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One-sided look at porn
14 February 2011
This movie is entitled 'Naked Ambition,' which presumably refers to those who toil in the porn industry. But perhaps it's really about the naked ambition of director-photographer Michael Grecco, who, in 2006, was preparing a coffee-table book on the 'stars' of the industry.

Grecco seems to promote his book a lot in this alleged documentary. I say 'alleged' because it's decidedly one-sided; it almost lovingly embraces the many sides of porn. We don't hear many negative words about the industry and its blatantly sleazy side. I saw this as a glaring omission.

If you think porn is super-hot stuff and its galaxy of 'stars' the ultimate in sexiness, this flick is for you. For jaded others, like me, it's worth a glance if for no other reason than sheer curiosity. It scores highly on the 'curiosity' scale. But if you see porn as anti-sensual and anti-erotic, then you might not be so enthusiastic. If you think a documentary, by definition, should have depth and balance, be prepared for disappointment. That's MY one-sided view.

The vacuousness of these female 'stars,' their shallowness, their silicone/collagen-filled bodies, their insincerity, are things to behold. Most of the footage is taken at the Adult Video Awards in Las Vegas, an orgiastic gathering of wacko marketers, weirdos, groupies and freaks. One guy proudly displays a humongous tattoo of his favorite porn star. It fills the complete side of his body. He endured 13 hours of needles and paid $6,000 for the privilege. I found this profoundly sad.

And, of course, no flick about porn is complete without the so-called 'godfather' of the industry, Ron Jeremy, who makes an inevitable visit for Grecco's camera. Jeremy was about 56 years old when this film was made. He's fat, he's going bald, and he looks like a lecherous grandfather, not a godfather. He should be reclining somewhere on a beach. Instead, he's still getting it up for porn flicks. Again, I found this profoundly sad.

I hope Grecco made money from his coffee table book. He certainly promoted it enough in this non-documentary.
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Wild Blood (2008)
A sprawling movie
16 May 2010
This 148-minute (far too long) film is so confusing that you're not sure at times if you're watching a film in 'real' time or watching flashbacks on flashbacks.

The movie is based on two real characters -- actors Luise Ferada (Monica Bellucci) and bombastic Osvaldo Valenti (Luca Zingaretta) -- who were big movie stars in fascist Italy before and during the Second World War. Despite the film's length, their motivations and personalities are never really explored. We know that they're cocaine users and so consumed with themselves that they are basically indifferent to the fascism that ultimately does them in.

This is a film that should be alive with the frenetic tempo and intrigue of the times, but it's instead oddly static. It is difficult to imagine at times that a war is going on all around the many characters who weave in and out of the frames -- so many in fact that the viewer starts losing track of who is a fascist, who is a resistance fighter (partisan) or who, like the lead characters, is basically a person who doesn't much care one way or the other.

This film should have been far more interesting, engrossing and exciting, but it settles instead for a confusing love affair and a strange, leisurely pacing that undermines the film throughout. The director, Marco Giordana, must take responsibility for this.
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A very bad joke
3 May 2010
If you've ever wondered what a porn flick would be like if you took out the porn, here's your answer.

'Horat' has no plot, no point and no laughs, and why should it? I had no idea when I rented the DVD that it was originally a hard-core porno that was 'cleaned up' for a soft-core audience. What results is an embarrassingly tedious flick with absolutely no redeeming values. It uses the dumb Eastern European prototype (Horat/Borat) as an attempt to elicit giggles. Instead, it just reinforces how absolutely low on the intelligence scale humanity can go. Our evolution as a species has taken another hit with this piece of garbage.

This 'movie,' for lack of a better word, is a Borat rip-off in name only. Borat, for all its silliness, at least had a plot (AND a point), and, yes, even some laughs.

The early IMDb rating (based on 10 votes) for Horat is 9.1, a ludicrously inflated figure that was undoubtedly aided and abetted by votes from people connected to the flick, from producers to actors to crew. IMDb ratings are often notoriously unreliable because of this rampant padding by 'voters' who are serving their own interests.

There is something desperately wrong with our society when an appalling flick like this can be financed and distributed to general audiences while genuine, talented filmmakers can't get enough funding for even the lowest of low-budget films. (Note: I am not involved in film-making in any way, nor do I even KNOW any filmmakers.)

If you like looking at people engaging in endless, ridiculously phony soft-core sex, this sorry excuse for a 'movie' is for you. For those with a mental age above, say, 14, save your time.
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Trophy Kids
7 December 2009
New Zealand documentary filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly has produced a vivid portrait of a flaky, if not downright neurotic, Italian-British-American performance artist (Vanessa Beecroft) who expends an obsessive, inhuman amount of time and excruciating effort trying to adopt two Sudanese twin children uprooted by war and other atrocities in Darfur Region(south-west Sudan).

Brettkelly reveals New York-based Beecroft as yet another of those well-heeled white women (see Angelina Jolie, Madonna) who feel compelled to 'save' children when their own biological children back home are being raised in relative luxury by a succession of nannies and other caregivers. In this film, the viewer can either feel repulsed by Beecroft or harbour sympathy for her questionable motives. Even Beecroft's husband is at odds with her.

At two years old, Beecroft's mother, who is herself unstable, abandons her marriage and takes her child back to Italy to be raised. Decades later, Beecroft's British father admits to not understanding his daughter and her quest to bring Sudanese children to an unlikely place -- the art world of far-off New York City. He suggests that Beecroft is more interested in serving her own emotional 'needs' while ignoring the source of the problem -- there are hundreds of thousands of other parentless children in disastrous Darfur.

Beecroft doesn't seem to really understand the huge cultural differences that exist in Darfur, nor does she seem to understand the many years of savage war and loss of life (about 600,000) that have devastated that region. She instead insists on only seeing two 'adorable' children who need to be 'saved' by her.

This is a powerful film that lets emotions linger on its sleeve. As outstanding documentary filmmakers tend to do, Brettkelly lets you make up your own mind about Beecroft, based on the cinematic evidence she provides.
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Carnal Utopia (2006)
Bargain basement non-starter
14 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This VERY low budget film (about $157?) spends almost all of its 90 minutes indoors while a crisis is playing outdoors. It's about nothing less than an attempt by revolutionaries to overthrow the government of Brazil in the mid-1960s. The film purports to paint on a very large canvas when it doesn't seem to have enough money to even BUY the canvas.

Where is the unrest? Where are the rabid revolutionaries? Where's the mayhem? Where's the actual plot? You won't find them in this film, except in stock footage of real events during the period. There are only three main players in the cast. It could easily have been a stage play. The one or two outdoor 'action' shots are amateurish, so unconvincing they're almost laughable. This is a film that just never seems to go anywhere, and it ends abruptly without a satisfactory explanation.

The raison d'etre behind this film could very well have been an attempt to show, yet again, 'steamy' scenes of simulated sex, the same 'steamy,' simulated sex we've seen countless times before. The film could also be interpreted as a love triangle, but its outcome is so 'telegraphed' that you can tell almost precisely what is going to happen long before the curtain comes down.

I watched this and really wondered why it was even made. It doesn't illuminate anything. The Brazilian troubles in the 1960s were international in their scope, but you'd never know it by watching this flick. It doesn't tell us anything about the causes of unrest, nor do we really ever find out anything about the three characters, except perhaps that they're horny. And it all moves with the pace of a snail.

Other than all of this, a terrific flick.
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Free Zone (2005)
Much ado about familiar territory
10 November 2009
This film starts slow, ends slow, and except for an interesting, symbolic ending and a lot of driving in the Middle East, doesn't really go anywhere. As a movie, its metaphorical messages are too familiar by half.

The film opens with a single-shot, non-stop, ten (that's TEN) minutes showing the Israeli-American Rebecca (Natalie Portman) in profile, weeping voluminously because she has broken up with her boyfriend and feels alone and lost in Israel, the country of her birth. We don't have five minutes (even that would be too much); we have an agonizing TEN minutes: wholly one-ninth of the entire film.

Director Amos Gitai has made some great films, but he can also be one of the most irritating big-name directors in the world. He doesn't disappoint with this one: the irritation keeps piling up. Only he knows why he makes these peculiar choices in his films.

There are long, longggg swaths of often poorly written dialogue, spoken in extreme close-ups in a claustrophobic taxi (symbolism again) driven by the terrific Israeli actress Hana Laszlo, who plays Hanna, a woman who must visit the Free Zone in Jordan to claim $30,000 owed to her husband by a Palestinian.

The dialogue doesn't propel the plot, because there is no plot. It's instead a film about outsiders such as Portman trying to understand the age-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. She comes away in predictable futility, because, according to Gitai, although she was born in Israel, she didn't stay there. That's the key difference.

This is a very long 90-minute film that doesn't tell us very much, except: (a) Israelis and Palestinians just cannot get along; and (b) absentee or non-Israelis/Palestinians cannot begin to understand the conflict. That, essentially, is what this film is 'about'. And enter the problem: didn't we already know that? Isn't this just a little twist on something we've already seen more than a few times before?
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Cloud 9 (2008)
Bravo Germany, Bravo European Cinema
11 August 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I don't think there is another film in the history of cinema that examines the lives of seniors (including -- gasp! -- their sex lives) with such honesty, poignancy and, yes, accuracy as Wolke Neun (Cloud Nine). Those characters on the screen could be your parents or grandparents, and there they are, still grappling painfully with the problems of love after all these years.

This is a powerful film that is about much more than a mere examination of old people f***ing. Despite the typical stress on the (non-explicit) sex, it is a film more about the discovery of first love by a woman well advanced in years, a woman who should have known all this stuff (or so the theory goes) 45 years before.

Hats off to director/co-writer Andreas Dresen for giving us this honest, courageous film that can upset and depress you at the same time as it can ultimately uplift you.

Ursula Werner provides a shattering, bravura performance as the besieged, 66-year-old Inge, a married woman who is strongly attracted to a man ten years older (Karl, played by Horst Westphal). She engages in an affair with Karl while still proclaiming her love for Werner (Horst Rehberg), her husband of 30 years. Inge cannot understand the startling turn of events, or why they happened, but she discovers she loves Karl.

Inge says, again and again: 'I didn't want this!', but the camera forces the viewer to challenge her. This woman has lived a life hidden from herself; she has spent 30 years being protected by Werner, who helped to raise her child. After a sheltered life dotted by drudgery and routine (she goes on aimless train trips to please her train-loving husband; she sings methodically in a church choir), we see Inge coming to the painful realization that she is finally emerging as a real person at the age of 66. She begins to understand, with tortuous internal conflict, what love really is.

There is a riveting scene in the film when the sublime Werner (Inge) stands by railroad tracks in cascading rain. With her back to the camera, she screams at the earth (or is it at herself?), then turns and walks towards us: we see then a face of boundless anguish, a face that has realized something for the first time: after all these years, it is, for her, a terrifying and devastating discovery.

There are flaws in this film (we know little about Karl or Werner, for example), but I still highly recommend it. This is a first in cinema, an adult film about REAL 'old people,' and we'll probably not see another like it for a long time to come. Finally, seniors in cinema have been given a genuine, authentic voice. It is a tribute to Germany, and perhaps Europe in general, that a film like this could be made. It's a work that would never (repeat, NEVER) be considered in the dumbed-down, juvenile, cartoonish world of Hollywood, which prefers to mass-produce movies that have little to do with the reality and pain of everyday human existence.
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The Shoe (1998)
Off-balance piece of absurdity
9 August 2009
There are not many films out there quite like 'The Shoe,' which is so unusual that you should see it at least twice to really savour its 'messages'. Are you watching a wildly funny satire of officialdom, a condemnation of mindless autocracy, or a vivid example of the folly of human existence? I submit that you're watching all that and much more, and it's all achieved in a mere 75 minutes of screen time.

Writer/director Laila Pakalnina's film focuses on a simple, absurd premise -- a woman's shoe is found on a makeshift 'borderline' on a Baltic Sea beach in late-1950s Latvia, at the time a Soviet Socialist Republic under the often brutal control of the Russian Army. The shoe is seen by the grim-faced, fanatically over-reacting Soviet occupiers as a clear sign that their command has been 'infiltrated' by enemy agents.

A hapless trio of soldiers is sent to scour the nearby port town to find the owner of the fugitive shoe. In full bumbling flight worthy at times of the Keystone Kops, they ask woman after woman to try the shoe on; if the shoe fits, so to speak, the woman, presumably, would be deemed guilty of espionage. This Cinderella idea seems insane, but for the bored, under-tasked, isolated, excitable and mountains-from-molehills Soviet Army command in Latvia, the missing shoe is nothing less than a major international crisis.

This film take us on an odd journey that is simultaneously subtly hilarious and deeply disturbing. The black-and-white camera work is so vivid, unusual, and imaginative that we are reminded at times of the stark imagery of Citizen Kane. Characters are regularly seen as silhouettes or shadows; they enter the screen from the left and exit, without any movement from the camera, only to re-enter from the right, repeating a pointless process. The symbolism of this technique quietly underlines not only the lunacy of 'faceless' bureaucracy/officialdom, but the futility of being human: we are always looking for something that isn't there; it's something we do throughout our lives. If we find that 'something,' we merely move on to the next 'something'.

There are no 'stars' in this film, no central characters except, perhaps, for the bumbling soldiers. The ludicrous action (non-action?) on screen is sometimes reminiscent of Jacques Tati or the Georgian director Otar Ioselliani (Monday Morning), who wonderfully demonstrates the pointlessness of human movement and purpose.

This is a deliciously off-kilter work.
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A study in claustrophobic paranoia
2 August 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This brilliant minimalist film, directed by the estimable Ulrich Weiss, was made in East Berlin in 1980, and tells the story of Arnold Clasen (Uwe Kockisch), a communist and a member of a small anti-fascist underground cell resisting Hitler with what little resources its members have.

All around Clasen and his comrades, other communist groups have already been rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Countless thousands eventually died there, a fact we seldom hear much about.

The film is moody, stark, expressionistic and filled with looming dread. Shadows conflict constantly with light; dingy, sinister streets are populated by wary people, and we wonder who the Nazis will scoop up next.

The arresting thing about this film is that it is void of violence; there is nary a drop of blood to be seen, no bombed-out buildings, no prolonged, vicious Hollywood-style gunfights (how refreshing is THAT?) Yet, at the same time, the film teems with suspense. There is malice forever lurking in the background, and it is psychologically disturbing. You know one member of the communist cell is a deeply troubled Gestapo agent who desperately wants to escape his fate. There is also an all-powerful Nazi machine impossible to oppose. Like Kafka's hapless 'heroes,' there is little to be done to oppose these faceless 'presences'; one just waits until 'they' come to get you.

This is not a 'war' movie, but instead a study in desperate claustrophobia. Its lead actor, Uwe Kockisch, is outstanding as the deer-in-headlights man driven to despair by paranoia and fear. He leads an outstanding ensemble of actors.

'Your Unknown Brother' was invited to Cannes in 1981, but the East German government intervened and disallowed it. A pity. This is a special kind of film: unique and powerfully refreshing despite its disturbing subject matter.
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Incantato (2003)
A disappointment
5 May 2009
This film has received some rave reviews and some bad ones. I'm in the latter camp.

It's the story of Nello, a hangdog 35-year-old from Rome who teaches Roman and Greek classics. Nello also happens to be a sexually repressed nebbish, so repressed that he is sent by his father to teach in Bologna, where daddy hopes that Nello might pick up a few pointers on how to become more worldly (and, with any luck, to get married and have kids).

This sounds like a great idea for a comedy-romance, and it should have been, but its pacing is off and it frequently falls flat. It is often boring and ponderous. Nello's dreary fascination with Ovid and other great Roman (and Greek) classic writers (although essential to underline Nello's character) doesn't help. They even speak Latin in this film, which I thought was oddly appropriate: a dead language trying to give life to a struggling-for-breath movie.

Neri Marcone plays the sexually (and socially) naive Nello with considerable skill, and Vanessa Incontrada plays Angela, the self-absorbed (and tarty) daughter of a doctor who loses her sight in an accident. She tries to 'rescue' Nello from his virginal awkwardness. Nello, of course, falls madly in love with her and inevitable conflicts surface. These conflicts are the film's 'turning points,' but they don't appear until about the 75-minute mark. This is a major reason why the film is far too long at 107 minutes.

The 'love is blind' motif was inevitably to occur in this movie, and it does, with an interesting twist.

This film is saved by the sublime film veteran Giancarlo Giannini, who plays Nello's father, an illiterate tailor to the pope. It was gratifying to see Giannini, a fabulous comic and dramatic actor, fume and explode on the screen and actually give this film desperately needed fire. Giannini's acting might be the only real animation in this film, which features long stretches where nothing really happens, the cinematic equivalent of dead space.

The set designs and period scenes are outstanding, but for me they were wasted. This could have been a modern-day movie without losing anything.
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Alas, disappointing
2 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I really wanted this low-budget film to succeed, but it falls short in my opinion. It was filmed in the seedy section of Parkdale in west Toronto, and I loved the familiar street scenes. But this is a movie that seems to revel in its own misery. Writer/director Ed Gass-Donnelly calls the film 'dark,' but it's more than that: it's unpleasant in the extreme.


There seems to be no space at all for the characters to go except down. Even the yuppie couple (the lovely Caroline Cave and handsome Noam Jenkins) descend into dissipation bordering on cliché. I wanted to root for SOMEBODY in this flick, but all the characters, with the possible exception of Peter (Stuart Hughes), as a cop on medical leave, insisted on destroying themselves.

Five characters intersect around a Parkdale apartment building on Toronto's Queen Street West. One is a crack whore (Kristin Booth), who is hopelessly entwined with a tortured, crack-addicted dreamer (Aaron Poole). Through a series of convoluted mishaps, both characters become connected to Harry (Jenkins), husband of Carole (Cave), who herself gets connected to Hughes's cop, who himself is the father of Booth's character. It sounds more confusing than it really is.

What I found really irritating about this film (the DVD at least) was the terrible audio, which required me to crank up the volume almost to maximum just to hear some of the dialogue. Low-budget film or not, the sound, of all things, should not sabotage a film.

A really interesting aspect of the film is that the chain of events that leads to the break-up of a marriage, to death and the destruction of dreams, was an accident (or perhaps, director Gass-Donnelly seems to suggest, it isn't). In any case, Carole falls from her condo apartment, and her disfigurement from this mishap not only causes her marriage to fall apart but galvanizes the other events that lead to the characters becoming involved directly or indirectly in her plight. Life does in fact sometimes work that way. But even in real life, there is a hint of redemption. No one is redeemed in this film.
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French Film (2008)
A slow, boring talkfest
27 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I find British film exports generally very good to superb, but this one is an exception. It's billed (even on IMDb) as a comedy/romance, and someone should sue for false advertising. With the exception of the first five minutes, there is barely a desperately needed laugh in the entire movie. The rest of the 88 minutes is basically people yakking endlessly about love and romance, to the point where it is waist-deep in a slow-moving (at times static) 'narrative'.

Generous critics of this movie might want to call it a satire of the differences between British and French versions of love. And indeed it could have worked if the direction allowed it to 'breathe' as a satire. But it doesn't. Attempts at satire are sabotaged by the ponderous weight of the dialogue.

Hugh Bonneville plays Jed, who wants to marry his girlfriend of 10 years (Cheryl, played by Victoria Hamilton). But they discover they don't really love each other at all, thanks to the probing of a French psychiatrist and a French filmmaker who specializes in affaires d'amour. Meanwhile, Jed's best friend Marcus (Douglas Henshall) madly loves his girlfriend Sophie (Anne-Marie Duff), or so he says, before a chance encounter with his first love of 20 years before. Marcus wants to run off to (where else?) Paris to marry her, leaving Sophie behind, loveless and forlorn. But wait: Jed is also loveless and forlorn. Gosh, do you think maybe they'll get together? This wildly telegraphed ending comes about the 55-minute mark. The rest of the film is mere padding for the clichéd finale.

This movie cries out for some light touches here and there to air out its stuffiness. It is dirge-deep in talk of love and romance. Director Jackie Oudney has apparently never heard of the eloquence of silence in film.
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Boy A (2007)
A powerful film, snubbed by Oscar
23 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
What makes Boy A so compelling is the acting (or perhaps the illusion of NON-acting might be more appropriate).

Andrew Garfield, Peter Mullan and Katie Lyons, the three principal characters in the film, are so believable that they become 'invisible' -- they 'disappear' -- as actors. Many directors have said this kind of immersion into a role is the ultimate compliment actors can pay to them.

Boy A is an anti-Hollywood film, in that it eschews the usual glamour in favour of REAL people. Garfield is on the wrong side of plain-looking, Mullan is a balding, paternal working-class stiff ridden with familial conflicts, and Lyons is a plump, anti-glamorous non-heroine who is pitch-perfect in her role. Garfield, as the well-meaning young man desperately seeking a second chance in life, offers a towering performance.

It's been awhile since I have seen such a powerful film. It asks the central question: is it possible for society to offer redemption to a 24-year-old rehabilitated man who 14 years before -- at the age of 10 --helped to murder a 10-year-old girl? This film examines the question with such a profound depth of feeling that if you let your mind wander a moment, you might think you're in the midst of a documentary.

Boy A won a cartload of awards (direction, acting, writing, photography) from BAFTA, BAFTA Scotland, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the Irish Film and TV Awards. Last night (22Feb09), the Academy Awards were announced, with all the usual bumph for movies that were cynically (and deliberately) made for Oscar nominations. If the Academy Awards REALLY considered films for their sheer power, cinematic skill and philosophical point of view, Boy A deserved serious consideration.

Director John Crowley, screenwriter Mark O'Rowe, and a terrific ensemble of actors deserve great credit. This is a splendid film.
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The sad story of breast implants
20 February 2009
As an older male on the far side of 50, I have often wondered about the attraction of breast implants for women. In almost all cases, they have been pressured by themselves or by twisted cultural demands to believe that such surgery will alter their personalities and make them into very happy people.

I watched this chilling DVD last night, and I'm still shocked and somewhat awed by it. Writer/director/producer Carol Ciancutti-Leyva has scored brilliantly by fulfilling the obligations of all great documentaries: to make us THINK about a subject, so much so that we either want to embrace it, or feel outraged by it or want to do something about it. When filmmakers can galvanize you that way, they have more than done their jobs.

Ciancutti-Leyva's enquiry involves female breast 'augmentation' or 'enhancement'. She skillfully documents the cases for both sides: those who want the procedure (and receive it) and those who want 'explants,' the removal of those foreign, silicone-shelled, chemical-filled substances that were once part of their pride and joy.

This film should be mandatory viewing for anyone considering this procedure (apparently a stunning 300,000 implant operations -- and growing fast -- in the U.S. alone every year). Many of these females are barely in their teens, highly impressionable post-children who, in effect, hate their breasts and think 'augmentation' will transform their lives. And in many cases it does: for a few short years. And then the problems emerge: after an average of seven or eight years, the implants begin to deteriorate, rupture, even calcify. In grisly detail, we see the extracted (surgical) results of implants gone bad -- yellowish, putrid, liquefied blobs that once resided in the breasts of women.

It was disturbing to watch the quasi-sordid shenanigans of the 2003 U.S. Federal Food and Drug Administration's highly questionable 'hearings' (and eventual endorsement) of the procedure. For some inexplicable reason, more than half of the panelists hearing depositions (and many condemnations) on the subject were themselves plastic surgeons with a lot to gain (or lose) from panel judgments. If this wasn't a conflict of interest, I don't know what is.

If it was up to me, I would give Ciancutti-Leyva an instant award for her contribution to this subject. I would also give a special award to Dr. Edward Melmed, the earnest 'explant' plastic surgeon who removes hideous debris (the footage may turn your stomach) that gestates in 'augmented' female breasts for many years. He also helps these women to believe in themselves again as the 'real' people they once were before their artificial 'beauty' was bestowed upon them by implants. For his troubles, Melmed has (rather predictably) been ostracized and made a pariah by his fellow plastic surgeons.

To balance Melmed, Ciancutti-Leyva offers Houston-based Dr Franklin Rose, a prestigious plastic surgeon who has performed thousands of 'enhancements'. He also has his own political agenda: he condemns those inconvenient 'liberal' (read 'radical') women who have the audacity to decry the procedure and cause his industry embarrassment and criticism. One imagines Rose, in his secret psychic 'other world,' seeing such female 'obstructionists' as little more than hysterical, REALLY uppity neo-Emma Goldmans storming the barricades and threatening the comforts of male domination. This doctor is revealed on camera as a familiar figure in world literature: a man immersed in rigorous denial on one hand while he counts his growing mountain of money on the other. As if to ensure himself about implants, he repeats the words 'it's safe,' at least four times in one interview. He also hauls out that all-too-familiar cop-out line 'I'm only filling a need, a demand.'

This film should have a worldwide distribution without delay.
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The Key (2007)
Confusing and contrived
19 February 2009
If you plan to watch this film, bring an ample bucket of patience along with your popcorn. Within 15 minutes, this flick descends into murky and contrived situations that will leave your head spinning. You are watching two parallel films (one in the present, one in flashbacks 32 years earlier), but you're also watching perhaps two or three OTHER sub-plotted films, with shady and brutal characters weaving in and out, some appearing or reappearing or just disappearing altogether.

The 'plot' for this flick is so contrived that, as a mere mortal, I'm at a loss to explain it. As an act of symbolism (what happens to children snatched from birth), it works, at least on one level.

Guillaume Cantet plays Eric, the son of a father he never knew (he was abandoned at birth). He receives an urn containing the ashes of his father from (what else?) a mysterious source who (what else?) REMAINS mysterious. We presume the urn really contained not ashes, but drugs, coveted by nasty druglords who come from somewhere (Marseilles? Paris? Who knows?) As with so much in this film, these shadowy druglords are enigmatic figures used as 'add-ons' when we already have too many 'add-ons'.

A barely recognizable Thierry Lhermitte plays a man who needs some kind of brain 'graft' if he wishes to survive. Such a 'graft' can only come from his daughter, who may, or may not be, Cecile (Vanessa Paradis), a cheap roadside hooker who manages to be kidnapped by the druglords, hidden in a cellar, and escapes through an odd, and, yes, confusing twist of events.

I kept rewinding this film, trying to really understand it. No such luck. The 'clef' (key) of the title re-emerges in the end, in yet another peculiar twist that isn't really explored. And that pretty well sums up this flick for me: a lot of tantalizing 'twists'.

The terrific Josie Balasko plays Michele, a dogged and philosophical detective in the 1970s who believes in 'parallel universes' -- intimate events affecting people connected in different places and time. The great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski explored this theme on numerous occasions, most successfully perhaps in 'The Double Life of Veronique'. This 'parallel' theme is really what this film is supposed to be about, it seems to me, but it just doesn't work.

Marie Gillain plays Eric's long-suffering wife Audrey. Unfortunately, she doesn't have much to do in this film.

This should have been a superlative thriller, but it couldn't find a cohesive thread to compound the suspense. It has a lot of style with jolt-a-minute editing and often irritating (and disruptive) hand-held camera work. In short: as so often happens in movies such as La Clef, style supersedes substance.
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Yellow Flower (1998)
Waste of time
25 January 2009
I rented this DVD because I like Korean films generally. Unfortunately, this is a mess of a film; it resembled a student filmmaker's work-in-progress. It was apparently originally shot on 16 mm, and, judging by the graininess and the on-screen opaqueness (particularly watching it at home), it was transferred poorly.

This film apparently caused a big ruckus in Korea when it first appeared because of its sexual content, and it is billed in a number of places as 'hardcore,' which it isn't, unless there's a steamy bootleg copy somewhere. This is a snorefest; more than half the film is composed of simulated sex symbolizing (I think) the emptiness of life. You've seen this same premise, and same movie, more than a few times before.

This flick is hard to follow. It somehow got lost in trying to tell a story of existential angst, and settled instead for softcore silliness. Jeez, even the sex scenes are redundantly tedious. How bad is that?
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IMDb's unfortunate summaries
5 November 2008
This was a pretty flimsy film that tried for artsy and ended up as an excursion in confusion. It tries to be 'profound' and 'existential,' yet it is never for a moment convincing.

If you read the IMDb summary for this film, you'd think you were in for something really special, a once-in-a-lifetime examination of a young man's travail. The problem is, the gushing summary was submitted, word-for-word, through the film's website.

IMDb has to clean up its act. This flagrant 'puff-piece' by the film's principals and promoters should never have appeared on IMDb as an 'objective' summary of the film itself.

Basically, the story concerns a young man's desire to have his book published. It's a book about stick figures trying to find meaning that transcends orgies with real and imaginary women. The young man searches for 'The One,' which is shorthand for what mere mortals used to call 'a true love'. In this film, 'The One,' a hackneyed term at the best of times, becomes an over-inflated motif for bargain-basement philosophy. The film is little more than an examination of a man's angst in trying to find himself. Despite IMDb's unctuous, self-serving summary, there's nothing new here at all.

This is not an existential film. It's just another 'coming of age' flick that haughtily pretends it's something else.

I've said it before: IMDb very often cannot be trusted as a reliable source for film summaries and even criticism. Many of the people who give outrageously high ratings on the IMDb board are those who made the film and their myriad friends. At best, it's spectacularly misleading.
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All about Catherine Frot
29 September 2008
Catherine Frot is a sweet-faced, sprightly French actress who looks a decade younger than her 52 years. She's also sexy in her inimitable way, and she's always watchable and versatile (she often plays confused, if not ditzy, characters, but she can turn on the drama too; see The Page Turner).

Frot has a tendency to carry any film she's in. She's one of those few actors who just lights up the screen. Alas, when the camera's not on her, borderline 'good' films like this one suddenly lose a great deal of appeal. In short, if Frot weren't in this film, I'm not sure how redeemable it would be.

Frot plays Odette Toulemonde (loose translation: 'Odette Everyone/Everywhere'), a cheerful, unworldly, dreamy sales clerk who loves the sappy books of author Balthazar Balsan (Albert Dupontel, who in real life is 10 years younger than Frot). Odette writes Balthazar a letter that, in her simple way, is profound, and inspires the writer, a sophisticated, womanizing Parisian who quotes Proust, to uproot himself and suddenly appear at Odette's house in a small Belgian town. This internationally famous writer begs to stay with her. This is all highly implausible of course, but 'Odette' is a fantasy film more than anything else, so plausibility is a non-issue.

This has been called 'a feel-good' film. That might be true, but it also strains credulity to make us feel 'good'. Noticeably, after a promising first half, it begins to bog down in the second, showing its deficiencies by becoming frequently boring and clichéd (e.g. the all-too-familiar sullen, alienated daughter and the upbeat gay son). The film doesn't quite know where its focus is supposed to be. But if you're an incurable romantic, you might well overlook its flaws and love it. For me, it was worth watching just to see Catherine Frot scale the heights and conquer once more.
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Sonja Richter, take a bow
2 September 2008
Warning: Spoilers
The lovely Danish actress Sonja Richter steals this film from under the noses of everyone, no small feat considering the terrific performances surrounding her.

Richter plays Anna, an out-of-work, independent-minded, somewhat neurotic (and perhaps suicidal) actress who lands a desperation job looking after a wheelchair-bound, muted, aged father named Walentin (the great Danish actor Frits Helmuth, who died at 77 shortly after this film was made).


Walentin refuses to respond to anyone --until he confronts the gifted Anna, whose whimsical and mischievous manner brings the poor old battered devil back from a self-imposed death sentence.

Writer/director/actor Eric Clausen has made a strong film about the difficulty a ponderous businessman son (Jorgen, played by Clausen) has loving a father who has never accepted him. The film sags toward the end, but Clausen has some important things to say about euthanasia, the nature and value of loving and caring, and how one person, the irrepressible Anna, can alter the course of a human life. Highly recommended. Sonja Richter's performance is alone worth the price of admission.
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American Experience: The Mormons: Part II (2007)
Season 19, Episode 14
PBS underscores again
22 July 2008
Over the past 15 years or so, PBS has been infiltrated by more and more heavy-duty corporate sponsors, and much of the network's previously hard-hitting investigative 'bite' has either disappeared or been severely diluted.

This four-hour series on the Mormons is exhibit 'A': it's yet another frustrating exercise that purports to examine 'truth'. Little attention is afforded to the shady past of the religion's founder, Joseph Smith, a convicted swindler, impostor, thief, consummate liar and all-round superb con artist.

The series does point out that Smith was operating in an upstate New York region infested with lunatics who had received 'the light and the word' from god himself. Enter our Joseph, who was a fabulously talented storyteller. He was imaginative, glib, and charismatic (sound familiar?), much better than all the others at making people believe that he, and only he, was THE chosen messenger (a la Mohammad).

In the PBS series, we see documents allegedly translated by Smith (transcribed from two magic gold plates that he had conveniently found near his home). Yet historians who have seriously studied the Mormons claim that Smith was basically illiterate (again, like Mohammad), although he could apparently read.

According to these historians, Smith did not write the words on the gold plates, because, well, he couldn't write. He instead cajoled a friend into transcribing the plates, which were carefully hidden from the scribe's view for safety's sake. If he saw them, according to Smith, he would be struck dead immediately. Ya gotta love this guy.

Smith's 'translation' contains countless passages (about 30-40 thousand words) taken verbatim from the Old and New Testaments (a lot of rust on those gold plates). It would have been easy for Smith to simply read these passages to his clueless scribe, yet this little nugget is ignored in the PBS series.

Basically, The Church of Latter Day Saints is just another phony religion invented by a con artist par excellence who actually started to believe, with surpassing zeal, his own lies. He went on to transform and convert himself before he converted his followers. He became a super-evangelist before he was inconveniently murdered in a shoot-out. A dead martyr is better than a thousand live zealots; zap: we got ourselves a religion.

Smith was seriously delusional, not unlike other 'founders' of religions. That seems obvious to atheists, agnostics and 'outsiders,' but not to PBS, which infuses this series with a tone that is almost reverential. This sellout of truth by the people's network is understandable: to condemn the Mormon faith is to risk severe reprisals from powerful church members in politics and corporate America.

Mormonism (or whatever it's called) is apparently the fastest-growing religion in America and perhaps even the world. Coincidentally, it might also be, per capita, the richest. Odd how god, The Perfect One, gave the 'final word' to the Mormons yet also had a need to accumulate enormous wealth in the bargain. If god is 'perfect,' why would he need money? It shows, once again (and again and again), that the number of people who are willing to be duped is apparently infinite.
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War Dance (2007)
Heartbreaking Yet Uplifting
21 April 2008
This superb documentary shows Acholi children from one village in the war zones of northern Uganda, who diligently prepare for the national musical and cultural competition in far-off and far-safer Kampala, the capital of Uganda.

While they try hard to succeed, they are beset by the constant danger of abduction at the hands of the Lord's Resistance Army (MRA), which is led by a religious fanatic (and part-time mystic and fortune-teller) named Joseph Kony, who started an uprising against the Ugandan army in 1986, pledging to turn the country into a theocracy with a constitution loosely based on the Ten Commandments.

Kony's army has abducted more than 30,000 children in northern Uganda and forced them to be soldiers and killers of their own tribal members. More than 200,000 children in northern Uganda have been orphaned because their parents were murdered. The LRA's 20-year war against the central government's Ugandan People's Defence Forces (UPDF), has left at least two million Ugandans displaced from their homes. Meanwhile, even in so-called 'safe camps,' where countless thousands live amid squalor and disease and depend on the United Nations food program, the UPDF still doesn't provide adequate protection.

It is wonderful to watch these determined children turn on their smiles and their brilliant talents as they prepare for, and participate in, the national competition. When they arrive in Kampala (southern Uganda, where no warfare takes place), they are overwhelmed to see skyscrapers; they had never seen buildings before.

Writers/directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix have done a great job of conveying the wondrous dreams of young people, along with the terrible ordeals they face in a savage, senseless war that sees no end. One youth, in a stunning story of barbarism, recounts how he was ordered to butcher three farmers with a hoe, and if he looked away at any time, he himself would have been murdered. Such is the barbarism that exists in northern Uganda today, much of it all but unknown to us in the West.

To make matters worse, there is blatant corruption in the central government itself, which enacted legislation in 2005 that will allow the corrupt lowlife Yoweri Musevini (elected in 1986) to be president-for-life. There are strong hints that he and Kony have an 'arrangement' to continue the war because it advances both of their 'causes,' although those 'causes' are not always readily apparent. Neither of these two lunatics appears to give a damn about the terrible pain they have inflicted on their own people.

Another equally powerful documentary on this same subject is 'The Other Side of the Country' (2006), by Quebec filmmaker Catherine Hebert. This very disturbing film concentrates more on the older (and even aged) northern Ugandans who are displaced from their homes by war and forced to live out their lives in teeming, treacherous 'relocation' camps, which are really nothing more than disease-infested examples of the worst kinds of slums.
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A dud that pretends to be important
20 April 2008
'Bottom of the Sea' is a maddeningly uneven and peculiar movie that starts with an interesting premise: immature boyfriend (Daniel Hendler) notices a man (Gustavo Garzon) hidden under the bedroom apartment of his girlfriend (Dolores Fonzi), and then becomes obsessed with finding out who is he. He follows him relentlessly, encountering an array of mishaps as he goes. These mishaps are apparently supposed to be funny, but they're played with suspenseful music in the background. It's an odd incongruity.

Credulity is really strained in this film with Hendler's character, replete with heavy beard, a filthy t-shirt, ratty sweater, scruffy jeans and shoes. He looks every inch a hobo, not exactly the ideal candidate to be surreptitiously following someone around the streets of Buenos Aires. One look at this guy and you'd remember him for weeks.

Another big problem is having Hendler and Garzon share most of the screen time, leaving the gorgeous and talented Fonzi about 15 minutes to play what basically amounts to a prop. It's a role that pretty well any actress could have played. Big mistake of omission by the director, because Hendler just can't carry this movie alone. (And I must ask: since Hendler really DOES look like a hobo, like a guy who hasn't washed in a month, what in the world would a classy woman like the Fonzi character see in him in the first place?)

When we find out what the mystery character (Garzon) is really up to, there is no suspense, no real surprise, only an explanation. So the viewer is left to wonder: 'just what was that all about?' Basically, as far as I can tell, the film gave director Damian Szifron an excuse to make a symbolic/metaphorical film about the dark unknown of the sea serving as a source of light, hope and enlightenment for those lost in the world above. Immature architect Hendler envisions a sustainable, submerged city where people can find out 'who they really are'.

All in all, this is a confused movie that really doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up.
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Otar the Magnificent
11 April 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Once you can get past the idea that 74-year-old writer-director Otar Iosseliani does not make traditional linear films but exaggerated send-ups of everyday life, you might enjoy his wondrous romps. Iosseliani is a brilliantly funny, understated satirist and deadpan absurdist.

Jacques Tati is one of Iosseliani's influences (as he freely admits), and many quirky Tatiesque touches are in full view in this and other Iosseliani films. His frames are not so much concerned with plot as with people who seem to be frenetically busy while they're actually not doing much of anything at all. This is Iosseliani's view of the world: life as ennui and illusory importance, life filled with people who are not really sure what they're doing on Planet Earth.

Vincent (French actor Jacques Bideau) works in a disgusting chemical plant that belches monstrous clouds of pollutants, yet absolutely no smoking is allowed on the premises. Vincent is a hapless but well-meaning, aspiring painter who's regularly ignored by his rotten kids (they're always telling him to get lost).

Vincent's father (Radslav Kinski) tells him to take a vacation and 'luxuriate' in the great breeding grounds of Western culture, to find the historical roots of our great modern societies. So Vincent goes to Venice, where he and other tourists circle canals in boats, going nowhere and seeing nothing. He climbs a roof with a Venetian, who shows Vincent an array of ancient, grimy factory buildings -- the antithesis of the usually romantic Venetian facade -- and proudly says: 'This is Venice'. Vincent sends postcards of the Pyramids to his mother, who rips them up, not the slightest bit interested. He meets his uncle (Iosseliani himself), who's actually a flamboyant charlatan, a layabout lout pretending to be some kind of 'noble' who records piano music and pretends it is he who is playing.

Vincent returns from his odyssey, having achieved and experienced very little of anything.

No other director in the world is quite like Iosseliani. There are a lot of Brecht's 'distancing' techniques in this Georgian-born director's work. There is relatively little dialogue, and he rarely, if ever, shows close ups -- the screen is always full of characters in long shots who are always trying to do something, or go somewhere, even if it's across the street and back again. The absurdity of human purpose is a recurring motif in Iosseliani's work.

Another important aspect of the director's films is his divergence from the usual centre of cinematic action (i.e. the foreground). This technique was perfected by Jean Renoir in his brilliant 'Rules of the Game'(1939) and partially repeated two years later in 'Citizen Kane'. Since then, the technique has been used to great effect by, especially, Robert Altman. Ioselliani revives it brilliantly here. Many of the great moments in his films -- see for example 1999's Adieu, Plancher des Vaches (Farewell, Home Sweet Home) -- are taking place in the background. This is a reflection of Iosseliani's world view: what happens behind us is often more important than what happens in front of us.

Iosseliani's humour is always understated. There are no slapstick moments in his films -- just flourishes of quirky, off-centre people doing a lot of silly things.

We all live lives of quiet ennui, even as we believe we don't. Life is ultimately a process of movement from one tedious experience to the next. Nobody shows this better, or does this better, than Otar Iosseliani.
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Compelling, but ultimately unsatisfactory
24 March 2008
I was in the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper's library when I heard the news of Kennedy's assassination. Thus began a great mystery in the U.S. and around the world that continues to this day. Trillions of words and thousands of books have been written about the assassination, and that alone tells us that there is no one satisfactory theory about why or how Kennedy was murdered.

Robert Stone's documentary is both odd and disjointed. As someone else on this board has already noted, director Stone starts off with a reasonably balanced view of the assassination, leads us through various conspiracy theories and talking heads, and then, boom, just like that, in the final 10 minutes, allows noted author Norman Mailer to wrap it up for us: Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

Mailer offers his 'evidence' more from a novelist's point of view than from one of evidence. Mailer's 'proof': Oswald was living in desperate straits, he was frustrated but bright and articulate, he had delusions of grandeur, he wanted a permanent place in American history, he worked in a building on the parade route, and voila: it all came together.

Director Stone ends his movie focused on Mailer's fanciful artistic interpretation of events (Oswald's ghost knows the answers, but a ghost will not tell us). It's quizzical to say the least.

Mailer (and ultimately filmmaker Stone himself) leaves out a glaring contradiction that still stares at conspiracy theorists today. It's a glaring contradiction not wrapped in Maileresque language: the famous Zapruder film (now digitalized for even more vivid inspection), which clearly shows that Kennedy had the top of his head blown off by a shot from the FRONT, not from the Texas Schoolbook Depository in the rear, where Lee Harvey Oswald was purportedly firing three shots in six seconds.

It is peculiar that Mailer, Stone, Elliott Jay Epstein (author of a book on the murder), former student radical-activist Todd Gatlin, and disgraced former Senator Gary Hart have all attached themselves to the 'single gunman' theory. Oswald may well have been involved up to his skinny little neck, but it still doesn't explain Zapruder's remarkable film, which has nothing to do with Oswald the Man, but merely frightening evidence that something else was happening on that fateful day in November 1963. That 'something else' has never been explained, and this film basically ignores it.

This film ultimately leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. Exactly what we needed: even more questions about the Kennedy assassination.

'Oswald's Ghost' left me with this uncomfortable feeling that too many people are desperate to put this whole messy business behind us. It is, after all, much easier, and much neater, to blame it all on a single shooter who also happened to be crazy.
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City of Men (2002–2018)
24 March 2008
This is a powerful 19-part fictional series, based on real events and characters, that is ingeniously filmed on the streets, beaches and the notorious favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

'City of Men' recounts the many experiences (some very funny) of two teenagers from the slums trying to remain reasonably honest while poverty, racism, gang warfare and police brutality surround them. The close friendship of the two teenagers is brought to the screen with rare intensity by Darlan Cunha as Laranjinha, a disconnected but charismatic and streetwise figure, and the often bewildered, likable and always horny ('I don't want to die a virgin') Douglas Silva as Acerola. Both of these boys are not trained actors, and were 14 years old when the series started in 2002 (it ended in 2006). It's fascinating to watch them work.

The series is bathed in brilliant day-time colour and ominous night-time danger. People in this film live close to the edge. Murder is an everyday event.

The only problem I had with the series is the rapid-fire quick cuts and the shaky hand-held cameras. If this style doesn't bother you, sit tight and enjoy the ride. For me, the sizzle and the dazzle are often unnecessary and distracting. Too much focus (literally) on style, and the messages of the film are blurred somewhat because of it.
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