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Blogs THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (2004) (***1/2)

It’s amazing how flexible William Shakespeare’s work can be. It can be made faithful to the text, but with an inventive mind can take on such varying moods and dimensions.

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is the most performed of Shakespeare’s plays, but has been adapted to the screen very few times. The main reason has to be that the character and treatment of Shylock is anti-Semitic. However, director Michael Radford (IL POSTINO) here takes one of Shakespeare’s comedies and turns it into a tragedy by shifting the central character from Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes, ENEMY AT THE GATE) to Shylock (Al Pacino, THE GODFATHER), using Shylock’s desire for unbending revenge as his downfall.

Blogs LUTHER (2004) (***1/2)

I’ve always felt that religion is a topic that films should deal more with. But studios are always scared of upsetting people or alienating a section of the potential audience. That’s why we get Christmas movies without a single mention of Christ. So it’s refreshing to find a film that discusses theological issues so frankly and openly as this film does.

As one might infer from the title, the film follows the life of Martin Luther (Joseph Fiennes, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE), who was a German Catholic monk, who rebelled against the corruption he saw and ignited the Reformation, leading to the formation of Protestantism and the translation of the Bible from Latin into common languages.

Blogs IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL: THE MYSTERY OF HENRY DARGER (2004) (***1/2)

This documentary is the story of Henry Darger, a janitor who had no friends and was often thought to be a bit crazy. Alone in his small apartment over decades, he created a 15,000-page novel and additional works including 12-foot paintings. The film tries to present the inner world of fantasy that Darger created for himself through the words of his magical story — IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL — as well as his autobiography and personal recollections of the few people who knew him.

We learn of his poor childhood and see the parallels between what happened to him when he lived in an orphanage and the war between a Christian army versus the evil child enslavers in his fictional story. He lived so fully in the world of his imagination that he named a general in the Christian army after himself, often acted out the various roles of the characters in his room and debated his own issues, especially religious crisis, within the pages of the novel.

Blogs IMAGINARY HEROES (2005) (***)

From first time writer-director Dan Harris comes a melancholy and darkly humorous look at a family recovering from the suicide of their swimming superstar son, Matt (Kip Pardue, THIRTEEN).

The film centers on Matt’s younger brother Tim (Emile Hirsch, LORDS OF DOGTOWN), who looks younger than 17, isn’t an athlete and only really speaks to his mother Sandy (Sigourney Weaver, ALIEN), who is a mother who loves her son dearly, but acts more like a kid than someone’s mother should. Tim’s father, Ben (Jeff Daniels, THE HOURS), pushed Matt hard to be the best. After the suicide, he can barely cope with life, becoming greatly withdrawn and highly insensitive. The Travis family also has a college-aged daughter named Penny (Michelle Williams, TV’s DAWSON’S CREEK), who probably could have been dropped from the screenplay.

Blogs HITCH (2005) (**1/2)

This film moves along entertainingly with some surprising depth, but ruins all its goodwill with an end that is two scenes way too long.

Alex “Hitch” Hitchens (Will Smith, ALI) is a famed date doctor, who opens up doors for unsure guys to meet the women of their dreams. He keeps a low profile so that he can operate under the radar. He works by referral only. By the looks of his New York City apartment, he most certainly doesn’t need to take out an ad in the yellow pages.

His newest client Albert (Kevin James, TV’s KING OF QUEENS) is an over-weight, slob of a financial advisor, who wants to date his client Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta, RAISING HELEN), a beautiful, world-famous heiress. Think Paris Hilton with some intelligence and a whole lot more class. As Hitch works his magic with Albert and Allegra, he falls for gossip columnist Sara (Eva Mendes, STUCK ON YOU). However, everything that can go wrong with Sara does go wrong. Ellis Island was a magic idea, but goes where no one would ever think.

Blogs ALEXANDER: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (2004) (**)

Oliver Stone’s portrayal of the life of Alexander the Great plays like a haphazard history lesson where the professor is so in love with the story that he bores his class by rambling on about it. Having only seen the director’s cut of the film, which rearranged much of the third act, I can only imagine the snorefest that was the theatrical release.

Alexander is played very well as an adult by Colin Farrell (PHONE BOOTH). However, the screenplay, which serves as a highlight reel of Alexander’s accomplishments, never drives home the emotional weight that Farrell delivers in his performance.

A lot was made of the portrayal of Alexander and his closet confidant Hephaistion (Jared Leto, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM) as gay lovers. History has proven this true, but it doesn’t change certain people’s squeamishness about said topic. Yet, the film never has Alexander and Hephaistion do anything more than hug. It’s not that I demand more, but if this relationship was so profound to Alexander the film never sells it. It seems that the film is only interested in hinting at the homosexuality, but has no interest in developing the characters. In important moments during the film Hephaistion disappears.

Blogs WACO: THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT (1997) (***1/2)

It’s amazing how this tragedy in American history played out in the media when it was happening and how things look in hindsight. William Gazecki’s documentary uses news and military footage from the standoff, footage from the Senate hearings after the event and interviews with scholars, writers, reporters and members of the Branch Davidians to reconstruct what happened during the 51-day standoff that lead to the burning of children within the compound in Texas.

Time and time again the film uncovers lie after lie that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI told about the event. The ATF said that the raid was not a publicity stunt, but it set up a press office and contacted local news media beforehand. When talking to Branch Davidian leader David Koresh on the phone, an AFT negotiator lies to Koresh about the helicopters firing at them and when caught in this lie comes up with a fancy way to dance around his wording so he can cover up his lie.

Blogs VIRIDIANA (1962) (****)

Having recently begun seeing Luis Buñuel’s work, I have quickly become a great fan. BELLE DE JOUR and LOS OLVIDADOS are brilliant, and this film is too. Buñuel is cynical, but honest. Many, many films have dealt with nice people taking in homeless people. Usually they are pure fantasy, painted by people with good intentions, but who do not want to see the world for what it can be and usually is.

Viridiana (Silvia Pinal, SIMON OF THE DESERT) is about to take her vows as a nun when her uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey, THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE), who has been her benefactor for years, calls for her to visit him before she takes her oath. When she arrives, he is struck by how much she looks like his dead wife. Viridiana is coldly honest, but innately kind. Her piety seems to have sucked the passion out of her though. Don Jaime wants Viridiana to stay with him. Loneliness makes his motives and actions shady. A tragedy strikes and Viridiana, along with Don Jaime’s estranged son Jorge (Francisco Rabal, L' ECLISSE), takes over the care of her uncle’s estate.

Blogs SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959) (***1/2)

Based on a stage play by Tennessee Williams that was adapted into a screenplay by Williams and Gore Vidal, the melodrama has eccentric heiress Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn, THE AFRICAN QUEEN) persuading lobotomy doctor Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY) into performing the surgery on her institutionalized niece Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor, WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLFF?) with the lure of funding the state hospital the doctor works at.

Violet’s behavior quickly undermines her intentions — is she trying to help Catherine or hide something about her beloved son Sebastian, who died while on vacation the previous summer with Catherine. As the story unfolds, the tale becomes more and more torrid as only a Tennessee Williams tale can get.

Blogs PACIFIC HEIGHTS (1990) (***)

SINGLE WHITE FEMALE brought us the roommate from hell. SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY the husband from hell. Hell, CRUSH brought us the teenage crush from hell. PACIFIC HEIGHTS brings us the tenant from hell. And it works much better than all those above movies, because the psycho is more than a psycho.

The “From Hell” thriller sub-genre is often pretty predictable. Not that this film breaks that mold, but it’s more believable and has a nice twist. Patty Palmer (Melanie Griffith, WORKING GIRL) and Drake Goodman (Matthew Modine, SHORT CUTS) are a boyfriend and girlfriend who buy an old apartment in San Francisco with the idea that if they rent out the two units below them they will be saving money on what they use to pay on rent before.

Blogs MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (1993) (***1/2)

Lately, too many people think of Woody Allen for his recent dry patch of films and his messy personal life. A lot of people discount anything that Allen made since the ‘90s. I disagree. HUSBANDS AND WIVES is amazing, BULLETS OVER BROADWAY is wonderfully entertaining and MIGHTY APHRODITE, EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, DECONSTRUCTING HENRY, SWEET AND LOWDOWN and ANYTHING ELSE are all good films. The problem is that Allen keeps making films and if he doesn’t come out with a masterpiece every time everyone says he’s lost his stuff.

MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s just as entertaining as BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. Larry and Carol Lipton (Allen & Diane Keaton, ANNIE HALL) are a middle-aged couple who have come upon a dry spot in their marriage. Larry is a book editor, who tries to set up his flirtatious client Marcia Fox (Anjelica Huston, THE WITCHES) with his best friend Ted (Alan Alda, TV’s MASH), who is starting a restaurant with Carol and has had secret crush on her for years. Larry and Carol one night meet their next-door neighbors Paul and Lillian House (Jerry Adler, TV’s THE SOPRANOS & Lynn Cohen, WALKING & TALKING) for the first time. Then when Lillian turns up dead and Paul seems less than torn up about it, Carol gets it into her mind that Mr. House killed her.

Blogs HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973) (***1/2)

Clint Eastwood returns to the Western genre, which made him a superstar, in his second film as a director. Like his characters in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, his character here is only known as the stranger, who rides into a small town called Lago.

Eastwood plays on Western conventions with the stranger watched suspiciously by the entire town to start off the film. Some thugs challenge him and they don’t make it to the second act. This is where the grittiness of the film kicks in with the stranger virtually raping the blonde and voluptuous Callie Travers (Marianna Hill, THE GODFATHER: PART II) in a barn. The cowardly and corrupt town quickly gathers to decide that they will give the stranger anything he wants to kill three bandits who have just been released from jail and are certainly headed back to the town for revenge. The stranger takes the work, but what the town doesn’t know is that he has an ulterior motive.

Blogs FREAKY FRIDAY (2003) (***)

When I first saw the trailers for this film, I thought to myself — didn’t we get enough of this plot with BIG, 18 AGAIN, VISA VERSA or the original FREAKY FRIDAY? But when Jamie Lee Curtis received good reviews, my interest was piqued. I caught it on cable finally and I was surprised with some of its honest observations.

Anna Coleman (Lindsay Lohan, HERBIE FULLY LOADED) is a teenager in a rock band and her psychiatrist mother Tess (Curtis, A FISH CALLED WANDA) is about to get remarried to a man named Ryan (Mark Harmon, CHASING LIBERTY). The big conflict comes when Anna’s band has a big audition on the night of Tess’ rehearsal dinner. Neither of them can understand nor imagine the other’s point of view. A magic fortune cookie changes this by having Anna and Tess switch bodies.

Blogs Invite to meet an upcoming German animator. Fri. July 29

ASIFA-SF, SCREEN 360 AND CATAPULT PRODUCTIONS (KATY KAVANAUGH) INVITE YOU TO
A RECEPTION - SCREENING - PARTY

HONORING GERMAN ANIMATOR FELIX GONNERT

Friday, July 29, 7:30 PM

Felix is a guest of SCREEN 360: FILMS FOR CHILDREN OF THE WORLD (for
audiences of all ages) at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Saturday, July 30.
His work Lucia (9-minutes) will be shown at 1 PM with Tornehekken (Hedge of
Thorens, an animated short from Norway) and Bazi (Play from Iran).

Please join us as we welcome Felix to San Francisco at the home of Nik and
Nancy Phelps, 2066 30th Avenue, SF. Food will be catered by Botany Bay.
Guests are invited to contribute something special to drink, like German
beers, wines and mineral waters.

Blogs HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1942) (***1/2)

For romantic comedy director Ernst Lubitsch the term “the Lubitsch Touch” was created. I’ve seen his films THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and NINOTCHKA, which I found marvelous. NINOTCHKA is one of the best romantic comedies ever made. Based on a stage play, HEAVEN CAN WAIT does not disappoint either.

“The Lubitsch Touch” is kind of abstract, but for me it’s a sly and skilled subversion that adds a naughty tone underneath the airy romance on the surface. The film begins with an old Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche, COCOON) in Hell, talking with His Excellency (Laird Cregar, THE BLAKC SWAN) about why he thinks he should spend the rest of time in damnation. He starts from his birth and works his way to his death.

Blogs DANGEROUS BEAUTY (1998) (***1/2)

This might be one of the only pro-prostitution films ever made. It’s also very, very smart and well crafted. Based on the writings of real life courtesan Veronica Franco, the film takes place in 16th century Venice where woman were kept ignorant and bargained off by their fathers as part of business deals.

Poor Veronica (Catherine McCormack, SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE) is in love with rich boy Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell, DARK CITY), but he knows they can’t be married. Veronica’s mother Paola (Jacqueline Bisset, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) then teaches her the ways of the courtesan like she and her mother did. A courtesan in those times was allowed to be educated and moved in circles where rich men’s wives did not go. In contrast to Veronica’s life of freedom, her friend Beatrice (Moira Kelly, CUTTING EDGE) is married off to a wealthy, but ancient man. Marco is forced to marry prudish Guila De Lezze (Naomi Watts, MULHOLLAND DR.), which emboldens Veronica to embrace her lot in life and make the best of it.

Blogs CAN'T HARDLY WAIT (1998) (**)

There are moments of honesty in this film and then there are moments that come from another planet. The intergalactic action overrides anything of worth in this film.

The movie has that teen movie formula where the graduating class all meet for one last party. The film is filled to the brim with characters, which adds a nice full feel to the class, but gives too much screen time to too many pointless episodes. The central story follows Preston Meyers (Ethan Embry, EMPIRE RECORDS), who has longed for the beautiful Amanda Beckett (Jennifer Love Hewitt, THE TUXEDO) since the moment he first met her. Well, they really didn’t meet, because she has no clue who he is. Her jocky and cocky boyfriend Mike Dexter (Peter Facinelli, THE BIG KAHUNA) has just broken up with her and Preston wants to give her a letter that tells her what he really thinks about her.

Blogs THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1968) (****)

There is a good reason why the Pentagon uses this film in counter terrorism training. In a documentary style, the film shows how and why insurgences begin, sustain themselves and often win the heart of their people.

Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag, only film performance) is the face of the terrorists in the film and Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin, THE GREAT CHASE) is the face of the French imperialists. The film brilliantly looks at modern irregular warfare where any citizen could attack a police officer or military soldier or in the case of terrorists attacks innocent civilians. Because it’s set in Algeria and the terrorists are Arabs, the links to today are clear.

The film is dispassionate and doesn’t take side too much; it leans left a bit. Really, it shows history and why insurgents can succeed — and in this case did succeed. Many historians track modern terrorists’ influences to the success in Algeria. Colonialism is truly a burden that white people will bare for centuries to come. The sting of imperialism isn’t going away and often is at the core of insurgences and terrorism. People of color in impoverished areas are sick of white Westerners meddling in their countries and lives. This is at the core of why Ali joins “the freedom fighters.”

Blogs TURKISH DELIGHT (1973) (****)

Director Paul Verhoeven is best known for making films that either have excessive violence or excessive sex. I really like his ROBOCOP and TOTAL RECALL. BASIC INSTINCT is a guilty pleasure and has certainly developed some iconic moments. However, he’s also made extreme stinkers like HOLLOW MAN and SHOWGIRLS. But none of these films could have prepared me for TURKISH DELIGHT, which is hands down without a doubt his masterpiece. It’s brilliant.

The film begins with Eric Vonk (Rutger Hauer, BLADE RUNNER) violently murdering a man and woman in two separate scenes. Then we cut to him half naked in his filthy apartment. The murders were fantasies. Next we move into a montage of Eric’s sexual flings and learn that his true love Olga Stapels (Monique van de Ven, 1983’s BURNING LOVE) has just broken up with him. This is when we jump back in time two years and witness the whirlwind courtship of the immature and rebellious Eric and the childish and impetuous Olga.

Blogs THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988) (**)

The “based on a true story” tag has never seemed so silly when in regard to this film. Yeah, there might be a powder that makes people seem dead and an anthropologist that went looking for it, but the rest of this film feels like pure fantasy.

Yet the film is indeed based on anthropologist Wade Davis’ book about his studies on zombism, which have now been widely discredited. However, I went into the movie not looking for realism, but a pre-NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD classic zombie tale like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. What I did get is a weak horror flick that disguises itself as a drama.

Director Wes Craven is one of the masters of horror, but here he is not working from a fairly well-crafted screenplay, but one that is very thin. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman, SPACEBALLS) is a Harvard anthropologist who is interested in seeking out mysterious tribal medicines, so that the world can benefit from these ancient potions. After having a scary experience in the Amazon, Alan is assigned a mission by a large pharmaceutical company to go to Haiti and discover the ancient secrets of zombies.

Blogs ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (1974) (****)

Based on Douglas Sirk’s ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, director Rainer Werner Fassbinder brought the story of an older woman falling for a younger man into the 1970s. If the age difference wasn’t a problem enough, cleaning lady Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira, BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ) is a white German and her lover, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem, THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS), is a black Moroccan.

They meet one night when Emmi comes into a bar to get out of the rain. The film’s themes of isolation are established early on with Emmi sitting what seems like miles away from the other staring patrons. The wonderful cinematography with its bold colors and metaphoric framing and staging is a subtle commenter throughout the film. Someone dares Ali to ask Emmi to dance, which he does. Because of the rain, he asks to walk her home. The two lonely souls talk and he ends up spending the night with her.

Blogs SEEING OTHER PEOPLE (2004) (***)

Some parts of this film really don’t work, but the parts that do work, work really well. Ed (Jay Mohr, JERRY MAGUIRE) and Alice (Julianne Nicholson, TULLY) are about to get married. Like all couples making this jump they have doubts. Alice wonders if their marriage will work because she hasn’t had a lot of sex with different people and wonders if she will be missing out on something. So she purposes that they fool around with other people until they get married so that they won’t doubt anything once they do get hitched.

Ed isn’t sure about the plan, but soon gets into it more than Alice. Alice’s shallow sister Claire (Lauren Graham, BAD SANTA) and Ed’s callow friend Lou (Josh Charles, DEAD POETS SOCIETY) think the arraignment is brilliant. But Ed’s easy going friend Carl (Andy Richter, NEW YORK MINUTE) thinks it’s awful as does Claire’s smarmy husband Peter (Bryan Cranston, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), but for reasons his wife might not expect.

Blogs THE OTHER SIDE OF HEAVEN (2001) (*1/2)

This movie from Brigham Young University graduate Mitch Davis is so one-sided that it reeks of propaganda. Based on the true story of Mormon John Groberg (Christopher Gorham, A LIFE LESS ORDINARY) and his mission in Tonga, the film never captures one ounce of believability. The message and purpose may not have been to preach, but it comes off that way.

The portrayals of the islanders are either as devoted robots to the church or slightly more civilized than a bunch of backwards savages that good ol’ white bread is there to save — in more ways than one. The film makes it out like the guy converted the whole freakin’ country. It never shows the side of the people he couldn’t reach.

Blogs LOST IN AMERICA (1985) (***1/2)

Albert Brooks’ satirical take on hippies becoming yuppies in the 1980s is funny and smart. Brooks (DEFENDING YOUR LIFE) plays 30-something, ad agency creative director David Howard, who is anticipating a big promotion. His wife Linda (Julie Hagerty, AIRPLANE!) is bored with their life, which never seems to change.

Well, things don’t quite work out for the couple the way they planned, so they end up buying a Winnebago and “dropping out of society” like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda did in EASY RIDER. Their attempts to throw caution to the wind and shed their responsible lifestyles are very funny, because they never quite work and they often have to resort to their old ways to survive.

Blogs THE TWILIGHT SAMURAI (2004) (****)

This film moves at the slow pace of its central character Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada, THE LAST SAMURAI), whose co-workers refer to him as Twilight, because he never goes out with them and comes to work unwashed and with torn clothing. He is a sad widower who is raising two daughters and taking care of his senile mother. As the title suggests, this is not a modern tale, but it still echoes the loneliness of modern workaholic Japan.

Seibei's daughter Ito (Erina Hashiguchi, film debut) narrates the film. She tells us that her father has learned that his friend’s sister Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa, BASARA - THE PRINCESS GOH) is divorcing her abusive husband. They were friends as children and seem to have had a crush on each other. Why Seibei doesn’t act on his feelings is typical, but has a profound twist that the people who know him wouldn't expect. What no one really knows is that Seibei has trained as a samurai. Though he is the lowest rank, he is still quite skilled. In the end, Seibei is blackmailed into confronting renegade samurai Yogo (Min Tanaka), who has already killed one samurai who was sent after him.

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