Sunday, July 20, 2008

Super-heroes and arch-villains


Iron Man
Directed by Jon Favreau

Yes, TVOR knows that the Bat movie opened this weekend. She's planning to see it, but is going to wait until the hubbub dies down a little. There are options, however. Viewers can visit theaters for almost private showings of Iron Man, which has been out since early May. And that's not a bad way to spend a couple of hours. The movie has several good things going for it--a story that makes sense (in the super-hero movie way of making sense), a well-written script, and good actors who are encouraged to act--playing characters, interacting with each other, that kind of thing. The special effects are fine, too, but that's sort of expected these days. It's nice that in Iron Man, they don't get carried away with them. Those good actors include Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, and Terrence Howard. This is a super-hero movie that works even for people who usually don't like super-hero movies. Like TVOR. Yes, it's safe to go. And there are no lines.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog
Directed and co-written by Joss Whedon

This is not actually a movie. It's an internet thing. Although it's not actually a blog. And it isn't a sing-along, either, though there is a lot of singing. You'll probably just enjoy it more if you're not singing yourself. Joss Whedon, the creator of TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and others that inspire a devoted following, created Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog as a piece of internet entertainment. It's a tale in three acts, in musical form, coming in at a total of a little over 40 minutes. It tells the story of an aspiring arch-villain named Dr. Horrible, and his efforts to get into an elite club of baddies called the Evil League of Evil. Dr. Horrible also has to deal with a really irritating nemesis, Captain Hammer, and a bad case of unrequited love. It's free through July 20th, and available on iTunes after that. It's worth checking out, even if you have to pay a little.

Video notes:

If you're not in the mood for heroes and villains, there are a few recent video releases to take a look at.

The Bank Job--this entertaining caper is based on a true story about a heist gone wrong. Roger Donaldson directed, and it stars Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows. It's best not to know too much going in. Just enjoy.

My Brother is an Only Child--the story of two brothers growing up in a small town in Italy in 1960's and 70's, it also takes the viewer through some of the social changes in Italy during the time.

The Counterfeiters--this Austrian movie won the Oscar for best foreign language film last spring. It's based on a true incident that occurred during World War II, when the Germans tried to destabilize the economies of the U.S. and England by using prisoners to create perfect counterfeit currency. TVOR wrote about it in her entry of 4/2/08.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Back to the movies


The 2008 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival ended in mid-June, and although TVOR had a wonderful time and saw many, many films (with very few losers among them), she felt it was time for a hiatus from the movies. But it's time to hit the theaters again. Summer movies don't tend to be her thing, but fortunately there are interesting things out there for people who don't necessarily want to see the latest summer action film.

This is hardly an independent film, as it comes from Disney. However, WALL-E is from Pixar, which was acquired by Disney a couple of years ago. Pixar seems to have been left alone to make art (and Pixar movies are art) the way the people there want to. WALL-E is a great example of what they do, which is to make G-rated animated movies that even the most cynical adult can enjoy. The animation is beautiful, the characters are interesting, and the stories are wonderfully told.

WALL-E tells the story of a world abandoned by all humans and tended only by a little robot who is basically a trash compacter on wheels. WALL-E methodically compacts and stacks the enormous mounds of garbage left behind, and this little guy has job security--the piles of junk are endless. During the opening sequences we see WALL-E at work and get to know him as he goes about his day. It becomes apparent as we watch that there is a consciousness at work that is more than robotic. (He collects artifacts that interest him, and has a fondness for a VHS copy of Hello Dolly!, which he plays constantly.) His world is changed (for the better) when a probe is sent to evaluate earth's habitability, and the rest of the film follows him on his adventures with the visitor (named Eve) and his encounters with humans and other robots.

None of what TVOR has written gives you an idea of how lovely this film is. Let her just say that it in addition to beautiful animation and a well-told story, this movie has more humanity in it, and more food for thought, than 95% of what passes for adult entertainment today. Go see it, and see it on as big a screen as possible.

Up the Yangtze
This documentary, made by Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang, looks at the effects of China's huge Three Gorges Dam project on some of the people in the area. Two million people will be displaced by the dam by the time it's completed, and entire cities are being demolished. Much of the film takes place on a cruise up the Yangtze River for tourists (mostly Americans and Europeans) to see what is about to be flooded--farms, cities, and history--before these things disappear forever. The film focuses on the stories of two of the young people employed on the boat. We also spend time with the peasant farm family one of these employees left--the family she had to leave in order to earn money to support them as the waters rose.

Up the Yangtze also tells the larger story of change in China--the pursuit of modernity and the sacrifices made by individuals (not that they have any choice) for the good of the many.

This is definitely a movie to check out, for the individual stories and the larger story as well. Plus, you'll never get to see this scenery in person. It's already too late.

Video notes:

Andrew Stanton, the writer-director of WALL-E, also made the Pixar film Finding Nemo in 2003. It's another good one.

And for another view of how huge industrial projects are changing the landscape in China, take a look at Jennifer Baichwal's 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes. The film follows Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky around as he takes gorgeous, troubling photographs of the ecological havoc that is being wrought as China leaps into the modern world. It's light on words, but the pictures are eloquent.

Friday, June 13, 2008

SIFF draws to a close


There are three days to go at SIFF, and TVOR is happy and bleary-eyed after spending many hours staring at movie screens. Here are a few films she has seen and liked, all of which are showing in the next three days. Readers in the Seattle area can still check some of these out, and maybe even have a chance to talk to the directors.

American Son--a young marine returns home for a four day leave.
Cherry Blossoms - Hanami--love, loss, family, and Butoh dancing.
Trouble the Water--an amazing Katrina documentary, one of the best films in the festival.
Frozen River--an American independent film with two very strong central performances.
Leroy--a very entertaining German coming-of-age film about an African-German boy whose girlfriend comes from a family of neo-Nazis. Amazingly, it's sweet and funny, too.
Days and Clouds--upper middle-class Italian man loses his job, driving his wife just about nuts.
Head-On--an excellent earlier film by The Edge of Heaven director Fatih Akin.

For readers not in Seattle--go check out The Edge of Heaven. TVOR has already gone on at great lengths about the this film, so she won't do so again. Or take a look at Bigger, Stronger, Faster, the entertaining documentary about steroids, or Mongol, the Russian-made Genghis Khan biopic (he's apparently a great guy), or When Did You Last See Your Father?, a father-son drama with Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent. They're all well worth a trip to a theater. If you can't find these newer releases, you may still be able to find The Visitor, Young At Heart, or Smart People, films TVOR has already recommended.

Video Notes:

And now, for the video-dependent among you: get your hands on The Golden Door, Lady Chatterley (both blogged about on 7/31/07), The Bubble (2/29/08), or Moliere (8/1/07), film festival picks from the past now available on video.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

SIFF, steroids, and blood


TVOR has spent a lot of time at the movies lately, but not much time blogging about them. She does have her priorities. It's past the midway point of the 25-day Seattle International Film Festival, and she's been pretty pleased overall with what she's seen. Here are a few movies that stand out from the rest:

Song Sung Blue--a Neil Diamond impersonator meets, falls in love with, and does an act with a Patsy Cline impersonator. This is a documentary, and proof that truth is stranger than fiction.

Bad Habits--a nicely done Mexican film about a family with an assortment of "food issues".

Captain Ahab--a Moby Dick prequel--and it's a French film. Strange but interesting.

TBS (Nothing to Lose)--a Dutch prison escape film, very nicely done, and rather nerve-wracking.

Captain Abu Raed--this Jordanian film (the first made in the country in 50 years) is a nice little slice of life, taking place in contemporary Amman.

Days and Clouds--a very good Italian film about a middle-aged couple living the good life until an unanticipated job loss brings things to a grinding halt. By the director of Bread and Tulips.

Cherry Blossoms - Hanami--German director Doris Doerrie's new film about love, loss, family, and Butoh dancing.

And for those who have been living in the real world and not at a film festival, the documentary film Bigger, Stronger, Faster has hit the big screen in a few cities, with more to follow. You may not think you're interested in a film about steroid use in the U.S., but TVOR thinks you could very well be wrong about that. It's informative and entertaining, and worth the price of admission.

Video notes:

If you're determined to stay home and watch DVDs, There Will Be Blood is now out on video. It's beautiful to look at, wonderfully acted and directed, and yes, there is blood. Take a look at TVOR's entry on 1/20/08 for more information.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sydney Pollack--and more SIFF


Sydney Pollack died earlier this week. He directed a lot of movies that became part of our shared popular culture over the past few decades, films like They Shoot Horses, Don't They, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, Tootsie, and Out of Africa. He's made many more, but these are a few good ones to start with.

And meanwhile, in Seattle, it's seven days down, eighteen days to go at SIFF. TVOR has had a good time in the theater recently, with many more hits than misses. Here are some thoughts:

Still Life tells the stories of some of the people whose lives are affected by the Three Gorges project. It's a very well-done narrative film that is a nice accompaniment to the documentary Up the Yangtze.

For pure pleasure, you can't beat Sita Sings the Blues, an animated musical version of the Indian epic, the Ramayana--using the music of 1920's blues vocalist Annette Hanshaw. Oh, and there's a contemporary story too. Plus some unscripted discussion. It's hard to describe this movie, but take it from TVOR--you should see it. It'll get released, so watch for it.

TVOR also liked A Man's Job, a Norwegian film about an unemployed family man who posts an ad to provide handyman work and ends up providing other "services" to women.

Breakfast With Scot was a lightweight but pleasant comedy--a closeted gay couple take in very fey pre-teen. No surprises here, except that the film got the cooperation of the National Hockey League. (Half of the gay couple is an ex-professional hockey player.) Only in Canada.

Mongol was a very enjoyable big Russian-made epic about Ghengis Khan. Apparently he wasn't such a bad guy.

TVOR liked the Norwegian film The Art of Negative Thinking. She probably would have liked it even more if the reels had been screened in the proper order. It's about a support group for the disabled that is hijacked by an angry accident victim who is not in the mood to think about the bright side of things.

Good Food is a documentary about organic food, sustainable farming, eating locally--all that sort of thing. Not bad, but sort of like a PBS documentary.

California Dreamin' (Endless) is one of the best things TVOR has seen at SIFF this year. It's a Romanian film made by Cristian Nemescu, who died in an automobile accident at age 27, before the film was finished. In it, an American-led NATO group transporting some equipment by train is held up in a tiny town in Romania during the war in Kosovo. We'll never know how Nemescu would have finished the film, or what other work he would have produced. Too bad.

Katyn is a very well-done Polish film about the murder of Polish army officers by the Russian army in 1940, which was denied (and blamed on the Nazis) for decades.

You can skip Summer Heat, a Dutch erotic thriller which is neither very erotic nor very thrilling. The people are very pretty, but unfortunately, not very bright.

Monday, May 26, 2008

SIFF Update #1--plus some video suggestions


Four days down, 21 to go.

TVOR liked most of what she saw the first few days of SIFF 2008.

She enjoyed the Russian film Mermaid (but don't go in thinking it's all that Amelie-like, no matter what you hear).

She also liked The Pope's Toilet (maybe the best title in the fest), the story of a poor Uruguayan village's attempt to profit from the visit of the pope.

Ballast, an American indie, is another winner, about the aftermath of a suicide.

Boy A is an excellent film from the U.K. about a juvenile offender after his release from prison.

In Elegy, Ben Kingsley is very good as a man resisting falling in love. Dennis Hopper plays his friend, and it's nice to see him playing a character that's not a psycho.

And Up the Yangtze is a fascinating, sort of sad, sort of horrifying, sort of amazing documentary about the effects of the Three Gorges dam on the people who live in the area. The director described it as Love Boat meets Apocalypse Now. Now that's a snappy tag line.

She was less impressed with The Last Mistress by the French director Catherine Breillat, the queen of graphic sex and dysfunctional love. The Last Mistress is a period piece, with great costumes, less sex, and all of the dysfunction we have come to expect.

Transsiberian was a waste of talent and interesting locations, with unbelievably stupid characters. Don't be lured by the cast.

Video Notes:

For those not in film festival mode right now, here are some films from recent months now available on video. TVOR thought these were all worth checking out, and she blogged about them on the dates shown.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2/15/08)
Caramel (2/2/08)
Starting Out in the Evening (1/5/08)
King Corn (2/20/08)
There Will Be Blood (1/20/08)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (1/5/08)
Charlie Wilson's War (12/20/07)
Juno (1/8/08)

Also check out My Life Without Me, an earlier film by Isabel Coixet, the director of Elegy. Sarah Polley plays a young mother with terminal cancer, a subject that may make you want to run screaming from the room. Don't--the film is very nicely done.

Friday, May 23, 2008

SIFF 2008


First of all, apologies to those not in Seattle, as this entry is Seattle-centric.

The 2008 Seattle International Film Festival began last night with a screening of Stuart Townsend's Battle in Seattle. That film will never play to such a large and appreciative audience again. Much of the audience had witnessed or maybe even participated in the events surrounding the 1999 WTO meetings in Seattle. TVOR had an excellent vantage point of the goings-on in 1999 since her office was next door to the Convention Center, the epicenter of the event. (An aside--it's very disconcerting to see a police officer, in full riot gear, standing in line at the local espresso emporium, ordering a grande vanilla latte with whip. It makes you lose some of your respect for authority.)

Opening night is over, though, and now it's time for 24 more days of SIFF and hundreds of films. TVOR has seen some of these already, at press screenings and other film festivals. Here are some brief thoughts on what she's seen so far, in no particular order.

The Edge of Heaven
TVOR has gone on enough about this one by SIFF 2008 Emerging Master Fatih Akin. It's good.

An earlier Akin film. Also very good. And on video if you can't see it on the big screen.

Seach'd: The Crimson Snowdrop
Nicely photographed, in old Scottish language, but not TVOR's cup of tea.

Stranded: I've Come From a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains
A documentary about the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the early 70's and who resorted to cannibalism while awaiting rescue. TVOR didn't think she'd like this, but was pleasantly surprised. Very well done, with fascinating interviews with the survivors and amazing pictures.

My Effortless Brilliance
A good locally made film by Lynn Shelton. Guys, who are former friends, in the woods.

Emmanuel Jal: War Child
A documentary about a Sudanese child soldier who becomes a hip-hop artist. An interesting subject, but not a great film.

Continental, a Film Without Guns
A film about alienation. Maybe TVOR was feeling too alienated, but she found it forgettable.

The Red Awn
The first film directed by the screenwriter of Shower, which TVOR really liked. Unfortunately, this did not live up to her hopes for it. Beautiful to look at, but the characters weren't quite sketched out enough, she thought.

Bigger Stronger Faster
A documentary about steroid use, this was another film TVOR didn't expect much from, but she really liked it. There's a personal element, plus lots of interviews. A definite recommendation.

Let the Right One In
A Swedish vampire flick. What's not to like? Not too gory and actually kind of sweet. Definitely worth seeing.

Garden Party
No. Just don't do it.

Savage Grace
TVOR was reminded of the first line of Anna Karenina, the one about how happy families are all alike, and unhappy families are unhappy in all sorts of different ways. This family takes many ways of being unhappy and tries to do all of them simultaneously. Pretty well done, with good acting (Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, etc.), but these are not people TVOR wanted to spend time with.

The Girl by the Lake
Italian police procedural. A good one.

The 3 Little Pigs
French Canadian men behaving badly. TVOR was not as amused as she was supposed to be.

Before the Rains
An Indian film with a western feel. No singing, no dancing, no sign of Bollywood anywhere. This takes place during colonial times, but is more from the viewpoint of the Indians than the British. Worth seeing. And beautiful to look at.

The Home Song Stories
TVOR thought this film, telling the story of a troubled immigrant mother in Australia, was very good, with an outstanding performance by Joan Chen.

Jar City
When was the last time you saw an Icelandic crime drama? This one is good.

Mister Foe (also called Hallam Foe)
Jamie Bell is very good in this British sort-of-comedy about a teenager who adopts what might be called an unconventional lifestyle.

One Hundred Nails
This didn't work for TVOR. Maybe she's too shallow.

Games of Love & Chance
A 2003 film from Emerging Master Abdel Kechiche is a contemporary take on the Marivaux play. Very well done. Also on video.

Sexy Beast

Sir Ben Kingsley not looking very Sir-like. He plays a wonderful baddie in this very entertaining crime caper from 2000. Another one that's on video.

And that's just to start. More later.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Finally coming to a theater near you


There are some big movies out now but TVOR has been otherwise engaged. Recently, any time she has spent watching films has been at press screenings for the upcoming Seattle International Film Festival. Instead of superheroes she has been spending time with the usual parade of real people from around the world who populate film festival screens. But more about SIFF in a later entry.

It's always nice when good films, after making the festival rounds for a while, actually get distribution so that more people can see them. This doesn't happen nearly as often as you might wish. A few of TVOR's favorites from the past year can now be seen in theaters.

The Edge of Heaven
Written and directed by Fatih Akin

TVOR saw The Edge of Heaven at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. At that time, it didn't have distribution in the U.S. but justice has finally prevailed and it is opening today in New York, eventually to work its way into at least some of the rest of the country. This is an excellent film, one of the best things out there right now. It's hard to describe it exactly--it's about several characters, Turkish, German, and Turkish-German, whose lives intersect in ways that explore life in contemporary Europe, the lives of immigrants, human nature, etc. TVOR told you it was hard to describe. But it is definitely worth seeing.

Directed and co-written by Joachim Trier

This Norwegian film was playing film festivals a year ago, and is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. As usual, the rest of the country has to wait a bit. Fortunately, it's worth it. Reprise is the story of two young men, friends and aspiring writers, who mail off their manuscripts on the same day. From there, they have very different experiences of success and failure, ups and downs--professionally, personally, and romantically. The filmmaking style is wonderful. This is Trier's first feature and TVOR can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

Son of Rambow
Written and directed by Garth Jennings

This entertaining film is the story of two young boys in 80's Britain who are completely taken with Sylvester Stallone and Rambo: First Blood. Their real lives are not too wonderful, and they devote themselves to creating their own version of the Rambo film, complete with various stunts. The movie is about childhood, friendship, and love of movies, and probably some other things too. It was playing festivals a year ago and is now playing all over the U.S.

Video notes:

Fatih Akin's earlier films are available on video, and TVOR highly recommends both Head-On and In July. See the blog entry of 9/19/07 for more information.

A few years ago, Garth Jennings directed The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which is very silly but a lot of fun.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Movies about and for humans


After a winter of dark and bloody movies with larger-than-life characters, we're now seeing some smaller-scale films with characters that might resemble people we know in the real world. TVOR isn't knocking those other films--she liked several of them a lot--but sometimes it's nice to see something a bit easier to connect with. Here are a few.

The Visitor
Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy

Thomas McCarthy's second film tells the story of Walter, a widowed professor, who has pretty much checked out of life. He is somewhat reluctantly brought back into it when he goes to stay in his little-used apartment in New York City. There he finds a young couple, victims of a real estate scam, who have moved in, thinking they have legitimately rented it. One thing leads to another--he allows them to stay temporarily, they turn out to be illegal immigrants, etc., etc. But things don't necessarily play out the way you'd think they would. The writing, acting, and directing are all very good. Richard Jenkins plays Walter, and he is just about perfect. He's one of those actors who's been in tons of films but you probably don't know his name or even recognize his face. After The Visitor you should.

Young @ Heart
Directed by Stephen Walker

You're just going to have to believe TVOR when she says you have to see this film. Young @ Heart is a documentary about a choral group made up of senior citizens (average age = 80+) from Northampton, Massachusetts who sing rock and blues songs. And they sing them in ways you've never heard them sung before. These guys are good! You find yourself really thinking about the lyrics. Songs by The Clash, Coldplay, The Ramones, Radiohead, James Brown, The Talking Heads, Bob Dylan--does TVOR need to go on? She didn't think so. If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, you're wrong. It is. Go with an old person, go with a young person, just go. And take a look at lives that are well-lived.

Smart People
Directed by Noam Murro from a screenplay by Mark Poirier

Here's another widowed professor story. What's with these academics and the dead wives? Smart People is a little more Hollywood than The Visitor, but it's still a nice character piece. The widowed professor, played by Dennis Quaid, has a couple of teen-aged kids and a ne'er-do-well brother (adopted brother as the Quaid character likes to point out) to interact with, but he's still a sad sack. Enter Sarah Jessica Parker as an ex-student. See this film for the dialog and the acting, particularly by Quaid, Ellen Page (of Juno) as the daughter, and the wonderful Thomas Haden Church as the brother.

Video notes:

The Station Agent

Thomas McCarthy's first film as a writer/director was The Station Agent, so he's two for two. Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, and Bobby Cannavale are an assortment of lonely people who may or may not connect.

The Savages

Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman play siblings dealing with the failing health of their father in this fine film from 2007, now out on video. See TVOR's entry dated 12/3/07.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Caramel (finally!)


TVOR wrote about Caramel AGES ago--before Super Tuesday, before the Superbowl, before...well, it was a long time ago. The film had opened in New York and Los Angeles and was supposedly going to make it to the hinterlands before long. HA! Boy, was that wrong. But the time is finally here--apparently the hinterlands have been adequately prepared for this sweet slice of life in Beirut--so see it! For more information, check out TVOR's 2/2/08 entry.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Counterfeiters


The Counterfeiters
Written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky

This Austrian film, based on a true story, won the 2008 Oscar for best foreign language film. During World War II, the Germans put into place Operation Bernhard, a plan to destabilize the economies of England and the United States by flooding the markets with enormous amounts funds in counterfeit pounds and dollars. To do this, they needed expert forgers. Enter Salomon Sorowitsch, who is sent to a concentration camp as a "habitual criminal" as a result of his forgery career, as well as for being a Jew. He is installed at the head of a team of prisoners with relevant skills to come up with the most perfect counterfeit British and U.S. currency possible. For the prisoners, making progress toward this goal means living in relative comfort with food and medical treatment in the same concentration camp where others are living and dying in subhuman conditions. To refuse to participate is to join the majority of the inmates. Yet to work on the project could affect the outcome of the war. The members of the team have varying opinions on their collaboration, and Sorowitsch, who as a criminal, has a different view on these things than some of his co-workers, attempts to walk a fine (and ultimately nonexistent) line between day-to-day survival and total collaboration. Complicating the situation even further is the fact that he's an artist who takes pride in his work. Karl Markovicz is outstanding as Sorowitsch, and the supporting cast is excellent as well. This is definitely one to to see. If you spend some time afterward wondering how you would behave in a similar situation...well, you wouldn't be the only one.

Video notes:

And while we're on the subject of collaboration with the Nazis as portrayed in academy-award winning foreign films, The Shop on Main Street, the 1966 winner, is another fine example. In this one, we spend time with a small and insignificant loser of a man who is given a shop to run as a result of the "Aryanization" of his small town in Slovakia. The results are not pretty.

And if all this is a little too serious for you, how about some lighter options? Here are some 2007 films now available on video. TVOR has blogged about the first three already:

Lars and the Real Girl
(see TVOR on 10/11/07)

(see TVOR on 8/1/07)

Wristcutters: A Love Story
(see TVOR on 11/10/07)

The Hoax
TVOR missed this underrated and under-the-radar film on the big screen (as did most of the world), but it's a good evening's entertainment. It's based on the true story of how in the early 1970's, author Clifford Irving bamboozled a major publishing company, as well as Life Magazine, into giving him enormous advances to produce an authorized autobiography of Howard Hughes. And that would be authorized, of course, by Hughes himself--in person. Everything about Clifford's story was pure fiction. The movie also moves into the politics of the late Nixon era, when other types of bamboozling and lying were going on. Richard Gere (yes, Richard Gere!) heads the cast as Irving, with Alfred Molina, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, and Julie Delpy in supporting roles. All are very good. Lasse Hallstrom directed. (FYI--Alfred Molina = worst co-conspirator ever.)

The Good Shepherd
TVOR was housebound and desperate and caught this one only because it was available on demand through the cable company. You don't need to see it, though. It's not terrible--it just may not be worth almost three hours of your life. It's a fictionalized version of the beginning of the CIA, with Matt Damon as the central character. You may be surprised to know that the CIA is not only driven by patriotism and trust--amazingly, it's even more driven by father and son issues! And nobody and nothing comes off very well. The cast (including Michael Gambon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Robert De Niro, and Billy Crudup) and the direction (De Niro again) are all fine, but the whole thing is just kind of gloomy. And not gloomy because of the complexities of the characters and the ethics of what they do. It's gloomy because these people--especially Mr. Damon--look just plain depressed. (FYI--Angelina Jolie = worst spy wife ever.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Anthony Minghella


Anthony Minghella died today. He wasn't very old, he wasn't around that long, and didn't make that many movies. He did direct some good ones, though, and usually wrote his own screenplays. He probably would have made quite a few more. Here are a few of TVOR's favorites.

Truly Madly Deeply
This is Minghella's first film. Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson play lovers, only one of whom, unfortunately, is alive. This is a lovely film about loss and longing and dealing with ghosts.

The English Patient
Based on the Michael Ontadjee novel, with Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott-Thomas, and Juliette Binoche in a story taking place during World War II. This was the 1997 Oscar-winner for direction, and it was beautifully done.

The Talented Mr. Ripley
Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel, the cast includes Matt Damon and Jude Law, with Philip Seymour Hoffman in a supporting role. Always check references.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Girls Rock!


Girls Rock!
Directed by Arne Johnson and Shane King

There's a nice little documentary playing in a few cities right now called Girls Rock! It follows a group of 8-to-18 year olds through a week at the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon. The program is less focused on playing great rock music (experience and talent are not necessary) and more about building confidence, working together, empowerment, and other things that girls that age may not be experiencing in their regular lives. The counselors are professional (female) musicians from bands like Sleater-Kinney. During the course of the film, we meet several girls, learn their stories, and follow them through camp until the last night when they all participate in a concert for an audience of 750. You probably won't leave humming any of the tunes (using this word loosely) you hear, but you will probably end up believing that girls can and should rock.

Video notes:

TVOR saw Girls Rock! at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2007. TVOR does like her film festivals. Here's another list of festival favorites (documentary division) which didn't have much distribution in theaters, but which are now available on video.

Heart of the Game
Written and directed by Ward Serrill

Here's another girl-related documentary, the story of the girls' basketball team at Roosevelt High School in Seattle. The film spans seven years, and coach Bill Resler is the is at the center of it as he develops his players' talents, including cross-town transfer Darnellia Russell. But will they win the big game?

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
Directed by Stanley Nelson

This is one scary movie. It tells the story of Jim Jones, the cult he founded, and the horrible ending in Guyana. In addition to some amazing footage, the film has lots of interviews with survivors of Jonestown, who seem intelligent and articulate. There's much food for thought in this one--how did this man, charismatic as he was, manage to make all these people do what they did?

Manufactured Landscapes
Directed by Jennifer Baichwal

Edward Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer who travels all over the world, photographing landscapes that have been drastically altered by industrialization. The film Manufactured Landscapes follows him around and it is mostly about these visuals, not about providing a lot of context. But oh, what visuals. Never has pollution and devastation looked so gorgeous. This film is absorbing. See it on the biggest screen you can.

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Band's Visit


The Band's Visit
Written and directed by Eran Kolirin

There's a lovely Israeli film working its way into theaters across the country. It's called The Band's Visit. An Egyptian police band on a cultural tour of Israel gets lost, and accidentally ends up in a little town in the middle of nowhere, with no way to get out until the next day. This is the story of how the Israeli townspeople, although wary, extend them hospitality for the night. There's not a lot of plot, but there's a lot going on. The film is sweet and melancholy and beautifully shot, with images that will really stick in your mind. Eran Kolirin is a first-time writer-director whose previous experience is in TV. He's definitely got the goods for film. One strange factoid about The Band's Visit--it wasn't eligible for the Oscar for foreign language film because the characters spend a lot of time speaking English (with varying degrees of success). It makes perfect sense--it was the only language the characters had in common. This is just more proof that the Oscar people are nuts.

TVOR has said enough. Check it out.

Video notes:

And while we're talking about Israeli films, here are a few TVOR likes that are available on video--

Campfire--a recent widow decides to move to the West Bank in 1981 with her two teenage daughters.
Broken Wings--another widow (this time with four children) tries to cope after the death of her husband.
Syrian Bride--a Druze woman living in the Golan Heights prepares to marry a man from Syria, for which she must cross the border, never to return.

Here are three by Eytan Fox:
Walk on Water--an Israeli intelligence officer tries to get close to a Nazi war criminal.
The Bubble--a group of young people in Tel Aviv, including gays, straights, Jews and Arabs.
Yossi & Jagger--gay Israeli soldiers.

And two by Dan Verete:
Yellow Asphalt--three short stories about bedouins.
Metallic Blues--Israeli guys go to Germany to sell a car.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Correction


Yesterday TVOR posted an entry in which she mentioned a free screening of King Corn occurring at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle, which an alert reader told her about. The screening will take place on March 22, not in February, as stated in the original entry. Unfortunately TVOR was not as alert as her reader. She apologizes for this error and any confusion it may have caused. She is glad, however, that readers living in the area will have more time to plan to attend this screening.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Good documentaries!


King Corn
Directed by Aaron Woolf

There's a wonderful little documentary floating around right now called King of Corn. It's about a couple of guys, recently graduated from college, who decide to go to Iowa (where neither is from, but both have some roots) and plant, grow, and sell an acre of corn. After all, as they find out, humans are full of it. Corn, that is. TVOR confesses that she was somewhat dubious about the entertainment value of this enterprise, but she saw and liked the film. A lot. The guys have a lot of interesting experiences while all this is happening, as it takes a while for corn to grow. Our protagonists spend time wandering around grocery stores reading labels to see how many foods have corn as an ingredient, visiting stockyards where much of the harvested grain goes, interviewing Earl Butz (Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture), the father of current farm policy, and doing all sorts of other corn-related things. This film is a little Supersize Me, a little Michael Pollan (who is interviewed in it), a little Fast Food Nation (the book, not the movie), and more. You'll find it entertaining, and unless you're more knowledgeable than most, educational as well.

The film is directed by Aaron Woolf, the cousin of one of the guys, who went to Iowa with them. When TVOR saw the film, he did a Q&A after the screening. He felt so strongly about what he learned making this film that he is opening a grocery store which sells only local foods. Hmmm.

King Corn is in a very limited release, and you'll be lucky to catch it in a theater. But an alert reader (TVOR is delighted to have readers--the fact that they are alert is icing on the cake) has pointed out that there will be a free screening at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle on Saturday, March 22nd at 4:00. Just RSVP at 800 930 6060 and press 3. See it if you can. And then start reading the labels on your food.

The Rape of Europa
Written and directed by Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham, and Bonni Cohen

There's another fascinating documentary in a few theaters right now too. It's called The Rape of Europa, and it tells the story of art theft on a grand scale before and during World War II, and how a portion of that art has been (and continues to be) restored to its rightful owners or heirs. Hitler didn't make it into art school in Vienna as a young man, but he did have a love of art. And he was Hitler. Why shouldn't he steal anything he could get his hands on? And why shouldn't his cronies steal what they wanted too? They did it on a small scale (from Jewish families as they were sent away to camps) and on a large scale (hit lists were developed for works to be targeted in countries that were about to be invaded). After the war, huge caches of art were discovered and had to be returned, as much as possible, to the rightful owners. The story goes on today, as some works are still in dispute. FYI, the book is based on a book of the same name by Lynn H. Nicholas.

Video notes:

Some films previously recommended by TVOR are now on video, so you might want to check them out if you've missed them so far. Here they are, with the blog entry dates:

Gone Baby Gone 10/20/07
We Own the Night 10/20/07
Michael Clayton 10/3/07
Into the Wild 9/28/07
Across the Universe 9/27/07

Happy viewing!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Serious fare


4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu

This movie is simply one of the best things out there right now. It's from Romania, and therefore is not going to be on everyone's radar screen. Fans of art-house cinema already know about it, though. It won the Palme d'Or at at Cannes last year, and TVOR can find no reason to quibble with that. The film tells the story of two young women in late-1980's Romania. One of the young women wants an abortion, in a country where abortion is a criminal act. The other one is a friend helping her obtain the illegal procedure. There's not really a lot of plot here, but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot going on. People may be put off by the subject matter, and that would be a shame. It's not a critique of the ethics of the procedure. It's a story of specific people in a specific place at a specific time. And it's beautifully done. A side note--for some insane reason, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was not nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the Oscars. TVOR does not know why. She wonders about the people who make those decisions, though.

Taxi to the Dark Side
Written and directed by Alex Gibney

This film is a horror film. Not the typical kind, where a mutant zombie monster does terrible things to unsuspecting humans. This is a horror movie about real people, U.S. soldiers, who torture detainees, sometimes (accidentally) killing them, and about the government that does not consider that torture to be wrong. Or torture, for that matter. This is way scarier than a mutant zombie monster, because the army and government in question are those of the United States, and if you're a U.S. citizen, that means you have to take some responsibility. The film is a documentary about U.S. government use of torture in prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo. The story used as a starting point is that of an Afghan taxi driver who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and is eventually murdered while in U.S. custody. The film goes on to be a more complete treatment of the use of torture as part of the "war on terror", and it is chilling and very disturbing. It's difficult to watch, but even-handed, as all sorts of people are interviewed, articulating various sides of the issue. Soldiers involved in the death of the Afghan taxi driver are also interviewed. This is a tough film but an important one. And this one did make the list of nominees for Best Documentary.

Video notes:

Alex Gibney made Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room in 2005. It tells the story of just how Enron blew up, taking Arthur Andersen, the utility markets, and a lot of other peoples' money along with it. Gibney does have a way with documentaries. Check this one out if you've missed it along the way.

And if all this is a bit too much for you, how about some lighter options?

Written and co-directed by Brad Bird

What a wonderful film. TVOR lost her mind temporarily when Ratatouille was in the theaters and didn't see it on the big screen. She knew she was making a mistake, but just didn't get around to it. She won't make the same mistake next time a Brad Bird animated film is released. These are films for everybody, even for people who think that they are way too old and sophisticated for animated kids' films. That may be true most of the time, but films made by Brad Bird are a different story. They are smart and sweet and funny. And gorgeous to boot.

You probably already know the story of Ratatouille. It's about a gifted young chef (who happens to be a rat) pursuing his dreams in Paris. If you've missed it, you need to experience it first hand.

Brad Bird has done two other very good animated films, which also pass the grown-up test. His first one, The Iron Giant, was largely missed when it came out in 1999 (pre-Pixar and pre-Disney). People started paying attention when The Incredibles, the story of a family of superheroes, was released in 2004. They're both well-written, well-acted, well-directed, and the animation is excellent.

Monday, February 4, 2008

U2 3D


U2 3D
Directed by Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington

This little blurb is easy. If you like U2, go see this film! And if you don't, it's probably not for you. U2 3D is a concert film shot at some of U2's South American shows on their Vertigo tour a couple of years ago. The photography is impressive, and the 3D is used well, not for gimmickry. TVOR saw it on an IMAX screen, so not only was the Edge's microphone sticking out of the row ahead of her, it was REALLY BIG. So see it, and see it in 3D, on the biggest screen you can. If you're in Seattle, it's playing at Seattle Center's IMAX only through next weekend. If you're elsewhere, you can find a location on the movie's website. Get that concert experience at a fraction of the cost, in far more comfort, and with way better seats than you would ever get in the non-virtual world.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Caramel and other sweet things


Written and directed by Nadine Labaki

Caramel is a lovely little Lebanese slice of life. The film centers around a small beauty shop in Beirut, and tells the stories of the women who work there, their customers, and people in the neighborhood. The filmmaker Nadine Labaki plays the owner of the beauty shop, and most of the rest of the cast consists of unprofessional actors, who look and act exactly right. There's not a lot of plot here--the women bond and deal with romantic issues, for the most part--but the film shows us a Beirut we don't hear much about, a lovely city inhabited by regular people, Christians and Muslims who live and work together. This is a nice gentle film, one that will warm you up on a winter day. The film has opened in New York and Los Angeles, and will work its way into the hinterlands soon.

Video notes:

TVOR saw Caramel while spending a few days at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. TVOR loves film festivals. So many choices, so many opportunities step into the unknown. Sure, sometimes you get a nasty surprise, but sometimes you are unexpectedly delighted as well. With this posting TVOR will start occasionally listing some of her film festival favorites now available on video. These are films that found only limited distribution, or none at all, but thanks to DVD, can be seen by a wider audience than that hardy group of cinephiles who haunt film festivals. The first group includes a few American indies:

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Directed by Seth Gordon

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is just out on video this Super Bowl week. And how appropriate. On Sunday, the two top football teams will duke it out. And in this documentary film, the two best Donkey Kong players in the world will fight for a championship as well. We, the viewers, have our favorite, and we root for him in his battle against his tough opponent. And this is as it should be. If you think video games (and particularly ones from decades ago) are boring, and a movie about a video game championship battle couldn't possibly be of interest, TVOR understands completely, for she once felt as you do. She still thinks that video games are boring, but this movie about a video game championship is anything but. Check out TVOR's posting of 9/4/07 for more information if you're interested.

Four Sheets to the Wind
Written and directed by Sterlin Harjo

This is a coming of age film about a young Native American man who leaves the reservation and goes to the big city of Tulsa. Sweet and low-key, it's definitely worth watching.

Written and directed by Doug Sadler

Another coming of age story, this one is a family drama set on the Maryland coast, with quite a few things going on simultaneously (as they tend to in families). The central character is a twelve year old girl, and the story is largely seen from her point of view. The film has a strong sense of place and is beautifully acted.

The Big Bad Swim
Directed by Ishai Setton

There is no similarity between this swimming film and the one above. The Big Bad Swim is a comedy about an adult swimming class for those who are afraid of the water, taught by an ex-Olympic athlete who has his own issues. Each student has his or her own story, and they are woven together quite nicely.

Rocket Science
Written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz

Hey, how about another coming of age story, this one about high school debating as an introduction to life? Oh, and the kid stutters, too. Filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz's last film was the wonderful documentary Spellbound, about several contestants competing at the National Spelling Bee. It turns out he can make narrative films too. Rocket Science is funny and wonderful as our protagonist begins to learn about debate, life, and love.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

There Will Be Blood (no kidding)


There Will Be Blood
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Here's another one of those big-deal, high-quality, awards-seeking films that came out in 2007 but have taken a little longer to get released across the country. There Will Be Blood was definitely worth waiting for. The story starts at the end of the 19th century, following the life of a prospector who becomes an oil man, and along with that, the growth of the U.S. oil industry. And what a guy that oil man is. As played by Daniel Day-Lewis, he's a fascinating and scary creature, a combination of civilized man and dangerous animal, who buys oil-drilling rights at indefensibly low prices and proceeds to make lots of money. Along the way, he picks up a son (courtesy of partner killed in a mining accident) and an ongoing battle with a not-particularly-Jesus-like evangelizing preacher, played by Paul Dano. The look of this film is wonderful, from the long, mostly silent, opening sequence through to the bitter and bloody end. (You can't say you weren't warned by the title.) And the sound is great too. The score is by Jonny Greenwood of the band Radiohead, and it's just about perfect, adding to the cinematic experience but not overpowering it.

This is a wonderful movie, with a great central performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. See this film.

Video notes:

Eastern Promises
Directed by David Cronenberg

Here's another one from 2007. This film came out just a few months ago, but is already available for your video viewing pleasure. It's a story about Russian mob activity in London, but it's not the London of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. It's a London populated by immigrants and home to all sorts of sordid illegal activity. Viggo Mortensen play a slick Russian mobster and Naomi Watts is a midwife (and a first-generation Russian immigrant), trying to find the family of a baby orphaned at birth. The film is well-done, and the acting is excellent, especially Mortensen as a very un-Aragorn-like member of the London underworld. TVOR's one complaint is that the character played by Watts is really dumb. If you found out that people you were dealing with were dangerous gangsters, would you then take the opportunity to throw a hissy fit and give them a piece of your mind? TVOR didn't think so. You probably enjoy being alive and would like to remain so. In spite of this flaw, the film is still worth seeing.

Paul Thomas Anderson hasn't made a huge number of movies (he's still a young guy) but he's made some good ones. Check out Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love (the only Adam Sandler movie TVOR has ever seen) if you've missed them along the way.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008



Directed by Jason Reitman
Screenplay by Diablo Cody

A fair amount of ink has been spilled about the fact that two of the most popular (and funny) comedies of the year deal with unwanted pregnancies, and what it all means, especially the fact that in this age of choice (however long that lasts), abortion is not seriously considered as an option in these films, much less chosen. It's an interesting question, but TVOR won't go there. These are comedies, after all. If serious films start getting made about unwanted pregnancies, and still no one is talking about the "a" word, then that'll be different. TVOR would just be happy if there were no more movie characters with above-average IQs (and real people, for that matter) who express surprise when they have unprotected sex and conception occurs. HELLO! That's how it works!

OK, down to business. Juno is about a 16-year old girl who gets pregnant, decides to have the baby, picks out prospective adoptive parents from the Nickel Want Ads, and keeps the audience very well entertained while she does it. It's a very funny, well-written, well-acted, well-put together film. Maybe not so realistic, but it's a movie, right? And the characters seem human, if not very similar to folks you actually know. If only people were that witty in real life. The cast is wonderful, especially Ellen Page as Juno and Michael Cera as the baby daddy. Definitely one to see.

Video notes:

Jason Reitman's first film was Thank You for Smoking, an entertaining satire about a tobacco lobbyist (Aaron Eckhart). The film is based on Christopher Buckley's novel of the same name. It's sort of satire lite, not too cutting, but it does have some nice bits.

The other unwanted pregnancy comedy of the year is, of course, Knocked Up, written and directed by Judd Apatow. This one makes the case that men are drifting underachievers, waiting to be civilized by women, a superior sex. Whatever. It's funny, and Paul Rudd is in it, which is always a plus.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Happy 2008--let's see some movies!


It's 2008 now, but TVOR is still trying to digest 2007's goodies--and there were a lot of them. These films have been out for a few weeks, and may stick around a while longer if they get any awards nominations--which would be entirely warranted.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Directed by Sidney Lumet from a script by Kelly Masterson

Sydney Lumet has been directing television and film for 60 years, and he's gotten pretty good at it. His latest film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, proves that he hasn't lost his touch. It's a genre film--the crime drama--but it's a genre film made by a master. It's a story of a heist gone horribly wrong. And when TVOR says horribly wrong, she means HORRIBLY wrong. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play brothers who rob their parents' jewelry store (you can see that the likelihood of things not working out is extremely high). Albert Finney plays their father. This is no Shakespearean tragedy. These are not great men with tragic flaws that bring them down. These are small men, motivated by greed, jealousy, lust, revenge, and other unseemly things. The characters aren't particularly sympathetic, but the writing and directing and acting (including Marisa Tomei as Hoffman's wife) come together so that we understand something about these people at the same time we are appalled by them.

Starting Out in the Evening
Directed by Andrew Wagner

Frank Langella spends most of his time on stage, but in Starting Out in the Evening, he has a great film role and does a wonderful job. He plays an aging, out-of-print author, who becomes the master's thesis project of a young graduate student (Lauren Ambrose) who worms her way into his actual as well as his literary life. Lily Taylor plays the author's daughter. This is a well-made, thoughtful, smaller-scale movie that's a nice change of pace from the rest of the year-end stuff.

Video notes:

Some of the better films of 2007 are already out on video.

Zodiac was seen by few people in theaters, yet is showing up on a lot of year-end best film lists. It's the story of the real Zodiac killer, active in California in the 1960's and 70's, and is based on a book by one of the newspapermen involved in the story from its earliest days. David Fincher, best known for Fight Club and Se7en, directed the film. Although Zodiac deals with a serial killer, the emphasis is not on the murders, but the attempts by police and the press to find the killer. Three excellent actors (Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr.) head the cast, and as the film progresses, and various leads are followed and dropped, we get a picture of the difficulties of dealing with a smart, crazy criminal--even if it's a crazy criminal who likes publicity. A heads-up: this is a long film. It was a very long, tough slog to try to solve these crimes. But if you've got about two and a half hours, this is not a bad way to spend it.

3:10 to Yuma isn't on a lot of best-films lists, but it's making it into some honorable mention sections, and TVOR liked it. It's a western with a really bad guy (Russell Crowe) and a really good guy (Christian Bale). What more do you need in a western, especially when those guys have a good script to work with, and can act?

Check out some of Sidney Lumet's work: Fail-Safe, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Equus, The Pawnbroker, The Verdict...the list goes on and on.