Tuesday, August 31, 2010

#173 Lan Feng Zheng [The Blue Kite] (1993)


Director: Zhuangzhuang Tian

Cast: Wenyao Zhang, Xiaoman Chen, Liping Lü, Quanxin Pu, Xuejian Li, Ping Zong, Hong Zhang

Let me prequel my writing here by first stating that I don't really feel comfortable and/or qualified enough to be making any sort of judgments on a film like this.

The Blue Kite is a monumental film, packed with history-- not only in the portrayed narrative, but the story of the film itself. Banned from China even before it was finished, the film was smuggled to Japan to be sold on other foreign markets. It remains today as one of the most honest outstanding films to tackle the difficult political atmosphere of 1960s Beijing.

On Dry Well Lane in 1953, a young Chinese couple marries with much celebration, family, and food. A year later, their son, Tietou, is born. The boy flies his blue kite in the lane, and the family lives a simple life where to know the happenings of the neighborhood, all they had to do was look out the window.

But as the political climate in China changes, so does the family. The film is broken into three sections: father, uncle, and stepfather-- in representation of the Hundred Flowers Campaign, The Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. Each change of the familial patriarch marks the change in China under Chairman Mao.

I thought the film was extremely thoughtful, and even though I studied these Chinese history topics extensively in school, I still found the film very hard to follow. A lot of events were shown in the film that the fresh-eyed viewer would need further explained, ie. the sparrow-killing leading to famine. I can see, however, to the more-educated eye how impactful this film is not only as a piece of art but also as a historical document.

I also think a lot of my confusion with this film comes with my complete naivety when it comes to Chinese film-making. This is something I look forward to remedying though, and I did like the film despite some of my inability to follow all of it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

#172 My Left Foot (1989)


Director: Jim Sheridan

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Brenda Fricker, Alison Whelan, Kirsten Sheridan, Declan Crohgen

Day-Lewis is one of my favorite actors, and he absolutely astounds in this touching true-life tale of Irishman Christy Brown-- a man born trapped in a body he could not control. Assumed to be mentally-retarded throughout his childhood, Brown eventually manages to show his family that he is not only intelligent, but that he also has artistic talent--all through the use of his left foot, the only part of his body he can control and communicate with. Christy suffers from cerebral palsy, and the film outlines his own and his poor Irish family's struggle with the disease.

Of course, the most unbelievable aspect of this film is the acting, and rightfully so-- it won two Oscars for it. One went to Day-Lewis for best actor, and another went to Brenda Fricker who played Brown's mother. These two actors absolutely stole the show, and as far as I'm concerned... there were other people in the movie?

It is said that Day-Lewis was so "into" his character, that he often refused to come out of it on the set, forcing his cast-mates to help him with food. He even broke two ribs during film-making due to the convulsions he performed in his wheelchair!

The film takes a subject-matter which seems it has no chance but to go for the sad-turned-hopeful angle, and instead it goes down another surprising road. The film is humorous and thoughtful. It is more about relationships than about depression, and that is what made it such a surprising and delightful viewing experience.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

#171 Die Büchse Der Pandora [Pandora's Box] (1929)


Director: Georg Wilhelm Pabst

Cast: Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Francis Lederer, Carl Goetz, Krafft-Raschig, Alice Roberts

All hail the dark lady: the innocent temptress who brings disaster and demise to everyone she meets. She is perhaps the most infamous femme-fatale in all of Hollywood history, both unaware and acutely in-tune with her sultry sexuality as she destroys all within her path. Lulu (Louise Brooks) is an unstoppable force, comparable only to Pandora of Greek mythology-- a charming beauty, who through innocent curiosity unleashes hell on the world.

Lulu is a dancer. Or a prostitute. Or both. But most notably, however, she is the mistress of a highly esteemed newspaper editor, Dr. Schön. He, along with everyone else, is wrapped around her little finger, and despite his plans for marriage to another, he continues to see Lulu. She famously claims, "You'll have to kill me to get rid of me!" To which Dr. Schön will explain to his son Alwa as, "Beware of that woman. She is not the kind of woman you marry. It would be suicide."

When Schön is caught cheating on his fiance with Lulu, he is forced to marry Lulu instead. When an argument between the just-married couple (over Lulu's flirtation) ends in murder, Lulu begins an adventure with his son Alwa that leads only to more disaster. The film also features one of the first hints of lesbian love in Hollywood through the character of Countess Anna Geschwitz, who just like all the others, is infatuated with Lulu. Just as well, this is also Hollywood's first attempt into the mind of a serial killer, as the end of the film features Jack the Ripper in foggy London who encounters Lulu's charm on a cold holiday night in December.

This film is particularly special to me as it is the inspiration for my all-time favorite musician's latest album: Rufus Wainwright's "All Days Are Night: Songs for Lulu." On his album and on his tour, he pays homage to the dark lady within us all (appropriately named Lulu and based off of this character), and his live stage performance for the album includes a dramatic interpretation of the album through visuals, costume, and music.

Needless to say, my expectations for this film were beyond high, and I was not disappointed. Louise Brooks was an extremely intense screen-presence which surprised me greatly. Being one of my first full-length silent films, I was settling in for a long, tedious watching-experience, but instead was actually quite surprised to find it so captivating and visually-stunning. I appreciated not only the amazingly dark story, but I found the form of acting in this German expressionist film to be refreshing and new. (Yes I realize those are strange words to describe something so old!)

It seems that Lulu is destined to repeat this doomed fate over and over again for eternity in some other dimension-- her story is so timeless. Perhaps it is because there is so much Lulu in each of us, especially amongst today's sexual-culture.

We love Lulu but cannot deny her hand in the always-present downfall.
Salacious and naughty and erotic and heart-breaking.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

#170 Roman Holiday (1953)


Director: William Wyler

Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert, Hartley Power, Harcourt Williams

It's hard to imagine anyone not knowing who Audrey Hepburn is, but it just-so happens that was just the case at the time of this film's release in 1953. This is the film that gave her a huge Hollywood break, and rightfully so. I imagine it's the same film that sent so many young women to get their hair chopped in the mid 50s.

It's a story a lot like Aladdin? Ha. Princess Jas.. errr... Princess Anne escapes from the drudgery and pressure of her royal life to play on the streets of Rome with a common boy, Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). Little does Anne know that her charming, American host to Italy is actually a reporter who plans on making a good deal of dough from the story of his day with the missing diplomat. When he realizes her charm, he finds the thought of hurting her by publishing the story impossible. Instead, they enjoy their day amongst the sites and thrills of Rome and cherish their few and fleeting moments together. Despite the fact it would be impossible to continue a relationship beyond those precious 24 hours, the two begin to fall in love.

The story is simple and silly, and the film is filled with slapstick comedy. Hepburn plays the part of the doey-eyed beauty so well, and whose arms are better than Peck's for damsel-in-distress rescuing? When you see one of these classic love story black-and-whites, it is easy to fall in love with it. When you see ten of them, you start to notice the predictable swings of the plot-line, but you still can't help but be charmed. Perhaps this film falls into the latter category for me (no, it was admittedly NOT full of surprises), but it was nevertheless an incredibly cute and enjoyable watch. Worthy of its ten Oscar nominations? Mahaps. Worthy of watching 10 more times before I die? Yes.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

#169 Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)


Director: Vincente Minnelli

Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Tom Drake, Marjorie Main

This bizarre, Southern technicolor musical is set in the year 1903 in... you guessed it... St. Louis, Missouri. It's the story of an 'average' family filled with young, coming-of-age women both lovesick and ready for mischief. It's a simpler time, of course, when "men don't like girls who kiss before engagement." Judy Garland plays Esther, a middle child who is falling madly in love with her pipe-smoking, sweater-wearing neighbor. She seems to have a steady hand in keeping her family in line-- she plots to marry off her older sister and often is the one to take care of her two mischievous younger siblings (one of which is "Tooti" played by the famous child-star Margaret O' Brien).

The costuming, sets, and songs are over-the-top with color and imagination. The make-up and hair are plastic-perfection! Garland croons, swinging in doorways and off the sides of trolleys. Zing, Zing, Zing goes her heart strings, and the moment I finally saw that scene in its full cinematic context, a bit more of my life was indeed complete.

However, what seems to be the makings of almost a too-perfect, happy family classic somehow takes a dark turn. Long and dramatic interludes are taken into rather morbid subject matters, such as the youngest daughter burying her dead dolls, Halloween ghosts, and a young tortured child beheading her family's snowmen with a bat. Yes. This really happens.

And although it's still a speculation amongst critics as to whether this film is meant to be simply entertaining melodrama or whether it pushes the edge of making comment on familial bliss... it does not matter. Meet Me In St. Louis is by no argument meant to do less than dazzle.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

#168 Rosemary's Baby (1968)


Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Victoria Vetri

With her sunken-in cheeks, translucent skin, and mod dresses, Mia Farrow glimmers in Rosemary's Baby as perhaps one of the most innocent and tortured victims of evil in horror movie history. Excited to begin her life in her new NYC apartment with her handsome actor husband, Rosemary Woodhouse (Farrow) occupies her days redecorating and entertaining the older and somewhat eccentric neighbors. When she and her husband decide to try for a baby, the neighbors seem to become more involved in her life than ever, taking their 'helpfulness' to a whole new level of creepy.

As her pregnancy escalates, Rosemary gets sicker and sicker, and she begins to question those that are supposed to be watching out for her. The ever-looming presence of evil both for the viewer and the star of the film never wavers, and it becomes a suspense to the end-- what really is wrong with Rosemary's baby?

I enjoyed the film-- it was an easy watch. Though horrific and skin-crawling at times, it was presented more in the form of a mystery rather than an all-out exocist, slasher, suspense horror. One of the attributes of this film most consistently noted in my film book is Polanski's knack for pacing when telling this story. I have to agree and say that I found it appropriate--the slow on-slaught of things-not-quite-right lead to the ending being both not surprising and yet completely shocking.

My gut reaction to the ending was. "Really?" I felt let down with the anti-climax and ambiguity. But now since a day has passed since my initial viewing of the film, I feel much better about it. I guess it's in our nature to want the inertia of the film to carry us to a conclusive ending. The look in Rosemary's eyes as she thought long and hard about mothering her child is certainly something to leave a lasting impression-- and that is what makes a great film.