Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Yacoubian Building


Very impressive film. Beautifully shot and edited, it was a contemporary melodrama written around a building opened in a tony neighborhood in Cairo in 1937. The building had undergone changes, of course. Somewhat faded, it now housed a variety of folks at all ends of the economic scale. We follow a half dozen of their lives which, in total, sum up the changes, tensions and major movements in Egypt today.

A great cast kept this out of the soap swamp. The novel from which this was taken undoubtedly held richer detail about these people but there was enough here to get us to care about their fate. The film dealt with topics like homosexuality and political corruption that made it a pariah in Egypt.

Solid, legitimate work of world cinema.


Monday, March 30, 2009



Impressive, low-budget film from 1984 on what would happen in England if there was an apocalyptic exchange of nuclear weapons.

The political stuff seems dated now but everything else in the film still works very well. They focus on the personal travails of a couple of families, before and after, which gives us someone to identify with as we watch them try to make sense of their lives.

Incredibly bleak and grim for the last hour...how can it not be? No fun to watch but then who said life should always be fun? This should be shown in schools worldwide. 


Battle Royale


The one and only. A random class of high schoolers is chosen to participate in the annual, national most-dangerous-game production. Fiercely satirical of Japan's fascistic state. This was an attempt to personalize the cost of the country's militaristic policies and, by showcasing appealing young people as its immediate victims, it succeeded. 

Very violent, bitter. We watch it like an auto accident...repulsive but impossible to ignore. Kitano's character was idiotic and ended up detracting from the power of the story by making it seem too cartoonish.

That flaw aside, though, this was some powerful ju-ju.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Jena Malone

Very safe satire on "christian" kids and the high school they attend. 

This idiocy is such a blotch on western civilization (sic) that it should be treated much more harshly than this film did. Simple, formula structure, movie-world resolution. Nice to see Martin Donovan get a job...too bad his character was such a fool.

I was tired and needed something mindless to watch. I got it.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

All About My Mother


Middling effort by this director whose films have rarely reached me. Most of his early work was asinine (excepting What Have I Done to Deserve This?) culminating in the truly execrable Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down. He does have a visual flash but until recently I've not been able to understand the acclaim he's gotten from critics.

He got my attention with Volver and nailed it with Talk to Her. Both were quirky, original and not overburdened with gaudy splashes of color. 

This one falls a bit short of those two for me. Although several characters are truly transgressive (a pregnant nun, two transvestites) they are treated so matter-of-factly that the film became a garden variety melodrama. It all seemed to take place in another reality, perhaps one wished for by Almodovar himself. It was a little like watching a fairy tale. For me it was unengaging, but not bad either.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ju Dou

Gong Li  w/d Zhang Yimou

His first big international hit.  Beautifully shot...he made full use of the fabric-dyeing location with many lush views of bolts drying in the breeze.

The plotline was straight melodrama, perhaps a little overcooked for a modern audience but not fatally so. Most interesting was the sociological detail of traditional Chinese life, especially the public shaming and humiliation used as a corrective for the transgressive behavior by the two principals. The development of the monster child was very effective as a moralistic resolution.

Solid, legitimate work of world cinema.


Through a Glass Darkly

Harriett Andersen, Max von Sydow  w/d  Ingmar Bergman

Pretty typical Bergman from 1961. On an island in the Baltic a woman goes quietly mad, again, at a summer cottage while the members of her family twist and cry and moan in sympathetic entwinement. The tone was unrelentingly grim. Oblique dabble into incest. Much angst and hand-wringing. Blessedly little talk of god.

The cine by Sven Nyqvist was stunning...easily the best feature of the film for me. Each scene, in or outdoors perfectly lit with a kind of soft hyper-reality.  Marvelous-looking film.

The teenaged brother was a bit over-played which hurt the sense of realism the rest of the film hit. HA's meltdown was wonderfully played...one of those scenes great actors pray for.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Diary of a Chambermaid

France  Jeanne Moreau  d/ Luis Bunuel

A great film. Wickedly lacerating portrait of France's bourgeoisie, those already there and those striving for it. 

Everybody gets cut here: the rich, their servants, bureaucrats, country folk. JM gives a brilliant performance, infusing her character with a sly, knowing cunning...seemingly agreeable, pleasant and appealing to all...but all the while using her sexual appeal to connive her way to riches and a comfortable life.  A life, which once achieved, is as unsatisfying to her as it was for the fools she once served. 

This film received international attention when it was released in 1964. It deserved it then and today deserves to be remembered as perhaps the first truly great postwar French film.




Fine, humanistic drama about the tortured life of a 35 year old woman who was warped by living with an abusive father and now drinks, smokes and seeks out abusive men. The film is about her gradual emersion, helped by the mother she despised for not standing up to her husband.

Although the scenario sounds schmaltzy it's done so well here that we accept it. The film is helped enormously by the actor playing the mother...her calm presence and steadfastness work as the anchor holding it firmly in reality. 

Sweetly touching story of redemption and rebirth. 


Year of the Dog

w/d  Mike White

This guy specializes in scenarios that make the audience squirm and feel uncomfortable. See, eg, Chuck and Buck.  Here we're presented with someone who at another time would have been called a spinster who, after her beloved dog dies, lurches in several different directions looking for...well, we're never really sure. Love, perhaps, belonging, some sense of purpose. 

But she's inept and ineffectual and we get to follow her in her daily dose of social shame. This isn't particularly enlightening and it certainly isn't fun. We all know people like this in our daily lives. Having to live in the skin of one for 2 hours isn't my idea of a swell time. 

This would be a nice recommendation for the masochist in your crowd.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rage at Placid Lake


Pretty amusing comedy about a perennial misfit who decides to do his best to fit in and walk the straight and narrow. This skirted on the edge of preposterous all the way through but managed to stay just short of going over.

Nice cast, straightforward direction. It worked for me...just barely.


Chop Shop


The life and times of an 11 y/o (illegal?) hispanic hustler and his 16 y/o sister trying to survive on the mean streets of Queens, in the shadow of Shea Stadium.

All hand-held, gritty and grimy...this was like being immersed in a reality parallel to that of the clean, middle-class folks who skirt by the periphery of these kids' world. You had to admire their pluck and determination to climb out of this swamp whatever it took.

This was the same guy who did Man Push Cart. This is more developed, with fewer clunky bits. No fun to watch but true to life...their life.


Monday, March 9, 2009

Brief Encounter

Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard   d/ David Lean

Written by Noel Coward, this is the film that put Lean on the international film map. The story of an affair in post-war England, it is an adult attempt to capture the rapture, and the guilt of such a transgressive act at that time.

Beautifully shot in B/W, the timing and pacing of the story were spot on. The development, arc and resolution of the plot is a masterwork of concision. Even the framing device of the aggravating woman worked. Howard, fine as he was, was outshined by CJ, whose wonderfully expressive face pulled the audience into the emotional wrenching depths her character goes through.

Solid, well done 3-hankie weeper.


The Reader

Kate Winslet

A fifteen year old boy has an affair with a 35ish woman who, it turns out has a dark past. There were three parts to this film. The first, the affair, was beautifully handled...well-acted, shot, just the right amount of sexuality shown to lay the groundwork for later developments. 

The second, the trial, nicely dramatized the way 1960's Germany confronted it's horrendous past. The combination of personal and social trauma was well depicted.

The third section was a mess. Ralph Fiennes shows up as an inarticulate, brooding lawyer (!) who takes the story in several directions, none of them enlightening or consistent with the earlier threads. If they had stopped at 1 1/2 hours they would have had a good film. 

KW won best actor for her performance here and she deserved it. During the first third she has to portray troubled ambivalence; in the second, wracking guilt and in the third she ages dramatically and alters her body language. It was a challenging role and she did it well.

And, so...a mixed bag. Nice try...no cigar.




This was pretty much Steel Magnolias transferred to Beirut. We follow the loves and fortunes (mostly romantic) of a group of women who work at a "beauty" salon which has seen better days. Although they were all a little too attractive to be representative, there was enough real life mixed in here to give it some relevance.

Beirut has been called the Paris of the Levant but the city was depicted here as too tightly controlled by various authorities to allow for much freedom of expression. Still, the filmmaker created characters who were distinctive and sympathetic, deeply rooted in their place...a not inconsiderable achievement.


Friday, March 6, 2009

The Willow Tree


A blind university professor has an operation, regains his sight, becomes a shambling, morose, inarticulate jerk who manages to alienate everyone in his family. Falls in love with his pretty, younger sister-in-law. This goes nowhere.

Loses his sight again and becomes an even bigger jerk. Throws world-class temper tantrum, walks blindly down busy roadway, blasts through other pedestrians on cross-town march. Ends up wet, dirty, wallowing in self pity asking god or someone for another chance at life. Wattanasshole.

If Iranian people are really this histrionic/unstable/excitable, then no wonder their history has been so checkered. I found it impossible to understand what this guy's problem was. Some type of cultural barrier?

A half dozen nice shots stood out like roses in a cesspool.


Blame it on Fidel


The perils of growing up in a politically radical family in 1970 as seen through the eyes of an 8 year old girl. She is pulled this way and that with no understanding of the social forces and ideals driving the people who control her life.

Sharp, insightful, well told.  The girl was on camera in every scene and really pulled it off. Nice work.


The Man From Earth

w/d  Jerome Bixby

American indie guaranteed to start a discussion/argument in your film group.

A retiring college professor announces to a small group of friends that he is, in fact, 14,000 years old, doesn't die, has lived through many significant historical times and known and interacted with ancient people whose names we all know. They have trouble accepting this. As well they should.

Very playish. Woodenly acted for the most part. Although the dialogue was accurate as far as it went, I found the script maddeningly superficial. For someone who claimed to have lived with history's greatest thinkers, I wanted to hear thoughts more insightful and penetrating than what we saw here. 

Still, irritating as it was, I was easily held for 90 minutes wondering where he was going with this. Nice, minor zinger at the end helped some. Ultimately, provocative.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009



This one was really terrible. Set in the vast arid steppe, we follow the (mis)fortunes of a young man with big dreams failing to come to grips with the extremely harsh reality of trying to survive in a depopulated desert. 

Most of the characters were annoying at best, the production values were amateurish, the story was minimal. The only value this film had was as anthropology and even that was dubious. This wasn't ready for release onto the world market


I Served the King of England


This was Czech humor, which means, among other things, that it wasn't funny. They tried to achieve some mix of silly, satirical social commentary and managed to get up to asinine and got stuck there. 

Lots of gratuitous nudity and a protagonist who I guess was supposed to be an idiot savant and got the first part OK but never approached the latter.

Dimly amusing in an Eastern European kind of way.




Nice looking computer-drawn film with a mildly surrealistic plotline that should work well for pre-teenage girls. Some beautiful, creative visuals.

Not engaging for me but it wasn't a strain to sit through it either.


Sunday, March 1, 2009

I've Loved You So Long

France   Kristin Scott Thomas

Very fine film. The story is slowly revealed to us...like peeling away the layers of an onion one at a time. The central mystery clearly is building toward a climax which, when delivered packs tremendous impact. The dynamic between the two sisters is masterfully written and played by both leads.

KST is marvelous. She underplays her character...released from prison after 15 years her face has the pallor of someone who hasn't seen the sun for too long. Gradually she re-acclimates to society and her color and body language change. The final explosion between the two sisters justifies the long build-up.

Intelligent, subtle, powerful. A very moving experience.