Sunday, May 31, 2009

It's a Free Country

England   d/ Ken Loach

Lacerating portrait of the world of illegal immigrants working in Britain. We follow the career of a woman who exploits these people, goes to various countries, makes whatever promises she must to get warm bodies and takes advantage of them.

Strong story, great performance by the lead. This was the ugly face of predatory capitalism at the lowest, least forgiving rung. Another fine work by the spokesman for the British working class.


Friday, May 29, 2009

If Stone Could Speak


The story of the immigrants, mostly Italian, who came to Barre, Vermont at the turn of the last century to work in the granite quarries. Many came as master stone carvers and their work sits in cemeteries all over this area.

Loving, well done piece on a time gone by, especially the socialist mentality and value system these folks brought with them.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Drunken Angel

Japan   d/ A. Kurosawa   Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune

An early effort by Japan's great master. A lesser work. Set in 1948's post-war devastation this centered around a kindly but belligerent, drunken doctor who treats yakuza. His latest patient has TB but his lifestyle and "friends" won't allow him to adopt the lifestyle changes the doc deems necessary to return to health. So they clash, over and over.

Second rate AK with the deadly wild overacting common in Asian film. One good fight scene. Not much evidence of his later framing skill or camera  movement. Most interesting as a time capsule view into a harsh, poor time in Japanese history.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fear Me Not


Another tough one to watch. Here a flat boring salaryman thinks he's getting some powerful drug in a trial and starts doing mean, cruel things to the people in his life. Turns out it was just a placebo but by the time he learns that he's completely round the bend.

The lead was totally unsympathetic and his madness was unexplained or even addressed. He seemed to be a walking id who brought out the worst in everyone.

A bit of an ordeal.


Saturday, May 23, 2009



Variation on Postman Always Rings Twice. Set in Germany, the triangle involves a discharged German soldier, his employer-a Turkish immigrant-and the latter's pretty German wife.

Patient, step-by-step development of the plot, mildly surprising resolution after we were misled by red herrings.

Competent, professional production...nothing more.


The Witnesses

France  Michel Blanc, Emmanuelle Beart   w/d  Andre Techine

This story spanned the time in the 80's when AIDS showed up and wreaked havoc on the lives of those who were targeted by the disease.

The problem here was that the people chosen to represent the victims weren't all that fact they were pretty shitty to each other, which made it hard to be fully sympathetic to their plight. One character was a woman writer who disliked her infant and ignored his cries for food by putting in earplugs. Even the gay doctor who was working to deal with the crisis was a jerk. As the two hour mark came up I wondered why I had spent so much time with people I didn't like.

So this gets credit for good intentions but fails in execution.


Friday, May 22, 2009


Anna May Wong

Silent from 1929. This revolved around the introduction of an exotic new dancer in a night club's mix of performances. Played as melodrama but wasn't too melodramatic. 

Nice framing, slow, patient pacing to the story. AMW was excellent as the calculating usurper. She was sexy and believable as a poor girl clawing her way out of poverty.

A forgotten silent gem.



Sweet little movie (sorry)

This has been called the best baseball movie ever and I have to agree, not that there are many contenders. Baseball really isn't the focus's the vehicle around which the protagonist frames his dreams, goes through the crucible of trial and emerges battered but wiser.

It's a coming-of-age film in the best sense. Great lead, intelligent set-ups and character interactions...just a well done film.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Night of the Iguana

Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr   d/ John Huston

Taken from a novel by Tennessee Williams, this is widely regarded as Huston's worst movie and I concur. Asinine, sometimes cartoonish... Burton never plugged into his character...always seemed to be reading lines. For the first hour I was constantly irritated, after that sadly resigned to watching this junk till the end.

The big revelation to me was that Ava couldn't act at all...her body language was clumsy and awkward, her line readings amateurish. I guess they thought in those bygone days that if a girl was pretty enough stick her in front of a camera and hope for the best. Here (1964) she had lost her beauty and came across as an aging hack in a local theater company.

I thought this was really terrible. Did see Mapache, though.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Throw Down Your Heart


Banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck travels through four countries in Africa where his instrument originally came from to find local musicians to play and record with. Good music and a nice peek into the real life of various Africans from different tribes and social strata, who use the wonderful effect of music and dance in their daily lives.

Marred by that modern plague of zoom pans, extreme close-ups and rapid fire editing. Exactly what are they trying to do with this nonsense? Create interest? If they think the topic is so intrinsically uninteresting why film it in the first place? It was so irritating that after a while I had to stop watching and just listened to the soundtrack in the distance.

Too bad...this was a nice project. Am I the only one who feels this way?


Monday, May 18, 2009

A Man Named Pearl


Sweet little piece on a black man in rural South Carolina who turned his 3 acre yard into a topiary garden that became a tourist attraction, brings smiles to visitors' faces and is helping to re-vitalize the town.

Inspirational, after-school-special level of material.


Anvil: The Story of Anvil


The poignant story of two guys from Toronto who touched on heavy metal stardom in the 80's and then, after sliding into oblivion, kept the flame burning in their hearts.

It didn't help that the music they made was awful...well-crafted and played, simplistic, very loud bombast only suitable for drugged-out festival crowds and grotesquely inappropriate for weddings/bar mitzvahs. In a left-handed way you have to admire their determination to persevere and "make it," whatever that means. Fame and public recognition is addictive and, if carried to the extreme these two guys have, destructive.

Sad, sympathetically moving.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Black Sheep

New Zealand

This was a hoot. Genetically altered monster sheep. Perfect for NZ.

Set up as a standard monster thriller it worked its one joke beautifully, gradually escalating the violence until it approached Peter Jackson (Dead/Alive) territory. Non-stop action helped bury the cartoonish nature of the film. They set out to make a fun film, stirred in a little social commentary for spice and succeeded.

Beautiful landscapes, excellent make-up/gore work. Thanks, folks.




This had some good intentions but came across as a bit of a mess. Five 30-something women gather for a funeral, re-connect, stir some old animosities, act like jerky teens again and part. 

There are very few films which examine mature female bonding and I kept wishing this was a better script. The characters were too unfocused and undeveloped to allow us to understand them or care about their lives. 

Too cigar.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Private Fears in Public Places


This was an elegant, stylized film about six people looking for love or connection in a busy, preoccupied world. Wonderful sets, continuous use of light snowfall as a backdrop as well as a transitional device, strong cast and crane work made this a treat for the eyes.

The only flaw to me was the slide toward a cartoonish mentality in some, but not all scenes. It's hard to find love out there...a theme that's been used countless times...but this film provided a fresh, sad take.


Friday, May 15, 2009

Blood Simple

w/d  Coen Brothers

This one launched their career and what a start it was. Great script, solid acting, imaginative camera work/editing. The story was pretty sleazy but it was so well constructed it didn't matter.

Special kudos to M. Emmet Walsh for creating an unforgettable, believable character.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mark of an Angel

France   Catherine Frot, Sandrine Bonnaire

At the end of this film appears a legend that it was taken from a true event. This story is so not believable that without that note I would have dismissed it as nonsense in spite of the fine acting by the two leads and overall professionalism of the production.

Ths filmmaker steered us in several false directions...first it seemed creepy, then a thriller, then perhaps a threatened-child story. The ultimate resolution was a skillfully handled surprise. 

Could it happen? Beats me. They say it did.


Secrets of the Grain


Very fine film. We immerse ourselves into the lives of some Algerian  folks who are faced with economic change in a southern French port (Marseilles?), adapt by coming together as a family and opening a restaurant based on their native cuisine.

This worked in spite of the fact that there were many characters whose lives we had to understand. The director made us care by using long takes of individual scenes that allowed us to see each character in his interaction with the others, thus giving us a sense of who everyone was and how they related to each other. Compare this technique with the quick-cutting confusion of A Christmas Tale. Slick isn't better.

Nice work.



England   d/Steve McQueen

This film has been called "torture porn" and that's not unfair. If you really get into watching naked men wallowing in their own shit, being beaten by cruel prison guards and slowly starving to death with intense close-ups of bloody sores, vomit, etc., then this is is a gift from heaven.

For the rest of us watching the film was torture...a gruesome ordeal that I had to force myself to finish. You don't have to persuade me at this point that the Brits were truly monstrous toward the Irish for 500 years, especially by shoving my face directly into the muck of their domination. Most non-anglophiles know this. 

So who was this made for? The Brits themselves? Have they been shielded from the behavior of their muscle?

There was one fine scene, mostly done with no cuts,  static camera, of a conversation between Bobby Sands and a priest that was a blessed relief from the graphic abuse and a display of subtle acting technique but it stood out like a raisin in a sea of sludge.


Sunday, May 10, 2009



A coming-of-age story set in an amusement park in 1987. OK mix of not-funny comedy and teenage pathos, mostly having to do with the messy business of relationships. Some family stuff crept in too.

Good acting by several of the principals but I guess I've seen too many of these to care. Slid over too far into cartoon territory. Pat resolution.


Demain (Tomorrow)


This was an exercise in minimalist filmmaking. We follow a 20-something woman through the course of her banal, everyday activities: she takes care of diabetic dad, gets involved with a loser, goes to work, does the dishes. Subtle changes occur in her life but nothing that rises to the level of general interest.

It just wasn't in me to care anything about these folks who could have been chosen at random from any phone book.


Warsaw Bridge


This was a brilliant, exasperating film. Scene after scene of elaborate set-ups, stunning cinematography, creative use of music, wonderful camera movement...all for what purpose? This was more like the films of Peter Greenaway than anything else I've seen. Except with less coherence.

After a great-looking but bewildering opening we see the credits 25 minutes in. And then it became even more confusing. I never did discern a theme, message or raison d'etre for all this. Something about the role writers play in society.  Maybe that was the point. Incredible film-making though...


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Lars and the Real Girl

Ryan Gosling

An Amerindie fable set in the northern midwest. Lars buys a sex doll, treats it like his new girlfriend and, to humor him, so do all the people in his small town.

This walked a very fine line between precious and absurd. The theme was tolerance, acceptance and the willingness of a community to help a local guy get through a hard time. Not particularly realistic...this was more a dramatization of the type of community we would all like to live in, the type of people we would all like to be. Like the village in Local Hero or the one in Seducing Doctor Lewis. If only...


A Christmas Tale

France  Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Almaric

This film has been praised by reviewers worldwide and I could sort of see was slick, modern-looking (lots of smooth camera movement, tiny little cuts) and about a "disfunctional" family but I had a hard time getting through it.

These characters were so irritating and there were so many of them that I never got to the point of caring whether or not they reconciled, walked off-screen or exploded in a spectacular act of self immolation. In fact that would have been interesting at least. MA's behavior was so incredible that he seemed to come from some parallel universe. Has anyone outside the confines of a psychiatric ward ever behaved like that?

It ended with close-ups of surgical procedures. Perfect. A film that was psychically and emotionally repulsive closed the circle with physical repulsion.


Passion in the Desert


Adaptation of a novella by Balzac, this dealt with the adventures of an officer with the French army in Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Egypt. He gets separated from his unit, ends up in Petra and has a love affair with a leopard.

Superb use of locations. Excellent sound design which actually propelled the story. Main character was an arrogant jerk, typifying the European attitudes toward Arab culture at the time.

This was a beautiful looking film, unique, engaging, very nicely done.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

51 Birch Street


OK kind of navel-gazing.  Adult son "filmmaker" shoots footage of his family and after mom dies decides to probe deeply into his parent's lives, secrets, failures, etc.  How much do you really want to know about your parents? How much do you think other people care?

This is based on the notion that your personal life story has universal interest, a troubling example of solipsism which has become more and more prevalent in the world of film. The people on display here were not interesting. Their travails were pedestrian and commonplace and not worth the time it took to learn about them. Every family has skeletons...should all of us be making documentaries about them?

I think the phrase is...get over yourself.


Friday, May 1, 2009

Two Lovers

Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow   w/d James Gray

Here we follow the life of a post-suicide-attempt thirty-something, living back at the parents' Brighton Beach manse. He meets two women, a nice Jewish girl and an exciting self-destructive blonde. Which will he choose? 

The very fact that he gets to choose anyone was a stumbling block I couldn't get past. This guy was morose, not charming, inarticulate, selfish and not particularly good looking. What exactly were these two women attracted to? His dilemma was the entire focus of the film but I never bought the premise. 

A good cast wasted.