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A Better Life (2011)
separating families is torture
The recent news of ICE's arrest of immigrant families in Texas, and the subsequent separation of children from their parents, makes "A Better Life" all the more important. The movie shows how the immigrants just want to ensure that their children don't have to live in fear. Indeed, the people detained by ICE were fleeing violence in their native countries.
Demián Bichir - in an Academy Award-nominated performance - puts on a fine performance as the desperate Carlos, a man trying to ensure that his son can live well despite the circumstances. This is the sort of movie that everyone should see, both as a look at those on society's margins and as an antidote to the sorts of movies that Hollywood usually turns out. An outstanding movie.
In the Line of Fire (1993)
Clint does his usual stuff
It's generally safe to assume that most movies starring Clint Eastwood will feature him getting tough on bad guys. Wolfgang Petersen's Academy Award-nominated "In the Line of Fire" doesn't have that to quite the same extent, but you should have a sense of what Clint does. The movie really belongs to John Malkovich as the villain. His character is one nasty but clever son of a b****. Rene Russo didn't get enough screen time, but there is one scene that lets her go all out; nonetheless, I'd like to see her get a lead role.
Basically, it's nothing special, but it doesn't pretend to be anything that it's not. Watch for appearances by Fred Thompson (later a senator and presidential candidate), John Heard (the dad in "Home Alone") and the recently deceased John Mahoney, as well as early appearances of Dylan McDermott (of "The Practice" and "American Horror Story"), Tobin Bell (Jigsaw in the Saw franchise) and Joshua Malina (Pres. Siebert on "The Big Bang Theory").
keep an eye out
Watching Shawn Christensen's Academy Award-winning "Curfew", I was reminded of Wes Anderson's works. Similar cinematography and characters (but a very different plot). The short has a good balance of comedy and drama, focusing on topics as different as responsibility and suicide. I've been making an effort to see a lot of Academy Award-winning (or even nominated) short films recently, so I'm glad that I got to see this one. I recommend it.
One might think that if you've seen one blaxploitation flick you've seen 'em all, but you still gotta see "Dolemite". This story of a pimp taking revenge on those who wronged him has everything that a person could love about these movies. In a couple of scenes, the protagonist even spouts out some proto-rap!
It's one movie that they must've had a lot of fun filming (as a lot of these movies are). This genre is one of a kind, and it must've been a great pleasure to get to see these flicks when they first got released. "Dolemite" is one movie that you're sure to love.
A River Runs Through It (1992)
water, like memories, comes and goes
I had never heard of Norman Maclean or his memoir before watching Robert Redford's adaptation of "A River Runs Through It". I'm of two minds about it. On the one hand, there's a lot of great scenery - the cinematography even won an Oscar - as well as a focus on the protagonists' efforts to hang on to a way of life that's sure to slip away as the years pass; fly-fishing can't be an easy way of life these days. On the other hand, the family's emphasis on their religion came across as heavy-handed. One can understand why Paul (Brad Pitt) starts rebelling against that way of life, so it's a bit disappointing that Norman (Craig Sheffer) doesn't.
To us in the 21st century - especially the city folk - it might be hard to relate to what the movie portrays. I also would've like to see the mom (Brenda Blethyn) developed more extensively as a character. Otherwise I thought that it was worth seeing, just like Pitt's other Montana-set historical movie (Legends of the Fall). I recommend it.
justice through surprises
I have always expected fine performances from Frances McDormand, and she doesn't disappoint in Martin McDonagh's "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri". As a bereaved mother demanding that the police in a small town find out who raped and murdered her daughter, McDormand gives it her all. And boy is it a heavy-duty role! Almost every scene in the movie made me feel as if I was in the scene with the characters (and as if I was walking on eggshells).
Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell won well deserved Oscars for their roles (and while accepting her Oscar, McDormand called for inclusion riders to ensure a higher number of women involved in the production of movies). But even ignoring that, this is one impressive movie. The acting, direction, cinematography, and complexity of the characters. The end says that, even though Mildred didn't find her daughter's killer, she had to go after another killer to put herself at rest.
An outstanding movie. Also starring Woody Harrelson, John Hawkes, Zeljko Ivanek and Peter Dinklage.
a different addition to LGBT cinema
When we think of LGBT cinema, we usually think of men in drag, or stories of the community collectively overcoming hardship. Andrew Haigh's "Weekend" is a different one. While it does focus on the characters' sexual orientation, it's more about the subtlety in the characters' lives and how they seek fulfillment. The movie makes sure to create complex, relatable characters, so that we can always feel for them. It's not the greatest movie ever made, but one that prompts the viewer to think deeply about the characters, empathizing with them.
I recommend it.
Porky's Hotel (1939)
Porky is open for business
This time around, Porky operates a hotel and gives a traveling goat a place to stay, but a young duck starts making trouble. Like many Bob Clampett cartoons, "Porky's Hotel" features some rubbery stuff and the occasional gag. It's not the funniest short that Warner Bros. animation turned out, but enjoyable enough for its few minutes. I read in a book that while Disney would often spend up to $60,000 to produce each Silly Symphony, Warner Bros. only allotted $9,000 for each cartoon, and even less went into the cartoon's production once Leon Schlesinger took his cut. This makes one appreciate the effort that went into each cartoon. Clampett's direction, Carl Stalling's music and Mel Blanc's voice work - as well as the Rhymettes' singing - make this a good one. I recommend it.
Chico & Rita (2010)
in animation, as in live action, what's important is a good plot, and they get that right here
Often when I read about cartoons - whether shorts or features - the article or review will emphasize the animation style as much as the cartoon's plot. On the one hand, plenty of cartoons have impressive animation. But in my opinion, a cartoon needs a good plot first and foremost. After all, if it's got a crummy story, no amount of fancy animation will save it.
That's part of what's good about the Academy Award-nominated "Chico and Rita". It's got a great story in addition to the cool animation (not to mention some of the greatest music ever put on screen). The title characters simply want to be able to love each other despite the obstacles. The movie shows Cuban culture in all its glory. I should note that although it's a cartoon, it's not one for the tykes; there are some intense scenes here. But for everyone else, it'll be a great pleasure. I recommend it 100%.
The Shape of Water (2017)
a different romance in an unaccepting world
Dark fantasy has been a common motif in Guillermo del Toro's movies: "Cronos", "Mimic", "The Devil's Backbone" and "Pan's Labyrinth" are the obvious examples. He continues this with the "The Shape of Water". At heart, 2017's Best Picture winner is about how people want to get accepted for who they are. The main human characters are a deaf woman (Sally Hawkins), a gay man (Richard Jenkins of "Six Feet Under" fame), and a black woman (Octavia Spencer), all representing demographics barely acknowledged in 1962 (the movie's setting). By contrast, the "normal" person (Michael Shannon in one of his many heavy-duty roles) puts on a facade of respectability, hiding his brutality. No surprise that Elisa can only find a soulmate in the amphibian man (Doug Jones, not to be confused with the Alabama senator).
All in all, this is an impressive movie, not that I would expect less from del Toro. The dark-colored settings contrast sharply with the lighthearted comedies and musicals that Elisa watches on TV. I haven't seen every Best Picture nominee, but I'd say that this was a good choice nevertheless. I recommend it.
Mister Ed. One has to wonder why Wilbur cared about a horse when he had such a hot wife in Carol.
The Break with Michelle Wolf (2018)
You are awesome, Michelle!
Netflix continues its run of great shows with "The Break with Michelle Wolf". Wolf recently got a lot of attention for hosting the White House Correspondents' Dinner, but here she addresses the week's news from a wry but mordant perspective. She's one of the best people out there.
I recommend it.
Jack Torrance meets Hyman Roth's daughter meets the Boy with Green Hair...all to the tune of Strawberry Alarm Clock
Richard Rush's "Psych-Out" is a true snapshot of a movie. Set in San Francisco at the height of the hippie movement, it contains everything that one could anticipate in a hippie-themed movie. Having been born long after the '60s, I only know about the era from stories told by my elders, but this movie makes the whole Haight-Ashbury scene look like, well, a gas.
Susan Strasberg gets top billing, but the most obvious cast member is of course Jack Nicholson*. For much of the preceding few years he'd appeared in some Roger Corman movies, but it's safe to say that this movie set the stage for his appearance in "Easy Rider" the following year. And I would be remiss in not mentioning the music. Strawberry Alarm Clock appears, and their "Incense and Peppermint" gets featured prominently. This flick is one psychedelic experience.
Even though the flower power movement only lasted a brief period, it was still an important one. As Hunter S. Thompson noted, "For a brief moment, (the hippies) had control." It was ironic that 1967's Summer of Love gave way to a series of bad things in 1968 (the Vietnam War's escalation, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the crushing of the student uprising in Paris, the crushing of the protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the massacre of protesters in Mexico City right before the Olympics, and then Nixon's election). All that we can do is continue trying to make the ideals of the '60s a reality.
The rest of the cast includes Dean Stockwell, Max Julien, future director Henry Jaglom, and "Happy Days" creator Garry Marshall (also director of "Pretty Woman" and "The Princess Diaries").
*Robin Williams once said of Jack Nicholson "He's done every drug known to man. He's the only person who could make Keith Richards say 'I gotta go home.'"
Un homme et une femme (1966)
there's something to be said for subtlety
I don't know whether or not Claude Lelouch was considered part of the French New Wave, but judging by "Un homme et une femme" ("A Man and a Woman" in English), I'd say that he should be. The Oscar-winning movie chronicles a relationship that has arisen following tragic circumstances. The switching back and forth between black-and-white and color adds a mystifying angle to the plot. But most important is the complexity of the characters and subtlety of the plot. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée put on the performances of a lifetime. I guess that the movie's overall point is that life comes at us fast and can throw in unpleasant surprises, so we need to develop social connections however possible.
The Night of the Iguana (1964)
Will an unplanned vacation lead to ruin or salvation?
Sexual tension was a common theme in Tennessee Williams's works. No denying its role in "A Streetcar Named Desire", "Baby Doll" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (full disclosure: I've only seen the movie versions of those three). This motif continues in "The Night of the Iguana". I suspect that the scenes depicting the sexually curious Charlotte (Sue Lyon) trying to get close to the burnt-out Lawrence (Richard Burton) were shocking at the time (then again, Sue Lyon had already starred in a movie depicting pedophilia - Lolita - so maybe it wasn't that shocking). I found Maxine (Ava Gardner) to be the most interesting character in the movie. Her outgoing, vivacious personality contrasts sharply with the mess of a person that is Lawrence. The Mexican men whom she employs, meanwhile, aren't given much to do except dance around; their characters come across as silly.
The thunderstorm also bears mentioning. Like the thunderstorm in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", it serves as a metaphor for the events in the house. I don't think that I would go so far as to call the movie a masterpiece, but its nuanced plot and complex characters make it one that you have to see. Moreover, it reaffirms John Huston as one of the greatest directors of all time.
I wonder what Sue Lyon is up to these days.
Please Stand By (2017)
ASD needs to get depicted more often
The most famous depiction of autism on the silver screen is Dustin Hoffman's performance in Barry Levinson's "Rain Man". More recently, that portrayal has drawn criticism for what's gotten seen as a hyperbolic representation of the condition. Ben Lewin's "Please Stand By" is a more nuanced depiction, with a young woman on a journey to a submit a Star Trek script. Some of the things that the movie shows her doing - i.e., trying to block out noise - are in fact the sorts of things that people on the autism spectrum will do.
I hope that this movie draws more attention to autism. There are apparently more diagnoses of it than ever before. This could be due to increased understanding leading to more diagnoses, or because there are in fact more people on the autism spectrum than ever before. Whatever the case, I recommend the movie.
À bout de souffle (1960)
Do criminals run free, or is everyone a type of criminal?
The cinema movement know as the French New Wave (nouvelle vague) arose in the late 1950s. Leading the charge was François Truffaut, whose semi-autobiographical movie "The 400 Blows" shocked people with its intensity. But another major player was Jean-Luc Godard, whose "À bout de souffle" ("Breathless" in English) was a new kind of crime drama. Jean-Paul Belmondo's suave crook comes across as a nice guy but will stop at nothing to get what he wants, while Jean Seberg's naive journalist just wants to do what she thinks is the right thing.
I understand that the movie is a tribute to some US movies that Godard liked. Apparently, he and Truffaut felt that a number of French movies were pleasing to the eye but otherwise empty (Truffaut later interviewed Alfred Hitchcock, whose clever storytelling techniques he admired; while writing for Cahiers du Cinema, Godard praised Otto Preminger's works). Just as important as "Breathless"'s plot is the soundtrack. The smooth jazz drives the movie as Michel goes from place to place, with or without Patricia. The jump cuts are distracting at times, but they don't subtract from the movie. Everything about this movie bears analyzing; you should see it at least once. Outstanding.
Steve and Martin strut their stuff in South Carolina
Steve Martin and Martin Short have been two of the most notable comedians of the past few decades, so it only makes sense that they would perform together. "Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life" features their concert in Greenville, South Carolina. One fine performance. My favorite parts were the photos from their younger days, Martin playing the banjo, and Short in the costume (whether you use their first names or last names, it still sounds like one of their names).
I liked the movie, and I hope that these guys continue performing for as long as they can.
one clever thing...but only one
Luis Prieto's "Kidnap" is mostly a typical kidnapping story, with Halle Berry as a mom stopping at nothing to save her son. The different path that this movie takes is what Berry's character discovers along the way.
But that's it. Otherwise, the whole thing was predictable. Not one that I recommend. I hope that Prieto directs better movies in the future.
standing on a platform
The Lauenstein brothers' Academy Award-winning "Balance" depicts five individuals (with faces resembling Nosferatu) standing on a platform. If any one of them moves in the wrong direction, it will unbalance the platform and they'll fall off. Further complications arise when one of them reels in a music box.
I find these animated shorts more interesting than the animated features whose selling point is star power. This one looks at the issue of cooperation and the need to share. The eerie setting and surreal images mark it as a European art film. The animated shorts are usually some of the least seen of all the Oscar-nominated productions, but they're generally some of the most creative. I recommend this one. Available on YouTube.
Marc Evans's "Patagonia" is one of the many movies that focuses on cultures that we don't usually see. In this case, it's Argentina's Welsh community. The movie contains two parallel stories: one is a Welsh couple that goes to Argentina to photograph the Welsh chapel in Patagonia, the other is an elderly Argentine woman who goes to Wales to see her ancestral farm. Both sets of people will have quite the experience.
This is one of only two movies that I've seen in which Welsh gets spoken; the other is "Hedd Wyn", about a noted Welsh poet (both movies were the United Kingdom's submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film). Both movies cast a perceptive eye on the Welsh culture. And in this one, we get to see both the Argentine plains and the Welsh countryside. You'll probably want to go to both countries after seeing it. Outstanding movie.
The Shuttered Room (1967)
One of the lesser known British horror flicks from the '60s depicts a husband and wife going to a house where mysterious things start happening. A big difference is that this one is set in the US, and Oliver Reed affects a US accent for his character. The movie itself is nothing special, although the end is a bit of a surprise. Carol Lynley is certainly a babe. The version that I saw had the edges cut off, so the opening sequence was confusing.
Basically, it's no Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee movie, but it's enjoyable enough for its run time. The British horror flick from 1967 that I recommend, though, is "It!", starring Roddy McDowall as a man who comes into possession of a golem.
La vie devant soi (1977)
I've recently been making an effort to see as many Academy Award-winning movies as I can, so naturally I wanted to see "La vie devant soi" ("Madame Rosa" in English). There are a couple of things to discuss about Moshé Mizrahi's movie.
The story of a Jewish woman raising a Muslim boy brings to mind the Arab-Israeli conflict. It had already become news by the time that the movie got released, so some people probably found it odd that a movie would depict a friendly relationship between the two groups. The movie possibly wanted to remind the viewer that we're all human, so why shouldn't these groups be able to live in harmony? Indeed, Jimmy Carter was working to negotiate a peace deal between Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat around the time of the release. As it happened, the same night that this movie won an Oscar, Vanessa Redgrave won an Oscar for "Julia" and used the occasion to condemn Zionism.
In one scene, Rosa mentions the velodrome. She was no doubt referring to the Vélodrome d'Hiver, commonly called the Vel d'Hiv. In 1942, the French police rounded up thousands of Jews and held them in the velodrome before shipping them off to concentration camps. The 2011 movie "Sarah's Key" focused on this. It reminds us that evil succeeds when good people do nothing (as well as drawing attention to the widespread anti-Jewish sentiment in France that abetted the Nazis' actions).
And then there's the issue of prostitution. The youths cared for by Rosa prostitute themselves on the streets. It's a common occurrence that immigrants - even second-generation people - have to resort to desperate measures to survive. A scene that's both funny and sad at the same time is when the main child, Mohammed - Momo for short - sells a passerby his dog for 500 francs, only to throw the money down a storm drain!
Finally, there's the issue of what will become of the children after Rosa's death. Rosa lied to Momo's father about the boy's upbringing, giving the man a heart attack, so what will Momo do now? He's in France, but probably won't be considered "authentically French".
All in all, this is an outstanding movie. The direction, editing, and social commentary add up to a story that needs to get told. It deserved its Oscar win (although I haven't seen the other nominees). Also starring Claude Dauphin, Michal Bat-Adam, Costa-Gavras, and the recently deceased Geneviève Fontanel.
a lot went on in pre-revolutionary France
OK, so George Sidney's "Scaramouche" probably isn't the most historically accurate look at eighteenth-century France, but seriously, it's a fun romp! Lots of intrigue, sword-fighting, and romance. The best scene is certainly the sword fight at the end, but don't ignore the stage performances. I have no doubt that they had fun filming those.
Stewart Granger gets top billing, but I feel compelled to talk about Eleanor Parker's and Janet Leigh's characters. These women provide a pair of fine love interests, both of them in resplendent dresses and dolled up to the max. Of course, Janet Leigh could've worn a burlap sack and she still would've been a real piece of eye candy.
No, the movie isn't a masterpiece, but it's not supposed to be. The purpose is to provide two hours of entertainment, and it succeeds in every way. If ever you're looking for a truly enjoyable time, then this is the movie for you. Fun plot, cool score, clever dialogue, and Eleanor Parker and Janet Leigh showing off what babes they were. How can you not want to see it?
Quo Vadis (1951)
Where are you going, Christians?
Full disclosure: I've never read the book on which Mervyn LeRoy's Academy Award-nominated "Quo Vadis" is based. I've also heard conflicting stories about the origin of Christianity (namely that the Jesus story has a lot in common with other stories from the region). But whatever the case, it's an impressive movie. I found the most intriguing character to be Nero. He's known as a ruthless, decadent individual, and the movie portrays him as such. Right before the US invaded Iraq, Peter Ustinov got interviewed and said "I don't know whether I played Nero or George W. Bush."
It was ironic that Christianity, initially the movement of oppressed peoples, became an instrument of oppression in later centuries. There's always those unintended consequences. But anyway, the movie itself is an epic in the true sense of the word. Admittedly, the movie's so full of itself that one might feel tempted to riff it like on "Mystery Science Theater 3000". But I recommend it.
PS: The title means "Where are you going?" in Latin.
The Invisible War (2012)
it's no accident that there's a rape epidemic in the military
The topic covered in "The Invisible War" is no surprise. The military is all about machismo. The troops feel the need to validate themselves by sexually assaulting both men and women (mostly women, though). And sure enough, the repeated instances of sexual assault have gotten covered up. In the wake of the MeToo movement, this seems all the more important.
Winner of an Emmy and nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary deserves more attention. It poses a serious question: who are we that we keep letting this happen? I fully recommend it.
Another documentary that briefly addressed this topic is "Hot Coffee". It featured an interview with a woman whose fellow cadets drugged and raped her in Iraq.