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.

#185 Fa yeung nin wa [In the Mood for Love] (2001)

****

Director: Kar Wai Wong

Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Lai Chen, Rebecca Pan, Paulyn Sun, Kelly Lai Chen, Man-Lei Chan, Tsi-Ang Chin, Roy Cheung

In the way that Lost in Translation remains my favorite film-- this movie captures and moves me somewhere deep below the surface. It doesn't always have to be said. It doesn't always have to be shown. We don't always have to rip each other's clothes off, cry, fight, or even talk to express the complications of our relationships. Sometimes we just keep secrets. We just look at one another. We just know.

Some call this film the greatest romance of 2001, and while I'm not entirely sure who that'd be up against-- I am still not afraid to agree.

The film takes you to a picture-perfect 1960s Hong Kong where two neighbors befriend one another once they realize their spouses are involved in an affair with one another. Leaning on each other for consolation, advice, and even supportive "rehearsals" for the various coping and confrontations involved with being the victims of infidelity, the two form a bond that blossoms into restricted, careful romance. Vowing not to be like their unfaithful spouses, the two waltz around each other carefully, creating one of the most beautiful and forbidden romances ever on screen.

The soundtrack, cinematography, and improvised script give the film a haunting and quiet feel that leaves you aching for resolution-- so much like real life that you forgot you're in a movie for long periods of time. While some might find these moments optimum for taking a bathroom break, certain movie-goers (myself included) found my eyes locked on the screen-- barely blinking, barely breathing!

A beautiful love story. Slowly unfolding.
Highly Recommended for the patient and romantic spirit.

Friday, November 5, 2010

#184 The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

***

Director: David Lean

Cast: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins, James Donald, Geoffery Horne, André Morell

A great war classic (based on the novel of the same name by Pierre Boulle) famous for showcasing one of the smaller-battles of war--the struggles of men whom were not necessarily front-line heroes, but still heroes nonetheless. British POWs during World War II are put to work to build a bridge over the River Kwai under the command of Japanese commander Saito. With his own life and honor on the line, Saito decides to put the British officers to work as well (which breaks one of the conditions of the Geneva Convention). Thus, a war of wills begins between Saito and British officer Nicholson, who for the morale of his men and sheer principle, refuses to work.

When the war of wills is won and Nicholson is put in charge of the bridge project, he begins organizing the construction of a bridge that will not merely stand as a makeshift temporary passage bridge, but rather a testament of the true skill and pride of the entire British army. Soon it becomes confused as to whether or not this bridge is for Britain or a monument to his own ego-- as he walks the line between leader and traitor, even found enlisting workers who are sick or injured.

When the British army commands that the bridge be destroyed and sends a small outfit to complete the demolition (including one American who had just escaped the work camp on the Kwai), Nicholson is eventually faced with the battle between his pride, his country, his duty, and his ego.

While at moments very suspenseful, I am surprised that this film is remembered as such an masterpiece epic. On the whole, not very much happens in this film-- truthfully, absolutely no subplots exist beyond the main bridge story. William Holden's character was unique to the screenplay and adds a sort of genuine raw masculinity to the picture. In fact, after the film I watched a short documentary on the making of the film, and the trials and tribulations of actually engineering the bridge and demolishing it were quite fascinating and made me appreciate the film much more.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

#183 Laura (1944)

**

Director: Otto Preminger, Rouben Mamoullan

Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson

Considered to be one of the greatest film noirs of all time, Laura is a murder-mystery with all of the check boxes ticked: love triangles, obsession, black-and-white beauty, extravagance, detectives in trench coats, cigarettes, and mysterious disappearances. The film is also considered to have one of the greatest musical scores of its time.

Unfortunately, Laura fell flat for me.

It wasn't a total flop though. I followed the story. I understood the characters. I found the idea that a woman could be so entrancing that a detective could fall in love with her corpse very creepy and spectacular. I found Waldo's ambiguous sexuality suspicious and plot-twisting.

But to me-- as much as I love plot, costume, music, scenery, the whole nine yards of film-- at the end of the day, it's really all about the acting. Well, not always. But in film noir, certainly! Laura herself, though beautiful, had really no personality or charm to convince me she was worth all this trouble. The detective, though peculiar in his investigation methods, never really gave me too much indication that he WAS falling in love with Laura. And Waldo, albeit the most entertaining part of the movie, was rather obvious from the get-go in his intentions and guilt.

The mis-en-scene of the clock + baseball game bring some clever symbolism to the story, but not too clever to save the sinking ship. Ultimately, I want more entertainment value if all I'm getting is a murder mystery. I give it credit for its importance to its time... and that's about as much as I can spare.

#182 The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

***

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello, Irving Metzman, Stephanie Farrow

Cecilia is a young woman living in Depression-era America, struggling to work a waitress job to support herself and her abusive, cheating, and jobless husband. She is alone, and the only thing that gets her by are her frequent, indulgent trips to the cinema where she fantasizes about a carefree and romantic life. After seeing one particular picture, The Purple Rose of Cairo, a number of times-- the romantic hero of the film jumps off the screen and steals her away, leaving the other characters confused and moviegoers wanting their money back.

Cecilia enjoys her romance with Tom (Daniels) until her the actor that PLAYS Tom (also Daniels) comes to trick Tom back onto the big screen. A love triangle is created, and Cecilia finds herself suddenly the princess instead of the poor housewife.

This film is a comedic departure from Allen's usual New Yorkers-having-marital-problems theme, and it explores the relationship that many of us (myself included) have with Hollywood pictures. The movie still contains the great one-liners that Allen is known for, and the fun level of make-believe provides a wonderful escape--quite literally the one the film is based around.

While at first, my inclination was to back away from the cheesiness of the romance and somewhat over-the-top acting... I soon realized that it was done purposefully and with comedic intention. The carefree trip that this movie takes us on is one in which we are able to nod at our own inclinations at living vicariously through the movies that we adore.

Delightful and unexpected!