GO FISH: Review of Fish Tank

This was originally published when I saw it at AFI last week, but since it just had it’s official opening, I’m republishing it.

FISH TANK: One of those coming of age stories of kids rebelling against their parental figures and losing their virginity. But don’t let they stop you from seeing this sharp and moving tale of teenage angst by the writer/director Andrea Arnold who also made one of my favorite films of 2006, Red Road. The lead character is 15 year old Mia played with ferocious non-stop fury by newcomer Katie Jarvis. Katie is angry, but it’s unclear why; she’s just angry, almost existentially so. She doesn’t get along with her mother or her sister or her friends (actually, she has no friends). She finds herself physically attracted to her mother’s most recent lover Connor, played by a sexually charged Michael Fassbender whose first entrance is in jeans with such a low rise one keeps expecting them to fall to the floor (or does one hope they will fall to the floor). Her only dream is dancing and an appointment she has made to audition for a dance troupe. Her hopes are constantly dashed. She has hot sex with Fassbender, who then tells her they can’t do it again. He turns out to be married and has a child and breaks Mia’s mother’s heart when he ups and leaves with no reason given. And the dance audition turns out to be for a strip club. But that doesn’t stop her from taking control of her life and going off with a boy a bit closer to her own age; it may seem like a downer ending, but it’s really not. The story itself gets a little off center when Mia discovers Connor is married; the author doesn’t seem to know exactly what to do next and fills the plotline with one red herring after another. But other than that, a coming of age film that rises above the others.


Another in my series of five greats in movies:  films in which Nazis are the butt of the jokes

the-famous-globe-scene-in-the-great-dictatorThe Great Dictator







producersspringtimeforhitlerThe Producers





ToBE6To Be Or Not To Be






life is beautifulLife is Beautiful





youtube__stalag_17_pt_10_425Stalag 17

FIVE GREAT APOCALYPTIC FILMS: It’s the end of the world as we know it

My five favorite movies revolving around the end of the world, or at least civilization as we know it.

invasion_of_the_body_snatchers_1978_movie_image_donald_sutherland_01Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)







Dawn of the Dead (1978)



Last NightLast_Night_1998






61U0EwptP6L._SL1024_La Jetee







1474_5Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

AND THERE ROUNDING ANOTHER BEND: Short List for Foriegn Film Noms, WGA noms, The Golden Globes

The short list for the foreign film Oscars were released. As the article below suggests, there probably won’t be any big controversy this year as in years past. The only real surprise is Baaria, by the director of the popular Cinema Paradiso, didn’t make the grade. My best friend in Chicago predicts Winter in Wartime will win since it has the two most popular ingredients for a an Oscar win: kids and WWII. The White Ribbon is also about kids and has some ties to WWII, but I don’t think it’s the sort of film the foreign language group picks.

The WGA nominations came out as well. It’s hard to say how these will impact the Oscar noms since many screenplays like An Education, In the Loop, A Single Man and Inglorious Basterds were not even eligible.


As for the Golden Globes, the win for Sandra Bullock suggests strong that she will now get a nomination, though I still think Meryl Streep will win. In addition, it’s possible that James Cameron could win best director, but I still think Up in the Air will win best picture.

AND WE’RE OFF: Review of 3 Idiots

This is my first review of a 2010 movie. The countdown for next year’s Howies begins.

3 Idiots, a new Bollywood movie, is silly, ridiculous, overly sentimental with a wobbly tone and pounds you over the head with its message. But after about twenty minutes, something happens and you become so overwhelmed by its good nature and its energy, that you just give in and by the time the credits roll, you come out of the theater feeling absolutely wonderful (the showing I was at, a couple left just before things got good; in all honesty, I was about to join them, but thank god, I didn’t). The movie is an attack on the Indian college system like Charles Dickens’ Hard Times is an attack on the English school system and The Paper Chase is an attack on the values that U.S. law schools instill in their students. In the India of this movie, children are told what they are going to major in by their parents at the moment of birth (if you’re a man, you become an engineer; if a woman, a doctor). The pressure to succeed is so great, that India, according to the movie’s hero, has the highest college suicide rate in the world. The three idiots are freshman roommates. One doesn’t want to be an engineer, but wants to be a wildlife photographer, so he can’t put his heart into his studies. A second has to succeed because his parents are so poor; as a result he becomes blocked by fear of failure and he also can’t do well. The third idiot is Rancho, played by Amir Khan, one of India’s most popular stars (he was the lead in another Indian movie that also attacked the Indian school system, Like Stars on Earth). Rancho is someone so in love with engineering, he has no trouble succeeding. But he is also a rebel, refusing to go along with the status quo, always questioning the teachers, the dean and his biggest enemy, played by Rajeev Ravindranathan, who is determined to be the best, but just can’t pass Rancho. You can try to resist Khan’s charms, but I wouldn’t advise it. He just gives the movie his all and there’s little you can do but join in and let him make you happy. And then, just at intermission, the plot takes a weird turn and the story speeds off in a new, but fun, direction. There are plenty of musical numbers, the oddest one perhaps taking place in the dorm shower room, complete with singers singing while sitting on the toilet. But the high point, musically has to be the love song between Rancho and Pia, the daughter of the dean that Rancho falls in love with. Probably a movie you’ll have to seek out to see, but it’s well worth it.

ART ISN’T EASY: Reviews of Crazy Heart and The Last Station

The last two reviews of the 2009 year. I will start 2010 with a review of 3 Idiots.

The first part of Crazy Heart, a movie about a broken down, down on his luck, alcoholic country western singer is exhilarating. Jeff Bridges is impressive in the part of Bad Blake and the scenes of people singing their hearts out to country western tunes shows just why this type of music connects deeply with its fans. The first part of the film reaches quite an impressive climax with the appearance of Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet, a former backup singer to Bad Blake, but now an even bigger star on his own. Tommy is still so in awe of Blake and realizes just how much he owes this man, he can’t even look him in the face when they spend time together. They have an exhilarating duet when Tommy joins Blake on stage during one of his numbers, perhaps in an attempt to show Blake that he can help his former mentor if Blake would just let him. But Blake is stubborn and refuses to write any new songs; that is, until Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her appearance as Jean, a newspaper reporter who interviews Blake. At this point, formula completely takes over and there’s not an unpredictable moment left in the story, written by the director, Scott Cooper. Even Jean never really comes alive as a real person. She’s just the typical female character one usually sees in this sort of film, not there because she would be, but there because the author needs her to be. She has one unintentionally funny scene where Blake loses Jean’s four year old son in a mall and she shows up furious at him; all I could think of was Claude Rains in Casablanca (“I’m shocked, shocked that an alcoholic, broken down, dysfunctional singer would lose my son”). The movie is buoyed by some fun scenes between Blake and his agent where the agent takes all the anger and nastiness Blake gives him, but is willing to allow it (up to a point) because Blake is, well, Blake. But all in all, this is a movie that has its moments with some fantastic music, but is told in a way that is too overly familiar to really grab me like I would want it to.

The Last Station is about the last days of the great writer Leo Tolstoy (played in appropriately grand style by Christopher Plummer) and the fight over his memory and inheritance between his wife, Sofya, played like a character from a Euripedean tragedy by Helen Mirren (as Tolstoy says, “she needs a Greek chorus”), and Chertkov, the head of the Tolstoy movement, played by Paul Giamatti, who from an acting standpoint, seems to be more than up to the fight. Caught between the two factions is Vladimir Bulgakov, an aspiring writer and devoted Tolstoyian (he’s even a virgin) who is sent to spy on the Tolstoy’s by Chertkov, but becomes sympathetic to Sofya’s point of view. Bulgakov, though well played by James McAvoy (and the part is better suited to him since he’s a much better character actor than romantic lead), is never quite convincing. He is more of a device of the writer Michael Hoffman (who also directed) and the efforts Hoffman goes to in order to keep him front and center to the conflict at times seem a little forced. The conflict between Sofya and Chertkov is mainly defined in the movie in sexual terms—whether one should have it or not. The more political aspects of Tolstoy’s religion and philosophy (ideas that influenced Martin Luther King and Ghandi) are given little more than lip service. Because of this, the fight seems too one sided; today, it’s hard to sympathize with anyone who wants people to be celibate. As a result, the battle, though glorious at times, is not as strong as one might wish it to be. What gives the conflict the strength it does is the acting. Everyone more than rises to the occasion and delivers. Mirren is wonderfully sexy and passionate. Sofya is willing to humiliate herself to win and Mirren is able to make us not dislike Sofya for doing so. Plummer disappears behind Tolstoy’s beard and finds the down to earth humanity of the iconic writer. The smaller cast gives able support. It all looks great and at times it’s a lot of fun.

THE 2009 HOWIES, my pick for best of 2009

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve finally completed my list of best films, acting, directing and writing of 2009, which I always call the Howies.

Best Film:

Tokyo Sonata

Runners Up:

The Beaches of Agnes

The Hurt Locker

In the Loop

Inglorious Basterds

Of Time and the City

A Prophet

Red Cliff

A Serious Man

Still Walking

Though the runners up are in alphabetical order, the Beaches of Agnes was my second favorite film of the year and The Hurt Locker came in third.

So, so close (in alphabetical order)

(500) Days of Summer

An Education

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Lorna’s Silence




A Single Man


Three Monkeys

And two shout outs of movies that only played at festivals, but don’t have a release yet:

City of Life and Death

Sita Sings the Blues

I have two special awards for Ensemble. I know it’s cheating, but it gives me more room for awards in the acting categories:


Star Trek

Best Actor

Toni Servillo Il Divo; Gomorrah

Runners Up (in alphabetical order)

Nicholas Cage Bad Lieutenant

Colin Firth A Single Man

Tahar Rahim A Prophet

Michael Stuhlbarg A Serious Man

So, so close (in alphabetical order):

Jeff Bridges Crazy Hearts

Matt Damon The Informant!

Ben Foster The Messenger

Paul Giamatti Cold Souls; The Last Station

Baard Owe O’Horten

Jeremy Renner The Hurt Locker

Best Actress – Tie

Yolando Moreau Seraphine

Tilda Swinton Julia

Runners Up (in alphabetical order)

Arta Dobroski Lorna’s Silence

Carey Mulligan An Education

Meryl Streep Julie and Julia; It’s Complicated

So, so close (in alphabetical order)

Nina Hoss Jerichow; A Woman in Berlin

Helen Mirrin The Last Station

Catalina Saavedra The Maid

Best Supporting Actor

Christophe Waltze Inglorious Basterds

Runners Up (in alphabetical order)

Niels Arestrup A Prophet

Peter Capaldi In the Loop

Vlad Ivanov Police, Adjective

Christian McKay Me and Orson Welles

So, so close (in alphabetical order)

Colllin Farrell Crazy Hearts

John Malkovich The Great Buck Howard

Alfred Molina An Education

Christopher Plummer The Last Station; 9; The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Jeremie Renier Lorna’s Silence

Paul Schneider Bright Star

Tsutomu Yamazaki Departures

Best Supporting Actress

Mo’Nique Precious

Runners Up (in alphabetical order)

Kirin Kiki Still Walking

Kyoko Koizumi Tokyo Sonata

Julianne Moore A Single Man

Samantha Morton The Messenger

So, so close (in alphabetical order)

Vera Formiga Up in the Air

Anna Kendrick Up in the Air

Best Director – Tie

James Cameron Avatar

John Woo Red Cliff

Runners Up (in alphabetical order)

Katherine Bigelow The Hurt Locker

Kiyoshi Kurosawa Tokyo Sonata

Quentin Tarantino Inglorious Basterds

So, so close (in alphabetical order)

Wes Anderson The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Lee Daniels Precious

Chan-wook Park Thirst

Agnes Varda The Beaches of Agnes

Best Screenplay

Armando Ianucci

Jesse Armstrong

Tony Roche

Simon Blackwell In the Loop

Runners Up (in alphabetical order)

Joel & Ethan Coen A Serious Man

Nick Hornby An Education

Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Max Mannix

Sachiko Tanaka Tokyo Sonata

Scott Neustadter

Michael H. Weber (500) Days of Summer

So, so close (in alphabetical order)

Wes Anderson

Noah Baumbach The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Mark Boal The Hurt Locker

Special awards

Christian Berger: Cinematography – White Ribbon

Alberto Iglesias: Music – Broken Embraces

Production Design – Angels & Demons


So long until next year.

THE EVIL THAT MEN DO: Reviews of The White Ribbon and A Prophet

Near the end of The White Ribbon, the great Austrian director Michael (Code: Unknown, Cache) Haneke’s most recent film, a schoolteacher tells a group of children, “There’s something you’re not telling me”. As much as I admire Haneke, in the end I wanted to say the same thing to him. The film, I’m afraid, went over my head, and I felt as if there was something that Haneke just wasn’t letting me in on. It takes place just before the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and the beginning of WWI. Over the course of a year, some odd things happen in a small German town. It begins when someone strings a wire across two trees so that it will trip a doctor returning home on his horse; serious injuries occur. Over the course of a year, a woman dies accidentally; the very young son of the local Baron is abducted and beaten; a baby almost dies because a window is left open; someone commits suicide; a retarded little boy is then abducted and tortured; etc., etc. You know there’s something wrong from the first moment when you see the children of the local pastor and they all look like the cold, blond children from Village of the Damned. The origin of the evil is unclear. On one side is the pastor who is severely strict with his children and sexually repressive; on the other is the Doctor, who though not portrayed as an atheist, does not seem to attend church—he sexually abuses his daughter and sexually humiliates his mistress. In spite of what seems like a lot of awful things happening, they happen over such a long course of time and sometimes seem to have no relation to each other, that I found little tension to the story. A narrator suggests that things are festering in the village and have been for some time; I’m glad he told me, because I don’t think I would have known otherwise. The plot ends without an explanation as to who did some of what happened; this would have been fine if that had been the intent of Haneke, to say that the origin of evil is something we don’t understand. But I’m not convinced that that’s what he was trying to say. It seems to come closer to an idea that sexual repression and sexual hypocrisy is what causes evil, but I have a hard time taking seriously the idea that just because someone is forbidden to masturbate, Europe goes to war. It does look great, though. The bleak and striking black and white photography, greatly celebrated, is by Christian Berger.

A Prophet, the thrilling new film from Jacques Audiard (who also gave us The Beat That My Heart Skipped), has been compared by some to the Godfather. I think a more apt comparison is to Scarface since A Prophet is the story of a teenager sent to an adult jail, a man of Muslim and Middle Eastern background, and then climbs the ranks of the Corsican Mob and becomes head honcho. It’s not a particularly happy movie. The lead character of Malik, in a magnificent performance by Tahar Rahim, has little control over his life once he enters this prison for six years. The Corsican mob, headed by Cesar (an equally compelling performance by Niels Arestrup), needs a Middle Eastern prisoner, a witness in a trial, killed, so he forces Malik to do it or die himself. After that, Malik becomes Cesar’s lapdog, but he slowly gets an education and because he can stride both sides of the narrow world due to his Muslim background and his connections to the Corsicans, he learns how to play one against the other until he betrays Cesar and takes over Rome (the scene of Malik’s final triumph over Cesar in the prison yard is a powerful moment). Malik’s journey is an exciting one. The screenplay, by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain form an original screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit, has a Shakespearian structure out of something like Richard III or King John and could almost be a how to manual for climbing the French Mafia ladder. One could question whether someone who can’t even read could suddenly have an epiphany and educate himself enough to do what Malik does here, but the story is too fascinating to make one care. The world the authors paint is bleak and the indictment of the French penal system is just as dark as Kafka’s. The prison is not run by the guards and warden, it’s run by the mob, and all programs set up to help reform the prisoners (like giving them a basic education or work leave) are just ways to help criminals become better at what they do (I don’t think we’re in Oz anymore, Dorothy). It’s a very nihilistic view of the world; evil runs everything, and if we are untouched by it, we are merely lucky. At the same time, there’s something a little contradictory here. If evil is so controlling, then it may be unclear how the head of the Corsican mob ended up in jail probably to die there.


I am behind in my entries on the Awards race. The National Society of Film Critics came out last week and I haven’t commented on it yet. The NSFC awards are my favorite. They are the most eccentric and esoteric and the group usually make the best decisions, or closest to the best, when it comes to the best of the year. But their impact on the Academy Award nominations are usually pretty nil.

They went along with many major award groups and gave The Hurt Locker best of the year along with best actor and director. The Hurt Locker is expected to get a best picture and director nom as it is. However, the win for Jeremy Renner can’t hurt. It will keep reminding people about his performance as they read those Please Consider… ads. The best actress went to Yolando Moreau for Seraphine. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to conceive she will receive a best actress nomination though she, along with Tilda Swinton for Julia who also won’t get a nom, gave the best performances of the year. Best supporting actor and actress went to the usual suspects: Christophe Waltz and Mo’Nique, both of whom are suppose to win the Oscars. The interesting thing here is that Waltz tied with Paul Schneider who gave a great performance in Bright Star. But supporting actor is a tight race and it’s unlikely this will help Schneider make the list.

It does look like I’ll have to remove Nine from my list of possible contenders. It just seems to do nothing but lose buzz. I will now replace it with An Education. Emily Blunt is getting good reviews for Young Victoria, but the buzz isn’t there so I will replace her with Sandra Bullock for the Blind Side. I will add Jeremy Renner to my best actor list. Everything else stays the way it is as of now.

REFLECTIONS: Review of The Beaches of Agnes

In 1991, a year after Agnes Varda’s husband Jacques Demy died sadly from AIDS, Varda released a film she made based on his life. It was called Jacquot. Demy is the brilliant director of such films as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lola and Varda’s look at her husband’s life was filled with a deep love. It was a beautiful, emotionally laden movie told in recreations and puppet animation. It was my favorite movie of that year. Now in 2010, she has followed up that story with The Beaches of Agnes, an equally beautiful and emotionally laden film about her own life. It’s a hard movie to describe because it’s not told like a traditional biography, like something one might see on PBS. It begins with Varda setting up mirrors on the Beach of Agnes (she spent much of her life on or near beaches) as a metaphor for what she is doing perhaps, creating not her life, but a reflection of it. Varda is often considered the mother of the French new wave and often credited with creating the first new wave film La Pointe-Courte. Her most noted films, at least in the U.S., are Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond and The Gleaners and I. Here she uses scenes from those and others of her movies, often taking a still from a film and superimposing it over their modern day locations, to tell her life story; she recreates scenes from her growing up during WWII living on a boat where she and her siblings had to wear life jackets in case they fell off (which they constantly did); she uses photos and old movies; she interviews old friends (Harrison Ford shows up in a cameo because he auditioned for one of her films and the studio told him to give up acting) as well as local people she used in her movies; she films her family (her son is actor Mathieu Demy, though he seems rather camera shy here playing himself, and her daughter Rosalie, the love child of Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo in Umbrellas… is a costume designer); she walks backwards, leading us into the past; she recreates a painting of Maigret of two lovers whose faces are covered in material, then shows their whole bodies, a nude man and woman (with the man sporting a full erection); at one point she uses a cardboard cutout of a car that is pasted onto some small motorized vehicle to show how difficult it was to park in a garage (it would take her 13 back and forths to get it in). It’s like watching your grandmother recreate her life story in front of your eyes, painfully moving in its beauty (well, your grandmother might have omitted the scene with the nude man). Though she rarely achieved the fame of filmmakers like Truffaut and Goddard, she never stopped finding ways to make movies; wherever she found herself, she got a camera and started shooting. Though at times it seems as if she is doing this to say goodbye, one hopes this isn’t true.