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Un prophète

Honor among thugs
In his first two films, Jacques Audiard made me want to really like him, and while the world went a bit gaga for "De battre mon Coeur s'est Arrete" (and I enjoyed it well enough), I felt something just missing for me. I therefore may have approached "Un Prophete" with more than a bit of anxiety. I needn't have for within a single minute I fell headlong into the dangerous world of one of 2009's most powerful films.

Aduiard draws us into the life of 19 year old French/Arab Malik El Djebena, a street kid, now incarcerated for the first time in an adult prison. Malik wishes nothing but to be left alone and serve his six years without incident. He never gets that chance. For two and a half hours, we ar mesmerized as we witness Malik's journey from innocence and subservience to the most powerful king pin in the prison.

Tahar Rahim's performance is nothing short of astonishing, making the morose and frightened Malik a character you can only route for throughout his tortured six year stint. Uneducated, but wise beyond his years, the young prisoner improves himself through education, craft, cunning allowing his restlessness to steer him in whatever direction it needs in order to survive. As César Luciani, overlord of the prison, Niels Arestrup's is the perfect foil to Rahim's Malik and the scenes between Corsican master and Arab servant crackle with a nervous energy while Aduaiard keeps layering tension, mistrust, honor, privilege and loyalty into the mixture leading everything to a predictable, but wholly satisfying conclusion.

Audiard's style makes life in this prison alternately real and surreal tossing in elements of fantasy and madness which coalesce with a beautifully disturbing madness, such as Malik's repeated visitations of his first victim, a man he was forced by Luciani and his thugs in order to justify his own existence. You cannot make a prison movie without kindness and brotherhood entering into the equation and the friendship between Malik and fellow Arab prisoner, Ryab (a terrific performance by Adel Bencherif) establish a bond that will be not only far reaching but ultimately the salvation for both men.

Racism, too is ever a present guest here and I could only watch in wonder and respect as Malik moves between the Muslims, Egyptians, Italians, Corsicans and French judging the worth of each on their own merits (or how he can best use them) rather than the prejudice the others use to define their worlds.

Dark, gritty, powerful yet full of hope, "Un Prophete" beats just about any U.S. studio made film last year and I hope it receives the recognition it deserves Stateside. A truly remarkable and emotionally rewarding movie.

The Mission

Still potent after all these years
I just finished watching a movie that, when I first saw it in 1986, made such an impression on me that I could think of nothing else for days. It came at a fragile and life changing moment in my life and for some seven nights I walked several miles back and forth in a bitter winter to see it at the once splendid Ontario Theatre in Washington, DC. The film was Roland Joffé's epic "The Mission" with the unlikely cast of Jeremy Irons, Robert DeNiro, Liam Neeson and Ray McNally. When I first saw it I thought it to be amongst the most beautiful films I'd ever seen, and nearly 25 years later, think so still. While nominated and winning many international awards, The Mission was mostly ignored by Hollywood, receiving only one Oscar (cinematography).

The complexities of the story telling in "The Mission" are almost too much to take in in a single film lasting a bit more than two hours, but Jaffe has woven them together with a touch that is both delicate and profound, creating a tapestry as impressive and intricate as any medieval Flemish tapestry, its story held together flawlessly.

While supposedly created for our own preservation and edification, politics and religion have done as much or more unspeakable horrors in the names of God and Man as they have good and in "The Mission" we see the bloody result, despite the effort of a few rebel priests who believe in the power of love and the natives with whom they try to share their world. The villains are plentiful in this "true tale" and Joffe never disguises them, allowing the deceptive simplicities of "good versus evil" run its predictable course, as they twist and turn everything they touch into the inevitable choked and knotted apocalypse of sorrow that is always the end result of greed.

Despite its bleak, often hopeless nature, Joffe nonetheless gives us a miracle: a film of such ineffable beauty that stirs both heart and mind through the combination of remarkable acting, a wilderness captured in breathtaking cinematography, battles both physical and spiritual, and wed it all to one of the most remarkable musical scores of the late 20th century.


Vishnevskaya shines as Sokurov's Alexandra
What an absolutely magnificent, overwhelming and ultimately satisfying film this is.

Sokurov stated he had never written his own screenplay before, but felt it his duty to write a film for Vishnevskaya, partly to honor her as a great actress, but also to hopefully expiate his sins as a young man who said nothing, did nothing while people like Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich openly decried the soviet regime and their belief in democracy and human freedom generally.

Few people make more beautiful looking films than Sokurov, and "Alexandra" is no exception, despite its location and subject matter. Shot in the barren wastelands of war ravaged Chechnyan border, Sokurov's ever changing palette moves from brilliantly captured colors (a tree's leaves rustling in the breeze against a dusty background) to dreamlike darkness, black and white and sepia tone - the visual equivalent of a symphony or sonata. I always forget how frustrated I become at the beginning of one of his films because his soundscapes always begin almost inaudibly, the ear straining to catch bits of dialogue that seem almost not there. It's an effect which ultimately works drawing the viewer into the world he's creating, not unlike one's initial inability to figure out what's going on when entering a party or event.

There is not much to the story: an old woman, going to visit her long absent grandson, Denis, an army captain, at his base camp on the Chechnyan border. After an arduous journey she arrives to the camp, a makeshift military tent village and settles in as images of her journey pass through her mind (this happens frequently throughout). She awakens to find Denis asleep and a truly touching reunion ensues, as he parades her through the camp watching the soldiers going about their mundane duties. Denis is often gone, but the base soldiers stare at and interact with this independent, feisty, rule-breaking old lady and we sense the soldiers' longing for home and love. A day long journey to a Chechen village to buy cigarettes and cookies for the soldiers, finds her in a pitiful marketplace and at the point of exhaustion, where she is befriended by another old woman, the rest of the villagers fascinated by this "foreigner." Vishnevskaya's performance is nothing short of astonishing as is her physical appearance: stripped of elegant costumes, hair color, and make up, her crusty, tired old Russian grandmother still radiates an undeniable beauty, and Sokurov's camera frequently lingers on it. That face, at once world weary, angry, frightened somehow almost always registers a kind of hope that infuses the entire film. Alexandra mumbles - constantly, even when no one's around, or her grandson has left their quarters, an almost endless monologue. Scenes of her wandering the camp, the roads, shuffling along in her old lady shoes, complaining of her bad legs is precisely the type of thing that would bore one to tears in most films, but here, oh there is something underneath all of that.

Sokurov's uses his usual casting tricks and lights his actors with a radiance that everyone - even angry young men - look beatific, with a belief that everyone really IS beautiful. There is a bit of naiveté in such thinking and that (for me) is what makes all of the films I've seen of his, seem "more than a movie," but never preachy. The actor portraying Denis really could be Alexandra's grandson as when they sit together on his cot, their faces are so similar it's uncanny.

"Alexandra" is a war movie that never shows a single fight scene but rather the "real" price of war and in so doing, is a powerful, sometimes heartbreaking statement.

The movie is almost overloaded with moments of extreme tenderness and poignancy - which against the ravaged, brutal and stark background, makes them all the more moving. Alexandra's new Chechen friend asks a teenage neighbor boy to accompany her on the walk back to the base and their brief conversation is one of the film's most powerful moments, when he asks "why won't you let us be free?" "If only it were that simple, my boy," telling him the first thing we should ask God for is intelligence . . . strength does not lie in weapons or in our hands." The movie is filled with these little pearls that could almost be cliché, but not when uttered by this remarkable old woman.

The scene of her last night with Denis almost undid me completely . . . never mind "almost" it did just that. Only 90 minutes, the movie felt even shorter and I can't recall a recent film that had me smiling and near tears so many times with so seemingly "little" to it. A truly remarkable achievement by a wonderful filmmaker and an 81 year old actress in her first non-singing film. I hope others will take the time to see what may be Sokurov's most human film to date.

Disappearing in America

Intense Indie Flick about IRA escapee hiding in the U.S.
This is a low budget film of an intense yet simple tale, mired in blood and hopelessness. Sean, a young man must leave his wife, child - his life in Ireland after a planned IRA bombing goes wrong. In a shady deal he's smuggled to San Francisco to disappear into America, but first be stripped of his accent, his language, his past and his identity. Kept in an unfurnished apartment doubling as prison cell, Sean (and the viewer) begins to realize that those who are hiding Sean don't necessarily have his best interest at heart, and soon his life is further jeopardized when his unscrupulous captors use him to conduct money bag hand offs with Asian warlords. The only kindness Sean receives is at the hands of the daughter of the leader.

A side story of the budding friendship between Sean and the leader's daughter relieves some of the tension, but the hopelessness of the situation remains at the forefront of every frame.

Decent performances from most of the cast, particularly the always reliable Mark Pellegrino, as the evil bodyguard whose facade exhibits a helpful gentility that never quites hides the heartless beast beneath. Likewise, David Polcyn beautifully captures Sean's panic, fear, anger and sense of betrayal, never knowing what to expect from one minute to the next.

Slowly paced, taking place almost entirely in a single room, only so-so sound this film - almost unrelenting in its tension - will not appeal to everyone, but certain viewers (like me) will find the effort pays off and will leave them thinking about not just the film, but the nature of its story. That is reward aplenty.


Duchovny's Back and He's Got the Goods!
I can't remember when I laughed so steadily from start to finish of a new show. Family Guy? Perhaps. In Californication Showtime has one of its strongest hits . . . ever. The writing is bitingly crisp, intelligent and fresh. Duchovny's delivery has the timing of a master comic actor and his portrayal of Hank is winning. As with the very best of comedies, beneath the bubbly surface of Californication is a show that in a single episode reveals richly drawn characters of depth and purpose. Hank's lecherousness, womanizing, wry wit and in-your-face bluntness succeed only partially in covering up a complex (or perhaps merely complicated?) man who appears to be facing all of his mid life crisis's at once. Every note in this comic symphony was perfectly struck and I look forward to getting to know Hank - and the rest of his gang - better as the weeks go by. Bravo Showtime!


Brilliance out of Kahzikstan
Schizo. This appears to be the first major picture out of Kahzikstan and what an impressive, stunning debut of a film. Schizo is the story of a 15 year old boy everyone thinks is schizophrenic. He's kicked out of school for fighting, but instantly the viewer will recognize this young man as the sanest, most responsible person in the film. He's hired by his mother's boyfriend to recruit fighters for illegal bare-knuckle fights. Shortly into his new career, a young dying fighter asks the boy to bring his winnings to his girlfriend and his son. Immediately Schizo develops a sense of responsibility for this little family and does whatever he can to ensure their well being. Things turn nasty, but a pervading sense of hope seems to light Schizo's eyes and one never questions his judgment and he stays true to some code of honor that no one else seems to have in this tale. It's a powerful, beautiful story with a sensational film debut from Oldzhas Nusupbayev. Throughout the film I kept wondering "where did they FIND this kid?" - and I was startled to learn he had never before acted, had no family and was actually growing up in an orphanage and discovered there. His performance is the lynchpin on which the entire film is hinged. Writer/Director Guka Omarova's location scenes are visually strong, conveying a sort of resigned hopelessness and presenting a post-Soviet Kahzikstan landscape that feels like a world that had been stripmined for all its worth and then merely abandoned. Equally as impressive as this landscape are the wildly diverse and unforgettable faces of the multi-ethnic populations of this country. Olga Landina plays the love interest and she is like a young, vibrant, Eastern bloc Rebecca Demornay. Hot. Schizo is a real find!


Terrible . . . but unintentional fun.
Pretty terrible, but not entirely unwatchable. Another review mentioned "predictable" - and that's almost an understatement. You can make a game out of guessing what the next line will be. Every character is either stereotype or archetypical. The good guy in a bad situation, the struggle between older and younger priest on acceptance and discipline, the repressed, sexually/emotionally deprived woman returning to the small town after failing in the big city, engaged to the hotheaded, feeble minded beau from youth, the unredeemable bad guys, two "lost boys" looking for a sense of family - they're all here, and none of them with even the remotest spin of something new. From the first few minutes you can figure out exactly what will happen by film's end. The story isn't entirely lame, but direction, acting (even from a cast with some talent) everything is thrown together without skill. As to the storyline, we've all seen it before in a movie called "Sister Act." This is also one of those films where inattention to small details show up in an even more glaring light. (As example: the nurse and our hero drive into town but park several blocks away from their destinations (post office and hardware store) - yet both walk across empty parking lots for no apparent reason. Or the passage of morning to night during a scene that seemingly should occur in no more than half an hour. The movie is filled with that kind of stuff and then tags on an improbable denouement.

V for Vendetta

Thought Provoking Action Film
"V for Vendetta" is going to confuse a lot of people. Nevertheless, and make no mistake about it, this is movie making of the highest order, combining all the finest elements of great storytelling into a potent roller coaster of a movie filled with great action,intellect and above all, ideas. Its message can - and will - easily be dismissed by naysayers as sophomoric or too "out there," or "anti-american" but there is also an earnestness here that will resonate strongly, and perhaps, frighteningly, to many viewers who will not fail to see the correlation between this fictional tale and the way the world we live in works.

Filled with stereotypes and archetypes, "V" is unapologetic in its essaying of morality and in its strongly held sentiment that this tale is "for the people, by the people." Brothers and writers Larry and Andy Wachowski (of Matrix fame) have infused their screenplay with the anger, confusion and hope captured in Alan Moore's original graphic novel - and it's better looking as a result.

I truly believe that many who see "V" will be upset by it, but hopefully more of us will be inspired by its bold, blatant message and take a good hard look at ourselves and the way the world works around us and see that, with sacrifice and thoughtfulness, the world can be changed.

As Evey, Natalie Portman is cast in something of the "victim" role, but she makes us route for her, and to her credit she goes beyond that making the transformation of her character not only believable, but in the end, noble.

Hugo Weaving - the man behind the mask - gives a performance that can only be described as mesmerizing. As "V" he exposes all of the strength and weakness of a character that it equal parts savior and villain.

The physical production is beautiful in its realism as it paints a nightmarish world of the not-very-distant future (2020) and is chilling in its depiction of governmental power, socio-political corruption and, ultimately, the complacency of its citizens. Weaving's "V" challenges, and ultimately changes all of that, as he quickly unravels the fabric of civilized society, capturing the public with his bold ideas - and with the promise and permanency of change through rebellion and in political uprising.

Most chillingly, this film invokes the dread once feared in "1984" with a renewed vigor that brings home all the horrors Orwell foresaw, are still available in our comfy modern world. Chilling? You betcha! For those who know the novel, there is little skimping, and, given the current world situation, one must absolutely applaud the filmmakers for "going there" as far as the ending is concerned. This is film making at its emotional and challenging best.

Are there flaws? Of course there are, but ultimately "V for Vendetta" rises above them presenting a world of ideas that have forever been debated, in a story well told, beautifully acted and full of hope for humankind. Not bad work for a movie. Actually, it's magnificent.

Perceval le Gallois

Rohmer's Glorious Medieval Fantasy
Let me start off by saying most folk I know are going to hate this film. I'll go one further: most human beings will hate this film. Rohmer has taken the Parsifilian myth and in translating it for the screen has created a hybrid form of storytelling combing the artifice and conventions of the world of theatre with the continuity we've grown accustomed to in the world of cinema. For some freaks (like yours truly) the wedding of these two formats works in an almost otherworldly manner making it quite unlike any film one is likely to see. Although combining elements of several of the Parsifal legends, Rohmer's retelling seems more centered on Chrétien de Troyes story than von Eisenbach's epic, endless poem.

Visually – here, at least – Rohmer remains in the world of theatre: the sets are often painted flats, or small scale models that suggest or are more representational of the tale's locations than they are visual recreations typically found in film. There are trees constructed of metal, and myriad other odd touches to the set, all of which seems to be on an enormous stylized turntable or disc that revolves as the story progresses. The film is often narrated by a group of madrigal singers who, with their ancient instruments, wander in and out of the picture (and the story) adding commentary and observation serving a function in the manner of a Greek chorus. The effect is charming adding a further medieval, church mystery quality unifying the disparate elements of Rohmer has chosen for his storytelling. Conversely, it is also one of the elements that will annoy the hell out of many viewers.

Rohmer's telling of the tale is primarily centered with the young Perceval's fascination with the world of knights and his desire to enter their world chivalrous universe. In the title role Fabrice Luchini portrays the young novice with a typically cool French sense of detachment, and arrogance – yet somehow manages to balance it all with humility and honor. Fearlessly he passes through all of his trials and in the process shows that arrogance is not always wed with pride; when one's right and aware of his skill and abilities, he needn't be boastful. It's a fascinating portrayal.

Interestingly, and more honestly than most Arthurian films Rohmer suggests more of the turmoil, weakness and near dissolution of Arthur's court than its glory. The young knight's stint at the castle, his integrity and eye for honesty wins the day earning him glory.

Rohmer's pushing of the tale to include Sir Gawain's story moves naturally adding a deeper level to this Arthurian tale, as well as reminding us of the complexity, intertwining, and timelessness of all of these legends.

Even those who may not like will not argue that visually Rohmer has created a world that is often breathtakingly beautiful. Indeed, many of the shots feel as though they'd dropped to us from glorious tapestry hanging from a damp castle wall.

Young Adam

Grim and Joyless (And who the heck is Young Adam?)
My friends and I disagree on this one.

What a dry, dour, charmless film is "Young Adam." The story is bleak the characters, almost all of them, despicable are utterly impossible to route for. Tilda Swinton, an actress I normally find attractive, is here, as Ella, a ghastly, tough, worn out creature and a bit of a shrew but mostly haggish.

Joe, as portrayed by Ewan McGregor (one of my favorite actors) gives his all as a too young to be this world weary, callow man who, having given up his dreams and fantasies of a better life, aimlessly goes through life, with no honor or self respect. For a bit of adventure he bangs nearly every woman in sight. In fact, a betting game can be played whenever a new female character is introduced as to how many minutes before we're having to see their contorted naked bodies going at it.

Bargemates Joe and Les's (an excellent performance by multi talented actor/writer/director Peter Mullan, who's "Orphans" is one of the best things from Scotland in ages) discovery of a dead girl at the film's start, unravels the story in achingly slow fashion and paints an increasingly disturbing picture of Joe. One always wants to route for a film's hero but "Young Adam" doesn't have one. The lead character has nothing redeemable about him and it's depressing to watch a film where not a single shred of hope or decency can break through the grim, gray bleakness.

If you like this sort of thing, you'll love "Young Adam" - as for me, I hated it - something I rarely say about any film. Even the beauty of the way the film was shot (it is visually brilliant) couldn't save this for me. Blech.

Bride & Prejudice

Jane Austen Goes Bollywood!
Bolly & Holly woods meet. By now, everyone knows of Hollywood's attempt to bring "the most beautiful woman in the world" to the West, but Aishwarya Rai (who really is breathtaking) doesn't seem phased by the move. As Lalitha she sings, dances, pouts, spouts wisdom and contempt for Western ways and pretty much owns the movie. But she is helped out, wildly, by a cast of Indian, British and American actors bent on making her have a good time as well as having this slightly contrived amalgamation of Jane Austen work. And boy do they succeed! There are moments of absolute joy on screen and its hard not to get caught up in them. There are also moments of genuine hilarity. One of the highlights is Lalitha's little sister's "Cobra Dance" to entertain their house guests. Hot and hilarious all at once.

Deep? Not really, but its universal message of prejudice, tolerance, racial profiling and stereotypes is presented in about as palatable a plate of curry as you can possibly imagine.

For Westerners unfamiliar with the joys of Bollywood, this is about as perfect an opportunity to get your feet wet and burst into dancing. I dare your hips and shoulders not to move!

The Doe Boy

Indie Film-making at its best
Talk about movies that slip under the radar! Almost nobody heard about The Doe Boy and there really isn't a good - or even acceptable reason.

Slowly paced this very gentle film packs an emotional wallop few films with far bigger budgets, more stars and loftier reaching stories could hope to achieve. Doe Boy is about Hunter - a boy with an American Indian mother and white father. Hunter is a hemophiliac, a disease seemingly unknown to Native Americans and which separates him further, forever making him feel like an outsider. His macho father (an absolutely terrific performance by Kevin Anderson) loves him, but is ever let down by the boy's inability to be more physically active because of his disease.

As the film traces Hunter's story from childhood through his late teens, we see the difficulty of the relationship between he and his father strained to the limits as well as the inability of his mother to let him go and become the man her son needs to be.

James Duval gives a performance that is positively incandescent; it is an amazing achievement. With relatively little dialogue, it is through facial features and body language that he fills Hunter with a sense of defiance and a desperate need for acceptance. We witness the painful struggle he endures of always being different, in not one, but numerous ways. Acceptance and understanding do not come easy, but with the aid of his wise grandfather, a beautiful girl, and coming to grips with his heritage and and the forces of nature, Hunter's journey is one that everyone should be able to relate to. It is a brilliant, moving performance.

In every way this quiet, little movie is about as perfect as indie film can be. A joy to watch.

Blow Dry

Hair Today . . .
Despite a lot of Big Hair, this is not a big movie. Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable romp, with some affecting performances. There is nothing revelatory or even unpredictable about the story, but it works nicely and certainly entertains. The film does have a few rich moments, but seems mostly a vehicle for a group of talented actors (and it is a highly pedigreed bunch here) to take decent material and put out a fun and sometimes very moving film.

While it may drag a little in the center, don't give up watching for the finale and Rachel Griffiths "total look" finish that is about as outrageous and breathtaking a "total look" as one can possibly imagine. The normally brilliant Alan Rickman here sometimes feels just a little bit on autopilot, American Josh Hartnett is vastly underused, but surprisingly effective in an important role and Natasha Richardson, as ever, positively glows on the screen and raises the emotional and dramatic stakes to a level that makes the whole affair worthwhile.

Not great? Perhaps, but an immensely enjoyable little movie.

St. Ives

Terrific Napoleonic Era Romp
What a fun movie St. Ives is. It reminds me of the type of film made during the 40's. Classic story, rounded off by characters and a plot that is neither over dramatic nor overtly complicated. In fact it isn't over anything. Robert Lewis Stevenson's story - here adapted for the screen - reads like Jane Austen for men. We do get a tale that has a romance at its heart, but there is plenty of fun too: battle scenes (sort of), prison escapes, mistaken identities, swordplay, and the funniest line I've heard in years: "Only in Scotland would guests be announced by name at a masked ball." There is much hilarity, hardship, and not a little heartbreak as St. Ives tries to fight and find his way back to a family and life he barely knew.

The cast is absolutely stellar with the too infrequently seen Jean Marc Barr absolutely perfect in the title role. Anna Friel is a refreshing delight as the resourceful Flora and Miranda Richardson nearly walks away with the movie as her wise and worldly, been there and seen-it-all Aunt Susan. Richard Grant provides comic relief of the highest order.

This is not going to be the greatest movie anyone has ever seen, but its charms are undeniable and the entire film fairly bristles with an energy that bursts with life.


Journey of Growth and the Heart of Forgiveness
11 years after its release, I finally got around to watching one of 1994's most controversial films. I don't know what took me so long.

This is the story of Father Greg Pilkington, an idealistic young priest appalled by the liberal-thinking, older priest he shares a congregation with. Clashes and airs of superiority from Father Greg set up, almost calculatedly, his crushing and inevitable fall from grace. Try as he might, Father Greg, pious and as intolerant as ever, cannot suppress his sexuality and takes to the gay bar scene. A casual pick up turns into an affair which in turn becomes a personal and professional disaster as an equally intolerant society pushes him towards wrongful arrest and a verdict of "guilty." Father Greg becomes the object of derision and hatred by the bigoted, close minded community, itself a reflection of all the young priest exhibited in but a show of intolerance and sanctimoniousness.

The real heart of this picture occurs in the confessional when a desperate young girl tells of ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Eventually, this information becomes a test of faith for Father Greg as he questions his spirituality, the laws of the church and God himself.

During all of this the older priest, Father Matthew, preaches of "the trappings of power" that the Church has saddled itself with - and how the trappings have gotten in the way of the message of God, of love, of tolerance, of patience and compassion. As might be expected, the Church's higher ups have little patience for this sort of talk - and the congregation itself shuns Father Greg turning mass into an explosive show of blind eyed fanaticism.

As Father Greg, Linus Roche gives a searing, searching performance as the young tormented priest. His fall and redemption, the center of the story, comes across with an earnestness that steers clear of sensationalism, despite the loaded message of the movie. Tom Wilkinson, as ever, gives a performance that is as natural and believable - and likable - as anything he's done before or since. (Side note: having waited so long to watch this it's interesting to see these two actors with important roles in this year's new and glorious Batman Begins.) A truly remarkable and emotional film.


"Better an unwed mother than just unwed!"
Dummy takes a simple premise - a man pushing 30 still living with his parents and unable to assert himself professionally, romantically or socially. After being fired he decides to go for his dream - to become a ventriloquist. The most amazing side effect of working with a dummy is Steven develops an edge to his otherwise bland character and life takes on a whole new direction.

Egged on by his best friend the punk, Fangora, a foul-mouthed, strident loser in her own right played with zero charm by Milla Jovovich, Steven takes risks that sound like bad ideas to him - and prove to be just that.

Steven's not the only loser at home, his older sister - a hilariously deadpan Ileana Douglas - gave up her own dream of becoming a singer. It's easy to see where the this pair of siblings lack of self esteem comes from once we meet Mom and Dad. The entire family could easily fall into the realm of stereotype or caricature, but Jessica Walter and Ron Liebman make this material fresh and hilarious. When Steven invites his potential paramour, a single mother, to a family dinner, the results are, predictably, outrageously funny.

There is a love story woven into Dummy, but ultimately it's Steven's journey of self-awareness and acceptance that is the heart of this story and that impresses the most. A fun, fun ride.


It's a bird, it's a plane . . . it's FLYERMAN!
Flyerman is as satisfying a documentary as you're likely to ever see about a "normal" human. The filmmakers have their work cut out for them following Mark Vistorino for a 5 year chunk of life, where we meet the super ego of Flyerman. Vistorino is alternately crazy, brilliant, acerbic, charmless, charming, likable and frustrating. At times he sounds like an enlightened sage and at others it's hard to believe he is quite so naive on so many matters.

We follow his dreams, let downs, the endless frustration in his personal life, so sharply defined with the difficulties of ever communicating with his father in the way he'd like. We meet a dear friend then listen as he grieves her death. It's impossible not to care about this character and route for him.

I was absolutely captivated by Flyerman and even without ever having met Mr. Vistorino, feel as though I've made a new friend. Not bad for a movie.

Les choristes

One of 2004's Very Best
This, potentially sad, French import, turned out to be one of the most joyous celebrations of life to hit cinema in a while. Set in Fond de l'Etang, a dreary boarding school for troubled boys in 1949 France a sense of hopeless claustrophobia pervades the air. Enter Clement Mathieu, (an absolutely remarkable performance by Gérard Jugnot that had me literally cheering) the school's new Prefect, a lonely, middle aged failed musician who narrates the story through his journal, and life will never be the same. An unlikely Mary Poppins, his effect on the students is life changing as he fights for less punishments and more socially rehabilitative activities for the ruffians in his charge. Eventually, he forms these troubled kids into "The Chorus" and the sound of beautiful music brightens the dank halls of Fond de l'Etang, changing the place forever.

Inspired by his students, Mathieu's own rehabilitation - a restoration to the world of music, an occurrence of which he never dreamt - is as inspirational as any other aspect of this beautiful tale. He reaches into his soul and begins composing new music. In his journal he writes of how the boys may not understand the depth of what's occurring, but "inspired by them, I compose, each day, for them." There is a sense of realism to "The Chorus" which shows not all of these misfits can be saved, and deception, hostility and disrespect, though seemingly diminished, never completely disappear. A potentially down beat ending reinforces that reality, but does not diminish one once of the sense of amazing joy this movie leaves you with. My highest and heartiest recommendation.


Matrix? What Matrix? Great Libertarian Action Flick!!!
Silly, predictable, seriously flawed, with moments that are outright laughable, Equilibrium nonetheless transcends all of these and through its compelling performances and fun pseudo-comic book settings delivers a powerful emotional punch that should resonate strongly for anyone who loves stark, stylistic Orwellian drama.

In a future dominated by Father (with a not so subtle nod to "Big Brother"), emotions have been eliminated and feeling is a crime, punished by immediate incineration - along with things like art, music, literature, friendship, love and everything else that makes life worth living. Wisely, there is an underground rebellion contingency who continue to "live." Among them, Emily Watson's saintly, emotional Mary O'Brien. These folk are, naturally, hunted down by the Grammaton Clerics, that physically fit bastion of unfeeling purity out to uphold and enforce the law.

Christian Bale as Cleric John Preston gives a performance that is simply terrific offering a fascinating character study. One witnesses in anticipation as, throughout the slow process Preston's emotion free automaton - the pride of the Tetragrammaton - evolves into freedomfighter and ultimately liberator. Watch as, for the first time, Preston listens to music (the opening measures of Beethoven's 9th Symphony) and through his face captures and reveals the range of awe and wonderment as though awakening from a lifelong coma. Bale is more than up to the task as we watch his Cleric struggle with his newfound duplicity and makes route for him, but still believe the man may very well fail his mission.

Director, Kurt Wimmer, in what appears to be his first big screen directorial job, has created an entire new, faux martial arts: "Gun-Kata." Gun-Kata is a highly stylized combination of two handed gun fighting and classic tai-chi/martial arts movement based on "a scientific analysis of bullet trajectory and range" combined with mathematics, etc. At first, it is almost painfully hilarious to watch, but give in and it achieves a type of anime, hyper realistic that can only be described as "wicked cool!" Bale's Preston is THE master of Gun-Kata and as he inevitably goes after "Father" his penultimate fight with former partner Taye Diggs' will leave you cheering.

Like a great conductor, Wimmer brings together all of the disparate elements of his symphony with its wordless, choral based soundtrack, jumps every hurdle and flaw, delivering a terrific movie full of action, meaning and emotion


High School as Metaphor for Life:
Elephant was a little too "real" for many tastes. I didn't enjoy the film as I watched it the first time, but thought van Sant did (as always) a terrific job presenting what he wanted to present - if not necessarily my type of movie. The film hasn't left me and the more I think about it - and rewatch it, the better it becomes.

Initially I felt the sense of ennui was a tad overdone watching the back of a student's head as he slowly moves from point A to point B - sometimes for endless minutes on end the camera will not break from that vantage point - the back of a head. The point seemed made both literally and succinctly the first time. Nonetheless, this device frees the narrative and affords van Sant opportunity to move his film in non-linear directions so the glimpse of a face unseen earlier is now viewed in full relief, a snatch of conversation previously heard comes into focus - even if briefly.

There are elements of the film that are touching and keenly observant. While van Sant has typically focused on youth for his body of work, these elements are evident in all ages but noticeably and most strongly pronounced in youth, those hormone filled, confusing years where, completely unbeknownst to us, its victims, life is pretty much going to be the same, and one can change high school for the factory, the hospital, the law firm, the insurance company or wherever you spend your days and those with whom you spend them.

As with life, some characters will stay with you, some you'd wish to know better, others (the three bulimic girlfriends) who natter on endlessly about nothing - and whose existence one forgets entirely - until the next encounter.

There is more than a little heartbreak in Elephant. Watching Alex pelted with spitballs made me cringe with remorse. There is little reason to understand why Alex, and his sort of friend Eric, are losers. There is outwardly no reason they don't fit in, something we see in everyday life: people arbitrarily shunned because as a society we simply need people to be excluded. As the boys share a shower and prepare for the shooting spree - and death - Eric's statement "I've never even kissed anyone" resounds with a loneliness that is shattering.

Had I written this review upon first watching Elephant I would've given it no more than four stars. Seeing it again, and thinking and talking about it lots, earns it 9.

Animal Room

A Really Great Bad Movie!
What an amazing piece of junk cinema this is. This is a classic example of someone not knowing quite what to do with the material. A judicious editor could have turned this into a classic harrowing story of teen angst and social responsibility. Instead it's a schlockfest of horror and some of moments which, in better hands, may have provoked unease and shocked audiences into contemplation of the situations at hand, instead provoke hilarious laughter. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, but I don't think it was an intentional choice.

Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed "Animal Room" for all the wrong reasons.

Matthew Lillard gives what is quite probably his best performance, and it's wasted here. But it's still worth watching. As another review stated, "we all know young men like him" but Lillard pulls it off with a sincere creepiness and unrelenting Neil Patrick Harris' as Arnie breaks out of Dougie Houser mode, and although he professes resistance to being part of this group experiment of social misfits, he otherwise acquiesces to his plight and it's difficult to feel any empathy towards to a character who constantly reminds everyone who much more brilliant, witty and crafty he is than everyone around him. Of course, were this to be remotely true, there wouldn't have been a movie.

As Arnie's old best friend, Gary, Gabriel Olds turns in a shiny, performance as the golden boy who wants to help Arnie get back on track. His performance, even as good and genuine as it is, can't help but provoke more laughter so out of place is it here.

It's also fun to see Catherine Hicks relieved of "7th Heaven" goodness as a creepy, alcoholic Mom who can't seem to keep her hands off an uncomfortable young Gary.

Again, there was a good idea here, but it wasn't developed. To start with the premise is completely unbelievable – not far-fetched or impossible, which is acceptable in the right hands, but simply unbelievable. It's difficult to move beyond that. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed "Animal Room" – but then again, I'm a misfit!


Confusing, Brilliant, Disturbing and Fun!
Undermind is a find! Within 10 minutes of the movie I found myself alternately utterly confused and exhilarated wondering if I was smart enough to watch it. Working from his own brilliant script, first time director Nevil Dwek has created a world where parallel universes meet and violently collide. The tale revolves around young Derrick Hall, a corporate lawyer who is far too young to be this world weary and morose. A little understanding of Derrick's family history reveals a recently departed, highly successful father who had little time, patience or trust of his son and a pompous, dictatorial mother who acts as human choke collar, squelching both life and joy out of every earthly moment.

In the blink of an eye, Derrick's entire world is intercepted and exchanged with that of punky, greasy locked, Zane Waye – but he "knows" he's Derrick. Suddenly, nothing makes sense and the two men must search for ways to get back to their respective lives. Each is confronted with situations demanding resourcefulness as each is forced to think outside of his normal pattern. Zane's world is a troubling, dominated by his evil (and idiotic) brother, Ian. It's a world of violence, murder, suspect alliances, drug deals, stuttering porn wannabes, prostitutes and deception.

Along the way the difficult murder case of a well respected cop – who happens to be the Brothers Waye's father, is solved, Derrick and Zane find their ways home and the world is set right. The entire cast (even small supporting roles) shine throughout, but top nod easily goes to Sam Trammel who carries the movie as both Derrick and Zane, so convincingly I at times wondered if two different actors were playing the roles.

Director Dwek creates two distinct worlds for our central characters: Derrick's is warm, rich full of browns and velvety textured, while Zane's is stark, black and white with hints of tinting. Eventually (and inevitably) the worlds collide and combine into one.

With such a complex and confusing tale, a completely satisfying ending resolving all loose ends is nearly impossible and here is (for me) the only weak link in a movie without any others. I'm not, however, certain that a better ending could reasonably be achieved. I still give the movie high marks despite the ending (which isn't bad, just not at the level of the rest of the film) as this is one of the smartest and most entertaining things I've seen in ages.

Pas de repos pour les braves

Odd, French Existential French Comedy?
One of the hardest things for humans to do is to explain a dream and make it interesting. Herein lies the biggest problem of "No Rest for the Brave." Rare is the viewer who will make it to the end of this oddly beautiful but frustrating film. First, for the non-native French speaker, this is a film heavy on the dialog – lots of it and it comes at you machine gun fast which translates into being forced to read constantly and as fast as you can.

In a nutshell "No Rest" tells the story of a boy – Basille (also with an alter-ego called Hector) a 16 year old who believes he's approaching the penultimate sleep – one more night with his eyes closed and he will die. So, sleep deprived, he is forever in a state of semi-consciousness living more in a dream state than the real world. It becomes increasingly difficult (if not downright impossible) to figure out what is real and what isn't. Does Basille really kill an entire village? Is he having an affair with a 60 year old man? Does he really drive around in an airplane he can't get off the ground? What is the significance of "little red balls?" Is there really an improper "season" for eating foie gras? If one allows themselves to fall into this world, the difference between reality and dreaming ultimately doesn't matter.

Director Alain Guiraudie creates a beautiful, surreal existential plane wherein the Bassile and those who populate his life (and dreams) reside. There are images that are breathtakingly beautiful – such as Basille's red plane's attempted take off, or the image of him wildly, violently dancing 70's punk style to an acoustic guitar song in a brightly lit pool hall.

I thought I would gouge my eyes out after 20 minutes or so, but once I "let go" and just watched it on its own terms and fell in love with this oddball, beautiful picture.


Hmmmmmm . . .
What an unfortunate mess is "Shiner." I wanted to like this over-the-top, anti-film aspirant, and in fact found a number of moments with powerful resonance. Sadly, those moments are few and far between. While I appreciate some of what Calson was attempting, any advantage aspired to by bare bones, no budget cinematography was destroyed with some truly atrocious editing that benefited the movie not at all.

While bad acting abounds in low budget (and big budget) cinema, Shiner has some remarkably bad performances that are nearly painful to watch. In particular the "straight" couple Linda and Young Guy. These are the two most poorly written characters offering almost nothing to the story. The acting is so abysmal and neither actor seems capable of resisting smirking or cracking up as they drearily drop their lines with an appalling lack of skill. The choppy editing almost lends the feeling that these roles were entirely gratuitous and dropped in to avoid the films being stereotypically cast as an oddball gay film. It would have been better off as such.

With all that is going wrong for it, there are several performances that seem to capture what Calson was hoping to get. In particular the story centering on Bob and Tim. These are the two most richly drawn characters and offer the most rewards with genuinely captivating performances by Nicholas T. King (Bob) and David Zelinas (Tim). Tim is a boxer with some serious issues. Remarkably low self esteem is disguised by an almost cartoon like arrogance that he wears like armour plating. Obsessed with Tim, the seemingly harmless yet ultimately creepy Bob, stalks the boxer in classic cat-and-mouse fashion. When the tables are turned and hunter becomes the hunted, the resulting in the film's only genuine emotional catharsis. In a film so artificially hard-edged (that's a compliment) one character MUST have that revelatory break through (or breakdown, as the case proves here) and the final confrontation between Bob and Tim provide Zelinas and King opportunity to display some real acting chops.

As played by Scott Stepp and Derris Nile, Tony and Danny seem to be the focus of the movie, and despite some bravado moments of their own (including one truly disturbing scene revealing the sex/violence obsession), but they can't seem to escape a cartoon-like artifice and it's difficult to look at - or beyond their seeming one note symphony and find anything other than the obvious.

Ultimately this same raw material could (and should) be used to tell this story in better fashion. Alas, there really isn't much to recommend this yet, the performances by Messrs. King and Zelinas, really do offer something special and a glimpse of what might have been and are ultimately worth seeing.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

One of the Best Films of the 1980s
As Judith Maggie Smith turns in the performance of a lifetime and one of the best and most complete portrayals by any actor on film. This is an astonishing film, full of bleak Irish heartbreak, yet with the promise of hope.

Smith is a no less than a revelation in the title role and one cannot help but route for this desperate character even when all looks hopeless. The screenplay had been fought over for years by actresses of every stripe, with, for a while, Jane Fonda, leading the pack of actresses trying to get Judith onto the screen. It's a good thing Maggie Smith won out.

The ensemble cast of actors led by Bob Hoskins is fully up to Smith's standard and the emotional wallops this movie packs are big ones indeed.

George Delarue's score is simply perfect underlying with the exact weight and gravity - and sweetness - of every situation.

When is this thing coming out on DVD? It's simply ridiculous it hasn't yet appeared.

Highest recommendation.

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