A charming, sweet film about a father who runs a bathhouse in Beijing and his two sons, one mentally handicapped and the other, Da, a stoic businessman. The movie revolves around Da’s coming to terms with his father’s ill health and his brother’s dependence on their father. Da had moved away years ago and not even bothered to introduce his father and brother to his new wife. His character’s transformation in this film is the highlight, even though it is a subtle, unassuming transition from detached to loving son. I’m not big on foreign films yet this film is so special that I watch it often. It’s a beautiful story of compassion, acceptance and emotion. It is a timeless tale about a man who comes of age a little later than most to open his heart to his family.

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A little bit of French Kiss mixes with the screwball elements of The Valet and The Closet for a fun, wild romp in this romantic comedy set in the French Riviera. Audrey Tautou stars in this fabulously funny film about a woman looking less for love and more for money in a beau. Being devastatingly beautiful helps her snag some rich gentlemen, but it also snags her a bartender, whom she mistakes for a wealthy playboy and he does little to correct her misperception. From there, the two set about together trying to out-do each other in the “rich” loves department. The bartender, who was hilarious in The Valet, is played by comic French star Gad Elmaleh. Between Tautou and him, they make the movie…his expressions of terror and her naivety make for a highly entertaining film.

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A fine German movie, which had less thrills than I expected, but the story was top-notch. Set in the early 1980s before the Berlin Wall fell, I found this film to be more of a psychological character study of one man and his sense of personal justice. A Stasi (the secret police of East Germany) officer is assigned to spy on a playwright and his actress girlfriend because the playwright is a friend of a blacklisted stage director. When the officer finds out that he might be spying on the playwright for different reasons than he was told, he begins to doubt his assignment. The officer starts to doubt everything he believes in…and finds himself questioning everything in his life. Excellent acting makes this a must see film…which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

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A Norwegian and Swedish film about scientists in Sweden during the 1950s who come up with the brilliant idea (yes, that is sarcasm) to study the behavior of people in their kitchens. For the study, they have selected men who live alone…widowers, bachelors, etc. The “researchers” had special chairs to sit in to study their “subjects” kitchen habits and were not supposed to talk to their subjects under any circumstances. OK – from this you probably think this is not the movie for you. Well, it’s a slow film, I’ll grant you that, but once I got into it, which really didn’t take that long, I loved it. It’s more of a case study of men during this era – men who live in isolated, extremely rural communities in Norway. This film is about friendship and trust…and about the small things in life. Nothing much really happens here but what is on the screen is heart-warming and humorous. For people who don’t like foreign films or having to read subtitles, this is a foreign movie for you! Why? Well, there is not much dialogue so not many subtitles to read.

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Bernardo Bertolucci continually pushes the envelope and sometimes, I feel, he does it deliberately just to stir up controversy. That is how I felt when I heard about The Dreamers . Once again, the film opening was mired in a heated uproar about the rating system (it was eventually given an NC-17 though an R-rated version was also released on DVD) and sex in motion pictures. So, when I rented it, it was just to see if Bertolucci was once again living up to the reputation I had given him as an over-hyped director. I half expected to fast forward through most of it. Thankfully, I didn’t have to. The film is a good one and deserved to get more praise than it did when it was released, rather than just notoriety over its high sexual content. Yes, the film is sexual. It has graphic erotic scenes (I’m basing this review from the R-rated version), even some incestuous sexuality, which Bertolucci has used before in his films (Luna, in particular). Aside from the sexuality, the story and characters are interesting and captivating. It is a solid, vibrant coming-of-age piece with young people searching for a life like the ones they see in their favorite classic movies. The sexuality is a side note…a distraction that does pertain to the plot but does not actually move any of the action forward. Did this film need to be as sexual as it was? No, but Bertolucci so enjoys stepping over that line and inciting controversy that I’m not sure he could make a movie without sex. And, sadly, that controversy kept some people from seeing a film that is a good story about love and friendship and should be seen.

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The story of Hitler’s last days in the bunker, told through the eyes of his 24 year old secretary, Traudi Junge. Bruno Ganz’s performance as Hitler is absolutely chilling…it never degenerates into kitschy. As a historical drama, it’s accurate, very compelling and well-made. Yes, it’s long, but somehow, the suspense and the pacing keeps everything moving. Another film where you know the outcome (i.e. Titanic, All the President’s Men), but you don’t care — you’re just riveted.

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This film is unlike most of the thrillers I have seen…and I have seen a lot of them. It is smart and clever and unexpected. A little bit of horror mixes with some science, some drama and a lot of strange characters to achieve an edge-of-your-seat film. I guess I should take time here to tell you that some of the plot (especially toward the ending) is a little confused…OK, a lot confused. It involves science and genetics and anything to do with science is pretty much Greek to me (or any other language). At first, I thought I was alone in my confusion but I watched some of the special features on the DVD and the cast and crew were talking about how they didn’t even understand it completely. It’s kind of like the Macguffin in Hitchcock’s films…it doesn’t matter WHAT the thing is, it just matters how exciting it is to find it. What kept me most intrigued with the story were the characters and the quick pacing of the action. It is hard to take a breath during this one…things just keep happening. Sometimes, you don’t know why or how they are happening, but by the time you figure it out, something else is happening. Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel play excellently off each other…Reno is brooding and Cassel is inexperienced and impetuous. The way Cassel involves himself with Reno’s case is clever and not the usual “action” movie cliché of “pairing up” the old master with the young guy that has a lot to learn. If you like action thrillers, this is one you will not want to miss!

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A fabulously done Austrian film about a skilled counterfeiter who gets put in the counterfeiting section of a concentration camp during World War II. Him and a few select others are chosen to help the Nazis attempt to counterfeit both the British pound and the American dollar. The rapport among the men in the counterfeiting section is what intrigued me. Some were so sickened by helping the Nazis they came close to self-destruction. Some saw this “duty” as easy work…a way out of hard labor and even out of being killed. The performances are all spot-on and each of the characters is unique and very well-constructed…and even with the dark, grizzly subject matter, we keep watching because we have to find out how all of these characters end up. Any Holocaust film is tough to watch…and hard to say you really “like.” I mean, can you “like” a film about death and atrocity? So, avoiding that, I will say this film is well-done and extremely powerful.

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Being as big of a film fan as I am, you would think I’d seen this one long ago. But, I never did. It was not intentional…just an oversight. Recently, I made up for that by finally watching the extended edition on DVD. This is a fabulous movie that will be around forever as a testament to filmmaking and movies in general. Destined to be a timeless classic, Cinema Paradiso tells the story of a man, Salvatore, who finds out his childhood hero has passed away. We are taken into his memory and back in time to his childhood when he first meets his hero Alfredo, a movie projectionist in a small-town cinema. Then, we move into Salvatore’s adolescence where, though Alfredo is still part of his life, his romance with a lady becomes Salvatore’s consuming passion. The movie comes full circle, back where it started with Salvatore as an adult and returning home to the town he grew up in. Cinema Paradiso is a masterpiece about filmmaking, love, regret, and loss. Just when you think it’s as good as it’s going to get, it gets better. Put off seeing this one and you’ll be sorry (like I was).

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A charming film for the whole family about a school for unruly children in post-war France and the man who makes his way into his students’ hearts through music. Incorporating elements from many other teacher-student films (Heaven Help Us, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dead Poets Society, etc.), The Chorus stands above those because it is able to be endearing without being too corny and hokey. As with many other teacher-student films, there always is a hard-nosed disciplinarian…and that is the case here, with the school being run by an evil headmaster. When the new prefect, Mr. Mathieu, arrives on the scene, he and the headmaster immediately clash but the prefect hangs on and helps the children reform with the help of his musical background. Sounds corny, I know…but the script takes its time and doesn’t ever force anything onto the audience. None of the emotions the children feel towards Mathieu and vice versa seem strained or unnatural. And the way the story is book-ended by present-day scenes only adds to the film’s charm, especially with the way the ending comes together and pleasantly surprises.

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