Author Archive

“Bitter Rice”

Saturday, March 19th, 2016


Bitter Rice”, made in 1949, is the sort of fascinating artifact you don’t come across every day, though perhaps such a concoction is more common today. It daringly combines the ethos of Italian neo-realism and the tensions of a noir thriller—exemplifying the former with bold, amazing footage of a great annual rice harvest in northern Italy’s Po valley in which hundreds of women work together and defy the heat, the rain and the nearby army base to make money for their families; and by the latter in the story of a thief and his girlfriend on the run with stolen jewels, mixing and interacting with the women (and a few men) of the rice harvest crew to hide from the law.  This encounter inevitably leads to tension and violence, with the beautiful rice harvester Silvana—who is not a thief, but has a weakness for dashing men– as the love interest of both the thief and a soldier.  “Bitter Rice” is a movie then, that can almost be watched as a documentary—one of its early shots is a breathtaking 360-degree shot of the opening day of the harvest—and as an exciting, tragic tale of crime and criminality. Do these two elements mesh? I would say yes, for the most part.  For while the end may be considered over-the-top by some, it still comes with a hearty recommendation, as the Criterion Collection once again proves its abundant talent at re-introducing the treasures of film history.

(Not rated; some violence)

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“Show me a hero”

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

"Show Me a Hero"

How does an American city become racially segregated and, more importantly, how does it reform itself in order to tear down, in however small a way, that divide? The new DVD set, “Show me a hero”, from HBO and the producer/writer David Simon (“The wire”), is a powerful 6 episode mini-series that dramatically recreates the second half of that question. Based on the non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin, the story spans a five year period, from 1987 to 1992; the setting is Yonkers, New York, just north of New York City. The issue—seemingly small perhaps from some folk’s perspective, but really an epic conflict that represents, in a local way, such fights in numerous times and places—was over housing. More exactly, could residents of a crime-ridden housing project on the “wrong side of town” be moved into their own houses on the other side of town—the side that happened to be predominantly white and middle-class? Simon and director Paul Haggis (“Crash”) plunge us into the heart of this fight, and in that center, slowly changing his mind as he sees the writing on the wall, is Mayor Nick Wasicsko, played with amazing energy and focus by Oscar Isaac.  Starting before the twenty-something Wasicsko becomes mayor, the story begins with a federal court order compelling the city to build the affordable housing; the rest of the episodes, stretched out over five hours, dramatize the aftermath of that decision—the wrangling, the voting, the backstabbing, the stubbornness and blindness of both city councilmen and residents utterly against this change.  Yet true to his journalist’s credentials, Simon attempts to humanize, at least to a certain extent, even those who would fight against the court order. Catherine Keener gives a quiet, understated performance as one of those forced to take a hard look at the nature and future of her fight.  Though the show packs its biggest emotional punch in its first three hours—it brought me to tears—it’s essential to watch it through to the end, to take in the whole, sad tale of one American city.

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The newest Woody Allen

Friday, February 5th, 2016

For a long time Woody Allen has been interested in the ideas of morality, justice and punishment. Going back at least as far as his masterpiece “Crimes and misdemeanors”, the writer/director has explored numerous times the idea that crimes are committed and, seemingly, there is no cosmic or divine judgement that falls on perpetrators. His most recent film on DVD, “Irrational man” is another (mostly) satisfying entrée in what we might call his “big question” series. Joaquin Phoenix is the driving force as Abe Lucas, a depressed and probably alcoholic professor who lands a teaching job at a small, New England college, a sort of world unto itself that appears wealthy and insulated and not used to outlandish characters. Emma Stone plays a student of his who also becomes deeply involved with him, finding, in her own rebellious way, a means to be her own person.  As usual with Allen’s films—and this is where that “mostly” qualifier comes from—people in perfectly stable relationships always seem to be utterly blind to the danger inherent in spending large amounts of time with someone other than their significant other, as if they are immune from such dangers as adultery or at least unfaithfulness. And the danger in “Irrational man” is not simply in relationships, but extends to violence as well.  Allen returns to his pet themes in more ways than one, and chance—simply being in the right place at the right time—is the axle on which the plot moves very swiftly and satisfyingly forward. For Abe finds a way out of his slump, a way to move beyond the seemingly stale and pointless discussions of philosophy that take up his time in the classroom.  Of course I will not give away anything more than that, other than to say that this time, if I may dare a theological speculation, there seems to be a bit more light in the story than we’ve seen before. To fully understand that reference, you’ll have to watch the movie. Then get back with me and tell me what you think.

This movie is rated R for one brief scene and some strong language.

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New DVDs for the new year

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016


On vacation over the holidays last month, I was able to spend some extra time watching new DVD arrivals. Three of them in particular caught my attention and my fancy.  First off is a new documentary (recommended by a library patron—thanks!) titled “1971: the year a few ordinary citizens took on the FBI”.  In a brief running time of 79 minutes, this movie packs a punch, showing how history can be changed by seemingly minor events. In that year, a group of anti-war protestors broke into a small FBI office in Media, PA. Their goal was to find out what kind of files the agency, then under the authority of J. Edgar Hoover, was keeping on dissenters and draft resisters. Their find was stunning, and the film, through suspenseful re-enactments and powerful interviews, gives us the scoop on this bit of hidden history. Was the break-in right?  The filmmakers, though undoubtedly having an opinion on the matter, nevertheless let the viewer decide.  “Faust” is a film based on the great German poem by Goethe, directed by a Russian, Alexander Sokurov.  Employing a technique that avoids frequent camera cuts and favors a flowing take instead, Sokurov draws us in with an atmosphere of gloom, decay and the Devil, 18th-century style.  Faust, a scientist and “seeker of truth”, meets the Devil in a pawn shop, and soon finds himself spiraling out of control as the evil one draws him in through Faust’s desire for a young woman, Gretchen. Murder, mysterious events and desire make this a fascinating film. (“Faust” is not rated, but is the equivalent of an R rating.) Finally, there is “Closer to the Moon”, an English-language production about an obscure chapter in Romanian history that took place at the height of the Cold War.  A bank robbery takes place but it is filmed in broad daylight. No one worries about it at first since there was a director and a cameraman there, and besides, it’s Romania, where crime (supposedly) doesn’t happen.  Or does it? Based on a real event that took place in 1959, “Closer” maintains an appropriately light (and ironic) tone in the face of the rather serious implications of people dealing with life under a repressive regime, and risking their lives in the process.  Thoroughly enjoyable, my only complaint about “Closer to the Moon” is the fact that sometimes British accents are employed when it would’ve been much more believable to hear Romanian accents instead.  (This film is also not rated; equivalent of an R, for a few brief scenes.)

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The Stanford Prison Experiment

Sunday, December 6th, 2015

Experiments involving human subjects are often controversial, and have caused no small amount of hand-wringing and grief, especially when it’s revealed that the subjects were not aware they were the “guinea-pigs” of an over-zealous scientist. The new DVD, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” shows that, even when the subjects have signed on and are fully aware of what they’re getting into, the results can be surprising and depressing in what they reveal about human nature. Based on a real experiment done in 1971, “Stanford” captures, in dramatic form, through its use of claustrophobic sets and camera work, an experiment run by Dr. Philip Zimbardo. The movie opens with the professors interviewing their prospective subjects, and we soon realize they are intent on screening out those who might take advantage of the extreme situation they are applying for.  The men, once chosen, are then divided into two groups: the prisoners and the guards. The latter are given numbers and primitive coverings, while the former receive khaki uniforms and, to add to their air of power, large, aviator-style sunglasses.  A university building, out of use for the summer, was converted into a “prison”, complete with cells, a mess hall, a “hole” (i.e. a closet where disobedient prisoners could be kept) and, most importantly, camera eyes mounted into various walls so the entire experiment could be watched and videotaped by Zimbardo.  The film then proceeds to show us the results of this, and it unfolds powerfully.  What struck this viewer was how the drama, despite (or maybe because of) its cramped locations and stripped-down look, echoes the familiar and not so familiar beyond its walls—the Vietnam war (still going at that time), movies (the most egregious guard almost immediately references “Cool Hand Luke” as an inspiration), and even some performance art, in which the safety of traditional art is thrown out the window in favor of far edgier viewer-artist relations.  With all these and its revealing insights into human behavior—including an ending that deepens the complexity and becomes truly bizarre—The Stanford Prison Experiment is well worth your time.

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“Nightingale”: a new DVD

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

The nightingale, according to one source, is a bird know to sing “laments” that are “seemingly spontaneous.” Hence the name of the new HBO-produced movie, “Nightingale”, featuring David Oyelowo as a man sinking into the depths of violence, spiritual crisis, and loneliness. Nightingale is a one-man show, an 80-minute cry of the heart featuring alternating moments of phone calls, thinking out loud, and the now-pervasive use of social media (in this case a video blog, or vlog). Oyelowo plays Peter, a man who has just committed an act of terrible violence, and the repercussions of that violence haunt the story from the beginning. Peter is clearly not well, but he has yet to realize this, even as, ironically, he makes “confessional” videos for others to watch, and begins to hunker down inside his mother’s house, waiting for the arrival of his best friend whom he served in the Army with. Obviously, any movie featuring a single actor must be carried convincingly by that person, and Oyelowo’s skills, as he showed so brilliantly in Selma, are again up to the task. (If nothing else, the viewer is treated to another side of this actor’s talent, since the character of Peter—volatile, angry and deluded– is far away from that of Martin Luther King.)  As “Nightingale” moves toward an inevitable, though not fully revealed, conclusion, two thoughts come to mind: that its downside is an unrelentingly depressing character study of a seemingly doomed soul, with no hope of redemption; yet it reveals, through great acting and writing and with ironic sharpness, the crack in our media and technology saturated lives.  An adventurous piece worth looking into, “Nightingale” is rated TV-MA for some strong language.

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Kumiko, the treasure hunter

Friday, September 25th, 2015

The Coen brothers “Fargo” has been a popular film since its release in 1996—it’s even spawned a critically acclaimed TV show—and the new film “Kumiko the treasure hunter” is certainly an intriguing riff on that movie, taking a tiny part of it—a suitcase full of money buried in a snow bank—and creating its own fully-developed tale of delusion, obsession and greed. Kumiko is a lonely “Office Lady” living on her own in modern-day Tokyo. Her mother calls from time to time, but mostly to find out if she’s found a man to marry yet. Her co-workers keep their distance from her, but then, she’s not always the best employee either, especially to her boss, who seems to do very little all day. As the film opens, Kumiko, wandering the shore of the ocean, is on a treasure hunt. But instead of gold, she finds, in a nearby cave, carefully buried in the sand, a VHS tape. She takes it home and watches it. It is the movie “Fargo”. As anyone familiar with that film will recall, it involves kidnapping, murder and money. But the part that matters to Kumiko is when the money is placed in that aforementioned snow bank. She takes seriously the claim, stated at the beginning of “Fargo”, about it being based “on a true story”.  She makes her own map, carefully sewn on a piece of white cloth copied from her TV screen. I won’t give away how she finds herself in Minnesota, seeking the almost legendary town of Fargo, meeting a series of kindly, if somewhat baffled, Americans. The culture clash is sometimes amusing, and the director, David Zellner, unlike the Coen brothers, eschews random violence in favor of quirkiness and mystery. “Kumiko” held my attention in many ways, and it also disturbed me, as I tried to understand this young woman. Is the movie merely a portrait of mental illness? Is it about the beauty of the inner life? Is it about how lonely and disconnected people can easily sink further into their own world? Or is about all these things?  These are all questions that hang over “Kumiko” and that give it its mysterious and memorable character.

(This movie is unrated, but it would probably be rated PG. It is only available on a Blu-ray edition.)

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The Story of a Cardinal

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Jean-Marie Lustiger was born into a Jewish family in France, but World War II came and his family, knowing the dangers all around them, had their son hide with a Catholic family.  His mother died in the camps and he, to the disappointment and surprise of his family, joined the Church and became a priest, a bishop and finally a cardinal under John Paul II. This background is just barely recreated for us in “The Jewish Cardinal”, a new DVD, but it is important to the movie, and gives it its dramatic urgency. Based on a true story, the film opens in 1979 with Lustiger as a priest who is about to be promoted to bishop. His energy—visualized by his manic cigarette smoking and use of a moped—has caught the attention of higher-ups, as they realize this convert to the Church can be of great use to French society as it grows increasingly secular. But as he is promoted, the new bishop also has to deal with his elderly father, who continues to live with the grief of losing his wife to the Nazis and his son to the Church. But they do communicate—Lustiger’s cousin helps—while not resolving their differences. The story here, while it might seem foreign or uninteresting, is compellingly told.  It reaches a climax when Lustiger learns of the plans, in 1984, of nuns setting up a convent on the grounds of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The working out of this issue, as Lustiger seeks the aid of John Paul II, meets with Jewish leaders, and continues his work as a cardinal, is deftly and dramatically done; the conflict strikes directly into the heart of this Jewish/Catholic man and so perfectly symbolizes his journey from one world into another and the emotional toll it cost him. As the film draws to a close, we see a life well-lived—a life of hope, compassion and perserverence.

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“A Master Builder” on DVD

Saturday, June 27th, 2015

A Master Builder (Criterion DVD)A Master Builder”, adapted from the 1892 play by Henrik Ibsen, is a startling, moving and mysterious film masterfully put together by the director Jonathan Demme from the stage play first created by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. It hardly needs stating that when a play is turned into a film, its form—the large amount of talking, the small amount of sets—can be a limitation for viewers used to, shall we say, more spectacular visuals and more action in general.  Those limitations, though rather obvious in “A Master Builder” (it was filmed almost entirely within the confines of a New York townhouse) are nevertheless more than overcome by the intensity of the script and the virtuosity of the acting. The set-up is quite simple, but the themes beneath that set-up are complex and mysterious. Wallace Shawn plays Solness, an aging architect who appears to be at death’s door: as the film opens, he is at home surrounded by nurses and hospital equipment and his friends and colleagues are coming to pay him homage. He talks to his doctor, and they discuss the young, who are, according to Solness, about to take over. No sooner is this said than the mysterious Hilda appears—young, vivacious and beautiful, a figure with the power to summon a past (and a future) that involves both Solness and herself. But who is she? And where does she really come from?  From this point on, the tension is grippingly apparent, as Hilda, coming to the house with almost nothing, quite easily makes herself at home despite the jealous looks from Solness’ wife, the secrets of the Master Builder become apparent, and the specter of death, looming from the beginning of the film, moves in closer. Solness, who stopped building church towers after a past personal tragedy, is now focused on “homes for families”—but, the viewer wonders, at what price will these towered houses be built?  Gregory and Shawn have mined gold from their adaptation, which is made contemporary in language and setting without being distracting. What starts modestly moves to an exciting and mysterious conclusion, a plot that delivers resolution without resorting to sentimentality or nihilism.

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“Last days in Vietnam”

Friday, May 29th, 2015



The Vietnam war—or “conflict”, as some call it—continues to be one of the most controversial wars this country has fought, and there’s no doubt of its historical resonance when our most recent fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is repeatedly compared to it, for better or worse. The topic of the war divides people still, but a new documentary, “Last days in Vietnam” is sure to bridge at least some of the divide, if only because it steers clear of the causes of that conflict and instead focusses on the heroics of those who were there at the end, in 1975, when the Communist Vietcong forces reached Saigon, the capital of what was then South Vietnam.  Nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary, “Last days” is a stirring, gripping retelling of the panic, fear, indecision and heroism that gripped Saigon as its fall became imminent. As the film makes clear, the unwillingness of Congress to send more money to the anti-Communist south played a large role in the inability of the South Vietnamese to defend themselves any further from the Vietcong. Was there a certain war-weariness that gripped them as well? Possibly. Whatever the case, the film shows us how the Americans still on the ground (and at sea) stepped up to the plate and did what they could for the thousands of South Vietnamese who, because they had allied themselves with the U.S., knew their lives were in mortal danger if they were caught by the invaders. Rushing and overwhelming the U.S. Embassy, the Vietnamese were ferried by helicopter and boat out of the country—an operation that involved continuous flying for some pilots of over 18 hours. “Last days” is one of those films where one is tempted to utter that “truth is stranger than fiction”—so dramatic are some of the stories told here. I highly recommend watching the longer (120 min.) version of this moving and revelatory documentary.


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