13 April 2007

Who has time for movies? Me, once in a while...

I'd like to thank Netflix and some recent insomnia for allowing me to see a number of movies recently... and whatever luck that most of what I've seen recently has been pretty good. Quick rundown:

The Departed ****
I'm generally not a fan of Scorsese or DiCaprio, but I thought this was excellent. A dizzying spiral of who's-working-for-who and who's-betraying-who. Loved the parallel stories of the Matt Damon and DiCaprio stories - nice to see Damon has some range, here playing the bad guy for a change - with increasing tension as you know eventually they're going to come to a head. Jack Nicholson is over-the-top as ever, but there's a very nice understated Martin Sheen to balance him out. Pretty bloody, but not so much as a lot of gangster movies.

Children of Men *** 1/2
Dystopian near-future story, fabulous cinematography. Well-done overall.

Casino Royale ****
Worth watching for the few seconds Daniel Craig is in the blue bathing suit. Just kidding, husband of mine! Seriously, the best action movie I've seen in a long time, as it's just as character-driven as action-driven. The riveting opening action sequence involves "Free Running", starring the founder of this unique sport himself. The film tells the story of Bond just after he's been made a 00 agent, and he's a very different Bond... gritty, physical, ruthless, street smart, tough. Not so much the buttoned-down tuxedo-wearing martini-drinker of later films. Nice to see a smart, quick-witted Bond babe, too.

Curse of the Golden Flower ** 1/2
Thought this was going to be an Arty Kung Fu movie, along the lines of Hero... was disappointed that it was mostly Arty, not so much Fu. Depressing, tragic, full of opulent cinematography.

Cars ****
My 2-year-old son's favorite movie, I think he would watch it twice a day if I let him. Fortunately it's quite good, with two very nice voice performances by Paul Newman and Owen Wilson, and a little lesson about stopping and enjoying life rather than racing through and focusing on fame and glory.

The Devil Wears Prada ***
Light little movie, lots of fashion and a silver-haired and silver-tongued Meryl Streep.

The Prestige *** 1/2
Well-done, suspenseful, great performances by Michael Caine and Christian Bale. Rival magicians in 19th century England sabotage each other's careers and personal lives. I was shocked that I figured out the big twist of the end partway through the movie and turned out to be right. I never see these things coming but I thought this one was telegraphed... still a good movie. Disturbing the lengths to which a man will go for his art/career.

Munich ** 1/2
Very, very violent. Moving on some levels, but not sure it really worked. Seems like it wants you to sympathize with the Israeli assassins hired to retaliate for the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists, but that didn't work for me. Sort of questions the wisdom of retaliation and the endless cycle of killing the other side, but not enough.

08 April 2007


A nice look into a different culture, and a small but engaging story about childhood.

Children of Heaven is an Iranian film from 1998. The director is Majid Majidi, who has over a dozen films to his credit, several of them festival winners. This one was up for an Oscar, in fact, but lost out to Life is Beautiful.

It's the story of nine-year-old Ali and his younger sister Zahra, who live with their parents in a poor part of what I assume is Tehran. Chipped paint, ancient buildings and open storm drains in the street. We're talking poor, here: a single room, carpets but no furniture, some crockery, a cooking pot on a camp stove. The landlord comes by when Dad is out, to scream at Mom about the unpaid rent. Mom is sick, Dad is angry. There may be love in this home, but not much in the way of laughter.

Behind the opening credits, we watch a cobbler repairing a torn pair of pink sneakers, and the story is set in motion when Ali loses them on the way home. They were his sister's only shoes, and now she has nothing to wear to school. He suggests they share his sneakers until they can figure something out. She'll get them in the morning, he'll get them in the afternoon.

There are some side excursions from this narrative, but that's the main line. Of course, she'll be embarrassed, wearing dirty boy's sneakers that are much too large. She'll be delayed, so he'll be late. The Vice Principal will see him, ruler in hand, and demand explanations.

What struck me most was how consistently grim, authoritarian and unreasonable was the world of the adults. They almost never smile, are suspicious of the children and quick to anger. Think Oliver Twist in Persian. I wouldn't want to be a kid in the world of this film, and I can't remember if that's how adults seemed to me when I was a lad.

One of the few bright moments comes when Dad and Ali bicycle to the rich part of town, to find work as gardeners. Dad is as humbled by this world of money, mansions and faceless intercoms as his son is by the adults of his own neighborhood. But one old man agrees to put him to work, and Ali spends an afternoon playing with this man's grandson while Dad mulches flowerbeds and sprays fruit trees. Dad gets to do good work that he enjoys, and Ali gets to be a kid.

The big finale is a foot race, in which the third prize is a new pair of sneakers. It's beautifully shot, and great to watch as Ali tries desperately not to win, but to come in third. Winning would be comparatively simple, when you think about it. Third is much harder.

I don't know if I'd call it "heartwarming," which is a word that appears in many reviews. But it was watchable and sometimes touching.