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Green Book (2018)
Critic-proof festival hit should be big holiday winner
Some of my movie friends were stunned when I mentioned in a thread that this was my "People's Choice Award" vote for TIFF 2018 (it won, btw). I generally go for weightier fare, so my being won over by a PG-13 road film with the familiar "they-couldn't-have-been-more-different" premise directed by the auteur co-responsible for such recent classics as "Dumb and Dumber To" and "The Three Stooges" elicited a virtual double-take.
But I couldn't help it ... it really WAS the best film I saw (out of 17), and far and away the most entertaining. I think this is largely because it's based on a real-life story about the beginning of a lifelong friendship - a story that has writing participation by the son of one of the real-life characters. There's definitely an air of authenticity to the events as they unfold that could never occur with a purely contrived plot. Consider: A college-educated concert pianist of Jamaican descent hires a temporarily-unemployed Italian-American nightclub bouncer who's streetwise but academically dim to drive him to venues in the Deep South back in 1962. That's not a setup that a Hollywood script written from scratch would ever have come up with.
The two lead actors really click. Mahershala Ali makes a nice Oscar follow-up playing the aloof pianist passenger to Viggo Mortensen's "b.s. artist" driver. Ali is certain to get another nomination; Mortensen's performance may be a little too broad to garner one, but he delivers exactly what's called for. And he makes a believable Italian-American, which is impressive considering that he's Danish.
I'm allergic to preaching and heavy-handedness in movies no matter what the message, and with the exception of one borderline scene, I'd say that the movie nicely sidesteps these proclivities that surface so often in socially-conscious films.
The music and FX are excellent. When an actor plays a piano player, there's always the challenge of making the playing look believable. It doesn't get any better than it gets here - Ali's piano playing is every bit as convincing as Margot Robbie's ice skating in I, TONYA. You never see a disconnect between hands and body as he's filmed against a variety of backgrounds. And if I could bet on an Oscar win right now, it would be Kris Bowers for Best Original Score. (He also supplies Ali's hands, which should clinch it.)
Top everything off with a Capra-esque Christmas Eve finale and a closing line that sends everyone home smiling, and it all adds up to a monster hit. Its commercial payoff could be huge - the movie practically begs for a TV series spinoff, and the real-life characters remained friends until they both died in 2013.
So congratulations to Peter Farrelly on his graduation from co-directing lowbrow fare to solo-directing middlebrow (i.e. mass-appeal) fare. You can't deny the talent and craftsmanship it takes to make a mainstream movie that works as well as this one does.
I, Tonya (2017)
A triple axel of a skating movie
If I could have voted online for the best movie that I saw at TIFF 2017 (the voting was limited to iPhone and Android users), it would have been for this film, which wound up second in the People's Choice award competition. Director Craig Gillespie has tackled a difficult subject brilliantly without removing the considerable number of warts from the main characters. This film should garner a considerable number of Oscar nominations, including best picture and director.
Margot Robbie should be a lock for a Best Actress nod, completely burying her Australian background to deliver American white trash with complete credibility. (She won't win of course, because ... Tonya.) Her skating sequences are edited brilliantly - you really believe that it's her.
THE surest Oscar bet has to be Allison Janney as Tonya's acerbic, domineering, Swisher-chain-smoking mother LaVona Golden. She gives what I call a "schizophrenia" performance - there's no way that anyone seeing JUNO and this film back-to-back would ever notice that the mothers in both films are played by the same actress. Robbie got the loudest applause when the actors were introduced before the film, but when they came out afterwards, Janney's applause was equivalent to hers.
The story sticks to facts and places most of the blame for the Kerrigan incident on Sean Eckhardt, played with spot-on obnoxiousness by Paul Walter Hauser. The rest goes to hubby-at-times Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan. He handles the husband-to-a-celebrity role with a charm not seen since Eric Roberts in STAR 80.
The subject matter may cost the film at awards time, but it's still an excellent movie that you should definitely check out if you have any interest at all in the story.
A distaff, Grand Guignol REVENANT
I saw this film premiere at TIFF 2017, and it definitely made my Midnight Madness "classics" list. It's action-suspense done RIGHT, with plenty of surprises and reversals of fortune ... and a LOT of blood. It's in the finest French Grand Guignol tradition, alongside such films as LANCELOT OF THE LAKE, MARTYRS and HAUTE TENSION.
Although transpiring in a decidedly more hospitable climate and over a much smaller area, the film has unmistakable similarities to THE REVENANT. Both feature a main character left for dead (in this case, the gorgeous Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) who manages to self-recover through agonizingly painful procedures to embark on a payback quest. Her transformation from a philandering husband's sex kitten mistress to a semiautomatic-wielding vengeance machine (think Lolita to Furiosa) is most impressive.
The film was written and directed by a woman, Coralie Fargeat, and she definitely makes a convincing case that women can play hardball as well as men can. Between this and Lone Scherfig's THE RIOT CLUB, I'm getting impressed with female directors' ability to make films that appeal to my demanding aesthetic.
The plot is straightforward, but the execution is anything but paint-by-numbers. It features solid acting, impressive production values and deft execution that keeps you 100% engaged. If you've ever enjoyed a revenge flick, you will definitely like this.
Note: If you're subtitle-averse, this film is mostly in English.
One major caveat, but this is an Oscar sure-thing for Natalie Portman
I saw this at one of my rare non-balcony screenings at this year's TIFF with Chilean director Pablo Larrain (who had another film at the festival, the Spanish language NERUDA) present and available for a post-screening Q & A.
First things first. If you thought Helen Mirren as THE QUEEN, Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, and Meryl Streep as THE IRON LADY gave great, deservedly Oscar-winning performances in biopics, know that Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy gives a performance here that's every bit in their league. This almost makes you wince at the thought of how much talent was going underutilized in all those Star Wars and Thor movies, but I'm glad that they made it possible for her to play a role like this one. Truly out of the park.
I can't see this film not picking up multiple nominations. Pablo and the picture should both be nominated, but they'll have a tough time taking home the prizes over Damien Chazelle and LA LA LAND (which I also saw and am sure will be a big hit). The cinematography, editing, set design, and ESPECIALLY the makeup are all first-rate and deserving.
There may be a nomination among the supporting players: Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as the thoroughly-broken Bobby Kennedy, and his consideration should benefit from the contrast with his highly-visible role as the head baddie in the remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (also seen at TIFF) which is certainly destined for commercial success. (BTW, he's just adequate in that role – no match for Eli Wallach in the original.)
About that caveat: The film leaves the impression that there was a national day of mourning the day of the Kennedy funeral, so I inquired of Larrain (who speaks only limited English) why the film didn't address the controversy about the NFL playing a full schedule on the same day. It turned out that he didn't know what the NFL was and had to be informed by the moderator. I didn't really catch his reply, something about things having to go on.
Another quibble: The framing device is an interview Jackie gave to Theodore White a week after the assassination, but White is not identified and is played by Billy Cruddup, who looks nothing like him. The familiarity Jackie had with him is nowhere to be found.
Misimpressions aside, this is a must-see for anyone with a taste for great acting. Let the aforementioned performances be your guide -- that or a desire to see Portman one-up her Oscar turn in BLACK SWAN.
Where to Invade Next (2015)
Your enjoyment will be in 100% accordance with your appreciation of Michael Moore
It was worth waiting nearly three hours in a rush line to catch a screening of this film at TIFF. Mike was there, and when he mentioned before the screening that he made this movie entirely with his own money because he wanted 100% control of it, my expectations were immediately elevated.
And definitely rewarded. Whatever your favorite Moore outing is, I can tell you that this film compares favorably to it. But what really made this a memorable experience for me was that after the movie, Moore invited the entire audience to a ticket-holders Q & A with drinks and refreshments at a pub close by. I had to skip the next movie on my docket in order to attend, but I sure wasn't going to miss this!
The movie might be called "Non-American Exceptionalism." In it, he "invades" a host of (mostly European) countries to "capture" their best ideas. These ideas turn out to be systems – be they economic, institutional, educational, penal, etc. – where desirable ends that could never be realized in America are par for the course. It can be a prosperous factory in Italy where the workers are well-paid and get fantastic benefits it can be the cost-effective school lunch program in France where kids get chef-made gourmet meals every day it can be the free college in Slovenia ... you get the gist. While Moore doesn't pretend that these countries have no problems (watch the right-wing media say otherwise), his examples certainly seem to be "winners" that he invites scrutiny of.
What's likely to be most controversial about this movie is one of the conclusions he draws: that systems seem to work better when women are involved in the decision-making process. When I asked him at the Q & A how he thought Fox was going to spin this film, he said that with the female-friendly theme, they'll probably say that it's a campaign commercial for Hillary. (For the record, his hero female politician is Elizabeth Warren).
Obviously, your potential enjoyment of this film is completely Moore-dependent. If you've ever enjoyed one of his provocateur films, you can put this one down as a sure thing; if you're one of his detractors, this will make you resent him all the more. Seeing this as a member of the former group and getting to attend a one-of-a-kind Q & A afterward definitely made this one of my all-time TIFF outings.
This Little Life (2003)
Shame on the BBC for burying this little gem
I saw this film at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival - the ONLY time it's ever been shown in North America - and have been trying to locate a copy of it ever since. Based on my exhaustive efforts and those of the excellent Film Buff store in Toronto, I can categorically state that that there is no available copy to be had anywhere. The only possible reason is that the BBC is deliberately withholding it. And attempting to contact the BBC is futile - they have no customer service to speak of.
My primary reason for wanting this film so badly is that one of the main characters is a neonatologist, and I have a brother-in-law who's one who I know would love to see it. But it's also an excellent film on a difficult subject that any cinephile can appreciate. Kate Ashfield gives one of the strongest performances I've ever seen from an actress - it's like she's trying to WILL her preterm infant to survive. The only stronger actress performance since 2000 that I can think of is Ellen Burstyn in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.
But you'll have to take my word for it.
Addendum 1/12/2018: Great news! The movie has FINALLY resurfaced after 15 years! Just click "more" in the menu bar on the main page, then click "official sites" and there's a link where you can stream the movie for free. Thank you Vimeo!
p.s. my aforementioned brother-in-law neonatologist saw it, loved it, and says that it's completely legit.
The Riot Club (2014)
"Heart of Whiteness" -- effective stage adaptation with a standout villain performance
I saw this film at the 2014 Toronto Film Fest and it was the standout in a lineup that included such excellent fare as NIGHTCRAWLERS and WHO AM I - NO SYSTEM IS SAFE. I saw all three on the same weekend, and a couple of days later it was clear that RIOT was the one that lingered. It's an impressive stage adaptation that adds both an effective opening act and an epilogue with a real sting. This while not letting the central event -- an annual hedonistic dinner for the titular club, consisting of the ten most aristocratic, spoiled-rich blue-bloods of Oxford -- bog down with theatrics.
The cast is uniformly excellent. You can tell that everybody was really into their part, what with all the wretched excess being enthusiastically depicted. It should be noted that Natalie Dormer's top-billing is misplaced. She's quite good as a call girl who (very astutely) refuses to service these sub-Joffreys, but it's strictly a supporting role. The co-leads are Max Irons and Sam Claflin, who play Oxford freshmen who become the two newest club members.
Irons is solid, but when your character's defining characteristic is spinelessness, it's hard to generate a lot of excitement. It's Claflin who gets to shine, playing the worst of the worst, no easy feat! (Sort of like Michael Madsen in RESERVOIR DOGS or Alan Ford in SNATCH in this respect.) Kudos, Sam, for taking it to the limit on loathsomeness and earning a spot on my elite IMDb "Scum of the Earth All-Star Team," alongside such luminaries as Pacino, Freeman, Pitt, Kingsley, Gambon, Plummer, Crowe, Penn, Hopper, Oldman and Spacey.
Most dead-on tag line I've heard so far: "A wakeup call for fans of Downton Abbey."
Harry Potter, R.I.P.
Daniel Radcliffe says that he's done with Harry Potter. Consider this film as adding boldface, underlining, and an exclamation mark to this claim.
If I had the option of watching any new movie with a Colorado audience, it would be this one. With a little help, you can see it as adhering to this storyline:
"Boy wizard decides to give the muggle life a try in the Pacific Northwest, only to learn that it isn't so easy leaving the supernatural behind."
I saw it at last year's TIFF, with Radcliffe, director Alaxandre Aja, co-star Juno Temple and writer Joe Hill present, and it went over really well with a less-than-optimal audience. I lamented to program director Collin Geddes after the show that it should have been presented as part of his beloved "Midnight Madness" program – it definitely would have been a slam dunk success in this category (I saw the winning entry and this movie was WAY better and 100% appropriate) rather than just a festival side note.
How to describe it? Think of it as a very engaging R-rated Halloween-season movie that successfully meshes several genres, murder-mystery being the leitmotif. (Writer Hill explained that he doesn't like to limit one of his works to a single genre.) It has a great comic hook in that the horns bring out the worst in people -- which means a lot of great opportunities for a talented supporting cast. My only cavil was a minor one with the pacing -- and this could very well have been corrected in the current version, considering the time they've had.
How does Daniel give the R.I.P. to Potter? I'll cut right to the chase: He smokes, he drinks, he swears, he f___s. Some of his adult scenes practically BEG for a Colorado viewing. Just imagine you're seeing Harry Potter contemplating a BJ offer from Heather Graham ("Gee, I dunno ... what do YOU think, Ron?").
I hope that they've been holding this back for a Halloween release. That would mean an opportunity to screen it again at TIFF, this time in the right program – which could give it a publicity boost that it definitely deserves.
To those in the know: This one rates a Snob-A, in that it passes the litmus test: I have to see it again.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
A major Scorcese winner!
Even if I'd seen this movie without credits and completely unaware of what I was about to see, I would have known right away that it was directed by Martin Scorcese. The first person narration
the content of the narration, with many "lists" of characters, events, details, etc. reeled off
the Thelma Shoemaker editing
Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead
and, of course, the tone of gleeful naughtiness throughout. (MAN, what parties!)
But did familiarity breed contempt? Not in the slightest! For me, this was "Goodfellas meets Boiler Room meets Wall Street"! When a three-hour movie feels like a two-hour movie, there's no denying that you were totally into it. I'd rate this as easily the best of the five Scorcese-DiCaprio collaborations (not that I didn't like some of the others).
DiCaprio has plenty of support from a thick, diverse cast. Jonah Hill's part could have been played by any number of actors, but he does a perfectly acceptable job while providing marked visual contrast with the lead just like he did in MONEYBALL. The real find is Margot Robbie as the love interest yowsuh! She almost won my annual "best non-costume" award (Rosario Dawson in TRANCE was the 2013 winner), and I certainly hope that she'll keep trying!
Is it for you? I very much recommend that you use GOODFELLAS as a yardstick. I can't imagine much of a disparity in anybody's scores for the two movies.
Ill Manors (2012)
Awesome low-budget British flick gets my "best of TIFF" vote
I've been coming to the TIFF for fifteen straight years, and all I can say is "wow!" If you've seen the trailers at IMDb and YouTube and been impressed, rest assured that the movie more than delivers on what they promise.
The movie was made on a shoestring, and is quite possibly the greatest shoestring movie ever I sure can't think of any other low budget film that can touch this. If I can luck out on a rush ticket Saturday, it will be the first time I've ever seen a movie TWICE at the festival, (I have a feeling that this film will take time to reach the American market – perhaps being toned down in the process -- and I've GOT to see it again.)
This is certainly a helluva directing debut for musician Ben Drew (a.k.a. Plan B) who also wrote the pulsating soundtrack. I've never seen music more effectively tied to visuals than here, whether they're real time, time lapse, or stop action. Especially effective are transitional passages staged as rap music videos.
There's plenty of great acting too, thanks to a large talented ensemble cast of relative unknowns. Especially impressive Is Riz Ahmed as the character who bridges several interconnected stories about life on the mean streets of East London over a several day period. And in a knockout debut, young Ryan De La Cruz is incredible as a naïve 13-year-old out to buy some weed who gets transformed into a killer in a very believable way.
The realism is astounding. I've seen movies like ARGO and END OF WATCH at the fest, and while they were certainly well-made, they seem overly stagey in comparison (although, to be fair, just about ALL movies do). I voted this for best picture on my way out – I know that nothing I'm going to be seeing from this point on is going to top this.
Not for the genteel, faint-of-heart, or British accent-averse, but if you're none of the above, prepare yourself for a real treat. Never a dull moment! Feel free to base your expectations on the available trailers and videos – they don't deceive in the slightest.
The Artist (2011)
Beware of the overhype!
If you can get your Weinstein-manipulated expectations WAY down from "Oscar" to "cute gimmick," then this cinematic truffle could very well satisfy – especially if you've ever seen and enjoyed a theatrical screening of a silent movie. There's a faithfulness to the spirit and techniques of the silent era that's undeniably impressive and will delight those few audience members (myself being one) who have enough familiarity with silent cinema to appreciate it.
But is it a movie that you should be running out to see because omnipresent web advertising says that it's an Oscar lock? Negative. If you DON'T have the required familiarity with the silent era, the charms and nostalgia evoked by the film will be completely lost on you, and you'll be far more dependent on the thin and unoriginal storyline for entertainment. (Note: the story borrows shamelessly from both SINGING IN THE RAIN and A STAR IS BORN and is fully consistent with the era's cornball aesthetic.) And even if you ARE familiar with silent cinema, "Oscar worthy" is going to seem like a stretch. Either way, if you really want to enjoy this movie, lowering your expectations from their current hype-elevated levels is imperative. (Anybody notice how remarkably similar Weinstein's overhype campaign for this film is to the one he successfully ran for Roberto Benigni's LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL years ago? Anybody watched that movie since?)
I first saw this film at the Toronto Film Festival with a full house at the spacious Elgin Theater, and it received a favorable albeit muted response from the audience. (By comparison, I saw AMELIE at the same theater ten years prior, and it received a ten-minute standing ovation at the end.) If I'd known at the time that I'd just seen the year's BEST movie, I would have been depressed over what this portended for the year-end releases.
You simply can't help being aware of the limitations of silent movies -- and thankful for the quantum improvement that the introduction of sound made -- no matter how deft the filmmakers are in recreating the look and feel of a bygone era. It's a movie-making era that you're glad IS bygone -- as evidenced by the inability of any of the gushing critics to cite a single color talkie favorite that they wish had been a b&w silent instead.
I say "A" for cinematic conceit and "C" for entertainment value ("B+" for silent film buffs).
Mic Macs à Tire-Larigot (2009)
A Jeunet masterpiece -- may be his best yet
I saw 21 films at the 2009 Toronto Film Fest, and while many of them were good, this one was the best by a wide margin. If you've liked any of Jeunet's movies in the past, you can put this one down as a sure thing (provided that your favorite isn't ALIEN RESURRECTION). All of the Jeunet elements you love -- colorful, quirky characters (in this case, a whole gang of them), other-worldliness, incredible color schemes, chain reactions, etc. -- in a new concoction that doesn't feel repetitive or derivative in the slightest. As a sympathetic character with a gift for physical comedy, leading man Dany Boon can hold a candle to Chaplin and Keaton. It's simply a masterpiece ... the kind of film that will keep me coming back to this festival forever.
The best B-movie since BOUND
9/16/2008 Addendum: IMPORTANT! This review applies ONLY to the 94-minute FESTIVAL cut of this film. I see that the DVD version is only 85 minutes ... do NOT buy or rent it based on this review.
* * * *
It's movies like this one that will keep me going to the 'Midnight Madness' program of the Toronto Film Festival forever. I saw it at last year's, and have been looking forward to a repeat viewing ever since. I love it when a low-budget film can soar above the corporate mega-movies on a clever script and a cast that gives it 110%, and this is definitely one of those movies. It gave me everything I could want in such a film sex, drugs, and violence, with some jet-black humor for dessert. (Note to PG-13ers: AVOID!) It probably won't make a big splash when it's released theatrically, but I'd put money on it achieving cult status after coming out on video.
This is easily the best work that director Stuart Gordon has done since REANIMATOR I'd go so far as to say that it's his best ever. It's a suspense-horror-comedy full of situations that make you laugh and groan at the same time one that's also refreshingly NOT top-heavy with f/x. The Midnight Madness program has a firm policy that a film has to grab your attention within the first 15 minutes in order to qualify for inclusion, and this film meets that requirement with room to spare. What's more, it never drags for a minute.
The story is based on the bizarre true life tale of a woman who hit a homeless man with her car and let him slowly bleed to death while stuck in her windshield. Gordon calls this "the way the story should have turned out." The homeless man in this case is played by the reliable Steven Rea, whose sad eyes give him a head start on eliciting sympathy. He's newly homeless, and his fall to the bottom is cleverly punctuated by him repeatedly hearing a timeworn cliché uttered by a succession of unsympathetic characters. The woman is played by American BEAUTY's Mena Survari, and this is her richest role since that one. She finally gets to play a character who actually evolves over the course of a film, instead of just doing 9-5 duty in another eye candy role.
I can't overemphasize how impressive the bang for the buck that Gordon gets with this film is. He also makes an amusing Hitchcock-style cameo (one that I'll bet Hitch himself wouldn't have minded making). There was genuinely enthusiastic applause at the screening I went to when the movie ended and the cast (except for Rea) came on for a lively Q & A. If movies lately seem a bit too tame for you, this is very likely just what the doctor ordered.
Hard Candy (2005)
Best deterrent movie ever?
I saw two movies over the last weekend of April -- FLIGHT 93 and HARD CANDY and while they were both good, it's no contest as to which one provided the most visceral, edge-of-your-seat viewing experience: HARD CANDY by a mile.
I go for hardball fare as a rule, eschewing most of today's cookie-cutter PG-13 cineplex stuff. I'm a particular connoisseur of bad guys (and gals), maintaining that they're what "make" a movie that without them, good guys would be irrelevant. And this film features a star-is-born performance by newcomer Ellen Page, who, at the tender age of 17 (when the movie was filmed) has achieved the ultimate status an actress can aspire to in my book a certified "psycho bitch," every bit the equal of Glen Close's Alex Forrest and Kathy Bates' Annie Wilkes.
You know the basic plot synopsis by now: web perv creep goes shopping for jailbait online, hooks up with a bright but seemingly-naive teenager, takes her home, and gets some surprise comeuppance. But man, WHAT comeuppance! Believe me, any web predator who sees this movie is going to have some MAJOR second thoughts before doing something he shouldn't!
The film is almost entirely a two-character play, with Patrick Wilson capably handling the part of the 30-something predator opposite Page playing a 14-year-old. He's fine in his part the film wouldn't work if he wasn't but his main feat is riding an emotional roller-coaster worthy of Six Flags. Page gets all of the film's killer one-liners and is clearly the one in control. And despite all the talkiness, the film never drags, thanks to the quality of the dialogue and superb editing.
If you're the squeamish type of viewer -- or even a Bill O'Reilly-style movie wuss -- don't go NEAR this movie! Consider it to be plutonium! But if, like me, you pride yourself on being able to handle hardball fare that others can't, definitely check it out this is the kind of no-holds-barred fare that only comes along a couple of times a decade.
And checking it out will also introduce you to an amazing new talent whose career can ONLY take off as a result of this film. Page is already scheduled to appear in X-MEN 3, and after seeing her performance in HARD CANDY, I can only say that I find her "claws" a lot more fearsome than Wolverine's!
Prisoner of Paradise (2002)
Traditional, Holocaust-related doc should be strong Oscar contender
On a recent weekend getaway to Toronto, I availed myself of the opportunity to see the only public screening in North America of one of the contenders for this year's best documentary Oscar . the joint American-Canadian production, PRISONER OF PARADISE. It's not the best documentary I've seen this year, but it's solid, deals with an interesting topic, and I strongly suspect that it's going to take home this year's prize. More on this later.
Narrated by Ian Holm, the film opens with scenes of a utopian community lovingly described as being comprised completely of `like-minded individuals.' The grounds look well-kept, the people (especially the children) look happy and in good health, the arts flourish, and sporting activities are regularly enjoyed by all. But suddenly, Holm informs us that this seemingly-successful communal experiment is all . a huge lie.
The `community' is actually the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt, where prominent Jews who would be missed were congregated into a sprawling and photogenic (from the outside) old fortress whose barricades to external forces proved equally efficient at keeping prisoners contained. And the footage is from a particularly notorious piece of Nazi propaganda - `The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews' (1944), a film produced to dispel rampant rumors about the wholesale mistreatment and extermination of Jews by the Germans. The film then shifts the focus to the director of the film -- Jewish inmate Kurt Gerron, a onetime hugely successful character actor, cabaret performer and movie director in pre-Nazi Germany.
If, by chance, you're a student of early cinema who's seen Josef Von Sternberg's classic, THE BLUE ANGEL, you've already seen a Gerron performance . he's the magician who uses the broken Emil Jannings as a stage prop late in the film. He also played the doctor in the Georg Pabst-directed Louise Brooks movie DIARY OF A LOST GIRL. On stage, he was the first performer to ever sing `Mack the Knife,' appearing in the original 1926 production of Bertolt Brecht's THE THREEPENNY OPERA. And besides being a success as a performer, he also directed some box office hits starring major German stars in the years immediately preceding the Nazi takeover. In terms of appearance, familiarity to audiences and show biz success, he was something of a German amalgam of Danny DeVito and Jackie Gleason.
The first half of the film follows Gerron's odyssey to this final directing job -- from the beginning of his success as a performer . to his showbiz heyday . to his flight to France and then to Holland following the Nazi clampdown on Jews . to his capture following the German occupation of Holland . and finally, to his arrival at Theresienstadt. (A journey that included two missed opportunities to join friends like Marlene Dietrich and Peter Lorre, who'd successfully relocated to Hollywood.) The second half of the film deals with the situation at Theresienstadt, and features many interviews with survivors.
In terms of documentary technique, the film is pretty much by the book, top-heavy with archival footage and talking heads. (There are also two re-creation scenes -- clearly labeled as such, thus averting a major documentary no-no that has cost Errol Morris dearly in the past.) But I never found my interest wandering at any time during the 97-minute running time. The survivors make it known that the prisoners resented Gerron's collaboration, but the filmmakers claim that Gerron consulted with Jewish elders before making it and received their permission to engage in an activity that would delay the word all detainees feared . `transport,' which meant delivery to a death camp.
In terms of topicality, there's an interesting side story dealing with an evil regime successfully thwarting international inspection - what emboldened the Nazis to make the propaganda film in the first place was their unqualified success in convincing a visiting Red Cross inspector that everything was fine at the camp via a carefully orchestrated tour of the facilities. This aspect, coupled with four additional factors, should make it a very strong contender:
1. Its `one of our own' main character (remember SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE beating out SAVING PRIVATE RYAN for best picture a few years back?)
2. Its Holocaust-related theme (a traditional favorite in the documentary category - INTO THE ARMS OF STRANGERS, ANNE FRANK REMEMBERED, HOTEL TERMINUS, etc.)
3. Its traditional documentary techniques . Hollywood frowns on creativity and visual panache in this category
4. The desperation among Hollywood pragmatists to prevent Michael Moore from taking the podium in front of a world audience in these times
You make think that it's impossible for a film with such little exposure to trump the record-setting success of BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, but for an MPAA voter to be eligible to vote for best documentary, he or she HAS to see ALL of the films in nomination at a theatrical screening and certify the date and place in writing. And one of the nominees (WINGED MIGRATION) is withholding the film from screenings, so only a tiny handful of voters are going to be voting in this category this year.
If any of the eligible documentaries is going to galvanize anti-Moore sentiment among the aged (and far less liberal as a whole than you might suspect) MPAA members who ARE eligible to vote, this is the one. If it wasn't for the fact that he'd actually have to admit to SEEING Michael Moore's movie in order to be eligible to vote, I'd bet the FARM that PRISONER would be Charlton Heston's choice.
Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Toronto Film Festival favorite
Among the 18 non-documentary films that I saw at last year's Toronto Film Festival, this new Stephen Frears offering was my favorite. It isn't often that a cutting-edge foreign director who's taken a dip in Hollywood waters can ever recapture the style and flair that got him noticed by Hollywood in the first place, but it would seem that French actress Audrey Tatou is a good-luck charm for a director attempting to perform such a feat. 2001 festival winner AMELIE resurrected Jean-Pierre Jeunet from the wreckage of ALIEN RESURRECTION, and now, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS makes for a supremely satisfying return to Frears' glory year of 1987, when he came out with the `real London' back-to-back art house successes that were SAMMY AND ROSIE GET LAID and PRICK UP YOUR EARS. Frears was honored with a retrospective at the festival in 2000, and if tributes like these can provoke similar return-to-form efforts from other directors ... I can sure suggest some names!
I have only two minor cavils with the film. One is with Tatou being cast as an illegally-working Turkish immigrant in London. Only the most culturally-illiterate of viewers could ever buy her as being Turkish (she only makes a token effort at the accent). But once you get past this minor annoyance, her performance is otherwise excellent and a savvy career choice. (Nothing like a trip to all-too-real London to avoid becoming over-identified with fantasyland Paris!) The other is with the morality of the lead character, a former Nigerian doctor known only as `Okwe,' who's on the lam from a crime he was framed for after his medical ethics clashed with the wishes of state authorities. It's a great, compelling performance from unknown-in-America Chiwetel Ejiofor -- one that's sure to bring him plenty of North American roles - but in retrospect, his character is just a little TOO morally upstanding to be fully credible.
The film deals with a compelling subject - the hand-to-mouth existence eked out by the huge numbers of illegal immigrants (and illegally-working immigrants) who do all of the bottom-rung work that nobody else wants to do in a teeming western metropolis. Okwe has two jobs that leave him next to no time for any kind of personal life -- a daytime cab driver and graveyard shift hotel night porter. He tries to resist letting anyone know that he's really a doctor, but his cab boss knows, and this forces him to maintain some low-level ties to the medical community. Later, some detective work at the hotel leads to him discovering a black-market operation in human organs being run by his hotel boss.
As you can probably surmise, another painful medical moment of truth looms in the doctor's future following this discovery. I don't want to spoil anything, but if you've ever been disappointed by a film where the payoff wasn't worthy of the setup (and who hasn't?), you can rest assured that DIRTY PRETTY THINGS is definitely NOT one of these cases. The final stages of the story arc are VERY reminiscent of a certain Hollywood classic, but I'll leave it to the professional critics to do the spoiling.
The casting of the movie is superb ... the first question from the audience for Frears following the screening was `Where did you get all of those fantastic actors?' Normally, such generic audience questions elicit groans, but in THIS case, it seemed like a perfectly legitimate inquiry. Besides Ejiofor and Tatou, there's also Sergi Lopez in his first English language role (following previous French festival hits AN AFFAIR OF LOVE and WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY) as Okwe's hotel boss. Oozing the kind of ersatz charm that you love to hate, he's great as a scoundrel who's convinced himself that he's doing everyone involved in his racket a favor. Supporting players Sophie Oknonedo as a prostitute doing regular business at the hotel and Benedict Wong as Okwe's mortician friend provide some great comic relief to the often grim and tense proceedings. Add in more colorful extras than you'd find in a Guy Ritchie movie (with BRITISH Brits existing strictly as peripheral characters) to flesh out Steve Knight's great script and you've got a crowd-pleasing winner.
The presence of the Miramax banner put me on high `tampering alert' when watching the movie, but all I saw was vintage Frears. And he claimed during the Q&A that this is HIS movie ... `any mistakes you see on the screen are mine' were his words. The film was well-placed in the `Masters' Program at the festival and is one to definitely be looking for in commercial release. It SCREAMS for a Hispanic American remake . much more so than EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN ever did.
Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Before giving credence to anti-Moore harangues like Steve's, please read this
I saw this film at the Toronto Film Festival last month, one of the relatively few Americans in the audience. I had problems with Moore's approach and attitude in his signature piece, ROGER AND ME, and was braced for him to be taking a similarly simplistic black and white approach to the topic of guns in America.
I was pleasantly surprised and impressed. Moore a member of the NRA since he was a teenager completely eschews preaching the gun control arguments that his more hidebound fellow members are poised to reflexively jump all over. In fact, he specifically supports the notion that fewer guns AREN'T the solution to America's sky-high homicide rates. He doesn't supply pat answers, as advocates on both sides of the gun control debate so readily do. Instead drawing heavily on comparisons to Canada, where gun ownership is nearly as widespread as it is in America and consumption of American culture is voracious he focuses on the mega question of what could explain why Americans are so astronomically more inclined to homicidally USE their guns than their neighbors to the north.
Moore's documentary approach is scattershot at times, but there's no denying that he hits a huge number of satirical bulls-eyes along the way on his odyssey in search of the elusive answer. The film is an emotional roller coaster that keeps shifting between tragedy and absurdity in a thoughtful, tasteful way that often evokes `so that I might not cry' laughter. Whatever your feelings about Moore are, there's no denying that he has an eye for the absurd and a gift for catching interviewees off-guard with straightforward questions that they don't have a prepared response for. Particularly impressive is when he finally gets to interview `Moses' himself at his Beverly Hills mansion. Charlton Heston is so at a loss to explain the huge disparity between American and Canadian homicide rates that he inadvertently makes some racist slip-ups that shatter his long running `I marched with Martin Luther King' facade.
You'll be seeing a lot of anti-Moore diatribes (similar to the one by firstname.lastname@example.org just below this one in the user comments section) as the film makes its way around the country. Be mindful of one thing: ANYONE WHO ACCUSES THIS MOVIE OF ADVOCATING GUN CONTROL OR `TRYING TO PORTRAY LEGAL GUN OWNERSHIP AS INSANE' HASN'T ACTUALLY SEEN THE MOVIE!
Brilliant, totally non-offensive treatment of difficult subject
Sight unseen, the Jewish Defense League has urged Lions Gate Films to shelve this movie, due to its radical notion that Adolf Hitler was shaped by the world around him rather than being born the Antichrist. Specifically, the JDL protests that there is nothing "human about the most vicious, vile murderer in world history." As a person of Jewish extraction who has seen the movie (at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival), I would take exception to this stance and urge Lions Gate to proceed as planned. This film is a brilliant, engrossing, thought-provoking work that does Hitler no favors and sheds light on the real-world forces afoot in post WWI Munich that only could have nurtured his worst beliefs and talents.
Dutch-born Director Menno Meyjes has shown an affinity for tough ethnic and cultural clash themes in his career as a screenwriter (THE COLOR PURPLE, EMPIRE OF THE SUN and THE SIEGE are among his credits). But here, in his first chance to direct his own writing, he's come up with what's certainly his most fully realized work to-date. Eschewing simplistic notions, he weaves a fascinating story that deals at length with the career as a painter that Hitler is known to have unsuccessfully pursued at one time.
The title character of the film is a fictional (but based on a composite of real-life characters) Jewish German WWI vet named Max Rothman. He's lost one of his arms in battle, but is able to return to a much better situation than the average German vet: a loving wife and family, a gorgeous mistress, and family wealth that enables him to start an art gallery that prospers dealing in modern expressionist works. Hitler, by contrast, returns to pretty much nothing, and at age 30 is desperate to finally make the grade as a commercial artist.
Sensing that Hitler has a passion that there could be a market for if only he could find some way to get it out onto canvas, Max encourages him to experiment with schools of painting that seem a better fit for his temperament than the traditional ones he's decided to limit himself to. Unfortunately, Hitler's real artistic gift seems to be for a then-new form of performance art known as `propaganda,' and his Aryan war pals provide him with support for pursuing this field while simultaneously fanning his smoldering anti-Semitic sentiments.
Noah Taylor - who many feel got robbed of an Oscar nomination for his role as the young David Helfgott in SHINE - is mesmerizing in the Hitler role. Even made up to look gaunt, pallid, and thoroughly unappealing (although not freakish), you still can't take your eyes off of him. With body language, countenance, and tone of voice, he's able to suggest a raging intensity lurking just below the surface of his character's socially awkward loner exterior. Taylor still won't come up with any awards recognition for this role (it's WAY too hot a potato), but that doesn't change the fact that he's brilliantly conquered a daunting acting challenge.
John Cusack, in a welcome change from the light roles he's been playing lately, is also excellent as the title character, skillfully portraying a worldly businessman who's too focused on artistic images to ever notice the big picture. The subject matter allows near-zero latitude for levity, but SOME mirth is needed to keep the proceedings from becoming unrelentingly grim. Meyjes ingenious solution to this quandary is wry comments on art and (especially) the business of art by Max - a perfect fit for Cusack's deadpan delivery.
Even though you KNOW which career path Hitler is ultimately going down, the equilibrium between the forces pulling him in both directions and the incredible `what might have been' fascination factor keep you thoroughly transfixed throughout the film's near-2-hour running time. NOBODY in the huge auditorium where I saw the film got up or stirred from the opening scene through to the supremely ironic ending - not even to answer the call of nature. MAX is sure not `the feel-good film of the year,' but if you've been longing for a powerful, all-encompassing drama that doesn't require you to check your brain at the door, this is the film you've been waiting for.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE!
It never fails ... a movie star generates a billion dollars in film revenues by making a series of lowbrow films that are wildly successful despite consistent critical lambasting (read: Jim Carrey), and as soon as said star makes even a token gesture towards `legit' acting, the same (ignored) critics can't stop heaping praise upon the `breakout' vehicle.
This process has already begun for Adam Sandler's PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE. Having just seen the movie with a decidedly-underwhelmed audience at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, all I can say is ... DON'T BELIEVE THE COMING HYPE ONSLAUGHT! The film may be a lot more stylized than the typical Sandler movie leading befuddled critics to conclude that there HAS to be some deep meaning lurking in there someplace but at its core, this film is about as deep as THE WATERBOY.
I suppose that it could be deemed a `romantic comedy,' except that the comedy is practically nonexistent and the romance seems strictly perfunctory. But NO ... listen to the critics carp on endlessly about what the harmonium is supposed to symbolize and the significance of Sandler wearing the same blue suit for the entire duration of the film, no matter what the venue. (All the time conveniently ignoring the blatant in-your-face product plugs for the `Healthy Choice' food line, of course.)
Don't be misled by the names in the supporting cast, because this is Sandler's baby, top-to-bottom ... everyone else is just along for the ride, including supposed co-star Emily Watson. Especially wasted are Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Luis Guzman, regulars in director Paul Thomas Anderson's movies. Guzman's part is merely expositional (he also gets to push a shopping cart), and if you've seen the trailer, you've already seen half of Hoffman's screen time.
A Sandler tantrum in HAPPY GILMORE? Schtick! A Sandler tantrum in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie? ACTING! That's what the critics will have you believe. I say that even `noble failure' is overpraise when it comes to describing this film.
Funny Games (1997)
The cure for being too enamored of movie violence!
I never realized the extent to which big-budget American action films condition audiences into savoring and craving `justifiable' acts of violence until I saw this fascinating and deeply disturbing Austrian movie from noted German director Michael Haneke. I couldn't sleep after seeing it, but after about a week had passed, I was very glad that I'd seen it. I'm now `immune' from being manipulated into enjoying onscreen violence, because the movie made me keenly aware of when I AM being manipulated
and of the `commandments' that movies featuring cathartically satisfying acts of vengeance are built upon and dare not violate.
The storyline is sort of a hybrid of THE DESPERATE HOURS and CAPE FEAR, with two very Aryan-looking young men invading the summer cottage of an upper-middle-class family of three and sadistically playing `funny games' with them. But there's much more than the surface story at work here Haneke has some clever tricks up his sleeve when it comes to exercising his total control over the `rules' that the movie plays by. He keeps the audience off-balance by repeatedly violating movie conventions and confounding conditioned expectations as to how events will unfold.
Amazingly, there's only ONE act of on-screen violence in the entire movie and it's a classic example of the 100% acceptable, `justifiable' sort that American audiences so crave and Hollywood so obligingly provides on a regular basis. But just as your `rush' kicks in, Haneke pulls the carpet out from underneath you with one of his sleight-of-hand tricks, flip-flopping your pleasure into an equivalent amount of pain. And as for the RESULTS of the OFF-screen violence well, you're on your own.
Special kudos should go out to actors Arno Frisch and Frank Giering, for being willing to play what must be the creepiest, most contemptible crime duo in movie history. (The hillbillies in DELIVERANCE have NOTHING on them!) It takes fearlessness to make yourself a target for audience detestation at this level, and the film wouldn't work if the roles hadn't been so capably filled.
Know going in that the `See it if you dare' challenge on the DVD cover is not to be taken lightly. But know also that if you DO take the challenge, you'll emerge from the experience shaken but wiser in possession of a whole new perspective on the bogusness of traditional Hollywood crowd-pleasing violence.
R-rated movie in a PG-13 straightjacket
As a connoisseur of the finest in movie villainy, I was excited albeit incredulous when an online friend told me that Bill Campbell in ENOUGH was a legit contender for inclusion in my elite rogues gallery the `Scum of the Earth All-Stars.' I reminded said friend that the standards for earning admission via a spousal performance necessitate rivaling Eric Roberts' performance in STAR 80, and that such an achievement is metaphysically impossible within the confines of a PG-13 movie. But he held fast to his claim, and I was thus obligated to check it out.
I was right. To his credit, Bill Campbell DOES push PG-13 to the absolute limit more than enough to make his ultimate fate cathartically satisfying to the masses -- but his character is far too thinly developed to achieve `classic' status. (More development would have necessitated a bigger share of the screen time, and we can't have THAT in a J Lo vehicle now, can we?) In theory, he could STILL make the club if there's a `director's cut' in the can somewhere, but I doubt that one exists journeyman Michael Apted is not the kind of director that such a two-phase marketing strategy gets built around.
The unpleasant truth is that R-rated latitude is a MINIMUM requirement for doing justice to the ugly subject of domestic spousal abuse. This subject can only be softened up for mass acceptability via plot contrivances and clichés, and ENOUGH brings this point home in spades. The necessity of covering five years' time in the space of two hours creates still more demands for serendipity, shortcuts, stock characters, etc. Of paramount importance is that our virtuous heroine maintains her moral purity while exacting crowd-pleasing vengeance, and believe me you've seen the timeworn cliché that makes this all possible before!
To be fair, there are a couple of bright spots along the way, especially in the cast. Noah Wyle pays his first real visit to the dark side in this movie, seems to like what he sees, and makes the most of his small-but-juicy supporting role. The little girl who plays J Lo's daughter is very good, also refreshingly devoid of affectation, self-consciousness, or signs of excessive coaching. But for every plus, it seems like there's a minus. Juliette Lewis has now sadly been reduced to playing one of the aforementioned stock characters (that of the `nymphomaniac best friend & confidant').
The only frankness about the ugliness and scope of domestic spousal abuse in the real world is a comment made by a cop late in the movie. Mildly touching, until you realize that a legitimate rejoinder to his statement would be, `Good thing, eh? Otherwise we wouldn't have had a commercially-viable movie.'
The denouement is brass-knuckle, but the treatment of the larger issue at hand is strictly kid-glove. I'm afraid that this is as frank as American movies are ever going to get with this subject, so if you want to see a realistic, powerful, compelling, and properly off-putting treatment, imports are your only hope. I highly recommend ONCE WERE WARRIORS from New Zealand.
The film that made a somber audience laugh hysterically three days after 9/11!
You won't find a much tougher crowd for a comedic movie to premiere to than one assembled just three days post-9/11. That was the fate of a pair of new Danny Boyle movies that premiered at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival, and such is the power of VACUUMING COMPLETELY NUDE IN PARADISE that it was able to evoke convulsive laughter even from an audience this somber.
Boyle, who soared with the British films SHALLOW GRAVE and TRAINSPOTTING, then fell on his face with the Hollywood duds A LIFE LESS ORDINARY and THE BEACH, is clearly back in his element and back in form. It would appear that he's been reborn of the freedom that digital technology affords today's daring (and invariably under-financed) filmmakers. He's obviously fascinated with the limitless possibilities for camera placement, embedding miniature cameras all over the sets to permit individual scenes to be viewed from a rapid-fire succession of perspectives. His editing and music skills, combined with stellar camera-work by noted dogme cameraman Anthony Dodd Mantle, results in a raw, exciting new 'dogme-MTV' type of look that's certain to accelerate the acceptance of digital film-making.
But 'look' alone cannot make a movie. You still need a script to work with, and Boyle is blessed here with an outstanding one from Jim Cartwright. The story is nothing less than a bold and brilliant comedic re-conceptualization of Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN for the digital age. (Note: People with actual sales jobs will be just as helpless to resist from laughing as anybody, but for them, the laughter will be of the 'so that I might not cry' sort - trust me.) Unlike Miller, Cartwright doesn't play coy with what the salesman is actually peddling -- you know right from the start that it's vacuum cleaners.
The 'surrogate' character in this film is a likable young slacker named Pete (Michael Begley) who loves dance music and has some mixing talent, but hasn't been able to carve out any kind of career in the music biz. His girlfriend has to perform strip-o-grams in order for them to make ends meet, and they both want out of this situation in the worst way. The girlfriend's plight gets especially humiliating one night when she performs at a retirement party for a vacuum cleaner salesman, and on a suggestion, Pete decides to pursue a career in this profession as a way out for both of them.
Enter the most blazing, mesmerizing, maniacal lead performance by an actor in many a moon. Pete is made an apprentice to star salesman Tommy Rag, played with incredible over-the-top intensity by veteran Timothy Spall. If there were an ABSOLUTE 'best actor' award for the BEST performance, period, in a given year, Spall would be my hands-down choice for 2001. He makes EVERY ruthless salesman in movie history (Kurt Russell in USED CARS, the gang from THE BOILER ROOM, etc.) look strictly 'soft sell' by comparison. This is truly a performance for the ages, one that's certain to skyrocket Spall's status in the acting community. There just aren't WORDS for it . he's off the MAP here!
You may think that you've seen the 'rookie paired with vet' thing done to death in the movies, both in dramatic and comedic contexts, but I can assure you that you've never seen anything even close to the 'eye of the hurricane' variant that Boyle has come up with here. What he's managed to pack into little more than an hour's running time is astounding ... a fully realized comic tragedy of Shakespearean proportions that manages to be relentlessly and mercilessly funny. Having now seen it for a second time following a near six-month wait since that memorable premiere in Toronto, I can add that it holds up sensationally to a repeat viewing. (Spall speaks with an unfettered Manchester accent, and there's no way that American audiences can absorb ALL of his great lines in one viewing.)
About the title: It comes from Tommy Rag's one moment of quiet reflection in the movie ... when he relates to Pete a very Freudian dream he had after seeing a chilling portent of doom on the previous day. It's a short-lived peek into Tommy's hidden humanity ... but this scene definitely adds resonance to the memorable final scene.
Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
The first REAL "rockumentary"!
This film was a "Midnight Madness" showing on the opening weekend of the 2001 Toronto Film Festival. I hadn't been planning on taking in originally, but circumstances led me to it, and I'm very glad that they did. It may technically be a "documentary," but in my book, it's the first REAL "rockumentary" -- a documentary that truly ROCKS instead of merely chronicling a rock band.
The subject is the birth of skateboarding as a cultural phenomenon in the mid 70's and the key role that a rough-and-tumble surfing gang (the "Zephyrs") that sprung up around a counterculture surfing shop in a rundown area of Santa Monica ("Dogtown") played in elevating the activity above a mere fad. Out of this small group emerged a whole new style of skateboarding and the first wave of skateboarding "superstars" (who were quickly co-opted by commercial interests and drifted apart).
The film is a collaboration between one of the original members of the gang, Stacy Peralta, and Craig Stecyk, a prominent writer with the early Skateboarder magazine. They were both on hand for the show, as was another member, Tony Alva. According to them, a major studio is planning to film a drama on the group, and they wanted to get THEIR take on the story out for people to see before it gets the "Hollywood" treatment. To their credit, it doesn't seem particularly self-congratulatory (although some of the group's less-than-legal activities are definitely airbrushed over).
Even if you're not a skateboarding enthusiast -- and that would include me -- this is a film that you can't help getting caught up in. (If you ARE a skateboarder -- and there was a large contingent of them at the screening -- you'll go positively NUTS for it.) It's got what may very well be the greatest rock soundtrack EVER -- Peralta circulated a 3-1/2 minute short of clips from the film around the music industry, and even classic 70's bands who are notoriously stingy with their works (e.g. Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd) wanted in. The result is wall-to-wall killer music, with the film brilliantly edited to the cuts (rookie editor Paul Crowder sure won't be hurting for work in the future). Even the "talking heads" sections rock. Right from the opening scene, where you see a skateboarder approaching to the opening chords of Jimi Hendrix's "Ezy Ryder," this is a film that's comin' at ya!
It rocks, it soars, it informs effectively, it's dripping with 70's nostalgia, and it tells an upbeat story grounded firmly in reality about a ragtag bunch of lower class kids who were instrumental in launching a major phenomenon on their own terms (at least initially). Definitely a documentary for movie fans who normally eschew the genre altogether. Horatio Alger for Gen X.
Rambo III (1988)
"Yo, Osama ... let's kick some Commie butt together, pal."
When it came out, I dismissed this film as just another formulaic contrivance for a Hollywood action "hero" to wreak havoc. But it was much, MUCH worse than I gave it credit for. After the WTC attack, it now glaringly stands out as the most myopic, propagandistic, ultra-right-wing cinematic drivel of all time. I only wish that the IMDB user rating system allowed me to register a sub-zero vote.
The ultra-conservative Media Research Center took "Big Media" movie critics Richard Schickel of Time and Hal Hinson of The Washington Post to task for having the audacity to ridicule the political message of this film. Today I salute these critics ... there should have been more like them, willing to challenge the film's ridiculously black-and-white political stance.
To End All Wars (2001)
A MOST TIMELY MASTERPIECE
This, the last picture that I took in at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival, was the most moving film I've seen in a LONG time and one that I wish the whole world could chill out to right now. It's an independent feature (picked up when MGM allowed its option on the source material to expire) with a big-budget sheen and enough "name" talent to ensure decent distribution. Believe me when I say that this is Oscar material in the same gut-wrenching vein as THE KILLING FIELDS.
In essence, it's a no-sugar-added revisiting of the WWII territory first mined by Hollywood in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, and it makes that 50's Oscar favorite look like an Asian variant on Hogan's Heroes by comparison. It's based on the 1962 book, "Miracle on the River Kwai" by real-life prison camp survivor Captain Ernest Gordon of the Scottish Argyl Highlanders regiment, captured during the Japanese takeover of Singapore in 1942. It's about men pushed beyond the breaking point of human endurance by brutality, backbreaking labor, meager rations, and omnipresent disease who are able to persevere through the actions a "a few (very) good men" -- men willing to perform the ultimate CHRISTIAN act of self-sacrifice (which would certainly seem to differ radically from the Muslim variant). It's about enmity between races breaking down in the face of such acts.
Gordon became a man of the cloth after the war, emigrating to America and becoming Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University. When you see clips of the real-life Gordon shaking hands, visiting gravesites, and perusing a photo album with one of his real-life captors (also depicted in the film) at a reunion in Burma in the 90's and sense the true peace and good will between them, it's impossible not to be touched.
Robert Carlyle and Kiefer Sutherland are the aforementioned "names," and they're both first-rate players in a large and talented ensemble cast. But the real revelation is newcomer Ciarán McMenamin in the central narrative role as the young Gordon. Truly a towering performance in a movie with a visceral, soul-moving power light-years beyond anything that Hollywood would ever attempt. Highly recommended, especially for anyone considering maturing beyond the comic book/video game/action hero brand of "heroism" regularly served up by Hollywood. Try some REAL heroism for a change.