Archive for the “DVD” Category

1999

April 11, 2009
DVD
France
French
99 Minutes — October 8, 1999
Drama
Catherine Breillat [Last Tango In Paris; A Real Young Girl; 36 Fillette; Perfect Love; Fat Girl; The Last Mistress]
Marie: Caroline Ducey [The Last Mistress]

Love Is Desolate. Romance Is Temporary. Sex Is Forever.

Frustrated by her partner’s refusal to make love to her, a schoolteacher embarks on a series of affairs.

A waif-like, semi-attractive woman watches her lover during a photo shoot. The man is pretending to be a matador and it’s obvious right away that he’s way more beautiful than she is. As they visit a cafe afterward he announces to her that their relationship is so deep now, that the very act of sex is unnecessary. Sex will dirty what they have, they are so above it. Sex is conventional and what they have is light-years beyond convention. She will not accept this, and with his approval, she is allowed to get her sexual needs met outside of that primary relationship.

Through voice-over, we know how much of a betrayal this is to her. She attempts to start lovemaking while in their all-white apartment, but he continues to concentrate on the TV while she concentrates on his body. She begs him to at least take his shirt off as she climbs into bed nude. He speaks with incredible dispassion about not wanting to be touched. She loses sleep over this, which is handy, because now she can go out at night and look for sex in nearby bars and cafes.

Her first contact is with a dense, but attractive man played by Italian pornstar Rocco Siffredi. He says his girlfriend recently died in a car crash, she mentions that she’s married. He continues the charade he’s always employed to get women, she makes herself even less available by telling a more strict truth. They drive around, makeout in a car, he asks for certain things to happen, she says “next time,” and then she heads off to her job as a teacher of grade-school children. She continuously wears white in this film.

The couple meet again later, and have a sex scene that is remarkable for both its explicitness and its complete lack of arousal for the audience. Siffredi was hired because he has certain physical attributes that are supposed to denote incredible masculinity, as well as having the “skill” to use that endowment on command, in front of a crew of filmmakers. That’s his body, in a state that we still rarely see in mainstream films. In post-release interviews, none of the participants have denied that actual sex took place in front of the camera. In other films, Breillat will dodge similar questions. “They never asked me if I actually killed someone in my films, why do they ask about real sex?”

While this sex is going on, Marie talks about the importance of sex to her, but again, with no passion whatsoever. It’s not clear if she even likes it very much. She is more upset at her partner’s lack of interest, than she seems to be in her missing orgasms.

Other couplings include a compelling S & M relationship with the principal of her school. This man, though old and not particularly attractive, claims to have bedded thousands of women. He listens, he talks with them, he gives them advice on literature and philosophy. Marie wants to explore giving up complete control to him. This leads to a scene that shows just how long it takes to have someone tied up to proper S & M specifications. She is gagged and becomes frightened, but not so much at the man, more at the feelings this surrender brings to her.

She is offered oral sex by a stranger in a stairway which doesn’t end well–or does it end exactly like it was supposed to.

Marie has a dream where a group of women are lying on beds with their lower halves through a little door. The upper half is bathed in white light and sensitive men are holding hands and nurturing. The other side is all red lights, lingerie, and naked aroused men taking turns with faceless bodies.

Marie becomes pregnant and through a too-explicit-for-me-to-watch childbirth, fulfills what she believes her body to be ultimately for.

Breillat again turns gender roles upside down, shows a woman on the prowl, makes no judgments about who she ends up with or what she ends up doing with these men. It shouldn’t be so revolutionary, but exactly how many directors in the world can show us the other side of the sexual coin like she can? I feel like I’ve completely drank the Kool-aid that Ms. Breillat has stirred for me. She’s not successful in everything she tries, but I’m so happy that she’s trying.

“Serious films about sex are rare, but it’s perhaps unsurprising that French writer/director Breillat should have produced such an extraordinarily focused study, as she’s been making movies on the subject since 1976. This is her most ambitious and audacious work to date. The story itself is so simple, it has the clarity of a fable: bored, depressed and ‘dishonored’ by her lover Paul’s lack of physical interest in her, schoolteacher Marie (Ducey) embarks on a sexual odyssey. That’s it for the plot. Breillat’s interest is in her heroine’s psychology, and in her steady growth through transgression, experiment and self-analysis, however painful or potentially self-destructive the consequences may be. Entailing a kind of sentimental education, the film is distinguished by its cool refusal to judge or applaud Marie’s actions; Breillat simply observes and analyzes. Not that her aesthetic is ‘realist’. Marie’s philosophical/poetic voice-over, the inexorable linear progress of her actions, and the stark, subtly stylized interiors situate the film in the realm of metaphor. At the same time, however, the very frank physicality roots it in a world recognizably our own, while the gaze at erotic activity results not in titillation but in a contemplation of sexual congress as an outward manifestation of deeper, more complex needs. Indeed, while this is clearly ‘a woman’s film’ in its point of view, the cool, detached air of inquiry, the focus on paraphernalia and emotional sophistication recall Bunuel, Borowczyk and Oshima.” — Time Out Film Guide 2007

“A movie that caused controversy because of its scenes of explicit sexual activity, some of which involved the well-endowed porn star Rocco Siffredi; otherwise it sis one of those films, typical of France, in which a woman’s search for sexual emancipation causes her to be abused by men. Finally, it becomes a twisted drama of revenge.” — ** Halliwell’s Film Guide 2008

“Notorious French film from writer-director Breillat about a woman who, rejected by her lover, goes on a sexual odyssey that leads her down some very strange paths. Novelty of sexual film from a woman’s point of view quickly wears off; it’s startlingly explicit but strangely un-erotic — and, more important, dull.” — *^ Leonard Maltin’s 2007 Movie Guide

*** Ebert
*** Berardinelli
4.9 Metacritic
5.2 IMDB

Romance @ Amazon

ROMANCE

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PERFECT LOVE
1996

April 11, 2009
Netflix DVD
France
French
110 Minutes
Drama / Romance
Catherine Breillat [Last Tango In Paris; A Real Young Girl; 36 Fillette; Fat Girl; The Last Mistress]
Frederique: Isabelle Renauld [The Last Mistress]
Christophe: Francis Renaud

The opening scene is the investigation of a murder. A man has murdered his girlfriend in her kitchen. Without emotion, he describes and re-enacts his crime with police inspectors. The rest of the film becomes a why-done-it.

We flash back to a wedding where an attractive 34-year-old woman toasts the new bride and groom, comments to a 20-something man that he’s grown since the last time she saw him, and is invited by that same man out to the garden where they sit on a bench and have a chat. The man, humorlessly, mentions that he’s dated women her age and that it’s no big deal. He will declare later that “our age difference is an injustice”, and right away he seems to be out to prove that the fact that she is twice married and has two children does not exclude her from his attention.

She looked to me like a French Diane Lane, so it’s not like she isn’t used to the attention of men. She seems strangely uninterested, but they begin an affair nonetheless. The man often remarks that he’s the mature one in the relationship. She wonders to his friends and sometimes to him, whether or not he’s actually gay. There are the early dates, the sloppy grope sessions outside her apartment, the juggling of parental duties and job duties (she’s an ophthalmologist–he made some money in his own company).

Because this is a Catherine Breillat film, there are scenes of sex which are long-lasting and awkward and vary in their success rate. At first they’re in a hurry to make love, later she requires more of something he can’t give. After sex, they do a lot of talking. We learn, seemingly, about every other person they’ve ever slept with. Again, weirdly dispassionately. They’re not bragging to each other, exactly, but this disclosure of past lovers seems to make no impression at all on the two of them.

The good times don’t last long. She’s a bit critical, he accuses her of keeping him on a short leash before she has the chance to. He misses his friends, misses the casual sex he used to have with his fellow clubgoers. She isn’t sure this young man is someone who should spend the night in her apartment with her children there. The sex slows down, the fights begin, the drinking starts, the vindictive comments hurt.

It’s not exactly a fun ride, but none of Ms. Breillat’s films are serene walks in the park. The fact that we know that this relationship will end in murder doesn’t hurt the story, but I’m not sure it helps it. We can see the mistakes we’ve made in our own relationships as we watch this. We can take one of the lovers’ side in their many arguments. We can wonder what one is doing with the other. We can wish we had someone as attractive as both of the leads are. But we always wonder exactly what could have gone so wrong for the man to kill his lover in a moment of passion on the kitchen table. Is there anything she could have done to deserve such a fate?

There are few body fluids this time out for Breillat. The man constantly drinks Coca Cola, as a shorthand to prove how much younger he is than she. He is cocky and rides a motorcycle. She is flippant with his love at first, and then ridicules his sexual powers later on. They are a bit of a miserable couple and we wonder why they stay together as long as they do.

His youth also results in the “I Love You” declaration way before we see it in the two characters and probably way before he actually means it. It’s one of the ways he forces what he wants to happen on a relationship where it might never happen. He flirts a bit inappropriately with her teenage daughter. He has boring sex with other women. She sits by while he chats up women in bars.

It’s all very angsty. But it also has moments of truth that anyone who’s been in a relationship can relate to.

“Breillat’s provocative drama charts how an idyllic affair between a divorcee — an optician with two kids — and a feckless, womanizing twenty-something leads to brutal murder. Though some may find the woman’s increasingly masochistic reactions to her young lover’s behavior questionable, the film is psychologically astute; just watch how the boy’s early curiosity about the woman’s greater experience slowly turns to insecurity and a determination to keep control. The performances are unsentimental, the tone uncompromising, and if the film ends up too schematic for its own good, there’s no denying its emotional punch or the intelligence of its dark insights.” — Time Out Film Guide 2007

6.6 IMDB

Perfect Love @ Amazon

PERFECT LOVE

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BATTLE ROYALE
2000

April 4, 2009
Netflix DVD
Japan
Japanese
121 Minutes
Action / Sci-Fi / Sport / Thriller
Kinji Fukasaku

Could You Kill Your Best Friend?

In the near future, a class of teenagers is chosen by lottery to be stranded on a remote island and given three days in which to kill one another until only one survives.

“Bracing, violent, blackly humorous satire on the bleaker aspects of modern society that manages to be more than merely an excuse for a killing spree” — Halliwell’s Film Guide 2008

** Halliwell’s
8.0 IMDB

Battle Royale @ Amazon

BATTLE ROYALE

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THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC
1928

March 22, 2009
Netflix Criterion DVD
France
Silent (Optional “Voices Of Light” Musical Track)
82 Minutes
Biography / Drama / History
Carl Theodor Dreyer
#17 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

On her last day on Earth, Joan of Arc is subjected to five increasingly threatening interrogations before being burned alive at the stake.

Most of the reviews mention that this may be the best example of silent film acting ever committed to film. I wasn’t sure what they meant until I saw this movie. I now find myself wholeheartedly agreeing. Maria Falconetti has this big, round, expressive face with huge eyes. Somehow, in a silent film with French title cards, she conveys everything we need to know about a character. She can cry with the best of them. She is typically filmed looking up at someone or something. It’s hard to describe. I thought I’d be bored senseless, but my attention was captured as I watched it twice. And I don’t know too much about the actual story. I was watching more as an exercise in filmmaking back in the 20s. The commentary track will tell you that this film had substantially more edits than any other for its time. The torture scenes are scary, the burning stake scene seems pretty realistic, and we even see real life human bloodletting. The actors were told to be available for the entirety of the long shoot. No makeup was allowed. Maria’s hair was actually shaved–she’s really crying while it happens.

The fact that this film even exists is amazing. The master print was destroyed after shooting. The director then used alternate takes to complete the film. Banned immediately upon its release in several countries, it was thought lost to fire and decay decades ago. Then a pristine print appears in the closet of an insane asylum in Oslo. It is translated back to French and cleaned up by the geniuses at Criterion.

“Austerely moving drama, using close-ups to give intense scrutiny to Joan and her accusers, drawing in the audience to become involved in the action.” **** — Halliwell’s Film Guide 2008

“One of the greatest of all movies…Falconetti’s Joan may be the finest performance ever recorded on film” — Pauline Kael

“Dreyer’s most universally acclaimed masterpiece remains one of the most staggeringly intense films ever made. It deals with only the final stages of Joan’s trial and her execution, and is composed almost exclusively of closeups: hands, robes, crosses, metal bars, and (most of all) faces. The face we see most is, naturally, Falconetti’s as Joan, and it’s hard to imagine a performer evincing physical anguish and spiritual exaltation more palpably. Dreyer encloses this stark, infinitely expressive face with other characters and sets that are equally devoid of decoration and equally direct in conveying both material and metaphysical essences. The entire film is less molded in light than carved in stone: it’s magisterial cinema, and almost unbearably moving.” — Time Out Film Guide 2007

“Masterfully directed, with groundbreaking use of closeups; Falconetti glows in the title role” — **** Maltin

8.1 IMDB

The Passion of Joan of Arc @ Amazon

THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC

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I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE
2006

March 21, 2009
Netflix DVD
Malaysia / China / Taiwan / France / Austria
Taiwanese / Malay / Mandarin / Bengali
115 Minutes
Comedy / Drama
Ming-Liang Tsai [What Time Is It There?]

7.8 Metacritic
7.2 IMDB

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone @ Amazon

I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE

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2009

March 1, 2009
Cinequest 19
USA
English / Vietnamese / Russian / German
91 Minutes
Sci-Fi
Alejandro Adams

The most talked about film of Cinequest 19.

CANARY

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ANOTHER MAN
2008

Cinequest 19 Screener
Switzerland
French
89 Minutes
Drama
Lionel Baier

Black and White. Stark. Covered with snow. Francois and his girlfriend, Christine have recently moved to a sort of backwards hamlet in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. He took writing classes in college and carries around a resume to show the printer of the local weekly paper. The man doesn’t need to see a resume. As long as Francois can write, he gets the job. One of his duties for the paper is to attend the weekly screenings held at the town’s only movie theater.

First up: LAST DAYS, the Gus Van Sant film based upon the final few days in Kurt Cobain’s life. Francois has no idea how to feel about the film. Does he like it or hate it or is he indifferent? He simply can’t answer. To be fair, LAST DAYS is not exactly and easy film to quantify. My first words about it in the summer of 2005: “I’ve had nearly a week to digest this. And I’m still not sure if it’s merely good or fantastic. It’s like watching a dream. People move about and do things without needing to push the plot along.

He comes across a magazine called “Travelling”, which is an incredibly high-fallutin cinema journal along the lines of FILM COMMENT or CASHIERS DU CINEMA. Rather than figure out his own thoughts on the film, he copies the published review word for word and turns it in as his own.

Luckily, not many of the townspeople are cinephiles and none of them have read “Travelling” so his secret is safe. However, the high-minded magazine doesn’t like any of the films that the single theater has chosen to show. He refuses to lower the bar on “his” reviews and is subsequently banned from the weekly screenings. So he takes it upon himself to drive into the cosmopolitan town of Lausanne where he attends press screenings with all the local critics. He begins believing that he is a great critic. There is an incredibly sexy critic named Rosa Rouge who is on to his game immediately, but would rather sleep with him and demean him than let his secret out of the bag.

Cue the Swiss-French sex scenes–in a theater, and hotel room, complete with chopsticks.

Francois at one point says, “I have no opinion on anything–I haven’t been taught to.” And that is the essence of the film. Francois is surrounded by critics with opinions and when he appears on an NPR-type radio show, the entire panel speaks except for him. Do the professionals really know more than the man who has nothing to say?

Robin Harsch (Francois) and Natacha Koutchoumov (Rosa) are a charismatic pair. She’s bratty and know-it-all. He’s a puppy dog with nary a thought in his head.

ANOTHER MAN (UN AUTRE HOMME) will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here: http://www.cinequest.org/event_view.php?eid=457

IMDB

ANOTHER MAN

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THE NECESSITIES OF LIFE
2008

Cinequest 19 Screener
Canada
French / Inuktitut
102 Minutes
Drama
Benoit Pilon

Tiivii (you’ll recognize Natar Ungalaaq’s angular face from THE FAST RUNNER) is an Eskimo living on a rushing river in the far north of Canada with his wife and two daughters. It is 1952. A French medical ship anchors and the natives board it for a check-up. Tiivii is found to have a lung disease. His family is sent away as he is taken on a two month boat ride to Quebec City for treatment. His biggest worry is that his family won’t have enough to eat. “Who will hunt food for them?”

Upon arrival at the modern hospital, it becomes clear that no one on the staff speaks his language and he doesn’t know any French. His hair is cut and his native clothes are disposed of. The doctors can’t explain to him what his sickness is, but through some pantomime and the use of a calendar, Tiivii is told that he may need to stay in the hospital for two years. He is placed in a ward full of coughers, who look at him in wonder. The first meal he’s supposed to eat while in the hospital? Spaghetti. For a man who’s never used utensils.

This fish-out-of water story continues until, after missing his family terribly, he makes a break for it. He sleeps in barns, sings traditional songs to himself, and tries not to freeze to death. He is brought back and mounts a hunger strike. His dismal life in the hospital becomes much better when a kind nurse transfers a native orphan to his hospital. He is fluent in both French (“you know the White language? Yes, it’s easy”) and Inuktitut. The boy teaches him about modern life and he teaches the boy hunting techniques and tells him stories passed down from generation to generation.

There isn’t a whole lot more to the plot than that. There is two-way culture shock. A piece of raw salmon is almost giggled over, while a Christmas feast barely registers. Male-female social conventions are tested. And a strong bond is formed between the man and boy, who are both unsure of their place in a large, French-speaking city in Canada.

The incredible face of Ungalaaq is so expressive and honest that not much more needs to happen. When he says he misses his family, there isn’t a doubt in our minds. This film tells a unique story. There are no good or bad guys. Everyone is trying to help Tiivii. But he wants to get back to his tent and his family.

THE NECESSITIES OF LIFE will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here: http://www.cinequest.org/event_view.php?eid=511

IMDB

THE NECESSITIES OF LIFE

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2008

February 17, 2009
Cinequest 19 Screener
USA
English
102 Minutes
Comedy / Drama
John-Michael Thomas

A group of good-looking, but geeky, 20somethings meet in a warehouse loft to play online video games. To say they take these games seriously would be quite an understatement. Right away, the jargon is going to be tough for those of us outside the target age group. But before we throw up our hands in frustration, the screen freezes and two of the characters explain to us what the hell they’re talking about. Characters speaking directly to us is just one of the ways that CORPSE RUN tells its story.

This group is plugged in. They live in Los Angeles, they pursue their dreams in the daytime–singer, actress, investor, management trainee–but they only feel alive when they gather with each other (and beer, junk food, extremely fast computers) to defeat other teams in an online universe. They are the self-described “second best team online.”

Much like people you know in real life, everyone in the movie has an online handle. Adama, Liberty, Chucky, MichaelVox. Just kidding about that last one. When not playing videogames (reasons come up–the online universe is down for maintenance, the electricity is out, the sun is out) the group sits around and tries to explain and solve the problems of the world. Which would be grating in most movie instances, but isn’t in this film. That’s mostly due to the extremely capable cast of unknowns (at least to me). Another thing that keeps this introspection from being excruciating is that the characters themselves realize that they’re full of shit.

The musician knows he’s probably not much better than the other thousand bands in Los Angeles at any given time. The actress, while attractive, can’t perform in auditions and begins looking for another job. A young videogame magnate realizes that he’s stopped calling games art and begun calling them business. In one memorable scene, one character explains to his boss at what appears to be every single office job I’ve ever held, that what his boss thinks is 3 weeks of work, can be completed by a halfway intelligent young person in three hours. And then he goes off on a rant about “his generation” being able to multi-task and figure things out and they are better equipped and smarter and have access to more information and all the rest of the things that people born in the 1980s sometimes say in online essays (or their blogs). The result of this character’s inspiring story about how much different the new boss is from the old boss is that he is fired. He is no good at his office job. He talks an extremely good game, but can’t execute that gameplan.

The film has video game theory, style, and music throughout. When a kid is told that the Challenger disaster will be the defining moment of his generation, his voiceover counters with “Fuck the Challenger, my generation was defined by the Nintendo Entertainment System.” Scenes begin with quotes from the guys who brought us Pac Man and Donkey Kong.

Two characters have a meet-cute in a diner after one uses an obscure anime reference and the other answers back with a different, though equally obscure, anime reference. Love is born.

For computer geeks, this group seems relatively well-adjusted. They are no more messed up than any other 20s group. They get outside. They play poker, they aren’t rendered mute around attractive women. In fact, they are probably substantially better looking as a group than any real group of kids gathering in the dark to play games on a LAN. The main love interest (the anime twins) have a sweet and realistic courtship. They talk about ice cream and movies and games and their dreams. They walk on the beach and pretend they’re superheroes. Each of the couples in the film (there are two others) are sweet and awkward and realistic. The larger group has become a sort of family for all of these kids who have come to Los Angeles from other places, mostly.

There is a very well done scene which takes place in one of the canyons where a Myspace alert has brought other gamers out of their homes for a kegger. There is drinking and a bonfire and laughter. And then there is a game of capture the flag. Sega v. Ninetendo. And the Hatfields and McCoys never had so much unbridled hatred for each other. This is just another example of videogames permeating the lives of these characters. A diatribe against John Madden for somehow becoming the most powerful person in videogame history is also particularly funny.

As a filmmaker, director John-Michael Thomas (who appears in the film as anime boy / aspiring singer) tries all kinds of things to prove that we’re not watching a normal narrative. There are quotes on the screen, the characters speak directly to the camera, in several scenes a videogame arrow appears above a character denoting his importance, there is text on the screen instead of filmed footage (EXT — Characters walk into bar), and there is a Zelda-type quest that three characters take to a mysterious cave where they play in a live-action text-based videogame from back in the day.

In terms of plot from A to B to C, it’s not really there. A few of the characters change, but in most cases we don’t know what happens to them. Life goes on. Online life goes on online. Characters pontificate about their place in the world, but aside from the technology at their disposal, generations of humans have been arguing about their place in the world since we left the cave. They are no different.

If I were 15 years younger, this would probably be one of my favorite films ever. I cheered when I saw an actor playing Nolan Bushnell, I oohed at the Atari 2600, I swooned at the fake DOOM screen showing a character attempt to fix the electrical grid. But the rest of the gaming stuff was a bit over my head–which is exactly where it should be. I’m too old to be worried about my generation’s place in the world. I’m simply trying to live in it.

CORPSE RUN will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here: http://www.cinequest.org/event_view.php?eid=472

IMDB

CORPSE RUN

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2008

February 14, 2009
Cinequest 19 Screener
USA
English
86 Minutes
Comedy / Crime
Julian M. Kheel

Three devious schemes; three badly executed heists; and a pawnshop with one surprising treasure.

Every year that Cinequest comes around, I sort of have to split my personality as a viewer. Half of me remains the snobby holier-than-thou viewer, seeking out the darkest Ukrainian dramas about life’s futility and documentaries whose sole purpose is to anger or delight me enough to physically pull others into the theater to experience what I just experienced.

But the other half of me at Cinequest (this will be my 13th year), when dealing with ultra-independent American films, has come to realize what the festival is here for. Cinequest looks for fresh faces–filmmakers who will go on to greater things. We get early exposure to them and can remember future superstars when they could barely hold a camera straight or keep a narrative flowing to save their lives. There is also the whole social aspect of the festival–there are parties and the chance to see and meet semi-famous people, there are casual movie fans who are looking to impress their dates, there are dinners and cocktails before and after the screenings–and this is where I differ from the crowd.

I have rarely, if ever, enjoyed a dinner and cocktails, and then headed to a movie. Or at least any movie where any thought was involved. Spiderman? Yes. Frozen River? No. However, on those rare occasions when I venture to the movies on a Friday or Saturday night, I am typically surrounded by buzzed audience members who insist on continuing their dinner conversations in the darkened theater. I personally need to be alert, sober, and ready to be taken wherever the filmmaker wants to take me.

But Cinequest is different for me. I still don’t drink-first-view-later, but I understand that there are parties and people are spending their money in a down economy at one of the many fine San Ho restaurants. There are also first dates being planned whereby one party will prove to the other party just how much of a film buff they are by taking a chance on a movie none of their friends have heard of. There are aspiring young people filmmakers and artsy seniors who finally feel like the Camera 12 is their venue–at least for the 11 days of Cinequest. For some filmmakers with movies in the fest, this will be the furthest they get. For others, it’s merely a stepping-stone on the way to greatness. People will come into theaters late and leave early. People will get texts, answer them, and then go to the next-door screen where a friend has told them genius is unspooling. People will sit in aisles, stand against walls, laugh at jokes that they’d never laugh at in a normal multiplex, and ask questions of filmmakers which have no basis in the reality of the film they just experienced. That’s become a bit of a sport for me. Watching something I hated and then waiting for someone to attempt to impress his or her companion by asking a question about the director’s influence from Bunuel or Ozu or Kiarostami. It’s all I can do to not laugh out loud. At Cinequest 18 I sat next to a girlfriend sitting on her boyfriend’s lap for a 130 minute film. By the end, I thought she was at least half mine. Needless to say, she went home with lap number one leaving me, lap number two to enjoy the next film uncovered.

What all that means above is that I have come to realize that there are certain films which appear to be made especially for this kind of melting pot of an audience. Snobs, hipsters, old folks, wise-beyond-their-years teens, NYU grads, and people who wandered into the wrong theater by mistake make up quite a schizophrenic group of viewers.

But CAPERS should make almost all of them happy. It’s a perfect Cinequest comedy. It tries new things, it stars people who you think you’ve seen before, it looks good, but not too good, it’s plot is easy to sum up in both a Tweet and in the big program with the woman putting on (taking off) her face. There are a lot of laughs, some minor girl-on-girl action, hip hop rhymes, and stone-faced Soviets.

CAPERS has four easy-to-remember sets of characters. Connie is an over-the-top racist mafia widow who runs a pawnshop with her semi-retarded grandson. The Amateurs are over-the-top robbers who dress and act like they’re from a 70s movie, down to the Popeye Doyle hat on Danny Masterson’s head. The Moolies (I didn’t realize that it was okay to name a gang after an Italian insult directed at black people, but this film claims that it is) are over-the-top small-time crooks who dress and act like they’re filming a rap video. All the time. They wear colorful outfits, carry a huge boom box, and hold their guns sideways. Every time they enter a scene, music plays loudly and the familiar MTV font appears at the lower left of the screen. The third group of crooks are referred to as the Sputniks who act as if the cold war hasn’t ended, wear drab clothes and live in drab surroundings, and have no discernible sense of humor. Each of the gangs has had interactions with Connie, each has noticed that she keeps a safe in her shop, and each has decided that the safe must contain something incredibly valuable. Each gang plans a can’t-fail robbery of the place.

Here’s the cool and unique thing about CAPERS: whenever the Amateurs are on screen, the film uses lenses, film exposures, angles, clothing, and language as if it were filmed in 1974. This same idea was tried, less successfully, by Tarantino and Rodriguez for their Grindhouse experiment a few years back. The Amateur scenes have poor splicing, a 70s soundtrack, hairs on the camera, and long, grainy shots. It is actually quite a feat.

Whenever the Moolies are onscreen, the picture is razor-sharp, the music is loud (so loud that in one scene two characters continually yell louder than the music until one of them gets out of bed to turn it down), the clothes are loud, and the style changes to the slow-motion, fast-motion scenes we’ve come to expect from rap videos. There are slow-motion house party dances for no reason, the language is street, there is a blacked-out SUV, the beverages are all Diddy-approved.

Finally, the Sputniks are kept in black and white. Sparse language, spoken with a Rocky and Bullwinkle accent, a robot-like woman trying to be sexy, and static camera shots.

Somehow, director Julian M. Kheel keeps all the balls in the air. The Amateurs try to gather a team together (“you need a tall guy and an oriental for computer skills and karate”), the Moolies shop for weapons at a Hassidic plastic explosives store (“we’re open until sundown every day but Saturday”), and the Sputniks try to buy Uranium at their local hardware store. Each time we join one of the teams, the entire frame is changed to suit the style of the group. This works to fantastic effect, but it’s more than simply a visual gimmick. The editing changes, the pacing changes, the soundtrack changes. Eventually, all three teams will have to be in the same place at the same time–what will that look like?

Plot-wise, CAPERS is nothing to shout about. There are enough jokes to keep us laughing, none of these teams are Oceans Eleven quality brain trusts. The object of their planning doesn’t seem like much, and many of the characters are complete cartoons. But sometimes cartoons are funny and can keep your interest for 90 minutes.

CAPERS is sure to be a Cinequest hit. The theater will be full of laughter and people will talk about it when the lights come up.

And there is nary a whisper about the futility of life in the entire film.

CAPERS will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here: http://www.cinequest.org/event_view.php?eid=470

IMDB

CAPERS

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2008

February 11, 2009
Cinequest 19 Screener
USA
English
87 Minutes
Documentary
Bestor Cram

Out Of Darkness, Comes Light.

When the “Man In Black”, Johnny Cash was stationed at an Air Force Base in West Germany, he watched a movie from 1951 called “Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison,” which so inspired him that he later wrote a song about the prison, located just outside of Sacramento, California. The song, of course, is “Folsom Prison Blues”, which was released on December 15, 1955.

The documentary JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON will make the case that Mr. Cash may have heard an album by a songwriter named Gordon Jenkins who’s song “Seven Dreams” has verses which are a bit too similar to be coincidental. Regardless of Mr. Cash’s influences, the song became a hit, Mr. Cash began performing within the walls of prisons, and it was only a matter of time before he’d perform “Folsom Prison Blues” inside the actual Folsom Prison. He first performed there in 1966, and then on January 13, 1968, he returned with his band, the Tennessee Three, his wife, June Carter, Carl Perkins, The Statler Brothers, a photographer, and a sound recording engineer. There is no filmed footage of the event.

In 1968, Cash was just getting over his drug addiction and was looking for a comeback opportunity. He had been performing at different prisons around the country and writing songs written from an inmate’s perspective. For the Folsom show, he and his band spent the day before learning a song that one of the Folsom inmates had written called “Greystone Chapel.” It was written by a singer-songwriter named Glen Sherley, whose children appear in this film. Sherley was given a seat in the front row and was shocked when the famous singer began strumming the song that he had written.

The parallel stories of Sherley and Cash are quite compelling. One man lived a life in prison and the other got credit for singing as if he knew what it was like on the inside. Cash once told country star Merle Haggard, who spent several years in the late 50s at San Quentin, “people think I’ve lived the life that you actually have.”

The film is fascinating. We hear interviews with Cash’s bandmates, his children, former guards and two former inmates who were there that day. There is rare footage taken inside the present-day walls of Folsom. There are dozens of photographs of the event and some songs that weren’t released on the 1968 album. And somehow, though he died in 2003, we hear audio of an interview that Cash did about the concert.

The album, “At Folsom Prison” was an instant success, quickly selling half a million copies. It resurrected Cash’s career and increased his fan base. If you saw WALK THE LINE, you’ll probably remember the scenes that took place at Folsom as the most exciting of the film. I mentioned above that there is no footage of the show, so director Bestor Cram, finds images for us to see while hearing the fantastic songs.

One that sticks out for me is “25 Minutes To Go” where a condemned man headed to death row is recounting his last 25 minutes. The film uses black and white animation which depicts the words of the song. It’s an exciting song to begin with, that excitement is intensified by hearing it sung in front of inmates who whoop and cheer specific lyrics, and the animation only adds to the power as a man eats his last meal, is visited by a preacher, and begins walking up the steps of the gallows.

Then the sheriff said boy, I’m gonna watch you die;
Got 19 minutes to go;
So I laughed in his face and I spit in his eye;
Got 18 minutes to go.

The inmates go crazy as the song gets louder and louder, and faster and faster, leading to the execution of the character.

Now here comes the preacher for to save my soul;
With 13 minutes to go;
And he’s talking bout burnin but I’m so cold;
I’ve got 12 more minutes to go.

This clip has been posted on youtube, and if it’s still there, the link is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ey3-Rq9p5A

The film is full of these performances and insightful interviews. After 40 years, the impact of this live album is still being felt. When you think of other live albums and how they changed a band or singer’s career, the list really isn’t that long. U2 at Red Rocks. The Who Live At Leeds. Cheap Trick at Budokan. Led Zeppelin, Queen, and Bruce Springsteen had to compile several dates and several venues to gather the right material for their live releases.

Live At Folsom Prison can be held up among the best live albums of all time. Cash needed a hit after reaching rock bottom. The prisoners were excited that anyone, let alone country music royalty was performing for them and Cash chose songs that appealed deeply to the inmates. The film adds interviews with major players, the story of the other musician, inmate Glen Sherley, and we see how these concerts cause Cash to become an advocate for prisoner’s rights. There is footage of him testifying before Congress.

I can’t wait to see this again on a big screen with big speakers.

Johnny Cast At Folsom Prison will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here: http://www.cinequest.org/event_view.php?eid=497

JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON

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2008

February 5, 2009
DVD
UK
English
118 Minutes — October 10, 2008
Comedy / Drama
Mike Leigh [Life Is Sweet; Naked; Secrets & Lies; Topsy-Turvy]

The one movie this fall that will put a smile on your face.

Poppy is always happy. Always. No matter what happens to her, no matter how those around her are feeling.

The opening scene of Happy-Go-Lucky shows Poppy riding a bike around London. She stops at a bookstore and tries to engage the silent and brooding clerk in a conversation, but he doesn’t take the bait. She continues smiling, looks at the shelves and as she’s leaving, she says “it’s okay now, I’m leaving”. She goes outside to find her bicycle stolen, but instead of swearing or crying she continues the smile and says to herself “I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye.”

This is not a normal person. But you know what? I fell for her. She’s like a sociology experiment come to life. What if you met every situation with a happy go lucky attitude? How would you change those around you, how would you be treated–that is, can you will yourself to happiness? This film argues that yes, if you react to every setback and rude person and heartbreak and, once in awhile, danger, with overwhelming (some would say oppressive) positivity, your world will be a better place.

There are problems with this way of living. Because she is acting so different than other people, strangers aren’t sure how to react. I remember an experiment I did as part of a college course where I entered a crowded elevator and faced the back while people got on and off. This caused a frenzy. Just doing one thing that people don’t normally expect completely messes with their day.

Poppy’s friends are used to her and are happy most of the time, also. She teaches young children at a grammar school where her happiness works in her favor, no matter how serious her classroom management issues become. She’s happy clubbing, she’s happy trampolining and taking Flamenco classes and visiting her uptight sister, and meeting potential boyfriends. She’s even happy while taking driving lessons from a red-faced, belligerent, racist driving instructor who never cracks a smile during the whole of the film. These scenes border on terrifying. What if her smiling disposition causes real violence in a man who clearly needs help. But you sort of believe that no harm can come to her.

This is especially true when she walks home, through a scary part of town and walks towards a homeless man muttering to himself. She meets his eyes, signals that she understands him. walks with him a little ways, and then after some sort of unspoken signal between them, he leaves and she continues on her way home. On paper this sounds like an irresponsible, if not dangerous, turn of events. A young woman doesn’t head towards abandoned train tracks in the middle of the night to converse with a large homeless man. But as this is happening, we feel as if her happiness is some sort of protective shield. Who could hurt her, she’s just so happy?

Sally Hawkins pulls off this role by the sheer force of her will. She is perfect.

The problem with this film is that if you find her annoying, which is not only possible, but probable, you won’t want to spend time with her as she goes about her daily life. For some reason, I fell for her, and her story, from start to finish.

8.4 Metacritic
7.2 IMDB

Happy-Go-Lucky @ Amazon

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

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2008

January 31, 2009
Cinequest 19
USA
English
91 Minutes
Documentary
Don Hardy & Dana Nachman

Some Convictions Are Criminal.

In 1983, in Manhattan Beach, California, the mother of a young boy went to police with a story so repulsive (involving sex, torture, Satan, and the kitchen sink), that the media couldn’t help but take notice. The case became known as the McMartin Preschool Trial and it lasted for seven years, becoming the most expensive criminal trial in American history. The word “McMartin” has now become shorthand for any type of overzealous prosecution using coached witnesses, many of whom are too young to know what they’re saying.

WITCH HUNT is a documentary about a similar set of trials which took place in Bakersfield, California in 1984. A new “tough on crime” District Attorney had just taken office (where, sadly, he remains to this day), and he brought with him bravado and mandatory minimum sentencing. John Stoll was one of the first to be accused. He was a hard-working divorced man who had a swimming pool which his son enjoyed on hot summer days, sometimes with his friends. He is woken up by police and taken to jail, where he is told that his son has accused him of sexual abuse. By the time he is arraigned, two other boys have allegedly come forward and told police the same story.

When something like this happens in a documentary, we find ourselves trying to “read” the man’s face as he explains his ordeal. Does he look like a molester? What exactly does a molester look like? Why would his son say such things if they weren’t true? Isn’t there a child molester behind every tree and broadband internet hookup?

When Stoll gets to prison he finds himself sharing a cell with another accused pedophile whose photo had been plastered all over the newspapers. Looking the other man in the eye, a man Stoll assumed to be guilty, he begins to see a pattern. What makes this pattern different from other molestation accusations, is that the initial accusation came from their very own children. A son accuses his father. Two girls accuse their father. Two boys accuse both their mother and father. Over and over again. Regular, normal, young couples are dragged in front of TV cameras and shown as examples of the molestation wave that appeared to be sweeping the town of Bakersfield, the State of California, and the country at large.

Is there a worse crime than child molestation? While in prison, all of the accused are held away from the rest of the prisoners for their own safety. Children are placed in foster homes, estranged spouses leave town, whispers turn to yelling. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, right?

If this were a film about a single man who was wrongly accused, you might come to the “better safe than sorry” conclusion and feel that a prison sentence is probably a good thing. But we see couple after couple after couple being sentenced to hundreds of years in prison and it’s obvious that something else is going on here. Judges are routinely disallowing evidence for the defense, child witnesses are testifying one way, then after court recesses, coming back to testify exactly the opposite way. The press can’t get enough. Husbands and wives are separated permanently. Prosecutors tell juries about photos of acts, which are never seen. Houses are lost, communities broken up.

It is incredibly hard to watch.

The talking heads collected by WITCH HUNT involve most of the accused, and a handful of the children who made the original accusations. One couple, who have moved away from Bakersfield, refuse to show their faces this many years later. The rest of them speak about their legal ordeal with pained eyes as if it happened yesterday. The children, all approaching 30 now, bravely talk about how the trial changed their lives. We hear from former California Attorney General John Van De Kamp whose office was brought in due to the overwhelming workload in Kern County. He begins to see problems with the prosecution’s cases.

We hear over and over again how these working-class men and women believed at every step, the truth would come out and they’d be headed home. One of the couples, during the deliberation, plan to have a victory dinner at a local restaurant. We are as shocked as they are when they are instead sentenced to several hundred years in prison. Surely, someone will come to their aid, the children will recant, the prosecutors will drop the charges, the judge will come to his senses. Not so much.

Every moment we spend with one of the couples, the Kniffens is heartbreaking. There is plenty of footage from the trial, both of them in fashionable 1984 haircuts, both of them looking as normal as the waitress at Dennys and the guy who fixes your car. Mrs. Kniffen, when accused of sodomy, has to have the act itself explained to her by her husband. They were in love in 1984 and continue to be in love in 2008. They sit next to each other during the interview and finish each other’s sentences. There is footage of Brenda fainting to the floor after her sentence is handed down. Scott speaks in the quiet tones of someone who has seen parts of life the rest of us don’t want to visit. After their victory dinner is denied them, they head off to separate prisons. At one point, Scott ends up at San Quentin, surrounded by the most violent offenders California has to offer. Being a convicted child molester is a quick way to a shanking, and he feared for his life every day until his appeal letter was finally read and he was transferred to a less-violent prison.

Thanks to the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara Law School (http://law.scu.edu/ncip/), some of these cases began being reviewed. When a retrial is held after six years of prison, the Kniffens see each other for the first time. Brenda says to Scott that he should be using rogaine, as the years in prison have not been kind to his hairline. The appeal goes on and on–tapes of children being questioned are listened to proving their obvious coaching by both prosecutor and Child Protective Services employees. One by one, they are released. Mr. Stoll was arrested at the age of 41. He is released at the age of 61. He never saw his son again.

I’ve often told people that I have an unnatural fear of being wrongly accused. It makes films like THIN BLUE LINE and TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE and THE VERDICT that much more frightening for me. This film had me shaking my head with worry. Some will argue that it’s better to err on the side of caution. If there’s even the slimmest chance that that person could have been a terrorist or touched a child, isn’t it better to lock them up for the greater good?

I subscribe to the better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man go to jail idea. (See origins of that law school cornerstone here: http://www.law.ucla.edu/volokh/guilty.htm) Part of my public school teacher training in our modern post-Letourneau, post-priest-scandal world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Kay_Letourneau) stresses the boundaries between children and trusted authority figures. As a teacher, I need to be conscious every day that a few words from a young person could not only change my life, but effectively end it. I hear personal stories from students about the most atrocious things imaginable. The problems exist, but at some point we began to believe that everyone was a predator. A now-ridiculed recent statistic was that something like 40% of teenagers have been propositioned online by a sexual predator. I have taught close to 700 teenagers in my career and not one has ever been the target of one of these people.

The topic makes for compelling television. To Catch A Predator, the NBC entrapment-case-study-in-the-making causes us to cheer as man after man is dressed down by the camera-ready host.

This environment of fear has some side-effects and they are on frank display in WITCH HUNT.

The film is narrated by Sean Penn and perfectly uses Pearl Jam’s Long Road towards the end. There are two ways to review a documentary: the story it tells and the way it tells the story it tells. The story of WITCH HUNT is compelling, scary, sad, and maddening. The way it tells the story is a bit static. Old TV news footage is mixed with modern-day talking heads. There are old family photos which seem to me to look haunting even in upbeat documentaries. I wonder what filmmakers will do 20 years from now when there are no printed photos from which to choose. There is a five-minute portion at the very end, showing us Mr. Stoll’s life since prison, that is creative and powerful and completely different than the sober 85 minutes that came before.

The film breaks no new technical ground (as THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE or WALTZ WITH BASHIR do), but with a story like this, it doesn’t need to.

And how have the lives of the young accusers changed? Drugs, mental health issues, the guilt of sending people to prison.

Surrounded by the sadness of the film, perhaps the saddest moment is when one of the young accusers tearfully admits that he never gave his own son a bath for the first year of his life, so afraid was he of being accused himself of inappropriate touching.

More info on the cases: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kern_County_child_abuse_cases

WITCH HUNT will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here: http://www.cinequest.org/detail.php?m=1619

WITCH HUNT

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2008

January 29, 2009
DVD
USA / UK / France
English
122 Minutes — December 5, 2008
Biography / Drama / History
Ron Howard [Grand Theft Auto; Nightshift; Splash; Cocoon; Gung Ho; Willow; Parenthood; Backdraft; Far And Away; The Paper; Apollo 13; Ransom; Edtv; A Beautiful Mind; The Missing; Cinderella Man]

400 Million People Were Waiting For The Truth.

I’m a huge fan of political films. I watch THE WEST WING continuously–often with tears in my eyes. I love the pageantry of the office of the President, the customs of the US Government–to the point of watching a particularly close Congressional vote on CSPAN. For god’s sake, I teach High School Government. So I should be the guy this film is trying to reach.

But I waited a long time to see it and now that I have, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. No matter how you slice it–how exciting you make the edits and music–you simply cannot make a sit-down interview as exciting as a boxing match, which is exactly what director Ron Howard is trying to do here.

I’m not old enough to remember Nixon or what he stood for or how much people hated him. And for people younger than I, whose only exposure has been through history classes, this film will probably cause them to have more sympathy for an old man who made a few mistakes, but was basically good. That fact must infuriate people who were in their politically aware 20s at the time Tricky Dick held office. There simply isn’t enough backstory in this film to tell the uninformed viewer the gravity of his crimes. I’m not saying that this film is the place for a complete review of the Watergate break-in, but depending on your age, this film will be a piece of negative nostalgia, or the story of people with funny haircuts sitting down for an interview back when you were allowed to smoke wherever you wanted. (The “aggressive” 70s product placement is one of the problems with this film–the famous Iron-Eyes Cody PSA is seen on the TV while people drink TAB).

As with most Ron Howard films, his one or two main themes are spelled out, heightened with music, repeated again, and then paused after for effect. One of these themes was something that actually was “achieved” by David Frost during these interviews, when Nixon admitted that no matter what he did as president, it wasn’t illegal because it’s impossible for the president to do anything illegal. This statement obviously has more weight in a post-Bush United States where the former president never met a signing statement he wouldn’t make or found a way to put the office of the President above the law in the name of “The War On Terror.”

The parallels between 1974 and 2008 are not lost on us (and with Howard at the helm, we have no choice but to think about them).

The other theme is that Nixon was a lonely man who wasn’t good with people. Boo hoo.

Setting aside the facts of the case, the film tries to make the high-pressure world of presidential interviews something of a sporting event. In this corner, David Frost, a man who drinks, smokes, bangs models, and hosts the 1970s equivalent of America’s Got Talent. In this corner, a disgraced president, who somehow thinks that if he says just the right thing during a one-on-one interview that he’ll be invited back to DC and receive a hero’s welcome. In 30 years, we might see David Hasselhoff v. Bush II.

Nixon thought he’d wipe the floor with Frost. How could a limey from across the pond hope to match his intellect? Frost thought he’d show all those naysayers by finally getting the secretive Nixon to admit to the whole business.

The performances are good. Unfortunately for Oscar-nominee Frank Langella, Nixon has been played by so many people by now that we scarcely remember the real man. The supporting cast is good: Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon, and Rebecca Hall is a very sexy woman who’s only purpose in the screenplay is to stop the sausage-fest.

Here’s your one-sentence review: A film about an interview. Really, how exciting can that be?

Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director Ron Howard, Actor Frank Langella, Screenplay, Editing

8.0 Metacritic
7.9 Critical Consensus
8.1 IMDB #242 All Time

Frost/Nixon [Theatrical Release] @ Amazon

FROST/NIXON

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2008

January 22, 2009
DVD
USA / Germany
English / German
124 Minutes — January 9, 2009
Drama / Romance / Thriller / War
Stephen Daldry [Billy Elliot; The Hours]

How Far Would You Go To Protect A Secret?

It’s been more than a week since I’ve seen it and I can’t seem to figure out how to go at this film. It is not good. In fact, it’s a bit preposterous. Winslet is a fabulous actress, but in THE READER she must choose between dour, embarrassed, angry, or predatory. There is no in-between.

It’s just after World War II in Germany. A young boy of 15, stricken with fever, is helped by Winslet’s character. After his recovery a few weeks later, he goes to her house to thank her, and before you can say “you’re 18, right?” they’re in the sack. What he sees in her is obvious. She’s nearing 40, is hot, and he’s 15 and would probably avail himself of just about any opportunity. What she sees in him is a bit less obvious. He’s a nubile 15 to be sure, but why couldn’t someone like her find someone within a decade of her age, at least? I suppose he’s naive enough to not ask too many questions, to not question his incredible luck. What a story he’ll have to tell that summer at camp!

Strangely, she begins to demand that he read to her before each encounter. Which is a small price to pay for him, I’m sure. A more successful homework system has yet to be devised. He catches the eye of other, more age-appropriate schoolmates, but what chance do they have against a fully grown, willing woman who doesn’t ask questions? They fight, they break up. He heads off to law school. And the film begins to self-destruct. Because during a field trip to the courthouse, who does he see on trial for Nazi atrocities? That’s right, the woman who took his V-power, in the flesh. And here’s the kicker: she’s accused of writing an intricate plan for others to follow which leads to the deaths of 500 Jewish prisoners. That she shows no guilt for what she did is bad enough. But when she’d rather admit to something she didn’t do than admit to not being able to read or write, the film goes off the rails.

That’s right. In post-war Germany, killing Jews in the name of Hitler isn’t quite as bad as admitting that you don’t know how to read.

Ralph Fiennes shows up as the grown up boy who then begins his very own Audible.com franchise, sending tapes to Winslet as she spends the rest of her days in jail.

Ridiculous, but Winslet is pretty hot and rarely has a film made reading the classics seem quite as sexy as THE READER does.

5.8 Metacritic
7.0 Critical Consensus
8.0 IMDB

The Reader (Book) @ Amazon

THE READER

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2008

January 4, 2009
DVD
USA
English
101 Minutes — October 31, 2008
Comedy / Drama / Romance
Kevin Smith [Clerks; Mallrats; Chasing Amy; Dogma; Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back; An Evening With Kevin Smith; Dinner For Five; Jersey Girl; Snowball Effect: The Story Of ‘Clerks’; Clerks II; Siskel & Ebert & The Movies; An Evening With Kevin Smith 2: Evening Harder; Live Free Or Die Hard; Reaper]

Disclaimer: I’m a few years older than Kevin Smith and when I first heard him interviewed in the mid-90s as he was becoming well-known, I used to tell friends that he was the first person younger than me who I completely admitted was better at what he did than I could have been. That is, when he spoke or wrote, I knew I’d be hard-pressed to keep up. This was a revelation to me. He is one of the best guests that Howard Stern ever had on his program; he somehow was insightful and smart when he filled in for Roger Ebert, even though he was trying to critique people he may some day work with. I have his books on my shelf right now, Silent Bob Speaks and the screenplays to Clerks and Chasing Amy. I’ve downloaded every episode of his Smodcast podcast (though he and Scott can be so wordy that I can’t take a full 90 minutes per week).

If he’s involved in something, I want to read/see/listen to it. I hope that as he grows into middle age, he’ll become some sort of film or pop culture historian. Sort of like what Scorsese does with his documentaries and what Tarantino tries to do in his screening room with young actors. Smith is an aware social critic, pointing out hypocrisy in culture and politics. He can often give compelling arguments as to how comic books are an art form. He finds a way to be a good catholic and a smut peddler at the same time. I remember reading a piece somewhere about John Madden, the football magnate. The quote was “Madden is a genius who masquerades as a lunkhead.” The same can be said for Kevin Smith. Get past the language (and for god’s sake get past the poop humor–please!) and you’ll find stories about love and self-awareness and inferiority and all the other parts of the human experience that artists have been trying to make sense of for hundreds of years. If you haven’t seen them, go watch An Evening With Kevin Smith 1 and 2. He is charismatic and charming. If he keeps filming his Q & As, I’ll keep watching them.

He has said himself on many occasions that he’s a terrible director, but he makes up for it in his writing. His blog posts and his essays and his book of random thoughts are compelling, humorous, and honest. He has no trouble (often to a fault) exposing his thoughts and beliefs and idiosyncrasies to whomever is there to listen. I suspect he’d be exposing these same thoughts if there was no one listening.

So it is with great sadness that I have to report that ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO is a failure on nearly every level of filmmaking.

Plot:
Zack and Miri are friends from childhood who live in a terrible Pittsburgh apartment. They act as brother and sister, get in arguments, make fun of each other–all the groundwork needed for an inevitable hookup down the road. The fact that Elizabeth Banks seems too smart, driven, and beautiful to be living in such an apartment is just one of the film’s many problems. The two buddies are so low on cash that their utilities are turned off and they decide to film a porno as a last-ditch effort to make some money. Not get more hours at the coffee shop, not cut back on hockey expenses, not take on another boarder, but film a porno. In the real world, modern porn has much higher production levels than these two can come up with. In the real world, distributing a movie to 800 classmates would barely begin to turn a profit. In the real world, people don’t film porn in Pittsburgh coffee shops. And the actors don’t look like Zack (at least since the retirement of Ron Jeremy). And with downloading now an issue, how many copies were they hoping to sell? And why wouldn’t those same customers just get on the almighty internet to get their fix of amateur couplings? None of this occurs to Zack and Miri.

Casting:
Seth Rogen plays Seth Rogen. He is frumpy, lazy, mutters quips under his breath, and will end up with a girl way out of his league. I have been a fan of his since Freaks and Geeks, but he is in even bigger danger than Michael Cera of being typecast as the exact same guy for the rest of his filmic life.

Jason Mewes is in the cast of the fake porno and he actually has improved since his other attempts at acting in Kevin Smith films. His heroin habit apparently behind him, he actually does exactly what the part needs him to do.

Traci Lords and Katie Morgan have actual porn experience, so they lend the film whatever realism it has to offer.

Craig Robinson plays an unhappily married co-worker of Zack’s who incredibly gives up a flat screen TV (how he can afford one while having the same job as Zack who can’t keep his heat on is a question the film doesn’t attempt to answer) in order to “produce” the movie. Robinson’s scenes are both funny and incredibly demeaning. When the script calls for hip street language, Robinson is there to deliver. When there’s a hint of racism, Robinson is there to comment on it. When there are grammar rules to be broken, call up Robinson. He is the one exception to the lily-white cast. He does more with two minutes on The Office when wiping the floor with Michael Scott than he does here in a full length film. Go rent KNOCKED UP and watch his single scene as a club doorman and think what might have been. Examples of his delivery in this film (watch the grammar): “What? Han Solo ain’t never had no sex with Princess Leia in the Star War!” and “Her name Bubbles”. His “boob audition” scene was pretty funny.

But the person who emerges the most worse for the wear is Elizabeth Banks. She has proven to be that special combination of cute and funny on Scrubs and 40-year-old Virgin. She is a sweet girlfriend in Invincible. I hear she’s good as Laura Bush in W. But she is completely miscast in this film. She is too cute and smart to be surrounding herself with either Rogen as a roommate or any of the other people she comes into contact with. But the fatal flaw with her is that I simply never believed that she’d talk the way her character talked, act the way her character acted (her squirm-inducing seduction of the popular guy from high school was well-done), or involve herself in the money-making idea that she follows through on in this film. It’s like she’s pretending to be a hard-assed f-bomb throwing girl-next-door and it didn’t work. At one point, she even says “Hey Zack, no one wants to F-in watch us fuck.” That’s right, she used f-in and the full work fuck in the same sentence. I believe that someone like Sarah Silverman actually talks like that. I believe that Kevin Smith talks like that because I’ve heard him talk like that dozens of times. But I never bought that Banks was speaking realistically. To be clear, I’m not saying that people don’t act or speak like Smith writes, I’m just saying that I don’t believe Banks or her character would. I found myself embarrassed for her.

Which leads us to writing: If Smith only gave the world Chasing Amy, he’d be rightfully held in some regard for finding a way to weave both a tender can-I-turn-a-lesbian-straight romance and a here’s-why-she’s-called-fingercuffs raunchy comedy into something special. (Setting aside the male-dominant view that all any lesbian needs is a perfect guy to “cure” her.) It wasn’t Ben Affleck that made that movie, it was the writing. But here, again, is where ZACK AND MIRI fails. The “realistically dirty” language we’ve come to love from Smith (and Apatow) is here used to prove something, I think. Like Smith is afraid that when we boil down the story we’ll see a sappy love story, not unlike WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, and to avoid accusations of becoming soft, he goes for the verbal grossout. I simply do not believe that Banks would recount in casual conversation the time that Zack tried to fellate himself for about an hour. I’m pretty sure that she wouldn’t stay around that long to watch. But the script has that experience as one of the many that is supposed to make us feel like these two have shared everything with each other except feelings. As a guy with far more female friends than male, I can say that when Zack claims to have never wanted to sleep with Miri, even though they share a bathroom and 25 years of friendship, I say, bullshit. Plain and simple. That the plot has us believe that until they were scheduled to have on-camera sex, the thought of trying out a romance with each other never occurred to them is preposterous. And from the second they do, the movie goes completely haywire. Slow motion, closeups of their faces in love-filled ecstasy, a completely different song by the band Live which seems to be playing only in their heads, all combine to turn the film into something else. Something it neither earned, nor does particularly well.

There have been hundreds of films where two characters fall for each other after a hookup or a good talk or some other event. What is this one saying? “The search is over, you were with me all the while” to quote a sappy 80s song. Tell us something new.

But that’s not the worst of it. After a misunderstanding at a party, whereby Zack leaves with a pornstar to have sex after Miri has given permission, the next morning brings an argument, which sends Zack peeling out, then moving out, then working at the Penguins hockey games as a human target. The screen says “Three Months Later,” but not 30 seconds in, we see Robinson who has come to get the two crazy kids back together.

I can’t explain just how off the pacing is at this point. Zack drives off, film crew wonders why, Miri sees that Zack has moved out (where to? we never find out), “3 Months Later”, we are there to see Robinson contact him for the first time by using a quote that only they would recognize, they rekindle a friendship (not sure why they broke contact with each other), Robinson entices him back to his basement where they are still (after 3 months) editing the film, then the big reveal that Miri never had her second on screen sex scene, a ridiculous attempt at a serious line from Robinson about how people make you believe you can do things that you didn’t know you could or something, a musical cue that sends Zack back to Miri where a final misunderstanding involving her new male roommate gives way to a tearful hug and reunion and happily ever after.

It may have been the most painful 15 minutes of film I’ve seen in years. It’s made more painful because it’s my hero Kevin Smith who’s in charge.

I haven’t brought up the music: fake porn background music throughout, even when the scenes change; great 80s pop at the high school reunion; sappy I love you songs when the two are having sex..making..doing whatever they did.

I can remember exactly two laugh-out-loud moments: Jason Mewes in the last five minutes discussing the “Dutch Rudder” was deadpan delivery at its best.

The other one was a spectacular cameo by Justin Long as an “actor” in L.A. who attends the high school reunion with his football hero lover. “Really, you’re an actor? What kind of movies have you been in?” “All kinds of movies with all male casts.”

Zack Brown: All male casts? Like “Glengarry Glen Ross”, like that?
Brandon: Like “Glen and Gary Suck Ross’s Meaty C**k and Drop Their Hairy N**s in His Eager Mouth”.
Zack Brown: [pause] Is that like a sequel?
Brandon: Sort of. It’s a reimagining.
Zack Brown: Oh, like “The Wiz”.
Brandon: More erotic. And with less women. No women, to be exact.
Zack Brown: I apologize in advance if I am outta line here, but are you in gay porn?
Brandon: [smiles] Guilty as charged.

[I've added the *] The fact that his lover is played by the guy in the new Superman movie is one of the fanboy tips of the hat that Smith is famous for. Long is funnier in those five minutes that the remaining 95 minutes of the movie. Don’t get me wrong, whenever a character like Rogen’s talks as quickly as Smith’s script call for, there will be chuckles. “Where’s the clitoris again?” caused me to smile. But those smiles were so few and far between and so hidden by the rest of the “look how outrageous my dialogue is” that the impact was weak.

I wanted so much more from my former BFF Kevin Smith.

MichaelVox Twitter Review In 160:
Zack And Miri Make A Porno (08 Smith C-) Dear Kevin, I’m breaking up with you after 14 years of bliss. It’s not me, it’s you. WTF happened?

5.6 Metacritic
7.5 IMDB

Zack and Miri Make a Porno @ Amazon

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO

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2008

January 2, 2009
DVD
USA
English
109 Minutes — January 9, 2009
Drama / Sport
Darren Aronofsky [Pi; Requiem For A Dream]

This film award season has been much worse than past years in terms of release schedules of quality films. I live in the 10th largest city in the country, but in order to have access to the films with all the buzz, I need to drive myself an hour north to San Francisco, which is typically just after New York City and Los Angeles on the release schedule. THE WRESTLER won’t open in a local theater until the 9th, but I couldn’t stand waiting. This is all a long way of saying that I will withhold a more in-depth review until I see it on the big screen, the way nature intended.

But before that happens I need to say that this film will absolutely be somewhere on my top ten of 2008 list, and I’m not sure that any of the other slow-to-open films being hyped will land above this one. This film says things about mortality and the briefness of life that Benjamin Button was trying to say, but failed under the sheen of fairytale warmth.

I can’t wait to see it again.

MichaelVox Twitter Review In 160:
The Wrestler (08 Aronofsky A-) much better mortality tale than BButton, Rourke as good as advertised, Tomei deserves more praise.

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THE WRESTLER is the subject of Cinebanter Podcast Number 66. After you’ve seen the movie, listen to the spoiler-filled review by Tassoula and I by clicking the play button right here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Show Description:

• 00:00 Intro
• 00:32 THE WRESTLER Discussion
• Break
• 23:58 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 24:54 REVOLUTIONARY ROAD Discussion
• Break
• 45:06 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 45:35 The Last Five®
• 1:03:53 Credits and Outtakes

~~
~~

8.1 Metacritic
8.7 IMDB #72 All Time

The Wrestler @ Amazon

THE WRESTLER

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THE BICYCLE THIEF
1948

January 1, 2009
Netflix DVD
Italy
Italian
93 Minutes — December 13, 1949
Crime / Drama
Vittorio De Sica
#14 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

An Italian workman, long unemployed, is robbed of the bicycle he needs for his new job, and he and his small son search Rome for it.

The story could scarcely be simpler. A man (Antonio Ricci), out of work for a year is finally offered the job of poster-hanger. The only catch: he needs to use a bike at his job. Unfortunately, his bicycle is in a pawn shop, where he put it to get money for living expenses. When he tells his wife his dilemma, she wordlessly takes the sheets off their bed and heads down to the pawnshop for the exchange. That evening, his adoring young son, Bruno (you could spend the whole film watching him watch his father) cleans it and oils it. He knows every inch of it. The next morning, the whole family is excited. The man in his new uniform; the wife proudly packs his lunch; Bruno is happy to ride on the handlebars to his own job where his father promises to pick him up that evening.

Antonio’s job is to hang posters of Rita Hayworth. He is taught how and then sent on his way. Within minutes, a group of men watch him for awhile, and then one of them takes off on the bike while the others misdirect Antonio who chases the wrong man. 15 minutes of film time has passed. The rest of the movie is taken up with the man’s quest to find and reclaim his bicycle. He enlists friends to help him look in the usual marketplaces. He consults with a psychic. He threatens and follows people. He is in the middle of Rome–his chances are not good.

The story of the film is not the important part. It’s as if non-professional actors are appearing in a documentary about a bicycle theft, not a fictional story about a man’s lost bicycle. The difference is important. The townspeople Antonio comes into contact with don’t have an acting bone in their bodies and therefore the impact is much greater. We go into a church for Sunday services and it’s like we’re disturbing the worshipers while our protagonist is there. A rainstorm hits and we hide under an awning along with the rest of the neighborhood.

It’s hard to find a modern-day equivalent of the importance of this man’s lost bicycle. He will lose his job without it. His joy at finally having work that morning is dashed by noontime. The unconditional love of his son (looking like a ten-year-old Bruno Kirby) is something to behold. No trained child actor spends as much time looking into his father’s face as this boy. He walks at the same pace as his movie father, he checks the man’s face for understanding every few seconds, he makes sure it was okay to partake in a bit of wine at a cafe, and the look on his face in the last 5 minutes of the film is heartbreaking. I may never forget the boy.

THE BICYCLE THIEF is not an uplifting drama. But it shows us post-war Italy in a very specific way. We are in specific neighborhoods populated by specific people. We feel for this specific man and his world. Almost in spite of myself, and the hangdog expression of our protagonist, I found myself not only caring deeply about what happened to him, but feeling like I knew him and, more importantly, felt for him. I wanted him to get his bicycle back. I wanted to shout at the people acting as obstacles–those who didn’t believe his story or realize its importance. The survival of his family is at stake–this is no simple “find the toy for the sad man”. I wondered what I would do in the same situation. How long could I hold on to my dignity? What if my young son was watching my every move?

I was reminded thematically of WENDY AND LUCY about the woman and her dog who breakdown in a small Oregon town.

This film is rightly considered one of the best of all time. You’ll be sucked into its dreamlike pace and its documentary feel.




ON: Screenplay

“The epitome of Italian neo-realism, the slight human drama is developed so that it has all the force of King Lear, and both the acting and the backgrounds are vividly compelling” — Halliwell’s Film Guide 2008.

**** Halliwell’s
**** Ebert
**** Maltin
A–Tobias, The Onion
8.4 IMDB #106 All Time

The Bicycle Thief @ Amazon

THE BICYCLE THIEF

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COWBOY BEBOP: THE MOVIE
2001

December 29, 2008
Netflix DVD
Japan / USA
English
116 Minutes — September 1, 2001
Animation / Action / Comedy / Crime / Sci-Fi / Thriller
Shinichiro Watanabe

R-rated animation story about a terrorist explosion that releases a virus that kills people within a nearby radius. The virus contains microscopic machines that somehow kill people. There is one guy who is immune and he’s the one doing the exploding. But I may have the plot all wrong because I’m not entirely sure what was going on. But as a piece of animation, the creativity is high-level. There is a ragtag team of bounty hunters. The women are buxom, the guys are slender, there is a dog along for the ride. The city is futuristic and we are sometime in the future.

This is in no way as cool as any of the Howl’s Moving Castle or any of the other Miyazaki stuff. Those are aimed at children and are almost superhumanly creative. This one is sort of based in reality. There are scientists developing things, bad guys at drug companies, army and secret police arguing over jurisdiction. There was hand-to-hand combat and realistic gunshot wounds.

But it never amounted to anything. We know who blew up the truck, do we really care why?

6.1 Metacritic
7.7 IMDB

Cowboy Bebop – The Movie @ Amazon

COWBOY BEBOP: THE MOVIE

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1950

December 22, 2008
Netflix DVD
USA
English
138 Minutes — October 13, 1950
Drama
Joseph L. Mankiewicz [The Philadelphia Story; The Barefoot Contessa; Guys And Dolls]
Bette Davis
Anne Baxter
#72 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The version of the list I used is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

It’s all about women — and their men!

An aging Broadway star suffers from the hidden menace of a self-effacing but secretly ruthless and ambitious young actress.

Sure, it’s dated and melodramatic. But Davis is so great as a woman who has passed the unheard of milestone of being 40 years old and still trying to get the juicy parts on Broadway. Baxter is a star-struck fan when we meet her. But is she too good to be true? All the characters speak to each other in that “theater is the only true art form” way. There are awards and fur coats and drinks at fancy Manhattan clubs.

It’s a bit long and has several too many voiceovers from several too many characters. But I wasn’t bored. And Davis is so angry and so lacking in social skills when off stage that you really can’t look away. This film has the “fasten your seatbelts…” line. It also has a ditzy Marilyn Monroe in a small part as a new girl in town who takes any opportunity she can for her break. A slimy columnist points her in the right direction, towards the hot producer in town. Watch Monroe’s face light up as she switches into flirt mode. It is a sight to see.

OW: Picture, Director Mankiewicz, Screenplay Mankiewicz, Supporting Actor George Sanders
ON: Actress Baxter, Actress Davis, Supporting Actress Celeste Holm, Supporting Actress Thelma Ritter, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction

“A basically unconvincing story with thin characters is transformed by a screenplay scintillating with savage wit and a couple of waspish performances into a movie experience to treasure.” — Halliwell’s Film Guide 2008

“The dialogue and atmosphere are so peculiarly remote from life that they have sometimes been mistaken for art.” — Pauline Kael

“Brilliantly sophisticated (and cynical) look at life in and around the theater, with a heaven-sent script by director Mankiewicz. Davis is absolutely perfect as an aging star who takes in an adoring fan and soon discovers that the young woman is taking over her life.” — Leonard Maltin’s 2007 Movie Guide

8.4 IMDB All Time #75
**** Halliwell’s
**** Maltin

All About Eve @ Amazon

ALL ABOUT EVE

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2006

December 21, 2008
September 16, 2006
DVD — Thanks, Paul
USA
English
106 Minutes — August 11, 2006
Drama
Ryan Fleck
Ryan Gosling [Remember The Titans; The Believer; The Notebook; Lars And The Real Girl]

Secrets Don’t Let Go.

A teacher in an inner-city middle school has a heroin habit — a fact discovered but kept secret by one of his pupils, a 13-year-old girl. He tries to protect her from unseemly influences in her life out of school, and they strike up a cautious friendship.

“Hey Teach, can I ask you something?”
“Mmm-hmm”
“What’s it feel like when you smoke that stuff?”

And then the look on Ryan Gosling’s face somehow tells us how hard the struggle is inside him. The struggle against drugs and the struggle to remain a viable and worthwhile role model to the students he teaches. This was my favorite film of 2006 and I was again captivated by Gosling’s realistic (and realistically flawed) performance as a caring teacher by day, basehead by night.

One father figure for Drey is the local drug dealer, who has a stable home life, a nice car, and whose worse vice appears to be an addiction to peppermint candies. The other father figure is a schoolteacher, who can barely make rent, hooks up with strangers in bars, and is addicted to all sorts of substances. Neither are good for her. Both truly care about her.



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HALF NELSON is the subject of Cinebanter Podcast Number 7. After you’ve seen the movie, listen to the spoiler-filled review by Tassoula and I by clicking the play button right here. (note: the audio quality back then wasn’t particularly good–I breathe heavily during this episode–sorry):

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Show Description:

• 00:00 Intro
• 00:32 HALF NELSON Discussion, Part 1
• Break
• 20:56 HALF NELSON Discussion, Part 2
• Break
• 31:35 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 32:36 The Last Five®
• Break
• 47:12 Corrections
• Break
• 49:19 Surprise Segment
• 56:42 Credits and outtakes

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~~


“It’s a thinly disguised battle of wills over the future of an adolescent girl between two improbable saviors, but the writing and characterizations are so strong that the story never feels reduced to such a bald formula. Instead, the script is full of intriguing grace notes; Dan’s ambivalence about growing up, Drey’s wisdom that often gives way to her child-like qualities; and the pact between the two, which in context seems oddly believable. And it’s rare that one sees an actor inhabit a role as meticulously as Gosling does here.” — Halliwell’s Film Guide 2008

“The script deals steadily with enduring racial and social divisions in America by pitching the liberal thinking of the classroom against the reality of the street. Gosling and Epps, a most unusual and effective pair, show real commitment.” — Time Out Film Guide 2007

8.5 Metacritic
7.5 IMDB
** Halliwell’s

Half Nelson @ Amazon

HALF NELSON

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AN AFFAIR OF LOVE
1999

December 11, 2008
Netflix DVD
France / Switzerland / Belgium / Luxembourg
French
80 Minutes — September 4, 1999
Drama / Romance
Frederic Fonteyne
Nathalie Baye [And The Band Played On; Venus Beauty Institute; Catch Me If You Can; Tell No One]
Sergi Lopez [To Die (Or Not); With A Friend Like Harry; Dirty Pretty Things; Pan’s Labyrinth]

An off-camera voice interviews a man and woman separately. They are discussing a past “relationship”. Relationship is in quotes because the definition of what they are as a couple is in a state of constant flux. While discussing this past fling, they both appear to be looking back with warm feelings.

The woman, Her (because they don’t exchange names), puts an ad in a sex magazine. The man, Him, actually put his copy of the magazine into a protective sleeve, which he displays with pride to the interviewer. “I guess I’m just a romantic, ” he declares. We know where this is going, don’t we? Two swingers meet up to have sex and then stop meeting up to have sex. But not so fast.

She mentions that there has always been a fantasy that she’s never been brave enough to ask past lovers. She puts it in the advertisement. He is not a casual reader of the magazine–in fact, he claims that this was the only time he responded to a personal ad. As so often happens when recalling something from years past (she has dyed her hair black and he has taken to wearing a goatee when we meet them in the present day), the details are fuzzy. He remembers sending a photo in response, she claims to have had no idea what he looked like.

They nervously meet at a cafe in Paris. There is small talk. There are few questions. She says, a bit too matter-of-factly “I’ve reserved a room down the street–is that okay?” He is excited by her assumption. She is drinking coffee and as she finishes to put on her coat, he orders a cognac, appearing to be in no particular hurry. She goes into some small talk about being young and wanting a lover who was hairy only to discover that she’d been “hoodwinked” when they turned out as hairless as the rest. She is not being cool. He is not being cool.

It needs to be mentioned here that the two leads are being played by Nathalie Baye and Sergi Lopez. Lopez is best known for the fantastic thriller WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY. He’s clearly middle-aged and looks like a French, poor-man’s George Clooney. Baye is one of those beautiful women who is allowed to grow older, but remain incredibly alluring and sexual, in role after role. She was recently seen as the lawyer in TELL NO ONE. I’ve just looked up her age and if correct, then she certainly wears her 51 years well on screen as a sexually alive, adventurous and frank woman. Someone Dan Savage would call “GGG.” Why American actresses are not afforded the same opportunity is incredibly annoying. Baye has entered her most erotic stage of life. It’s nice (not to mention exciting) to be able to watch it on film.

Back to the plot. These two middle-agers, still attractive, well-read, witty conversationalists–do, indeed, head over to the hotel. The camera lingers on the procedure for checking into a hotel frequented by short-term guests. The clerk’s expression, the credit card transaction, the key exchange, the walk to the room. This is done slowly and deliberately. We arrive at their front door. They go in, but we are left in the hallway. The hallway is bathed in low-lighted red. There is natural light coming from below the door. But we don’t get to go in to see what happens. And that move becomes genius later on.

The two emerge out onto a crowded dusk Paris street. Not sure what to do to continue this “situation” and afraid that perhaps they’d be the only one wanting a second round, they are silent. They agree that, if interested, they will meet at the same cafe the following Thursday. She gets on the Metro, he into his car. They are not smiling, exactly, as they move away from each other, but they are certainly not ashamed of what just happened.

The next shot shows Her in the same cafe, finishing up a coffee, and getting ready to go. He clearly didn’t want to see her again, but then he shows up, a bit ruffled due to traffic. They have a bit more detailed conversation. They laugh a little more. To the interviewers she says, “there was no posturing, no trying to impress. We already knew each other sexually–the conversation was easy and much more honest.” I’m paraphrasing, obviously. So begins a regular meeting between these two people. Always at the same cafe and always leading to the same hotel, where by now the clerk can hand over a key much more quickly.

They recall this stage a bit differently, she says they met several times a week, he remembers it more like every other Thursday. The details are not important. What is important is how they go from a purely sexual, no-names-ages-occupations-needed casual hookup, to becoming de facto partners for each other. They get drinks and sometimes dinner afterwards. He never drives her home, and they never exchange information.

Can these two continue to meet for sex without falling in love?

One day, she changes everything, by nervously uttering, “let’s make love this time?” “What do you mean?” “The regular way” “You mean, missionary?” “No, I like to be on top, not exactly dominating, but in charge.” “OK,” he says. And this time as they head to the same hotel, they are giggling like teenagers. And this time we get to go into their room with them and see how it’s blue and white color is a happy backdrop. The scene is non-nude, but highly erotic. “Do you mind if I talk during?” she asks.

Something has clearly changed between them. And somehow between characters and we viewers.

This is one of the best portrayals of adult sexuality and love I’ve ever seen. Not Hollywood sex and love, but realistic. The way feelings can change in mid-sentence, the way people are brave with each other up until they can’t be anymore. She mentions that in the movies, sex is either heaven or hell, never in the middle. In life, there is a lot of sex in the middle. If you’ve ever stopped to realize that almost all onscreen sex scenes, including a couple’s first, begin with passionate kissing while clothes are torn off, acrobatic lovemaking with not a hint of clumsiness (no hair pulled, no heads bumped, no need to verbalize movement), a to-the-second mutual climax, followed by one of those bedsheets that goes up to his stomach, but also up to her shoulders.

We go to the movies to see people better looking than we are do things more exciting than we do, but I could do without another one of these by-the-numbers sex scenes.

This film has exactly two characters. They are flawed and perfect, like we are. They are trying to figure out how much of their hearts to give this relationship that started in the back pages of a porno magazine. Will they fall in love? Are they already in love? Will they say this to one another?

This is what an adult relationship film should be. Go see it.

6.7 Metacritic
7.0 IMDB

An Affair of Love @ Amazon

AN AFFAIR OF LOVE

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1988

December 7, 2008
Netflix DVD
France
French
88 Minutes — January 6, 1989
Romance / Drama
Catherine Breillat [Last Tango In Paris; A Real Young Girl; Fat Girl; The Last Mistress]

Lili is a 14-year-old girl, staying with her family in a tiny camper while on holiday at the French coast. The sun never shines. Her father is miserable and spends his time listening to sports with headphones, her mother is cold and distant, and her older brother is the source of sibling annoyance we can all identify with.

She is trying to get her head around the fact that her body is changing–drastically–while inside she remains a barely teenage girl. We’ve just entered the Catherine Breillat zone, where entire films are made attempting to describe the mind of a pubescent girl as she is both awed by her body’s power and scared shitless by it in equal measure. The title apparently refers to the size of the dress that Lili is literally busting out of as we see her head towards a disco with her older brother in search of–well, what is she really in search of? Not sex, exactly.

She wants to be older, to act older, to be taken seriously by older people (men), but has no way of knowing how adults speak to each other or act towards each other.

The plot, such as it is, involves Lili getting her brother, JP to get permission for the both of them to go out to the local disco in the seaside town where they’re camping. They hitchhike in an aging playboy’s BMW. She acts like a complete brat (or, a 14-year-old) and ends up screaming and leaving the car. The man says, under his breath “what’s the matter, I didn’t look at you enough?” And he’s right. She wants to be looked at and admired, but on her terms, which change on a minute-by-minute basis.

She gets her own ride by a middle-aged man who calls her a bitch when she doesn’t let his hand stay on her leg while he drives. She goes to a cafe where a famous musician looks up to see her devour him with her eyes. They have the only meaningful conversation of the film. She meets the group at the disco where a $20 gets her past the bouncer. There is clumsy passion–she encourages, then changes her mind. The Playboy and she then take a walk and end up in his hotel room where she promises nothing will happen.

This dance between the two–a young girl and a 40something balding convertible guy–is the main emotional focus of the film. Is she teasing him on purpose? How serious is she about calling the cops on him? Does he even want to sleep with her? He mentions that he no longer possesses the stamina to keep up with a teenager in the wee hours of the morning.

But the most important question to Lili is: how badly does she want to lose her virginity?

Much like the main character in A REAL YOUNG GIRL, Lili is more excited about the loss of virginity on paper than she is in practice. And she is an awful girl to hang out with. Is her youth and inexperience worth the trouble? That’s what the older man has to figure out. She feels that the boys her age at the campsite are beneath her, though they’d be a much better, if bumbling, partner for first time lovemaking.

36 fillette

Lili is another protagonist from the Breillat filmography who isn’t a victim or a seductive Lolita, but has every terrible behavioral trait that many young girls have–brattiness, boredom, meanness, taunting, put-downs, and mostly in Lili’s case, teasing–both in the childlike sense and in the sexualized sense. It’s hard to see what the older man can possibly get out of an interlude with Lili that wouldn’t be much more fulfilling with one of the many women available to him in the town. She simply isn’t that fantastic.

However, as a character, she certainly is well-rounded. Played by a 16-year-old actress named, Delphine Zentout, Lili must be both annoyingly adolescent and often charmingly seductive. She needs to be awkwardly sexual–to use her body and the hair over her eyes to make the men in the film–of all ages–believe she’s worth the trouble.

36 fillette

As usual after seeing something by Catherine Breillat, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the quality or what it’s trying to say. But I will continue to praise her for bringing stories that men can’t tell to the screen. She claims that this film is semi-autobiographical. But don’t most films by most directors include many incidents taken from real life. The difference here is that those incidents don’t show the main character in a particularly good light.

Get past the old man / young girl dynamic and think of it as the study of one realistic 14-year-old trying to find her way in the world. Thank you Ms. Breillat.

Two sidenotes: There is no bodily fluid in this film. A first. And this may be the single worst DVD transfer in the technology’s history. You’ll want to watch this on the smallest screen possible. I’m old enough to remember the unacceptable quality of foreign VHS tapes back in the 80s, so I should thank my lucky stars that this one isn’t that bad. However, ouch.

6.1 IMDB
***^ Ebert

36 Fillette @ Amazon

36 FILLETTE

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1934

November 2, 2008
Netflix DVD
France
French
89 Minutes
Drama / Romance
Jean Vigo
#16 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

A barge captain takes his new wife down river.

“Jean Vigo’s final masterpiece is a simple, slow-moving account of a troubled relationship. The film works on a poetic level, with Kaufman’s camera capturing mysterious dreamlike images of river life, while Michel Simon’s deckhand is one of the great screen performances” — *** Halliwell’s Film, DVD, and Video Guide 2007

“Naturalism and surrealist fantasy blend beautifully in all-time masterpiece about a young couple who begin their life together sailing down the Seine on a barge. Ultimate in romantic cinema also anticipated neorealist movement by more than a decade.” — **** Leonard Maltin’s 2007 Movie Guide

8.0 IMDB

L’ Atalante @ Amazon

L’ ATALANTE

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A REAL YOUNG GIRL
1976

November 1, 2008
Netflix DVD
France
French
89 Minutes
Drama
Catherine Breillat [Last Tango In Paris; Fat Girl; The Last Mistress]

The title translation could more accurately be “A True Young Girl”, it shouldn’t be read as “A Really Young Girl”.

Alice is a French teenager who goes back to her home for summer vacation after being at boarding school. It is the early 1960s. She is horrified and intrigued by her budding sexuality and the effect she has on the men of her farming community. She flirts with leather-jacket boys in a soda shop, but her heart (or at least her out-of-control lust) belongs to a skinny, semi-creepy guy who works at the local lumber mill who she names “Jim” in her head. He avoids her come-ons because she’s too young. This doesn’t stop Alice, our heroine, from a rich fantasy life where she and Jim enjoy passionate interludes at the beach, in the woods, at the lumber mill, and in his car.

Alice is incredibly curious and as she’s an only child, she spends her time walking around her parents’ farmland and riding her bike into the small town. She watches TV with her parents and has an incredible crush on pop singers of both genders. She also sees how the cute, female singer captures mens’ attention. Alice isn’t sure how to use her power. She also finds a way to pull her panties down wherever she happens to be. She sits in the surf at the beach, she flashes a passing high-speed train, she touches herself on the tracks, and she makes sure that when she rides her bicycle, everyone gets a quick glimpse of her panties.

The men in the town stare, while the women remember when they used to be the subject of such attention and scorn her forwardness. Alice spills out of her too-revealing bikini, but sleeps in a little-girl nightgown. She “enjoys” the scornful looks her mother gives her when she sits on her father’s lap for just a moment too long.

Because Catherine Breillat is at the helm, we get all manner of fluids. This one has vomit, blood (a chicken is decapitated in close-up), semen (and its female equivalent), suntan oil, urine, soap, water, a crushed egg, milk, fly paper glue, dripping candlewax, tree sap, and somehow, even earwax. Breillat never met a visceral liquid she couldn’t use as symbol. When Alice first arrives home, we linger on flies trapped on flypaper, a dream sequence has Alice tied up with barbed wire. She wants to blossom, but is forced to conform.

Her parents’ relationship isn’t what she first thought. She begins to see her parents as sexual beings, she sits next to a flasher on a carnival ride, she sees how men look at her and can’t decide if she’s flattered or mortified.

This film is a shockingly honest (and explicit) story about the awkward and incomprehensible age when a girl changes into a woman. The body blossoms well before the mind can catch up. The scenes she concocts whereby she makes out on a beach with a pop star she’s seen on TV, includes a lot of rolling around and giggling, but no actual sexual contact. It’s as if she’s trying to learn how actual adults embrace and make love. She has seen some beach blanket films, but isn’t sure what happens after a couple finishes rolling around in the sand. In her most explicit dreams with Jim, no penetration occurs. Alice isn’t sure about the mechanics of lovemaking–she’s going on her teenage instincts which those of us well-past our teen years recognize were probably wrong more often than they were right. Try to remember what you thought sex was back when you were ten or eleven years old. Oops.

Is it good? I’m not sure. I always like a film where young people are allowed to be the sexual beings they’re going to become without some big punishment or morality tale. In slasher films, we see naked bodies just before those naked bodies are killed. This is a frank depiction of a young woman trying to make sense of her feelings about her body and her urges. I feel like it should be championed on that basis. I wasn’t bored, but neither was I riveted. The girl/woman who plays Alice, Charlotte Alexandra, was interesting enough. She had to be an innocent and a lolita in equal measure. She appears to have only made three films after this one, each about a temptress. Typecasting or is this the only role she can competently play?

I’ve read various pieces on this film and I’ve seen Alice’s age listed as young as 14, but I distinctly remember a line where her mother says that she’s going back for her final year of high school. I believe her to be 17 or so. But more important than the numerical age is the process that she’s going through. She admits to being disgusted with her budding body, but then decides to ride her bike down a country road bare-assed.

John Petrakis of the Chicago Tribune wrote something very insightful: “Breillat has long been fascinated with the idea that women are not allowed to go through puberty in private but instead seem to be on display for all to watch, a situation that has no parallel with boys.”

Is Catherine Breillat the single voice for young female sexuality in the movies? Perhaps. This film was completed in 1976, but not released until 2001 due to its content and difficult genre identity. Too artsy and well-acted to be porn. Too explicit to be part of the late 70s golden age of film. Too weird to be embraced by large audiences. What sets A REAL YOUNG GIRL apart is that the writer and director actually went through the urges and body-changes depicted in the film. She has felt the changes in her emotions and body, she hasn’t just read about them or guessed at them like a male director must. This is a very important difference and why I’ve decided to do an informal Catherine Breillat film festival. Spike Lee can direct a more honest MALCOLM X than Oliver Stone could have, John Woo does better Hong Kong than Quentin Tarantino, and Breillat can honestly depict the experiences of females (especially their sexuality) better than a man could.

Someone named Lauren Kaminsky has written a fantastic piece on this film here. Yes, Lauren is female, and yes, she sees things in A REAL YOUNG GIRL that males can’t.

“At its best, A Real Young Girl deals honestly with the uncertainties of an awkward transition, when girls are thrust into womanhood without knowing quite how to handle it. Breillat gets inside Alexandra’s head almost too well, viewing the world outside of it with a juvenile’s listlessness and contempt.” — Scott Tobias.

“The theories about sexuality and trauma artfully advanced in this previously unreleased 1975 debut of director Catherine Breillat (Romance, Fat Girl) are more nuanced and intuitive than those of most schools of psychology. Alice (Charlotte Alexandra) is as fixated on her genitals as are the men who expose theirs to her, in fantastic and realist sequences that blur the line between what she desperately wants, what repulses her, and what she actually experiences. While her mother aggressively does housework, complaining all the while about her life, Alice sunbathes and flirts–or more–with her father, who’s having an affair. It’s as if she’s biding her time until she manages to seduce one of his dreamier employees or, better yet, escapes by returning to school at the end of the summer vacation.” — The Chicago Reader

5.5 Metacritic
5.8 IMDB

A Real Young Girl @ Amazon

Catherine Breillat @ Amazon

A REAL YOUNG GIRL

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1944

October 28, 2008
Netflix DVD
USA
English
107 Minutes — September 6, 1944
Crime / Film-Noir / Thriller
Billy Wilder [The Lost Weekend; Sunset Blvd.; Ace In The Hole; Sabrina; The Spirit of St. Louis; Some Like It Hot; The Apartment]
Fred MacMurray [The Caine Mutiny; The Apartment]
Barbara Stanwyck [Meet John Doe]
#94 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

An insurance agent connives with the glamorous wife of a client to kill her husband and collect.

Even though it’s more than 60 years old, it still is almost unbelievably tense. Our hero confesses while talking into an old fashion dictation machine. He meets Stanwyck and just about devours her with his eyes. It must have been incredibly revealing to have a character enter a scene wrapped in a towel in 1944. Sure it’s dated, but I felt like I needed to know how it all fit together. Impossible to stop watching in the middle. All the pieces fit.

“Archetypal film noir of the forties, brilliantly filmed and incisively written, perfectly capturing the decayed Los Angeles atmosphere of a Chandler novel but using a simpler story and more substantial characters. The hero/villain was almost a new concept.” — Halliwell’s DVD & Video Guide 2007

“The script packs fireworks in account of insurance salesman MacMurray coerced into murder plot by alluring Stanwyck and subsequent investigation by Fred’s colleague Edward G. Robinson. An American movie classic, with crackling dialogue throughout.” — Leonard Maltin’s 2005 Movie Guide

**** Halliwell’s #43 All-Time
8.5 #53 All-Time IMDB
**** Maltin

Double Indemnity @ Amazon

DOUBLE INDEMNITY

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The Star Maker
1995

Netflix DVD
Italy
Italian
113 Minutes — March 8, 1995
Drama
Giuseppe Tornatore [Cinema Paradiso; Malena]

In Sicily in the mid-50s, a traveling con man offers townspeople the chance of stardom if they give him money to make a screen test.

Another Tornatore story of a small Sicilian village and the quirks that thrive there. This time, a van drives in to small village after small village announcing that for one day only, screen tests will be administered in the tent by a world-famous personal friend to American movie stars. For only 1500 lira, of course. This is an opportunity for Tornatore to have unique Italian faces recite monologues about all manner of subjects. Some are too frightened to speak on camera, some use the opportunity to right a wrong or lobby for a husband. Some have faces that glow–others are cold and blank. Then he packs up his worthless film and heads to the next town. Everyone comes out–smart judges, dumb farmers, the local police chief, the mafia don–all hoping for that elusive stardom that our hero is quick to never promise. Because it’s Italy and the lure of fame is so great, our hero–while ridiculing the simple people he is rooking–only occasionally takes a beautiful woman up on her offer of non-currency payment for his services.

We also get a genuine beautiful discovery. This time, a simple milkmaid, who is obviously the most beautiful girl in Sicily, is played by someone named Tiziana Lodato, who after a bit of eyebrow plucking, is more than ready for her closeup.

Tornatore has his signature unbroken shot sweeping through alleyways and near fishing villages and around townspeople as they congregate outside of the screen test tent. He also finds these fabulous faces of people we assume have never acted before. And like Malena, there is a savage beating that seems to take place from a different film altogether.

But the travelogue aspects of a man in a van traveling around Sicily will keep you entertained throughout.

* Halliwells — “A road movie about people’s dreams and disappointments, too schematic to be entirely successful.”
7.1 IMDB

The Star Maker @ Amazon

THE STAR MAKER

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2000

September 21, 2008
Netflix DVD
Italy / USA
Italian / Sicilian / English / Latin
92 Minutes (USA Version) — December 25, 2000
Comedy / Drama / Romance / War
Giuseppe Tornatore [Cinema Paradiso]
Monica Bellucci [Bram Stoker's Dracula; Irreversible; The Matrix Reloaded]

An Intimate Portrait And An Epic Story Of The Courage We Discover, The Innocence We Surrender, And The Memories We Cherish…Forever.

In Sicily in the early 1940s, a beautiful woman, who loses her husband in the war, is the object of an adolescent’s day dreams.

From the man who brought us perhaps the most nostalgic film of all time, CINEMA PARADISO, a movie I love with all of my naive heart. Take a look at the tagline above. He tries to have lightening strike twice. “The memories we cherish forever”?

This lightweight story is about a small Italian fishing village as Mussolini rises to power just before World War II. A young teenager named Renato is our surrogate for this film. We will grow up with him and experience life in Italy with him. The film opens with him receiving a new bicycle which seems to be the entry fee into a group of older boys who hang out together. He follows them one day as they race to a seawall, sit on it, and wait. His questions are all answered as Malena walks out of her house, past the panting boys, towards the market. As she passes, we actually get to see Renato’s shorts get tighter.

The entire story revolves around a woman whose husband is fighting for the Italian army. This woman is so beautiful that the rest of the village goes completely bonkers. Rumors spread, men declare their love, women spit on her, boys climb trees to peer into her house, German occupiers pay to sleep with her–all while she pines for her beloved.

In order to pull off a story like this, the woman needs to be almost supernaturally beautiful. Beautiful enough to become the obsession not just of an adolescent boy (which is comparably easy), but the obsession of an entire region of Italy, as well as male and female viewers, alike. There are maybe five women on the planet who could inspire such a response. Monica Bellucci is absolutely one of them.

From the moment we see her sashaying by the group of boys, we are goners. She is a work of art. From that point on, there is not a single thing that happens in this unevenly toned film that seems out of place. A beautiful woman can make people do unbelievable things. I would say that Bellucci would probably lead any number of global villages to cease to function as societies were she to show up in one of her cleavage-baring dresses.

Beyond that, there isn’t much here. The character of the boy is a pretty realistic portrayal of someone who is protecting the thing he loves without telling the object of his affection. He spies on her, he dreams about her, he masturbates to her, she shows up in his daydreams as a teacher, or butcher, and he writes unsent letter to her declaring his love and that he’ll always be around to protect her. It’s probably a uniquely male thing to do, to create a fantasy world where you have a relationship with someone you’ve never spoken to, where you defend someone who doesn’t know your name, where you know that if she would just talk with you once, she’d be as convinced about your compatibility as you are. This is hard to portray on film, so it falls back on flashes of breasts and on the incredible face of Ms. Bellucci.

Because I am a straight male, I needed to do further research on Ms. Bellucci and was shocked and horrified to find that the version of MALENA that I saw on DVD, while rated R (deservedly), had more than ten minutes cut from it, including several more scenes of seduction and nudity. The horror!

I am now firmly on the Bellucci bandwagon. To fans of hers I say, skip IRREVERSIBLE as you may never recover from what you see in it. I am also incredibly happy that she is roaring into her 40s as beautiful as ever.

The film, in a nutshell is about a woman so beautiful that a village goes bonkers. Don’t look for anything deeper than that.

* Halliwells — “Teenage fantasies of sexual success conflict with the realities of political failure and personal humiliation in this engaging fable that shows the influence of Fellini.”
5.4 Metacritic
7.4 IMDB
** Ebert
*** Berardinelli
B- Gleiberman

Malena @ Amazon

MALENA

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2007

September 14, 2008
Netflix
South Korea / USA
Korean / English
90 Minutes — April 11, 2008
Drama
Gina Kim

5.7 IMDB

NEVER FOREVER

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1996

September 14, 2008
DVD — Thank You Nazhat S.
USA
English / Spanish
91 Minutes — February 21, 1996
Adventure / Comedy / Crime / Drama / Romance
Wes Anderson [Rushmore; The Royal Tenenbaums; The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou; Hotel Chevalier; The Darjeeling Limited]

They’re not criminals, but everybody’s got to have a dream.

Three young incompetents decide to embark on a life of crime.

* Halliwells — “Enjoyable and witty small-scale independent film that manages some original variations on a familiar theme.”
6.0 MC
7.2 IMDB

BOTTLE ROCKET

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Written by Michael W. Cummins