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Vals Im Bashir (2008)
the Sabra and Shatila massacres should have warned us
In 1982, during Israel's occupation of Lebanon, a group of Phalangists - whose political party was based on that of Francisco Franco - massacred Palestinian refugees while the Israeli army watched. Future prime minister Ariel Sharon was a brigadier general in the occupying army and claimed to have seen nothing (a sketchy claim, to say the least). Ari Folman's "Vals Im Bashir" ("Waltz with Bashir" in English) focuses on a former troop talking to an assortment of people about their memories of the occupation. Aside from the massacre itself, a particularly intense scene shows an Israeli tank driving through Beirut, casually running over cars; the Lebanese Civil War was essentially a proxy war between the US- and Israel-backed Christians and the Syrian-backed Muslims.
The movie falters by only showing the atrocities committed by the Phalangists while ignoring Israel's equally horrific acts during the war. There can be no good guys in these wars. In the end the movie is worth seeing just as long as you understand the bias.
The title refers to Lebanese Pres. Bashir Gemayel, assassinated a few days before the massacre.
Beau travail (1999)
life on the Red Sea
I understand that Claire Denis has made a number of movies addressing France's colonial history. Therefore, her "Beau travail" is par for the course. The movie takes place on a military base in Djibouti*. One can see a stark contrast between modernized France and Djibouti, where people have to walk around selling things to make a living.
It was only after watching the movie that I learned that it's based on Herman Melville's "Billy Budd". I recently saw Peter Ustinov's 1962 movie version of that novel. I would not have made the connection. No matter, it's an intense, interesting movie with complex characters. It won't be for everyone, but how often is it that we even get to see Djibouti onscreen? I recommend it.
*Djibouti also hosts both a US military base and a Chinese one. Sounds precarious.
a physician's life in a new era
Michael Hoffman's Oscar-winning "Restoration" looks at a new period in England's history as seen through the eyes of a physician (Robert Downey Jr) hired by King Charles II (Sam Neill). In seventh grade, I learned that Charles II - whose father Oliver Cromwell executed after the end of England's civil war - wasn't an effective leader. The movie depicts him as a party animal (was there ever a monarch who wasn't a party animal?).
This movie won't be for everyone (it IS a period piece, after all), but I enjoyed it. Since it stars Downey and Neill, plus David Thewlis, Ian McKellen, Hugh Grant and Ian McDiarmid, I'll say that it stars Iron Man, Alan Grant, Remus Lupin, Gandalf, playboy and Emperor Palpatine (I don't identify co-star Meg Ryan with any particular role).
Santa Clarita Diet (2017)
literal biting satire
Suburban gothic gets another spin with "Santa Clarita Diet". The contrast between the supposedly nice setting and the black comedy - complete with rapid-fire dialogue - is sure to shock anyone. You're sure to love it, but be warned: the gruesome scenes rival those of "Game of Thrones" and "The Walking Dead".
Ford v Ferrari (2019)
Since I'm not into car racing, James Mangold's Oscar-winning "Ford v Ferrari" was all the more impressive. This look at the US car company's efforts to unseat the Italian one as the champion of Le Mans feels energized even when not on the racetrack. We get looks at the inner workings of the car companies, as well as the personal lives of the drivers. It's a tour de force from start to finish. I recommend it.
The Warriors (1979)
on the streets, it's get tough or die trying
I had heard about "The Warriors" for years but only now got around to seeing it. This gritty, violent, and all-around lovable movie makes it sad that Walter Hill saw the quality of his movies decline over the years. The gangs here have no choice but to accomplish their goal, made all the more difficult by the pitiless setting.
I watched the director's cut, with Hill noting that he emphasized the comic book connection. Said connection doesn't subtract from the quality at all; it actually reminded me of George Romero's "Creepshow".
Basically, you haven't understood authentic action cinema until you've seen this movie (it's a whole lot more realistic than the repetitive, crummy movies starring Tom Cruise). Definitely check it out.
So yes, can you dig it?
Profumo di donna (1974)
a trip across Italy
To us in the United States, the recognizable "Scent of a Woman" is Martin Brest's 1992 movie starring Al Pacino as a blind colonel and Chris O'Donnell as a student who accompanies him on a trip.* What we in the US might not know is that it was a remake of a 1974 Italian movie. "Profumo di donna" stars Vittorio Gassman as the captain and Alessandro Momo (who died in a motorcycle accident right after filming ended) as the young cadet accompanying him on a trip. There are some amazing things awaiting both men on this vacation.
The remake added a secondary story about a prank at the student's school. In the original, it's all about the freewheeling adventure that the cadet and captain have. Who wouldn't want to have the experiences that these two guys have? It's too bad that Momo died so young. I bet that he could've gone on to have a great career. In the meantime, check this one out. Some great stuff here.
*Also appearing were Philip Seymour Hoffman, James Rebhorn and Frances Conroy (Ruth on "Six Feet Under").
The Saint of Fort Washington (1993)
you're more likely to be homeless than you are to be a millionaire
Not enough movies focus on homelessness. One that does is "The Saint of Fort Washington", starring Matt Dillon and Danny Glover as indigents who meet up in a shelter and form a bond. The movie depicts the gritty existence of these men, forced to wash windshields for money while a tough guy (Ving Rhames) threatens them in the shelter.
The coronavirus has forced homelessness back into our consciousness (crises do tend to lay the unpleasant things bare). With many out of work for an extended time, they can't pay rent and face evictions.
Anyway, it's a good movie. Also appearing are Rick Aviles (Willy Lopez in "Ghost"), Nina Siemaszko and Joe Seneca (the scientist in "The Blob").
Mr. Saturday Night (1992)
Billy Crystal goes serious
Anyone who's paid attention to cinema knows who Billy Crystal is. Whether he's the wisecracker who occasionally hosts the Academy Awards, or the star of breezy comedy flicks, he's a perfectly recognizable face. But what you might not know is that in 1992, he directed and starred in a serious movie. "Mr. Saturday Night" casts him as a comedian long past his prime. Watching the movie, I got the feeling that the character was a composite of several noted comedians from the '50s. He's the sort of character who shifts between amicable and rude in one breath.
I guess that the movie's point is that there's no way to stay at the top forever, especially with how quickly things change (note the scene of "The Ed Sullivan Show"). Nonetheless, the movie does shift between comedy and drama; is there a way for Crystal not to be funny when he has the chance? You're sure to laugh at the scenes where he performs in front of audiences.
David Paymer received an Oscar nod for his role as the protagonist's exasperated brother and agent. He's an actor who doesn't get the recognition that he deserves. In a better world, this movie would've turned him into one of the most sought-after people in entertainment.
Anyway, the movie isn't a masterpiece, but worth seeing. Watch for appearances of Helen Hunt, Jerry Orbach, Richard Kind (Meemaw's friend on "Young Sheldon" and Bing Bong's voice in "Inside Out") and in a cameo, Jerry Lewis.
Cabeza de Vaca (1991)
If you've spent your life in the United States, you might not know that Florida used to be a Spanish colony. In the 1520s, an explorer led an expedition into the peninsula and ended up traversing thousands of miles (or kilometers) over the next few years, covering what became the southeast US.
Nicolás Echevarría's "Cabeza de Vaca" focuses on this expedition, although it sounds as though the movie adds a lot of stuff that didn't happen. Sounds as though "based on a true story" should usually raise a red flag.
Aside from that, the movie does introduce the viewer to this impressive part of history. It's a real pity that we tend to learn so little about history, even US history (never mind that we don't learn the history of the indigenous peoples).
Worth seeing as a historical reference.
Hal Singer is the last male survivor of the Tulsa Massacre
Released as the Soviet Union was starting to implode, Pavel Lungin's "Taxi Blues" gives one a sense of the disillusion that would come to dominate Russia under Yeltsin.
As it turns out, the movie just became even more relevant. The protests resulting from George Floyd's murder drew attention to the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 (depicted on "Watchmen"). Here's the link to this movie: Hal Singer - who appears as himself - is the last male survivor of the massacre. He was less than two years old when a white mob razed the area known as Black Wall Street, slaughtering thousands. Now 100 years old, he is one of the few surviving links to that act of domestic terrorism.
Anyway, worth seeing.
The Iceman (2012)
we're probably never going to know the full extent of what goes on in the mafia
I had never heard of Richard Kuklinski before watching "The Iceman", so that made it more effective. However, I read about Kuklinski and it sounds as though the movie not only changed some things but completely ignored Kuklinski's unpleasant childhood, which contributed to his violent temper.
Which is not to say that the movie lacks any good qualities. The cast puts on fine performances. Michael Shannon plays one of his many heavy-duty roles (just like in "The Shape of Water") while Winona Ryder gets probably her most intense role ever.
Basically, if you focus merely on the plot and acting, it'll probably remind you of "The Irishman" (especially because of...well, just read IMDb's trivia about the movie). Otherwise, it's just okay.
The Morning After (1986)
the first casualty of amnesia is safety
Jane Fonda received an Academy Award nomination for "The Morning After", wherein she plays an actress who wakes up next to a dead body...but she can't remember what happened the night before. The movie doesn't have the most impressive plot, but Fonda and Jeff Bridges turn in their usual impressive performances as does Raúl Juliá as Fonda's character's husband/hairdresser (it's complicated).
Had I seen this movie and not known who the director was, I never would've guessed Sidney Lumet. It was quite different from his most famous movies, but I guess that Lumet was more diverse than I realized. In the end, it's nothing great, but still watchable.
Seriously, what sort of person keeps that much mayonnaise in their refrigerator?
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
Mark Blum, RIP
I had heard about Susan Seidelman's "Desperately Seeking Susan" for years, but only now got around to seeing it. Admittedly it's a silly movie, but very much an enjoyable one. The contrast between Roberta's supposedly ideal life and the seedy world inhabited by Susan says a lot about our country (even if it only tickles the funny bone).
Rosanna Arquette and Madonna put on some great performances, as do the other cast members. It turns out that Mark Blum (Gary) died of COVID* a few months ago. I hadn't even heard about his death.
Anyway, it's a fun movie, if a bit dated. Other cast members who got more famous later on are Aidan Quinn, Laurie Metcalf, John Turturro and Michael Badalucco (most recently appeared as the friend's dad on the Netflix series "Never Have I Ever").
*We have this pandemic in 2020, while at the time of the movie's release, AIDS was the pandemic. As I once heard, history doesn't always repeat itself but sometimes it rhymes.
Are there any good guys in the middle of a war?
Bong Joon-ho's Oscar-winning "Parasite" has drawn attention to Korean cinema. I had seen some Korean movies prior to that, but I just saw this one, and it deserves special mention.
The Korean War was the first military conflict of the Cold War; one might call it a proxy war in the Cold War. We may have heard countless stories about what went on or what the motivations were, but we don't often hear what it was like to be in the middle of the war. Jang Hoon's "Go-ji-jeon" ("The Front Line" in English) looks at that. What I took from the movie is essentially the same thing that John Sayles's "Men with Guns" said: to the people caught in the middle of the war, there's no difference between either side. As the character in Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" said, anyone with a gun is the enemy.
It's got some of the most intense battle scenes that I've seen. And on top of it, the Korean War only ended with a truce, so it's technically ongoing, just without active combat. This is one movie that I definitely recommend.
The Bostonians (1984)
Boston tough in the original style
Throughout the '80s and '90s, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory were probably the foremost purveyors of highbrow cinema, often adapted from classic novels. One such example is "The Bostonians", from a Henry James novel. I've never read the novel - and almost certainly never will, given how long it takes me to get through books - but the movie is as solid as we would expect. It sounds as though Henry James treated his topics with subtlety, which would explain the depiction of what would've otherwise been a taboo topic in the 1800s.
Basically, the combination of the scenery, costumes, music and setting make this the sort of period piece that could only come from Merchant and Ivory. And because I can't resist, I gotta note the cast: Christopher Reeve, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Tandy, Nancy Marchand, Linda Hunt and Wallace Shawn.* In other words, it stars Superman, Julia, Miss Daisy, Livia Soprano, the cameraman during the Indonesian coup, and Vizzini/Rex/Young Sheldon's professor/the man who had dinner with Andre.
*Vanessa Redgrave later co-starred in an adaptation of Wallace Shawn's politically charged play "The Fever", co-starring Michael Moore and Angelina Jolie.
Heart Like a Wheel (1983)
having never heard of Shirley Muldowney before made this all the more impressive
As someone who's not into drag racing, I had never heard of Shirley Muldowney before watching Jonathan Kaplan's Academy Award-nominated "Heart Like a Wheel" (not knowing what it was about, I assumed that it had something to do with Linda Ronstadt's song). My unfamiliarity made the movie all the more impressive. Like numerous people throughout history, Muldowney wanted to make something of herself.
I understand that Muldowney would've preferred Jamie Lee Curtis in the role. I could see Curtis in the role, but I still think that Bonnie Bedelia did a fine job. It's not a masterpiece, but I recommend it.
PS: supporting cast members Hoyt Axton and Dick Miller co-starred the following year in Joe Dante's "Gremlins".
Never Have I Ever (2020)
Ya know it!
A family friend from India recommended "Never Have I Ever" to my parents and then they told me, so I've been watching it for the past week. So far I've liked every bit of it. I bet that lots of people go through these things, but the show makes it perfectly enjoyable. You're sure to love it.
The Villain (1979)
Kirk Douglas, RIP
After Kirk Douglas's death a few months ago, I decided that I wanted to see a number of his movies that I hadn't seen previously. One is the western comedy "The Villain". Basically, it's a live-action version of the Looney Tunes: a stutterer, traps that backfire, and "Merrily We Roll Along". In addition to Douglas as the title ruffian, we also have Ann-Margret, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and some other people.
No, it's nothing high-class, but it's far from the worst movie ever made; it's orders of magnitude better than "Everyone Says I Love You" and "Man on the Moon". This is the sort of movie that you watch just to have fun, and that's just what happens.
Will Ann-Margret ever not be a beaut?
Ice Castles (1978)
it's probably not every professional skater who stars in a romantic drama, a horror flick, and a James Bond movie
Lynn-Holly Johnson came to my attention when my fourth grade class watched the horror movie "Watcher in the Woods"; it contained no violence or nudity or anything like that, so it was considered appropriate for school (it was also the first movie in which I ever saw Bette Davis; it also starred Carroll Baker and David McCallum, but they didn't register in my mind until several years later). Johnson played the older daughter of a family that moves to an eerie manor where a girl mysteriously disappeared some decades earlier; the movie was pretty much what you'd expect, although I did find Johnson quite hot. It wasn't until several years later that I learned that she was a professional skater.
So now I've seen a more prominent movie starring her: Donald Wrye's "Ice Castles", in which she gets to show off her main talent. Damned if she wasn't a master at figure skating. The story itself is kind of maudlin but I did enjoy seeing Johnson doing her stuff. At the very least, it was appropriate to cast an actual skater in the role. The depiction of the coach is enough to give anyone misgivings about professional sports.
In the end, it's not a masterpiece, but a respectable look at the vicissitudes of pursuing one's dream, especially when tragedy strikes. Carole Bayer Sager's Oscar-nominated theme song will never be one of my favorites, but it does fit the mood. Worth seeing.
Which Way Is Up? (1977)
Richard Pryor focuses on labor
When I started watching "Which Way Is Up?" I didn't realize that it focuses on labor issues. Richard Pryor is in his usual comedic form - playing a triple role, no less - but this is actually more of a serious role for him. It's apparently a remake of a Lina Wertmüller movie (I've never seen the original). This makes me wish that Lina Wertmüller had directed Richard Pryor in a movie; maybe she could've cast him as a rule-trashing cool dude who takes on Mussolini.
Anyway, the movie does draw attention to unions, and management's efforts to stifle it. And there's no shortage of Richard Pryor's comedy. Worth seeing.
Also starring Margaret Avery (Shug in "The Color Purple"), DeWayne Jessie (Otis Day in "Animal House") and Tim Thomerson (of the Trancers franchise).
hail scary, full of grace
"Alice, Sweet Alice" (aka "Communion") is probably best known as Brooke Shields's film debut. What struck me about it is the focus on working-class Roman Catholic families of the early 1960s. The US had its first Catholic president, which no doubt made the previously discriminated Irish and Italians feel vindicated.
So here we have a Catholic community in Paterson, New Jersey. A series of murders plagues the community...but who's behind it? Plenty of people suspect the title character, but might there be things that we don't know about the individuals in this community?
There are some shocking scenes here. The movie got confiscated in the United Kingdom under the Obscene Publications Act and labeled a video nasty*, and drew controversy in Ireland due to the perception that it was anti-Catholic. Whatever the cast, we should take pleasure in the fact that we now have it readily available and can watch it to our heart's content. You're sure to love it.
*Rabid homophobe Mary Whitehouse led a campaign against movies that she considered obscene. I like to think that she did double-flips in her grave when the UK established marriage equality.
all's welfare that ends well
Diahann Carroll died last year, so I decided to watch her only Oscar-nominated role. It took a few months, but I finally got around to seeing "Claudine" (the isolation amid the coronavirus has given me extra time). It's a fine look at the strictures that one faces in the welfare system. The mix of comedy and drama allows the viewer to have fun with the story while also understanding the gravity of the title character's life. James Earl Jones offers excellent support as a man with whom she starts up a relationship.
The movie also depicts some run-ins with law enforcement. Now's probably the appropriate time to watch it, with the Black Lives Matter protests worldwide in the wake of the George Floyd murder. All in all, it's a fine movie. Not the greatest ever made, but a good look at life in a financial bind.
The production company, Third World Cinema, got established by Ossie Davis to give African-American and Latino actors more roles.
there's a lot to know about those to whom we look up
I first learned of Elton John when he won an Oscar for his song from "The Lion King" (a movie that I've still never seen). I later heard about him when he wrote a song for Princess Diana's funeral, and from there learned about the rest of his career.
So, it was inevitable that there would be a biopic. I didn't expect a musical biopic, but it probably made sense to make it a musical. After the movie won an Oscar for Best Original Song, I figured that I might as well see it. The movie shows John in all his facets: genius, drug addict, and all-around flasher (it was the '70s, so how could he not be such?). I should admit that I've never paid much attention to John's work; nothing against him, just not my style.
The movie starts with John's childhood (and an emotionally distant father) and goes through the years, showing John producing some notable songs while leading a typically '70s life and eventually coming out as gay. It's no masterpiece - especially since they had to take some creative liberties for storytelling's sake - but there's a lot of impressive stuff in store here. Whatever you think of Elton John, there's no denying his impact on popular culture over the past half-century.
All in all, I recommend the movie.
L'enfant sauvage (1970)
this way, kid
A key figure in French cinema for a decade, François Truffaut cast himself in a lead role for the first time in "L'enfant sauvage" ("The Wild Child" in English), the true story of a feral boy discovered in France in 1798. Truffaut plays the physician trying to help the boy adapt to society.
I understand that people's attitudes towards the boy can get seen as an allusion to colonialism. The people in Europe viewed any non-European person as a wild person needing "civilizing", just as they view the boy.
Anyway, it's a fine movie. Never manipulative or sentimental, it allows the viewer to form their own opinion of the depicted events. My opinion is that it confirms Truffaut as one of cinema's grand masters.
So yes, have some EAU (water).