* Brother Sun, Sister Moon: (1972 - Biography, drama / Italy, U.K. - Fratello sole, sorella luna)
Directed by Francoi Zeffirelli, starring a group of relatively unknown actors (except for Sir Alec Guinness as Pope Innocent III). This recommendation was a dramatic bio-pic based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. It's not the first such movie I've seen, and hopefully I'll find a better one. The title (and cover) implies that it is a movie about St. Francis and St. Clare (both from Assissi, Italy), but the biographical aspects of St. Clare are completed ignored. In this medieval period piece, we're continually subjected to a rather overwrought musical score as if the movie were a musical. As a matter of fact, it might have been better if they had made this into a musical. The story - Francesco (St. Francis) is the young son of a wealthy merchant in early 13th century Italy. In the beginning of the film, he marches off to war, and we're quickly shown his return in an injured state. The movie spends a very long time with Francesco laying in bed experiencing a series of dreams and delusions. When he finally comes to, he's mentally deranged/damaged from the experience. Wondering the countryside in a stupor, he comes upon a ruined church and has a revelation/encounter with the Holy Spirit. From his state of insanity he emerges in a state of enlightenment. As he rejects material goods to be closer to God, his friends and family think he's deranged. He begins preaching Gods glory to the poor, and begins to attract a body of followers. It isn't long before he's seen as a threat by the local authorities. Seeking approval and the blessings of the church, he and his followers walk all the way to Rome in the hopes of meeting the pope. It's a great tale. A powerful and spiritually uplifting one. Unfortunately, this movie in no way evokes the spirit of the story. It's flat, full of ill advised musical treatment, pastoral scenes reminiscent of 'the sound of music', historically inaccurate and lacking in proper editing and direction. The dubbing in the English version (NetFlix didn't offer any options in this regard) was poorly produced. The acting by Graham Faulkner was fair for the part, but the character direction was idyllic, unrealistic and portrayed Francesco as some sort of simpleton. 2 of 5.
* Hell in the Pacific: (1968 - Drama, war) Directed by John Boorman
(Deliverance, Zardoz (If you haven't seen this, rent it now! - Mind blowing sci-fi fantasy starring Sean Connery), Excalibur, The Emerald Forest). Starring Lee Marvin and Toshirô Mifune (two of my favorite actors). During WWII, two soldiers are marooned on a deserted island in the Pacific. This movie is a dramatic, thematic, socially evolutionary piece. The two warriors start out by trying to kill each other. As the movie progresses, they strive to communicate, come to realize the futility of their situation and eventually cooperate. This anti-war movie is a well executed drama with excellent pacing and cinematography. While the dialog contains Japanese and English, I found the exclusion of subtitles (for Japanese dialog) to actually enhance the experience of the movie. I couldn't understand the Japanese officer, and neither could Lee Marvin's character. Only through some effort were we/they able to understand each other. The only drawback was the abrupt and ridiculous ending (in the version offered through NetFlix's watch instantly feature). 4 out of 5.
* Sophie Scholl - The Final Days: (2005 - Biography, crime, drama, history, war / Germany - Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage) This movie is movie about the final days. The final days of Sophie Scholl and Germany's Nazi regime. Starring Julia Jentsch as Sophie Scholl and many other fine actors in a dramatic bio-pic. This one was very well executed (see above for one that wasn't). Sophie Scholl and her brother are arrested under suspicion of distributing 'treasonous materials', the two are quickly caught up in an intensive interrogation, investigation and trial by Nazi bureaucrats Were these two guilty of seditious treason? Absolutely. Were their actions necessary? Absolutely. Based on the true events surrounding the 'White Rose' resistance movement. This movie shines a light on the ethics of social responsibility and morality. They questioned the policies of 'Total War', the insanity of a war against all 'Enemies' of the reich. In today's society we scorn and ostracize whistle-blowers, protesters and social activists. In Nazi germany they sentenced them to death! Here is a story of moral conviction and political will. At times the movie seemed a bit over-wrought, but the direction, acting, props and locations were all perfect. The ending was perfectly 'executed'. Powerful and important messages are conveyed in this movie. Hopefully, we are wise enough to perceive those messages. 4 out of 5.
* The Blue Max: (1966 - Adventure, drama, war, action / U.K.) Directed by John Guillermin (King Kong (1976), The Bridge at Remagen,
Towering Inferno (1974)), starring George Peppard, James Mason, Ursula Andress and others. Here is an outstanding film about WWI aviation. A film about honor, integrity and perseverance. Here we watch a German soldier with a commoners background. As he rises through the ranks, he struggles to overcome the biases/prejudices imposed by the aristocratic caste of Germany's military upper echelon. As he strives to achieve the highest honors (the Blue Max), he learns many hard lessons regarding the realities of war. With his skill in the air, he earns the attentions and accolades of women and men alike. The story soars, the characters and acting superb. The film work/cinematography is outstanding, and the ending is brutally bitter - politically real. 5 out of 5.
* Vanishing Point: (1971 - Action, drama / U.S., U.K.) Starring a lackluster cast - Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger, Victoria Medlin, and others. Here is a classic 70's muscle car movie. The story is incredibly simple, yet subtle. It's a well made car chase/road trip movie. James Kowalski (played by Barry Newman) is a driver for a car delivery service. He's hired to drive a supercharged 1970 Dodge Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco. Thumbing his nose at traditional expectations, he takes a bet that he can deliver the car to California in 15 hours. This bet starts the movie on a non-stop adrenaline fueled car chase. As he travels across the south-west, his journey is broadcast by Super-Soul, a blind-seer/radio DJ. His journey is an action packed commentary on the early 70's state of social unrest. Great cult classic, car chase, social commentary. 4 out of 5.
* Defiance: (2008 - Drama, thriller, war
) Screenplay and direction by Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai), starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and others. A tale of WWII. The story is that of refugees and partisans fighting the Nazi's on the eastern front. Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber play two of four Jewish brothers who take refuge from Nazis in the forests of Belarus during WWII. Originally they form a small cell of refugees, but circumstances swell their numbers as the Nazis and collaborating officials increase their campaign of terror on the inhabitants of this occupied territory. As the groups numbers swell, one of the brothers forms a cell of partisans who oppose and sabotage Nazi efforts in the region. This militant action threatens the group, and endangers the relationship of the brothers. Based on the real-life story of the Bielski brothers, the story was great. The acting was fair, but the production was lacking. The pacing was a bit off, and the story suffered from the duality of plot. One half of the movie was a gripping action flick which covered the partisan/guerilla actions of these refugees. The other half of the movie was a drama regarding the human suffering of the refugees. Complicating this aspect of the movie was an unnecessary romance angle which blunted the tragedy of the tale. 3 out of 5.
* Blue Velvet: (1986 - Crime, drama, mystery, thriller)
Screenplay and direction by one of my favorite directors/writers, David Lynch (Dune, The Elephant Man, Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive). Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper and others. The movie starts when Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Kyle MacLachlan) finds a severed human ear in a field near his home. When the police move too slowly for the impatient Beaumont, he and co-conspirator - Sandy Williams, begin their own investigation. What follows is an intense murder mystery set in a small Pacific-Northwest town. This clear pre-cursor to the Twin Peaks tv series, is a stylish, film-noir mystery, filled with twisted characters and mind-bending revelations. The lighting, music and camera work are all superb. Dennis Hopper's portrayal of the twisted Frank Booth was outstanding. As usual, this movie by David Lynch is both disturbing and beautiful - while some cannot fathom it's depth, others find it remarkable. Put me in that category. 4 out of 5.
* Lawn Dogs: (1997 - Drama / U.K.) Directed by John Duigan, starring Mischa Barton, Sam Rockwell, Christopher McDonald, Kathleen Quinlan and
others. Trent (played by Sam Rockwell) is a lawn-jockey, mowing the lawns in the gated community of Camelot Gardens. As a serf amongst the landed gentry, Trent is expected to look but not touch. The upper-crust community is highly xenophobic (to those outside their caste), hypocritical and unfaithful to its own. When ten year old Devon Stockard (played by 21 year old Mischa Barton!) wanders outside the walls of camelot, she comes to befriend Trent and starts a relationship destined to wreak havoc on the courtiers of this exclusive community. Its an excellent drama about social acceptance, coming of age, love, and friendship. I was also thrilled by the subtle sub plot involving Baba Yaga. Outstanding acting by Sam Rockwell and Mischa Barton (not so for most of the supporting cast). Excellent direction and camera work. A great independent drama amongst a sea of sleepy so-so flicks. 4 of 5.
* Riki-Oh - The Story of Ricky: (1991 - Action, crime, thriller / Lik Wong - Japan, China) Based on a Japanese manga rag, here is a cheesy, gory, b-fest of kung-fu, prison action. Far in the future (Next week?), the prisons are operated by greedy corporations. Our anti-hero is Riki-Oh, a downtrodden citizen (of China?) trapped in this highly corrupt prison society. Super-powered Riki-Oh took the law into his own hands, when he murdered the gang leader/drug dealer responsible for his girlfriends death. Now he's paying the price. Thrown into prison, he initially tries to avoid confrontation with the prison's residents, but that's not gonna happen. When the 'gang-of-four' tortures, frames, and murders an 'innocent' old-man, Riki decides that it's time to upset the status quo. What follows is an over-the-top gore fest, filled with prison cliches
and preposterous sight-gags. The characters are preposterously clown-like super-villains, and the fight scenes so over the top that they make you laugh. Horrible acting, direction, production. Atrocious subtitles, poorly choreographed fight scenes, and a really bad dub job mark this movie as lacking in all the technical aspects. The only thing it's got going for it are the ridiculously over-the-top old school effects, ridiculous characters, and preposterous sense of self-importance. The fake-blood climax was utterly ridiculous. So bad it's funny. Had me laughing throughout. 3 out of 5.
* Quantum of Solace:
2008 - Action, adventure, thriller
/ U.K., U.S.) Continuing the destruction of a fine franchise, Mark Forster's attempts to carry the torch fall flat. Starring Daniel Craig, Mathieu Amalric, Olga Kurylenk, Judi Dench and others. Here is a sequel to the
Casino Royale reboot (itself a remake - of sorts), designed to resurrect an ailing franchise. While Daniel Craig could make a good Bond, James Bond isn't Jason Bourne, and transforming the franchise into an action genre is a disservice to this viewer. I want the old Bond, a smooth sophisticated agent of espionage and intrigue - Not a kick ass agent of destruction and vengeance. The plot is unexpectedly weak - Spoiler alert - Some bad guy has taken control of Bolivia's water supply, and he's planning to 'Double the price' - Wow! That's almost as bad as the true story (which the movie doesn't clue you into - but I knew about), where Bechtel corporation took control of Bolivia's water supply and tripled the price. So leaving that thin justification aside, Bond is here just for revenge. He's gonna get the bastard who offed his girl (from Casino Royale). The story sucked, and I'm all about the story. The camera work was great, the lighting a bit overexposed, the symbolism very heavy, the acting fair and the writing thin. It didn't challenge the actors in the slightest, and it pained me to see Judi Dench reciting lines written for a grade school teacher.
Hot babes, explosions, and car chases - It sure felt like a Michael Bay movie, and for me - that's not a good thing. 2 out of 5.
* Operation Valkyrie - The Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler: (2008 -Documentary) A technically detailed recounting of all the details surrounding this plot to kill Hitler. Told with clinical precision, here are interviews, dramatic reenactments, home movies (shot by Eva Braun), and archive footage, stitched together with insightful narrative. This movie goes over the plot point by point. A fascinating documentary with excellent reenactment, costumes, and editing. This movie reveals the thrilling facts surrounding one dramatic tale of WWII. 3 out of 5.
* The Oxbow Incident: (1943 - Crime, drama, film-noir, western) Directed by William A. Wellman (Wings (1927), The Public Enemy (1931), Beau Geste (1934)), starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes, Anthony Quinn and others. A tale of western justice, before there were courts there were juries - otherwise known as the 'Lynch Mob'. Here a pair of drifters stumble upon a town in the grip of hysteria. When a local farmer is murdered, the townsfolk polarize on two sides of the issue. One group is hell-bent on revenge, while the other argues for a lawful response. In no time at all, the posse takes to the trail and rustles up a group of suspects. Will reason win out, or will the scales of justice swing from the limbs of a big old oak? A taught moral drama, set in the rough justice past of America's wild west. Excellent acting and writing. 4 out of 5.
* The Spirit: (2008 - Action, comedy, crime, drama, fantasy, thriller) Frank Miller (Sin City, 300 (writing)), wrote the screenplay and directed this adaptation of the Will Eisner comic book. The movie stars Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Jaime King, Eva Mendes and others. Here is a very stylistic movie, which lacks all the substance of a film-noir drama. The dialog (way too much dialog) and acting are very 'staged?' Just like something out of a comic book frame. Translating a comic into a movie is sometimes a difficult thing to do. Here, Frank Miller has failed to do any 'translating'; presenting this movie as if it were a video version of fixed comic frames was a mistake. As I said earlier, the visual aspects of this movie were striking, and much of that was well done. Unfortunately, the story and characters were very two-dimensional; lacking depth, compassion or true drama, this movie boils it down to stylish costumes, stereo-typed characters, and a paper thin plot. The result is a very boring example of great visual style. The only thing that could make this movie better? The mute button. 1 out of 5.
* Hombre: (1967 - Drama, western) Directed by Martin Ritt (The long hot summer, Hud, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), starring Paul Newman, Fredric March, Richard Boone, Diane Cilento, Cameron Mitchell, Barbara Rush and others. Paul Newman plays a white man raised by Apache. Living among the tribe, the death of his biological father - whom he has shunned for many years - triggers a dilemma in the main character. Hombre travels to the city, and checks out the hotel that he's inherited. It doesn't take long to make a decision regarding his inheritance. Soon afterwards, he's part of a stagecoach ride with a diverse passenger list. When the characters are held up at gun point, the drama starts to simmer. An excellent human drama with a focus on racial prejudice and equality. Great acting (Paul Newman and Richard Boone), pacing and direction mark this excellent western. The dual tensions of environment and racial prejudice create a great atmosphere for drama. The setting provides ample opportunity for great visuals, and the story is a well crafted tale with minimal distraction. 4 out of 5.
* Valkyrie: (2008 - Drama, thriller, history, war / U.S., Germany) Directed by Brian Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil, X-Men, Star Trek: Nemesis, starring Tom Cruise, Tom Wilkinson, Christian Oliver, Carice van Houten, Eddie Izzard, Thomas Kretschmann, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp
and others. The story - The Nazi leader is destroying Germany, but loyalty prevents most from making an audacious move to oust the Fuhrer. Here is the story of those brave officers and individuals who plotted the unthinkable - an assassination plot from the inside. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg leads a band of nationalistic realists - Men who can clearly see the path ahead if they continue to follow Hitler. Taking matters into their own hands, they take action and suffer the consequences. A great story, blunted only by the knowledge of the outcome. I didn't care for the casting of Tom Cruise in the title role. Cruise is too big for this role. He brings with him a certain affect on the character - and by consequence, lessened the impact of the films message. The opening character development segment was too short, and didn't suffice in it's role of character motivation. The camera work was excellent, as was the editing and technical aspects of the film (costumes, locations, sets, props). The sound work was a bit off, with the dialog being too low in contrast to the other audio components. The movie succeeds at entertainment, but it's nothing more than that. 3 out of 5.
* Stargate Continuum: (2008 - Action, adventure, fantasy, sci-fi) Directed by Martin Wood (of the Stargate TV series), this movie stars Ben Browder, Michael Shanks, Amanda Tapping, Beau Bridges, Christopher Judge and others. I hope you're familiar with the tv series, or at least you saw the original movie - If not, you'll be completely confused by the plot. The story is a time travel tale, an attempt to prevent or facilitate the plot of a captured mastermind. While the story starts in the present, it quickly jumps to Earth's past, and we're taken along for a short adventure aboard a cargo ship sailing a frigid sea. The characters remain completely undeveloped throughout the movie, and I had no idea what their motivations were. The direction was a bit odd, with characters acting in a very nonchalant manner, and a distinct lack of physical presence. Despite the fact that I'd seen the original movie, and watched a few tv shows, I struggled to comprehend the plot elements. 2 out of 5.
* The International: (2009 - Crime, drama, thriller / U.S., Germany, U.K.) Directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior), starring Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thomsen and others. The story is one of international intrigue and mystery. A thriller that spans three continents. Clive Owen plays an Interpol agent teamed up with a New York attorney played by Naomi Watts. Together this unlikely pair take on a global conspiracy led by an enemy without a conscience, an enemy so ruthless that it stops at nothing to protect it's interests, it's profits, it's shareholders. An enemy by the name of IBBC - The International Bank of Business and Credit. Believable, frightening and current. As the pair of investigators follow the leads, they uncover more and more corruption. Seeking to take down this bank, the corporation will stop at nothing to take out these two detectives. There is a shoot-out in this movie that leaves the viewer breathless and a famous landmark riddled with bullet holes. The locations are great, the buildings, the landscapes, the long shots. The victims here aren't mere mortals, they're nations and multinational organizations. The problems with the movie - A plot that's too big. The conspiracy reaches so deeply that it's hard to imagine any way to overcome the odds. The acting by Clive Owens was fine, buy Naomi Watts didn't have any impact on the movie. Great movie. 4 out of 5.
* Slumdog Millionaire: (2008 - Crime, drama, romance / U.K.) Directed by Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave,
Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine), starring a group of relatively unknown actors. Here is a fantastic tale of life in the slums of India, and India in general. It's a bit like 'City of God' for Mumbai - but nowhere nearly as violent. The main character (18 year old Jamal Malik played by Dev Patel) is a 'Slum Dog'; an orphan grown up in the slums of Mumbai. The writing is fantastic. It's two stories in one. While Jamal competes as a contestant on India's version of the game show - 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?', we (the audience, show host and a police chief) are regaled with stories of his life on the streets, his brother Salim, and his lost love Latika. The acting is outstanding, the pacing fantastic and the editing superb. Justly deserves the eight oscars it won. 5 out of 5 and I'm adding it to the 'Must Buy' list.
* The Mechanic: (1972 - Action, Thriller) Directed by Michael Winner (Scorpio, Death Wish 1,2,3), starring Charles Bronson, Jan-Michael Vincent, Keenan Wynn and others. In this thriller, Charles Bronson plays a Arthur Bishop, a 'mechanic' for a shady organization. Growing tired of his profession, and looking for an out,
Arthur takes on an acolyte; the understudy is a bit of a playboy, the son of his contact with 'the organization'. As the two train together, things begin to heat up, until a totally predictable climax. The acting was mediocre. I've never bought into the belief that Bronson was 'playing it cool'. It seems to me that he plays the same character in every film - Boring Bronson. The writing (although a bit predictable) and direction was good, but the acting really brought the movie down. Pacing and editing were well done, but Bronson's 'cool' style cooled off an otherwise hot story. 3 out of 5 (A remake with Jason Statham is scheduled for a 2010 release date).
* Operation Crossbow: (1965 - Action, drama, war / U.K.) Directed by Michael Anderson
(Around the World in 80 days, Conduct unbecoming, Logan's Run), starring Sophia Loren, Tom Courtenay, Jeremy Kemp, George Peppard, Trevor Howard, John Mills and others.
Based on historical fact, here is a WWII drama based on Nazi efforts to rain destruction on England using long range rockets. Operation Crossbow was the effort to end that threat. Late in the war, Nazi's began raining terror on England when they developed and used the V1 and V2 'Revenge' rockets. In this story, American soldiers parachute behind enemy lines as part of an effort to infiltrate and sabotage the Nazi missile production facility at Peenemunde, Germany. It's a great movie, but the film transfer quality (on this DVD copy from VHS) is horrible; detracting greatly from the films value. The acting and direction were good. The story was excellent, even if it's a bit obscure to most American audiences. Great suspense, thrilling action, and historical facts make for a great movie. Too bad the transfer sucked. 3 of 5.
* Grey Gardens: (1975 - Documentary) Directed by Albert and David Maysles, starring Edith Bouvier Beale and Edith 'Little Edie' Bouvier Beale. Here is a documentary where the subject is so powerful that direction is unnecessary. These two women are the remnants of a decaying dynasty. Relatives of Jackie O' (Jacqueline Kennedy's aunt and cousin), these women live in a co-dependent fantasy. Reliving the 'good old times' as their mansion dissolves around them. An amazing study in social isolation and co-dependecy. Filth and decay litter the rooms, cats roam the halls, raccoons live in the attic and two aging women haunt the remains of Grey Gardens - A grand old mansion (28 rooms) in the East Hamptons of Long Island, New York. Like a human car wreak,
this intimate look at a dysfunctional family is both disturbing and fascinating. One can't help but watch as the tragedy unfolds before their eyes (A remake with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore was released in 2009). 3 out of 5.
* Council of the Gods: (1950 - Drama, war, history / East Germany - Der Rat der Götter) Directed by Kurt Maetzig, starring a cast of relative unknowns (to American audiences). Produced as an East German propaganda piece, this historical fiction is based on testimony from the Nuremberg Trials (War Crimes trials following WWII). This drama is a conspiracy laden tale of capitalistic corruption versus the downtrodden citizen. Fueling the Nazi war machine, this movie shines the light on various industrialists, corporations and German aristocrats as they wheel and deal in the profits of war. The main character is a scientist; trapped in the dilemma of 'political neutrality', this well meaning scientists soon finds that his government has subverted the ideals he originally held. Despite the political slant of this movie, the premise holds just as true today as it did back in the 30's and 40's. War is good for business (provided you're in the business of war). The story is great, the acting and direction fine. Labeled 'propaganda' by some, here is an important film, swept under the floorboards of history. 4 out of 5.