Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Passion of Anna (1970)****

Reviewed by Shu Zin

While flawed and awkward in certain ways, PASSION OF ANNA is far too compelling to get less than 4* from me. The story is quite good, but the characters are so real, well-acted and engaging that for anyone to have the opportunity to be with them for a while in Director Ingmar Bergman’s world is a haunting and extraordinary experience.

Set against a metaphor of mysterious, incomprehensible acts of cruelty to animals in a landscape of snow, broken pottery and sharp stones, on an island off the coast of Sweden, we stumble through a love story. Or is it? Whether love, God or truth exist at all, and whether humans can attain understanding of any of them are themes addressed in this somber, tender and emotionally violent film. Anna (Liv Ullman), as a woman physically and mentally damaged by events in her life before she meets Andreas Winkleman (Max Von Sydow), desperately clings to fantasies about her marriage; she espouses complete honesty while she practices self-deception.

Andreas, who becomes her lover, lives a solitary life until he meets Anna, and it is he who, in a truly brilliant soliloquy, expresses the isolation of Everyman. Anna’s friends, Eva and Elis, perfectly reflect the miasma Anna and Andreas ultimately create for themselves. The cynical Elis obsessively takes and collects photos of human behavior, classifying them meticulously, as his own relationships deteriorate. There are brief interviews in the body of the film with these four actors commenting on their characters. I would have left them on the editing room floor. They are distracting and counter-productive. Otherwise, a deeply moving film about the universal human condition, expressed from Bergman’s uniquely Swedish sensibility. Recommended.

Reviewed by Shu Zin

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Eat Pray Love (2010)*

A phony, shallow, boring crapfest, in which all manner of dullards get in touch with their feelings. Filled with bogus New Age, 1980s self help gobbledygook.

Actual lines of dialogue:

“I can’t go on a trip right now; I haven’t meditated in a WEEK!”

“I don’t need to love you to prove I love myself”

“Did anyone ever tell you you look like James Taylor?”

“You’ve got to get your ass into that meditation room every day.”

The prosecution rests.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Take Out (2004)*****

Reviewed by Shu Zin

TAKE OUT is unforgettable and harrowing, a low budget miracle. Directed jointly by Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, with Charles Jang brilliantly cast as the central character, it is the story of one day in the life of Ming, who works for a tiny, hole-in-the-wall, Chinese take-out restaurant, delivering fast food all over town. He is awakened early, from his bed in a crowded, cramped warren full of illegal aliens packed in bunk beds, by thugs representing merciless loan sharks he owes money to. After he agrees that he must pay them at the end of his day, he is rewarded with a single, vicious blow to the middle of his back. With a hammer. This film, shot in ultra-verité style, is suspenseful and hectic, with moments of devastating poignancy, terrifying danger and the odd, grimly droll verbal exchange. I was in tears before the end, completely overwhelmed. I am a New Yorker; I have greeted such a man countless times at the door of my apartment in Greenwich Village, passed, as though they were invisible, countless delivery boys on bikes in the street or dodging pedestrians on the sidewalk.

The camera in this unflinching film is almost not there. The direction and cinematography are so skilled, and the acting, so real that one experiences, rather than observes, every bit of traffic, noise, weather, every encounter. Activity within the fast food restaurant is similarly captured, and we feel pangs of indigestion as the staff take advantage of a brief lull in activity to wolf down a bowl of food, exchanging small talk and good-natured, spare jibes, before they jump back into action at their stations. Who has not thrilled at the spectacle of the lightning-fast efficiency of the Chinese chef at work? Or cringed, amazed and blank-faced, at the shrill, shouted orders from the female manager with lightning fingers on the adding machine?

As Ming’s day progresses, the atmosphere grows more ominous and the pace quickens, becoming more and more frantic as night approaches. This is conveyed by ever shorter cuts and dazzling editing, complimented by just about the most hostile weather New York has to offer. All the while, the tension builds as we worry whether Ming will earn the money he needs so desperately, whether he’ll be killed by a speeding taxi in the driving rain, whether one of his customers or someone on the street will rob him. We meet the people Ming sees and the people he works with; a cross-section of New Yorkers, they are all familiar, still clear and swarming through my mind an hour after the film has ended. Ming, on the other hand, will stay etched in my mind for years, both as an individual, and as a haunting symbol for all the other young men who work in his job. The ending of TAKE OUT will strip from you any composure you have left at that point. This is a completely shattering view of the American dream, from the point of view of one man trying to survive it. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Shu Zin

Monday, September 19, 2011

Incendies (2010)****1/2

An Oscar nominee in 2011, Canada’s Incendies is a harrowing allegory delivered with lofty ambition and skillful execution. The film reduces 50 years of violent struggle in the Middle East to an examination of one family’s barbaric legacy; a legacy that will inflict blunt force trauma on the innocent. Incendies offers a reboot of the original sin concept, but this time with distinctly personal ramifications, aided and abetted by an ancient society’s full retreat into barbarism. A municipal swimming pool in Montreal may seem an unlikely stand-in for the Garden of Eden, but the knowledge found in this paradise of chlorine and concrete will ultimately reveal a shame beyond measure, and an evil that will scar for generations.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies is the story of a pair of twins (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette) whose quiet lives are thrown into chaos by the sudden and unexpected death of their 60-ish mother (Lubna Azabal). At the reading of the will, the twins learn that their father, long thought to be dead, is still alive, along with a half brother they’ve never known existed. The twins are instructed to find the long lost relatives and deliver sealed letters their mother has written to each, in an effort to fulfill a solemn promise she made decades earlier.

then takes on the contours of a detective story, as the twins are dispatched to a fictional Middle Eastern nation – actually a thinly disguised Lebanon – just beginning to recover from the ravages of a long civil war. Through flashbacks to the 1970s, the Mother’s story is slowly revealed, as her attempts to live a modern life of education and culture are thwarted by stubborn traditions and ancient prejudices. Narrow minded adherence to the religious principles of a bygone era spark a war with the very notion of civilization itself, and the resulting bloodlust consumes all in its path. Even the gentle-natured elite must resort to the laws of the jungle to survive and, as the twins learn, their mother was thrust into the center of a brutal maelstrom, with implications that stagger the imagination.

Villeneuve manages to keep the complexities on track, and successfully builds a brooding, at times stunning, mosaic of life in a time of wanton savagery. His presentation is classic, formal and surprisingly objective, resisting handheld cameras and other short cuts to immediacy. Yet, he manages to get us deeply into the minds of his protagonists, utilizing Azabal’s increasingly dull eyes as mirrors into unspeakable pain. As the story metastases into the realm the unthinkable, the twins’ comprehension leads to a zombie like bedazzlement, and a questioning of every aspect of existence. But they have one more duty to perform, and as we marvel at the sullen crispness of Villeneuve’s storytelling, this family’s ejection from paradise is complete.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Bunchie's Dinner Theatre: Spinach Pie

Here's a really easy and delicious dish; kind of like quiche but without all the cultural baggage.

Bunchie's Spinach Pie

1 frozen pie crust, prepared to pkg. directions (or make your own, if so inclined)


10oz. frozen spinach, thawed and drained or fresh
1.5 cups low fat cottage cheese
1 cup crumbled feta cheese (low fat works great)
1/3 cup grated parmesan
4 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. Italian seasoning (Penzey's Tuscan Sunset is terrific)

Mix filling ingredients in large bowl until well blended. Pour into pie crust and bake at 350 for 45 mins.
You can tart this up with sliced tomatoes and chopped fresh basil if you wish, but it's yummy all on its own.

For your viewing pleasure, may we recommend:

Italian for Beginners (2001)       Il Postino (1994)           Quiet Chaos (2008)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Inspector Bellamy (2009)****

Reviewed by Shu Zin

INSPECTOR BELLAMY is a sensitive, thoughtful character study of a middle-aged detective on vacation in Nimes, where he and his wife stay at the house Bellamy and his brother grew up in. As the very last movie directed by the prodigious Claude Chabrol before his death in 2010, I find it quite the nuanced study of a man past his peak, full of little insecurities, yet still alert, sympathetic and kicking when it comes to solving crime. 

Gerard Depardieu does a great job playing the kindly inspector. Those who find him gross because he is fat have eyes in their heads, but not much in the way of humanity or empathy; they should probably stick to the slim, vacuous people from Hollywood. For me, the actors tonnage added to the credibility and pathos of the character. 

The supporting characters, Bellamy’s wife (Marie Bunel), his troubled brother (Clovis Cornillac), the odd fellow who confesses to murder, the sophisticated fellow who, curiously, lives on the street and his girlfriend of 5 years, a gay dentist and his sweetie, even the wife of the mysterious insurance guy who confesses, are all well-acted, intriguing characters, and while this may not be one of Chabrol's very best films, it has charm and held me engrossed in these people and the story. Highly recommended, and if, like me, you have seen everything you can lay your hands on by Chabrol, see it as a final tribute to his long and prolific career. He is one of the most interesting French directors in my opinion and, certainly, he left an enormous body of work to entertain and intrigue French film lovers. 

Reviewed by Shu Zin

Monday, September 12, 2011

In a Better World (2010)****1/2

In a Better World pits educated, refined, right thinking Scandinavians against the dark forces of barbarism. And even the most deeply cynical will find it an absorbing grudge match. In its own way, Susanne Bier’s Oscar nominee is as coldly manipulative as superhero fare, sneaking in cathartic revenge lust while singing enlightened hosannas to nonviolence. But Talking Cures have their palliative limits, and there comes a time when the welfare of the world is better served by the quick and brutal extraction of its rotting evils. Bier’s characters – most of them anyway – attempt to delay that reckoning as long as possible out of civilized instincts, and an admirable respect for humanity. When things turn sour in the final act, In a Better World’s narrative twists are ripe for second guessing and 20/20 hindsight. But it will be difficult for Bier’s sophisticated audience to honestly say they would have done anything differently

There’s no debating Bier’s craftsmanship, and she’s larded In a Better World with so many good decisions the film works simply on aesthetics. Mikael Persbrandt as Anton, a Doctors Without Borders type with fidelity issues, convincingly bridges the worlds of egoism and altruism, civilization and jungle law, with the empathic blue eyes and scruffy chin of a metrosexual Russell Crowe. The great Trine Dyerholm, as Anton’s estranged wife, reprises her stock character: a woman bravely venturing on despite a bushel of deep emotional wounds. No one teeters on the edge of a breakdown better than Dyerholm, and her effect here is quietly magnetic.

The top level drama concerns the developing friendship between two middle school age boys – played by William Johnk Neilsen and Markus Rygaard – and the issues they face with bullies and deteriorating family life serve as a reduction of the world’s social ills. Except for a few scenes with laptops and scattershot references to the internet, Bier and writer Anders Thomas Jensen are careful not to blame the boys’ destructive tendencies merely on technology. Using Halo as a whipping post would have added an ironic circularity to Bier’s thesis, but it also would have been easy and obvious. When Neilsen and Rygaard attempt convoluted justice during the film’s kaleidoscope of climaxes, their method is a tried and true variety of low tech mayhem. Meanwhile Anton, slumming at a rough hewn Sudanese hospital, elects to solve a crushing moral dilemma by entrusting a vile warlord to the court of public opinion; in effect becoming a latter day hybrid of Pontius Pilate and Marcus Welby.

Bier’s longtime cinematographer, Morten Soborg, creates a beautiful tableau awash in sharp blues and golds. His careful attention to light presents important clues to the film’s shifts in time. Beginning during the long days of summer and concluding in autumn, In a Better World’s scenes of afterschool activities go from sunny reverie to darkening gloom. Soborg’s perfectly balanced images of golden fields and thickening clouds evoke the austere moods of Andrew Wyeth, and reinforce the film’s post-9/11 Huck Finn subtext.
As Neilson wheels his bike through scruffy blades of straw, the fading beauty of his tiny world parallels the confused muddle of mourning and vengeance that has taken over his psyche.

In a Better World’s denouement can rightfully be accused of playing it too safe. There is a patness that seems out of character with the film’s modern parabolic ambitions; a disorienting sense of no harm no foul. But amid the voluminous hugging and tearful reconciliations, one must concede that Susanne Bier has skillfully told the story she wanted to tell. Dialing up the dark scale of emotional intensity, however justified, would have served no purpose other than satisfying a sort of bleak prurience. By slightly fudging the rules, In a Better World scores one for the better instincts of humanity. And we need all the wins we can get.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

36th Precinct (2004)****

 Reviewed by Shu Zin

36th PRECINCT is a gritty and very dark French cops film directed by former detective Olivier Marchal about the politics of policing. It stars two all-time greats: Daniel Auteuil as Vrinks, and Gerard Depardieu as Klein, two rival veteran cops. The bits we see about their personal lives are essential to the story, unlike those television efforts in which personal lives seem a distraction or an element added to attract a wider audience.

Super performances and intelligent writing are complimented by Marchal’s wickedly playful direction. For example, I loved how les flics (Auteuil, here) treat a bad guy who raped and beat up Manou, in a scene that immediately follows a warning from the soon-to-be-promoted boss: that Vrinks has to give up the old ways and follow the rules, by the book, to the letter! Even so, it is silly that Manou’s boyfriend tells Vrinks he wants the names of these guys, when all he would have to do would be to ask Manou. And what is a French flic doing with a Virginia State Police patch? I’m sure there must be a reason, but it eluded me.

There’s also a super-tough femme cop. Oops. See how she functions! Bien, mes amis, this is a compelling movie, generally well-made, with plenty of surprises, an intelligent, complex, sophisticated postmodernist story. It’s brill and subtle, a harrowing film! The subtitles are a bit fast, so you may hit stop and back up a few times, but it is worth the effort. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Shu Zin


Thursday, September 8, 2011

People on Sunday (1930)***1/2

The filmmakers maintain a steely vigilance against the two main drawbacks often found in silents – bad makeup and bad acting – and imbue People on Sunday with a degree of naturalism unique for its era. No, it’s not quite the raw understatement of the Dardenne Brothers, but it’s not the hysteria of D.W. Griffith either...

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Another Year (2010)*****

Mike Leigh is back, and squarely in his comfort zone with Another Year. The modestly simple story of a middle-aged couple (Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen), Another Year brims with the type of low key, observational realism that Leigh does better than just about anybody. He manages to find the exhilarant and the heartbreaking hidden within the most banal ingredients, and this film features many head shaking moments of deep resonance. Lesley Manville is terrific as a family friend who just can’t quite get it together, while David Bradley nearly steals the film as Broadbent’s laconic brother. While its narrative contains a mix of amusing and chilling insights, Another Year is primarily a film about the awareness of mortality, and the slow, inexorable ticking of life’s clock. 

Copacabana (2010)***1/2

Copacabana is yet another of those mediocre scripts that Isabelle Huppert manages to make watchable - even entertaining - apparently through sheer force of will. She plays a free-spirited woman who decides to stop being an embarrassment to her uptight, bourgeois daughter (Lolita Chammah) and ply her street smarts in the unlikely profession of timeshare sales. Huppert discovers she has a gift for moving vacation condos on Belgium’s freezing coast, and her hustle impresses the boss (Aure Atika) while earning her the resentment of her whining coworkers. It gets a bit silly and chick-flicky toward the close, but there’s no denying Huppert’s charisma and workmanlike conviction to material that doesn’t deserve her. Sometimes, art is more perspiration than inspiration, but Isabelle always gives her fans their money’s worth.

Investigation (2006)****

Investigation is a police drama from Bulgaria that succeeds on the strength of its dense atmospherics and pervasive sense of gloom. Written and directed by Iglika Triffnova, you will feel the slick, icy streets of Sofia and the damp chill of its crumbling stone buildings. Svetla Yancheva is remarkable as Alexandra, a newly promoted detective who tries to control freak her career while her personal life slowly falls to shambles. More a procedural than a mystery, the case revolves around trying to cajole a confession out of the miscreant (Kassimir Dokov), a task that eluded Alexandra’s predecessor. The ending is slightly disappointing and feels a little contrived, but Investigation manages to evoke rewarding grittiness along the way, and is well worth the viewing. Think Prime Suspect crossed with Police, Adjective.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sweet Movie (1974)**

Reviewed by Shu Zin
After seeing and being well-impressed by IT RAINS IN MY VILLAGE, I pursued some more of Dusan Makavejev's work. As I saw three additional films, (LOVE AFFAIR, or THE CASE OF THE MISSING SWITCHBOARD OPERATOR – not bad at all; MAN  IS NOT A BIRD – so-so;  INNOCENCE UNPROTECTED - weird and amateurish.)  I came to like his work less and less, culminating with a defensive 2* rating I’m awarding SWEET MOVIE. I shoulda had the onions to give it the one star it deserves. 

This flick is not, as some opine, unclassifiable; I could classify it with a 4 letter word: MESS. That’s the polite version. I think the introduction of historic news footage of scenes of the unearthing of murdered Polish soldiers and intelligencia at Katyn is in the basest possible taste, disrespectful of the historic event, and a disservice to anyone appreciative or even aware of the atrocity that the place represents. Most people probably have no idea of the history of Katyn, and Makavajey exploitively just sticks it in there like it was something he had in a file cabinet. 

The “extras” interviews with the director and a female film expert “espraining the Eastern European sensibility and the film’s deeply political intentions… don't make it any more accessible, in my view. The woman film expert sounded like a horse’s posterior. Both the interviews are babblings of pretentious academic bores who think they’re hot stuff, especially Director Makavelev, and the film itself is a tasteless hodgepodge, poorly conceived and badly produced. See it anyway. Misery loves company. IT RAINS is the most interesting and accessible of Makavejev's films I'm likely to see. This one was downright insulting, utterly grotesque nonsense, the product of an opportunistic, confused con artist with a hugely inflated ego.

Reviewed by Shu Zin