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800 BULLETS (2002) (**1/2)

This Spanish import from 2002 has just arrived on DVD in the U.S. The chief reason I rented this film was because it made Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News’ top ten list a few years back. I can see why people really like the film, but I feel it doesn’t work completely.

The film is a parody of Westerns. Carlos (Luis Castro) is a rebellious and destructive tween whose mother Laura (Carmen Maura, VALENTIN) tells him very little about his father who died in a stunt accident on a movie set. Carlos learns that his grandfather Julian (Sancho Gracia, EL CID: THE LEGEND) is still alive and works at a rundown tourist trap, which was originally used as a Western town in spaghetti Westerns. Skipping out on a school skiing trip with his mom’s credit card in hand, Carlos heads off to meet his grandfather. Filled with guilt over his son’s accidental death, Julian rejects Carlos at first, but after the tike bails him out of jail they become quick buddies.

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MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) (****)

This film from John Ford (THE QUIET MAN) is the archetypical Western. It tells the legendary conflict that led to the shootout at the O.K. Corral. Henry Fonda (THE GRAPES OF WRATH) stars as Wyatt Earp, who takes the job as marshal of Tombstone after his youngest brother James (Don Garner, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY) is killed by cattle rustlers. Earp believes Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan, RIO BRAVO) and his sons are involved.

At first the wild town is reluctant to accept the new lawman, especially the town’s top gambler Doc Holliday (Victor Mature, THE ROBE) and his on-and-off-again Indian girl Chihuahua (Linda Darnell, UNFAITHFULLY YOURS). However, Wyatt and Doc soon become friends. However, Wyatt becomes torn when Doc’s true love from back East, Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs, THE SUNDOWNERS), comes to Tombstone.

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ZOMBIE (1979) (*1/2)

Lucio Fulci is considered one of Italy’s masters of horror. From this film, I couldn’t tell you why. I’ve seen this movie on greatest horror lists, but I don’t know why. It’s not scary and often boring. As I have said many times before, gross things are not inherently scary. Bad things happening to people are not inherently scary. It takes context and tension to make things scary. The threat of gross stuff and death is scarier.

After her father’s boat washes up in New York with a zombie on it, Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow, THE LAST HUNTER) sets out to discover what happened to her dad. A newspaper reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch, MOONLIGHTING) teams up with her, which leads them to take a boat with Brian Hull (Al Cliver, THE BEYOND) and Susan Barrett (Auretta Gay, OMBRE) to the Caribbean. When they arrive on an uncharted island, they meet Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson, LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER), who has been working to uncover the mystery of zombies much to the dismay of his beautiful wife Paola (Olga Karlatos, PURPLE RAIN).

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WINCHESTER '73 (1950) (***1/2)

There’s nothing revolutionary or subversive about this Western. It’s a fairly straightforward revenge drama. However, skilled writing that plays with story conventions combined with the always-wonderful screen legend James Stewart, the film emerges as a solid piece of cinema. As we will learn, greed for power is a dirty business to be in.

The film begins with Lin McAdam (Stewart) and his best friend High-Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell, TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH) riding into Dodge City where sheriff Wyatt Earp (Will Geer, IN COLD BLOOD) is holding a shooting contest for a rare Winchester rifle. Lin runs into Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally, JOHNNY BELINDA) who we can tell by their stare down have had a bad past together.

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LA STRADA (1956) (****)

I simply love this film. It’s amazing. Slow-witted poor girl Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina, NIGHTS OF CABIRIA) is bought by a traveling performer named Zampanò (Anthony Quinn, GUNS OF NAVARONE), who is a brute. She goes along because her mother and four younger sisters barely have enough to eat and Zampanò will pay 10,000 lire.

The duality of Gelsomina and Zampanò relationship is fascinating. He tears her down, but also teaches her talents that give a purpose to her life. Later in the film while working for a circus, they meet aerialist The Fool (Richard Basehart, BEING THERE), who has had an antagonistic relationship with Zampanò for years. The Fool can be a mean-spirited jokester at times, but underneath he has a very kind streak. He works as the mirror opposite of Zampanò.

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THE KING AND I (1956) (***)

This famed musical is brought to life with wonderful performances by Deborah Kerr (AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER) and Yul Brynner (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN).

Kerr plays Anna Leonowens, an English schoolteacher brought to Siam by the king (Brynner) to teach his children and his wives. Their relationship starts out rocky due to a clash of cultures, but they warm to each other as Anna learns the true heart of King Mongkut and he learns what a woman can really teach a man.

Brynner steals every scene he is in. He commands the screen and makes us forget that Hollywood during the 1950s felt any “ethnic” looking actor could be interchangeable as any ethnicity.

Tension arises when the King’s chief advisor Kralahome (British actor Martin Benson [ANGELA’S ASHES] who is the least convincing actor ever cast as an Asian) disapproves of the new idea’s Anna is feeding into the head of the king and young Prince Chulalongkorn (Patrick Adiarte, FLOWER DRUM SONG). Likewise, Anna and the king butt heads over the slave-like treatment of his young wife Tuptim (Rita Moreno, WEST SIDE STORY), who is really in love with Burmese messenger Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas, TRUE GRIT). Both Moreno and Rivas pass as Siamese okay. No more a problem than Natalie Wood passing as a Puerto Rican in WEST SIDE STORY.

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KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949) (****)

This black comedy is hilarious and simply perfect. Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price, SON OF DRACULA) is 12th in line from being a Duke. His mother (Audrey Fildes) married for love and was disowned by her family. She wasn’t even allowed to be buried in the family tomb. This enrages Mazzini who sets out to eliminate the people in his way.

Those eight people are all played by Alec Guinness (BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI) in a tour-de-force performance equal to that of Peter Sellers in DR. STRANGELOVE. This British comedy is droll and often laugh out loud funny.

Price is perfect as the murderous conniver. In addition to his murder plot he simultaneously woos his childhood love (who rejected him when he was poor) named Sibella Holland (Joan Greenwood, TOM JONES) and one of the heir’s wives Edith D’Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson, GREAT EXPECTATIONS). The dialogue and voice over is wry and sly. Both the cast and director Robert Hamer (THE SCAPEGOAT) have wonderful timing.

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THE KILLING FIELDS (1984) (****)

Based on a true story, this film is a powerful tale of friendship and survival. Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston, TV’s LAW & ORDER) is a journalist for the New York Times. He’s covering the war in Cambodia in 1975 along with a photographer and interpreter Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor, HEAVEN & EARTH).

The film works in two parts and I was reminded of the way THE INSIDER played. The film begins with Schanberg and Pran together and mainly chronicles Schanberg’s dogged determination to report the bloody truth of what is going on in Cambodia. He often fearlessly (or cockily whichever way you like to see it) puts himself in harm’s way with Pran dutifully following.

Blogs

SIN CITY (2005) (****)

You ain’t seen nothing like this. It’s PULP FICTION drenched in film noir. If you’ve ever read a Frank Miller comic this film is that experience on the screen. It’s violent and stylish and dripping with cynicism… and that’s what makes it great.

Based on three SIN CITY comics – “That Yellow Bastard,” “The Hard Goodbye” and “The Big, Fat Kill” – the film works as three separate episodes taking place in one city with various characters overlapping each tale. The film starts with an unrelated opening involving Josh Hartnett (BLACK HAWK DOWN) and Marley Shelton (NEVER BEEN KISSED), which sets the tone for the film. Then we start out with Bruce Willis (THE SIXTH SENSE) as veteran cop Hartigan, who is after a pedophile (Nick Stahl, TV’s CARNIVALE), who’s the son of the powerful senator Roark (Powers Boothe, FRAILTY).

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MILLIONS (2005) (****)

I cannot encourage people more to search out this film and see it right away. This is one of the best family films I have ever seen. It’s simple brilliant.

I use the term family film to describe the movie because its main characters are kids and there is nothing too offensive about it, but the term is too much of a pigeonhole. The plot might seem familiar – train robbers lose a bag full of money and two boys recover it then find ways to spend it. But the way writer Frank Cottrell Boyce (THE CLAIM and also plays the Nativity play director) and director Danny Boyle (TRAINSPOTTING, 28 DAYS LATER) develop the characters and world like you’ve never seen before.

Youngster Damian (Alexander Nathan Etel, film debut) has recently lost his mother and his father Ronnie (James Nesbitt, WAKING NED) has taken a job at a new housing community as a maintenance man, which provides the family a new house. Near by are train tracks and Damian sets up a fort there. One day a bag full of 250,000 pounds falls on top of him. He thinks it’s a gift from God. Damian is a very faithful child, who often sees visions of saints. He knows their stats like a typical boy knows sports statistics. He shows his older brother Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon, film debut) the money and Anthony quickly figures out how to spend it or better yet invest it. Damian really just wants to give it to the poor.

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CASSHERN (2005) (**)

This film is based on 1973 Japanese anime film of the same name. With modern visual effects, the film captures the feel of anime to the T. However, this film doesn’t rise above anime’s tendency to ramp up outlandish action with tacked on pretentiousness.

The film is set in an industrialized future — a mix of Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS and Kerry Conran’s SKY CAPTAIN. Kotaro Azuma (Akira Terao, RAN) is a famed scientist who has discovered the “neo-cell” that can regrow any human cell. He desperately wants his experiment to work because he wants to cure his ailing wife Midori (Kanako Higuchi, 1989’s ZATOICHI), who is going blind. Kotaro’s rebellious son Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya, AFTER LIFE) joins the army to spite his father and witnesses the horrors of war first hand. Tetsuya is engaged to Luna (Kumiko Aso, KAIRO), who loves him dearly.

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WAY OUT WEST (1937) (****)

This film is Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s best feature effort. The script, gags and characters work perfectly together. The film works as one expects from a Laurel and Hardy film. Laurel plays Stanley, the thin submissive dimwit, and Hardy plays Ollie, the portly smug leader. But the twist is that the comic duo has fun with the conventions of the Western.

Laurel and Hardy are on a mission out West to deliver a gold mine deed to Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence, THE LITTLE RASCALS), whom inherited it after her father died. When her guardian Mickey Finn (James Finlayson, JULIA MISBEHAVES) and his dance hall girlfriend Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynn) find out, they plan to trick Laurel and Hardy into getting the deed for themselves. Once they do and Stan and Oliver discover the truth, the comic heroes dedicate themselves to getting it back.

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TRULY MADLY DEEPLY (1991) (***)

Coming out one year after GHOST and kicking off the directing career of Anthony Minghella (ENGLISH PATIENT), the story follows the healing process Nina (Juliet Stevenson, BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM) goes through after her beloved boyfriend Jamie (Alan Rickman, ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES) dies.

The film starts as a straight-forward drama, but midway through brings in the ghost of Jamie. Before Jamie reappears, Nina is having a very hard time. She can’t date and is very sensitive about anything to do with Jamie. There’s a powerful scene where Nina breaks down in a therapy session, which is one of the most heartrending crying scenes I’ve ever seen.

Once Jamie returns everything is just peachy between Nina and him. But once he starts to invite his ghostly friends over, she starts to develop the power to move on with life, especially after meeting the funny Mark (Michael Maloney, 1996’s HAMLET).

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SONS OF THE DESERT (1933) (****)

The general premise of this film has been copied ad nauseam on television for decades. It's the plot that folks who haven't ever seen a Laurel and Hardy film already know. The American Film Institute placed it at #96 on its best American comedies list. Surprisingly, the only Laurel and Hardy film to make the list. In the film, Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy want to go to their lodge convention in Chicago, but their wives won’t let them. So they come up with a scheme that Oliver is so sick they must go to Hawaii to get well. However, no plan from this comic duo could go that easy.

What makes this so much better than its imitators is that more than 70 years later it still seems fresh and retains the universal dilemmas of male-y males and their relationships with their wives. The film has a great deal of fun with how sticky lies can get. For Ollie lies can cause a big headache. And this is really just a reworking of their short films, WE FAW DOWN from 1928 and BE BIG! from 1931.

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IMAGES (1972) (***1/2)

This psychological thriller from director Robert Altman (M*A*S*H) is like a cross between DON’T LOOK NOW, SPIDER and A BEAUTIFUL MIND.

Cathryn (Susannah York, THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?) is a writer, whose husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois, TV’s STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE) is a successful businessman. Early on, we realize that Cathryn is schizophrenic and sees things that are not real. After an episode, Cathryn convinces Hugh to take a holiday in the country. There, they meet with friend Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi, Z), whose young daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison, THE DRESSER) becomes friends with Cathryn.

The visions Cathryn experiences range from people in her life like her husband, Rene and Susannah to dead lover Marcel (Hugh Millais, MCCABE & MRS. MILLER). Sometimes the visions are completely in her mind and at other times she mistakes one person for another. This creates a creepy uncertainty about what is real and what is not. Cathryn's struggles with her sanity lead to violent actions.

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SHERLOCK, JR. (1924) (****)

I love Buster Keaton. He was a genius of an amazing range of talents. Up until seeing this film, THE CAMERAMAN was my favorite of his work. Now it’s this film. In only 44 minutes Keaton has created one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen.

He plays a movie projectionist who is studying to be a detective. He wants to marry his girl (Kathryn McGuire, THE NAVIGATOR), but the local sheik (Ward Crane, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) also vies for her hand. After the sheik sets up the projectionist as stealing the girl’s father’s (Joe Keaton, THE GENERAL) watch, the wanna-be detective is heartbroken. He goes back to the theater and as he falls asleep he is transported into the crime film playing on the screen where he becomes the suave detective Sherlock, Jr.

Blogs

3 WEEKS RENT FREE IN SAN FRANCISCO!!!

Nik And Nancy need a house-sitter during Annecy May 24 - June 15. To all of
our friends around the world - here's your chance to come to San Francisco.

It's time to roam Europe in search of new animation, and while we're away in
France, we need a dependable person to enjoy our house and great back yard
in these times of global warming. We will be gone from May 24 until June 15,
and basically need for the person to walk our elderly dogs a few times a day
and feed them. Other than that, there will be some great weather to sit in
our back yard and create, party, or whatever.

Get in touch with us soon if you would like to take advantage of a great
house in the Sunset District of San Francisco.

Blogs

TAE GUK GI: THE BROTHERHOOD OF WAR (2004) (***1/2)

South Korea is an emerging film powerhouse. This film proves that filmmakers working anywhere can rival Hollywood in production value and storytelling skills. For lack of a better description, this is a Korean SAVING PRIVATE RYAN with shades of PLATOON and APOCALYPSE NOW. Director Je-gyu Kang (SHIRI) has don't an amazing task of creating a film that is both epic and intimate at the same time.

Jin-tae (Dong-Kun Jang, TV’s GHOST) is a shoeshine boy who dreams of opening his own shoe shop. He works to support his mother, his fiancée Young-shin (Eun-ju Lee, GARDEN OF HEAVEN), her young siblings and his 18-year-old brother Jin-seok (Bin Won), who is college material. Their life is simple, but they are happy. Then the Korean War breaks out and everything changes.

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STAGE BEAUTY (2004) (***)

This is a fairly standard romance rapped in a fascinating cloak. Set in 1660s England when only men were allowed to act on stage, the film follows Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup, ALMOST FAMOUS), the most famous female impersonator.

His assistant Maria (Claire Danes, ROMEO & JULIET) studies every overwrought gesture that Kynaston does. One night she pays a shabby pub for the opportunity to play Desdemona in OTHELLO. This performance starts a sensation through London, spurring King Charles II (Rupert Everett, MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING) to outlaw men playing women on the stage. We witness Ned and Maria’s attraction for each, which is torn apart by his declining career and her rising stardom.

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THE SEAGULL'S LAUGHTER (2004) (***)

This dramedy from Iceland was made in 2001 and had a small release in the U.S. in 2004. The film is somewhat of a coming of age tale set in 1978, following teenager Agga (Ugla Egilsdottir, film debut).

Her cousin Freyja (Margret Vilhjalmsdottir) (really the daughter of her grandmother’s friend) moves back to Iceland from America. Her husband has died and Agga suspects Freyja is the Devil incarnate. What Freyja is is a sensation in the small town with her sexpot attitude and new fashionable clothes. We quickly discover that her motivations are to spite everyone in town who use to make fun of her for her appearance as a child. She attempts this by trying to seduce the town’s most eligible bachelor Bjorn Theodor (Heino Ferch, DOWNFALL).

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SAW (2004) (**1/2)

When SAW is good it’s quite good, but when it’s bad it’s quite bad. It’s a seesaw of a flick. (That’s the only bad pun of this review.)

Adam (Leigh Whannell, THE MAXTRIX RELOADED) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes, THE PRINCESS BRIDE) wake up in a grungy bathroom chained to the wall in opposite corners of the room. Between them just out of reach is a dead body. They have no clue how they got there or why. A serial killed nicknamed Jigsaw is playing a game with them as he has done before with other victims. Jigsaw feeds them clues that increase the morbidity of the situation and test the two men’s moral fortitude. Det. David Tapp (Danny Glover, LETHAL WEAPON) is investigating the murders and becomes consumed with them. This is all of the plot I will reveal as that is the fun of the film.

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P.S. (2004) (***1/2)

This film definitely has a gimmick, however it’s dealt with in an extremely natural and psychological way. Louise Harrington (Laura Linney, KINSEY) is a 39-year-old admissions chief for Columbia University. She is divorced, but is still friends with her ex, a science professor named Peter (Gabriel Byrne, GHOST SHIP). One day she comes upon an application with the name F. Scott Feinstadt on it and becomes enraptured by it. This is due to the fact that Louise’s high school love had the same name.

She makes an appointment with the student – played by Topher Grace (IN GOOD COMPANY) – and discovers that he looks amazingly like her former love, who was killed when they were young. This bit of whimsy opens up a vibrant affair between Louise and F. Scott, who is 20 years her junior.

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ONE MISSED CALL (2003) (***)

Takashi Miike is a cult figure in Asia and an underground legend in the U.S. for his DEAD OR ALIVE series and ICHI THE KILLER. His films are violent and often stylized. In this film, Miike makes a “grudge film,” a popular horror subgenre in Japan.

The premise has innocent victims receiving cell phone calls from themselves, which predict the day and time of their deaths. Melancholy college student Yumi (Kou Shibasaki, BATTLE ROYALE) has seen two of her friends killed by the grudge and her friend Natsumi (Kazue Fukiishi) goes to a TV exorcist when she receives a call. Helping Yumi figure out the mystery is Hiroshi Yamashita (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a morgue worker whose sister was killed by the same ghost.

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THE NOTEBOOK (2004) (***1/2)

This film was a surprise hit of last summer. This lovely old-fashioned romance deserves it. Based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, the film chronicles the summer romance of young lumberyard worker Noah (Ryan Gosling, MURDER BY NUMBERS) and pampered vacationer Allie (Rachel McAdams, MEAN GIRLS). This story is being told, however, by Duke (James Garner, VICTOR/VICTORIA) to Mrs. Calhoun (Gena Rowlands, A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE), a woman in a nursing home suffering from dementia.

Of course, Allie’s snobby parents John and Anne Hamilton (David Thornton, A CIVIL ACTION, and Joan Allen, ICE STORM) don’t approve of the romance. To describe, the plot of the film would be to describe the plot of hundreds of other romance tales. However, this film is filled with original detail and cliché bending characters, which make the entire film fresh and delightful.

Blogs

THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (2004) (***)

To be honest I know little about Che Guevara. And after watching this film, I still know little about Che Guevara.

The picture is based on Guevara’s diaries as he (Gael Garcia Bernal, BAD EDUCATION) and his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna) traveled South America first on an old motorcycle and then on foot. This trip is created as inspiring Guevara’s revolutionary ideas.

The film is subtle about its message and that is its major detriment. The beginning two-thirds is a simple road picture where two young men travel, encounter hardships with their bike and finding food and seek out women. Then the film throws in the indigenous people who are being exploited. However, the film doesn’t have any contrast to make cultural, economic and racial disparities seem relevant to the characters.

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