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I watch a lot of movies: good, bad, indifferent; all genres; English and non-English speaking; and, occasionally, I write a few comments about those I enjoyed. Here are five mini-reviews, in no particular order. The percentage/numerical ratings in the title fields are from the review-aggregation website, Rotten Tomatoes (where I look for 60% or higher), and the internet movie database, IMDb (where I look for 6.0 or higher). Movies for Movie Buffs: Index lists all my reviews so far posted.

Update. The first one hundred Movies for Movie Buffs reviews are now available in paperback form: details here.

121. Changing Lanes, Drama, Director Roger Michell, 2002 USA, 77%/6.5

This movie is drama at its best – vengeance, ethics and suspense all wrapped up in a tight morality tale. Gavin Banek (Ben Afleck), a well-placed up-and-coming Wall Street lawyer, is on his way to a probate sitting in a courthouse to submit a document that will prove his legal company has acquired the trustee rights to manage a 100 million dollar foundation thereby offering possibilities for personal enrichment. Doyle Gipson (Samuel L Jackson) is on his way to a divorce hearing in the same courthouse to argue his case for joint custody of his two sons following an acrimonious divorce from his wife. Unfortunately, Banek is momentarily distracted from his efforts to drive his car safely through New York’s busy FDR Drive parkway and accidentally forces Gipson’s car into a central reservation barrier causing considerable damage to Gipson’s car. In his haste to settle the matter, Banek offers to write out a blank cheque telling Gipson he doesn’t have time to exchange insurance details. Mindful of his need to stay clean with the law, Gipson objects and wants to do it right. Banek refuses, ruffles through his briefcase to find his cheque book, signs the cheque and rushes off in his still serviceable car, ignoring Gipson’s pleas to take him with him so that he can make the divorce court hearing in time.

When Banek reaches the court, just in time, he discovers he has lost the folder containing the all-important trustee rights document. It had dropped out of his briefcase while he was looking for his cheque book. The judge gives Banek until the end of the day to find the document, otherwise management of the trust will go to a granddaughter of the deceased owner of the foundation. In the meantime, Gipson has found and picked up the folder but by the time he had walked to the court he was too late to plead his case. The judgement has been made: his ex-wife has been awarded sole custody of the two boys. The stage is set.

This could have been a straightforward revenge movie but it’s lots more. Both men behave in ways that, finally, causes them to question their standards of ethical behaviour and what they want out of life: power, wealth, the ability to be a father, or a clear conscience?

Changing Lanes is the sort of movie that exposes you to the underworld of ethical behaviour and is superbly enacted through the talents of Affleck and Jackson and the writing skills of Chap Taylor and BAFTA-Award novelist, Michael Tolkin. Settle back and enjoy the movie.

122. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Comedy/Crime, Director Shane Black, 2005 USA, 86%/7.5

Initially called You’ll Never Die In This Town Again, director Shane Black renamed this movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang saying ‘It’s half romantic comedy and half murder mystery’. And that it is. Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr., post-drug rehabilitation, pre-Iron Man), fleeing from a failed robbery accidentally takes refuge in a film audition event where his real fear of capture and remorse at what happened to his partner-in-crime is taken to be an exemplary display of method acting. Before he knows it, he’s in Los Angeles preparing for a proper screen test under the guidance of a private investigator, ‘Gay’ Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer). While in LA, Harry meets a high-school flame, Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan), who, thinking he’s become a real PI, asks him to investigate the disappearance of her sister, Jenna. Enter the villain of the film, Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen).

What follows is classical Hollywood black comedy based on the literary styles of Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane where dames are dames, PIs are nonchalantly world-weary, villains are a class act, shots are fired indiscriminately, and yet, underneath it all beats tenderness and romance. Harry acts as the narrator, speaking directly to the camera. Individual acts in the movie are named after titles inspired by Chandler’s books. The dialogue between Harry and ‘Gay’ Perry is quick, sharp and perfectly delivered. Kilmer plays a non-stereotypical gay man – no limp wristed actions with his character – who neither plays up or plays down his homosexuality. The male-on-male kiss when it happens is hilarious.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is an enjoyable caper through the world of pulpy detective movies full of mysteries, mayhem, treachery, murder and classy sexy broads. It’s tough to liken Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to similar movies to give you a yardstick; maybe Boogie Nights (1997) or Layer Cake (2004) or L.A. Confidential (1997)? Either way, enjoy the movie for what it is and look out for the Doris and Lucinda scene 42 minutes into the film.

123. Postmen In The Mountains, Drama, Director Jianqi Huo, 1999 China, 96%/7.8

“A film so simple and straightforward that its buried emotions catch us a little by surprise.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, December 31, 2004

In my university study days, I came across the Chinese Postman Problem, an exercise in the application of a branch of mathematics known as graph theory. Put simply, the problem is to calculate the shortest route for a postman collecting a sack of mail from a depot and then delivering each letter by hand to destinations in a city, traversing each street only once if possible, dropping off the mail in the houses as he does so, and returning to the depot at the end of the delivery. A variant that intrigued me at the time was set in a rural area where individual city houses became villages with a central drop-off point and with the complication that the postman both drops off village mail, which lightens his load, and collects village mail for posting when he returns to the depot, which increases his load. The problem then is to visit each village in a way that keeps the load in his sack at a minimum as he traverses his route i.e., drop off as much as possible in the early part of the delivery and save the heaviest pickups until the later part of the delivery; two independent variables in the calculation. It’s an interesting problem and one that drew me to watch the movie with the intriguing title Postmen In The Mountains.

You will probably be pleased to hear that the movie is about a rural postman delivering mail to and collecting mail from the villages in China’s rural Hunan province but not about the mathematics behind his route. The route is fixed. The postman (Rujun Teng) is retiring and passing the job down to his 24-year-old son (Ye Liu). Accompanied by their German Shepherd dog, Buddy, the postman embarks on the 3-day 112 km route to show his son the route, introduce him to the villagers, and educate him about the job. Not much happens in the film; it’s all about the son learning about his father as they pass through the various villages, and vice versa. Because the father has often been away carrying out his postal duties over the multi-day route, the son barely knows him. Walking the postal route is a major revelation to him: the warm friendships his father has with the villagers; the discussions about Chinese officialdom (the movie is set in the 1980s); how the son’s father first met his mother during a rainstorm when he started the postman’s job (and how the son meets a beautiful Tong minority girl in a hillside rice plantation outside a village and subsequently attends a colourful Tong festival with her); the stories behind some of the mail the postman hands out to waiting hands and, in some cases, opens and reads with invention to elderly members of a village; how rural communities survive; and many more observations on what the postman and his letters mean to those secluded from the busy lives of their sons and daughters who have left to seek a better life elsewhere.

Postmen In The Mountains is a gentle film, full of warm sentiments, poignant vignettes, charming simplicity, philosophical observations, and set within the beautiful mountainous scenery of China’s Hunan province. Pulitzer Prize winner film critic, Roger Ebert, rated the movie 3 stars (out of 4). No doubt he had his reasons for not awarding 4 stars. I would rate the movie higher.

124. Prayers for the Stolen, Drama, Director Tatiana Huezo, 2021 Mexico, 96%/7.3

‘Now we make you ugly,’ my mother said. ‘The best thing you can be in Mexico is an ugly girl.’
Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement, Vintage Digital, 2014

In the mountainous Jalisco region of central Mexico, drug cartels force the inhabitants of local villages scattered around the town of San Miguel to harvest the opium poppies for their ‘gum’ from which is derived heroin, morphine and other opiates such as oxycodone. In addition, and as a side line, the narcos occasionally abduct young teenage girls and human traffic them into prostitution or, worse still, rape and then kill them to serve as a warning to the villagers not to go to the local police or Mexican Army. In an attempt to protect their daughters, mothers arrange for pre-teen girls approaching puberty to have their long hair cut short, forbid them to apply lipstick and nail polish, and dress them in boys’ clothes. As the girls enter puberty when their gender can no longer be disguised, the mothers instruct the girls on how to conceal themselves from narcos in shallow covered pits. Girls grow up in constant fear of the sounds of the narcos’ black SUVs approaching the village and often have just a few minutes to hide in case it’s a raid. Narcos, toting guns, intimidate the mothers and may even kill them if they know of the existence of a daughter which is denied by the mother.

This is the background to the harrowing movie, Prayers for the Stolen, based on a novel with the same title written by the American-Mexican author, Jennifer Clements. The movie charts the lives of three Mexican girls: the main protagonist, Ana, and her two friends, Maria and Paula. Act 1 shows them as 9-year-olds, still able to pass as boys but growing up as girls, discovering friendships and the joys of playing and learning together. Act 2 moves forward four or five years and shows them as adolescents, still friends but discovering new emotions. Different actresses play the two sets of girls. In act 1, we see the girls being taught by a charismatic teacher, Leonardo (David Illescas) who instils wonder about the world around them and inspires hope for the future. In one scene, Leonardo demonstrates how the eyes produce a 3D effect and then introduces lateral thinking by upturning a chair and asking for a volunteer to sit on it. One girl comes forward and solves the problem but not in the way you would think. It’s a wonderful scene.

As adolescents, the girls discover the rising emotions of first love, experience the horror of a cartel raid, deepen the friendship between them, and finally understand why their mothers had their hair cut off and forbad any form of makeup. The two sets of actresses who play the girls are exceptional, very natural, very expressive, and with an intrinsic understanding of the true nature of their roles. Here are their names:

As 9-year-olds: Ana (Ana Cristina Ordóñez González), Paula (Camila Gaal), Maria (Blanca Itzel Pérez).

As adolescents: Ana (Marya Membreño), Paula (Alejandra Camacho Olguin), Maria (Giselle Barrera Sánchez).

Prayers for the Stolen received a special mention award in the Un Certain Regard category at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and has received multiple awards in many other film festivals and other movie awards organisations. The book on which the screenplay is based has been widely acclaimed. The book, and the movie, are a damning indictment of the effect of the drug trade on girls growing up in places where the drugs are harvested.

125. Rescue Under Fire, Action/War, Director Adolfo Martínez Pérez, 2017 Spain, -/6.2

Every now and again, all I want to do is watch a decent action movie – martial art, war, thriller, cowboy, spy, gangster – the staples of action cinema, something that plays to my memories when as a young boy, way back in the ’40s and ’50s, I went to Saturday morning pictures to watch John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Alan Ladd, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, James Cagney… supported by their leading ladies Joan Crawford, Deborah Kerr, Maureen O’Hara… and other silver screen heroes and heroines. These days, good westerns are in decline but other action genres are still being produced and if all you want is to sit back, ignore plot holes and inaccuracies, and enjoy a movie that transports you back to the days when all you wanted was to be entertained but not challenged, Rescue Under Fire, fits the bill perfectly. A war movie set in Afghanistan, this Spanish-made film is surprisingly good and with an authentic feel to it.

The story, simple enough, is about an American land convoy escorted by Spanish soldiers that encounters an IED that destroys one of the vehicles, injuring two of the American soldiers, but doesn’t prevent the convoy from continuing the journey. A small group of Spanish soldiers stay back with the two injured Americans and waits for the arrival of a Spanish Army Super Puma MedEvac rescue helicopter. On arrival, one of the wheels of the Super Puma sinks deeply into the sand causing the ’copter to topple over on its side. Now, what was a routine rescue operation becomes fraught with danger, especially when an Afghani shepherd is seen observing the broken ’copter and band of soldiers. Will he report their presence to the Taliban? If so, how long will it be before the Taliban arrives?  If attacked, how much ammunition do the soldiers have? How urgent is it to get the two injured Americans back to a field hospital? What about the damaged MedEvac?

Back at base, the General and his team discuss the rescue operation. A Chinook helicopter will be used to pick up the injured soldiers and some of the military personnel but the General is prompted to ask whether a second Chinook could lift and carry back the damaged Super Puma. Doing so would prevent the Taliban from claiming a major trophy and the MedEvac could then be repaired and placed back into active service. ‘Is it possible?’ asks the General. The engineers calculate that a Chinook helicopter could lift the Super Puma if it is stripped of weapons’ support, armour, fuel, and damaged blades. The General nods his head in agreement. The more ambitious rescue operation is sanctioned.

I’ll leave you to determine the outcome of the rescue operation but here’s a spoiler. The movie is based on an incident during the Afghanistan war when a damaged Spanish Air Force MedEvac Super Puma was retrieved by a Chinook helicopter. The Super Puma used in the movie is the Super Puma that was retrieved and, subsequently, repaired and returned to active service. Sometimes, the words ‘Based on a true story’ have a ring of truth about them.