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Hwal (2005)
No Knife in the Water
18 October 2007
Of the films I've managed to get a look at, Kim Ki-Duk has made at least three that are powerfully evocative. "The Bow" isn't one of them. After the principal theme (if you could call it that) was presented, I kept waiting for something else, something compelling, or, if nothing else, some odd tangent that would take the film somewhere else.

Instead, all that happens is repetition - the old man and his bow taking pot-shots at fishermen leering at his teen-aged captive grew tedious. How could he stay in business if he kept threatening his clientèle? And isn't it slightly illegal to assault people with a deadly weapon? Ah, but it's only a metaphor! But even a metaphor needs some consummation, which the viewer (and the old man) never gets. Even the erotic aspect of the story is insufficiently explored. Compare this film with Polanski's "Knife in the Water" and it comes up terribly short.
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A Muddled Mess
31 August 2007
Michael Cacoyannis was an extremely promising filmmaker prior to making "Zorba the Greek". His films "The Girl in Black," "Stella," and especially "A Matter of Dignity" were remarkable for their intelligence and incisive portraits of modern Greek society. Even his most successful film prior to "Zorba" - his adaptation of Euripides' "Elektra" - was gripping, even if it considerably foreshortened the classical tragedy. The success of those films persuaded Hollywood to beckon Cacoyannis away from Greece, and "Zorba the Greek" was the result.

The film is a star vehicle for Anthony Quinn, which is not a bad thing if you're a Quinn fan. If you aren't, there is always the splendid Alan Bates in the role of a milquetoast writer and the stunning Irene Papas as the village widow. But then there is the altogether awful performance of Lila Kedrova as a French cocotte far past her prime. It's not hard to believe that she won an Oscar for the performance.

But the real problem with the film is Nikos Kazantzakis' terrible novel. Modern Greek literature has produced at least two world-class poets - Cavafy and Ritsos. There have also been several lesser poets, two of whom nevertheless won Nobel Prizes, George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. But Kazantzakis was not a part of this effluence of demotic Greek talent. He was a self-tormenting Christian on the order of Kierkegaard whose mediocrity did not prevent him from writing an unreadable "sequel" to Homer's "Odyssey".

"Zorba" was aiming at a picaresque portrayal of Greek and Cretan "types", but fails to inspire much sympathy for them. In fact, the villagers in the story (which Cacoyannis follows closely) are portrayed as vicious and spiteful, committing such acts of heartless savagery that no explanation could possibly make sense of it. The film simply leaves the two incidents hanging, and blithely proceeds with the story as if nothing had happened. These gaffes leave the film full of holes. And even the ridiculous final failure at the film's conclusion cannot excuse the cute (and ultimately stupid) little dance in which Quinn and Bates engage, supposedly expressing some kind of acceptance of the absurdity of life. Can any honest viewer conceive of concluding this bitter and unedifying experience with a dance? A quick run back to the video store might be a happier resolution.
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Surprise Happy Ending!
26 August 2007
I don't think it would qualify as a spoiler to state that this film has a happy ending. Somewhere around three-quarters into the film I was thinking that it had better have a happy ending, otherwise I would've put my foot through my TV screen.

But to get to that happy ending this film puts you (and its hero Chris) through such a litany of misfortune and disappointments that it made me wonder how on earth a happy resolution could possibly get the bad taste out of my mouth. I wondered how on earth Chris (played earnestly by Will Smith) could possibly think that a job at Dean Witter was worth what he goes through to get it. At what point along his road to ruin did he decide that a job at Wal Mart wasn't acceptable? When he put his head down on that sticky pillow at the shelter, what on earth prevented him from wondering if Dunkin Donuts was hiring? But no, his son had to endure losing his mom, living without an address, sleeping in a public restroom, etc., just so Daddy could land his pinchey job at Dean Witter.

"Based on a true story" the film says. Sorry, but I didn't buy it. Even a true story can seem totally fake if it isn't effectively told. This film plays every false note and prods the viewer incessantly. So the happy ending rings utterly untrue.
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Lonesome Jim (2005)
Intentionally Unfunny?
18 August 2007
Warning: Spoilers
"Lonesome Jim" was directed by Steve Buscemi - a fact I missed when I first watched it. I thought it was a tad too methodical in its portrayal of a guy who is the sole author of his own misery. The film poster says it all - he lives under his own dark cloud.

But Buscemi accomplished something quite well - he made the entire film feel like the inside of Jim's head. Casey Affleck proves once again where all the talent went in his family - not to Ben. And Liv Tyler continues to surprise, not so much with her talent as with her odd choice of roles. But I can't complain about an actress being TOO pretty for a part. Mary Kay Place is excellent in a completely unbelievable part - the all-forgiving, long-suffering mother. Only Seymour Cassell comes off perfectly straight as Jim's dad.

But the giveaway of the film is the character of Evil, who drives a scooter with a helmet painted with skulls. How he is eventually nabbed is truly hilarious - a touch that Buscemi couldn't have pulled off with a straight face. In fact, the entire film could be looked at as a kind of existentialist comedy. Jim tells his brother that his life is a tragedy, so his brother drives his car into a tree. The kids' basketball team hasn't scored a single basket all season - so in the climactic game they manage to score - one basket.

Set in Indiana, the film stinks of middle-America - the ugly towns encroaching on the country, the dank weather, a world with low ceilings and no windows. Just the kind of world a young person would leave because there are no opportunities. Trains are constantly driving through town, never stopping. The only escape is by bus - which Jim has to take (but somehow doesn't take) at the film's conclusion.
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Total Eclipse (1995)
Too much "production value" - too little imagination
24 July 2007
Few biopics of great artists have ever worked. This one was perhaps doomed from the start - dealing as it so valiant tries with one of the great enigmas of French poetry, Arthur Rimbaud. I suppose the director deserves credit for even attempting the impossible. She deserved far far better than Leo DiCaprio as Arthur Rimbaud. It would be kind to say he was miscast. He wasn't. He simply cannot act.

Everyone else in the cast is excellent - even David Thewlis as Paul Verlaine. Romaine Bohringer is beyond reproach (especially in her nude scenes) as Verlaine's long-suffering wife (weren't they all long-suffering?).

Rimbaud remains a total mystery, quite particularly because of this sad film.
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Cutter's Way (1981)
Better and better with the passing years
24 May 2007
I first saw this film shortly after its belated release and was rather bored by it - but it was my fault. I wanted to see it because its director was Ivan Passer, who directed the beautiful Czech film "Intimate Lighting".

Since then I've seen it three more times, and each time I saw it, the film got bigger and better. It has what is probably my favorite movie line ever, spoken by Cutter (John Heard): "Some day in Tahiti, we'll look back on all this and laugh." The cinematography (by the late Jordan Cronenweth) is splendid, with its emphasis on shade and sunlight streaming through lush trees. Lisa Eichhorn gives a heartbreaking performance as Cutter's alcoholic wife, whose brutal self-honesty makes her into an almost tragic heroine. Jeff Bridges is brilliant as Cutter's gigolo friend Bone - the origin of whose name becomes obvious in the opening scene.

But Passer is the true hero. He took what would've been a mediocre film in someone else's hands and made it utterly irreplaceable. This is truly one of the great American films of the 80s.
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Surprisingly Good
20 May 2007
Warning: Spoilers
This film came as something of a surprise. I watched it because Alex Phillips was its cinematographer, but I quickly found myself noticing other things, like the character played by Robert Mitchum whose allegiances are seriously divided between the country of his birth and Mexico. In fact, the title makes one wonder which "Country" is supposed to be "Beautiful". Mitchum plays his role with absolute conviction, not at all like he's in between his usual film noir roles (even if he was).

But the real star is the photography of Alex Phillips. The Mexican landscape, in Technicolor, never looked more beautiful AND authentic. It didn't take much to dress it up in period costume, since much of it still looks exactly as it did in the 19th century. Phillips had worked in Mexican films since the early 1930s, and had collaborated with Fernando de Fuentes, Emilio Fernandez, and Luis Bunuel.

"The Wonderful Country" also features Julie London in one of her last screen appearances before she disappeared into television. The film makes short-shrift of her, however, which may have simply been the result of the film's makers being dissatisfied with the love-interest sub-plot to begin with. That Robert Mitchum doesn't ride off into the sunset with her (he actually WALKS away from the camera, without his gun) is a credit to the film.
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A Good Sign or a Bad One?
17 May 2007
A good indication of the effect this Soviet film leaves me with, 50 years after its initial release, is provided by the cranes in the film's title - they are a faked photographic effect. Besides which, if birds are flying out of your city (Moscow), is it necessarily a good sign? This film seems bursting with exuberance, and so it should after Stalin's tardy death and the "thaw" that Russians immediately felt. But most of the photographic effects in the film, though dazzling in 1957, seem more than a little arty today. Most of the actors are either too old for their roles or too young. And they all seem to be posing for the next room-size Socialist-Realist mural. And notice that despite the relaxing of political repression, not a word is spoken against Comrade Stalin for the reason why millions of Russians died fighting Hitler.

I gave it 7 out of 10 stars, which isn't too shabby for a 50 year-old film that is beginning to look and feel its age. Eisenstein dropped dead at 50. I don't think Kalatozov would welcome any more such comparisons.
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Happy Times (2000)
Marvelous Comedy
22 March 2007
Zhang Yimou is easily the most interesting director in mainland China (he has some competition from Taiwan). "Happy Times" is once again a film that tacitly criticizes China's unprecedented stride into free market economics by depicting the lives of people who are left behind, or who can't find their way. The blind girl Wu is surely a metaphor for China itself, as the end credits make almost explicitly clear - she is followed by the camera as she walks precariously through the crowded city, with construction sites looming ominously in the background. The true stupidity of Roger Ebert is apparent from his dismissal of the film as a crude joke - a blind girl deceived into believing she is a masseuse in the Happy Times Hotel by the well-meaning "manager" Zhao and his reluctant cronies. But Wu is aware of the deception from the beginning, and even knows the bits of paper they give her aren't real money. Yet she goes along with the masquerade because she realizes to what lengths Zhao has gone to for her. That Ebert missed this nuance is typical of him. The true humor of the film lies in Wu's not being taken in by the deception, yet going along with it anyway - the deceivers satisfied she doesn't know, the deceived satisfied that she does. The final minutes of the film, with the tape-recorded voice of Wu expressing her love and thanks to Zhao (who is unable to listen) are bittersweet and captivatingly lovely.
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The Emigrants (1971)
THE Great American Film
31 October 2006
Even without 40 minutes of its original running time (trimmed by the idiots at Warner Brothers, who couldn't see American audiences sitting through a 3-hour film), "The Emigrants" is one of the greatest films ever made in Sweden - and probably the finest so far about the immigrant experience.

Troell's film was also the most expensive production to date (1971) in Sweden, which outraged many Swedes and made them attack the film quite unfairly. Box Office receipts worldwide, however, persuaded Hollywood that Troell was "bankable" and gave him a few shots at at fame and fortune ("Zandy's Bride" and "The Hurricane" - the latter to have been directed by Roman Polanski just prior to his banishment from America). Luckily, Troell failed in Hollywood and went back to Sweden.
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Nybyggarna (1972)
Bound for DVD?
30 October 2006
This is an extraordinary film, which I gave 10 out of 10 even if Warner Brothers, the film's theatrical distributor, cut the film in half for its American release. If ever this film (and its predecessor, "The Emigrants") makes it to DVD, I sincerely hope those 102 minutes are restored, so that I can at last see the film that Jan Troell intended for me to see.

As it looks on video, "The New Land" is still magnificent - its depiction of Swedish immigrants settling in frontier Minnesota outdoing every Western ever made. Be sure to look for the scene that George Lucas stole wholesale where Max von Sydow slaughters an ox and places his freezing son inside it during a snowstorm.
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Thirteen Weeks!
25 May 2006
As an avid viewer of Masterpiece Theater throughout the '70s, the appearance of this highly-touted series was something of an event for me. Listening to Alistair Cooke describing the effects of the Granada production on the British television audience at the time, however, didn't help me overcome my almost immediate and subsequent thirteen-week-long disappointment. I found the location photography interesting, but the casting was almost invariably bad - for both male and female roles (surely something could've been done to improve on the choices of the female leads - always excepting the splendid Peggy Ashcroft, who I'd learned wished to make up for the short-shrift David Lean had made of Mrs. Moore in 'A Passage to India'). Forty years after the demise of the Raj, the series perhaps evoked a nostalgia for the lost empire to British audiences. To me it evoked tedium, especially since I had to endure all thirteen weeks of it before Masterpiece Theater aired something else.
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Nothing is lost in translation
29 March 2006
Cafe Lumiere is a beautifully photographed nullity. Unacquainted with the work of the director, I am well-acquainted with the filmmaker he is supposedly paying tribute to - Ozu Yasujiro. While not even approaching Ozu in greatness, Hou has communicated nothing of Ozu's depth of emotion and concentration on meaning within a closed space. One of the things he misses entirely is Ozu's attention to character - we are not even "introduced" by Hou to his lead character (a perfect blank page). There are no medium or close shots of his people. One of the DVD extras offers interviews with the actors and gives us precisely what Hou doesn't - a good look at their faces.

There was a great Spanish film by Bardem called Nunca Pasa Nada, which translates to something like "Nothing Ever Happens". That would be a far better title to this pointless exercise. All through the film we are given clues about an obscure Taiwanese composer some of whose work we hear on the soundtrack. But the clues, like everything else, add up to nothing. Unless you're a trainspotter, this film has nothing to recommend it.
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Homoerotic Idyll, except for...
28 March 2006
The director of this film is noted for schlock (Gamera, Godzilla and Anime), but this little film, which gained release in the West and even made it to home video, is something of a curiosity.

The yearnings of a group of schoolboys for one another at a palatial but deserted house where they attend summer school one particularly fetid year suspended somewhere between the past and the future, could be called homoerotic were it not for the obvious fact that the boys are all played by girls. The usual Japanese obsessions with unrequited passion and suicide are filtered in against the backdrop of the mysterious house and grounds. But nothing is resolved, except perhaps the suspicion that it is all only a dream.

Yuriko Nakamura's lovely piano music accompanied by Hajime Mizoguchi's cello contribute to the altogether captivating and haunting atmosphere. I only rate it above average because it doesn't amount to much more than a pretty curio. But a curio that lingers in the memory long after (more than a decade after) I first saw it.
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Flightplan (2005)
Get bumped from this flight
18 March 2006
This is a technically slick suspense thriller that focuses on most peoples' fear of flying and then takes off on several detours disguised as "plot twists" which constantly deflate the suspense when it should be building until the climax.

Once again, Jodie Foster is an unsympathetic heroine. I gave up caring about a third into the film and hoped someone might flatten her for the duration of the flight. The "air rage" she commits would've probably got her shackled to her seat at the very least and possibly killed for rushing the cockpit. The forbearance of the captain is totally implausible, especially since 9/11. The utter uninvolvement of the passengers until very late in the action is also unconvincing. And the film plays with racial profiling as if it were some ridiculous plot device, instead of a serious issue.

Since we never get a chance to care for the little girl (or, indeed, feel sorry for her for having such a nut for a mother), we couldn't care less what becomes of her, or for her mother's frantic search for her.

The solution to the mystery must've roused complaints from Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshalls (not to mention the flight attendants union). But if you want to be trifled with like you're some sort of lab experiment moviegoer, you could do worse than watching Flightplan.
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Zero for conduct
18 March 2006
This film was the first of a string of flops that never ended for Rossellini, after the international acclaim heaped on his first two neo-realist films, "Open City" and "Paisan". From here he began his well-publicized affair with Ingrid Bergman that finished off his career in florid melodramas like "Europa 51" and "Voyage to Italy".

A darling of "autistic" - er, rather, "auteurist" - film scholars, Rossellini made the odd choice of making a film in Berlin, with a German cast all dubbed into Italian. Watching the film with English subtitles proved to be too distracting, what with three different idioms on the screen at once. Rossellini once again proves he can work well with non-professionals, especially children. But his results remind me of Oscar Wilde's jibe at puppet shows: "What an economy of means! And what an economy of ends!" The music is horribly goading, like you're watching a suspense thriller in which there are neither suspense nor thrills. And rather than tragic, the ending is simply unconvincing - its very suddenness contributes to its pointlessness. Granted, watching more than an hour's worth of Berlin in ruins might make a viewer want to do the same.
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Waterloo (I) (1970)
Epic Movie-making
23 February 2006
I loved watching this film as a teenager, with its thrilling portrayal of a great historic battle, but as I got older I thought less and less of it.

Now that I am middle aged, I have to admit that the style of film-making that "Waterloo" displays is as dead as a doornail - if only because it would logistically impossible to do nowadays. The Soviet director, Sergei Bondarchuk, had already proved himself with his adaptation of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" - the staging of the battle or Borodino alone is worth the price of the DVD.

This film is unavailable on DVD and video and it's too bad. Rod Steiger is a little too neurotic for Napoleon, but he looked like Napoleon should've looked, braced for his last-ditch chance at glory. The scenarists invented his gastric ailment, no doubt to presage the emperor's later death of stomach cancer on St Helena (and explain the famous portrait of him with his hand in his vest).

But the reason this film exists is its staging of the battle itself. It's almost like building a model to scale - an exact replica of the event, with - obviously - thousands of extras. Even a German/Italian/Russian co-production today couldn't come up with enough money to costume and equip a cast of that size. Stanley Kubrick had long planned a movie on Napoleon but it never got off the ground. The few battle scenes in "Barry Lyndon" give one a tantalizing glimpse of what might've been.
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An Obscenity
30 July 2005
This film is obscene for any number of reasons, but mainly because it took two marvelous comedic creations (Harry & Lloyd) and maligned them by suggesting they are both gay and retarded. The genius of the Farrelly Brothers' characters is that, while not particularly bright (and who doesn't know people like that?), Harry & Lloyd's friendship is both touching and funny. In this prequel, it is sad and disgraceful. This is too bad since so many obvious comedic talents are wasted - Eugene Levy, Cheri Oteri, and Bob Saget particularly (although it was a treat to hear squeaky-clean Saget screaming "Sh*t!" over and over - in outtakes he tries the word "poop" instead, but it isn't nearly as funny). When Harry Met Lloyd deserved so much better than this. I've often wished the Farrellys would make a sequel to "Dumb and Dumber". How about "Dumbing Down" - with Harry & Lloyd in Washington? Or should that be called "Dumb and Dubya"?
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My Dinner With Anton
18 July 2005
Louis Malle made "My Dinner With Andre" about two old buddies, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, who meet and have a long conversation over dinner. The film is about that conversation and nothing much else. It was dominated by Andre Gregory's ridiculous New Age mumbo-jumbo.

In "Vanya on 42nd Street" Malle has brought Shawn and Gregory together again on screen and the results are predictably risible. Luckily, there's more to look at than just Shawn and Gregory - there is at least Julianne Moore. The rest of the cast are mostly familiar 3rd-rate faces, giving rather good performances, all the while presided over by Gregory with his prayer beads.

Malle seems to be trying to explode the prevailing notion that actors should look good if they are to arouse our complicity. Aside from Moore, none of these actors has a particularly watchable face. And Wallace Shawn has a speech impediment.

The mistake, I believe, that Malle and Shawn and Gregory have made is trying to make this beautiful play sound like it was written yesterday, about people we live next door to. Nowhere is there the slightest belief that we, the audience, are capable of the act of imagination that watching Chekhov unadulterated (i.e., a play written and set in early 20th-century Russia) requires. The only thing the film illuminates is "what a falling off was there" (what Hamlet says of the contrast between a portrait of his father and one of his uncle). How terribly little Shawn and Gregory have made these wonderful people seem! At times the actors sounded like they were talking to Dr Phil.

"Vanya on 42nd Street" is obviously yet another Shawn/Gregory silly dinner, only this time they were eating poor Chekhov.
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Osôshiki (1984)
Itami's masterpiece
13 July 2005
Juzo Itami, actor and son of director Mansaku Itami, created a wry, sometimes hilarious and ultimately bittersweet comedy for his first try as a director. He made it under the auspices of Japan's Art Theater Guild, which had also been responsible for Shinoda's "Double Suicide" and other avant-garde films.

Itami's always gentle observations of a Japanese family's various reactions to the death of their patriarch (the death scene alone is beautifully done), as viewed and commented on by the dead old man himself is humanely humorous.

Itami's satiric style got a great deal broader after "The Funeral" - peaking with "A Taxing Woman." But the style he adopted became tedious in the '90s - culminating with a jibe at the Yakuza that provoked them to attack Itami with razors. Some people can't take a joke it seems.
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Another 'Chick Flick'
30 May 2005
I can forgive Diane Lane just about anything, even choosing to appear in this painfully fake Romance Movie. Without even knowing who wrote or directed it, I could tell that they had to be women - not because it's so bad but because its fantasies are redolent of that most odious of genres - romance fiction. But the most obvious giveaway that we have stumbled into a "chick flick" is the appearance of that laughably silly Englishwoman like some Ghost of Orgies Past, who spouts unprovoked platitudes about hedonism everywhere she goes, always uninvited.

But Tuscany is lovely and dear Diane does the best she can with her papier-mache role, so this trip wasn't a total loss after all.
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Ultimately rather silly
14 October 2004
This early Emilio Fernandez film ultimately falls between two stools - it is both a dated anti-fascist period melodrama and a beautifully wild celebration of Mexican lawlessness. It begins by reminding us - like we needed reminding - that World War II was setting much of the world afire (we're shown a globe with strategic areas [Europe, South Asia, the South Pacific] literally in flames).

Then we see various spies and counter-spies doing their dirty work in a relatively undecided Mexico. But Pedro Armendariz has to come to the rescue and purge Mexico (Puro Mexico) of these scoundrels.

It's all rather laughable. But you can see in this otherwise silly movie the germination of Emilio Fernandez' greatest work.
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Lo straniero (1967)
Probably Visconti's Best Film
23 August 2004
Although completely panned by critics and Visconti fans ever since its release, I happen to think that this is probably Visconti's best film.

For starters, I was never a Visconti fan. I always thought of him as a talented window-dresser rather than a great or even a good filmmaker (Bertolucci has inherited his mantle). So I wasn't surprised that he thought he could make a halfway decent film adaptation of Camus' great novel. That he happened to do so was a complete surprise to me.

Though dubbed by a French actor, Mastroianni makes a superb Meursault. And Anna Karina was never more beautiful (especially in her first nude scene). The locations are chosen well, though it's often hard to remember that Visconti was trying to stick to the period of the novel (1930s Algiers). There are a handful of other fine performances, and Giuseppe Rotunno uses a palette of colors that is a study in itself.

Piero Piccioni summoned up a bleak, modernist musical score that suitably catches the somberness of the material. This film is an unrecognized and almost forgotten example of what an overrated "auteur" can do when budget limitations and a combination of good casting and a talented crew come together in a highly serious attempt at adapting a great novel. (And it is far better than Visconti's later prissy adaptation of Mann's "Death in Venice.")
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The BEST Karate Kid
19 July 2004
While some could question why this film was made, or even blame Hillary Swank for "killing the franchise," I like it much more than the other 3 Karate Kids. The script is better, the dialogue is far less silly, and who could possibly object to the absence of Ralph Macchio?

Pat Morita is given a chance to be on screen more, which gives everyone a rare opportunity to discover what a good actor he is. And Hillary Swank is particularly toothsome in the title role. The glimpses of Buddhism are somewhat risible, but the Zen monks provide what comic relief there is, particularly when they dance to the Cranberries' song "Dreams."

One special moment comes when Miyagi teaches the girl to dance to an old recording of the song "Fascination," convincing her that her years as a tomboy haven't hindered her femininity. For what it's worth, I happened to catch this movie on video with my fiancée and her mother a week before my wedding, so perhaps I am biased.
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I Fidanzati (1963)
17 July 2004
This was Olmi's 3rd feature and was shown briefly in New York (audiences failed to turn out even when they were giving tickets away). It's a step forward in Olmi's artistry, after the straightforward but delightful realism of "Il Posto." Olmi uses temporal devices to elaborate the circumstances of the hero's lonely life - his long engagement, his decision to take a job offer in faraway Sicily, his longing for Liliana - and succeeds brilliantly, achieving a more artful and truly poetic style. And anyone who has spent some time far away from a loved one will feel acutely Giovanni's isolation and how his feelings for Liliana become clearer and sharper as the days that separate them accumulate. I unhesitatingly recommend this beautiful little film.
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