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Chapaev (1934)
6/10
socialist realism on film
21 March 2019
Vasiliy Chapaev wasn't one of the most famous figures in Russia's revolution. "Chapaev" takes a look at his deeds, employing socialist realism (the Red Army consists of glorious peasants while the White Army consists of regressive aristocrats). Whatever the purpose, the result is a fine piece of cinema: compelling characters, impressive camera work, and an incisive look at Russian culture. You don't have to know a lot about the Bolshevik Revolution to enjoy this movie (but it helps). Good one.
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7/10
a person can be ruthless and brilliant at the same time
19 March 2019
Born to an affluent black family, the outspoken Adam Clayton Powell Jr. became a preacher and leader of New York's black community. Eventually he got elected to congress, where he remained as defiant as ever. But he would also stop at nothing to stay the presumed leader of blacks in the US. Richard Kilberg's Academy Award-nominated "Adam Clayton Powell" focuses on this man whose boisterous flamboyance endeared him to a black community that was through with white people ignoring their grievances; they kept reelecting him no matter what happened! We get insight from a number of people who knew him, with narration from Julian Bond.

Admittedly, Powell was probably more interested in promoting himself than in advancing his people, but you can't deny that he made a name for himself and drew attention to issues affecting the black community.

I recommend it.
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Big Business (1929)
8/10
wasting gas to King Wenceslas
18 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Stan and Ollie appear in one of their final silents as Christmas tree salesman whose spat with a customer (frequent co-star James Finlayson) spirals out of control.

The second half of "Big Business" is without a doubt the funniest, as the two sides engage in increasingly destructive acts. What I noticed early in the short is that while Laurel and Hardy are driving down the street, the soundtrack is "Good King Wenceslas", a Christmas song about a king who sees a peasant one cold night*. To crown everything, L&H drive from house to house rather than walk! A caricature of Los Angeles.

Anyway, a funny short.

*On an episode of "The Big Bang Theory", the guys are playing Dungeons and Dragons, and Leonard calls for someone to sing of Svatý Václav to avoid danger, which Sheldon recognizes as Czech for St. Wenceslaus, so he sings the song, allowing the game to proceed.
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10/10
life in a grim place
16 March 2019
I don't know that much about Josef von Sternberg's movies, but his 1928 drama "The Docks of New York" is a fine piece of work. This compelling story of a romance between a stoker and a suicidal woman gives one a sense of the gritty world that was the Big Apple's docks in the 1920s. You almost forget that the whole thing is filmed on a set in Hollywood!

Definitely see it.
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8 Seconds (1994)
6/10
Luke Perry, RIP
14 March 2019
Luke Perry died recently, so I decided to watch one of his movies. I had never heard of Lane Frost before watching John G. Avildsen's "8 Seconds". Without a doubt, Frost knew where his passion was. Definitely not something that I'd ever do - especially after reports that the people behind the rodeos use harsh methods to get the bulls worked up - but Frost was really into it, as were large numbers of people in the southwest US.

Perry puts in a fine performance, but the rest of the cast isn't that well developed, and the movie contains the occasional cliche that we see in biopics (such as conflicts between characters). Still, it's an enjoyable movie, even if you don't know about the subject.
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10/10
I wonder how many more great singers never achieved the fame that they deserved
13 March 2019
Malik Bendjelloul's Academy Award-winning "Searching for Sugar Man" tells the story of how some South African music fans sought to find out what became of Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit singer who had never made an impact in the US but became popular in South Africa. His music even played a part in the anti-apartheid movement. It's one of those stories that seemingly couldn't be true but is. One of the most impressive and fascinating documentaries that I've seen. Unfortunately, Bendjelloul committed suicide the year after winning his Oscar. At least he got to have a fine legacy. I recommend the documentary, and I hope to hear more of Rodriguez's music in the coming years. Great one.
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10/10
when animation sought to be all that it could be
12 March 2019
"Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed" ("The Adventures of Prince Achmed" in English) is probably the earliest animated feature that you'll ever get to see, as the two earlier ones from Argentina are now lost. In addition to the impressive story adapted from "1001 Arabian Nights", Lotte Reiniger's movie reminds us that animation can take any form. In this case, it's silhouette animation showing the story of a prince on a quest to save his beloved. It makes me wonder what direction animation would've ended up taking had Disney not come to dominate the market.

Interwar Germany turned out some fine movies. Aside from this one, there's also "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari", "Nosferatu" and "Metropolis". I suspect that this outstanding streak would've continued had Hitler not taken over. At least we can now enjoy these masterpieces. I hope to find more in the coming years.
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Widows (2018)
9/10
taking on corruption
11 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
I heard some about Steve McQueen's "Widows" when it got released but only loosely understood the plot. Now that I've seen it, I determine that addresses not only grief, but also corruption. As the title characters find out, both candidates running for alderman are equal slimeballs, pandering for votes but aiming only to serve themselves.

But beyond that, it's one intense movie. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo play women hardened by devastation and left with no other options except carrying out the heist. It's not the greatest movie, but I recommend it.
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The Mack (1973)
10/10
as smooth as they get
8 March 2019
I had read that "The Mack" stars Richard Pryor, and so I wanted to see it just for that. Pryor only plays a supporting role, but that doesn't subtract from the movie at all. Max Julien plays the title character, a suave pimp recently released from jail. Back in the city, he rises to the top, but that's not the end.

As much of a character as any of the actors is the soundtrack. It's some of the coolest soul music that you'll ever hear, and it matches the action perfectly. This movie has it all: afros, revolutionaries (with lines lifted from speeches by Black Panthers), racist cops, and more. Anyone who enjoys blaxploitation flicks can't afford to miss this one. You're sure to love it.
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Layer Cake (2004)
5/10
James Bond meets Albus Dumbledore meets Bane meets Michael Banks meets the woman who loved the fish-man
7 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Had I seen "Layer Cake" and not known who the director is, I would've guessed Guy Ritchie. It's an unabashedly violent look at organized crime in England. Daniel Craig plays a cocaine distributor who's not fond of violent acts but remains immersed in a world of violence. Just get ready to see every form of violence imaginable here.

Having never seen the movie until now, I was impressed to see a number of people in early roles. Michael Gambon and Colm Meaney were the established actors, and Daniel Craig was still two years away from James Bond. Aside from Craig, there's also Tom Hardy, Ben Whishaw and Sally Hawkins, all of whom have played notable roles since the movie's release. "Layer Cake" is no masterpiece but still a piece of nice fun if you're looking for brain candy.
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Terraferma (2011)
10/10
this draws attention to two issues
6 March 2019
Emanuele Crialese's "Terraferma" at once draws attention to refugees from Africa trying to enter Europe across the Mediterranean Sea, braving all manner of dangerous conditions. This has intensified in the past few years, as people flee violence not only in Africa, but also in the Middle East. Millions saw the photo of the Syrian man crying over his dead son on the shore. There can be no doubt that military actions led to increased terrorism, further inflaming these regions. It was especially ironic in Libya, since longtime strongman Moammar Qaddafi had been a bete noire for the US for ages, but then became a US ally in the so-called War on Terrorism (no kidding; he and Condoleezza Rice became good friends), only to see the US overthrow him in 2011.

But the other thing is the current treatment of Latin American refugees in the US. We've seen the footage of children getting torn away from their parents and put in detention cages near the border. Not much different from what Italy's authorities do in this movie.

But anyway, to not get moved by this movie is to not have a soul. The blue expanse of the Mediterranean is as much a character as any of the actors. I wholeheartedly recommend it.
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L'Age d'Or (1930)
8/10
a big middle finger to all mores
4 March 2019
Having collaborated on "Un chien andalou", Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel then made "L'Âge d'Or", an equally bizarre movie. It tears apart every sexual and societal more of the era. Seriously, this movie takes a swipe at just about everything. No surprise that Mussolini's ambassador in France denounced it, while France's reactionary League of Patriots interrupted a screening, causing it to get removed from circulation (on top of that, a right-wing Spanish newspaper attacked the movie as "...the most repulsive corruption of our age...").

It's not a great movie. Much of it is kind of slow. But mark my words, you've never seen anything like this. Not even Terry Gilliam could create something as surreal as this. It's interesting to see for the artistic factor mostly. Definitely check it out.
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Book Club (I) (2018)
6/10
my kind of women
3 March 2019
If anyone says that older women can't carry a movie, "Book Club" should disprove that. Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen play aging friends who use books to enlighten themselves. I would've used a different book (I understand that "Fifty Shades of Grey" glamorized abuse), but damned if these friends don't have some cool stuff up their sleeves. Good one.
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Waste Land (2010)
10/10
from trash to masterpiece
2 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
A previous movie that I saw focusing on a Brazilian landfill is Stephen Daldry's "Trash". Now I've seen Lucy Walker's Academy Award-nominated documentary "Waste Land", focusing on the world's largest landfill and the people who sort through the garbage collecting recyclables to turn into art. All these people have hard lives and continue with this miserable work just to make ends meet.

The landfill got closed in 2012. The documentary got released during Lula's last year in office, right before Dilma Rousseff got elected in a continued rejection of the oligarchy (unfortunately, she got impeached, and Brazil's current president promotes near-fascist views). I just wonder what's become of the movie's subjects now that Jair Bolsonaro encourages police kill at random. These people on the bottom rung of society got to see their work displayed in a museum in London, but can they survive an avowed racist?

Anyway, the documentary should draw attention to the issue of how much garbage humans generate, and how we might find better ways to deal with it. We can't keep producing the mass quantities that we produce each day, especially since we end up dumping a lot of it into the oceans.

Great documentary.
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Jeffrey (1995)
9/10
a fine look at life in a grim moment
28 February 2019
I suspect that Christopher Ashley's "Jeffrey" (based on Paul Rudnick's play) will hold a lot more meaning to people who witnessed the AIDS epidemic, but even if you didn't, it's still a pleasure. It essentially looks at the dilemma that a person faces when hoping to have a relationship in a setting where relationships look dangerous. In this case, a young gay man (Steven Weber) is concerned about AIDS and so he decides to abstain from sex entirely, but this choice becomes harder once he's smitten with a handsome man (Michael T. Weiss).

The only problem that I had - at least on the copy that I watched - is that the DVD skipped over a number of scenes (you know how DVDs can do that sometimes); I never got to see the scenes featuring Olympia Dukakis, Sigourney Weaver and Nathan Lane. No matter, I did get to see the hoedown hosted by Christine Baranski (now known as Leonard's mom on "The Big Bang Theory"). That scene alone is worth the watch. This movie is one of the best examples of 1990s indie cinema, and a solid addition to the pantheon of LGBT cinema. Above all, it was neat seeing Patrick Stewart in a role so different from his most famous one. I recommend it.

PS: Gregory Jbara co-starred in another LGBT-themed movie written by Paul Rudnick two years later: "In & Out", which was inspired by Tom Hanks's praise of his gay teacher while accepting his Oscar for "Philadelphia".
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6/10
beyond the world of hobbits and giant apes
27 February 2019
Having made his mark on cinema with the LOTR trilogy and "King Kong", Peter Jackson took a slightly different turn with "The Lovely Bones". I knew pretty much nothing about it when I started watching it, so the material was shocking. I wouldn't call it any sort of masterpiece, but the movie certainly did what it set out to do. I found the grandmother to be the most intriguing character, as she continues her life no matter what happens. I can see why Stanley Tucci (in an Academy Award-nominated performance) wanted to rein in his character's actions. But the bulk of the credit goes to Saoirse Ronan in the lead role. She gives it the same energy that she did in "Hanna", "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Lady Bird".

In the end, I recommend it.
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The Oscars (2019 TV Special)
8/10
Is Glenn Close going to be always a bridesmaid, never a bride?
26 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
First of all, the only nominated movies that I've seen in all categories are At Eternity's Gate, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, First Man, Isle of Dogs, Mary Poppins Returns, Minding the Gap, A Quiet Place, RBG, Ready Player One, Roma, A Star Is Born and The Wife. I was certain that Glenn Close was going to win Best Actress. I read somewhere that someone's going to have to make a movie starring her and Amy Adams, just so that they can both win Oscars.

Overall, not having a host actually turned out to be a benefit: no interludes. But without a doubt, the most important statements came from Rayka Zehtabchi (calling to de-stigmatize menstruation), Alfonso Cuarón (addressing class issues and immigration) and Spike Lee (reminding everyone that 2019 marks 400 years of slavery in the US, that our country got built on the genocide of its indigenous population, and that we must choose love over hate in the next presidential election).

All in all, I liked The 91st Academy Awards.
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8/10
I'm no fan of Queen, but damned if their music isn't going to live forever
25 February 2019
Bryan Singer's "Bohemian Rhapsody" just won some Academy Awards, including Best Actor for star Rami Malek (who noted that he is the son of immigrants). Having just watched it the day before the Oscars, I was ready to see what happened.

First, I should give some background on my exposure to Queen. I occasionally heard their songs played but didn't know the artist. I first learned of Freddie Mercury when I read a chronology of 20th century music and it mentioned him. At sixteen I listened to "Weird Al" Yankovic's parody of Queen's most famous song (basically the original sung like a polka). I then watched "Wayne's World" and heard the original version. It was only in the last few years that I learned of Mercury's sexual orientation.

Anyway, I've read conflicting reports as to the movie's accuracy with regards to Mercury's relationships with people - and complaints that it didn't address the rampant homophobia in the 1980s - but there's no doubt that Rami Malek puts his all into the role. I doubt that I'll ever get into Queen's music, but I still recommend the movie. I haven't seen all the Best Actor nominees, but I'd say that Malek deserved his win. Good one, with fine support from Lucy Boynton, Joseph Mazzello (Tim in "Jurassic Park") and an unrecognizable Mike Myers.
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In a Heartbeat (II) (2017)
10/10
heartwarming cartoon
23 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Esteban Bravo's and Beth David's "In a Heartbeat" shows the awkwardness that can arise when a person wants to express feelings for a person of the same gender but doesn't know how. It has some neat sound effects, but most importantly, it has soul. This short reminds us that a cartoon doesn't need fancy animation or even dialogue to be good; it just needs a good story. This one sure does. I recommend it.
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7/10
Stan and Ollie go to sound
22 February 2019
Early on while watching Laurel & Hardy's "Unaccustomed As We Are" I figured out that the plot was going to be similar to their later "Block-Heads", with Ollie bringing Stan home, only to have his wife get angry at his expectations of her (the later movie expanded the plot). This 1929 short has the guys doing their usual stuff, and in some scenes I could predict what was about to happen. Predictable though some of it may be, the whole thing is a fun romp. It's not their best, but I recommend it.

Noticeably absent is James Finlayson, whose annoyed grunt inspired Homer Simpson's catchphrase.
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Changeling (2008)
7/10
a story of gaslighting
20 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Clint Eastwood's "Changeling" addresses two things: police corruption and gaslighting. The police are less interested in finding the child than in maintaining a facade of crime-fighting, and meanwhile they force the mother to believe that the wrong child is her son. As the clergyman puts it, the police aren't about wiping out crime; they're about wiping out the competition. No surprise that they put the mom in a mental institution to make her look like the wrongdoer.

I had never known the story of Christine Collins before watching this movie. It's a harrowing one. It's not the greatest movie ever (Eastwood's other movie in 2008, Gran Torino, was better), but I still recommend it.
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7/10
the problem with being a genius is that you're so far ahead of everyone that people consider you crazy
19 February 2019
Vincent van Gogh is widely recognized as one of the grand masters of impressionism. That is, he's now recognized thusly. During his lifetime, he only managed to sell one painting. Maybe it was that he was too far ahead of his time that people just couldn't appreciate his genius. It wasn't until almost 50 years after his death that people really started taking notice of his work.

Julian Schnabel's "At Eternity's Gate" looks at the last few years of van Gogh's life, including the notorious incident with his ear. Willem Dafoe (in an Academy Award-nominated role) puts his all into the role of the painter, who appears at the end of his emotional rope. It's not the greatest movie ever, but the strength of the performances makes up for any shortcoming.
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8/10
Tupac Shakur's all too brief career
18 February 2019
John Singleton's "Poetic Justice" might be of interest nowadays for the presence of Tupac Shakur, who was shot dead three years after the release. But more than that, it's a soft, positive look at relationships in South Central. Janet Jackson plays the title character, who accompanies some friends to Oakland. While the movie does have some intense scenes, the poetry narration - hence the title - moves everything along.

Released the year after the Rodney King riots, it shows the desperate situation in which large numbers of people in South Central live, making efforts to get by without trouble (no easy task). These are complex characters, each with something to add. I recommend it.
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6/10
and with that, exit Robert Redford
17 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
"The Old Man & the Gun" bears seeing, not least because Robert Redford has announced that it will be his final screen outing. I had never heard of Forrest Tucker before watching this. What I took from it is that Tucker only felt comfortable when robbing banks. He just couldn't stop, no matter what happened. I guess that some people are just like that.

The best scenes are the robberies and Forrest's meetings with Jewel, a woman with whom he strikes up a relationship. The investigations into Forrest's crimes come across as forced (and it's unpleasant to watch Casey Affleck in a movie after the assault allegations against him).

I recommend it. The movie makes sure to give the characters complex personalities, showing Forrest's history. Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek put on fine performances, as expected. Good support comes from Danny Glover and Tom Waits as Forrest's partners-in-crime.
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Geostorm (2017)
1/10
Can some natural disaster deal with the people who make these movies?
16 February 2019
Dean Devlin produced the likes of "Independence Day" and "Godzilla", so his directorial debut is a similar movie. "Geostorm" wants to see itself as an environmental movie, but it's the sort of flick that belongs on "Mystery Science Theater 3000". Indeed, the YouTube series CinemaSins points out everything wrong with it. Just avoid it.
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