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I can see why this was best foreign language film at the Oscars, and given the tough competition it faced (White Ribbon and A Prophet, both excellent movies), it had to be especially great to win best picture.

It definitely was. So good, it’s easily one of the best pictures of the year.

The movie is told in flashback: in 1999, a retired criminal counselor, Benjamin Esposito, decides to write a novel, about a case that affected him the most, the Morales case. A young woman is raped and killed in 1974, and the counselor, along with his functioning drunk assistant Pablo, and his new female boss, Irene, investigate the crime, bringing their focus on a mutual friend of the slain woman and her young husband. Work is slow, both on the case and on the novel, but everything is revealed in meticulous detail.

This is a rare example, at least to me, of a damn near perfect movie. This is primarily plot driven: the characters react to the events around them. Nothing is preposterous or far fetched. Everything makes sense, which is quite hard to do, especially in a plot driven film. All of the characters are well rounded: Benjamin is struck to help in any way possible by Ricardo, the young woman’s husband.  He sees the love they shared through the photographs and in his eyes.

The eyes, it seems, play an important part throughout the film.  Irene betrays her own feelings through her eyes.  The killer is reveal by what his eyes see in old photographs.  Much of what is shown is through every characters’ eyes: their secrets, their deepest thoughts and desires.

The movie, in part, is a romance as well (the main poster reveals it as such), between Benjamin and Irene.  Much of it is told through the flashback as well, and their inability to do anything about it.  It becomes dangerous too when the killer is found.  What happens after that is heartbreaking, for all characters.

It’s all part of the intricate details that make this film exceed far beyond any expectations. The film is beautifully shot, with many long takes placed throughout the film. The best one is a sequence during a soccer match: eight minutes long, and while several shots were spliced to make this one continuous shot, it’s hard to tell where the splicing took place. The effect is both frantic and mesmerizing.

There was one particular item I looked back upon a day or two after seeing the movie, which helps serves as a book ending theme for the movie. Benjamin wakes from a dream one night and quickly scratches down a single word: “I fear” (the Spanish is one word). This word is brought back only twice more: once in conversation, and once near the end, when almost everything is nearly resolved. At that point, Benjamin adds one letter, which changes the word entirely, so much so that it brings the movie around thematically. I won’t spoil the world, but given how the movie played out (between the romance and the murder), the slight change brings a new meaning to the lives of the characters. We live in fear, but what can reduce fear? It’s brilliant.

A modern day masterpiece, if I can say. Dense and intricate, plausible and beautiful. I’ll say it again: easily one of the best films of 2010, if not the best so far.



There are some things that, despite my continued viewing of movies, I still find myself learning.

I never knew about the Pentagon Papers, or Daniel Ellsberg, or how he and the papers tied into Richard Nixon and Watergate.

I also discovered just how much more of a rat bastard Richard Nixon was (which, considering history already viewed him as one, this just adds more to the fire).

This doesn’t bode well for me, mostly because I am a student (read: was) of history (read: European history).  So, in pursuit of understanding the world, I may just have to get myself a book on the Pentagon Papers.

This documentary is a good starting point, though more of a one-sided affair.  It isn’t that bad actually, the one-sided-ness.  That stems from the fact that Daniel Ellsberg narrates the documentary: he was the one that broke the papers to the media, so it would only seem right to have a film based on his points of view, which are largely in line with the view of history in general.  Five presidents took part in a pursuit of democracy in Indochina through many unscrupulous means: I can’t remember what Truman did (I take responsibility because I should have written this sooner, not five days after seeing the movie), but Eisenhower put in a puppet dictator, Kennedy took some part in this as well, Johnson built up troops without Congressional consent, and Nixon kept the troops in Vietnam mainly to save American face.  Defense Secretary McNamara (under Johnson) blatantly lied on national television about the progress of the war, and Kissinger (under Nixon) was pretty much the reason why Nixon didn’t just drop a nuclear bomb on a Vietnam village.

But the documentary is about Ellsberg as much as it is about the war and the papers.  It goes through his life in a non-linear fashion, focusing on his job in the Pentagon and the RAND Corporation, the beginnings of his second marriage, his dramatic shift from hawk to dove, and the untimely loss of his mother and sister in a car accident.  That last incident also served to shape his views of people in general: he needed to watch people in authority not because they were necessarily bad, but largely because they were inattentive.

His shift from hawk to dove is dramatic in how large of a shift it was.  Ellsberg was in support of the war from the early stages, though opposed to the napalm bombing tactics that dominated a large portion of the war (which, in the general flow of things, he was largely responsible for).  He went to Vietnam for two years and reported to McNamara about the progress of the war (which is the part where McNamara lied about the war progressing well).  He started attending anti-war rallies too, and described his shift as a result of a draft resister’s commitment to going to jail, in spite of his love for his country.  It was then that Ellsberg realized that, if he was going to end an unjust war, he needed to be prepared to go to jail.

Which almost happened, if not for Nixon.  I have to research Nixon more beyond Watergate (and wonder why he won either the first or second largest landslide victory in American history), but Nixon’s legacy is forever marred by the Watergate scandal.

As for Ellsberg (and what I find I admire about him most after leaving the theater), he continued his anti-war activism.  He made public speeches, marched and rallies, and, yes, was arrested at times for general civil disobedience (the movie actually showed one such incident, recorded in 2008).  He just turned 79 last week, and I imagine, even at that old age, he’ll continue being an activist.

Probably the only concerns with the documentary is that one-sided direction the movie goes through, but it doesn’t diminish from the movie at all.  This is about Daniel Ellsberg, his life, and his decision to bring to light the decision making that several American presidents took to bring an unjust war to Vietnam that couldn’t be won, and in the end cost nearly 60,000 American lives.


Note: when Ellsberg went to Vietnam for those two years, he actually led a platoon.  He was a Marine, and graduated first in his class.  He’s also ridiculously smart too (the Ph.D. he has is something borderline crazy, which is a good thing).

A young Arab man shows up in prison, doing six years for a crime that’s never explained, but doesn’t need to be.  He’s a loner, both inside and outside prison.  He’s illiterate, having dropped out of school at age 11, and has been in and out of juvenile detention since then.

He’s harassed at the prison repeatedly.  He gets his shoes stolen, and he gets offered drugs for sex.  But an opportunity comes up.  The Corsicans need him.  “Kill this man, or I’ll kill you,” Luciani tells the young Arab.  Luciani means business.  The Corsicans run the prison.

The young Arab man reluctantly agrees to do so.  The kill is not clean: it is messy, brutal, rough.  But he does it.  And now he’s protected.  And now he rises.

Thus is the tale of Malik El Djabena in A Prophet, an excellent and explosively gritty film.  The movie at heart is a crime drama set within prison walls, and the Godfather movies serve as a good inspiration for such.  Djabena starts as a loner, but with killing the witness, he finds himself in new and better positions of power.  It’s a slow process, one that takes his six years in jail to complete, but he does it masterfully.

He’s intelligent and quick to learn.  He starts classes at the prison and learns to read and write.  He learns Corsican unbeknown-est to everyone but Luciani, and he uses that to his advantage.  He becomes his eyes and ears.

He meets people in prison as well: Ryad, a fellow Muslim who tries to get Malik in with the other Muslims (the Muslims disown him for walking with the Corsicans).  He meets a drug running gypsy as well in prison and learns about a secret stash from him.  Malik gets prison leave as well: twelve-hour days to head out into the world to find something work to do when he does get out of prison.  Luciani owns his prison leave, but Malik has other intentions.

This is a long movie (nearly 150 minutes long), but well worth it.  It’s meticulously crafted, showing the transformation of Malik.  Take a look at the first kill (the one established in the trailer): he’s hesitant to do so, but he knows that it’s kill or be killed, so he knows he must do so.  The second time he kills isn’t until close to the end, but this time it’s different: there’s a certain thrill he gets when he does this.  The smile on his face, the relaxation, then the sudden adrenaline rush to complete the task.  He’s no longer timid.  He wants it.  He has it.

The final two scenes conclude the overall transformation.  I won’t mention what happens, but I’m sure you’ll know if you’ve seen other slow building crime dramas.

I seem to have left out the performances.  Everyone is generally quite good, though the best is left for Niels Arestrup, who plays Cesar Luciani.  He’s a godfather type of sorts, quite and reserved, but always with an anger deep within him.  He lulls you into a false sense of security before striking.  Arestrup plays him perfectly.  He’s worked with the director Audiard before, in The Beat That My Heart Skipped.  They know what to do and they work together well.

Tahar Rahim plays Malik El Djabena.  He’s a relatively new face to French cinema (this is his first leading role), which works in his favor here.  He’s able to pull off the role excellently.  He often doesn’t say much, at least around the Corsicans.  He lets his body language speak for him when words don’t.  He’s menacing when he needs to be.  But then again, he learned from the best.

Such a great film.  This deserves to be seen repeatedly.


This little gem of a movie was practically unheard of until February 2nd, when the Academy nominated it for best animated feature.  I think I remembered my face dropping and speaking a very confused question about this film.  I went in search of the trailer shortly after that.

Then I decided, I must see this film.

The animation is excellent throughout.  It’s hard to pinpoint all of the different animation styles used in the film.  The main one is obviously traditional hand drawn.  Each character has a unique look to them that matches the time period the film is set in (9th century Ireland).  There is some use of CGI as well, mostly in some of the backgrounds, though the Vikings look CGI as well (but it’s really hard to tell with them, not that I’m complaining, they look appropriately menacing).  There is a sequence later with a monster that looks CGI’ed as well that looks fantastic.  Lastly, though I don’t think this is the last they used, there is a Flash media portion (at least that’s what I think it is) that is used mainly for back story, but also for great comedic effect.  There were times I felt my jaw dropping as how visually stunning the film was.  The only animator that has been able to do that before was Hayao Miyazaki (Pixar, probably, but I expect perfection every time with them and get it).  The team of animators that worked on this film created something special.

The story itself is simple enough, but the details are so complex at times that I was occasionally confused.  It’s not the fault of the creators of the film, but rather, it’s the history and lore they used in telling the story.  As I already mentioned, the story is set in 9th century Ireland.  It concerns Brendan, the nephew and apprentice to the Abbot Cellach.  Brendan is roughly twelve years old, and more concerned at times with investigating the world and enjoying life in general rather than helping with the building of the wall to protect the Abbey of Kells from the oncoming Northmen (the aforementioned Vikings).  They encounter Brother Aidan, a master illuminator who had just escaped from the island of Iona with his cat (the name I can’t find, but he has two different colored eyes and has a very affecting personality) and an important book, called the Book of Iona.  Aidan is still writing the book, but is in need of help in finishing the book.  Brendan is all too willing to help out, but he also has his fears to overcome that prevents him from helping as much as he could.

There is also a character Brendan encounters when he ventures out into the woods: Aisling (which sounds somewhat close to “Ashley”), a fairy with body length white hair and a curious transformation.  Being a fairy, she moves unlike anyone, appearing and reappearing in random places, and also being able to climb surfaces without having to grip them at all.  At first unwilling to trust Brendan, she eventually enjoys his company, willing to learn from him as much as he is willing to learn from her.  She’s visually inventive herself with her overall look.

The rest of the plot I’m sure you can gather from the trailer and what I laid out above.  The confusing part that I mentioned before involves the mixing of Celtic myth and culture with early Christian beliefs.  My confusion is mainly due to my lack of knowledge involving Celtic myth (which, because of this movie, I’m wanting to learn more).  The two are handled nicely enough: Kells is established as an early Christian community, with the Abbots and Brothers that everyone calls each other, and the references to prayer, both spoken and in hand language.  The forest that surrounds Kells is heavy in Celtic myth, primarily with Aisling, but also with a monster that fulfills one of the fears that Brendan must overcome.  The Book of Iona is also part of Celtic myth, but as the story becomes more focused on the completion of the book, the distinction between Celtic and Christianity blurs and mixes together seamlessly, creating a rich and rewarding – and wholly unique – storyline.  The ending drags a little bit, but it barely blemishes this all-too-impressive film.

Brilliant.  Try to see it in theaters (it is downtown at the Bourse right now, which looks like it’ll have it next week as well), but definitely rent it when it comes out on DVD as well.  No regrets on this one.


Tonight is the Academy Awards, highlighting the best of film from 2009.  The evening will be spent in a different venue than what I’ve done before: the Ambler Theater, a restored theater in Ambler, PA.  Three screens will be showing the Oscars in high definition.  I hope that this will be fun.

Along the way, I’ll be checking the winners against my predictions below, to see how good I am.  If anyone wants to engage in this game as well, by all means, leave a comment with your picks.  Split them with a “will win” and “should win” where applicable.  If you don’t know a particular category, just guess (for some, your guess is as good as mine, though I have the upper hand in seeing just about every movie nominated this year).

So, without further ado, my predictions:

Best Picture nominees

Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air

Prediction: The Hurt Locker (will win, should win)

Best Director nominees

James Cameron (Avatar), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds), Lee Daniels (Precious), Jason Reitman (Up in the Air)

Prediction: Kathryn Bigelow (will win, should win)

Best Actor nominees

Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart), George Clooney (Up in the Air), Colin Firth (A Single Man), Morgan Freeman (Invictus), Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker)

Prediction: Jeff Bridges (will win, should win)

Best Actress nominees

Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side), Helen Mirren (The Last Station), Carey Mulligan (An Education), Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), Meryl Streep (Julie and Julia)

Prediction: Sandra Bullock (will win), Carey Mulligan (should win)

Best Supporting Actor nominees

Matt Damon (Invictus), Woody Harrelson (The Messenger), Christopher Plummer (The Last Station), Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones), Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds)

Prediction: Christoph Waltz (will win), Woody Harrelson (should win)

Best Supporting Actress nominees

Penelope Cruz (Nine), Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart), Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), Mo’Nique (Precious)

Prediction: Mo’Nique (will win, should win)

Best Original Screenplay nominees

The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Up

Prediction: The Hurt Locker (will win, should win)

Best Adapted Screenplay nominees

District 9, An Education, In the Loop, Precious, Up in the Air

Prediction: Up in the Air (will win, should win)

Best Animated Feature nominees

Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, The Secret of Kells, Up

Prediction: Up (will win, should win)

Best Foreign Language nominees

Ajami, The Milk of Sorrow (La Teta Asustada), A Prophet (Un Prophete), The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos), The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)

Prediction: The White Ribbon (will win)

And, the rest of the nominees and predictions.

Editing: The Hurt Locker (will, should)

Cinematography: The Hurt Locker (will), The White Ribbon (should)

Art Direction: Avatar (will, should)

Costume Design: The Young Victoria (will, should)

Makeup: Star Trek (will), The Young Victoria (should)

Visual Effects: Avatar (will, should)

Sound: Avatar (will), The Hurt Locker (should)

Sound Editing: Avatar (will), The Hurt Locker (should)

Original Score: Up (will, should)

Original Song: The Weary Kind (Crazy Heart) (will, should)

Documentary Feature: The Cove (will)

Animated Short: A Matter of Loaf and Death (will), French Roast (should)

Live Action Short: Kavi (will), Miracle Fish (should)

No prediction for Documentary short.

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