The Secret in Their Eyes

Sometimes, certain directors can suck you in to watching anything. Sure, you probably haven’t heard of him, but Juan Jos Campanella is one of those directors for me.

I first saw his name attached to some episodes of my other favorite television show, but if you take a look at his filmography, that dude shows up everywhere, and every time I’ve watched a “Law and Order” episode and seen his name, I immediately perked up and paid attention to what I would otherwise ignore.

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The Nasty Girl

First up, let’s address the unfortunate translation of “Das schreckliche Mdchen,” Michael Verhoeven’s 1990 film. The ‘nasty’ in the title is closer in meaning to something like mean or rude rather than any sexual meaning.

If that’s what you were thinking when you clicked on that link, sorry. You won’t find what you’re looking for here.

In case you decided to stick around, “The Nasty Girl” is about Sonja (Lena Stolze), a bright young German girl in the 1970s. She enters a Europe-wide essay contest while she’s in high school and wins the first prize for Germany. She gets a trip to Paris, a medal from the mayor and the admiration of friends and family alike.

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Nowhere in Africa

Not much to say here; after finishing “Nowhere in Africa,” I seriously wonder about the quality of the other films in the Best Foreign Language in 2001 if this was the winner. Seriously guys, you picked this one???

A Jewish family (mom, dad, daughter), living in Germany in 1938, see what’s coming and flee to Kenya to wait out the war. There are the usual culture clashes, the usual attempts at learning the language, the assimilation on both sides, blah blah blah.

“Nowhere in Africa” isn’t bad, but it’s boring with characters that don’t make sense from one scene to the next. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before; dull, predictable and way, way too long.

“Out of Africa” had a similar setup, similar scenes and yet somehow managed to not suck (I’m sure Streep helped with that one). It had its problems, but it’s above and beyond this film. Skip “Nowhere in Africa,” and see that instead.

“Nowhere in Africa” (2001)

Written and directed by Caroline Link

Starring: Juliane Khler (Jettel Redlich)

 Merab Ninidze (Walter Redlich)

 Sidede Onyulo (Owuor)

City of God

Last year, I watched “Bus 174,” a 2004 documentary about a street kid in Rio de Janeiro who held a bus hostage for four hours. Like all good documentaries, it’s more than that; in examining this lost youth Sandro, the movie explores the dark underbelly of a culture that embraces the wealthy and turns their backs on the slums.

It is both incredible journalism and a fantastic film, and because of that experience, I was a bit hesitant to watch “City of God,” Fernando Meirelles’s 2002 film. “City of God” is also about slum kids in Rio, and while it’s based on a true story about gang rivalries, I was afraid the real story would get lost in the Hollywood treatment.

Sometimes, I really hate being right.

Don’t take that to mean that “City of God” is a bad movie, because it isn’t. It’s very well made, the cast of unknown actors do a service to the craft, and the direction and script never lag. What I had issue with is with the scope of the story.

I’ve never read the book it’s based on, but I’m willing to bet it’s a sprawling, intricate story filled with lots of flashbacks and backstory for every major character introduced. That’s pretty much how the movie goes, and while it provides the much-needed exposition, the information never goes beneath the surface.

There’s no real intimacy in “City of God.” There is a de facto main character, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), but he’s mostly on the sidelines watching everything happen around him. We spend the whole film watching the violence and chaos that surround the players, but it doesn’t make an impact; you watch “City of God,” and you move on.  After watching “Bus 174,” I immediately had to watch two episodes of “South Park” just to recover from the devastating impact of that film.

It’s possible that if I hadn’t seen “Bus 174″ I would have been moved by “City of God.” But when you’ve seen it done right, how can you go back to almost right?

“City of God” (2002)

Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Written by John Kaylin

Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues (Rocket)

 Leandro Firmino (Li’l Z)

 Phellipe Haagensen (Benny)


 “Akira” begins with a shot of a nuclear blast in Tokyo, but it’s not the end of the world. Thirty or so years later, Neo Tokyo is alive and well, though with normal city problems. One of those is Kaneda (Mitsuo Iwata), a member of biker gang. During a typical show-off fest with their rival gang, Kaneda’s friend and second Tetsuo (Nozomu Sasaki) is injured, and Tetsuo’s captured by some shady government types who were trying to recapture a little boy on the lam.

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Leon (The Professional)

Meet Mathilda (Natalie Portman), one half of the dynamic duo that forms the heart of Luc Bresson’s “Leon” (1994, mostly known in the U.S. as “The Professional”). One day, her family sends her out to buy groceries, and her father, mother, sister and brother are gunned down by the mentally unhinged Stansfield (Gary Oldman) and his buddies. She escapes by taking refuge with a kind neighbor, who takes her in when she has nowhere else to go.

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Let the Right One In

I’ve never really been a fan of horror films; they don’t scare me (never have, never will), and most of the time, they are kind of dumb. But I’m generally up for any flick that is willing to subvert its horror leanings and produces an emotionally relevant and satisfying story.

“Let the Right One In (2008),” directed by Tomas Alfredson, more than fulfills both requirements to get me to watch. The fact that it’s a good movie too… that’s just gravy.

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Un Chien Andalou

What can you say about a movie that’s only 16 minutes long?

“Un Chien Andalou” means “An Andalusian Dog”. It’s silent. It’s weird. It has no plot. It’s the original gross-out film.

Directed by Luis Bunuel and conceived by him and Salvador Dali, “Un Chien Andalou” (1929) isn’t so much a film as a series of images that wash over you, more dream than reality. Which is probably for the best, because the images are a little disturbing; about a minute into the picture, a man slashes a woman’s eyeball with a razor. In close up. Don’t worry, it looks totally fake; the ear scene in “Reservoir Dogs” was more convincing.

That’s about as bad as it gets, but really, what’s the point here? I don’t mind a little shock-and-awe in my films, but that shouldn’t be the point of a film (one reason why I refuse to see torture-porn films). For a film geek like me, I think “Un Chien Andalou” is worthwhile checking out, but only as historical viewing. I really can’t imagine anyone loving this film, and I can only bring myself to appreciate it. Barely.

And that about sums it up.

“Un Chien Andalou”

Directed by Luis Bunuel

Scenario by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali

Simone Mareuil (Young girl)

 Pierre Batcheff (Man)

“The Passion of Joan of Arc” DVD

I’m not really going to review “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928); it’s an ok film I guess, but I thought it was pretty boring, mostly because of the Maria Falconetti’s (Joan) monotone performance. If you’re an obsessive Joan of Arc fan, then by all means seek it out, although I suspect there are better avenues for that (mainly, just reading the trial transcripts) than sitting through this movie.

But, I do need to give a shout-out to the Criterion Collection’s DVD of “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” because they did a great service by the film.

See, it’s a silent film, and I do mean totally SILENT. I’ve seen a fair amount of silent films over the years, and while there is no dialogue, the score serves to keep things moving and focus the audience’s attention. But “The Passion of Joan of Arc” comes to us with no score; apparently, the director, Carl Theodor Dreyer, never settled on a score and with the film being lost for years, it probably wouldn’t have mattered if he had.

In their infinite wisdom, the Criterion crew added an optional score to the DVD called “Voices of Light.” Now, being the sometime film purist as I am, I initially chose to watch the silent version so I could fully experience the director’s vision. I held out for a good 90 seconds before I switched over.

“Voices of Light” was inspired by the film, and for the most part matches the action. It’s a choir singing and the vocals are occasionally distracting from the action on screen, but, if you have to watch the film,  it’s worth it. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is only 82 minutes long, and I don’t think I could have watched the whole thing without some sound.

Thanks a bunch Criterion crew! Keep ’em coming!

“The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928)

Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Written by Carl Theodor Dreyer and Joseph Delteil

Maria Falconetti’s (Joan)