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Ballets Russes (2005)
I walked into this film knowing very little about the history of ballet in the 20th century, and though those more knowledgeable than I may quibble with facts or omissions, I can't imagine anybody who loves dance, music, or human beings walking away from this film unsatisfied.
Much of the archival footage is thrilling to watch--much of it, to be honest, is also a little bland and hard to distinguish. Nonetheless, the film as a whole is very well edited and makes wonderful use of music. Its true glory rests, however, in the beautiful, opinionated, eccentric personalities that emerge, personalities so vibrant and colorful even at 80, 90 years of age that they make the living people around one (God forgive me for saying this) seem like tattered scraps of ashen cardboard. Dance must be some kind of fountain of youth. That so many of the people central to the history of these two companies should not only still be alive, but also be SO ALIVE, is nothing short of miraculous.
The film half-heartedly tries to end on a note of hope for the future of ballet, but let's not kid ourselves: this is an elegy for an art-form that will never again be quite what it once was. And actually, the film is all the more poignant for that. A beautiful and unforgettable film.
Probably the greatest film ever made
I know the snobs and naysayers will think me a fool for saying it, but I do think its true.
Everything important is contained somewhere within the images presented here. I can't say that about "Citizen Kane," about "Vertigo," about "The Godfather," or any of the other films that often get top billing in film history. One cannot say it about "Koyannisqatsi" either.
Some of the montage does come across as editorializing, that's true. A bit heavy-handed in spots, that's also true. But some of the connections that are drawn are also very subtle. You have to watch repeatedly, and very carefully, to catch it all.
Even the ugly people look beautiful. Everywhere one looks in this film, one sees the face of God.
Patient, compassionate, and regardless of what anybody says, truly profound. See it for yourself.
The Quiet American (2002)
Not a masterpiece, but important
This is a very respectable adaption of Graham Greene's terrific book. I read the book while actually in Saigon and I have to say that no film can even begin to match the experience of reading that haunting novel while having the sights, sounds, smells of Saigon all around to kick one's imaginative faculties into high gear. One gets to have the sensual experience as well as Greene's unblunted prophetic intelligence all in one go.
This film is not bad as a second choice, however. Caine's performance, while not exactly Oscar material (i.e., the calibre of great artistes such as Halle "Big Boob Bond Babe" Barry), is still highly accomplished as acting, if anybody still cares about that rather moribund craft. Brendan Fraser masterfully handles the transition from well-meaning oaf to duplicitious covert operative. While this film doesn't earn any especially high marks as cinema (I was rather disappointed by the lackluster cinematography of Chris Doyle, from whom one would expect a little bit more), it does have the merit of being very faithful to Greene's very important (now more than ever) text.
I fail to understand why Miramax is so terrified of putting this film into general release. They only put it into limited release (a two week run in LA and NY) because Caine put pressure on them so that he would have shot at an Oscar. It's amazing the degree to which media self-censorship has progressed. When Greene's book was released in the mid-fifties in the States (the mid-fifties! Remember, that supposedly oppressive time?) it actually became a best seller, and the book is far more critical of the US than this film is. I went to see a Wednesday night showing of the film in Times Square in a medium-sized auditorium that was practically filled. Many people WANT to see this film. Harvey Weinstein says the film is "unpatriotic." Gee, why didn't he think of that when he bought it, well before Sept. 11? What, did Donald Rumsfeld call and threaten to bust his kneecaps? Right now voices like that represented by this film need to be injected into the (currently nonexistent) public debate on US foreign policy and intervention. The only people who will hear THIS particular voice now, however, are those who live in NY or LA and have the presence of mind to run out and see it before it's unceremoniously yanked. Everyone else will have to wait until it comes out on video (too little, too late).
Will someone make Luc Besson go away please?
With this film French civilization reaches a new low.
A stupid, implausible-yet-predictable story is combined with second-rate
acting and made-for-TV production values to produce a film which is an
insult to the intelligence of the audience. This film makes the typical
Hollywood blockbuster seem like a masterpiece by Robert Bresson or
Fellini. At least when Hollywood makes garbage it upholds minimum
standards of watchability, technical proficiency, and human interest.
This film does none of the above, and seems to indicate that the French
don't want to be second to Americans in anything, not even in making
Fortunately I watched this film on a mini-screen on the airplane, so I
didn't have to pay for it and was able to change the channel whenever it
became too excruciating to watch.
Recommended only to those who are blithering idiots or who have a morbid
curiosity about the deplorable state of popular French cinema.
Not at all funny
I have nothing at all against goofball comedy. I watch Saturday Night
Live and I've seen films like Austin Powers and Spinal Tap and Strange
Brew numerous times. I wasn't expecting anything deep or intelligent, I
was simply expecting some laughs. This film didn't deliver. It wasn't
funny at all, and since that is all it aspired to, the movie was a
complete and utter failure. Probably the worst movie I've seen all
year. Don't waste your time and money.
This film is the purest distillation of the spirit of Greek tragedy ever put on celluloid. Yes, this is a review of Seppuku, a Japanese film released in 1962. Perhaps it took a non-Westerner, free of all of the cultural baggage and ridiculous associations, to see straight into the heart of the tragic mode and make it palpable and alive in the twentieth century. That is not all: the black and white cinematography is both formally assured and often outrageously daring; the soundtrack is one of the finest efforts of the greatest Japanese composer of the 20th century (or any century for that matter); the acting is demonically inspired; and the narrative is relentlessly gripping and involving. The film illuminates the relationship between the individual and society and between society and history. It is a tender meditation on familial love and the ties of friendship that transcend even death. This film will cut open your bowels, pull your soul out, and force you to stare it in the face. There may be other films that attain similar heights, but I cannot imagine any film, ever, being more perfect. Forget Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, the Godfather, etc. etc. all of those commodified canonical works that everybody raves about because everybody else is raving about them. Don't get me wrong, they're fine--but this stuff is 200 proof. See it today. Buy it yesterday.
Mayis sikintisi (1999)
A small masterpiece
This film will not go down in film history annals as another Citizen Kane or Seven Samurai, but I have no doubt that scattered connoisseurs will still be watching this film long after most big-time Hollywood watermelons meet their deserved oblivion. This is a quiet, unpretentious film that manages, with the sparsest materials, to wind its way into your heart and mind forever. A film director returns to his provincial home town to shoot a film with amateurs (his parents and friends) as the stars. This is therefore a "metafilm," or a film within a film. The director doesn't make a big deal out of this minor post-modern conceit, he doesn't wear his learning on his sleeve--he just uses it as a source of humor and self-deprecation. The pivot of the film is the director's relationship with his father, a stubborn yet gentle idealist who simply wants to keep his modest grove, which he has tended for over fifty years, from being cut down by the land authorities. The ties between parents and children, the forces of encroaching modernity, the paradoxical beauty and desperation of provincial life, and man's ties to nature are all themes the director handles with deft, light touches. The story is reminiscent of Chekhov (to whom the film is dedicated) and the Iranian masters, but at the same time seems very plain and artless. There are, however, deep springs of art behind that seeming artlessness, "unheard melodies" that only time and repeated viewing can fully drag into the consciousness of the average viewer: but they are there, and they soar.
He liu (1997)
An undiscovered masterpiece
There is a great deal about this movie which is going to bother audiences with short attention spans. The director Tsai Ming-Liang has a trademark style that is not to everyone's taste: long, static scenes; no background music; and dark, unsentimental realism. All of these elements are present here as they were in his much better-known film "Vive l'Amour."
As fine as that film was, this one is even finer, and much more harrowing. An aimless young man runs into an old fling who happens to be working on a film set. He goes one day to watch the filming and the director, who is trying to film a scene of a corpse floating down a river, is having trouble with the dummy they're using to play the corpse. The director talks the young man into playing the corpse. He hesitates, as the river is clearly polluted to ridiculously toxic levels, but the desperate director is persuasive enough to convince him that everything is going to be all right as long as he takes a shower afterward.
In the days and weeks that follow, the young man develops a tic that steadily develops into severe spasms and partial paralysis in his neck and shoulder. Director Tsai presumes the audience is intelligent enough to see the connection between the polluted river and the sudden neurological catastrophe, and never makes the cause of the illness explicit.
The young man's life steadily unravels. He goes to Western-style doctors; he goes to Traditional Chinese Medicine practictioners who violently massage him, poke him with needles, force him to consume revolting medicinal broths, and perform various rituals to scare off the evil spirits. Nothing works, many of the healers are quacks, and the hopelessness of his situation settles upon the viewer like a radioactive cloud.
The rest of his family is only slightly better off. His father is a closeted gay who relentlessly cruises and constantly gets rebuffed. His mother, for obvious reasons, is sexually frustrated. They barely know how to communicate with one another and the son's worsening condition merely exacerbates the fissures that already existed in the family. One top of that, their house is leaking water and the ceiling is on the verge of collapse.
There are horror films which frighten us with supernatural forces and crazed psychos, frighten us with things that hardly exist or which most people never encounter, and then there those movies which present the far more terrifying horror of real calamaties that befall real people every day: chronic illness, environmental catastrophe, familial dissolution, hopelessness, depression. Such films are tremendously unpopular for one very simple reason: they tell the truth, a truth which practically everybody would much rather pretend doesn't exist. Even when such disasters are presented to us in film and literature, there is often a tendency to try to soften the blow by sugar-coating it with some kind of hope, redemption, turn-around, religious awakening, catharsis, etc. This film does no such thing: it tells a believable story and follows it through to its logical "conclusion"--the realization that there are some things from which one will never recover, that there are some cases in life where there is no hope. There are very few people who can stomach such a bitter truth, but that doesn't make it any less true.
Only a very brave and talented artist can present a story like this without descending into sentimentality on the one hand, or schadenfreude on the other. Tsai forces us to observe carefully, and observation is the first step on the road to compassion and understanding. He sees the pathos of the situation but also its black irony and humor. What's more, in this little story about a handful of ruined lives, he has found a parable that applies to the larger world, one which forever seems to teeter on the brink of destruction, most of the time at its own hands.