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Transcendence

"Transcendence" is a serious science fiction movie filled with big ideas and powerful images, but it never quite coheres, and the end is a copout.

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.

Almodovar's limp noodle, Panahi's home movie

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This morning, Pedro Almodovar, Spain's biggest big-cheese filmmaker, handed us a limp noodle with "The Skin I Live In," his entry in the Cannes competition. The film stars Antonio Banderas (who began his career in Almodovar's early films) and Elena Anaya, who looks like a cross between Penelope Cruz and Audrey Hepburn. Even a second-best Almodovar film has its delicious moments, but "The Skin I Live In" is flat compared with his best work, including "Broken Embraces," "Volver," and his Oscar winner "All about My Mother."

Typical of Almodovar, the film is a melodramatic farce. Although it's based on the novel "Mygale" ("Tarantula" in English) by Thierry Jonquet, the story is also strongly reminiscent of the 1960 French horror classic "Eyes without a Face" by Georges Franju. In the Franju film, a surgeon kidnaps women in order to graft their faces onto the head of his disfigured daughter. In "The Skin I Live In," a plastic surgeon is engaged in highly experimental work in order to create synthetic skin as a tribute to his dead wife, who was burned to death in a car crash. He subsequently uses the results of his research in service of a unique punishment for his daughter's rapist.

This story has a lot of twists, and the element of surprise is important. I don't want to give away too much, especially since it's due to open in the U.S. in the fall. I haven't read "Mygale," but I understand that the narrative is fragmented into sections that all come together in the end. In this, Almodovar appears to have followed the structure of the book, perhaps too closely. One of the principle weaknesses of "The Skin I Live In" is that the story is scattered in pieces. Characters and subplots are introduced then dropped. They are loosely but not completely tied together in the end.

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"The Messenger" discussed by Omar Moore of London and San Francisco

May Contain Spoilers

Hello, I'm Omar Moore. I was born and raised in London, where I grew up before moving to New York City with my parents. After branching out in the Big Apple on my own for a number of years, I moved west to San Francisco. I love America and its promise. We all need to do our small part to make this great country even better for all. Where a film is concerned, it is never "only a movie." Images mean something. They have unyielding power and influence, whether in "Birth of A Nation", "Un Chien Andalou", "Night Of The Hunter", "Killer Of Sheep", "Persona", "Psycho", "A Clockwork Orange", "Blazing Saddles", "Straw Dogs", "Soul Man", "Chameleon Street", "Do The Right Thing", "Bamboozled" or "Irreversible". A filmmaker generally doesn't put images in a film if they are meaningless.

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Precious Based on the Movie Female Trouble by John Waters

May Contain Spoilers
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My previous post, Impressions Based on the Hype for the Movie Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, was an account of exactly that -- how even limited exposure to advance word for the movie over 11 months, from Sundance in January to theatrical release in November, created expectations that made me not want to see it. What follows are my impressions when I finally did.

* * * *

UPDATE (12/24/09): "I didn't have the sensibilities of your ordinary filmmaker, let alone your ordinary African-American filmmaker. My heroes were John Waters, Pedro Almodóvar, and actors that were part of that world. Different." -- Lee Daniels, June 2009

* * * *

None of us is immune to movie publicity, unless we're lucky enough to see the picture well in advance of its theatrical release (perhaps at an early film festival screening) -- or stay away from publications, television, radio, the Internet and any form of communication with other people until we can see it. In the case of "Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire," I reluctantly came to feel that I knew all-too-well what to expect: a grueling torture-fest of a movie that would culminate in an equally manipulative upbeat ending.

Turns out, it is all that, but it's also something else I hadn't anticipated: funny. Yes, it's a rags-to-redemption "social problem" movie, but at the same time it's a consciously camped-up fairy tale, complete with Evil StepMother. It's a showcase for two heartfelt bravura performances (by Mo'Nique and Gabourey Sidibe) and an often laughably overwrought melodrama -- not just because of the horrors it depicts but because it's fully aware of how shockingly high it stacks the decks against its heroine. "Precious" is a virtual remake of John Waters' 1974 "Female Trouble," which makes for a crazy, volatile clash of tones and textures.

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TIFF #3: Some of the films I've seen

I have a quirky policy about writing of films from a film festival. In the early years, I tried to avoid an actual "review," especially negative, because I believed a film deserved a chance to open before I laid into it. This was grandiose--as if the world was awaiting my opinion. Then I began suggesting my thinking, without going into detail. Then, being human, I allowed that approach to enlarge into specific descriptions of films I really loved, or hated.

Alex Vo, editor of Rotten Tomatoes: No Meter when he needs it most.

That's now the strategy I use, with amendments. I can only review a film for the first time once, and if I've used all my energy in rehearsal, what have I saved for opening night? I'll reflect the general reception of certain films, however, if only in the spirit of providing news coverage. The first year I was here, I was one of four members of the American press. These days, with half the audience members filing daily blogs and twittering immediately after a film is over, it's simply all part of the festival process.

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TIFF #1: Darwin, Herzog, the Coens and the Antichrist

I've just finished combing through the list of films in this year's Toronto Film Festival, and I have it narrowed down to 49. I look at the list and sigh. How can I see six films a day, write a blog, see people and sleep? Nor do I believe the list includes all the films I should see, and it's certainly missing films I will see. How it happens is, you're standing in line and hear buzz about something. Or a trusted friend provides a title you must see. Or you go to a movie you haven't heard much about, just on a hunch, and it turns out to be "Juno."

Nicolas Cage in "Bad Lieutenant"

I can't wait to dive in. Knowing something of my enthusiasms, faithful reader, let me tell you that TIFF 2009's opening night is a film about the life of Charles Darwin. The festival includes the film of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." And new films by the Coen brothers, Todd Solondz, Michael Moore, Atom Egoyan, Pedro Almodovar, Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Alain Resnais and Guy Maddin--and not one but two new films by Werner Herzog. Plus separate new films by the three key talents involved in Juno: The actress Ellen Page, the director Jason Reitman, and the writer Diablo Cody.

Okay, I've already seen two of those. They were screened here in Chicago (Page as a teenage Roller Derby in "Whip It," Cody's script for "Jennifer's Body," starring Megan Fox as a high school man-eater, and that's not a metaphor). I already saw more than ten of this year's entries at Cannes, including Lars on Trier's controversial "Antichrist," Jane Campion's "Bright Star," Gasper Noe's "Enter the Void," Almodovar's "Broken Embraces," Bong Joon-Ho's "Mother," Lee Daniels' "Precious," Mia Hansen-Løve's "The Father of My Children," and Resnais's "Wild Grass." A lot of good films there. Not all of them, but a lot.

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Cannes #10: And, at last, the winners are...

Now I understand why Cannes 2009 opened with Pixar's "Up." They knew what was coming. Has there ever been a more violent group of films in the Official Selection? More negative about humanity? More despairing? With a greater variety of gruesome, sadistic, perverted acts? You know you're in deep water when the genuinely funniest film in the festival is by a Palestinian in today's Israel, whose material includes a firing squad, a mother with Alzheimers, and a hero with dark circles under his eyes who never utters a single word.

And most of these films were not over quickly. Not that there's something wrong with a film running over the invisible 120-minute finish line, if it needs to, and is a good film. I regret that not all the 21 films in this year's selection were good. And that's not just me. The daily critics' panel for Le Film Francais was as negative as I've seen it, even giving a pas de tout ("worthless") to a film I would defend, von Trier's extreme but courageous "Antichrist."

In the past I have felt the elation of discovery at Cannes, seeing for the first time films like Kielowski's "Red," Lee's "Do the Right Thing," Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," Spielberg's "E.T."--and premieres by Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, Chen Keige, Fassbinder, Altman, Herzog, Scorsese. Titans bestrode the earth in those days. This year the only ecstatic giants, love them or hate them, were Lars von Trier and Quentin Tarantino.

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Cannes #9: "I got in!" and other tales, and some great beauties of the festival

Michael Barker is not only a prime moving force in indie film distribution, but one of the funniest raconteurs alive. He and Tom Bernard, also a funny man, have been the co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics since 1992, which qualifies them as the Methuselahs among studio heads. Their films have won 24 Academy Awards and 101 nominations. He knows everybody and takes little mental notes, resulting in an outpouring of stories I could tell you, but then I would have to shoot you.

Like many funny people, he exerts a magnetic attraction for funny experiences. He attracted one just the other day, when he went to see the new Paul Verhoeven film. "I'm looking at the screening schedule and I can't believe my eyes," he was telling us the other night. This was at dinner on the Carlton Terrace with Richard and Mary Corliss, Chaz, and our granddaughter Raven. "I'd never heard anything about this. I mean, Verhoeven just made 'The Black Book,' for chrissakes!

"It's titled 'Teenagers,' and it's screening in one of those little marketplace theaters in the Palais. I figure it must be a rough cut under another title or something. The place is jammed. People are fighting to get in. I'm able to get a seat. There are people sitting in the aisles, standing against the wall, flat on their backs on the floor in front of the screen. You can't breathe.

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The bookie for the Palme d'Or

May 22, 2009--Austrian Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" is shot in black-and-white and set in an Austrian village in the two years leading up to the outbreak of World War I. A series of increasingly disturbing happenings over a period of months disrupts the otherwise uneventful flow of isolated rural life. These include a planned accident that nearly kills the village doctor, the torture of a child by unknown assailants, and the burning of a barn.

At first it could be assumed that this is a mystery and that Haneke's intention is to gradually reveal the perpetrators of the increasingly bizarre and cruel acts. Instead he seems to be moving into Dreyer territory, unfolding the story of repression and escalating evil in beautifully precise but rigid compositions that echo the sternness of the social mores and moral precepts of his characters.

Large families headed by unbending fathers are at the center of this film, and there are many children. The actions of certain children arouse suspicion, but then nearly everyone in the film arouses suspicion, as this is no ordinary mystery. In the end, the disturbing chronicle circles around to the beginning to find a meaning. The film's narrator began the story by saying that the events he was about to unfold may shed some light on later happenings. Haneke leaves it to his audience to decide what is meant by this, but it isn't too much of a stretch of the imagination to think that these are the youngsters who grew up to wear brown shirts and swastikas.

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5/14: Swanky 3-D goggles for the chic cineaste

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The programming director of the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago is blogging from Cannes for us.

Thursday, May 14--You can't beat the weather here in Cannes. After the cold rain and dark skies in Frankfurt, where I changed planes yesterday, the perfect, summery temperatures and extravagant displays of flowers makes this town seem even more like a Mediterranean paradise than usual.

The festival kicked off to the world Wednesday night with the first red-carpet walk by the jury, and the Pixar folks with their 3-D animated feature "Up", but for most of us in film-industry jobs, the festival is already well underway with press screenings, market screenings, and press conferences.

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The "Best" Non-English-Language Films (Round 1)

View image Wim Wenders' "Kings of the Road" (or literal English translation: "In the Course of Time"). You may recognize the poster image from outside the theater in which "Duck Soup" is playing in Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters." This movie can also save your life.

An ad hoc bunch of 51 online movie enthusiasts (online movie critics, bloggers, et al.), organized by Edward Copeland, the eponymous proprietor of "Edward Copeland on Film," recently composed our unordered lists of up to 25 most significant (or enduring or even favorite) "foreign-language" talkies.

Eduardo (as he might be known in, say, Mexico or Spain or Uruguay or Nicaragua or Puerto Rico) took on the gargantuan task of tabulating the ballots and coming up with the initial list of 122 nominees. As he explains: I set a few guidelines for eligibility: 1) No film more recent than 2002 was eligible; 2) They had to be feature length; 3) They had to have been made either mostly or entirely in a language other than English; 4) Documentaries and silent films were ineligible, though I made do lists for those in the future if this goes well. In all, 434 films received votes, not counting those that had to be disqualified for not meeting the criteria.In order to make the final ballot, films had to receive at least three "votes." I'm happy that most of my initial choices made the finals. And there were five I've never seen, so I have these to look forward to: Elem Klimov's "Come and See," Sergio Corbucci's "The Great Silence" (a spaghetti western), Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood For Love," Bela Tarr's 7.5-hour "Satantango," and Hayao Miyazaki's anime "Spirited Away." (And I've never made it all the way through "Amelie" or "Chungking Express.")

This exercise also reminded me of a bunch of movies I need to re-watch, because it's been too long (at least 20 years) and I don't remember them very well, including: Jacques Rivette's "Celine and Julie Go Boating" (always hard to see, but available on Region 2 DVD, at least), Carl Theodor Dreyer's "Days of Wrath," Lucino Visconti's "The Leopard," Kenji Mizoguchi's "The Story of the Late Crysanthemums" (and, for that matter, "The Life of Oharu," which deserved to be on the list and which I have on import DVD), and Edward Yang's "Yi Yi" (which I've been meaning to revisit since his untimely death).

Best of all, the list serves as a reminder that the vast majority of these films, available on DVD, are easier to see now than they have ever been since they were made! Most are just as easy to borrow from NetFlix as "Wild Hogs."

For my Own Personal List, and some observations about the preliminary results, click to continue...

Meanwhile, if any of the participants -- or any readers -- would like to publish their own lists, please feel free to do so in comments! I'll show you mine if...

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Ebert's take on the Oscar picks

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Oscar is growing more diverse and international by the year. This year's Academy Award nominations, announced Tuesday, contain a few titles that most moviegoers haven't seen and some they haven't heard of. That's perhaps an indication that the Academy voters, who once went mostly for big names, are doing their homework and seeing the pictures.

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Reading those Oscar tea leaves

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Last summer, according to most industry prognosticators, this whole Oscar race thing was supposed to be all over already. Before its release, Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" was widely expected to be greeted with flowers and statuettes. The combination of Eastwood and Paul Haggis (screenwriter of the last two Best Picture winners, Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" and Haggis's "Crash") made the Red Carpet look like a cakewalk. "Letters from Iwo Jima" wasn't even on the release schedule for 2006, so as not to interfere with "Flags"' Oscar chances. Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," on the other hand, was cheered as a "return to his (generic) roots, " a straight-up commercial cops-and-crooks movie to follow up his prestige-picture Oscar bids, "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator," but not something seriously For Your Consideration.

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TIFF: Death and the Madre

View image Three Women of "Volver": Sister, niece/daughter, sister.

The dry east wind that howls through the little village in La Mancha where Pedro Almodovar was born, and where his latest film "Volver" begins, brings with it unease, fire and insanity. In the opening shot, it blows crisp dead leaves across marble graves, while women dust and polish the stones. Sometimes, they even come by to clean their own graves. It's just another housekeeping chore.

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Cannes #10: Guessing games

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CANNES, France –- All rumors about the prizes at Cannes are essentially worthless. Why don’t I know this? I could make up my own and do just about as well. It is apparently true that Sam Jackson told somebody there were going to be “big surprises” when the awards were announced, and there were; never before has a jury honored the casts of two films with ensemble acting awards, and certainly no one predicted that Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” would win the Palme d’Or. When it did, there was much agreement, and, yes, much surprise.

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Cannes #8: Sex, awards & film

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CANNES, France – It probably won’t happen this way, but wouldn’t everyone be pleased if Gerard Depardieu won the best actor award at Cannes this year. The festival’s awards are given out Sunday night (12:30 p.m. CDT), and Depardieu received a tumultuous ovation Friday as the star of “Quand j’etais Chanteur,” or “The Singer.” Depardieu’s character reminded many audience members of the actor himself: A beefy middle-aged artist still slugging away at a job he loves, smoking too much, adamantly on the wagon, given new hope by his feelings for a much younger woman (Cecile De France). “I’ve been written off a lot of times,” he tells her, “but I always bounce back.”

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Cannes #6: Palme d'Odds

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CANNES, France – Like any good bookie, Derek Malcolm carries his odds in his head. He revises them after every screening of a film in the official competition. Wednesday morning, the odds got a little longer for Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” which is tipped as a front-runner for the Palme d’Or.

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Cannes #5: Luster & its lack

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CANNES, France – There are entries that have been liked and even loved, but the 2006 Cannes Film Festival reaches its halfway mark looking like a fairly lackluster year. Only Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver,” a high-spirited memory inspired by his childhood in La Mancha, has been embraced by critics and audiences. “Volver” means “to return,” and resembles in its exuberant nostalgia Fellini’s “Amarcord” (“I Remember”).

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A breath of thin air

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TELLURIDE, Colo. -- After years of controversy, one of the most persistent questions in the world of film has finally been settled: Yes, Annette Bening's face was used as the model for the torch-bearing woman on the logo that opens every Columbia Picture.

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A sense of urgency -- and edginess

CANNES, France -- There are two species of journalists at Cannes, described by the festival as critics or chroniclers. The critics review the films. The chroniclers write the gossip, review the fashions, attend the press conferences and pray for scandal. One year, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren (remember them?) got in a pushing match on the steps of the Palais, and the chroniclers dined out for a week. The critics, however, savor moments of quieter savagery, as when Dogma founder Lars von Trier didn't win the top prize from a jury headed by Roman Polanski, and accepted his lesser award ''with no thanks to the midget.''

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Roger Ebert's 2003 Oscar Predictions

Nothing that has happened since the Academy Awards nominations were announced has swayed me from my immediate conviction that "Chicago" will be the big winner on Oscar night. I know that "The Pianist" was named best film by the British Academy. I know "The Hours" was honored for its screenplay at the Writers Guild Awards. But, hey, I also know the Directors Guild honored Rob Marshall for "Chicago" over Martin Scorsese--and when a rookie can outpoll a living national treasure in a vote of directors, there's a bandwagon on the way."Chicago" is not the best of the nominated films. That would be "Gangs of New York." But you have to understand that the academy doesn't vote for the best film. It votes for the best headline. This year, it sees big type that shouts "The Musical Comes Back!" Having failed to honor "Moulin Rouge!" last year, the academy will vote this year the way it thinks it should have voted the year before. (Example: The 2001 Oscar for best actor went to Russell Crowe, who more reasonably should have won a year earlier for "The Insider.") Here are the major categories and my predictions:

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'Chicago' leads the parade

"Chicago" waited 27 years to make the transition from stage to screen, but finished strong, winning 13 nominations Tuesday as the 75th annual Academy Awards nominations were revealed. After last year's best-picture nod for "Moulin Rouge," the movie's front-runner status signals a rebirth of the movie musical.

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