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First Snow (2006)
Taut noir thriller
This taut little thriller, directed by first-timer Mark Fergus, is a real gripper with intelligence to spare and some seriously powerful stuff. The protagonist/anti-hero, Jimmy Starks (Guy Pearce in a role that hauntingly echoes his work in "Memento"), is a salesman/con man who easily slides in and out of legit selling and shady conning. Pearce carries this off beautifully, and is ably abetted in his downward spiraling tale by J.K. Simmons as Vaccaro, the strangely prescient soothsayer, William Fichtner as Jimmy's friend Ed, and some really great unknown actors in other supporting roles, principally the actor playing Jimmy's boss, who will hopefully go on to do more work on film (he's terrific).
Jimmy accidentally meets up with fortune teller Vaccaro who accurately predicts a win by a local college basketball team that Jimmy's bet on, as well as a windfall from an on-the-level business deal that Jimmy's involved in. What Vaccaro does not predict is the riveting, ever-darker series of events that ensue when Jimmy finds out that a former partner of his in a crooked scam, Vince, is now out on parole from a stretch in the slammer.
For my money, this is the best American noir thriller of the year so far, and would make a great addition, once it's out on DVD, to anyone's library of neo-noirs. The ending in particular is really strong--always the mark of a well-made film.
Try not to miss this. It's great.
one of the best most underrated cartoon shows ever
Network executives made a huge error by putting this on the Saturday morning roster because the humor was so fresh, biting, witty, and sharp that it was WAY over kids' heads. And THAT is the reason it disappeared after only one season. This was a phenomenally clever show and if it ever comes out on DVD I will be one of the first to grab it, immediately.
The wit and zingers are fast and furious here and along with Ren and Stimpy and, on many occasions, the Simpsons, this should be counted as the best use of animation in a series for TV. But definitely, as mentioned, not for kiddies. I mean, let's face it. There was actually a total BABE in this show whose beautiful chest was definitely noticeable. Is THAT a kid's cartoon show character??? I think not.
I was sad to see this go, just as I was sad to see Ren and Stimpy go, and also another show, not animated, Get A Life with Chris Elliot which, luckily, WAS released on DVD--at least eight of the episodes anyway. Zany TV shows that poke fun at social conventions don't last. That's really too bad. It's too bad the majority of the public wants safe pablum to swallow like so much warm mush which they just dribble all over themselves. The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley was one of those shows that, rather than being warm bland tasteless mush, had some real kick, zing, and bite.
It's sorely missed.
Intelligent drama of grief
Making subtle yet penetrating use of what can now be called 21st century flashback--based on films like Amores Perros and several others--the director of this excellent 2005 Norwegian film, Sara Johnsen, has crafted a near-masterpiece that centers on the loss of a child. The main character, Victoria, a pediatrician originally married and in a large city (one presumes either Oslo or Bergen), has moved to a small town following her divorce and a much more traumatic event as well.
The discovery of the body of an Iranian refugee boy in the snow draws into the story the local cop, his wife--a friend of Victoria's--the boy's parents, and the local snowplow driver, Kai. The scenes of Victoria's former life with her husband and son are so skillfully woven into the pattern of this film that the contrast between that life and her present one--alone--is absolutely riveting. Her involvement with Kai is an integral part of this story and is done just as skillfully, with great depth of feeling.
The resolution of the mystery of the Iranian boy's death converges with the emotional resolution that Victoria reaches regarding her own son's loss. The plotting here is flawless, and the acting is superior. Sara Johnsen is, based on this very strong debut, a real talent to watch in Norwegian film-making. I was lucky enough to have seen this film in New York City's Lincoln Center, during their Norwegian Film Festival.
Very highly recommended; one of the top ten films of the year.
36 Quai des Orfèvres (2004)
I had the privilege of seeing this film at the Lincoln Center (NY City) Rendezvous with French Cinema in March 2005 with the director, Olivier Marchal, in attendance.
The film stars Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu, and Valeria Golino. The two male leads play rivals for the position of Chief of Police in the same district of Paris. Depardieu's character is the heavy and the actor does a magnificent job. But so does Auteuil as the "good guy" and Golino as his wife. Marchal both wrote and directed this film, drawing on his former life as, in fact, a Paris cop and based the events in the film on some real occurrences from the 80s in Paris. There are drug dealers and corrupt cops, to be sure, but what gives this film tremendous power is the combination of the superb acting and a tough, smart script.
The current chief is in line to a promotion to commissioner and knows the personalities of the two rivals well--so well, in fact, that he engages in some devious manipulative actions to set them against each other. The resulting tension and conflict between these two is what gives the film its tremendous momentum. The plotting is perfect; this film does everything it's supposed to do, and a lot more, to grab the viewer by the throat and not let go until the end.
Upon conclusion of the film, the director was bombarded with questions. One of them was whether or not the film has American distribution. One would think that with two French mega-stars like Auteuil and Depardieu, no problem, right? Wrong. Marchal indicated that the film was picked up for distribution throughout the world EXCEPT in the US. It is my fervent hope that some American studio/distributor smartens up and then snaps up this film which is, without question, the absolute best policier in more than 20 years. The last great film in this genre from France was La Balance, directed, interestingly enough, by an American ex-pat, Bob Swaim. That was in 1982. Even Tavernier's L.627, 1992, is not a strong contender.
But 36 Quai des Orfevres is the real deal. The title refers to the street address of the district precinct station whose sign, in a nifty opening sequence, is ripped off by...well, you'll just have to see for yourself.
Very highly recommended. A great thriller--formidable! (French for terrific).
Brilliant film, comparable to Pleasantville
Niceland is the most recent film from Iceland's master filmmaker, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson and it is a brilliant piece of work. In 90 minutes he manages to capture the emotional essence of life as it is lived and life as it should be lived, both, making us feel happy, amused, sad, hopeful, joyful. The poignancy of the story is so finely tuned and so intelligently crafted that it would be difficult to think of another current film (this is from 2004) that does what this one does.
Playing like an allegory, Niceland's cast is comprised of Scottish and Icelandic actors; the leads are, in fact, Scottish and a good number of the supporting actors are Icelandic. What's both amusing and irritating is that Fridriksson has English subtitles when everyone speaks English! The viewer gets the feeling that this was done to spoof foreign films that require subtitles; another reason, however, is to slightly jar the viewer--i.e., is this a foreign film or isn't it? If it is, where is the setting? There's only a single tiny hint that this may be set in Iceland which is when one TV is playing, the viewer hears people speaking in a language that is definitely not English. But all other times, English is spoken--by the characters and by whoever's on the TV (TV figures quite a bit in the film).
Jed and Chloe, young 20-somethings, work side by side in a factory and are somewhat intellectually challenged--Chloe, for example, feels that the purpose of her life is her cat Catey. But it is just this not-quite-normalcy of these two leads that gives this film its tremendous poignancy. We discover as well that Jed's parents have some problems in their marriage--the father sells TVs for a living--and also that Jed ultimately becomes convinced that he must obtain the purpose of life--of life for both him and Chloe together--from a man named Max who is interviewed on TV and claims to know the purpose of life--although he won't just come right out and say it.
Jed goes to find Max and Max, as it turns out, is a much more complex character than he initially appears to be. The very well crafted interactions of these three characters--Max, Chloe, and Jed--and some of the other characters who surround or support them--Jed's parents, his friend Alex, Chloe's mother--are all interwoven so delicately and so thoughtfully that to miss this film would be a real crime.
The allegorical nature of this film, and its two young leads, recalls a somewhat similar American film, Pleasantville. Although the latter is without question a different film, there is a kind of eerie similarity in that we definitely feel that we are in some kind of familiar yet surreal alternate universe kind of "anytown", where people are subtly exaggerated versions of the archetypal/stereotypical folks we've met before in other films, novels, plays, or maybe even in real life. This allegorical/surreal haze that delicately colors the proceedings lends the film a unique quality that one would, I think, be hard put to find in many other films. Aside from Pleasantville, nothing else comes immediately to mind.
This is a terrific comedy-drama with subtle elements of fantasy and surrealism that absolutely demands a wider audience. I managed to see this in April 2005 in New York City at a film festival of Scandinavian film (one of the great things about being in NY City is the astounding diversity of available films).
Very highly recommended; one of the best films of 2004, no question.
Travellers and Magicians (2003)
Well crafted film fuses noir, comedy, and multi-culti
In this, his second film, Khyentse Norbu shows how skilled a filmmaker he really is. An ordained lama, he studied independent film-making in New York and here it really pays off. While his first film, The Cup, was a well done portrait of life in Bhutan, Travellers and Magicians is that and much more. Taking his cue from, among other works, the great Ju Dou by Zhang Yimou, Norbu gives us a village official who longs for the excitement and money to be had in America.
Sporting shiny white new athletic shoes, the official makes his way to the main road where he tries to catch a bus to Thimbu, first stop on his journey. But he misses the bus and soon meets up with an interesting assortment of fellow travelers--an old apple seller, a monk, and a farmer with his beautiful daughter. While waiting for the bus--or anyone driving who can give any or all of them a ride--they're entertained by the monk who tells a tale of a young apprentice magician who loses his way in a large forest and comes upon an old man and his much younger wife.
Norbu intercuts the ongoing tale with different legs of the travelers' journey on the seemingly endless road. The editing chops on display here are truly impressive, marking this as the work of a director who really knows how to make a film grab the viewer. We see the young magician lying in bed at night, thinking only of the young wife, and dissolve to the official waking up in the morning, having no doubt thought of the farmer's daughter much of the night.
This is much more than great editing; it gives us strong links between how we live our lives and how we imagine our lives should be lived. The tales we tell, the ones we remember, are those that inform how we feel we should or could do what we're not doing now. It's our memory of another story--what we read long ago, or what someone told us long ago--that gives us the unofficial subconscious laws we live by. That's what Norbu tells us in this great film.
A giant leap forward from The Cup, Travellers and Magicians is a first class cinematic work that should be seen by many.
Shi mian mai fu (2004)
Oooh gosh, look at all them flyin' objects!!
It's kind of hard to understand how the director of the great Raise the Red Lantern has migrated to CGI-ville. House of Flying Daggers, just as much as Zhang Yimou's previous film Hero, relies enormously on CGI (computer-generated imagery) to show hundreds or thousands of spears hitting a roof (Hero), or hundreds or thousands of bamboo trunks/branches hurled at two people in a forest (House of Flying Daggers). And this is only one example among VERY many of CGI utilization in this film. Similarly, every time a dagger is let loose in this film, it immediately becomes a magical object that does supernaturally impossible things, defying belief so much it gets tiring after the first four or five times.
The most creative and gripping use of this CGI technology comes early in the film when the "heroine", Mei, posing as a dancer in a brothel, agrees to perform the "Echo Game" when she is challenged to do so by the head of the local police precinct, supposedly to avoid arrest. In this context, the police guy throws pebbles at a semi-circle of large drums, and we watch as the pebble ricochets from one drum to another, finally falling to the floor. The dancer must duplicate the sonic rhythms the pebble has created against as many drums as it hits. This is admittedly a beautiful use of CGI because of its imaginative linking of man and nature--pebble against drum; dancer with her extra-long garment sleeves moving in such a way as to hit the drums with the edges of her sleeves, echoing the movement of the pebble. Truly inspired and absolutely enthralling.
But unfortunately this degree of imagination is not carried through for the rest of the film. Set in a time when the Chinese empire was weak, hundreds of years ago--this could be anywhere from the 14th to the 18th century--House of Flying Daggers gives us Mei, Jin--supposedly a young, handsome, wealthy playboy, and Leo, the police guy. None of these three characters is who they appear to be initially. The eponymous entity is a secret group/society fighting the current corrupt government typified by Leo who is in fact a member of the group itself, as is Mei. Jin is actually a police guy himself, not the rich layabout he initially seems to be.
Relatively soon, this evolves, if that term can be used, into a love story in which all three of the leads converge in a tale of passion, jealousy, and revenge. It would have been decidedly more intriguing if the layers of misrepresented roles--House of Flying Daggers member, police captain, dancer--had been more carefully thought out and more intricately linked to each other without having to rely on love and jealousy to do so.
As it is, this tried and true method--Hollywoodlike, in fact--of forcing characters to be involved with each other cheapens the story considerably. This cheapening is made substantially more obvious with the over-utilization of CGI, referred to previously. It's as if the director (who also co-wrote the script) is intentionally acknowledging how much he "owes" Hollywood for his success, or even, possibly, his interest in film to begin with. Hollywood, as we all know, has become one of the giant corporations of not only the US but the world. It's unfortunate when a director from far outside the US who's shown in the past his obvious talent by paying careful attention to the nuances of his native culture downgrades that talent considerably by investing his films with so much splash they smack the viewer in the face--"Hey!! Look at what I can do with these here nifty special effects!! Wow, am I great or WHAT?" The above may sound fuddy duddy, but I urge you, if you have not seen it, to rent or buy (unfortunately, December 2004, still only on VHS, not DVD) Raise the Red Lantern which is one of the best Chinese films ever made. It is brilliant.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said of House of Flying Daggers. This is decidedly notable for the brilliant sequence of the Echo Game and for the visually stunning use of color in the film. But the way over the top use of CGI and the cheapening of the storyline does not make this anywhere near the film it could--and should--have been.
Akarui mirai (2002)
Time past, life wasted
Bright Future, another recent dark film from the great Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, focuses on working class folks whose future is anything but bright. The irony of the title is pounded home in scene after scene. Yuji and Mamoru, friends in their 20s who work at the same boring job in the same dull warehouse, are both frustrated with their lives. But there is a big difference.
While Mamoru looks around carefully and gives Yuji knowing glances, and tells Yuji when to Wait and when to Go Ahead (capital letters used on purpose), Yuji is content to live in his dreams in which, he says in a voice-over, he sees himself as having a bright future. Mamoru has a pet poisonous jellyfish, which he bequeaths to Yuji when something terrible happens and Mamoru lands in prison.
Their boss, a man of 55, is just as frustrated with his boring existence as his two workers, and Mamoru's father is, as well, a man who labors at a thankless job that keeps him confined to a small space; he fixes broken appliances in a salvage shop.
When the jellyfish escapes from Yuji, he panics, then relaxes when he realizes that it is, in essence, following him wherever he goes. Kurosawa always fuses fantasy with reality in his films and this one is no exception. Although an obvious symbol for escape from a humdrum existence, the jellyfish turns out to be something more than that as well. This is brought home later in the film when we see a flotilla of the things moving out to sea in the Tokyo canal...
KK, as I like to call him--to distinguish him from Akira Kurosawa--makes films like no one else today. It's easy and at the same time intriguing to read into his films more than what we see and chances are that the added meanings we find are right. I think we know this because his films resonate long after leaving the theater; the layers of meaning we find in them continue to make themselves apparent without much effort at all.
Bright Future is a film about significantly more than people who spend their time, their lives in futile activity. It's about whether or not we think about how to live our lives, about whether we value the time that we have, or how we value it, if we do at all. It's about how we try to move beyond what we have and how that usually fails. It's a sad film but one that upon reflection makes us think that maybe there is, after all, a chance for a bright future. Or maybe not.
Gabriela, Cravo e Canela (1983)
Ripe for a DVD!
This 1983 remake of Gabriela, directed by Bruno Barretto, features THE most sensuous performance of Sonia Braga on film--interesting, considering she was in the 1976 original film, also as the title character. But Barretto does things the previous director did not do, and nails the story, as well as casting, also interestingly, Marcello Mastrioanni as the Syrian Nacib who is entranced by Gabriela's obvious femaleness. In what is very likely the most sensuous scene in filmdom--or certainly one of them--he has her over a first floor window. You can actually feel the room temperature rising around you when this coupling is going on.
What it is that Barretto nails is the spirit of Jorge Amado's novel--that which captures the uncontrolled and uncontrollable desires of a woman who, as uneducated as she is, rules men with her looks. Nothing new there, but there's no other film like the 1983 Gabriela for "fleshing out" (you will, I am sure, pardon the pun) this concept.
The Mastrioanni-Braga chemistry is white hot and that's true not only for the coupling they do, but also for the arguments they have. Only when there is passionate love can there be passionate arguments, and they are definitely here, no question, making this a film that grabs you by the throat, and by the privates, and squeezes in a gentle way, until all you can finally do is gasp. And with good reason.
This is truly ripe for a DVD release. Where is it?????
One of Bette Davis' best performances late in her career
Say what you will about the translation of Tom Tryon's fine gothic chiller Harvest Home into this TV film, Bette Davis' performance here is riveting and really nails home the creepiness of the tale. Unlike her sad farewell in The Wicked Stepmother (1989) where she was clearly having trouble focusing on her acting, here she is a powerful presence that (goose)fleshes out this telefilm the way it should be.
Playing the Widow Fortune (a prophetic name if ever there was one), she is the matriarch of Cornwall Coombe, a small Connecticut village just on the other side of the Lost Whistle covered bridge where "the ways" hold sway over the villagers. What they do and how they do it is bound by tradition, one hundred percent, so when a city family comes to stay, culture clash is inevitable.
Of course we all know this is a gothic chiller standard--sophisticated city couple/family comes to small quiet village only to find it mired in evil and horror, et cetera. Too true. But Davis' character is spellbinding enough that the viewer can overlook this tried and true plot point and enjoy the proceedings. Additionally, aside from some minor outdated bits of dialogue here and there, the script is actually pretty intelligent; a low stupidity quotient in the dialogue helps tremendously.
Unfortunately the VHS release of this film was chopped considerably; the original five hour length was shown on TV but unless the viewer taped it (as I did), it's completely unavailable. High time for a DVD release.
This is a great way to spend an evening with a roaring snowstorm outside. And the ending really is a shocker.