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1464 reviews in total 
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Frontera (2014)
Very well done stuff, excellent acting, rich plot, vivid locations shooting, 21 January 2015

Frontera (2014)

Part of me says: any movie that helps our understanding of the real illegal immigration situation from Mexico should be watched. This does that.

The problem is made immediate and intimate, and you are meant to understand both sides of the issue. It also avoids for awhile the sensationalism of lots of these cross- border dramas. A young man crosses into Arizona in one of those remote areas where it seems possible to sneak through and walk away. Some American kids taking pot shots at him with a high powered rifle end up accidentally killing an American woman on her horse (she falls off when the horse is spooked) and the immigrant becomes the main suspect.

This all happens early in the movie, and it is the dead woman's husband, played by Ed Harris, who holds up the other half of the movie. We follow then the Mexican (played by Michael Peña) as he flees and encounters "justice" (and later his wife, played by Eva Longoria arrives to help him). And we follow Harris who steadfastly digs into what really happened.

So there is plenty of drama here (one reviewer on rotten tomatoes said this had no drama, and that is completely false—just wait until you get to the coyotes kidnapping people). And yet there is a sense of balance, that there are good guys and bad guys and misapprehensions on both sides. You might say this makes the movie too balanced, so it lacks punch, but instead I think it has depth, which is better.

It's imperfect, for sure, as things get wrapped up and plots become increasingly intertwined. But overall I found it strong and well intentioned. And well acted, set in some genuine looking arroyos and deserts (it was filmed in New Mexico).

A different, Werzog-like view of a prison camp, made individualized and raw, 14 January 2015

Rescue Dawn (2006)

A well made, fairly routine war and prisoner-of-war film. I suppose nothing is routine in these matters, but the film makes it all weirdly familiar: captured, struggling to survive, plotting an escape, and escaping. Hey, this isn't news: it's in the title.

I'm not sure if Christian Bale is what you'd call a great actor—he's a convincing Batman, at least in the latest versions, but he's up and down in his other movies. Here he tries his best, and you can feel him acting his heart out. He even seems to eat bugs and bites a snake (or close to it) to make it convincing. But there might be such a thing as trying too hard, revealing a lack of something more intuitive and convincing.

But he is the movie, so get used to it. And he's not terrible, even if he has an inexplicable grin half the time. Let's not forget this is a Werner Herzog movie, and that means it's got something special here that great directors bring out whether they want to or not. Here it's a combination of violence and human excess. The excess is not just violence, but thoughtlessness, and kind of childish cruelty that Herzog shows both the captors enjoy and the townspeople seem to at least put up with. I don't know if this is exposing the horrors of war, as some say this movie does, but it does show the willingness of the director to go someplace uncomfortable, to stir the view.

Stirred I was. It's a good movie. It has such irksome flaws I have trouble seeing the strengths, too, but the evocation of a Laotian prison camp is decent enough. I think his idea of fellow prisoners is pure Hollywood, however, and it seems more like "The Great Escape' than it should, given all the differences in cultures—and directors.

How does it end? Hmph. Wait and see.

A "delight" and gentle, touching farce set in watch it!, 14 January 2015

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

A slow easy funny ride. It parodies a spiritual journey but in some ways it is also a genuine one. Three brothers—Americans with lots of personal issues—are on a colorful slow train in India. They have met up after their father's death to presumably (possibly) find their mother who has joined an obscure convent.

It's endlessly delightful and wry—comical in a happy, charmed way. Of course, this is a Wes Anderson film. Think of a slightly more grounded "Budapest Hotel" or a less fanciful "Moonrise Kingdom" (to name two of his films). Anderson is a true auteur director—there is no mistaking his movies, and that's a good thing. Stylized, colorful, filled with whim and whimsy, improbable but also tinged with a reality that matters, too.

So expect a series of odd, winking events that have strains of serious inquiry behind them, at least a little. That is, it's not total farce. But it's not a demanding movie at all, despite the possibilities. It's fun and bright and endlessly curious. And pretty. As usual, Anderson's set designer was given free reign.

Layered and quietly moving look at the end of the dictatorship in Portugal 40 years ago, 14 January 2015

Night Train to Lisbon (2013)

A remarkable movie, with shades of magic and threads of a true national angst still resolving in contemporary Portugal. I just returned from a visit there and can sense some vestige of another era in the buildings, but not in the people. The era of dictatorship is no longer visible to the tourist.

But that is the meat of the movie, set after Salazar's long reign, and with the aftermath of memories and lost ones still mourned. But it's all told (based on a novel by a Swiss writer) as if in a dream, or in an individual's search through imprecise information and people who don't always talk about it the way you might expect. It's a series of small surprises, elegantly wrought.

So in all these ways it's a powerful movie. It's small and intimate, however, not an epic about this great turning point in Portuguese history. In a way it's appropriate, because I found the people there less exuberant and more contemplative than the Spaniards next door. There are always a million reasons for such things—climate, outside cultural influences, etc.—but it's so true that the movie is actually terribly honest. It reveals the truth, in little facets, and never complete.

The star certainly is Jeremy Irons, who plays the leading role with tenderness and quiet certitude. He's terrific, and perfect for this part. Also appearing is Charlotte Rampling who has a knack for small, odd, but critical roles in offbeat movies. The cast is wide, and in the many flashbacks the characters gradually intersect in different ways, revealing their personal connections to the political strife of the times.

Good stuff? Excellent stuff! I liked it more than I expected to. It's slow at times, and maybe (if you are not paying attention) a hair confusing, but give it a go if you are inclined at all. A serious, brooding but not depressing drama about, in the end, relationship. As all the best movies are.

A warm, slow, sometimes overly slow dig into simple meanings of art and life, 14 January 2015

The Artist and the Model (2012)

This is a movie, a poem, about the existence of beauty and meaning in art, and in the life of an artist. in France during WWIL

This is an impossible subject for any movie—it demands too much be spelled out. The more obtuse, abstract, and indirect it is the better. Luckily that's where this movie tries to go. Where it fails is when it specifies its ideas. It sometimes states its wisdom. There is another better movie somewhere—not yet made—that could touch these ideas and imbue them with fullness without making it concrete. That one is the masterpiece.

In a way the fact I'm talking about this is proof that something happens here. It's a gorgeous, thoughtful movie. The old—very old—sculptor finds a young—very young— model and seems to come to life again. And in his work in these last years he finds something deep and lasting, or seemingly so. The model, in her own naive way, is actually more enriched than he is by all of this, and we see her enlightenment in small ways, even if on some level she doesn't care, not in the way the artist does.

But the artist is the center of things here, in a brilliant performance. His work, what they show of it in the movie (I speak as an artist and art historian), is pathetic and weak, and in a way that's an achilles heel here—-his huge inspiration is just another cemetery sculpture, nothing much after all. Maybe that's the hidden intention, but I don't think so.

The film is a gorgeous, simple black and white widescreen filming that is perfect for the material. The plot is simple—there are just a couple of interesting interruptions to the model and the artist working and growing together. At the end of the day and the end of life for the old man, it all presses on us as we watch—hence the pathos.

One of the stars is the French countryside itself—the olive oil on bread, the light through the trees. In a way it's a poem to a perfect existence, as much as life allows on this small planet.

See this? It really depends. It's a patient movie—requiring patience, as well. But it's beautiful and warm. And the acting is excellent. The torch is passed. The war is ending. Hope has some kind of connection to the profound, and the understanding that life is more than just the day's needs.

Beautifully wrought, well done, well acted, contemporary London, 14 January 2015

Breaking and Entering (2006)

Underrated. The acting is so good, and the story so interesting and not quite familiar (even if it uses some familiar ideas), and the way it is filmed and told so expert, it's hard to see why there aren't more people appreciating this. I really liked it, and was never distracted and disappointed.

First there is Jude Law, a nuanced actor who rises above his reputation as a pretty man. He manages to come off as a self-absorbed jerk with a nice interior, then as a truly good man, then as a tortured adulterer. And some things between, all restrained and quite believable in a proper, well-educated London scene. Against him and even more astonishing (as usual) is Juliette Binoche, playing a Bosnian immigrant with a troubled son. Binoche's accent, to an American ear, and her mannerisms were so real I had to look her up to see if she really was born and raised in France (she was, in Paris, though her mother came from Poland).

It is the troubled son who connects the two. Add a troubled marriage that Law's character has with a neurotic but striving wife (Robin Penn Wright) and their own daughter and her autistic tendencies, and you have a complicated world. And it takes a director like the also underrated Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient"), who made only eight movies before his early death, to make sense of this without pandering to sensation. And keeping it visually beautiful.

There are flaws here, partly in the writing (also Minghella's hand), adding elements that seem a bit forced (the "good" prostitute, for example). And perhaps even the end, which is beautiful and idealistic and dramatic but a hair sudden after all, needed a different tilt. But in all there is psychology and sentiment and narrative twisting enough for any solid contemporary movie. It still resonates, even a decade later.

So why the lack of appreciation? My first guess is that it isn't flashy, it never goes over any edge. You might say it takes no chances. But if you like a really well made drama for what it is, this is one to try.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A simple imaginative idea carried out with compelling grit and romance, 21 December 2014

In Your Eyes (2014)

A terrific concept—and it unveils early on but if you don't know it it's a great surprise—and a well done movie, too. The key is the two main actors, a young man and a young woman in very different circumstances who seem destined for each other.

And they are 3000 miles apart.

Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of the director) is terrific throughout, playing a well- heeled woman with a controlling husband in beautiful New Hampshire. And Michael Stahl-David plays her counterpart with similar introspective intensity, but as an minor ex-con in a trailer in beautiful New Hampshire. What they have in common is something no one else has—and no one else can know about.

It's the ultimate romance movie in that first sense that you know they belong together and circumstances are keeping them apart. But it's also a romance in a deeper way, because the two get to know each other with extreme openness and intimacy. They naturally fall in love. And the world naturally will not make it easy.

In many ways the filming is quite solid in a familiar way, not drawing attention to itself except in scenes where two realities are made to blend (crudely). This is all about story and more story. Some of the side characters are imperfectly developed (even the controlling husband doesn't always resonate quite right). But the two leads are spot on, and their parallel development is our fascination.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Routine but rather well made office building tension, 16 December 2014

Not Safe for Work (2014)

A straight up office building thriller. Yeah, like that's a genre already—well, it feels like it. Isn't that what "Die Hard" was? This one tones it down and it becomes practically believable. Almost too believable, so that it's a bit routine after awhile, even if you're still on the edge of your seat.

So imagine you're the last one to leave the office—almost last—and the elevators stop. And then you see someone with a gun, and the computers go nuts, and the lights flicker. So you have a nightmare, trapped, no way to contact help. Even your cellphone ends up, of course, in the hands of the bad guy.

And what a bad guy he is, a seemingly cool customer with no qualms killing anyone for any reason. What's a little blood when a pharmaceutical company has a lawsuit on the fritz? And so it goes, running through offices and hiding behind desks.

Can this last for a couple hours? Almost! It works on some level. It doesn't work on a lot of other levels, for sure, like caring very much about anyone. (This is where both Bruce Willis and the script of "Die Hard" have something special going on, whatever you think of that Hollywood blockbuster.) Here, you more or less know what's going to happen, and then by the end you are sure. But getting there isn't half bad. Half, at least.

4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
I'm sorry, but this looks and feels great but is just stupid stupid stupid, 16 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Snowpiercer (2014)

The good: great set design! Yes, that means a lot. I mean, this is kind of a stupid movie. It has a catchy plot, even if completely ludicrous—a train is on a winding track throughout the entire planet, circling by magic only once a year (that's a very slow train, even with all the twists implied). And in this post-apocalypse world (yes, another one!!!), the last vestiges of humanity are on this train, which by some twist of perpetual motion machinery keeps going for 17 years, non-stop.

Okay, if you don't think this is stupid already, read someone else's review. I didn't like this movie. But I did like the sets. Yup. At first we are limited to the back of the train, the lower classes living in true, cramped, degenerate poverty. I mean, they're stuck for 17 years on the last couple cars of a train, what do you expect?

Eventually, the heroes know they need to make it to the front of the train and finally (after 17 years) they hatch a plan. Storm ahead with lots of bravado and a few quick knife wounds. Good thinking!! And so we gradually (!!) move forward through this long long perpetual motion train. And the cars become really really interesting—food processing units, a colorful elementary school, crazy hedonism, old-school Euro-trains with drapes and wood paneling, and eventually the engine of it all.

Meet Ed Harris. In some ways he's meant to rescue this things—in some ways he does! Well, no rescue is possible, but our interest is renewed, briefly. The improbabilities continue, however, and the joke of it all (if you can escape the aura of "wow" that the set design pulls off) wins the day, right up the polar bear. Yeah, a spoiler, I suppose.

Sorry, but to those fans who love this movie, I wonder mostly why. Beyond how cool it looks. Oh, yeah, there's the idea of being the underdog and fighting the evil institution that rules them (just like a dozen recent movies, literally, like "The Hunger Games" which is far more compelling, and which inspired this to some extent, especially the fabulous Tilda Swinton character).

If you like this dystopian stuff even if it's about as deep as the reflection on your Samsung, go for it. But if you look for, uh, character, plot, acting, and creativity, forget it. Move on. Unless you dig set design, which is worth the price alone.

Empire (2002)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A latino NYC drug world with one large twist...not bad, not great, 15 December 2014

Empire (2002)

Not knowing much about the drug world, or about the Latino drug world in Brooklyn in particular, I was fascinating on the basic level of curiosity. And some amazement, I suppose.

This isn't a badly made movie. The leading actor, John Leguizamo, is subtle enough as Victor Rosa and has an inner core of decency to keep you identified enough to watch. The plot needs that because there's a lot of the well worn drug violence to wear you out. There is also, however, a second plot element that you don't quite expect—Rosa finds an opportunity to invest his drug earnings into high yield stock deals through a very non- Latino Wall Street man.

So there is a big twist or two to come, and this really makes the movie more of a fictional bit of creativity. Written and directed by Franc Reyes, "Empire" is about all kinds of rivalries. It's also wants to be about love and is thin there. You wish he had taken the slightly different tack the script offered him and tilted away from the shooting and strutting (lots of cocks hanging out here) and more into the minds and hearts of these people, who start to become real for us.

No such luck. Somehow they managed to get Isabella Rossellini in for a small but good part—if you're a fan you'll enjoy that. And Leguizamo adds some tenderness (real or not) to larger scene. And location shooting, frankly, is really nice, showing not the usual sides of New York (or LA) and not the romanticized ethnic neighborhoods (like the Italian or Jewish sections of old), but the regular, rough-edged reality of Brooklyn now. Or at least in 2002. Things keep changing down there really fast.

I don't recommend or not this movie—it's purely about whether you like this kind of world and want to get immersed in it. Nothing really special happens, but it's got a steady interest that might keep you going.

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