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You and Me (1971)
3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
One of the great Russian films, 16 November 2013

Let's out with it: not counting a diploma film, shorts, and TV work, this woman made only three films before her death, and on the strength of them feels like a major filmmaker. If one looks at these three films they are absolutely opposed to any kind of Soviet optimism: Shepitko's characters are lonely, sick, afraid, cracking up. Especially in YOU AND I, crack, crack, crack. The main character is a medical researcher who's been falling to pieces for some time. He returns to Moscow from a job in Sweden two years after he departed without really telling anyone, to a wife and friend who don't know how to handle him. Soon he's off again, this time on a train on a whim, where he ends up in Siberian boonies, doctor for the local laborers. Meanwhile the wife - who's already waited two years for the guy - and his friend get closer... As with WINGS, Shepitko's greatest film, the story itself is no great shakes - it's the technique that makes it sublime. The director is a great one for details, telling moments, weighty bits of conversation. But more than that she has a simply gorgeous sense of rhythm. YOU AND I, had it been just functionally edited, would have been quite bad. Shepitko's transitions - from place to place, time to time (the movie's liberally laced with flashbacks) - feel absolutely right, the film is poetic and moving.

Lone Wolf (1978)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
In the Forest, 14 November 2013

Nearly wordless film based on one of Turgenev's Hunter's Sketches. So: mid-19th century. The hunter appears in the beginning of the film, lost in the woods during a downpour. He meets the "Lone Wolf" of the title, a large bearded silent fellow who maintains the forest for its aristocrat owner (meaning he keeps the starving serfs, who are in terror of him, from poaching or cutting trees). The Lone Wolf lives in a dilapidated forest hut with his little girl and baby - the wife's run off - and attempts to keep everyone alive on what meager items he can catch (fish in the pond with his bare hands, for instance) or barter for. The irony is that though he hunts the serfs for his master, he is in the same boat as they are. The baby's constantly crying, the child's silent and sorrowful, the serfs becoming bolder from starvation... If all this sounds downbeat, it is. There is also no dialogue at all between the first ten minutes or so, when the hunter (Turgenev's stand-in) meets the Wolf and departs, never to appear in the film again, and the last ten minutes or so, when the Wolf's master and all of his giggling foolish pals ride into the forest for a picnic "peasant style." They mostly gab in French, but enough Russian's spoken to convey that the Lone Wolf will not for long have a forest to guard.

Whether one likes this film or not depends a lot on one's tolerance for this kind of filmmaking ("minimalist," numerous scenes of the man's daily business, a lot of scenes with birds). It is not, I think, a lost classic, but it is one of the many interesting alternatives to the mainstream that appeared in the Soviet Union in the '60s and '70s.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Much more interesting upon reflection, 23 May 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

At the end of this one, the debut of John Garfield, directed by the great, underrated Michael Curtiz, I felt real irritation and loathing. It's a frustrating, maddening movie. A music teacher (Claude Rains) is the father of four spoiled little princesses who all play musical instruments, but who read movie gossip magazines and would rather play jazz music during every Beethoven session. One of the girls is early on in the picture married to a bumbling middle-aged fellow who she treats with gentle condescension, but he was worth marrying because he's wealthy. The two other sisters are the best of friends and make a vow that neither of them will ever marry, so that they can be together always. Of these two the elder has a boyfriend, but doesn't think terribly much of him. The youngest sister (Priscilla Lane) is the only blonde of the bunch and is the female star of the film. There's a final sister who remains a curious nonentity throughout and never has any romantic interests, so for all practical purposes there are only three sisters. So: Into their lives steps a handsome young dandy who is a composer of "modern" music and professes his disdain of Beethoven to Father. Even though Father disagrees with the young fellow's views, he's a generous old chap and allows him to board in the big house so that he can finish his prize entry composition on the grand piano. The girls are all quite taken with the young man: Isn't he dreamy? The composer has a pal, a down-on-his-luck working-class guy, John Garfield, who's far more talented than the composer but has had a lifetime of bad breaks and is very much rough around the edges. He enjoys nothing more than recounting his bad breaks and bemoaning the unlucky star he was born beneath. The composer hires him to "help" with the composition, but one gets the impression that Garfield writes the better part of it. Garfield falls for the youngest sister, because, though she's a spoiled little modern girl she's the only one who shows him much kindness. But the composer asks her to marry him and she, all in a swoon, immediately says yes. However, on the eve of the wedding the girl realizes that her best-friend-sister has secretly "loved" the composer all the while and, in a gesture of self-sacrificing nobility, leaves him at the alter and marries Garfield, who she doesn't love. However - and this is the truly hilarious bit - it turns out that the best-friend-sister realizes all of a sudden that the old boyfriend who she never thought terribly much of is the guy she "really" loves, and, the composer forgotten, marries him. The composer, dejected, moves far away. Fortunately Garfield, married to a girl he knows doesn't love him, and financially exhausted, kills himself in a car on an icy road. The composer comes back to town, meets the youngest sister, now happily single, and they're all smiles, smiles.

The girls are all no doubt supposed to be "charming," as is the composer. But they mostly strike one as a rather repugnant, narcissistic lot. The only real sympathetic character in the film is Garfield's character, who has endless bad luck and has to die so that the two vain little bunnies can rekindle their romance before the end credits. But after I turned the movie off, it occurred to me that this is what the attentive viewer is SUPPOSED to think. For the popcorn-chomping non-thinkers in the audience - the target audience - it is a nice little movie about four "charming" sisters and their romantic lives, all shot in the pleasant, anonymous style that would years later become the standard for TV sitcoms. But there are enough hints of what socially-conscious director Curtiz really felt about the scenario, enough seemingly throw-away lines of dialogue; there's enough wretchedness and anger in John Garfield's character (who feels like he's from a different movie) to hint at the film's deeper interests. The sisters and the composer are monsters, the kind of dim-witted, unfeeling people with money and "charm" that keep a guy from Garfield's class in his place, no matter how much talent he may have, by either ignoring him (the sisters) or exploiting him for their own ends (the composer, off to glorious career on Garfield's back). The movie's brilliance is in its quietly subversive intentions.

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Malick's Mirror, 14 April 2013

Andrei Tarkovsky's SOLARIS was supposed to be the "Russian 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY." With THE TREE OF LIFE Terrence Malick attempts an American version of Tarkovsky's MIRROR, complete with main character in sterile present reflecting on his tough-idyllic childhood, classical music, voice-over narration, fractured narrative, total indifference to conventional storytelling, excessive water imagery, and even a levitating mother. The difference is that Tarkovsky attempts a very tricky balancing act and nails it, while one feels Malick straining for every effect: add more poetry to that cake, there's not enough poetry! I've had problems with all of Malick's films since his return to filmmaking after post-DAYS OF HEAVEN silence; all of them have brilliant moments but none seems quite finished. Supposedly THE THIN RED LINE's original cut was five hours, and it shows: the film, terrific as it can be, feels like large chunks were sawed out of it and replaced by redneck poetry voice-over ("What is this thing, War?" and the like). Same goes for THE NEW WORLD, also with moon-struck whispered dialog that edges dangerously close to 15 year-old girl poetry, and THE TREE OF LIFE, which is worst of all in its silly murmured philosophizing, its shapelessness, its awful solemnity, and its obsession with being "poetic" at all times to the extent that it begins to make one ill: all these poetic panning shots and sweeping classical music come to nauseate. But even if I don't find them entirely successful THE THIN RED LINE and THE NEW WORLD have grown on me with further viewings; I've seen TREE OF LIFE twice now and it has not. I suspect that Malick's films are just going to get more overreaching and bombastic - sometimes it's a good thing when the producer takes the film out of the director's hands and insists on giving it shape - which is a shame, because he really is the closest thing to a Great American Filmmaker currently living, and the TREE OF LIFE, for all its many misjudgments (the National Geographic special a third of the way through is wonderful, but belongs in another movie; Sean Penn's character, who could have given the film emotional resonance, is left to wander around aimlessly looking wounded throughout the picture) should at least get some credit for its lunatic ambition. Still, if this is what passes for great art these days...

The Door (2012/I)
29 out of 31 people found the following review useful:
A fine film from a great European director, 17 February 2013

Szabo Istvan is not a contemplative filmmaker - which I don't really mean as an insult. A lot of "contemplative" filmmakers, at their worst, seem constipated more than anything (see some of the films of Szabo's younger countryman, Tarr Bela), whereas Szabo can achieve a forward propulsion that can at times be dazzling, as in the films with scenery-chewing actor Klaus Maria Brandeur that were the height of his international fame, or in "Being Julia." The director has a peculiar way of editing that has existed from his early Hungarian features ("Father," "25 Fireman's Street"); scenes often end abruptly, as though he had chopped the end off them, and then run to the next scene. This gives Szabos' films an odd rhythm that is alluring in his best work, but maddening and even incoherent in his less successful efforts.

"The Door" is not a peak; it is hardly a failure either. It shows the Szabo style at its best and worst. The dialogue is flung out by the actors, and can have the kind of hard brilliance that's found in the old screwball comedies (Helen Mirren, in what may be the best performance of her career as an astonishingly cantankerous old cleaning woman, has some especially hilarious insults and bitter, sour-faced advice-dispensing here), but much of it is also simply hard to catch. The movie keeps a fine, sprinting pace most of the way through. It only starts to crumble in the final quarter, at which point I admit I wasn't entirely sure what was going on. And here we have the failure of Szabo's films uncontemplative style. Watching his less successful films it is as if his producer has told him that he absolutely must clock in at under a certain time. "The Door" feels rushed; it hurries to the end, and suffers for it. One feels the same in other films directed by Szabo: "Taking Sides," which is gripping and interesting but finally frustrating, and the ambitious "Sunshine," which attempts to stuff Hungarian history from the late 19th century to the post-war era in under three hours.

Still, "The Door" is almost a great film from one of the last living European film directors of the old school. All of Szabo's work is worth seeking out. It's a shame that the few remaining filmmakers in the grand European style are marginalized - even when they make fine English-language movies with Oscar winners (see also Tavernier's "In the Electric Mist"), it's lucky if these see the light of day in most countries, while young "provocateurs" with nothing to say are lauded in the major festivals. And there's something at my local cinema titled "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters"...

The Dancer (1951)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Naruse, 1951, 16 February 2013

Not one of the director's best films, but of his films of this era this is the one that most implicitly cites the war as the major source of its characters' miseries. The social class is higher than is common for Naruse - not only are the characters comfortably middle-class (no one seems to be suffering economically in this film, except a former ballet teacher turned bus driver), but there isn't even any talk of lost relatives. The war caused the main character to give up dancing, and ruined her talented daughter's chance to study abroad and to make a real career of ballet. There is also the mention of how the war "destroyed the fabric of Japanese society," as well as the highlighting of the confused notions of "freedom" - the adoption of American ideas that to this day sit uneasily in Japan - in the post-war world.

Unusually, much of the film centers around the world of ballet, and even contains a number of ballet sequences. I went into it with the mistaken idea that it was based on Kawabata Yasunari's famous story "The Dancing Girl of Izu," but apparently the source is a more modern Kawabata story I haven't read. It's a handsome, if not tremendously distinguished film, but just about anything directed by Naruse is worth seeing.

11 out of 21 people found the following review useful:
Almost Worthless, 7 November 2012

"My hatred of Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it." - Oshima Nagisa

Completely bogus "documentary" about the first hundred years of Japanese film - a topic one couldn't possibly hope to cram into an hour movie, but that any number of living directors (in 1995) would have done far more justice to than Mr. Oshima. Despite claiming that the first two of Japanese cinema's "Golden Ages" occurred prior to the 1960s, this section of Japanese film history gets an almost hilariously skimmed treatment. As another reviewer here mentions, almost all major film directors - and I'm of the opinion that EVERY major Japanese film director began their careers well before Oshima and Co. - of the classic Japanese film are mentioned once, briefly, or not at all. But who at BFI (this was produced for their "Century of Cinema" series) got the bright idea to let the irreverent Oshima do this? The directors of the Japanese "New Wave" were, with few exceptions, hostile towards or dismissive of all that had come before in their national cinema. Oshima, though claiming to detest the "New Wave" tag in his largely first-person narration here, certainly feels that the era that he was a major player in, the era that opened the floodgates to the so-called extreme films that make up the bulk of the Japanese export market today, was the most important in the nation's cinematic history. And indeed, if one is looking for an overview of Oshima Nagisa films, one could do worse than looking here, as clips of his own films outnumber those of Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Kinoshita, and Naruse combined. The the last of these doesn't even merit a clip or a mention in the whole film.

Oshima was one of those angry young filmmakers who cropped up like mushrooms worldwide in the 1960s - and in the mess of post-war Japan he had a right to be angry. However, his films, which highlighted social ills that were all too real, were for the most part angry and little else. Like many similar filmmakers of his generation all he could offer is a rather poorly thought-out extreme Marxism. Oshima's films contained a lot of violence and sex on the one hand and a great deal of tedious speechifying and little red flags on the other. This is not my sort of thing.

Like J. L. Godard in his pompous, ludicrous HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA, we have a director who seems to have no real enthusiasm for his subject, but who does have a great deal of self-adoration and a wildly overinflated view of his place in film history. It's too bad that there remains, as far as I know, a good documentary overview of Japanese film. If you want a solid history of the subject stick to the books. Richie and Anderson's pioneering Japanese FILM: ART AND INDUSTRY is a good place to start.

10 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
Alienation in Italy, 13 October 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Another of the many Italian movies about alienation in the post-war years, very well made, beautifully shot, often interesting - but not up there with L'AVVENTURA or LA DOLCE VITA. The problem is the main character, one of the horde of young, nouveau-American European youth of the 1960s, ignorant of the war or much else besides, who only enjoys dancing to moronic music, polishing her nails, and reading comic books. Of course, she wants to be an actress. She goes through as many hairstyles as boyfriends in the course of the film, and though among them there are some recognizable faces (Franco Nero is the shy young auto mechanic here; the following year he would be cold-blooded killer DJANGO), the hairstyles tend to be more memorable than the men.

The problem with making a movie about a character as vapid as this young woman is that her story isn't compelling. Even though we find out later that she's really just a poor girl from the country from a hard-luck farm family, even though we cringe at the number of times she's exploited through the course of the film - there is one particularly cruel scene in which a young man, after sleeping with her, has her telephone the girl he really likes, just in case her mother answers - the life and death of a bubblegum-popping wannabe actress is not the stuff of great tragedy. She takes a leap just when self-awareness finally dawns: no one cares for her (except Nero's character, who she doesn't even notice), she's the butt of jokes, she really is just a beautiful idiot with no future once the looks fade. Of course, the real theme of the movie might be that thinking too much is a bad thing: in one telling sequence a jaded writer says as much to her, that her brainless, live-for-the-moment existence might be some kind of unconscious wisdom. But the life of the girl, who I suspect is a kind of symbol of the director's horror of modern Italy, grows a little tiresome before the end of the film.

25 out of 55 people found the following review useful:
The joke is on... you!, 7 June 2010

A work of breathtaking vapidity and exemplary foolishness, this is the PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE of the "Art Cinema," sans the unintentional humor. But HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA is terribly silly and, like all the directors' films not nearly as intelligent as it assumes itself to be (remember that we're speaking of a man who once took Maoism seriously - for years!). So, let's see... a series of random images - old still photos, grainy video of classic films - coupled with mumbled voice-over, grating sound effects, and so many flashing title cards that prove that Godard can spell. Those who would seek the meaning and profundity here are on a fool's errand. Anyone who hopes to learn a single thing about the history of cinema will find no hope in this four and a half hours of remorseless buffoonery.

Tragically, in this life people very often simply refuse to see what's in front of them. Anyone with any common sense and a genuine love for the medium can see that this series is shoddy, narcissistic, incoherent, and more than a little insane, within the first ten minutes of the first episode. In the span of HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA one may find: images of Nazi death camps edited together with photographs of Charlie Chaplin and Hitler cut with not a little bit of hardcore pornography cut with (but of course!) some stray references to the war in Vietnam, Francis Bacon and Arthur Rimbaud. One must "read meaning" into this. Take your pick.

The series shines from the get-go: in Episode One we find video of a seemingly senile Godard rooting through his library, mumbling to himself ("Le cinema" mumble mumble, "Irving Thalberg" mumble mumble), along with grimy VHS footage of a few classic movies, and the amplified noise of his ancient word processor clicking, clicking, clicking for the better part of the first half hour. That's right, an annoying clicking sound and a mumbling balding old guy for a long, long time.

All this is of course "genius," which is above coherence.

Godard has for decades made movies that shine with his contempt for his audience as well as his magnificent opinion of himself. I admit that I do not hold the "New Wave" in very high esteem, and find most of Godard's films, even the early ones, pompous, intellectually shallow, and dull. I think a genuine history of cinema would reduce JLG to little more than a footnote. Yet he really has reached a stage where he can do whatever he wants and hear the cries of bravo oh great one! in the background. I suspect his fans prevented him from ever becoming a great filmmaker. Certainly there are flashes of talent in many of his early works, and CONTEMPT - the only one of his films where a producer reined him in - is a great picture. At this stage in his life he just comes off as bitter and weird. Better off skipping this set and watching one of the numerous truly fine movies that have the misfortune of being included in Jean-Luc Godard's pornographic Hitlerian navel-gazing extravaganza HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA.

8 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
More Brilliance From a Master, 2 November 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Pusan Film Festival Reviews 10: The Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo)

Leave it to Hong Sang-soo to blow everyone else out of the water. After a frustrating beginning to my last day at the fest, I capped the whole thing off with a masterpiece. It's a long haul for me to get to Busan from where I live, and the first movie, the awful "Hamaca Paraguaya" - which I'd raced across town to see - was easily the worst movie I saw in all four days.

Why isn't Hong Sang-soo more popular in Korea? The house was packed, the film got a lot of laughs, and I didn't see anyone walk out, but I thought I sensed a few awkward silences. Hong hits some painful bullseyes. More than most countries, Korea is a huge movie-date place, and why would a fellow take his sweetheart to a movie that paints such a wince-inducing picture of the local men? The filmmaker punches holes in the male ego, and though his little stabs apply to all men across the board, they're also very specifically aimed at Korean men. If only every country had such a razor-sharp dissector of the inadequacies of the male half - I shudder to think. His genius is that his male failures are usually artists of some kind (in the new one, for the third time in a row, a film director - a self-depreciating touch) whereas, say, Bruno Dumont's male losers are inbred country thug types who don't surprise much when they choose to act uncivil. Hong completely demolishes the notion of the sensitive, intelligent, elevated artist type. In the end, like everyone else, they're out to get laid.

Hong's women rarely emerge unscathed, either, but they're usually smarter and more grounded than the men. Their fatal flaw is their passivity. Hong gets criticism for this by feminists, but in Korea the kind of scenarios he presents on film - brutish fella, weak-willed gal - is a common occurrence. The women in the director's films know the men they shack up with are clowns, but for some reason - is it that they don't expect anything more? or that they're attached to the idea of the sensitive, intelligent, elevated artist type so strongly that they succumb to it despite being confronted with the brutal truth? - they almost always end up folding. "Beach" is Hong's finest illustration of the second possibility - that the idea holds power, though the truth inevitably disappoints. The woman of the title, Moon-sook, mentions a few times in the film how much she admires Joong-rae as a film director, with the unspoken indicator that he doesn't measure up as a man. Unlike most of Hong's women, though, Moon-sook has the strength to disentangle herself from a relationship that's bound to go nowhere (Hong's women generally prefer to wallow in their martyr complex).

Joong-rae, the film director, is stunned when during a late-night soju session Moon-suk says she "seriously dated" two or three men while living for a few years in Germany. He continues to be fixated on this idea throughout the film, bursting out in front of Moon-sook once or twice, "I can't believe you slept with foreigners!" Hong's men are stuck in an adolescent state, and though they may be able to pull a fair approximation of adult behavior while sober, soju brings it all crashing down.

"Woman on the Beach" has been called Hong's most "accessible" film, and that's probably true. Though it contains a couple of his priceless soju-drunk scenes, it's his first without at least one painfully awkward sexual encounter. A concession to mainstream tastes? Or did Hong (unlike Tsai Ming-liang and Bruno Dumont this year) feel that it had just been overdone, that he simply had nothing to add to his gallery of such scenes? The lead actress, Go Hyeon-geong, supposedly voiced some trepidation when signing for the film at the thought of taking her clothes off - it's almost a requirement in a Hong film. Did he simply decide to respect her wishes? Hong's painful bedroom scenes are always memorable, but this film loses nothing from their exclusion. More accessible it may be, but it's not a sell-out. The invention, the accumulation of brilliant little details, and the cutting portraits of people in their folly is still there - and I haven't even mentioned the second woman yet, or I'd go on all day - and Hong Sang-soo is still one of the sharpest, and very best, filmmakers working today.

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