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History and Geography Problems
The script writer is from the U.S. east coast (Virginia), and the script appears to be telling in that regard. Reviews at Indian Country Today are pleased at how the Cheyenne captives being returned to their homeland are portrayed. I concede that, but otherwise the movie plot is historically and geographically preposterous from the get-go. The writer apparently has never studied Wikipedia, much less read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown or An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. The premise of massacre of white settlers (1) by Comanches, (2) in 1892, (3) in either eastern New Mexico or a well-watered part of other New Mexico, fails. The Comanches were subdued in northwest Texas and adjacent eastern New Mexico by the late 1870s, and thereupon fled to Mexico. Moreover, preceding atrocities alluded to and productive of Captain Blocker's initial Indian hatred were mostly the other way around, which is to say a preponderance of white atrocities (Brown, Dunbar-Ortiz, Wikipedia). I didn't catch the dialogue exactly, but at one point in the movie I thought the name Billy Dixon came up as a Captain Blocker friend the Indians supposedly had killed in savage fashion. If I have that wrong, then I have that wrong. But if I have it right, the fact is that Dixon was one of the hunters who nearly exterminated the bison, who mainly fought Indians who were trying to stop such extermination, and who died ultimately in his 70s of old-age pneumonia. Then, without going through or across the Rockies from New Mexico to Montana, which thus requires traveling through eastern New Mexico, eastern Colorado, and eastern Wyoming, the cavalry and the Cheyenne they're escorting traverse a mixture of semi-arid lands with topography, or apparent Rockies foothills with trees. They somehow don't cross many major roads or trails, somehow don't encounter many other people or signs of white civilization, and somehow miss or mostly miss Colorado Springs (where "America the Beautiful" was composed in 1893), Denver, Cheyenne, and Laramie. At best, this puts them farther east on a route through the mostly treeless and mostly flat far western Great Plains, except that's not scenery that's in their journey or the movie. Parts of the movie that weren't filmed in the New Mexico or Colorado Rockies, or vicinity, were filmed in Arizona which is not on the way to Montana.

The Square

A Possible Comparison to Another Movie
My thought afterwards was that The Square does for abstract modern art what Best in Show did for dog shows...except more high-brow subtly and more (appropriately so) abstractly. The movie is thus zany, in ways or places. Simultaneously, it has serious edges centering on (1) social issues of helping people in distress...or not, and (2) defending artistic integrity versus (a) marketing distortions and (b) potshots from critics.

Glory Road

Pre-El Paso Inaccuracies
The movie makers here seem to want to just make up history rather than tap into it. This movie is a whole lot more fictionalized than, say, Moneyball (2011), almost to the point of ridiculousness. Various IMDb reviewers have pointed out inaccuracies about Don Haskins' tenure at Texas Western, the movie's characterization of certain games during the Miners' 1965-66 season, and the use of African-American players at Texas Western and elsewhere before and during Haskin's term as coach. Besides all that, the movie makers in the first few minutes, in the part about Haskins' high school coaching, have made little effort to learn anything from the Texas Film Commission or from the state's long-time association for public school athletic competition, the University Interscholastic League (UIL). Haskins coached at Benjamin, Hedley, and Dumas, all UIL school systems. He departed in 1961 for Texas Western, rather than in 1965 a mere year before the Texas Western national championship. The movie opens with a 1965 girls' state championship game being played in Fort Worth. State championships both boys and girls were, in the 1960s, played in Austin, not Fort Worth, and still are played in Austin. Neither Benjamin, Hedley, nor Dumas placed a girls' team in a state championship game until 1980, Dumas didn't even have a girls' high school basketball team in 1961-1965 because schools in the two largest enrollment-size classes were late coming to the sport. Dumas certainly didn't and doesn't have the type of hill or butte topographical relief the movie depicts on the outskirts of town. This resembles Days of Heaven (1978) which incongruously had mountains on the horizon near Amarillo and The Buddy Holly Story (1978) which incongruously had mountains on the horizon near Lubbock. So the film early on pretty much wipes out any patience on the part of viewers who have the slightest clue about Texas high school basketball or Texas geography. Which is a lot of viewers, because girls' basketball is big in Texas and fans have to drive through Texas geography to go from game to game.

Una breve vacanza

Interruption in the Alps
A Brief Vacation is a quiet Italian drama from 1973, directed by Vittorio De Sica who was acclaimed for The Bicycle Thief a quarter century earlier.

Florinda Bolkan plays a female factory worker in Milan whose husband's employment has been sidelined for the time being by injury. Thus she is the breadwinner for a family that includes children, a mother-in-law, and a brother-in-law. She already is close to collapse from the wear and tear of her job, and the fatigue of the train commutes to and from it. Family members prove extremely selfish, increasing the stress and burden.

But she has a spot on her lung, a patch of tuberculosis, the equivalent of a golden war wound in combat. There is insurance for health care, and a guarantee of a continued flow of salary during leave for recuperation. The movie makes a welcome shift to a sanatorium in the Alps, where the only demands are to get plenty of sleep and rest and be pampered by the doctors, nurses, and other staffers. This is the brief vacation from which the movie title derives, and brings a chance to meet new friends and a pause to reflect on life. De Sica via the interruption produces another winner.

It might be added that it was a long wait to see the movie again. A Brief Vacation was never released on VHS, and consequently it took three full decades, and the advent of the DVD era, to bring the film to home viewers. Take advantage.

Shall we dansu?

At a Commuter Train Stop
Shall We Dance? (Japan, 1996) opens to the tune of the same title, from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical and movie, The King and I. We are in a ballroom of the Blackpool Tower, England, home to a complex of buildings that host the most prestigious of international ballroom dancing competitions. A Japanese narrator draws a contrast to his own country:

"In Japan, ballroom dance is regarded with much suspicion. In a country where married couples don't go out arm in arm, much less say, 'I love you' out loud, intuitive understanding is everything. The idea that a husband and wife should embrace and dance in front of others is beyond embarrassing. However, to go out dancing with someone else would be misunderstood and prove more shameful. Nonetheless, even for Japanese people, there is a secret wonder about the joys that dance can bring."

Here and there, the wonder has been inspired by Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr from the Rodgers & Hammerstein film production. Other adventurous Japanese, by whatever means, have likewise been drawn to the ballroom dance floor. For Mr. Sugiyama, a middle-aged accountant with a wife and daughter, it begins at a commuter train stop where he spies a young woman looking out the upper-story window of the Kishikawa School of Dancing, and is captivated. This leads to lessons.

Koji Yakusho is exceptional in the lead acting role. Tamiyo Kusakari plays the young woman from the window, who turns out to be a professional with aspirations to return to Blackpool. Reiko Kusamura is excellent as the very patient, somewhat older woman who ends up as the instructor of Mr. Sugiyama and his two nearly as clumsy male classmates.

This is one of the all-time bests from among Japanese movies, particularly those of the non-samurai genre. Richard Gere starred in an Americanized version in 2004, but the Japanese original scores higher with IMDb ratings voters. If it suits your fancy, explore also the very funny Australian comedy-romance, Strictly Ballroom (1992).

Brewster McCloud

Quirky, Which May Be the Best Adjective
Brewster McCloud (1970), set in Houston in the late 1960s, is a Robert Altman comedy. One reference source describes it as a quirky comedy, which may be the best adjective to attach. The movie is about birds, and things bird-like, in three ways: First, Rene Auberjonois appears intermittently as a gawking professor of ornithology, to lecture the audience on matters avian. As the film progresses, he comes more and more to resemble his subject. Second, Bud Cort lives surreptitiously in a cubbyhole of the Astrodome, where he has fashioned a set of wings and is attempting to learn to fly, as in human-powered flight in something of a throwback to before the Wright brothers. Third, there occurs in Houston an inexplicable series of deaths, possibly murders. A common element is that the deceased are found with....well, let's stop there, tiptoeing toward the edge without risking falling off the cliff into a spoiler.

Sally Kellerman plays a quasi-angelic character who watches over Cort's welfare. We have also the young Shelley Duvall, ten years before her appearance as Jack Nicholson's wife in The Shining (1980), in the role of an Astrodome tour guide. Michael Murphy plays the San Francisco detective who is summoned to Texas to investigate what is going on. His big decision each morning is to decide on the color de jour for his trademark gun holster and matching turtleneck.

As was said, quirky.


"In Memory of Camila O'Gorman...."
In 1982, the Argentine military government seized the Falkland Islands, also known as Las Islas Malvinas, from the British. The British deployed combat forces to the South Atlantic and recaptured the territory in a war that lasted ten and a half weeks. This led to the downfall of the Argentine military junta and a reversion to democracy, establishing conditions which in 1984 brought to the screen a true story that had been suppressed by political, religious, and/or cultural forces for nearly fourteen decades. It is one of the most popular movies in the history of Argentina, from among those produced by that nation.

Camila refers to Camila O'Gorman, and opens very briefly in her childhood with the arrival at her family's ranch of a stagecoach bearing her grandmother, who is to be placed under house arrest. Camila's father fully consents to the arrangement, siding with the authorities rather than with his mother, who is on the wrong side of contemporary political affairs. The opening then shifts forward to Buenos Aires, 1847. Camila, now a young woman of about 19, is closeted with and huddled over some newborn kittens she knows will earn her father's disapproval if he discovers them. In the late 1840s, Argentina is under the control of a dictator, General Rosas, and the federals. The unitarians, some in exile and others trying to stay under the radar (as it were), are the latent opposition.

The plot can be summarized simply: A socialite daughter from a wealthy family falls in love with a (celibate) Jesuit priest. It is not only taboo in a Catholic society, but is taboo in a Catholic society at the wrong place and the wrong time, and neither the federals nor the unitarians contribute positively to the outcome. As the kittens meet their fate and the opening credits conclude, we view a statement dedicating the movie: "In memory of Camila O'Gorman…." History, and director Maria Luisa Bemberg, are serious about the advisory, so be forewarned, and be aware also that the movie has an R rating. The film coloring is memorable, and Susu Pecoraro in the lead actress role gives a strong performance.

The Fabulous Baker Boys

Pfeiffer Great, but Beau Bridges Overlooked
The Baker brothers, Frank and Jack, played by real-life siblings Beau Bridges and Jeff Bridges, have presumably never performed with the Boston Symphony nor rocked on the stage at Woodstock. In the music profession, they are closer to the equivalent of bottom feeders, plying their trade as two-piano lounge musicians. Moreover, gigs in Seattle, where they are based, are getting harder and harder to extract from nightclub owners. Lack of pizazz is beginning to show. The brothers thus reach a business decision to audition for a female singer to enliven their act, leading to Michelle Pfeiffer, whose character is named Susie Diamond and looks every bit the name.

As even those who have not seen the movie may be aware, the highlight is Pfeiffer's show-stopping performance of "Makin' Whoopee" in a sleek red dress atop Jeff Bridges' piano. It occurs, as the trio ascends to better venues, in the ballroom of a getaway resort hotel on New Year's Eve. Pfeiffer won a Golden Globe and other awards for best actress, but Jessica Tandy won the corresponding Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy.

My vote still goes to Pfeiffer, and to Susie. The intriguing, charisma-challenged character, however, is the punctilious Frank, a devoted family man and manager of the act. Frank's pitches to his audiences, making segues from one song to another, are schmaltzy to the point of embarrassment, and yet he applies a time-honored work ethic to his calling, and construes the approach as professionalism. To his brother Jack, in contrast, it's just a job, the relative status of which may be what is life-grating and produces his usual sullenness. Jack would rather be doing a sneak-away stint at a jazz club than pursuing the everyday career into which he is slotted.

So... Pfeiffer is great. Beau Bridges, in her shadow, is more overlooked than he should be. As is the movie. Jeff Bridges rounds out the cast and has his moments. It's a good rental option for a New Year's Eve.

Bal na vodi

Five Equals Four Seeking to Equal Two
In the mid 1980s--before Yugoslavia broke apart and unleashed the strife and ethnic cleansing that prompted international intervention--Torvill and Dean skated "Bolero" on the Olympic ice rink at Sarajevo, and the not yet fractured nation gave us one of the more memorable European films of the era.

Hey Babu Riba presents the beautifully bittersweet story of a quartet of teenagers who form a rowing team, and the female coxswain with whom each is in love. The movie is set dually in summer 1953 and September 1985, in the first case just after the death of Joseph Stalin. The Soviet dictator, despite his demise, has a residual presence in the form of a forearm tattoo and a menacing group of apparatchiks from the ministry of culture (propaganda).

Glen, Sasha, Kicha, Pop, and Mirjana are a "four"--referring to the number of oars, not the number of friends--with quadruple aspirations to become a pair. They are Yankophiles, and take English classes from a woman in Belgrade. When Glen asserts, "I know that Glenn Miller is the best musician in the world," their teacher coaches them that an English speaker would not say, "I know…." in such a context, but rather, "I think…." When the young man applies the lesson at (what appears to be) the U.S. Information Agency office, he finds to his astonishment that his rehearsed memorization works conversationally, although the hip young African-American who staffs the office prefers Gershwin.

Which sets up some background from which the ensuing plot unfolds. Hey Babu Riba opens on a boxcar, approaching the northern Croatian coast, to the singing of "Te Quiero Dijiste" (1929) by Mexican female composer Maria Grever (1894-1951). It comes to the group by way of its use in a 1944 Esther Williams movie, Bathing Beauty. The coxswain thus becomes not Mirjana, but Esther, and the song, which pervades Hey Babu Riba, imprints itself as the movie's signature. The result is a classic of nostalgic youth. Jovan Acin (1941-1991) is the director.

Bella Martha

A Female Chef in Hamburg
The plot to Mostly Martha, a 2001 release from Germany which I recommend over the follow-up Americanized version, can't be more than basically established without introducing spoilers:

The female chef of a fashionable restaurant in the port city of Hamburg schedules a visit from her sister and niece.

There. That's all that can be safely said, except that the movie contains at least one major mood shift.

Through early 2009, this is my favorite foreign film of the first decade of the 21st century, second only to Seabiscuit among movies from that not yet completed ten-year stretch--and, with me, ranking ahead of the several recent German historical dramas that have gotten more acclaim.

The final eight and a half minutes arrive suddenly, and include three impressive minutes of musical interlude unaccompanied by any dialogue. The score to the closing credits is worth listening to, also. The ending is what stamps the movie's stature, along with a solid lead-actress performance by Martina Gedeck and a good script and capable directing by Sandra Nettelbeck.

Guys, put this down on your prospective date-movie lists, and do not read or allow any reading, beforehand, of either the front or the flip side of the DVD cover. Watch with food and drink to perhaps enhance the treat, because the movie will make you hungry.

Desert Bloom

Fifties Americana, in Nevada
Desert Bloom (1986), not to be confused with Desert Hearts released in the U.S. the same year, stars Annabeth Gish as an adolescent girl with new eyeglasses and spelling bee skills. The film opens in Las Vegas in December 1950. Gish's stepfather, played by Jon Voight, is a World War II veteran who has a gas station, the last fill-up opportunity on the edge of town before the highway enters the Nevada desert. On his better days, he has a yen for self-education, brain teasers, and the news and intellectual discourse of the world. On his worse days, he has combat flashbacks, leading to excessive drinking and flares of temper. Gish's mother, played by JoBeth Williams (The Big Chill), is full of life-guidance aphorisms, but has a flaw herself in the form of an apparent past of occasional compulsive gambling. There are two little sisters, plus a glamour-queen aunt, played by Ellen Barkin (The Diner; The Big Easy), who comes to live with the family. The other significant roles are Allen Garfield (The Candidate; The Conversation) as a family friend, I think the father of one of Gish's female classmates, and Jay Underwood, an adolescent male. The movie plot basically plays out some of the discord at which the above hints.

This movie is fifties Americana, almost as if one had entered a time machine back into that decade. Voight is at a career peak that carried over from his Oscar-nomination performance the preceding year in Runaway Train (1985). Williams magnifies what already is a strong supporting performance with the singing talents we discover in a scene at the piano (making the assumption it's really her voice). Garfield is subtly good, as usual. I respectfully disagree with Desert Bloom's lack of critical acclaim and low IMDb viewer ratings.

The Hallelujah Trail

Oracle, Who Requires, Uh, Uh, Lubrication
The Hallelujah Trail is a spoof of the type of epic Western epitomized by such movies as Cimarron (1960) and How the West Was Won (1962).

The miners, headquartered in Denver, are threatened by thirst. The town's whiskey stocks, for what is expected to be a long, cold winter, are dangerously low. A wagon train of teamsters, led by Brian Keith, is hired to deliver more whiskey. The temperance ladies, led by Lee Remick, are trying to stop the whiskey. The Native Americans, a key figure among whom we will get to shortly, are trying to steal the whiskey. The cavalry, led by Burt Lancaster as assisted by Jim Hutton, is trying to maintain order. This leads to what is recorded, in the annals of the comedy West, as the Battle of...well, that would be giving too much plot away.

There are three memorable performances, all in supporting roles. One comes from the unseen narrator, who helps to chronicle events with his resonant voice and his, uh, uh, special...insight. Another comes from Martin Landau (Crimes and Misdemeanors, the TV series Mission Impossible). Landau plays Walks Stooped Over, a Native American who, from his role in peace negotiations, also goes by the name Symbol of Good Faith. Then we get to the sterling performance, which should have drawn an Oscar nomination. It comes from Donald Pleasance (James Garner's nearly blind POW buddy in The Great Escape). Pleasance plays Oracle, a visionary Denverite who is able to foresee the future, except that he first requires, uh, uh, lubrication.

I can think of only two other movies of approximately the same genre. At the head of the class, of course, is It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). The other is the Japanese movie, Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (1997). Okay, maybe three other movies. The extra one being Airplane! (1980). That should give you an idea.

Le violon rouge

A Musical Detective Movie
The Red Violin is a sweeping drama that travels across multiple centuries and multiple continents, landing in a Montreal auction house to which the movie returns at intervals and for the final half hour and climax. At issue is a violin, the bids for which are creeping upwards toward those for a Stradivarius, sold immediately before.

The movie opens in Italy in 1681 with a perfectionist violin maker whose trade secrets are of scientific acoustical interest 300+ years later. His wife is pregnant, and the anticipation of a child prompts a special manufacturing effort.

Samuel L. Jackson plays, brilliantly, the New York consultant who is commissioned by the auction house to appraise a newly arrived lot of string instruments. Jackson's character knows his stuff. But it's not just his brain that's into the task. It's also his heart. Therein lies the intrigue, and the compelling interest.

This is an absolutely topnotch Canadian movie. A musical detective story, as it were.

The Dish

Parkes Gets Put on the Map
The Dish is set in July 1969 in Parkes, New South Wales, Australia, a community of population about ten thousand, approximately 150-200 miles northwest of Sydney. Its affable prescient mayor, played by Roy Billing, is reaping a reward for his maneuvers to get a radio telescope observatory sited locally, in a sheep paddock not far from town. The reward, putting Parkes on the map, is the facility's assignment to help NASA in Houston with telemetry and communications signals for the Apollo 11 moon voyage and landing.

Well-known actor Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, etc.) plays Cliff, the contemplative pipe-smoking director of the dish-management crew. Taylor Kane plays Rudi, the comical security guard who's on the alert for threats that aren't really quite there. Tom Long plays Glenn, the not-really-so-nerdy whiz kid who's the junior member of the team. He has a crush on Janine, Rudi's sister, played by Eliza Szonert, who has a crush back. Kevin Harrington plays Mitch, the wise-cracking Aussie who's second in command to Cliff, at least domestically. What tension there is, aside from that of the moon mission itself, derives from Mitch's discomfort with Al the add-on from NASA, played by Patrick Warburton. Mitch considers Al an annoying know-it-all presence, representative of an American arrogance that the Australians can't be trusted to be competent but have to be monitored.

John McMartin plays the American ambassador who is greeted in Parkes with the, uh, U.S. national anthem. He visits the dish and is impressed at how the astronauts sound like they're just a few feet away.

A light comedy-drama gem, this one. There are cameo appearances by John F. Kennedy and Walter Cronkite.


A Light-Drama Tropical Road Movie
Guantanamera, a Cuban light drama by accomplished director Tomas Gutierrez Alea (1928-1996), is a tropical road movie. The setting is the 1990s, following withdrawal of USSR support for its little-brother Communist regime. A woman dies, some distance removed from Havana, and the goal is to transport her to the capital for burial. A tiny entourage of family accompanies the hearse.

Some snippets, though not central to the plot: How do government-run funeral homes work exactly, in a Communist country? Well, first, there is a per-person quota of refreshments for the bereaved and acquaintances who are paying last respects. But doesn't this attract inauthentic freeloaders? Second, there is a scene involving a meeting of regional mortuary-manager bureaucrats. If travel expenses for hearse trips are allocated according to the relative mileage of the territories through which vehicles traipse, the funeral home functionary in a crossroads region takes more than her share of budgetary hits. Is that fair? Third, there is the question of why the burial in Havana in the first place. If everybody and everywhere in Cuba are socialistically equal, what's wrong with the deceased staying put where she was? Meanwhile, we also have organized hitchhiking. Officials have the power to commandeer vacant seats from those who have for those who need.

There is some Latino romance, and some lightly subversive free enterprise. All in all, a likable movie. Mirta Ibarra, who starred twelve years earlier in Alea's 1983 film, Up To a Certain Point, gets an encore. She plays the niece of the deceased, who is also the wife of the over-serious Daniel Ortega-looking official who's in charge of the expedition.

Der Untergang

Enter, After an Hour, Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels
If you haven't noticed, Germany in the early 21st century has been making quality movies focusing introspectively on not-so-pleasant excerpts from that nation's past (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, about the 1940s anti-Nazi student dissident who was guillotined; The Lives of Others, about the excesses of the Stasi, the East German secret police; and The Baader Meinhof Complex, about the Red Army Faction terrorist group). There also has been at least one film about Germany's more positive history (Luther, about the origins of the Protestant Reformation).

In the historical drama Downfall, Alexandra Maria Lara plays Traudl Junge (1920-2002), a real-life secretary to the Fuhrer who is depicted in documentary interview footage as well as by Lara. Like her age peer the martyred Scholl, the youthful Junge hails from Munich. Unlike Scholl, she took a moral wrong turn with the wrong crowd, but in so doing survived, along with others who were there, to give us an account of the last days in the bunker in Berlin.

One expects the movie climax to be the suicides of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun, and the rest beforehand to be mostly a couple of hours of cinematically waiting around. Not so and not so, without giving too much away. Pay special attention, about an hour into the film, when Corinna Harfouch shows up in the role of Magda Goebbels, wife of the Nazi propaganda minister. Harfouch delivers a stunning supporting-actress performance. Also good, in a minor role, is Christian Berkel as an SS physician who has attained more sanity than others around him.

In my opinion, Downfall is the best of the recent German historical lot. Education in the psychological and sociological causes of World War II may not be complete without it. Moreover, as a war movie, Downfall in stature is up there with The Bridge on the River Kwai and Saving Private Ryan. From another lens, fascinatingly, albeit disturbingly.

El último tren

Grandfatherly Types Kidnap a Locomotive
El Ultimo Tren opens, somewhat weakly for those of us who are linguistically challenged and stuck reading subtitles, with an assemblage of elderly gentlemen who are taking a vote on whether to proceed with an illegal act. In contrast, movie watchers who are fluent bilingually are more apt to notice a non-subtitled sign in the background in Spanish: Sociedad de Amigos Riel (Society of Friends of the Rail).

We have, then, an assortment of what appear to be rail worker pensioners and/or train aficionados. As the movie proceeds, although this is not totally clear, we gather that some of them may be aging railroad unionists. At least one is clearly leftist, as on the non-Franco advocacy side of the Spanish Civil War.

The plot is simple. An enterprising modern young businessman has salvaged and refurbished a vintage locomotive, which he plans to sell to Hollywood. The problem is, the locomotive is Uruguayan heritage, the last of its kind in the nation, and society members, who oppose the engine's acquisition by the gringos, vote by a narrow margin to kidnap it.

Implementation falls to three grandfatherly types and a youngster friend of one of them. Once the train gets rolling, the movie gets rolling too, enjoyably so and rapidly improving. Like the locomotive the conspirators seek to retain, the film is a keeper. There aren't many chances to see anything from Uruguayan cinema, although the population of such movies is increasing. This one is among your better bets from that limited pool.

Bottle Shock

Jet Lag for Wine
Bottle Shock, we learn early on, is or resembles the equivalent of jet lag for wine, but lasts longer than for humans. It is what can happen when wine is transported as cargo rather than as carry-on.

The movie is set in the bicentennial year, 1976, in California and France. Bill Pullman (Sleepless in Seattle and While You Were Sleeping) plays Jim Barrett, a former lawyer turned proprietor of a Napa Valley winery in shaky financial condition. He is assisted by son Bo, played by Chris Pine, who is something of a hybrid surfer-hippie without college ambitions. Father-son arguments are taken to an outdoor boxing ring. Gustavo, played by Freddy Rodriguez (the bus boy in Bobby), is a hired hand who has grown up locally and has dirt and grapes in his blood. Rachael Taylor has the role of Sam, who signs on as an intern. Eliza Dushku's character, Joe, owns a bar in the nearby community of Calistoga. Miguel Sandoval (Blow) plays a small-time Hispanic grape grower who favors Maria Callas records. Bradley Whitford (Josh in West Wing) has a bit part as a straw-hatted university agriculture professor.

Meanwhile, in France, Alan Rickman (Sense and Sensibility, the Harry Potter series) plays Steven Spurrier, the British proprietor of L'Academie du Vin, which has as its goals (1) selling wine to customers and/or (2) educating them in fine wine appreciation and palate cultivation. If there were any clients, that is. Owner of the next-door Paris limousine tour service is Maurice from Milwaukee, played by Dennis Farina (Law & Order). He enjoys camaraderie with the Englishman, and the wine that goes with the camaraderie, but chides him for shortcomings of business promotion and an inventory that's too French and absent a "global context." An idea hatches to address both such problems, and Mr. Spurrier travels to California.

This is my favorite American movie of 2008, hands down, and reportedly was a big hit at the Sundance festival. As directed by Randall Miller, it has a rural flavor reminiscent of films by Robert Redford (A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer) and Victor Nunez (Ruby in Paradise and Ulee's Gold). Pullman is truly outstanding, and Rickman likewise achieves a career best. Rodriguez is good, and undoubtedly we will welcome seeing more of Pine and Taylor in the future. The musical score is appealing. Farina's character, and his wardrobe, are a riot. (Or was it a scream? I can't remember my seventies lingo.)


Gandhi's Umpteenth Fast
In her diary entry of Saturday, February 27, 1943, Anne Frank wrote in passing (translated from the Dutch): "The freedom-loving Gandhi of India is holding his umpteenth fast."

It's a comment at once mildly comical and respectfully admiring, one I think the Mahatma would have appreciated with a twinkle and a laugh. He and Miss Frank are linked with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as the civil rights spokesperson-giants of the 20th century. And civil rights, and the reversal of the institutionalized violation of the same, are a large part of what the last century's politics were all about. Movie viewers are apt to find in the diary remark a distillation of their experience of the Richard Attenborough film. A recommendation is that it be followed by rentals of Saving Private Ryan and The Long Walk Home, which together convey the investment put into the respective causes the trio represented.

At the beginning of Gandhi we confront these words: "No man's life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record, and to try to find one's way to the heart of the man...."

John Briley's screenplay accomplishes that faithfulness, and one probably has to be a scholar of the subject to sort out what is his and what is Gandhi's. Not that it really is of relevance, given what we learn from the movie about the value of eclecticism. Looking out over the bay at Porbandar, Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) tells Walker (Martin Sheen): "The temple where you were yesterday is of my family's sect, the Pranami. It was Hindu of course, but the priests used to read from the Muslim Koran and the Hindu Gita, moving from one to the other as though it mattered not at all which book was read as long as God was worshipped." In a preceding scene, similarly, confronted by young toughs on a South African street, Gandhi defends for his Christian friend Charlie (Ian Charleson) the New Testament intelligence of turning the other cheek. A worried Charlie states, "I think perhaps the phrase was used metaphorically. I don't think our Lord meant...," and is interrupted by a movie shot of the approaching menace. Gandhi replies calmly, "I'm not so certain. I have thought about it a great deal. I suspect he meant you must show courage--be willing to take a blow--several blows--to show you will not strike back--nor will you be turned aside.... And when you do that it calls upon something...that makes...hate for you diminish and...respect increase. I think Christ grasped that and I...have seen it work."

The script is replete with these kinds of memorable words, and with others that reflect its subject's political acumen and strategical cleverness.

Kingsley is sublime in the lead role. Saeed Jaffrey, Roshan Seth, and Alyque Padamsee do well as Gandhi's pro-independence collaborators. Ditto, Athol Fugard ("Assuming we are in agreement?") and John Gielgud ("Salt?") as two of his adversaries. Charleson, in his clerical collar, looks like he has walked in off the set of the preceding year's Academy Award winner, Chariots of Fire (where he played the Scottish sprinter-missionary, Eric Liddell).

This movie won eight Oscars, with Attenborough, Briley, and Kingsley all earning honors. No other film biography I ever have seen works so well. It will stand the test of time and inform multiple generations. One doubts remakes will be necessary.


A Typewriter Clickety-Clack Crescendo
Z comes with impressive 1969 pedigrees. Submitted by Algeria for Academy Award consideration for Best Foreign Language Film, it both was nominated for and collected that Oscar. It received nomination the same year for Best Picture, and while Midnight Cowboy was victorious instead, Z was the winner among the New York Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics. It earned another Foreign Language Film award at the Golden Globes.

All this is richly deserved.

Set--though never explicitly--in Greece, the movie opens with an attempt at dissident but peaceful assembly, for a speech by a leader of the political opposition. The story is based on actual events involving parliamentary deputy Grigoris Lambrakis, at Thessaloniki in the spring of 1963. Yves Montand plays the scheduled speaker, either Lambrakis or a close fictional model thereof. Ultra-nationalist officialdom discourages the meeting via the placement of petty logistical impediments. A criminal act ensues. The same officialdom selects as investigator a magistrate of impeccable establishment credentials, to sweep the unpleasantness under the rug. Jean-Louis Trintigant plays this stern, no-nonsense part memorably.

A huge caveat is that you need to rent the subtitled version, not the dubbed one. The reason is to be better riveted by the typewriter clickety-clack and accompanying score, as the investigation and movie reach a crescendo. The subtitled version arrives with an electric and musical adrenaline rush. The dubbed version instead mutes it.

Jacques Perrin is an ongoing presence in the movie as a photojournalist. The three actors from Montand's entourage infuse their characters with an idealistic political earnestness, almost as if (forgive the sixties analogy)

they've been borrowed from upper-echelon Eugene McCarthy campaign staff. Were I more conversant with French-language movies, better able to sort out the rest of the cast, I'd heap additional praise. It's a strong ensemble performance.


Haunted by Grasses
The best definition I can give to movies I greatly admire is that they take me someplace I don't expect to go.

It can be a special location. It can be a special moment. It can be a special revelation.

Close to Eden, as this movie has been titled in the United States, offers the entire combination. A 1992 Russian nominee for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, the movie opens on the vast grassy expanses of the steppes of Mongolia, where the setting initially is evocative of a certain timelessness. The historical instant cannot be ascertained confidently, even within an error margin of a few centuries. Nor do we know what the movie designs ultimately to tell us.

Such uncertainty begins to give way as a vehicle and visitor enter the scene and are involved in a mishap that results from first sleepiness and then fright. The nature of the vehicle and visitor narrow the reference era to an accuracy level of mere decades. From there, the plot leads to a likable nuclear family of herders, to which a grandmother is attached. We follow their story and soon learn when, among the vast expanses of time, it occurs.

The theme here is three parts. The first part concerns the lifestyle of the family, and its self-sufficiency. The second part concerns the travel the father undertakes, and the reason for the travel, an assigned errand he seeks to accomplish in the course of that journey. The third part concerns the conclusion, where the issue of time again intervenes. There is in fact no timelessness, but rather its passage. The narrator in A River Runs Through It is "haunted by waters." Similarly, the ending of Close to Eden is haunted by grasses. Its status as one of the great foreign films arrives in the last few knockout minutes.

Manon des sources

One of the Very Best Films of the 1980s
Manon of the Spring is the sequel to Jean de Florette, released the same year. By no means should Manon be rented without having first seen Jean. By no means, in either case, should one glance at the movie notes on the reverse side of the video box.

Almost nothing can be said safely about Manon without giving away the overall plot or this or that twist or turn. Suffice to explain that Jean concerns an urbanite hunchback who relocates to the Provencal countryside with his wife and daughter, intent on raising rabbits. Manon picks up some years after the Jean conclusion, with the daughter having grown to young womanhood. (More prudish prospective viewers need to know that this will be explicitly evident.)

This is superb movie-making. Other reviewers accurately call it a masterpiece. The story line dominates, not the acting. Even so, Yves Montand continues his excellent performance from Jean, and Daniel Auteuil as the unsightly nephew is more impressive after one sees him clean-cut and sophisticate in something like Un Coeur en Hiver (1992). Emmanuelle Beart and Hipployte Girardot say very little, yet it doesn't detract from their respective essential portrayals. Anyone who becomes a Beart fan is advised to rent Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud (1995).

The two movies, prequel and sequel, work as a team. By virtue of its powerful denouement, however, Manon of the Spring is the standout of the pair. For the same reason, in my opinion, it is one of the very best films of the 1980s.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin

Arts and Ways of Healing
Sandwiching a love story between Pelagia (Penelope Cruz) and Captain Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage), Pelegia's father-physician (John Hurt) removes an ear blockage from a patient at the movie's beginning and is asked to replace it at the end. In between is a cinematic lesson, reportedly unfaithful to the novel and somewhat to historical fact, that says the most about the arts and ways of healing as any movie I've happened across since reading Albert Camus' The Plague.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin opens in 1940 on the island of Cephallonia. When the Germans trump a Greek military victory (elsewhere) over the forces of Mussolini, an occupying force of battle-unsullied Italians arrives to incur the contempt and detestation of the locals. What follows is a transnational tension that gradually becomes a reevaluation, both among the populace generally and in the heart that resides in the female leading character, a daughter-doctor in training.

Hurt should be nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as a physician of body, soul, and ethics. He probably ought to win, pending a look at other prospective candidates. Cruz shines in a pair of scenes where she speaks not a line but reacts by purest facial language to that which she feels obligated to despise yet cannot because of its gentility. Cage likewise gives a wholly acceptable performance, and Piero Maggio in a minor role is even better as the one Italian who is a survivor of the prelude carnage. David Morrissey plays with skill a stiff German liaison officer who takes a liking to the Italians' frivolity. Bale balances carefully his character's simultaneous patriotism and romantic plight. Irene Papas is capably present as his mother.

This film is getting reviews of mediocrity and badness from many critics. Romantics are advised to ignore them. In my mind it's an IMDb 7, or in customary ratings lingo, against the grain, at least 3 stars. Bright stars, at that, lighting the stage of an unusually medicinal Greek tragedy.

Lone Star

The Classic Texas Movie
This is THE classic Texas movie, or at a minimum it's the classic SOUTH Texas movie. When Ellizabeth Pena spoke her memorable closing line when I went to see it at the theater here in Austin, the audience erupted in applause.

The film is set in the fictional equivalent of Eagle Pass, on the Rio Grande, which thus contributes to the plot both Anglos and Hispanics. (Eagle Pass is a location also in Like Water for Chocolate.) Add to the mix a U.S. army base, incorporating African-Americans, and the brew isn't complete even there. A discussion among local teachers about how best to teach the state's history sets up the rich portion of the plot which revolves around issues of ethnicity, while simultaneously (cleverly) misdirecting the viewer's expectations about one of the movie's major mysteries.

It is amazing that John Sayles can come in from outside and understand this region so well. An exemplary instance is when Frances McDormand's character is raving about a high school football player from...and the script fills in (if I recall correctly)...San Antonio Churchill. It's a perfect choice, in a way that nowhere else except maybe Converse Judson or Gregory-Portland or Refugio would have achieved. Permian (Odessa Permian) would have been too obvious. Austin McCallum, or some such, would have left gridiron-fan moviegoers wrinkling their noses at the faux pas. In short, Sayles, who was writer as well as director, superbly did his homework.

Pena, McDormand, Chris Cooper, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Morton, and Clifton James are all great. Miriam Colon ("in INGLIS, Enrique") and Ron Canada stand out. Tony Plana, as a deputy who is contemplated by the minority community as an electoral challenger to Cooper the incumbent sheriff, delivers the movie's most comical non-McDormand line. It seems that Cooper is headed across the border as part of a criminal investigation. They chance to talk briefly just as he is leaving, and Plana establishes that there are no hard feelings about the political competition. Whereupon Cooper announces that he is going over to "the other side." Plana responds, astounded, "The REPUBLICANS??"

Picnic at Hanging Rock

It's Been Waiting a Million Years, Just For Us
This movie, the video for which was already out-of-print when I first purchased a VCR in the mid to late 1980s, was the impetus for starting a video collection to avoid the same thing happening again. When...FINALLY...Peter Weir released his director's cut at the theaters and that became the version with which most viewers are probably now familiar, I took one disappointed look and ultimately headed for eBay to scout for a seller offering the VHS original. For more money than I have ever paid in my life for a video, an aging copy arrived.

What was issued at the Australian box offices in 1975, and in the United States four years later, is an absolute gem. The 1998 director's cut ruins much of it. There are no parishioners singing "Rock of Ages." There is very little footage of the unremarked-on matching cuts on the foreheads of Michael and...well, no use giving anything of the other characters. I forget the rest.

In summary, I've discovered that the editing personnel who are listed on movie credits fulfill a very important function. And I'm very much a Peter Weir fan. St. Valentine's Day, February 14, 2000, would have been an opportune time for a re-release of the original. But it seems to have disappeared.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is my favorite Helen Morse movie. It's too bad there have not been, for American audiences, other prominent films featuring Anne Lambert or Karen Robson. Ditto, Dominic Guard, except for a bit part in Gandhi.

Ask yourself some questions: Why is it called "hanging" rock? It seems more like a protruding formation, reaching up from below rather than hanging from anything above. And what's with this circle superimposed on the triangle in Miss McCraw's mathematics book, when she glances up at the sky? Edith said something about a red...what was it, exactly, she mentioned?

At least there are still a few preserved curiosities.

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