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)


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.

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.