Friday, December 31, 2010

#223 Targets (1968)

***

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Cast: Tim O'Kelly, Boris Karloff, Arthur Peterson, Monte Landis, Nancy Hsueh, Peter Bogdanvich, Daniel Ades, Stafford Morgan, James Brown, Mary Jackson, Tanya Morgan

So the alleged story is as follows: Producer Roger Corman realized that under contract, Boris Karloff owed him two more full days of filming. He took 20 minutes of unused footage from the film The Terror and sent Karloff over to director Bogdanovich. The result is this short, horror crime film in which Karloff essentially stars as himself, a retiring old horror film actor who simply feels that he has become an anachronism. He states, "My kind of horror isn't horror anymore," as he waves a murder report in the newspaper.

This story is also cut with shots of boy-next-door Bobby Thompson, a young hunter who lives with his picture perfect family of his wife and two parents in suburbia. We watch as he prepares for a murdering spree: collecting guns, target practice, and lies. After killing his own family, he goes on a killing spree of complete strangers.

We expect, of course, that these two characters are going to cross paths, but when and how are indeed a surprise. A perfect commentary on the unstoppable movement toward a more violent America, in which we are all simply pawns. Faceless dots.

A remarkable reference could be made to Orson Welles in The Third Man (1949)-- how much do we care about these faceless, nameless dots? Looking forward to exploring that comparison.

#222 A Passage to India (1984)

***

Director: David Lean

Cast: Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee, Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox, Alec Guinness, Nigel Havers, Richard Wilson, Antonia Pemberton, Michael Culver, Art Malik, Saeed Jaffrey

The doomed friendship between a young Englishwoman and Indian doctor erupts when she accuses him of rape after a mysterious, frightening incident during a tour of Indian caverns. The same director that brings you Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia (haven't viewed the latter yet), brings you this period-destination film based on the novel by E.M. Forster (1942).

Adela (Davis) and Mrs. Moore (Ashcroft) are Brits who have just arrived in India (currently colonized by the British) to visit and prepare for Adela's engagement to the city magistrate. Upon arrival, they find they are paraded from British camp and club to British houses to British teas, never experiencing the real India. At one particular event meant to bring Indians and British together, they are appalled at the deplorable treatment that the British give the Indian members of the party. They are awakened to the debilitating prejudices that cripple the relationship of the two nations.

On a moonlight night, Mrs. Moore creeps out of her room into a Hindu mosque. She finds there a young Indian doctor named Dr. Aziz (Banerjee), and in this holy dwelling, they discover kindness in one another. The Indian doctor is beyond thrilled to find that a kind-hearted Brit does exist, and he promises to show her the real India. He offers to take her and Adela to visit some landmark caves.

Dr. Aziz spends loads of money preparing a "proper English" experience, purchasing loads of servants to even carry a table and chairs to the top of the peaks for their afternoon cup of port. After exploring the first cave, Mrs. Moore feels ill and disturbed by its alarming echoes, and she sends Adela on with Dr. Aziz alone. As the two journey together, they become closer, even comfortable enough to discuss the intimate details of their private lives. When Adela ventures into a cave on her own, a mysterious, spiritual hallucination takes place, and later in court, she accuses Dr. Aziz of raping her.

Of course, this film is an adaptation, so it relies on a screenplay to explain the complex emotions of characters which a book can so easily tell us. The out-of-place experiences had by Adela are highlighted in a pointed scene where she travels by bike to a ruined temple, finding herself shocked by her attraction to erotic coupling statues. Dr. Aziz realizes the complicated nature of his friendship with Mrs. Moore when his fellow people chant her name like a spirited-saviour, when really it is she who fled the court proceedings of Dr. Aziz, unwilling to testify in his honor.

The film is paced almost identically to Bridge on the River Kwai, and I noted that fact even before I realized it shared a director and lead actor with the film. Although the story is full and is built for tons of emotion, I found it somewhat stripped of those elements in the attempt at condensing a large novel into a short, cohesive film. I support its inclusion on the 1001 list nevertheless. A positive viewing experience.

Friday, December 24, 2010

#221 Harold and Maude (1971)

*****

Director: Hal Ashby

Cast: Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles, Cyril Cusack, Charlers Tyner, Ellen Geer, Eric Christmas, G. Wood, Jud Engles

Perhaps this is where the few readers of this blog throw up their hands in frustration and finally stop following me once and for all–today is the day I give Harold and Maude 5 stars. But let me tell you why.

While it's true that it boasts no true surprises– that very early on you gather a sense of where these characters are going– it's the entire purpose, point, and play-out of this film that make it such a gratifying watching experience.

Bud Cort is Harold, a young, wealthy, death-obsessed boy, constantly performing elaborate mock-suicides for his own pleasure and ironical attention-seek. The dark humor of these spectacles are brilliant unto themselves, as they are the catapult for so many serious and comical nuances in each of the characters. Harold, also in his spare time, enjoys attending funerals in his self-purchased hearse. It's at these funerals that he runs into Maude (Gordon) and begins a reluctant albeit curious friendship.

Maude is a vivacious, arguably-crazed maniac bent on sucking the marrow out of every moment. As she approaches her 80th birthday, she sees all the joy of every situation, and with the innocence of someone who has never been through anything (although she is quite the opposite, we know, due to her Nazis prison camp tattoo) she approaches Harold as not only her contemporary but her best friend.

The two fall in love with what I like to classify as 'a different kind of love.' The kind that spans across ages, the surreal, the inhuman–anything capable of loving or being loved, no matter what form it takes. And although they often express their affections in the realm of we like to call romance, their almost sacred affection and understanding seems to stretch far beyond the limits of that classification.

It's true that this free-spirited film is just what we might expect to come out of this era in film-making, but it is the mastery of character, mood, and script that make this film entirely un-dismissable and unforgettable. I think there are many different ways to approach films. You can approach them for what they mean, how they expressed something, the sheer mastery of the skills and art form of film itself, their experiments in capturing something new, etc. While I'd admittedly not be able to stand my ground in holding this film up to some of the 'standard greats' in film history, I firmly believe it should be recognized and revered for what it is great at doing: capturing the limitless vitality of the human spirit.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

#220 Ba Wang Bie Ji [Farewell My Concubine] (1993)

***

Director: Kaige Chen

Cast: Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang, Li Gong, Qi Lu, Da Ying, You Ge, Chun Li, Han Lei, Di Tong, Mingwei Ma, Yang Fei, Zhi Yin, Hailong Zao, Dan Li, Wenli Jiang

The story of two friends presents itself here in one of the most fascinating relationships on film, and perhaps one of the most original in the genre of historical fiction. This epic drama is the story of two Beijing opera performers bonded together at a young age through their own personal hardships as well as the daily brutal torture of operatic training.

Cheng Dieyi (Cheung), as a boy was given to the theatre troupe by his prostitute mother who was unable to care for him. Understandably sexually confused and abused, he was trained to play female roles. His close mate and 'stage brother, Xiaolou (Zhang), trained as a painted-face male lead. Later in life, when the two received stardom for their leading roles in the famous play "Farewell My Concubine," their relationship as friends became cemented as one of true brotherhood. Dieyi's love for his castmate, however, was romantic and sexual, and despite the genuinity of their relationship, those feelings were never reciprocated.

As Xiaolou courted and married an up-scale prostitute lover, Dieyi found solace in a wealthy patron by the name of Master Yuan. While the complexity of these relationships changed and melded with the many changes of the political climate of 1940-1960s China, the drama climaxes when Xiaolou is given the opportunity to save his own skin or stick up for one or both of his closest friends–his wife and Dieyi.

Critically acclaimed for being, along with The Blue Kite, one of the greatest records of China's recent history, this film speaks volumes to the heat and disparity that touched every population of China during this time. Even in the arenas of that which we often consider untouchable and glamorous, we are awakened to the brutality and betrayal within and outside these small societies.

While I could, again, not follow all of the intense political drama, I was indeed captivated and alarmed by much of the sexual and relationship complications this film offered. A sincere explosion of stimuli for both vision and sound, Farewell My Concubine is nothing short of a scrumptious spectacle.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

#219 Modern Times (1936)

*****

Director: Charles Chaplin

Cast: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Godard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin, Hank Mann, Stanley Blystone, Al Ernest Garcia, Richard Alexander

Modern Times was simultaneously Charlie Chaplin's last silent film and first non-silent film. While most other directors were making audio-filled talkies, this masterpiece remains (for the majority) a silent picture. Only in rare moments are voices heard, though the film is bursting with sound effects, music, and even a glimmer of Chaplin's own voice in a musical number toward the end.

The film pokes fun at the burst of the industrial revolution: the assembly line, the depression, the fear of communism, and the gadgets that seemed to be replacing the humans that created them. Chaplin plays a factory worker at the Electro Steel Company. On the assembly line, he performs the simple, hurried task of tightening about a billion bolts, until some unfortunate, haphazard circumstances lead him to have a nervous breakdown. These opening skits were the best part of the entire film, and my dad and I were laughing out loud consistently throughout the first half hour.

After Chaplin's character's hospitalization, the film takes more a chaotic turn. In and out of jail, running about, general hysteria-- only to be followed by a love interest in the form of a homeless orphan girl. We watch as Chaplin and the girl try to establish a home for themselves to share, taking on various jobs and working through the hard times.

Whether you take Chaplin's meditations on industry seriously or not, this film really stood out to me for so many reasons. Unlike some others on the list that seem to fade in and out of my memory during this project, the physical comedy and coordinated talent of Chaplin is undeniably remarkable. Whether or not the story is concrete or the other characters are interesting-- it all seems to matter-not in the presence of such an intense and fantastic comedic performer and director.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

#218 Spoorloos [The Vanishing] (1988)

****

Director: George Sluizer

Cast: Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege, Gwen Eckhaus, Bernadette Le Saché, Tania Latarget

What is worse than death? For Rex Hofman, it is living a life shrouded in the torturous mystery of his girlfriend's disappearance. While vacationing together, Rex and Saskia stop at a gas station in France. When Saskia never returns to the car, Rex launches a full investigation of her disappearance. Years later when the case goes cold and the police have long-since shut the file, Rex remains plagued by the mystery and his sorrow.

Having taken over his life completely, the campaign to find Saskia expends all of his time, money, and energies. When he finally comes face to face with her abductor, Raymond, he is met with an unexpected proposition. Raymond–a normal man by any other definition: a professor, husband, father– offers Rex the opportunity to find out how Saskia died, but only by experiencing it himself. Otherwise, he will never know.

Thus, the film reaches the ultimate psychological climax. And while I refuse to spoil the ending, I will say it is one of the most disturbing things I've seen in a long, long time.

While this film by no means follows the standard "horror" genre formula, it supplies enough suspense and fright to indeed go beyond a mere 'crime film' into the classification of horror/suspense. A shocking and frightening foreign film, whose later remake I suggest could not possibly compare. Unique in that it follows the mind/life of the criminal in more detail than that of the victims, we get a fascinating view of Raymond practicing for his crime (without ever really seeing the actual full thing). And in what we can only assume are Saskia's last moments alive, we are plagued with the unfortunate experience of watching her vitality and innocence as she interacts with who will soon facilitate her unfair and inhumane demise.

Worth seeing, but come prepared. This one is not going to leave you with a good feeling in your stomach.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

#217 Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

***.5

Director: Sergio Leone

Cast: Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Chriele Ferzetti, Paolo Stoppa, Woody Strode, Jack Elam

Always referred to a "masterpiece tribute to Hollywood westerns," I approached Once Upon a Time in the West with an open-mind to the western genre. Growing up, I peered restlessly into my grandfather's grainy television every Christmas as he barraged us with westerns. Always the same scenery, always the same good guys in white hats shooting at the bad guys in black hats, always the same twangs and twaddles. Although these memories are now fond ones because I loved and miss my grandfather, I have to say I never remember finding westerns of any interest. I remember them being long, boring, and confusing. Needless to say, I tried to go into this with a fresh attitude.

Jill McBain (Cardinale) has just arrived to middle of nowhere dessert all the way from New Orleans to meet her recently-wedded husband and his children at his home. When no one fetches her at the station, she makes her way there via carriage to find that her entire new family has been murdered. After burying them, she begins to piece together who killed them and why.

Frank (Fonda) is a mysterious villian renegade, hired by a crippled railroad tycoon to keep everyone and everything out of his and the new railroad's way. Frank's vicious and brutal methods happen to involve the murders of McBain family, who we later find out owned extensive property that was due to make million off of the new railroad's passing through.

Jill, bound and determined to follow through with her dead husband's dream of creating a boom town, hires two renegades to hunt down Frank not only for revenge but also to ensure her own safety.

Through the course of the film, Frank and Jill cross paths, we uncover surprising dark pasts, and the shoot-outs are as creative as they are endless.

While never a big fan of westerns, I struggled through the first hour of this 'epic.' It was then that surprising subplots began to unfold. One of the greatest moments of this film (and perhaps of MOST films I've seen thus far) is Jill's speech about rape:

If you want to, you can lay me over the table and amuse yourself. And even call in your men. Well. No woman ever died from that. When you're finished, all I'll need will be a tub of boiling water, and I'll be exactly what I was before - with just another filthy memory.

Wowza! And although truly one of the most sickeningly deplorable characters ever on film, Frank is played geniously by Henry Fonda.


I highly recommend this film, albeit with patience and an open-mind for the non-western savvy crowd. It'll reel you in, and you'll be glad you took the time. Looking forward to more classic westerns.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

#216 The Lady Eve (1941)

***

Director: Preston Sturges

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper, Janet Beecher

Jean Harrington (Stanwyck) is a traveling card-playing con-artist, and she has chosen a new target: Charles Pike (Fonda), scientist and beer fortune heir, returning from study in the Amazon. When the two cross paths on a luxury ocean liner, what begins as a play for Charles' money soon turns into an unexpected romance. As was destined, Charles finds out Jean's true identity and former intentions, and the two split. It's the unexpected, zany circumstances of their reunion that bring laughs and ridiculous comedic drama.

Fonda and Stanwyck are both charming and funny, and the plot is completely silly and good-natured. I find it easy to group in with other romantic comedies of the era, though (like so many of the others) this one stands out on its own for its own set of reasons. Fonda is awkward, silly, and delightful. Stanwyck is saucy, scrumptious, and classic. A fun film for popcorn and a weekend night in.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

#215 La Passion de Jeanne D'Arc [The Passion of Joan of Arc] (1928)

***

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Cast: Renée Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, André Berley, Maurice Schutz, Atonin Artaud, Michel Simon, Jean d'Yd, Louis Ravet, Armand Lurville, Jacques Arnna

Passion of Joan of Arc is said to be the greatest of all Joan of Arc films, and perhaps even one of the greatest silent films of all time. On both of these claims, I have little to compare it to within my own experience, but I don't find it hard to imagine it all being true.

Filmed in France in 1928, just eight years after Joan of Arc was canonized, the film is a spectacular nonfiction (albeit highly abbreviated) account of the trials of Joan of Arcs, derived from official court documents. The film is indeed a bizarre affair, using almost no film-maker tricks to help with continuity– ie., no match-on-action, no eyesight leads, no camera angle consistencies. The jumping, motion-happy shots seem to land in dramatic angle after dramatic angle, typically far below the subject's line of vision. Joan is often viewed from below, towering over the camera with her eyes always wide and lifted as if only addressing God.

As with so many other martyr films (forgive me but only Passion of the Christ is really coming to mind at the moment), we are flung into whirls of violence and empathy. We are often asked to place ourselves into the martyr's shoes. We are asked to imagine making such a sacrifice. And often in these movie-going experiences, we are consoled by an omniscient feeling that we know more or understand our matyr better than the torturers and executioners. In this film, however, we are not given that comfort. We are not asked to identify. In fact, to the end, Joan remains a mystery. Perhaps this was artistic intent, or perhaps the director himself had not quite made up his mind about her either.

While I would say this certainly isn't one of the easiest films to get through, it is surprisingly easy to follow despite my lack of knowledge to the real historical significance of the real Joan of Arc. An obviously significant film that I am happy to have seen and look forward to learning more about.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

#214 A Room with a View (1985)

**

Director: James Ivory

Cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott, Simon Callow, Patrick Godfrey, Judi Dench

Lucy Honeychurch is a young proper lady growing up in the English countryside, and she is traveling to Florence with her older cousin and chaperon, Charlotte Bartlett. When the two find themselves unexpectedly placed in cramped rooms without views, a chain of events begin that will forever change young Lucy's life.

When at dinner, two eccentric gentleman guests offer the ladies their rooms (with spectacular views), the ladies reluctantly accept the generous offer. The younger of the two gentlemen, George Emerson, takes an instant peculiar liking to Lucy, and days later, on a picnic in the countryside, he romantically snatches her into his arms and kisses her.

When Lucy returns home to her engagement to the uber-sophisticated, nasaly, and stoic Cecil– she is forced to examine the true value of her comfort versus the reckless abandon of true happiness.

Though idealistically set and lavishly costumed, the film lacks cohesiveness. Disjointed, unlikely happenings lead to bursts of emotion which we never saw evidence of forming? It is hard to celebrate the love exclamations of two characters that we have never seen together...

As I have said before, Daniel Day-Lewis is one of my favorite performers, and my bias continues–as I truly felt his light, silly performance as Cecil brought amusement and charm to a film that otherwise lacked relatable character. Entertaining, but I caution that it will satisfy no substantial appetite for drama, comedy, history, or romance.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

#213 Paths of Glory (1957)

****

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson, Joe Turkel, Christiane Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory could be one of the most poignant, blood-boiling examinations of the irony of war ever made. With the sole intention of exposing the senselessness of murder–not only to the enemy but to the human race– this film manages to so thoroughly give rise to your emotions that it's almost impossible not to be bursting through the screen with anger.

When three French men go on trial for supposed cowardice in face of the enemy (as an example to their regiment for not winning a battle), their colonel (Douglas) rises in their defense. Explaining that their mission was impossible and they only retreated to save their own lives, he attempts to sway the court marshall toward their innocence. But the egotistical, power-hungry General Mireau (Macready) has set the wheels in motion for these mens' executions, and as with many large institutions– it's impossible to stop the momentum of anything, no matter how wrong.

The corruption, hypocrisy, and mindless ordering/following are highlighted full-stop in this film, and it is only in the last few moments of the entire feature that we witness any glimmer of hope for otherwise. While this film acknowledges the possibility for change and innocent ignorance of man as a race, it also firmly supports the ideology that we are doomed to be the mechanism of our own demise.

This film will have you thinking in a broad scope, and it masterfully will call upon your emotions. Kubrick, as always, manages to entertain while also push the limits of your pleasurable movie-going experience into the realm of the surreal, or in this case, sadly real.

Monday, December 6, 2010

#212 Rain Man (1988)

****

Director: Barry Levinson

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Valeria Golino, Gerald M. Molen, Jack Murdock, Michael D. Roberts, Ralph Seymour

Selfish, egotistical Los Angeles car salesman Charlie Babbit (Cruise) has just found out that his father has died. He makes a U-turn on the highway with his girlfriend in the car, and he heads to the funeral out of obligation. When he finds out that all he receives from his estranged father's estate is his old car and some rose bushes, Charlie goes on a mission to find the 'elusive' trustee who got his father's 3 mil.

But Charlie gets an answer he never expected. The trustee is a brother (Hoffman) he never knew he had–an autistic savant, living in an institution in his hometown of Cincinnati. Outraged and desperate to get the money, Charlie abducts his brother and begins a long road trip across the country back to LA. Along the way, this self-centered man must care for his high-maintenance, disabled brother. In the process, he learns patience, forgiveness, and compassion, and suddenly, Charlie finds himself wanting to hold onto his brother for reasons other than money.

Hands down– the best acting of Dustin Hoffman's career. Tom Cruise, though unexperienced in this role, plays the asshole like no other as well. A challenging topic for a film which was given up by many directors before Levinson took the script–the film challenges the conventions and our comfort-level with our own conceited natures and prejudices. As we watch the over-the-top Charlie learn the value of familial love, there is something beautiful in the way that Raymond's (Hoffman) condition is unknowingly forgiving to Charlie's brutal behavior.

In the end, it's a heart-felt roadie film. A touching story, an unlikely narrative, but with great comedic relief. The real star of this film is the acting, in which Hoffman will astound you.
Love.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

#211 42nd Street (1933)

***

Director: Lloyd Bacon

Cast: Ruby Keeler, Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Guy Kibbee, Una Merkel, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks, Dick Powell

The film that single-handedly saved Warner Brothers from bankruptcy in the 1930s, and inspiration to one of the most legendary, long-running broadway musicals of all-time, 42nd Street needs no introduction. The black and white musical follows a variety of characters in the leading up to an opening of a new broadway show. There is the high-strung, lay-it-all-on-the-line director, the nervous but adorable stage manager, the dramatic, romantic, diva star, and the doey-eyed newcomer just ready to make her break.

We watch the auditions, meet the finances, attend the rehearsals, and even get all the dressing room dramatics. 42nd Street is a tribute to those who not only love musicals but classic film as well. Delightful.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

#210 The Piano (1993)

***

Director: Jane Campion

Cast: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin, Kerry Walker, Geneviéve Lemon, Tungia Baker

The Piano takes place in the 19th century– Ada (Hunter) is a mute woman who has just been married off by her father. She and her daughter, Flora, leave their native Scotland to make what seems to be an incredibly difficult boat journey to New Zealand frontier. Stranded on the beach, we as an audience quickly come to understand the important bond between mother and daughter (via sign language and nonverbal understandings), and even moreso between mother and beloved piano.

When her husband, Alistair, finally shows for her rescue, he doesn't bother to notice or care for her attachment to the piano–despite multiple efforts. Even more carelessly, he trades the piano to a local native, Baines, in exchange for land despite the confrontation that ensues with Ada as a result. Alistair also informs her that he has promised her services in providing Baines with piano lessons, as he has personally requested.

Ada reluctantly goes, if only to get the chance to visit her precious piano. She soon realizes, however, that Baines has no interest in learning the piano. Instead, he nurses his infatuation with Ada. The two make a deal that she will visit once for each black key on the piano, allowing Baines to "do what he pleases" as she plays–and once all the keys have been spoken for, she may have the piano back. Thus begins an erotic and often silent struggle between the two characters.

Of course, when Alistair eventually learns of the love affair, he is driven mad that he cannot illicit a similar physical response from his wife. He takes drastic measures which lead to tragedy, drama, horror, escape, and love (not necessarily in that order).

This film is truly bizarre, albeit extremely "exciting" at parts. Intensely erotic in a "forbidden fruit" kind of way, it takes bold moves with both the male and female bodies, the concept of prostitution, domestic violence, and rape. On the same token, it is confusingly enough... a love story, and a very mushy one at that. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't surprised and entertained by this film.

Of course, my major grief is about the acting. Holly Hunter, though doing wonders with her facial expressions, was entirely the wrong person cast in this role. Although she did play many of her own piano parts, her Scottish accent was DEPLORABLE! In other ways, I felt the role required a woman with a more apparent wear on her face, if that makes any sense at all. Angelica Houston (who was actually considered by Campion for the role) immediately comes to mind as what I imagine the perfect Ada to be.

At any rate, an important film– equated in my mind with breaking sexual boundaries much in the way Last Tango in Paris did.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

#209 Les parapluies de Cherbourg [The Umbrellas of Cherbourg] (1964)

***

Director: Jacques Demy

Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Casteinuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey, Jean Champion, Pierre Caden, Jean-Pierre Dorat

On a day like today where it literally has not stopped raining for even a moment since I woke this morning, I found it only fitting to finally get to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This having been a personal recommendation of a good friend of mine, I was quite excited to see it. Actually, perhaps rather than excited, the word would be 'interested'. I walked into this film knowing that it would be unusually pleasant–even if perhaps at first it stylistically offends. Not sure what that meant really, I popped the dvd in, and was not-so-surprised to find the forecast to be true.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is entirely a musical, but not in the usual sense. Instead of random outbreaks of song, every single phrase of dialogue is sung in the movie. And even further, there is no repeating melody, no chorus, no predictability. The entire movie rolls along with a symphonic (and sometimes jazzy snazzy) score, and the characters seem to sing out their lines with whatever little melody they please. For the first 30 minutes at least... I have to wholly admit that this is not only alarming, but extremely uncomfortable.

Soon enough, however, you become interested in the 'mood changes' brought on by the background music, and in some ways, the singing makes the French subtitles easier to follow.

The story is of Geneviéve (Deneuve– aka Belle de Jour!), 17-year-old daughter who lives with her widowed umbrella-saleswoman mother (Vernon) in Cherbourg. She falls hopelessly and secretly in love with a 20-year-old mechanic named Guy (Casteinuovo), and when the two make plans to marry, Geneviéve's mother strictly forbids it. When Guy gets drafted and sent to the war in Algeria for two years, the two lovers consummate their relationship, and in the process, Geneviéve conceives. The two lovers promise to wait for one another.

But just three months after Guy's departure, Geneviéve finds herself weak–physically and emotionally. With only discouragement from her mother, she struggles to think about Guy at all. When a wealthy jewel salesman (Michel) claims love-at-first-sight and asks for her hand in marriage, she follows her mother's advice and accepts. She is married only a month or so later–just a short few months after Guy's initial leave!

When he is injured and comes back to Cherbourg early, he is devastated to find the truth about Geneviéve's decisions. In depression, he takes to drinking, sleeping with prostitutes, quits his job, and mourns the death of his Aunt. With the help of his Aunt's former nurse, he comes back to life through successfully starting his own gas station. After marrying her, Geneviéve and Guy find each other for the first time in an unexpected place on an unexpected evening.

The film is separated into three parts: the departure, the absence, and the return. And while the plot doesn't boast anything new, it's all in the presentation that sets Umbrellas apart. The first French musical ever to be shot in color, it's a splendor of a film, albeit one that requires patience and an open-mind. If you have any heart for musicals, guaranteed that you'll catch yourself smiling a few times at the very least... if not secretly captivated by the end.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

#208 Frankenstein (1931)

****

Director: James Whale

Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Mae Clarke, Dwight Frye

Sometimes regarded as one of the greatest horror thrillers ever made, James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein is indeed a masterpiece. I figured I would take a gander at this film since it is such a prominent part of another film I just watched from the 1001, The Spirit of the Beehive.

Based only loosely on the novel of the same title by Mary Shelley, it is the story we know all too well: a man who's drive for science takes him into a realm that has not and should not be explored–the creation of life. Aided by his hunchback assistant named Fritz, Dr. Frankenstein (Clive) steals from graves and science labs to build a monster to bring to life, much to the horror of his fiancé and professor. When the monster gets loose on the town, it begins a path of death and destruction, out of anger, fright, but most often confusion. We both pity and fear the monster that doesn't know any other way other than to kill.

When Frankenstein decides he must destroy his creation, the entire town rises up to help, and a fatal and tragic ending follows.

While I was expecting a somewhat unapproachable, choppy, and cheesy horror film, instead I was delighted to find a very comprehensible film. Where so many older films lose their punch (old comedies lose their humor, old romances lose their relatability), Frankenstein manages to still shock and scare. Countless moments had me squirming in my seat with suspense, feeling repulsed, or jumping back in surprise. Only a true masterpiece can maintain such an impact with an audience nearly 80 years after its creation. A must see for any film appreciator, especially those of the horror genre.

#207 Cheech and Chong's Up In Smoke (1978)

**

Director: Lou Adler, Tommy Chong

Cast: Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, Strother Martin, Edie Adams, Harold Fong, Richard Novo, Jane Moder, Pam Bille, Arthur Roberts, Marian Beeler

While this film boasts careful screen composition and widescreen set-up, I still found it hard to believe those were the real reasons Up In Smoke found its way onto the 1001 list. Although I'd seen pieces of this movie on Comedy Central off-and-on for pretty much my entire life, I'd never had the interest or the patience to sit down and watch it from beginning to end. And why should I? Unless you grew up in the 70s or indulge in the stoner-culture, the film isn't speaking to you.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you can't enjoy the film, but I AM saying it will leave you feeling a bit like you've walked into a club of which you aren't a member. Although I could appreciate the sheer nutty, adlib humor, I found many of the gags to be brushing past me in "well that would've been funny if..." manner.

The film is the story of Pedro (Cheech) and Man (Chong), two burn-outs who haphazardly find themselves as compadres. Pedro is a struggling Mexican-American who finds just enough money to trick out his station wagon with blue fur, and Man is a hippie stoner who lives with what we can only assume are his wealthy parents. When the two come together, pandemonium ensues–only problem is, the two are too high to notice. Caught in major drug busts, police chases, and battle-of-the-band contests, the two friends never seem to catch on to anything, and quite literally blaze their way through every harrowing situation they come across.

While I can't lie and say this is one of my favorite films, I can understand how it has become a phenom of our culture. For that, at the very least, Cheech and Chong get my respect–just not my laughs.

#206 The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

**

Director: Víctor Erice

Cast: Ana Torrent, Fernando Fernán Gómez, Teresa Gimpera, Isabel Telleria, Ketty de la Camara

In a remote, rural 1940s Spanish village, a young girl named Ana is growing up with her father, mother, older sister, and housekeeper. Her father is a beekeeper who spends most of his time writing about his bees. Her mother is distant, preoccupied in a self-absorption of writing long letters to her secret lover. Her sister Isabel is her only friend, albeit a somewhat mischievous one, always playing tricks on Ana and taking full advantage of her youthful and gullible nature.

Perhaps the only thing the people of this village really have to look forward to is when the new movie reel comes to the local cinema–children jump around the truck, and everyone in the town crowds in the door, having brought their own chairs. When James Whales' 1931 Frankenstein comes to town, Ana is nothing short of traumatized by the monster; however, her ferocious curiosity is not to be confused with fear.

Ana begins a solitary journey to find the monster, to summon his spirit, to find out if and why he killed the little girl in the film. Her obsession leads her into dangerous situations–journeying far away from home to a remote abandoned farmhouse, feeding vagabonds, and long, lost walks in dark forests. Her dysfunctional family hardly notices until the father's coat and pocket-watch go missing, as a result of one of Ana's schemes.

The film is extremely slow-moving with dry, rolling landscapes. The homes feel as abandoned as the land, and the characters within Ana's family are never shown together on screen–always separated, always isolated– even when at the dinner table. Ana's adventure is one purely on her own, and her wide eyes are wide open windows into her emotions. Without much dialogue (and often when there is, it is in a whisper), we are able to imagine all of the overwhelming feelings and wonderings of small Ana.

The film is often cited as being a grand inspiration for Pan's Labyrinth, a modern day Spanish fantasy film. After seeing both, I can really see the similarities in the use of the young girl, but the pacing and use of violence in Pan's Labyrinth make it almost unrelatable to the quiet, contemplative Spirit of the Beehive.

Friday, November 26, 2010

#205 Stand By Me (1986)


****

Director: Robert Reiner

Cast: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, Kiefer Sutherland, John Cusack, Gary Riley, Casey Siemaszko

An adaptation of Stephen King's novella "The Body," Stand By Me is the story about the coming-of-age revelations and the bonds of boyhood. Four friends in the year 1959 are one weekend away from beginning junior high and embark on a journey to recover the body of a boy their age who has gone missing. On the journey, we get to know the boys– Gordie, a smart, small boy living in the shadow of his dead brother; Chris, the group's leader who has a bad reputation despite his good nature; Vern, the chubby, somewhat pathetic goof, and Teddy, the crazy, smart-alec who has a reputation based on his father who lost his mind on the beach of Normandy and abuses poor Teddy.

What the boys experience on the journey changes them, and the bonds they create resonate for them all through their lives. The film, in fact, is a memory of Gordie's-- and his voice-over narration leads through the harrowing adventure with an equal mix of adult nostalgia and boyish innocence.

Unlike some other boyhood-bond movies I've seen, this one doesn't wreak too much of sentimentality, except when it really counts. I've always found myself enjoying Stephen Kind adaptations: Shawshank, Carrie, Green Mile, The Shining. Looking forward to seeing the others, if any, on the list.

#204 Fargo (1996)



*****

Director: Joel Coen

Cast: Frances McDormond, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy, Peter Stormare, Harve Presnell, Steve Park, John Carroll Lynch, Kristin Rudrud, José Feliciano

The Coen Brothers' widely-disputed "true story" about a North Dakota kidnapping case turned murderous in the year 1987–it's a folksy, you-know-the-town-all-too-well kind of story.

Jerry Lundegaard (brilliantly played by Macy) is a poor sap working at a car dealership, secretly over-run by debt, and under the strong thumb of his wealthy father-in-law. He arranges for his folksy, midwestern "You betcha!" wife to be kidnapped, so he can split the ransom with the criminals, and start a business deal that will relieve his debt.

But when the two hitmen, Buscemi and Stormare, find themselves involved in triple homicide as opposed to just a single kidnapping, the whole rug begins to unravel. Enter Frances McDormand (the director's wife, mind you) who plays Marge Gunderson, another folksy character who would go on to win best actress with the Academy for this performance. A pregnant, slow-moving, and slow-talking police chief, she calmly steps weaves her way through the complicated mess. She is always 2 steps behind, but just close enough to make everyone nervous.

We watched as Jerry sweats out the complications of the chain-reaction he has started. His fumbly speech, his awkward manner as his brain spins in circles... so completely relatable and real that it can't be anything but brilliant.

Often described as a black comedy, it in some ways brought Little Miss Sunshine to mind. Even though that film is on a whole other level in terms of what brand of "comedic relief" is used, the parallels between Jerry (Fargo) and Richard (LMS) somewhat astounded me. Both even depend on a certain "Stan Grossman" to bring their wacky business deal to fruition. Was LMS a nod to the Coen Brothers?

Regardless, A+

Thursday, November 25, 2010

#203 Saving Private Ryan (1998)


****

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon, Ted Danson

Coming into a film like this, you can only try to prepare yourself. You can assume brutality, you can assume heart-tearing relationships being suddenly and unfairly destroyed, you can assume deep, strong stand-points on the ideals of war.

Prepare and assume all you want, it doesn't much change the experience. The horror of war perhaps never more realistically depicted than Saving Private Ryan–the highest grossing film of 2008 and one for which the Department of Veteran Affairs had to set up a 800 hotline for traumatized veterans who had seen the film.

The film begins with the Normandy invasion, a 25-minute slaughter of American soldiers, only even more crippling due to the shaking hands and vomiting out of sheer terror which you witness just moments before they strike the beach. Out of the survivors, 8 men are selected to carry out a special mission: saving private ryan. Private Ryan is one of four soldier brothers, and in fact is the only one left alive. In order to ease the suffering of his mother, he has been ordered to be retrieved and sent home alive. Of course, in order to locate him in all of France, 8 men risk their lives in his pursuit.

You can imagine all of the dilemmas brought up through this film-- the worth of one man's life over another, the insanity of war itself. It's a startling and humbling film that did bring me to tears. But of course Spielberg brings us to tears! He is not only a very capable director, but he also has the success to have any tool at his disposable to bring us his vision. What is important is that after the initial tears, the initial experience... comes the deeper implications which stick with us.

The men in this film are not the heroes we expect, but rather ordinary men who become some version of hero through braving and just doing the best they can. In this respect, we are able to at least ATTEMPT on some small scale relate to the terror and the confusion. Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's cinematographer (who also worked on Schindler's List), does a brilliant job of knowing when to let us be overwhelmed by chaos and when we need to feel more-oriented.

A brilliant film that I look forward to learning more about.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

#202 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)


****

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Pallette, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner

A sudden US Senate vacancy leads to a dilemma-- who will fill this seat, and will this person be someone that gives the senators who appoint him a hard time about a greedy bill they've organized for personal profit? Claude Rains as Senator Paine chooses to elect Jefferson Smith (Stewart), a politically-oblivious patriot who is popular in the media for his work with children.

Mr. Smith shows up in Washington doey-eyed. He visits monuments, gabs nervously, drops his hat in front of pretty girls, and is in innocent awe of everything about the American government. What comes hand-in-hand with this innocence is honesty, and when Mr. Smith tries to begin a bill to build a boys' campground that will disrupt the other senators' greedy bill... all hell breaks loose. A smear campaign begins on Smith, trying to expel him from the senate based on a web of powerful lies from powerful people. But can honesty and justice prevail?

When this film came out in 1939, Capra used it as a powerful tool for reaching the masses with a message: the message being a swift punch in the nose to the US government. The film caused a political uproar but received rave reviews from not only critics but movie-goers all across the country. The film addresses concerns still very relevant to todays' citizens about todays' government. We'd all like to imagine such a hero as Mr. Smith in our own Congress--the only voice of reason and truth amongst the majority. But as we can see, it's no easy undertaking to be the hero, and can we even expect modern day man to take that kind of powerful stance on anything? Or will he just blog about it and hope to get a reality television series?

At any rate, Jimmy Stewart is astounding in this film. He bashes through multiple levels of adored and powerful screen presence within this film: innocence/naivety, adorable heart-throb, and commanding, powerful hero. Though quite long, the film was very accessible, even for someone who would typically shy away from political dramas. A classic for certain.

Monday, November 22, 2010

#201 Caravaggio (1986)

*

Director: Derek Jarman

Cast: Noam Almaz, Dawn Archibald, Sean Bean, Dexter Fletcher, Nigel Davenport

Who was Caravaggio? Don't expect this film to tell you.

On the contrary, the film is more of an imagined, vignette view of his life–imagined lovers, relationships, and career. Fiction. What could've been, but probably wasn't. Set to long 'bouts of poetry and full of cheesy 20th century anachronisms that are either meaningful (lost on me!) or a playful poke.

What's more is that the film-maker seems particularly fascinated with the concept of homo-eroticism in the artist world during the time period of the baroque. Simply glazing over Caravaggio's true artistic importance to his era (tenebrism, the first bouts of realism verse idealism, single light source, motion/dynamism within painting, breaking the boundaries of the 4th wall).... and rather spends that time daydreaming about what sorts of erotic gay relationships may have inspired each painting.

While there is nothing wrong with this non-literal approach to the film, I did have quite a number of issues with its general presentation. For one, the lack of dialogue (and inclusion of so much poetry) makes this film practically inaccessible to anyone not already familiar with who Caravaggio is-- and even for the most avid art history lover (myself), the film was a hard view. The broken, sporadic timeline made the vignettes difficult to follow, though I can only suppose they were added for artistic "breath" in the plot's (or lack thereof) momentum.

One thing I can commend this film on is its OWN use of realism-- how dirty and fantastic the characters appear! This, I'm sure, Caravaggio himself would've commended.

Overall, wouldn't recommend to anyone who isn't a major art history buff or fan of artistic nonlinear, plotless film. A difficult sell for most.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

#200 Gilda (1946)

**

Director: Charles Vidor

Cast: Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready, Joseph Calleia, Steven Geray, Joe Sawyer, Gerald Mohr

"Who, me?"

Regarded as one of the greatest-of-all-time screen romances and film noir, Gilda is a film that is surprisingly not so much about love, as it is about pride. Johnny (Ford) is a small-time crook who has had his life saved by Ballin Mundson (Macready), a large-time crook and illegal casino operator in Argentina. The two come together in an almost homo-erotic friendship, working together at the casino, until Ballin shows up with a wife one day-- Enter Gilda. Gilda (Hayworth) is a woman that seems to have some sort of complicated secret past with Johnny, and the two will spend the entire film battling between wanting and wanting to ruin one another.

Although Hayworth is gorgeous and saucy, and although this film is generally considered to be one of the greatest of its genre and era-- there are a lot of reasons that Gilda didn't hit a homerun with me. For one, the ongoing tension between Gilda and Johnny (which is supposed to be sexually-charged as well as fueled by hate) seemed erratic and disjointed. Granted, the two characters are understandably working through complex fiery emotions, but on the whole, their actions, arguments, and jabs at one another seem senseless, unlikely, and confusing. The back-and-forth between Gilda and Johnny, however, was not nearly as annoying as the man-love bizarre relationship between Ballin and Johnny. Even for a mob-related relationship, it was a bit too much man-love for what I could handle. Ballin as a villain was ruined by what I can only call... cheesy acting (perhaps highlighted by a cheesy over-exaggerated musical score).

I also felt the plot was clogged up with extraneous characters and details which just confused and burdened. All of the build-up about the business relationships/the safe--all for no pay-off.

I will say, however, that Hayworth's screen presence was one of the most powerful and commanding of all the 30s and 40s heroines I've seen thus far. Still doesn't mean I love the film. :(

Saturday, November 20, 2010

#199 The Palm Beach Story (1942)


***

Director: Preston Sturges

Cast: Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor, Rudy Vallee, William Demarest, Robert Warwick, Sig Arno, Robert Dudley, Franklin Pangborn

Gerry Jeffers (Colbert) is a loving housewife of a new variety–determined to help her architect husband (McCrea) succeed, she divorces him and tries to find a new husband to finance his projects. Her husband, Tom, is of course driven practically mad with jealousy and misunderstanding at his wife's intentions. When Gerry takes off to West Palm Beach with one of the richest men in the world, John D. Hackensacker III (Vallee), Tom follows her there to win her back.

With a plot so ludicrous, it is easy to suspend disbelief and enjoy the sheer silliness of a film like this. You can't get mad at Claudette Colbert, no matter how goofy her acting is, and the costuming of this film unto itself is a masterpiece. Just in tow with other screwball comedies of the 1930s, this witty feel-gooder will keep you smiling. And just when you think it's impossible for all to come out of this happily, Sturges surprises you with an even more ridiculous happy ending than you could imagine. Pleasant to the end.

Friday, November 19, 2010

#198 Black Narcissus (1947)

**

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Deborah Kerr, Sabu, David Farrar, Flora Robson, Esmond Knight, Jean Simmons, Kathleen Byron, Jenny Laird, Judith Furse, May Hallat

Sister Clodagh is a young nun who has just been promoted quite unexpectedly (and perhaps too soon) to start a new convent, school, and hospital at a remote location in the Himalayas. The palace is an old harem, perched atop a cliff where the wind blows strong 24/7 and people have a habit of not staying long.

Leading a team of four other nuns, she seeks help and companionship (albeit reluctantly) from a guide named "Mr. Dean," a dark ruffian who lives amongst the natives. He helps the nuns to understand the superstitious natives (who are only attending the convent because they are being paid to do so), a young Prince/General, and a poor, young, and fiesty native girl.

The sensuous history of the palace seems to slowly begin wreaking havoc on the pious group's psyche, and Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth seem to be at odds with one another over their pasts and their affections toward Mr. Dean. When the young prince and fiesty native girl disappear together and a young village boy dies, Sister Ruth is sent over the edge into insanity and tries to take Sister Clodagh (quite literally) over the edge with her.

Though I have nothing exactly against the film, I can't say anything about it particularly captivated me either. I understood the deep psychological complexity these characters possessed, and I also was aware of the ongoing irony of the nuns (those with unfounded beliefs) being more grounded than those without (superstitious natives). It seemed to me, however, extremely disjointed–almost broken into stiff segments of action/theme. And while I understood the purpose of the Mr. Dean character, he came across as cheesy (um, those shorts???).

As for the plot twist, without giving toooo much away, Sister Ruth quickly and somewhat suddenly becomes the center of attention. The jarring visuals this plot twist inspired were extremely disruptive and disturbing to the greater picture. Yet to be decided if that was a stroke of genius or unsuited.

#197 Ostre Sledované Vlaky [Closely Watched Trains] (1967)


***

Director: Jirí Menzel

Cast: Václav Nekár, Josef Somr, Vlastimil Brodsky, Vladimír Valenta, Alois Vachek, Ferdinand Kruta, Jitka Bendová

Milo (Nekár) is a wide-eyed Czech boy who has just inherited his father's position as train dispatcher at the local train station. He enjoys the job because it means he doesn't have to do "any real hard work." He is quiet, nervous, and skinny, and he tries his best to take after his superior Hubika (Somr), a ladies' man and rule-breaker.

Milo finds himself sweet on a young female conductor, and the two begin a bit of an innocent romance. When she prompts Milo to become physical, Milo's nervousness gets in the way. Depressed and embarrassed, he acts out with self-mutilation and telling anyone who has a pair of ears about his problem. He is determined to find an older woman to give him experience, so he can make love to his girlfriend.

All of this happens amidst World War II, but unlike other films, this one in no way glorifies it-- it is incidental and not center-stage, though it does play an important part in the conclusion of the film. When Milo and Hubika agree to take part in a plan to destroy one of the enemy's ammunition trains, things go a bit awry.

Though quiet, black and white, and in subtitles-- the slowness of this film was neither agitating or daunting. Milo's innocence was endearing and relatable, and the tragic end of the film was not changed from the original novel's.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

#196 The Fly (1986)

****

Director: David Cronenberg

Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz, Joy Boushel, Leslie Carlson, George Chuvalo

Cronenberg explores the consequences of science, medicine, and technology going too far in this gruesome thriller, horror romance. Jeff Goldblum plays a lonely (though absolutely ripped?) scientist who has just secretly solved the mystery of teleportation! Geena Davis arrives as a reporter, learning about the project for a book. Together, as they explore the possibility of teleporting live organisms, the two fall in love in a fast, steamy love affair.

In a fit of drunken jealousy, Goldblum decides to teleport himself in his woman's absence, and what he initially thinks is a purification of his genes is actually much more horrific: his genes have been fused with that of a house fly that was also in the teleporter.

As he slowly transforms and degenerates, the two lovers are both forced to deal what comes. Goldblum begins to lose control over his body and his mind, and Davis finds some shocking news at the doctor's that sends the plot into entire other arena of intense.

What could've simply been a scary gore-fest turned out to be a highly emotional, political film. Being a true horror-movie-hater myself, I was gearing myself up for a 90 minute struggle. Instead, I found it to be pretty fascinating, and I didn't ever even have to look away! The ending was so sad and overwhelming that I felt tears welling, though one never fell. Awesome movie, but disappointed to see it had such an obvious lead for a sequel. Heard it wasn't as good, but I don't plan on trying to find out!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

#195 Sherman's March (1986)

***

Director: Ross McElwee

Cast: Ross McElwee, Burt Reynolds, Charleen Swansea

Like so many others, I was duped by this film. I nestled down on top of my comforter for what I assumed was going to be a 2 hour long documentary on Sherman with some sort of odd sprinkling of personal-sharing on the part of the film-maker (as I had read in the film description). What I found, however, was one of the first and most noted diary films of the documentary genre.

Ross McElwee is a southerner who is about to start a film that retraces Sherman's march through the south, researching the southerners that are still affected by his legacy. Instead, he is caught off guard by his girlfriend leaving him for her ex just before he begins his journey. Thus, he has a hard time concentrating on Sherman and begins to instead be side-tracked by his own personal shortcomings as a lover, boyfriend, and person.

He begins to explore countless past relationships as well as new relationships set up by his rather determined match-maker friends. Soon, his film becomes almost entirely about this journey with the occasional "Oh, right! Back to Sherman!" moments. One of the greatest moments of this film comes with mindfulness realization that he is not just filming his own life, but perhaps he is filming to HAVE a life. In other words, he begins using his filming as an escape and an excuse.

The self-aware, diary-style film is a very slow moving, plotless exploration of one man's experience of the human condition. The answerless, romantic-comedyless search for companionship and success. For the most part, I loved this film--as I usually always love documentary films! Although interesting and sometimes masterfully edited, I found myself somewhat inattentive at parts–whether that is my own fault or the film-makers is undetermined. See for yourself.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

#194 Duck Soup (1933)




*****

Director: Leo McCarey

Cast: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Raquel Torres, Louis Calhern

One of the Marx brothers most famous films, but certainly not their most successful at the time of its release, Duck Soup is a plotless, confusing hour of silliness-- brilliant! Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, the new leader of Freedonia-- a country financially supported soley by his sometimes love-interest, Mrs. Teasdale. However, the leader of Sylvania (played by Calhern), wants to win Mrs. Teasdale affections and eventually goes to war with Freedonia for well, no particular reason.

The truth of the matter is, the plot of this movie is completely pointless and incidental. Though often called one of the greatest political and war satires ever, I mostly just see a brand of comedy that is unparalleled. After this film tanked in box offices, the brothers left Paramount and began making movies with MGM that were more musical and certainly more structured.

If nothing else demonstrates the randomness of Duck Soup, then perhaps Groucho Marx's explanation of the title will: "Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you'll duck soup the rest of your life."

I came into this movie expecting something silent and extremely unapproachable, and I was so SO pleasantly surprised. Not only is this film easy to watch, but it is also so goofy that it is impossible not to love it. The Marx Brothers' camera-aware one-liners are sometimes poorly delivered, and the screen presences are extremely unorganized/unplanned-- making the film feel like a bad stage-show, and absolutely amazing for that reason. In all of the places where we expect modern cinema to do the opposite, the Marx Brothers get away with just about everything. SO love this film, and I am adding it to my list of "must watch again"s.

Monday, November 15, 2010

#193 Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)




***

Director: Louis Malle

Cast: Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejt ö, Francine Racette, Stanislas Carre de Malberg, Philippe Morier-Genoud, Francois Berléand, Francois Négret

In the midst of World War II, two Catholic boarding school students in France find unexpected friendship. Julien Quentin (Manesse) is a sensitive, momma's boy who despite his hatred for school has a decent amount of popularity amongst the other boys. Jean Bonnet (Fetjö) is a newcomer to the school and is finding it hard to adjust.

When Julien learns that Jean is actually a Jew in hiding, he stops taunting him with the other boys and slowly develops a friendship with him. When Gestapo receive word that the school is hiding Jews and come for Jean, Julien faces one of the hardest days of his life.

Based on the actual events of his childhood at a wartime boarding school, director Louis Malle is careful to depict the film entirely from the child's view. No omniscient understanding of the war-- only what the priests and teachers tell the children (practically nothing). This view allows for a true innocence in perspective that makes the emotions of the children completely within our empathetic grasp as viewers. In addition, the film is shot in a dark, snowy, damp setting that chills you in just watching. The title translated to English ("Goodbye, Children") refers to both the climactic departing at the film's conclusion as well as the unavoidable end of childhood innocence.

The film uses a series of interesting motifs to highlight the unusual unification of these two characters, ie. continually reminding you of their separation, even when shown together. One of the strongest motifs I noticed is the visual of the "looking glass." The character Bonnet is consistently viewed through glass, in reflection, or in a window-like frame-- and more often than not, we find that it is Quentin who views him through this frame. (Think of the piano lesson window, the mirror in Bonnet's locker, the doorway of Bonnet's exit, the framed soldier who comes for confession.) Also remember the opening scene of the movie where we watch Quentin look out through the train window, trapped and isolated, with a distinct naive view of the world. It is when viewing Bonnet through these frames that illuminates the importance difference between the two friends--it reminds us that even though they are mates, they are still very isolated, coming from two very different worlds.

Another beautiful and tragic perspective on World War II--refreshing and endearing for its unique vantage point on the happenings of the Holocaust. Of course, this film is only minutely in documentation of the war-- and more about the climax and denouement of friendship as a result of persecution. A microcosm scope.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

#192 Rebel Without A Cause (1955)




***

Director: Nicholas Ray

Cast: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Corey Allen, William Hopper, Rochelle Hudson, Dennis Hopper, Edward Platt

Jim Stark is from a middle class family who doesn't know how to love him. They move him from town to town to keep him out of trouble, and in particular, his father is about as far as can be from the "be a man" role model. When he comes to this new town, Jim finally begins to find the affection he's been searching for, albeit in unusual places: Plato, a ruffian kid, Judy, a love-starved daughter and bully's girlfriend, and Ray, a juvenile delinquent detective.

Unfortunately, even though he makes a go at starting a-new, other kids in the new town are making it anything but easy-- forcing him to knife fight, play chicken, race stolen cars, and the like. When Plato's deeply disturbed antics take center-stage in a shoot-out with police, Jim does what he can to defend his first and only friends.

James Dean is Jim, and Dean is a Brando-esque screen presence. The mumbles, the squint, and the nonchalant command of the screen-- he is pretty electric in this film. Interestingly enough, Brando actually screen-tested and turned down this role, so the similarity in Dean's acting style for this film to Brando is not-so-surprising. Natalie Wood-- how DOES this girl keep landing roles across these bo-hunks?? William Beatty AND James Dean?? Frankly, I'm finding her to be a bit under-whelming as an actress.

The plot of this film is so bizarre that I am truly baffled at its enormity of "classic" respect. Granted, it's all about James Dean, isn't it? I mean... I had a poster of him on my wall from this film (never even having seen it) for the majority of my junior year of college.

Anyway, like I was saying... BIZARRE plot. Lots of unnecessary characters and subplots in this film-- lots of details that confuse and are never elaborated on. Many things mentioned but never explained. Who is this woman caring for Plato-- and why does she keep re-appearing in such a random, unsupported fashion? No one really got too upset about Buzz's death, did they? And is the subplot of Judy's father really need to be there? All it did was open up doors of confusion-- is she sexually attracted to her own father?

What?

Mostly, I just tried to "let go" with this film. Suspend disbelief, and try not to be so hung up on the odd turns this film took me down. Obviously this film is loved for its actor performances and certainly not for its storyline, so I'll try to appreciate it in the same light.

#191 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)




***

Director: Howard Hawks

Cast: Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Coburn, Elliot Reed, Tommy Noonan, Carol Channing

An exceptionally comedic, light-hearted musical performance from both Russell and Monroe, playing two showgirl friends on their way to Paris. Lorelei Lee (Monroe) is engaged to be married, and unbeknownst to her and her friend Dorothy (Russell), she is being followed by a private investigator hired by her fiance's father. He wants to make sure she isn't marrying his son for just his money, and well, she just might be. "But is that so wrong?"

The musical numbers are sparkly and are meant to razzle-dazzle you. Monroe is over-the-top and purrs out her lines with unbridled sexuality. Though nothing to take too seriously, the film is a must-see for its most unusual brand of comedy and sex appeal. Russell is absolutely tranny-tastic as Dorothy-- LOVE IT!


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

#190 My Brilliant Career (1979)

**

Director: Gillian Armstrong

Cast: Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes, Robert Grubb, Max Cullen, Aileen Britton, Peter Whitford, Patricia Kennedy, Alan Hopgood, Julia Blake

Now, I've never been huge on romances-- for me, they are truly a rare-to-sometimes food. But I had some decent hope for this film: a headstrong feminist protagonist, a period piece, and with excellent reviews! Unfortunately, I spent most of the time during this film wondering how it ever made the 1001 list-- and haven't I seen this before on Lifetime?

Sybylla Melvyn (Davis) is an ugly woman, and she is struggling against 19th century societal conventions to settle down and get married. She seems dead-set on starting a career in art, literature, or music, and the film is based around her struggle to fulfill that goal. In fact, the film even opens with a grandiose monologue about her brilliant career-- so brilliant, in fact, that we never need to see her doing it or ever even find out what it is she decides to do!

A number of stuffy and I guess supposedly "hunky" suitors and stubborn family members attempt to derail her plans, but Sybylla does her best to not forget herself.

For one, if you're going to call the film "my brilliant career"-- then perhaps the person should HAVE a career. Or at least a more specific ambition. Secondly, the main suitor, Harry Beecham(played by Sam Neill), is supposed to be a hard conflict of interest for Sybylla, but it was hardly convincing. Their romance really rang dead-as-a-doornail, lacking passion or ferocity (which I think was supposed to be a major aspect of Davis' character), and frankly... I just wasn't buying it.

The film was kind of a cheesy snore, and I found myself wishing that I was watching Pride and Prejudice, Marie Antoinette, or countless other romance/period piece films that I enjoy far more than this one. I'd say unless you're okay with being underwhelmed or unless you're a HUGE sucker for any romance film in existence, it's really okay to skip this one.


Monday, November 8, 2010

#189 Splendor in the Grass (1961)

***

Director: Elia Kazan

Cast: Warren Beattty, Natalie Wood, Pat Hingle, Sandy Dennis, Sean Garrison, Audrey Christie, Barbara Loden, Zohra Lampert, Fred Stewart

This is what happens when you repress young sexuality-- the woman goes to a mental institution, and the dude knocks up another woman! Just kidding. But seriously.

Deanie Loomis (Wood) and Bud Stamper (Beatty) are in a Kansas high school in 1929, and they are in love. They are also caught in the midst of sexual teenage angst-- both afraid to take the next step in their physical relationship. Scared to let down their parents, their image, and each other.

Instead of following their own instincts to be intimate with one another, the two travel down a much more complicated road of suppressed sexuality-- Bud seeks solace in other girls, and Deanie finds rebellion and self-injury. The road drives them apart, but you can't get TOO far when you're from Kansas, right? When they finally find each other again, what has become of themselves?

The film was hyper-dramatic, though the warnings are real. They say "teen pregnancy is 100% preventable." Well guess what-- so are the sexually-repressed crazies! In that aspect the film was frustrating. Warren Beatty makes his big-screen debut in this film, and having seen his later work (Bonnie and Clyde), my warmth toward his Marlon Brando-esque glow only gets hotter. Natalie Wood does some brilliant crazy-work in this film as well. I think the amount of frustration I felt while watching this film speaks volumes about its effectiveness. Though first inclined to complain, on second thought, I think it really gets to the point steadfast.

I also felt the "splendor in the grass" thread that holds this film together is actually a very beautiful and profound metaphor as well.

Overall, it is a steamy, emotional, and not entirely pleasant romance. Popcorn not needed, though encouraged. Not a first date movie-- could get awkward.

#188 M. Hulot's Holiday (1953)

**

Director: Jacques Tati

Cast: Jacques Tati, Nathalie Pascaud, Michele Rolla, Valentine Carmax, Louis Perrault, Andre Dubois Lucien Fregis, Rayond Carl, Suzy Willy

M. Hulot's Holiday is a feel-good, screwball comedic glance at vacation. Hulot heads to spend his holiday at a seaside resort, wreaking accidental and good-natured havoc all over the town and his fellow vacationers. The scene, the people, the music-- all a very gentle, too-true satire on the concept of going on holiday.

The film is virtually silent, as Hulot's slapstick comedy is nearly all physical/situational. The character is charming and innocent, and the plotless jokes roll on for nearly 1.5 hours. While humorous and gentle-- I have to be honest and say I did find myself drifting off in thought at some points aka... getting quite bored. Although the movie was adorable, and I might even be brave enough to say that I think I now see where the character Mr. Bean was stolen from... I just can't say that I found the movie to be anything too memorable. Definitely a movie suited for a lazy afternoon-- casual, light-hearted viewing.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

#187 Hitlerjunge Salomon [Europa Europa] (1990)


****

Director: Agnieszka Holland

Cast: Solomon Perel, Marco Hofschneider, Julie Delpy, Rene Hofschneider, Piotr Kozlowski, Klaus Abramowsky, Michele Gleizer, Marta Sandrowicz

Europa Europa is the harrowing true story of Solomon Perel, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and Nazi war hero. Yep, you read that correctly. Discovered at a Polish orphanage after being separated from his family, he haphazardly climbs Nazi ranks as a model Hitler Youth and German citizen to avoid termination. In the face of the choice of becoming a Jewish martyr or survive-- he chooses survival. Along the way, he faces countless challenges to his faith, his body, and his true identity.

Though understandingly tragic and graphic, Europa Europa manages to remain a deeply personal narrative. In Perel's story, we examine the alternative to an honest death: the price of survival. Overwhelmed with fear, confusion, and guilt, Perel faces some of the most unique challenges imaginable-- even for WWII.

This film proves not to be the easiest in the world to form an opinion on...

On one hand, I am beyond captivated at the remarkable nature of this man's story-- and I want to go running to the bookshelves to uncover what parts of this story are true (and which were embellished for the film-- though not hard to imagine most of the horrors being true). I also believe the film finds itself a stable and respected place amongst other World War II and Holocaust films-- a subject matter that we have no right to forget.

I do have some minor gripes with the film however. One being the classic European flashback/fantasy sequences. The second being the unlikely, jolting savior-like ending. What really happened?

I wish to be more present in the protagonist's consciousness as well. I see his fear, I feel his guilt-- but what is he thinking? I want to hear some of these complicated emotions verbalized....

But I guess that's where Perel's book would be helpful...

Regardless of the details and minor gripes-- this film electrifies and humbles. Overwhelms and frightens. Pays tribute and honors. Definitely a valuable view.




Saturday, November 6, 2010

#186 Manhattan (1979)


****

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Anne Byrne Hoffman, Karen Ludwig, Michael O'Donoghue, Tisa Farrow

Two years after Annie Hall, Allen and Keaton are together again on-screen in Manhattan. With the same witty, neurotic voice-overs, Allen presents a new complicated love-polygon featuring a new cast of intellectual New Yorkers. This time, Allen is Isaac-- and Isaac is dating Tracy (Hemingway), a 17-year-old girl who is helping him forget about his now-lesbian ex-wife (Streep) (who just so happens to be writing a rather embarrassing tell-all about their former marriage). Isaac's best friend, Yale (Murphy) is cheating on his wife with Mary (Keaton)-- a self-conscious but chatty Philadelphian. Isaac and Mary eventually come together out of mutual feelings of rejection to experience their own complicated version of a relationship.

I've come to decide that Woody Allen flicks are a flavor of icecream. You either like it, you hate it, or you're altogether lactose-intolerant. Personally, I find this particular flavor to be delicious, and a safe go-to pleasurable move-going experience. While Annie Hall has particular sentimental value to me as it was my first memorable Woody Allen film-- Manhattan had the same undeniably classic feel. And let's face it-- Allen and Keaton were made to be together on film!

When I think of these Allen films (as a whole), I tend to think of them as one comedic, pleasant popcorn experience. They allow me to both laugh and commiserate, and I appreciate that in a simplistic (but not dismissable) way. I don't always need grandiose gestures from a film to find it irreplaceable and/or memorable. For me, Manhattan is neatly tucked into the greater, undulating love-folder that is Woody Allen.