic heritage and parent/child relationships, making us see how much memory is about psychology as much as it is about facts.
A witness can be remembered only by the people who listen and pass on the passion.
The traditionally flavored music is subdued and is a missed opportunity as a key to unlocking the past. (12/4/2002)

Bloody Sunday is a very startling, cinema-verite recreation of a very specific date (January 30, 1972), in a very specific place (Derry, Northern Ireland) of an event that for the Irish became "our Sharpeville."
But for an American audience with no benefit of subtitles for the brogues and working class Brit accents, no explanations outside of eventual context for lingo and slang (it took me awhile to keep track of "provos" vs. "paras"), the quasi-documentary, in-your-face approach takes on a tragic universality.
What it became for me was a part of a Cassandra trilogy with Black Hawk Down and No Man's Land about why military should not be in charge in urban strife, whether as "peacekeepers" or in civil wars or regime changes, no matter how heinous the regime to be changed. A lesson for the Baghdad invasion planners? Cities are complicated social ecologies, and the film shows a great diversity of attitudes and pressures on all sides, managing to be both clinical in meticulous detail and visceral in shocking impact. The film is probably not objective about the British (I don't think it's a coincidence that the imperious Brit "observer" who takes repugnant charge is played by Tim Pigott-Smith who was a similar colonialist in The Jewel in the Crown.)
A central universal image becomes the awesome power of rock-throwing, unemployed teen-age boys to spark war. The liberals in the middle, clinging to dreams of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and fair community relations, are morally destroyed over the course of a few hours and the extremists with guns on both sides feed on each other in perpetual destruction like the ouroboros image of the snake eating itself.
I kept feeling I missed the exact flash point in a wandering attention moment and wanted to immediately re-watch it to see if I could track the gotcha! moment when escalation could have been prevented, so I look forward to this being available on video tape. But this does clearly show that it was attitudes that created the violent outcome and consequent government non-investigation, as we see in so many police situations. Once soldiers enter a city it is a police situation with all those complexities.
I know James Nesbitt primarily from frothy Irish comedies, like BallyKissAngel, so his staggering portrayal of the M.P. in the middle is a revelation, as he goes from planning a civil rights march to pleading with his girlfriend to physical heroism to a break-down in shock.
The version of the titular U2 song played out at the end, running well past the credits finish, is a moving, live, passionate audience sing-along where Bono shouts out other locales that have experienced similar situations to emphasize the universality.(11/30/2002)

The Grouch wanted to see Bowling for Columbine and I don't want to ever discourage him from going to the movies, so I went along.
We've been Michael Moore fans since Roger and Me, and particularly of his TV show. He's gotten shaggier schlumpier, and chunkier, but the documentary was more patient and less facile than his usual gonzo journalism.
I was impressed by his organizing theme that connected the issue of guns, Columbine and foreign policy with his home town of Flint, Michigan.
The video research comes up with some finds, while his sympathetic interview demeanor relaxes nuts who sound reasonable at first into revealing their true biases -- including Charlton Heston.
I wasn't 100% convinced by his argument that TV news and reality programming are driving the violence boom in this country as I don't buy into "blame the media" whether fiction or non-fiction.
The long documentary effectively ranges from comic to tragic, but you won't miss anything to wait to see it on video or cable.(11/23/2002)

All or Nothing may be the most depressing movie of the year.
In this view of Britain, we have downtrodden, hopeless working class blokes with zero striving, zero potential -- all they have is each other.
But heck they DO have national health services and most of them are employed! None of them is even hooked on drugs, just a couple drinks a bit. And they're not even racists, not resenting the West Indians and other people of color who are their bosses (it did seem unrealistic in the public hospital that the doctor wasn't Asian).
The only thing an itsy bit new in this replay of the Golden Age of British Working Class movies, sometimes called kitchen sink realism, that the late Richard Harris helped bring so much to life, as well as Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, etc. is that these folks have none of the passion of those indelible characters, but maybe Leigh is saying they were too theatrical.
My family all felt the acting was terrific -- that it must have taken weeks of rehearsal to be so expressionless.
If Mike Leigh thought he was making an indictment of post-Thatcherism Britain, though, he should try living in Bush USA. (11/9/2002)

Secret Ballot (Raye makhfi) should be required viewing in every class in the country that deals with civics, government, and social studies (it wouldn't hurt the kids to read the subtitles). And it wouldn't hurt for policy makers who mouth off about allies while ignoring lack of democracy to see this too.
The story is simple -- an idealistic government agent is sent to get as many votes as possible by 5 pm on a desert island (I didn't even know Iran has such islands, let alone that they are populated.) The agent is accompanied by a resentful, cynical soldier.
On this unique road trip of a scavenger hunt they each are changed in subtle ways by each other and the wide variety of characters they meet up with who deal with their first exposure to them, to voting and to a secret ballot in a variety of complex ways that are beyond American experiences.
The movie vividly demonstrates the physical, logistical, psychological, political and social challenges of bringing some semblance of democracy to other cultures, let alone to the Mideast. While the amateur actors keep this from having an emotional Hollywood satisfaction so it feels more like a docudrama/comedy, their reality (including the obvious censorship restrictions) brings it all home anyway. I'm trying to get The Scion the Government major to go, but he has been looking online for background on who is on our local ballot, an option not open to the voters in this movie.(9/2/2002)

Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) is a perfect movie for a hot, summer day -- ice, snow, freezing water and cold wisps of breath as far as the horizon and beyond.
But beyond the Nanook of the North-type, docudrama fascination with seeing how to really build an igloo, this first Inuit production is a gripping epic.
Like the movie Kandahar, the honest verisimilitude of a world we would never see on our own by native filmmakers and actors adds immeasurably to the experience.
I was confused by the prologue with its flash backs and flash forwards and it took me a bit to sort the characters out. But once I did I felt like I was watching a primal universal story unfold, with the same very humanness of Genesis and Greek and Roman myths -- sexual attraction, seductive vs. loyal women (ah, all through time and space men think with the same part of their anatomy!), sibling rivalry, jealousy, elder wisdom, natural leadership, playful children, the search for food and supporting a family, and --as always -- seeking an explanation for man's violent tendencies.
Here's it's all compounded by the exigencies of living in a very difficult environment where enemies perforce have to cooperate to survive, and privacy and independence can be death. I absolutely got completely swept up in the story; if the audience wasn't a bunch of senior citizens they probably would have joined in my involuntary oohs and aahs at the dastardly acts of villains, the struggles and revenge by the hero (particularly his amazing naked escape over a glacier), the beautiful smiles of the women, and the victory of true love -- and reaction to the solution unique to their culture. These are not stereotypes but towering mythic figures given life and cold breath.
Over the credits, we see how they shot this film in excruciatingly difficult situations for both actors and film crew. The cinematography is particularly outstanding as our eyes adjust to the differences in micro-climates (and it is sometimes summer - time for caribou hunting).
The music, however, is disappointing -- rather than native sounds we hear a mélange of world music from Shanachie CDs, including throat singing from the other side of the world -- what's with that? (7/7/2002)

The Importance of Being Earnest is simply chah-ming, if a tad slow.
Having not yet read or seen the original play or previous movie versions, I don't know how much has been removed or changed, and I enjoyed the opening up and added bits of business, such as Reese Witherspoon's character's Walter Scott novelistic fantasies, which makes her not just an insipid ingénue.
Best is that we now have a new comic buddy team of Rupert Everett and Colin Firth, if Merchant/Ivory start making comic male bonding movies. I can't figure out what movie they did previously together, but they sure play off each other like old chums in some improv moments that could have enjoyably gone on longer.
I usually adore Judi Dench, but I think she did Lady Bracknell a bit too much like QEI, trying to bend the plot to her will to actually try to make it believable.
Frances O'Connor was an absolute delight, creating the most flesh and blood character.
The bon mots have to be listened for quite carefully but the verbal repartee jokes are worthwhile.(6/5/2002)

The Mystic Masseur is clearly a labor of love by director/producer Ismail Merchant that he feels close to as a member of the Indian diaspora.
Adapting a V.S. Naipaul novel I haven't read that deals with his roots as an Indian in Trinidad, the movie works charmingly best when it stays within that Indian community, and is less effective as a criticism of colonialism when the striving "Pundit" at the center clashes pitifully with the Brits. The cause may be the basic hopelessness of his quest: to absorb all the book-learning of British culture and live a life based on his philosophical learnings.
The first part has an enjoyable Milagro Beanfield War feel, with less magic realism, but just becomes sad and peters out as "Pundit" bequeaths his quest to Naipaul's generation, which clearly prefers staying at Oxford with British women than coming home to take on British hypocrisy directly.(6/4/2002)

As a fan of Eric Rohmer's studies of the contemporary war between the sexes, I was very eager to see The Lady and The Duke (L'Anglaise et le duc) for how he would treat men and women during a real war, the French Revolution.
The film looks beautiful, with each scene designed as a period painting, like a tableaux vivant. And I expected much talking, as that's Rohmer's style. But maybe Rohmer was restrained by basing the screenplay on a real woman's writings is why this mostly felt like a docudrama version of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
As awful as the excesses of Robespierre et al, how about some recognition that the French aristocrats were spoiled brats? I kept humming to myself: "Marat, we're poor/and the poor stay poor;" you could also pick a tune from Les Miz.
I wasn't all that sympathetic as the central figure has to go back and forth between her city home and country manor to stay ahead of the Revolution. At one point her maid claims the pantry is bare but sure manages to lay out a fine repast. I simply didn't understand her, an English sympathizer who alternately rejects and defends her former lover and patron as he and the Revolution keep shifting political focus; I think I was supposed to sympathize with her consistency more than their political machinations, like a character out of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Hey, the only reason she didn't go back home was her disgrace after an affair and child with the Prince of Wales or somebody.
Usually in a revolutionary period there's some groundswell of change going on in relations between men and women, but I saw none here. I once went to a Herbert Marcuse lecture that concluded with a lengthy Q & A; the last question, from an audience member far older than the rest of us acolytes, heck she had gray hair, was "Why are revolutionaries so grim?" She was hooted at and Marcuse didn't deign to respond to it seriously -- but it's the only thing of substance I remember from the whole evening. Rohmer demonstrates that counter-revolutionaries are also grim and didactic.(5/24/2002, revised 8/11/2002)

Baran is like a prequel to the opening of Kandahar, showing why the Afghan refugees return home, as it's sure not clear where is the frying pan and where is the fire.
It gives a heartbreakingly beautiful contemporary view of a story as old as time, as some song from some Disney or other movie would put it. I'm sure there's several Celtic legend songs with a similar story line of the young man who gets in way over his head in a relationship from afar within highly circumscribed familial and authority strictures. Original here is that his heart's desire is one smart cookie who is coping as best as can be within an intolerable social situation, and his efforts have Gift of the Magi consequences.
There is not a single cliché, and the probably amateur actors are used to effective visual effect with very little dialogue.(5/19/2002)

Triumph of Love is proof that not every Comédie-Française author who uses cross-dressing disguised courtship like Shakespeare is worth seeing.
Or maybe something was lost in the translation of this adaptation of Marivaux, a Commedia Dell Arte-inspired playwright of whom Britannica says: "His nuanced feeling and clever wordplay became known as marivaudage."
While Mira Sorvino has fun dangling three mixed-up romances, her pants role wasn't even up to Cherubino in Marriage of Figaro.
The herky-jerky editing is annoying and just seems to indicate that a lot of takes were needed for each long speech.
Best was Fiona Shaw as the fooled spinster, as well as the costumes.
The glimpses of audience we see and the closing curtain call to wink that this is all artifice doesn't really help.(5/29/2002)

Les Destinees sentimentales feels like it's bringing to life selected scenes from some beloved French family saga that it helps to have read, which is hard for non-Francophones as the 1936 novel by Jacques Chardonne isn't available in English.
The look is delicate and beautiful (and it soothed my headache) with gorgeous costumes, settings and Impressionistic cinematography as it traces the intertwining lives, families, and businesses of wine growers and porcelain makers in Limoges in the first half of the 20th century. But as a family saga, I just kept thinking over and over how much better is The Godfather or even Sunshine.
The three sections, each about an hour long, are divided to indicate the changing interests of the central character -- to wife #1, then wife #2, then to running the family business (yes he almost says: "They keep bringing me back in!").
But whether it's the writing (as adapted by director Olivier Assayas) or the acting of Charles Berling, he just isn't commanding of our attention. As one gossipy cousin complains towards the end, first he was with one wife, then for no particular reason the second, then somehow he was obsessively running the family factory -- so what does he want? And her mind didn't even wander past the subtitles a few times like mine did, missing some plot points here and there.(4/20/2002)

No Man's Land may be the first great post-Cold War anti-war film, where the root of war is shown as out and out irrational hatred, leaving civilized folks plotzing in the middle.
The first fiction film by a theater director- turned soldier- turned documentarian, the complicated Yugoslav situation feels completely authentic. The multi-national cast of craggy characters is mostly full-blooded individuals, with their varying languages and communication attempts an ongoing joke ("You speak English of course?" the Frenchman continually asks sadly.)
This movie grimly brings to life the joke about how an EU conference can be good or bad -- good, if the food is catered by the French, organized by the Germans, etc. etc. or bad if the Brits do the food, the Italians organize it, etc. etc. There are strays into stereotypes -- the ineffectual public school British general representing the UN trailed by his leggy assistant and the Brit woman news reporter is a replay of Nora Dunn's role in Three Kings (though I liked her subtle flirting with the just-trying-to-do-the-right-thing French officer). The Serbian is the not the usual war criminal thug, which would have been easier, and the Serbians' aggressive role in the conflict is barely implied rather than blamed.
Amazingly, the movie is both very funny (like M.A.S.H) and very tense with no easy ending or answers as no one wins. War is hell, even against bad guys. And for individual soldier pawns, futile. As I heard Norman Thomas say at the first anti-war rally I went to in 1965: "These pawns bleed." This also reminded me of one of my favorite Star Trek: The Original Series episodes, with Frank Gorshin. Ah, plus c'est change. . . Sadly, the theater was virtually empty over two showings.(1/13/2002)

Kandahar (Safar e Ghandehar) is the Apocalypse Now of the Afghan Wars-- an artist's vision that is strikingly visual, combined with enough facts to confuse us between reality and fiction, though Kandahar strays even more into pseudo-documentary territory into the literal Heart of Darkness.
Far less didactic than another recent Iranian film that grimly looked at women's lives under fanatic Islam, The Circle, Kandahar was inspired by a Canadian-Afghani journalist's real quest and somewhat improvised around the people she and the director met on the Afghan-Iranian border while shooting the film, and utilized as amateur actors (including one now identified as a Khomeini-directed assassin), described in an interview with the British Guardian.
The images are simply stunning and unforgettable (such that the noisy popcorn eaters stopped crunching bags mid-handful)-- prosthetic limbs parachuted into desert Red Cross stations chased by amputees on crutches, posed family portraits with the plural wives covered in burkhas, a mullah martinet leading a crowded class of a madrassas in rote memorization of both the Koran and the use of weapons, and women covered in multi-colored burkhas sweeping over the desert to a frightening check-point.
But all are shown as complex, surprising characters -- the amputees are victims of land mines set up by many different sources over the decades or maybe, in a region filled with crafty con men and survival thieves, are victims of rough justice; the mullah is feeding the starving boys; and the husband defends the use of the burkha as a traditional point of honor.
Of course even little touches mean more now -- we understand the look of fearful unease as one man mutters that he can't go to Kandahar because he's been in the prison there. It's not just the women who lead lives of quiet desperation in war-torn Afghanistan.
There's no conventional ending, only our imaginations, but then who knows wither Afghanistan? Maybe we need to have daily "Portraits in Grief" for Afghanis as well.(12/31/2001)

Waking Life is like an animated My Dinner with Andre so that the talking heads are certainly more interesting to look at.
The mostly rotoscope-like technique makes for more intriguing characterizations than most animation, with interesting use of character actors and intellectuals with quirky faces and attention-commanding voices, no matter what sense/nonsense they're talking about dreaming/waking/consciousness/life/death.
The cameos of such as Ethan Hawke (who is just as sexy animated as filmed) and Stephen Soderbergh and Adam Goldberg are fun to pick out.
As the scenes were taped in "real life" first, the sounds are also more realistic than animation usually utilizes, from footsteps, to breathing and location atmospherics like traffic.(11/10/2001)

I don't think you'll hear Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" quite the same after seeing the previews or the full film of L.I.E. as it's used as the theme song of a complex portrait of a suburban pedophile and the kid he targets.

Forget the violent maniacs who lead to "Megan's Law" or the Polly Klass murder. Here's the good ole predator next door, ex-Marine, thoughtful son, and insidious friend to cop and kid alike. The opening of the movie is like Kids, made vivid because the excellent young actors are age-appropriate, a frank portrayal of young teen boys experimenting with sexual discovery and confusion, hormones and way too much parental neglect.
While this is the most sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile since Michael Dorris' Yellow Raft on Blue Water, L.I.E. also carefully shows how the young victims are needy and clear-eyed manipulative at the same time, as they seek out affection, attention, and guidance --and only sometimes money--that they badly need wherever they can get it.
The disturbing subject matter earned the film an NC-17, though it's all talk and very fraught visual implications, though like the similarly rated Requiem for a Dream it's more cautionary than inflammatory.
The movie attracted one of the more crowded, mixed matinee audiences I've seen in the art theater in Queens, older and middle-aged, gay and straight. (9/9/2001)

American Rhapsody is an exceptionally well-written, acted, and directed Lifetime TV/Hallmark Hall of Fame-like movie.
Based on the life of the debut writer/director Eva Gardos, the movie adds the immigrant refugee perspective to the teen-age rebellion genre. While I can't know if the black-and-white scenes in 1950's Hungary are portrayed accurately, the Kodachrome sights and sounds of growing up in '50's and '60's suburbia are among the most acutely portrayed I've ever seen in the movies. While my parents weren't the ones with foreign accents--it was my grandmother-- boy do I remember that making me different from the white bread around me.
Scarlett Johannsson turns in another stellar performance, as in Ghost World. This is Natassja Kinski's best role in years, and Tony Goldwyn does fine in the sympathetic paternal role that Aidan Quinn usually does. Even the kid who is "Grace" in TV's State of Grace is apt.
All this quality helps to overcome the sentiment and nostalgia, and the creator does avoid the didacticism of most heart-warming TV movies on the same subject of reconciliation.
A fine PG-13 family movie, though I would have liked to see more of what Gardos said in an interview that in her real life rebellion "I did worse."(8/11/2001)

The Man Who Cried is another rip-off of the Holocaust. This time by a high-tone writer/director, Sally Potter, with a classy cast of Christina Ricci, John Turturro (even more annoying than in O Brother Where Art Thou?, Cate Blanchett (wincingly miscast as a Russian femme fatale), and Johnny Depp (yet again as a horse-riding Gypsy; I guess he'll take any role that keeps him in France with his girlfriend and baby daughter.)
As a phony bio pic, it verges on offensive with its stereotypes from the shtetl to the literally Hollywood ending.
Potter's visual talent was demonstrated in a couple of mise en scenes where she got to show off her fabulist side, as in a foggy horse ride through Paris.
I wasn't even sure who the titular character was.
Otherwise the only thing I liked about the movie was that in a Jewish neighborhood where usually any Holocaust or Jewish-themed movie gets a good run there were only a couple of people in the theater. (6/23/2001)

Bread and Roses was less agit-prop than I expected, though I just tuned out on the more didactic speeches (so maybe I missed how the Pyrrhic labor victory was actually negotiated).
More docudrama in feel, per director Ken Loach's improv style, than Norma Rae, the movie is made poignant by the two counter-pointing women leads. As sisters both trying to improve their lot in life, from brutal immigration to the search for respectability and a modicum of comfort through hard work, the actress's chemical reaction of their relationship keeps the movie real. The romantic side-story is thankfully just a blip, as it doesn't work that well.
While I got a kick out of the cameo appearances of Hollywood SAG-member actors at their lawyers' party while the lawyers are accused of owning the buildings that employ the chintzy janitors' contractors, a little more on that legal side would have made the contractors' less stereotypically evil. I was reminded of a conversation I had with my grandfather, who lived to be over 100, when he overheard some trial being called "The Trial of the Century" -- he launched on in detail about how the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had gotten off thanks to the silver tongues of their lawyers, whose names were etched in his memory.
The laudatory gimmick of providing bi-lingual sub-titles as the characters slip between English and Spanish is lost when (once again!) the subtitles are white on white -- what, does yellow cost that much more? Maybe movie patrons need to organize!(6/3/2001)

Not having read Nabokov, and knowing nothing about chess, I could only view The Luzhin Defense as a movie.
It works really well as one of my favorite genres "sports romances." The chess comes alive as a tough competition much more than in, say Searching for Bobby Fischer, in showing just how much hard mental work the game can be, requiring thought, preparation, stamina and planning. I particularly liked the special effects on the chess board as alternative plays are anticipated.
Through the feminist director Maureen Gorris (of Antonia), Emily Watson with her big blue eyes gradually strengthens via her transformative relationship with John Turturro's fairly one-note absent-minded intense chess genius.
The settings in Italy and Hungary are beautiful.(5/27/2001)

The Golden Bowl felt more like recent Edith Wharton adaptations like Age of Innocence and House of Mirth than its Henry James provenance, because the focus is more on the social criticism of a society that forces the impecunious upper class into marriage with penurious upstarts than the individual faults of people this hypocritical society produces.
But maybe my mind wandered as this was a bit over-long as I seemed to have missed some crucial epiphany when characters changed their relationships where they find true love a manipulable characteristic -- with the audience responding with sharp intakes of breath.
I was surprised how good Uma Thurman was in a costume drama as I had thought of her only as a modernist, while I thought Nick Nolte far too subdued to be a robber baron.
The costumes and settings were gorgeous.
The audience was typical Merchant/Ivory fans -- the woman on my right chastised me during the opening credits for eating my popcorn too loudly, while the guy on my left was snoring almost as soon as the movie started.(5/13/2001)

I've been waiting for months to see The Claim since I first saw the previews with a hunky bearded Wes Bentley looking longingly at one of my favorite Canadian actresses, Anne of Green Gables herself, Sarah Polley. So I finally had to shell out $9.75 to the Union Square un-air-conditioned theater with a guy kicking my seat throughout the whole movie. It's been decades since I read Mayor of Casterbridge or years since I saw a Masterpiece Theater version so I can't remember how closely this is inspired by Thomas Hardy (the women certainly seem pluckier) but it's far more McCabe and Mrs. Miller than Yorkshire.
The snowy Canadian and Colorado Rockies landscape is breathtaking (and refreshing in this heat wave) and the Michael Nyman score rises to the peaks.
The mélange of French, Polish, Irish, Scotch etc. accents are suitable for the uncivilized West of lonely gold miners, pioneers, fortune-hunters and adventurers on the cusp of the railroad changing the country forever.
The Ozymandias references are a bit thick; perhaps Brit Michael Winterbottom doesn't realize that we're all familiar with the Western movie convention of the town controlled by one king (usually played recently by Gene Hackman), though unusually here Peter Mullan is not evil but sympathetically complex (strong and vulnerable, sexy and paternal), as he comes to grips with his past, while the rest of the town is coming to grips with its future.
Bentley too is no stiff hero, but a regular guy on a mission of progress thrown into a series of temporary situations that become permanent.
It's unusual that a costume drama set in the 1900's can seem so naturalistic.(5/5/2001)

The Widow of St. Pierre (Veuve de Saint-Pierre) is a very unconventional relationship triangle, with resonances of Dead Man Walking.
Juiliette Binoche is much more interesting and complex here than she is in Chocolat as a Lady Bountiful who is pushing redemption with more than a tinge of sensuality.
Daniel Auteil who usually plays hapless contemporary men at first looks as out of place in a period costume drama as Harvey Keitel does, but he brings the intellectual and moral sensibility of the 20th century to a true story from an earlier one.
Love and devotion--to a spouse and to duty-- are quietly played out against sophisticated political gamesmanship of a small town.
The cinematography in Atlantic Canada is beautiful; the pregnant pause close-ups are as claustrophobic as living on the island outpost. It was partly filmed at one of my all-time favorite historic recreations (and I've visited them all), Louisbourg in Cape Breton, Newfoundland. (3/18/2001)

This may not be PC, but Before Night Falls is actually kinda a boring movie.
Yeah yeah, the real life Reynaldo Arenas suffers for his art and his orientation.
Yeah yeah he's fleeing censorship, in favor of liberation, vs. oppression. But he's an adrift victim (literally as a Marielito and figuratively) and so is the movie, with some similarities to how Pollock ends up dragging.
It's probably also not PC to say I simply could not understand Javier Bardem's English through his Spanish accent and was relieved when he'd finally chatter away in Spanish and I could read the subtitles (though too many were white on white). I couldn't even catch the names of any of his lovers or friends or whatever they were as I couldn't even figure out relationships as no one sticks around long enough to get much character.
The last guy seems to be just called "Doorman," though "Doormat" would be apropos. The big plus is the incredible cinematography -- so very lush, so that we think we're watching period home movies, or a documentary (as there was one that the movie was partly based on).
Also effective is when the writer's works are specifically evoked as semi-autobiographical essays with touches of flights of fancy. The soundtrack is odd.
While it's effective when period Cubano music is played tinnily as if off an AM radio or Victrola, the lush bombast by Carter Burwell is silly and inappropriate -- hello, why not use Latin music throughout? There's a wonderful scene where the author's words ring out about childhood memories of the sound of the rain as the only activity in his rural hometown -- so do we hear syncopation or even rain? No, we hear a symphony, huh? I'm not sure I caught the Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson contributions to the soundtrack.
Johnny Depp and Sean Penn have tiny cameos, as Julian Schnabel shows off his connections. (3/17/2001)

Ed Harris in Pollock is a physical force, through his sexy body language and very much through the act of painting as a possessed force.
His acting/directing/producing passion for the kind of role he doesn't usually get cast in, reminding me of Robert Duvall similar creative role in "The Apostle," he's limited here by a bio-pic of a self-destructive alcoholic whose life has repetitive cycles.
What makes it work is the counter-ballast of Marcia Gay Hayden as Lee Krasner. I've been a fan of Hayden's since Miller's Crossing but she usually has lousy taste in scripts. Not this time. She fully realizes an intertwined co-dependant relationship (with an effective Brooklyn accent) as complex as the Clintons, that's very much of its time yet universal.
The artist is also put in the context of the rest of his family, constantly seeking the reassuring approval of a cold mother and the companionship of his brother (intentional shades of Van Gogh?).
The wincible weakness here is the score, which screams "Eureka!" every time Pollock has a creative insight -- especially when, yes, he finally really looks at those drips next to his canvas. Pollock in the film constantly compares his art to jazz, yet we hear only the briefest clips, particularly effective when he dangerously freaks out to a Gene Krupka number, and we are instead subjected to a swelling orchestra.
When they constantly beg to sell works to support themselves, I couldn't help thinking of when the minimalist artist Barnett Newman, who had very bad teeth, found my father the dentist and asked to pay for dental work with canvases, like his black line on black series, or red square on red canvas-- and my mom wouldn't let him. Or maybe she just thought his wife the manager was too aggressive to negotiate with, much like Krasner is portrayed, as the key to his success. Whatever, those works would have paid for the grandchildrens' college and graduate school educations. Who knew? (3/5/2001)

Steven Soderbergh out-Altman's ensembles with Traffic utilizing the mastery of story-telling and cinematography he indicated in Out of Sight and The Limey.
How can he be considered for prizes for the oh-so conventional Erin Brockovich when Traffic is so clearly a masterwork? Actors should be running to work with him from now on. Other than Michael Douglas replaying his American President type politician, everyone else is superb, many playing against type (Dennis Quaid as a slimy lawyer, Benjamin Bratt as a cartel head, Amy Irving definitely not an Earth Mother, Topher Grace of That '70's Show as an amoral pusher, etc.) and now I know for sure that Salma Hayek and Catherine Zeta-Jones are not the same person, as both are here with their natural accents. The whole audience was asking "Who was the Mexican cop?" at the end and I kept telling everyone "It's Benicio Del Toro, from Usual Suspects." He's got to get a nom for Supporting Actor as his Bogart-esque gravitas, and sense of purpose becomes the driving force uniting all the elements of the film.
I had tried to watch the non-fiction Brit mini-series Traffik from years ago this is based on. But that one followed drug trafficking world-wide, esp. from Asia, and I just got lost following the accents, languages and sub-plots. This tightens the story to Mexican drug dealing and the border issues coming home to the US. Soderbergh goes further by color-coding the three main story-lines/locales and I only got confused once or twice in this very long but gripping movie.
Acting as own cinematographer (complete with phony name -- which name would get nommed for an Oscar?) he has washed out yellow for Mexico, blue-tinges for D.C./Ohio and a combined kind of green for San Diego, i.e. where the two cultures come together.
This is as frank as Requiem for a Dream about the degradation that drug use and dealing leads to, so be prepared. The sold out afternoon audience I was with watched mostly in shocked silence. (1/14/2001)

Finding Forrester is Good Will Hunting (also by Gus Van Sant, a long way from My Own Private Idaho and reinforced with a cameo by Matt Damon and "technical consultation"(?) by Casey Affleck") and Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (one of my all-time favorite movies, also about a disadvantaged prodigy plucked for his athletic prowess, but who tries to play the game on his own terms).
The Scotsman-in-the-Bronx premise turned out to made more believable than I expected as done in the script, and the relationship between Connery and the kid is the best part of the movie, which drags a bit.
But sorry I do have to fault the kid's performance. I'm not sure whose idea it was to have him be a young Sidney Poitier -- but Poitier's old movies are always made brilliant by that moment he relaxes from the mask he puts on for whites or outsiders and shows the human underneath. Here the kid isn't comfortable either with his homeys (in contrast to a quite wonderful Busta Rhymes as his brother), or in school (yeah, yeah, there's a message there, we got it, ho hum), but even on the basketball court where the final foul shot doesn't match the sublime marathon race in Long Distance Runner.
And since when is literature taught in both public and private schools these days as only by a series of Quotes by Famous Writers? That's a false straw man to compare Connery's character's hard work ethic writing tutoring. But I did like that writing is shown as hard work, not effortless scribbling as most movies show it.
I was going to give the movie extra points for filming in NYC, particularly the Bronx-- but it turned out to have been filmed in Ontario! Boo!
Surprisingly bland music choices. The listings claimed various Miles Davis pieces had been played but I didn't notice, while the song from the e-toys commercial is too prominent. Lots of missed musical opportunities.(1/7/2001)

Quills is a companion piece to The People vs. Larry Flynt though here when they're dressed the excellent cast is in Napoleonic costumes and speak with British accents.
Geoffrey Rush is mesmerizing and Joaquin Phoenix puts in, amazingly, his third terrific performance of the year as a man forced into conflict with himself.
This is compellingly about all sides of the pornography issue -- how it corrupts (sets free?) the creator, the stimulated and the censor.
This is strong stuff portrayed frankly -- though we see the brutality of the punishers more graphically than the enjoyment of the libertines, because, after all, De Sade's threatening weapons of delight are just the words of an artist while TPTB, whether Revolutionary or counter-Revolutionary, have control.(12/15/2000)

Having recently seen Tigerland (US) and Kippur (Israel), I decided to make it a war trilogy and go considerably out of my way to be the only woman in the theater to see The Trench from Britain. This last is the most conventional of the three, continuing the British obsession with World War I as being the most symbolic war. Not much new here that wasn't in All Quiet on the Western Front or Paths of Glory or Gallipoli, but I suppose some lessons need illustrating for new generations.
Taking place claustrophobically in the trenches just prior to the bloody Battle of the Somme with the sounds of war all around--though it could also have been taking place in the canals of Mars against aliens-- the characters are typically class-based Brits (from ineffectual aristocratic officer to working class blokes whose conversations need subtitles for American viewers), but manage to stay above stereotypes through excellent acting (with actors familiar to us from Mystery and Masterpiece Theater) and personalization.
I'm probably the only one other than Daniel Craig's family (and other devoted fans) who went to see the movie for him, but his career soldier sergeant in particular is a real human being. Otherwise, as always with ensemble war movies, I have trouble telling the young guys in uniform apart to keep the characters straight.(12/2/2000)

Five Senses is a Robert Altman-like large ensemble meeting All About My Mother.
It has a didactic theme as there's an eye dr. going deaf, a baker constructing tasteless, attractive looking cakes, a lover whose cooking tastes delicious but because of foreign language is perceived as not speaking at all, a cleaner whose job it is to eliminate odors seeking the smell of love, and no shortage of voyeurs of the 5 senses, including a massage therapist.
And it all comes down to that in matters of the heart and intimacy you cannot trust your senses. Nothing is what it seems.
The cinematography and soundtrack are appropriately lush, but will probably be fine on video or cable.
The loose ends are mostly tied up to some satisfaction, though not all happy endings.
It was nice to pick out Canadian actors from various little movies and TV shows.(7/30/2000)

During the almost 3 hours of Sunshine I had plenty of time to think about how Ralph Fiennes seems to be made to make period pictures unlike say Harvey Keitel and Kevin Costner who were wincible in theirs.
Fiennes bares all for penance for his Schindler's List character in this lavish look at 3 generations of a Jewish family in Hungary as they try to assimilate vs. never-ending anti-Semitism. Fiennes plays all 3 generations of males in the family as they accommodate with imperialism, fascism and communism-- and gee not once does anyone say "You look so much like your father!", though the all senior citizen audience guffawed by his 3rd appearance. But then they also guffawed that all the repetitive sex is the same through the century, lustful attacks on the sly with much frantic clothes removal, and unflattering camera angles up the nose.
Tony-nommed mother and daughter team Jennifer Ehle and Rosemary Harris breathe tremendous life into the movie as the younger and older self of a fulcrum character, which Fiennes did less often because his characters were so repressed. I'm not sure if it was intentional that each of the 3 generations had the same personality so that the viewer tells them apart by their facial hair and costumes (well, when he's wearing clothes).
In more ways than one this reminded me of The Marriage of Maria Braun, a bitingly satirical German film that made similar points with humor on the same theme as "Meet the New Boss, same as the Old Boss."
The script, co-written by the director and Israel Horowitz, I assume the playwright, is too didactic in making its points, but the philosophical decision points it focuses on in history are interesting, trying to identify when and about what people should take a stand or go along.
The look is even beyond Merchant/Ivory retro feasts, absolutely beautiful settings, costumes, a visual feast. For example, a scene from the 1936 Olympics mingles newsreel film with ersatz recreated newsreel film and new color scenes as the camera follows the crowds in Nazi uniforms.
I stayed through all the credits but the locations weren't identified -- where is that sumptuous Ministry of "Justice"? (6/25/2000)

Time Code is an interesting experiment, kind of the World's Fair-type go-go movies as Purple Rose of Cairo done as an improv.
With four related quadrants going at all times, I frequently was on sensory overload and had to tune out.
While the improv aspects of goofing on the superficiality of what goes into making a movie were a bit precious, what was intriguing was the experiment with the opposite of opening up the fourth wall by in effect opening up the other three walls.
In another step from the circular story-telling of Pulp Fiction and Go we literally see what happens before a character enters a room and where they go when they leave (whether or not that's interesting). It's one way to make a point that everyone in Hollywood is a hypocrite.(5/29/2000)

My mother told me not to go to see Kadosh -- but who ever listens to one's mother?
I was so turned off by it while I was watching I thought I must have lost my feminist credentials on the way into the theater, so I checked with LILITH's editors the next day. No, they also thought it was much more an anti-Orthodox screed than a pro-feminist statement, painting the Orthodox as equal to the Taliban.
While this Israeli movie is careful to show that the sect the story is about is the ultimate ultra-Orthodox Messianists, it is so nasty as to be unbelievable (plus that the non-fanatic Orthodox rock-'n'-roller(!) one of the sisters is in love with is incredibly sexy--even in Israel that must be fantasy).
The theater was quite crowded, so there's a pent-up curiosity to see Israeli movies; too bad this vicious movie is the one getting wide distribution. This was almost enough to drive me back to insipid Hollywood romantic movies this week.(4/29/2000)

It was actually the Grouch's idea to see Winter Sleepers (Winterschläfer) because it's the same director as Run Lola Run, a vowel-deprived German name though you need it to find it on the IMDB coz they only have the German title of the movie listed. It's from '97, so was pre-Lola.
It plays with the same theme of coincidences, though not with "what if's" of Lola or Sliding Doors or others in the genre. Rather, the audience knows what connects random people together to understand the misunderstandings and connections.
It's slow at spots (too much stuff from French movie satires of a couple not looking at each other and smoking away) but the directing otherwise is very non-Hollywood intriguing, swooping and looking in at such odd angles, creating tension from a neat VERY unpredictable plot involving basically 5 or so people in a beautiful Bavaria.
I had no idea the German Alps could be so breathtakingly beautiful -- absolutely terrific stunts that will look puny if you wait to see it on cable or video.
The pop soundtrack is again in English, but the director co-wrote the ambient music that is also used very-non-Hollywood in how it comments and builds up on the tension. It's a bit long but a nice relief from too many Hollywood movies I've been seeing lately and probably would have snuck off to otherwise.(4/23/2000)

I haven't gotten around to reading the book Cider House Rules even though a NH friend of mine's friend had the orchard and cider house where John Irving went to learn the apple business for verisimilitude. Irving wrote the screenplay so I'll have to assume the plot is as he wants it. The location shooting is marvelous, particularly the fall scenery, with various locations in New England standing in for Maine - though the lack of even an effort at the distinctive Down East accents and the too beautiful Charlize Theron stuck out from the landscape. The previews had given away too much except for the mucho discussions about abortion, but it's still a lovely young-man-striking-it-out-on-his-own story, though I have some questions about what exactly he chooses to do at the end. The credits said "Introducing Erykah Badu," but I have to assume that was the R & B diva (just nommed again for a Grammy). She was excellent and should have a terrific acting future.(1/6/2000)

I went to see Tim Roth's directorial debut War Zone to get insight into a deeply talented actor, much as that's a reason to see Sean Penn-directed movies.
War Zone is a cross between Once Were Warriors, the visceral NZ movie on domestic violence, and Wuthering Heights.
It's visually stunning, painterly, as the dysfunctional family is set in almost Edward Hopper-still life isolation on the moors, surrounded only by the elements--lotsa rain, sea and relentless wind--with the characters mostly silent you sure hear that howling wind instead of conversation-- with an occasional human being staring them down.
While the family's close-knit physical intimacy was realized in an almost 17th century way of togetherness, I'm not sure the abuse was, as I thought most incest more pedophiliac than this. So the universality of any message is lost, other than the lesson that family members are love-tropic and take it any way they can get it with some fine lines dividing functional from dysfunctional.
If Bergman did an abuse movie, it might look like this.
Excellent acting all around, though as usual some working-class Brit accents can be hard to decipher by an American.(12/31/1999)

I so much had to get out of the house for relaxation already from a weekend of dutiful shopping online and in stores and straightening up for and after company that I paid full price to see Dogma. Who knew that Kevin Smith was a Talmudist! I took an adult ed course on the vestiges of pagan religions and other non-G-d supernaturals in the "Old Testament" so followed those references in the film, about the roles of different levels of seraphim, angels, prophets, etc. Clearly the actors, particularly Affleck, were having a hoot of a time putting their mouths around those detailed discussions (though some such conversations dragged and my head nodded out). The cinematic references were like religious symbols of Smith's worship of movies (Hotel de Love for the airplane arrivals, Trainspotting for the overflowing crap in the toilet, Smith himself is a Hitch figure--and not as good an actor as the rest so he should go back to having his character be a cameo). I was just reading an article in Newsweek about Messianic Hassid’s and their belief system is just as detailed and rule-driven as the Catholic theology so lovingly and modernistly portrayed in Dogma but then there's a compatriotism among religious fundamentalists. In the O.T. the prophets, etc. are always the most unlikely folks, the ones with the least interest in theology or even altruism (there's a correct reference in the movie to Noah being a drunk - the Torah grudgingly says he was the best man "of his time" -- and it was clearly a low point on the morality scale). And it seemed to me that all the other religious references are quite correct, but updated in a sympathetically contemporary way. Quite funny, even in a theater with only 3 other people, none of whom were laughing. This works very well with Last Night as an apocalypse-aversion film. Not sure why some folks on the IDD were complaining about Fiorentino; I found her non-objectionable as the straight man as it were.(11/28/1999)

I hadn't intended to see Hurricane after reading Selwyn Raab's blistering attack in The NY Times on its screwing of the facts but I prefer double features with my budget matinee and I do like to see possible Oscar noms. It's very long at 2 1/2 hours (what's not this year?) and it probably would have been better as a mini-series on PBS (if Masterpiece Theatre ever did contemporary stories) to give it full justice as there's a lot of back and forth in time. Keeping in mind Raab's criticisms that the racist revengeful cop is 100% fiction, that the co-defendant is barely mentioned and he was the one who carried on the legal fight, that it was Raab's research and story in the Times that got the NJ courts to reopen the case, and finally that the whole relationship with the Canadians fell apart once Carter was out, plus that Liev Schreiber is given almost nothing to do, Norman Jewison is a terrific director of social conscience movies, making complex issues visual. Denzel of course is mesmerizing through all of Carter's changes and monologues and very physical (a colleague of mine just told me the story that she was at Fordham a year behind him and his student performance of Othello brought down the house) I of course loved best the scenes of a used book sale as being the critical factor in keying off the relationship that got Carter freed. Nice R & B period sound track and use of Dylan song. 2 closing songs over credits, the hip hop one by the Roots at the end when virtually the whole audience had left already.(2/11/2000)

It's partly bad luck for Illuminata that it comes out after Shakespeare in Love as it deals with virtually the same themes of life as art, art as life and the Magic of the Theatre and the same archetypal Foibles of Theater Folk, but a whole lot more ponderously.
There are scenes that come alive, as a play develops and gets reinterpreted by a writer's life, but there's a whole lot of Orson Welles-ish ego in this produced by/directed by/lead acted by John Torturro as a vehicle for his wife Katharine Borowitz (with an adorable cameo by their son).
Each actor gets his/her moment literally in the spotlight, but there's so many "masques" or set pieces that seem like 19th century parlor games. Bill Irwin Talks. Susan Sarandon gets to be a diva. Christopher Walken gets to be a different kind of villain - a gay critic. The women have to disrobe unnecessarily because this is an Art Film.
The art and set direction are marvelous, though quite dark. This should get an award as the Best Use of a Jersey City Theater as A Set Ever In a Movie.(8/21/99)

The music in Sling Blade is by Daniel Lanois and is gorgeous! Of course he didn't get nominated for Best Score (though he does use several pre-existing melodies from his other work). He even incorporates Emmylou's voice at a beautiful point. Thornton's acting is basically "Rain Man redux so I don't see the Oscar potential but I think Hoffman did get it for that. The script however is terrific. The category is "adapted" but nowhere in the credits did it say it was based on a book or something, so I'm a bit confused. The credits sweetly thank all his relatives and friends, etc. Brilliant script. Slow movie that creeps up on you. Dwight Yoakem plays a pure evil character that you just HATE. Most amazingly - I saw this right here in my neighborhood (which means I get to go to 1/2 price matinee!). (3/12/1997)

I saw the foreign-language nominee Kolya which JUST skirts schmaltziness by adding an interesting Iron Curtain Falling Down element. It's really an updated transposition of a lovely old movie called The Searcher w/Montgomery Clift about a GI with a lost orphan on his hands post-WWII. That kid is really amazing - how does one get a 5 year old to suddenly glow on the phone as if he really is suddenly hearing his native language for the first time in awhile? Certainly a lovely, pretty feel good movie with some bittersweetness in it. The political conflict aspects are the most interesting. Best part of seeing a foreign language movie was that the rest of the audience didn't mind me hacking away (and with my laryngitis this is the only way I can communicate my movie reviews!)(3/20/97)

Also saw Portrait of A Lady at the $3 theater and gee I thought it was written by Henry James not D.H. Lawrence. Interesting visually but can't really recommend it as Malkovich was miscast completely. He telegraphed evil from shot one.(3/7/1997)

Went to see Female Perversions in the Village yesterday, written and directed by Susan Streitfeld. 1/2 was of interesting female images a la Jane Campion and 1/2 was turgid and incomprehensible.
Several people gave up and walked out in the middle. Interestingly, while my friend and I had come as we were in the mood for a dose of strong feminism and possible male-bashing, the pretty full audience for a matinee was 80% male definitely attracted by the beautiful naked female bodies casually on display throughout the movie, including quite a bit of explicit lesbian sex, which tends to put me to sleep as it did in Go Fish. (You do get to see a glimpse of a naked Clancy Brown of Earth2).
We were the only ones sitting thru the credits trying to figure the movie out and exchanging ideas about what the heck the images, let alone the story line meant. Best were the fantasies and nightmares as images of a successful woman's underlying insecurities.
But what a cop-out to do what seemingly all contemporary fiction does this days - blame it all on parental child sexual abuse. And I thought the sexual interpretation of kleptomania had been discredited 50 years ago (at the turn of the century women shoplifters were cured w/hysterectomies!). Karen Sillas filmed this right after she finished Under Suspicion like 2 years ago and I think there's a reason this has been on the shelf so long.(5/24/1997)

As to Lolita (non-Kubrick version) I wonder if the book has the same epilog about what happened to the 2 leads coz I thought it was a TOTAL cop-out for neither character to have to live with the consequences of what had happened, coz in real life such abuse causes lasting horrible consequences that gets repeated unto the next generation. It was not a victimless obsession. And sticking in the Quilty character is also a cop-out that somehow he's morally lower than Humbert. Humbert is horribly manipulative of a child. I read about the next pedophile movie in the Voice this week, Happiness, and I'm not sure I can stomach that either. (I had enough trouble with Kids and that was peers doing it to peers.) Sorry, children are OFF limits. She was not a temptress; that's Humbert's sick mind's perception. Children are in dire need of affection as much as food and clothes and if an adult interprets that sexually that's the sick adult's sick problem. It's the adult that teaches the child to have the affection be sexually directed. I was watching Parent Trap thinking how different wholesome paternal affection is and shuddered if Humbert was in that role. There was a terrific documentary from Quebec on the lasting impact of pedophilic priests on an orphanage. Cracker did a terrific episode on the lasting impact on a family of incest. I do object to a movie that shows a pedophile in a sympathetic light (even that scene with the administrator of Lo's school is from his point of view as I was quite sure that was his fantasy of what they were saying to him, that Lo was in need of sexual education). Humbert's obsession is quite different from that recent documentary about 4 guys who collect weird things. This obsession has consequences.(8/12/1998)

Saw Elizabeth about "The Virgin Queen" -- I ran to see it Manhattan coz I figured few people would be interested and it would disappear quickly, shows what I know. I'm quite knowledgeable about the period and I still had a bit of trouble following the intrigue. Her lover is called Robert all through, then towards the end by his last name Dudley and then virtually at the end as Earl of Leicester which made me do a big OH as in histories he's always called Leicester so I had no idea who Robert and Dudley were. (Saw the preview to Shakespeare in Love and there was the same cute actor, Ralph Fiennes's brother). I have the same problem with Russian novels when characters are called by multiple names. I'm also nonplussed having my favorite Brit actors from Masterpiece Theater and Mystery cast as villains (i.e. a filled out Christopher Eccleston and Daniel Craig) but I guess it's figured they're unfamiliar to American audiences so make good villains. The director also did the absolutely terrific Indian epic The Bandit Queen - but he didn't use the annoying slo mo through gauze that he does here; I could have done without all those shots. It's always a good reminder that religious fanaticism wasn't invented in the 20th century by any means, that so much of it goes back to the Tudors re: "the Irish problem." Definite Oscar nom for costumes, hey it's not easy to be a vicious villain let alone a wooing lover while wearing baggy brocade pantaloons. (11/15/1998)

So I had to be dragged to see Gods and Monsters by an intellectual friend of mine, figuring that it would be an intellectual do-good dose and heck it's nommed for Oscars, got good reviews, and Brendan Fraser has a least a bit part so OK. Boy was I unprepared for a riveting experience.
It's Dinner With Andre but with images and editing and sympathy/understanding that goes way beyond two men talking.
Ian McKellan is of course stupendous and multilayered, Lynn Redgrave is pretty much playing Lotte Lenya but Fraser really raises the stakes. The only justification he could have for doing Encino Man over and over is that it would finance his participation in movies like these --so why doesn't he do more of them?
I held my breath that it would veer towards homosexual/homophobic clichés but it sailed way beyond those shoals. I do disagree with the critics that the theme is the tragedy of keeping closeted in Hollywood, as discretion seemed to be the better part of valor anyway, but rather a reconciliation of all the parts of one's life, beyond sexual preference, personal, creative, family and cohort history (i.e. those in WWI were as affected generationally as Viet vets).
This is definitely not for kids, not with all that talking. An adult movie in the finest sense. (2/14/1999)

I vaguely remember reading Terance Rattigan's Winslow Boy in 9th grade and just not getting what the whole deal was about (now I'll reread it to see how David Mamet changed it, if he did). But I wasn't into Masterpiece Theater/ A & E then.
This is clearly Mamet's competition with Scorcese's Age of Innocence - saying, hey I too can make a movie with upper class accents and stiff upper lips and costumes and no profanity and all the action takes place off-screen so it's folks' reactions to the situation that counts. Even the media circus around the trial for honor is barely shown.
But why make a movie rather than a TV show as this would clearly work better on PBS, maybe some sort of financial incentives were involved before it's on cable or PBS. By not making it for TV, Mamet lost out on the Brit repertory company of all those marvelous mini-series, so his cast doesn't quite jell, other than the always wonderful Nigel Hawthorne (he in Yes Minister is my favorite).
Spouse Rebecca Pidgeon is good as a suffragette but doesn't turn on a dime for the sympathetic sparring with the also ever wonderful Jeremy Northam (sigh over him in Emma heck I even liked him as the nemesis vs. Sandra Bullock in the computer erasure movie) I was in a top quality theater at Union Sq. so it must have been the film that was dark and the sound wasn't so terrific at all times or the actors turned away from the screen.
But I'm all set for a sequel with Pidgeon's and Northam's characters, heck a whole series.
This is strictly for Brit drama fans, of which I'm a rabid one and for such a one this was very good, but heck even the movie of Persuasion bent Jane Austen and period authenticity for a final kiss. Errrrr.
Did read the original Winslow Boy - the romance was only implied but is done more visually by Mamet and is probably brought out in any production. In fact, some of the dialog was toned down to make the attraction more visual and less verbal as Lord Robert had begun using the "we" to refer to the sister and his interest in the case. Whew, quite a different subtlety of romance than in the Kubrick film.(6/7/1999)

I was reluctant to see Life is Beautiful (Vita è bella) as I didn't like the idea of a non-Jew yet using the Holocaust as a back-drop for comedy, even though The Younger went to see it with his Hebrew School class and they even stayed a 1/2 hour late discussing it.
What finally convinced me was an interview with Begnini (who's a fave of my family's from the absolutely hysterical Johnny Stecchini that's been on Bravo with subtitles as well as a section of Night on Earth) that this was his tribute to Chaplin, just as Chaplin had made Great Dictator. He was inspired because there was a quote from Chaplin that if he'd known about the camps he wouldn't have made a comedy about Nazis, let alone show them as buffoons.
But it is a beautiful not predictable movie, especially as the first half firmly establishes each character's behavior and personality so that what happens in the second half is completely consistent and not crazy. I was also reminded of two stories I've heard from survivors, one the cantor of my synagogue and the other a moving BBC documentary called I think Kay that they survived the camps by being hidden and protected by their mothers, though they were older than the kid in the movie. (2/27/99)
I had mixed feelings about going to see Train of Life (Train de vie) having had my fill of Holocaust comedies with Life is Beautiful so had avoided Jakob the Liar but well it got such good reviews.
Despite a really annoying audience of noisy senior citizens I got into the spirit of the movie (though it was odd having the shtetl residents in a foreign-language film speak French until I realized of course in Jakob the Liar Robin Williams and Liev Schreiber speak English so why not in a Belgian/Romanian-produced movie wouldn't they speak French?).
It has the immediate feel of the magic realism of The Milagro Beanfields War and it no more cheapens the Holocaust than The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge cheapens the Civil War.
My friend Tamar Rogoff did an in situ environmental community dance as a tribute to the mass deportation that emptied her ancestral Lithuanian village and it has the same warmth and love that surrounded that as everyday life and personalities come sweetly to life.
I thought the Fool as the Seer was getting a bit much until it's made clear he's not really the Village Idiot so no heavy-handed symbolism.(11/14/1999)

Shakespeare in Love was vundebar--but why is Gwyneth nekkid and not Fiennes? I figure it was part of continuing series she's making of "Eat your heart out Brad Pitt!" movies. Though next might be ditto to Affleck.

I'm telling folks to be sure to see Leo's version first as there's several clever little digs at that version in this take on Romeo & Juliet.
The Younger at age 14 had been telling me for weeks that he intended to see "Shakespeare in Love" with his friends and I didn't give it a second thought and encouraged it. Well, they try to see it after school yesterday on the East Side and the cashier wouldn't let them in because it turns out it's rated "R"! Just because Gwyneth is naked for 5 seconds? They importuned adults going by to get tickets for them and a nice young couple rallied to their cause: "Of course you should be able to see something about Shakespeare!" But the ticket taker refused to let them buy the tickets for the group unless they were going into the theater with them. So he madly called 777-Film and found a huge multiplex on the West Side. Where they had no problem getting in and enjoyed the movie immensely. Think of all the horrid, violent teen slasher movies that are PG-13 and this wonderful, uplifting literary movie is "R"-and enforced?(1/16/1999)

It was me and the senior citizens at the bargain matinee of Tea With Mussolini yesterday. It's certainly not clear how fictionalized a version of Zeffirelli's autobiography this is, what with the usual disclaimers at the end. Even presuming this is just a riff off an incident in his life, that he had some contact with memorable English ladies, it's clearly his tribute to where his love of English literature comes from, particularly Shakespeare. According to imdb.com he's done several Shakespeare interpretations, not just R & J. And that's just his movies, not his opera productions or play directing. The movie has a lovely scene of him being first introduced to acting out Romeo & Juliet with puppets, as well as constant quotes from Shakespeare throughout about war and his situation.
I was surprised how good the movie was - I was in tears several times, especially with visuals that bring up the same comparisons as The Train did, with art vs. war, humanity's heights of creativity vs. its lows of prejudice and violence.
These Oscar-winning ladies are absolutely terrific, yes including Cher. One elderly gentleman behind me complained that Maggie Smith basically always plays the same character but I thought her character does change towards the end. The others were certainly not their usual on-screen personas, Judi Dench as a free-spirited artist, Joan Plowright as a quite warm-hearted grandmotherly type, and Lily Tomlin a hoot as a butch archaeologist.
But why choose bland Italian actors for them to play off of? To make the Scorpioni, as they are called, stand out more? The Italians seemed stereotyped to me, Latin lover, ignorant peasants not appreciating their ancient artistic heritage.
What the movie also brought to mind is how few Italian movies have dealt with their fascist past as much as the French have been exploring their consciences of collaboration in film. Sure Garden of Finzi Continis, Two Women and Life Is Beautiful show arrests, etc. but I don't get the sense of soul searching as to how did this happen here and could it again? Just because they didn't have Shakespeare and appreciate the treasures of the Uffizi? But then, maybe I just haven't gone to see those movies or maybe they haven't played here.(5/15/1999)

This Is My Father is not particularly original about Irish families, from Circle of Love or some such and Alice McDermott's book Charming Billy among many others, but it is lovely.
I like Aidan Quinn in just about anything, but neat that one brother wrote and directed and another brother turns out to be a terrific cinematographer.
The music is OK Irish, not that special, though I think I recall that Sharon Shannon was the fiddler.
It's mostly good for an unsentimental look at how vicious small towns can be to live in. This is not a sentimental look at the olde sod.
Hadn't seen James Caan in awhile in anything and he's quite good here.(5/20/99)

Hideous Kinky - which I must have fallen asleep when the title was explained, though I'd read about it in the reviews.
This is basically "Beautiful hippie makes lousy mother." That's it.
With some nice CSNY and Airplane music for period flavor.
Winslett is beautiful and has one naked scene, for those who care.
Pretty images of Moroccan marketplaces and the desert. (5/2/99)

Folks in my office had raved about Central Station (Central do Brasil) but I had resisted because I thought it would be really schmaltzy. Turned out not to be, though it is heartwarming.
It should be a closer race between Paltrow and this lead actress for the Best Actress win, too bad it won't be.
It's a quite open-eyed look at family, poverty, choices and compromise, and is not at all predictable. No one is all good or all evil.
It's an auteur piece, written, directed, and produced by Walter Sallas and is quite beautiful looking, especially as it looks at faces.(3/14/1999)

I wanted to see Marvin's Room as I'd seen the play at Playwrights Horizon and liked it a lot. But it's been softened by its Hollywood stars casting.
I was mostly thinking how gorgeous Leonardo DiCaprio is when the little old lady blurted out loudly next to me "Gosh that boy is beautiful!" that I realized the camera was too slow and spending too much time looking at the faces of its cast, while the pacing of the play was snappier.
I also realized it suffers from the problem of not really seeming to be about two women but instead the women are stand-in's for a gay writer to write about gay men, like that comic writer for Premiere magazine who pretends to be Libby, and the various dying diseases of the characters are stand-in's for AIDS.
So I kept thinking what the writer really wanted to communicate - was it really about 2 brothers who were alienated coz one had come out 20 years ago and this was the reconciliation while he cares for his dying lover then gets AIDS himself?(12/25/1996)

For all you fans of 19th century English novels, Harvey's Jude the Obscure is now a movie, Jude.
For fans of Cracker (the superb TV mystery) it co-stars Christopher Eccleston, whose dying scene was so dramatic that it haunted the next 2 episodes of the series, and he was in Shallow Grave by the same guy who did Trainspotting.
For fans of Kate Winslet, she's quite nude in it for a couple of scenes .
It's showing on a big screen which is wonderful for the scenery and setting. Sad movie, but lovely.(10/25/1996)

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Comments, corrections, additions, questions welcome! Contact Nora Lee Mandel at mandelshultz@yahoo.com



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