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Saving Face (2012)
stand for justice
The winner of Best Documentary Short Subject at the 84th Academy Awards, "Saving Face" looks at a doctor who helps reconstruct the faces of Pakistani women attacked with acid. These women's husbands sound like the textbook definition of toxic masculinity (a term that's come to the fore in the past year or two). Worse still, the women's families often defend the husbands. The doctor does what he has to in order to help repair the women's faces.
It just goes to show that when it comes to the Oscars, the documentaries are the most important nominees. The movies might be the famous ones, but various documentaries (An Inconvenient Truth, Inside Job, The Invisible War) have cast a light on some of the most important overlooked issues. This is one of them. Definitely see it.
War Horse (2011)
World War I is 100 years out
This past Sunday was the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the first global war, now known as World War I. That conflict that engulfed the planet for four years took the lives of an estimated 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians, not to mention those slaughtered in the Armenian Genocide and the people who later died as a result of the Spanish flu. There was officially no winner, and the only real result was that the empires of the Central Powers - Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire - dissolved, and other empires took over their former colonies (Armenia got reduced to a fraction of its former size, while the Palestinians, Yazidis and Kurds didn't even get their own countries). It resulted in a lost generation, while the reparations imposed on Germany led to Hitler's rise to power.
Which brings us to Steven Spielberg's "War Horse". Around the time of its release I read a review which criticized its emphasis on the relation between the characters and the title equine amid a horrendous global war that senselessly took millions of lives. Now that I've gotten around to seeing it - for the centenary of the armistice - I got that feeling also. Is any war an appropriate setting for a look at the relations between to characters?
Which is not to say that the movie doesn't have its upsides. It doesn't flinch in showing the horrors of the battlefield, as well as the filthy setting (I doubt that any movie can portray it 100% accurately). Another credit is that it shows South Asian troops in the British army, brief though that scene is; a criticism of last year's "Dunkirk" was that it depicted an all-white battalion, even though large numbers of Indian and Pakistani troops participated in the Dunkirk evacuation. The scene where the horse runs away from the tank reminded me of the end of "Catch-22", with the main character realizing that there's nothing to be gained from the war. The subsequent scene of the characters joining forces to help the horse gave me a feeling of the Christmas truce (when British and German troops stopped fighting for a few minutes and talked to each other, seeing each other as humans for a few brief moments).
Basically, it's an OK movie, not a great one. "Schindler's List" it's not. It's OK seeing, if only once.
Tennessee Williams knew his stuff
If ever there were a writer who understood the human condition, Tennessee Williams was it. In "A Streetcar Named Desire", "Baby Doll", "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Night of the Iguana", he showed the torments, depths and complexities of people's experiences. "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" was another example. Vivien Leigh plays an actress whose persona mirrors that of Blanche DuBois, the sort of woman who's essentially given up on a world that considers her "past her prime" (Blanche DuBois came across as the sort of woman who Williams wanted to be).
The movie's only real downside is the casting of Warren Beatty as an Italian. His accent is so weak that you could drive a truck through it. The other things are retroactive: I couldn't see Lotte Lenya (in her only Oscar-nominated role) without picturing her evil character in "From Russia with Love", and when someone introduced a Spaniard named Franco, I immediately thought "Generalissimo Franco is still dead."
Otherwise I wholeheartedly recommend the movie both as a study of this woman who feels that she has no place in a sexist world, and as a look at Tennessee Williams's work. Definitely see it.
PS: Warren Mitchell (Giorgio) is best known for playing Alf Garnett, the TV character on which Archie Bunker is based.
Vinni-Pukh i den zabot (1972)
Mark my words: Soyuzmultfilm's version of Pooh is the better one.
If you only know Disney's mushy version of Winnie the Pooh, then you don't know the character at all. Soviet animation studio Soyuzmultfilm made a series about A.A. Milne's bear, depicting him and his friends as mentally mature animals just trying to do the right thing for each other. In "Vinni-Pukh i den zabot" ("Winnie-the-Pooh and a Busy Day" in English), Eeyore has lost his tail, so Pooh tries to find it while Piglet gets him a balloon. Sure enough, complications arise.
It's not as glossy as Disney's series, but more interesting: more subtle and not as cutesy. This series does justice to the books; the more famous version was basically an excuse to sell merchandise. I recommend this one, and also the Soviet version of "Mary Poppins" (yes, there was one).
your sanity is real
You may have heard the expression gaslighting, in reference to psychological control whereby a person makes you doubt your own sanity. You may have seen the 1944 movie that brought the term into common usage. But you still need to see the original British version. Shorter and not as ornate as the more famous version, this one creates an eerie setting, more appropriate for the topic. As the husband, Anton Walbrook plays a subtly malevolent character, the type whom you want to hate but can't due to his clever manipulation. As the wife, Diana Wynyard keeps insisting on her mental soundness, but her husband repeatedly talks her down, even though she knows what she saw and heard. This is exactly what a movie should be.
The DVD containing the 1944 version also contains this one. Definitely see both. You won't be disappointed.
Mabel's Dramatic Career (1913)
Mabel Normand in a low-key role
Mabel Normand was one of the top stars in the 1910s, only to see her reputation ruined by a scandal, which no doubt contributed to her early death. One of her movies was Mack Sennett's "Mabel's Dramatic Career". The most interesting thing about it is that it's one of the first movies to depict a movie-within-a-movie. Otherwise there's nothing really impressive about it. The following year, Sennett would direct "Making a Living", which starred a certain English immigrant who would don a bowler hat, ill-fitting clothes, fake moustache, and a notched cane.
and it still happens
Ingrid Bergman won her first Academy Award for George Cukor's "Gaslight", as a woman browbeat by her husband to the point of questioning her own sanity. It's one of the most chilling movies that you'll ever see, especially since we continue to see examples of gaslighting in the 21st century. An example has been people who tell millennials that they're not motivated enough, when in reality the problem is the lack of well-paying jobs.
A fine piece of work. Perfect acting, score, sets and cinematography. I now hope to see the original 1940 version.
Watch for a teenage Angela Lansbury as one of the maids.
The Post (2017)
obviously it would've been more effective had they gone into detail about what Ellsberg exposed
In 1971, a military analyst working for the RAND corporation released classified documents exposing the US government's decades of lying to the public about involvement in Vietnam. After The New York Times published the initial pages, the Nixon administration ordered them to stop, leaving it up to The Washington Post to expose the rest.
Steven Spielberg's Academy Award-nominated movie "The Post" focuses not on what Daniel Ellsberg exposed - which included war crimes - but on The Washington Post's efforts to publish the documents, knowing that the paper will face Nixon's wrath. The movie has been seen as a reminder to the media to hold the powerful accountable. It's ironic that the newspaper is now owned by Jeff Bezos, who has a vested interest in suppressing information. As for Ellsberg himself, he voiced support for Edward Snowden (at one point he voiced support for Julian Assange, but Assange's championing of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville probably made Ellsberg withdraw support).
Another effective scene was a scene of a gathering in the house. The women go into one room to talk about "nice" things while the men stay in another to talk about serious things. This crowd still tries to live in the '50s, not realizing that they're about to expose the government's lies.
Anyway, it's like Oliver Stone's "Snowden": not a great movie, but a reminder to hold the government's feet to the fire, especially during wartime. Aside from Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, the rest of the cast includes Bob Odenkirk, Michael Stuhlbarg and Sarah Paulson (whom one of my friends in New York met right after Paulson had performed on Broadway a few years ago).
about what I expected
Ah, "The Nutcracker". That novel-turned-ballet that's become a Christmas tradition. I saw a stage production of the ballet in 2015, and it was one of the most impressive things ever. You've no doubt heard at least one of Pyotr Chaikovsky's songs from the ballet.
There have been occasional movie adaptations of the story. The latest is "The Nutcracker and the Four Realms", which expands the story. The movie was pretty much what I expected: nothing terrible, but no masterpiece by any stretch. It tried to be so much at once that it became sensory overload at times. The protagonist's father came across as sort of a predator also. Rather creepy in that sense.
Now the good things about it. The visuals are a sight for sore eyes, and the protagonist is a princess, but not one merely waiting for a man to sweep her off her feet; she discovers that she has a goal to achieve, and sets about doing so (which Joseph Campbell described as the hero's journey). And as has happened in a number of Disney's movies in the 21st century, a presumably good character turns out to be a villain (a far cry from their movies in which being "pretty" automatically makes her good).
Basically, you'll be disappointed if you expect a great movie. "The Nutcracker and the Four Realms" is anything but, especially since the Nutcracker himself is only a supporting character. If you merely expect an entertaining movie, you'll be satisfied. This is NOT a horrible movie; having seen "Mac and Me", "The Flintstones", "Everyone Says I Love You", "Eyes Wide Shut" and "Man on the Moon", I know how to define a horrible movie. Just accept it as a lighthearted mediocrity.
The Petrified Forest (1936)
humanity's moral bankruptcy on trial in an outpost
You may have heard "The Petrified Forest" described as the movie that brought Humphrey Bogart to the public's attention. But it's so much more. The characters talk about man's attempt to conquer nature and nature's attempts to fight back (as represented by Bogart's character); they had no idea what a serious topic that would be in the decades to come! And while Bogart's character may be the villain, the wealthy tourist turns out to be just as vile, having suppressed his wife's identity and emotions. The vast, desolate surroundings only serve to emphasize the characters' empty, delusive existences in a civilization with no soul. No wonder Leslie Howard's character gives up and wishes to get killed.
Bette Davis's character is the only one who offers any hope for the future, but she remains overpowered by the aforementioned factors. All in all, it amounts to one fine film. One of the all-time classics. Leslie Howard made the right choice by ensuring that Humphrey Bogart - who had co-starred with him in the Broadway version - would get the role in the movie. The rest of the cast includes Charley Grapewin, who played Uncle Henry in "The Wizard of Oz" and Grandpa Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath".
I also like crosswords...
Jodie Foster has been one of the most renowned actresses for almost forty years, not to mention one of the most versatile. Pretty much all cinephiles know about her roles in "Taxi Driver" and "Silence of the Lambs". But one role with which you might not be familiar is the 1976 thriller "The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane". Part indictment of hebephilia, part reminder that children aren't as immature as you might think, this is an impressive one.
Obviously, a few of the scenes look inappropriate; I get the feeling that one scene in particular couldn't get on screen nowadays. Sometimes called a horror movie, it's more psychological thriller, slowly building up Foster's character and revealing her disturbing tendencies. And I recommend it. The protagonist's innocent appearance hides a manipulative, sociopathic side. Mind you, there are some parts that will shock you (and I don't mean anything dealing with death). Perfect movie to watch on Halloween (as I did).
Designated Survivor (2016)
a desperate change
If ever you needed an example of why TV shows work best as serials, look no further than "Designated Survivor". Sworn in as president following a terrorist attack, Kiefer Sutherland's character has to face a new crisis on every episode. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that there's more than meets the eye.
In addition to Sutherland, there's fine support from Natascha McElhone (The Truman Show), Kal Penn (Harold & Kumar) and others. I recommend it.
Back Door to Hell (1964)
war makes people do the most unpleasant things
World War II has probably been the most focused-on topic in cinema. Practically every genre has depicted the six-year global conflict. There's no shortage of famous movies about it - I recently saw "A Bridge Too Far" - but there are also the lesser known movies. Monte Hellman's "Back Door to Hell" is an example. It depicts some US troops (one of them played by a young Jack Nicholson) scoping out the Japanese-occupied Philippines to prepare for a US invasion. Joining up with some locals who are waging a guerrilla war against the occupiers, the US troops soon find out that this is no time to play fair.
It's no masterpiece, but still a good focus on how it's hard to be the "good guy" in a desperate situation. I understand that all sides flouted the Geneva Conventions during WWII. And it turned out to not even be the last war ever fought.
Anyway, interesting movie.
Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day (1915)
Mabel and Fatty, we hardly knew ye
Big stars in their time, Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle saw their careers ruined by scandals, and they died a few years later. One of their movies was 1915's "Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day", depicting a series of goofs as the two attempt to wash and dry their clothes. Most of the movies from cinema's infancy were shorts with simple plots. This is a typical enjoyable short.
I wonder what direction Normand's and Arbuckle's careers would've taken had they not got ruined.
The Fatal Mallet (1914)
Charlie in the early days
One of Charlie Chaplin's early shorts features him as a man vying for a woman's attention. Mack Sennett's movie is nothing sophisticated. In 1914 most movies were shorts, and "The Fatal Mallet" is the typical enjoyable silly thing. Worth seeing.
They probably never imagined that the director would get played in a movie by a man best known as both a Blues Brother and a Ghostbuster (with Chaplin played by Sherlock Holmes/Iron Man).
I rymden finns inga känslor (2010)
there may not be feelings in outer space, but there are quite a few in this movie
Even before Andreas Öhman's "I rymden finns inga känslor" (called "Simple Simon" in English) identified its protagonist as someone with Asperger's, I noticed that he displayed a number of the characteristics: intense focus on a topic, awkward communication, and preference for structured, unchanging schedules. Sweden's submission to the 83 Academy Awards does an excellent job depicting Asperger's without turning it into a joke, although it does manage to be funny. With his role as Simon here and his role as Pennywise in last year's "It", Bill Skarsgård is showing himself to be a fine thespian. I recommend it.
PS: keep watching after the credits.
What Happened to Monday (2017)
here's a creative one
Although dystopian futures are a common motif in cinema, "What Happened to Monday" manages to add an extra dimension by depicting a future in which a one-child policy gets enforced worldwide to prevent overpopulation. When septuplets get born in a particular family, the grandfather decides to have them pose as one person, with each sibling leaving the apartment on an assigned day of the week. It works perfectly. That is, until one of them doesn't return.
Netflix has been turning out some interesting work in the past few years (Stranger Things, Mudbound, and now this one). I recommend it. There are some real shockers in store here.
so we've come to it
Ah, Halloween. The franchise that started the slasher genre. Ever since John Carpenter introduced the world to Michael Myers (not to be confused with the actor who played Austin Powers) his "Psycho"-influenced movie in 1978, it's been one of the most important parts of US popular culture. After a few crummy entries in the series, it brought back Jamie Lee Curtis in 1998's "Halloween: H20" (in which her horror veteran mom co-starred), which retconned* the events of parts 4-6 out of the series.
So now we have the latest "Halloween". This is a good one. A direct sequel to the 1978 movie, it depicts Laurie going to great lengths to protect her daughter and granddaughter from Myers. And now that he's back, it's time to take charge.
You're sure to love it. I did.
*Retroactive continuity is when a franchise ignores something that happened previously therein.
Now, Voyager (1942)
voyage of life
The treatment of Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) by her family probably happens more often than we think. For not living up to their expectations, the dowdy Charlotte is considered a failure by her cold, stodgy mother. Just think about how many parents, while pretending to be loving individuals, do that to their children.
Obviously the most important part of the movie comes with the cruise and successive events. And as can be expected, Bette Davis puts her all into the performance. But even so, I considered the relationship between Charlotte and her mother to be the most important part (a lot of what happened after the cruise was find of hokey). That matriarch is the original tiger mom. The movie's title may reference a voyage, but the change that Charlotte undergoes is the real voyage.
Anyway, I recommend it. This was one of the undeniable high points of Bette Davis's career, and should remind us why she was one of the greatest actresses of all time. I recommend it.
The Caine Mutiny (1954)
over the sea, let's go, men
Humphrey Bogart continued his impressive streak with this Academy Award-nominated movie about a navy captain whose heavy-handed and sometimes dangerous approach to things resulted in a rebellion among some of his cohorts.
Obviously, the music in "The Caine Mutiny" is pretty hokey, and the love story drags the movie down a bit, but you can't deny the effort that the cast members put into their roles. In the end, it's not about whether Queeg was right or wrong; it's about the things that people do in desperate situations (and that sort of situation is bound to arise out at sea in the middle of a storm). After all, Queeg had spent years in the armed forced, so what did you expect him to do? And then the trial scene is one of the most intense in movie history.
Above all, it's good that Edward Dmytryk was able to find work again. I recommend the movie. Also starring Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin and Jerry Paris (the neighbor on "The Dick Van Dyke Show").
Towed in a Hole (1932)
The inimitable comic duo decides to work as fishermen, only to have a lot of trouble simply fixing up the boat! It's a safe bet that Laurel and Hardy had a lot of fun filming "Towed in a Hole", especially the end. What's particularly interesting about this one is that aside from an appearance by Billy Gilbert early on, it stars only Stan and Ollie, both doing their usual set of stuff.
PS: Billy Gilbert played Herring in "The Great Dictator".
tensions flare during a loaded trial
Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war tore the country apart. Even after it ended, the tension between the Christians and Muslims remained. Ziad Doueiri's drama "L'insulte" ("The Insult" in English) deals with one such tension. A spat between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian immigrant escalates into a physical altercation, leading to a trial that lays bare the festering wounds in Lebanese society.
The movie's plot should get seen in the context not only of Lebanon's civil war, but how foreign countries - the US and Israel on one side, Iran and Syria on the other - used the civil war as a proxy war. Meanwhile, large numbers of Palestinians fled to Lebanon, and plenty of Lebanese politicians talked about them like they were scum (Bashir Gemayel certainly did, and his assassination precipitated the 1982 massacres of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatilla).
As the movie makes clear, the causes of the tension are not always black and white. The movie simply presents the issues. I like seeing movies about cultures that we don't often get to see, but that's not the only thing that I recommend about this movie. The cinematography showing the Beirut rooftops - some upscale and some in need of TLC - combined with the intense performances make this one fine film. There's a reason why it received an Academy Award nomination.
PS: The movie's Arabic title, Qadiyya raqm 23, means "Case No. 23".
Leave 'Em Laughing (1928)
But it's alright now, in fact it's a gas
Laurel and Hardy go full anarchic in "Leave 'Em Laughing", as Stan's toothache prompts a visit to the dentist, where things run completely amok. Stan and Ollie were probably still trying to figure out their comedy style at this time, but the short is still a riot. It's the sort of thing that lots of people would probably love to try, especially once the guys get on the road.
I noticed that one of the signs said Culver City. That's where "Jeopardy!" gets filmed nowadays. It was also where Disney's "Fantasia" got animated. I bet that L&H never envisioned either of those when they filmed this.
Anyway, funny short.
PS: Edgar Kennedy, who plays the cop, also played the lemonade vendor in the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup".
A Star Is Born (2018)
about what I expected: mostly good with overwrought stuff
So the fourth incarnation of "A Star Is Born" is here, this time featuring Bradley Cooper (also the director) as the burnout star and Lady Gaga as the aspiring star whom he marries. The role of the aspiring singer was practically made for Gaga. This version is grittier than the previous ones, giving it a more realistic flavor.
The obvious downside is that the movie comes across as a star vehicle for Lady Gaga (much like the 1976 version did for Barbra Streisand), and a lot of the tension between the characters seems overplayed. Even so, I found the music quite impressive, and the cast members all turned in fine performances. So, I recommend it, even though I consider the 1937 version the best of the four.
Under Two Jags (1923)
Stan in the foreign legion
A few years before getting teamed with a certain corpulent man, Stan Laurel appeared in this silly short as a man in the foreign legion. He does a lot of things generally associated with Charlie Chaplin. "Under Two Jags" is nice in a pinch and certainly funny, but there's no doubt that Stan reached his full potential once he and Ollie became a comedy duo.