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(Why 13? because it's a cool number)
1. La Cité des enfants perdus [City of Lost Children] (1995)
Just the best movie ever. Well, at least to me, because it was the first artsy movie I ever saw that was also funny, cute & entertaining. It has astounding visuals for the time and even to this day. This movie basically invented the genre "steampunk".
2. Arizona Dream (1993)
Emir Kusturica's best, and another "artsy" film which is a real fun treat. Several scenes had me laughing so hard the usher thought I was choking on my Twizzlers. But where else are you ever going to see Faye Dunnaway, Johnny Depp, Jerry Lewis(!), Lili Taylor, Vincent Gallo and supermodel Paulina Porizkova at the same time? If they had thrown in David Bowie, I would've ranked it #1
3. Dolls (2002)
The most poetically beautiful film ever to come out of Japan (apologies to Kurosawa who also rocks).
4. Denti [Teeth] (2000)
This movie, about a guy with messed up teeth, has stunning & vibrant visuals combined with awesome rock music (Deep Purple, no less), a bevy of beautiful babes, and of course the ugliest teeth in the world.
5. Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes [Aguirre, the Wrath of God] (1972)
Not to be confused with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan... also a great flick
6. Shiki-jitsu [Ritual] (2000)
Wait, maybe THIS is the most beautiful film ever to come out of Japan (apologies again, Kurosawa!)
7. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
The most ambitious & complex film I've ever seen. If you get it, it's like solving Rubik's cube (and probably just as infuriating as Rubik's cube if you don't get it)
8. Rashômon (1950)
9. Orphée (1950)
Not only is this an artistic masterpiece from the surrealist master Jean Cocteau, it has the sexiest "Grim Reaper" ever put on film. Homina homina, kill me baby, kill me
10. Lisbon Story (1994)
No matter how much the universe may suck, this film will make you feel good to be alive.
11. Exorcist III (1990)
Seriously. Don't be fooled by titles. Shut up and see it already.
12. Rope (1948)
Two rooms, 6 camera shots. Hitchcock's best. Roger Ebert hated it which should indicate what an awesome film it is.
13. Weckmeister Harmonies (2000)
The first 10 minutes is the most poetic thing I've ever seen on film.
My BOTTOM 13 List
This has nothing to do with the films' content. But call me crazy; I don't like films where actual animals (or people) were killed on camera. That blurs the line between cinematic entertainment and gladiatorial games.
In the United States and most civilized countries, laws have gone into effect to prohibit deliberate animal cruelty and killing. But early films, as well as films in unregulated countries, stand as a sad reminder that directors can be pretty sick bast*ds.
1. Andrey Rublyov (1969)
2. Oldboy (2003)
3. Une hirondelle a fait le printemps (2001)
4. Apocalypse Now (1979)
5. Manderlay (2005)
6. Tampopo (1985)
7. Anything by that dweeb Ki-duk Kim**
8. Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)
9. Caché (2005)
10. Godfather (1972)
11. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
12. Men Behind the Sun (1988)
13. all the old (pre-1970) westerns where horses are tripped + Brokeback Mountain (2006) which was filmed just across the border in Canada so the director could skirt the animal cruelty laws. Boo.
** edit: According to someone who attended a Ki-duk Kim Q&A screening recently, Kim issued a heartfelt apology and swore that he'd wouldn't kill animals for the sake of a movie ever again. Fair enough. I'll be happy to check out some of his new films.
(movies that suck, but I love em anyway)
1. Phantasm (1979)
2. Eddie & the Cruisers II - Eddie Lives (1989)
3. The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975)
4. Nosferatu (1922) - the version with the soundtrack by goth metal band Type-O-Negative
5. any movie that got booed off the stage at the Cannes Film Festival
6. any movie that has a hot air balloon in it
7. any movie where someone says, "I'll see you in HELL!"
8. any movie where Christopher Walken dances
9. Flash Gordon (1980)
10. Barbarella (1968)
11. Tank Girl (1995)
12. Dracula Dead & Loving It (1995)
13. any movie with the number 13 in the title
Córki dancingu (2015)
*sings* "Under da sea! Under da sea...!" *chokes on blood and human flesh*
If you thought Disney's "The Little Mermaid" was the definitive telling of Hans Christian Andersen, then you might wanna sit down and brush up on your CPR. "The Lure" (original title: "Córki dancingu" or "Daughters of Dance Clubs") is a wild interpretation of the classic fable which can only be described as a dark comedy horror romcom musical fantasy crime drama art flick.
Fabulously set in the 1980s, with excellent music that echoes this era, we get an unforgettable story of 2 mermaid sisters who slither out of the Wisla River to have a little fun and eat some humans before continuing to America. Yes, the story draws from the original Greek myths of mermaids being monsters of the deep who use their sexuality and hypnotizing voices to lure sailors to their horrible deaths. But it also focuses on the Andersenian theme of love, betrayal and transformation. It's the transformation part that becomes fascinating, powerful and ultimately profound as we realize that the mermaid metaphor applies not only to the hazards of love, but very pointedly it's a metaphor for a young girl's transformation into womanhood. This occurs in physical, emotional and social illustrations that are so perfectly done that, even if you're a male like me, you suddenly feel the growing pains of womanhood on a visceral level. The embarrassment, the objectification, and ultimately either the power or the defeat that comes with sexual maturity.
Even if you don't immediately key in on that central theme, there are some great dance numbers and some bloody carnage scenes to keep you interested.
This is a musical. Supposedly it's Poland's first musical, and that meant it had no template to follow. I have to say, I hope all musicals are like this from now on. There's a wonderful lack of cinematic self-awareness here. By that I mean the film doesn't pigeonhole itself into a particular type of storytelling, but instead it hops boldly and outrageously between fantasy, realism, humor and drama. For example, one scene may be realistic and gritty like a thriller but then abruptly we jump to a grand, colorful MGM-type musical production with hundreds of singing & dancing extras. Then we're back to a more intimate style of storytelling with tremendous sentimentality and heart. It should be noted that this is the debut feature film of director Agnieszka Smoczynska, and already she shows an absolute mastery of cinema.
The acting is fantastic with the 2 sisters of course stealing the show. One sister "Silver" (Marta Mazurek) is the innocent romantic who chooses to pursue love while the darker sister is "Golden" (Michalina Olszanska) who is... quite literally... a maneater. Both play their extreme differences perfectly while keeping a tight sibling connection which makes us realize that they are basically the same. Loved the way they communicate in a secret musical dolphin language with each other, and conversely when they argue they are shown as wild animals communicating in growls and bared fangs.
"The Lure" is an excellent film that can be enjoyed on so many levels. Like I said: dark comedy, horror, romcom, musical, fantasy, crime drama, art flick. Pick one and run with it. Er... swim with it.
You are entering The Real Zone
Have you seen the 1948 Italian classic "Bicycle Thieves"? Yeah think that, pumped up on crack. This is "Italian neorealism" but set in Belgium a half century later.
The character "Rosetta" is a 16-year-old girl who lives in a camper with her nearly catatonic, alcoholic mother and is, as the filmmakers say, "a thin aluminum wall away from living on the streets". The fact that Rosetta is barely an adolescent who is thrust into the role of provider and responsible adult is a clever twist that further turns this social statement upside down. It becomes not just a tale of survival but terrifyingly a coming-of-age flick. Rosetta is socially and emotionally stunted, unfinished and handicapped. It's fascinating to see Rosetta (excellently played by Émilie Dequenne who won Best Actress at Cannes) attempting to grasp concepts of morality and ethics even though she has clearly had no guidance. There is a certain wild animal quality to her which you will immediately feel, and though she is tough and headstrong, she is still just a teenager who doesn't know how to dance, doesn't know what a "friend" is, and whose only reality consists of obsessively trying to find a legitimate job because she feels that's the coveted symbol of having a normal life.
In that respect, this film provides something we can all apply to our lives whether we're 16-year-old homeless kids or rising corporate execs. It's the idea that an obsessive pursuit of some type of social status, or social achievement, or even a relationship, is what we cling to as proof that we have a "normal life".
In a memorable scene our protagonist Rosetta talks herself to sleep by whispering, "Your name is Rosetta. My name is Rosetta. You found a job. I found a job. You've got a friend. I've got a friend. You have a normal life. I have a normal life. You won't fall into the abyss. I won't fall into the abyss. Good night. Good night."
The camera remains very tight, almost claustrophobically so, on Rosetta throughout the entire film which exaggerates the microscopic world she lives in. She repeats routines and engages in trivial labors which are shown to us in almost tedious repetition, but the effect is powerful in conveying a sense of quiet, lonely desperation.
Throughout the history of cinema, there have been many films that document "how the other half lives" but most of them approach the subject as if we are spectators, almost in a patronizing or voyeuristic way that leaves us thinking after the credits roll "phew I'm glad that's not me" but here in "Rosetta" we get a sense that the bizarre life of this 16 year old outcast might very well be the story of the human race.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
The first realistic scifi (despite the ray guns and bipedal aliens)
If you're a follower of the Criterion Collection you might be baffled as to why they would include a seemingly schlocky scifi flick like this in their repertoire. The answer is that this is a landmark in scifi cinema which probably heralded, if not directly influenced, the new direction of science-based scifi in the late 60s-70s such as "2001: A Space Odyssey." Make no mistake, watched back to back with "2001", "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" looks like a Bazooka Joe comic strip. But what's fascinating is that for possibly the first time in the history of scifi, the story isn't afraid to get real--that is, to spend 20 mins investigating how to breathe on an extraterrestrial world, or how to find water, or how to light a fire--rather than letting the audience assume that everything just works as usual.
Made in 1964, 5 years before we landed on the moon, and nearly a quarter century before our probes would give us appreciable images and data about the Martian terrain, "RC on Mars" relied heavily on the then-accepted scientific assumptions made by amateur astronomer Percival Lowell. Yes, I have an old 60s set of Encyclopedia Britannica which states that there are canals and green objects on the surface of Mars that could be vegetation or evidence of habitation. This is what the screenwriters used as a starting point.
What follows is by today's scientific standards hilarious, but much like Edgar Allen Poe's "A Voyage to the Moon" in which he lucidly and meticulously describes riding a hot air balloon into space, science isn't the point so much as it's the vehicle for a scientific approach. Today's (serious) scifi has cranked out some great, mostly-realistic films about survival such as "The Martian" or "Gravity", and "RC on Mars" is certainly right in line with that spirit even though it came half a century earlier. The writers' creative approach to practical human necessities like oxygen, water, food and--perhaps for the 1st time ever acknowledged in film--the madness of loneliness is a real treat to watch, even if you find it hard to accept the solutions with today's knowledge.
The last half takes us into pure fantasy territory with the appearance of aliens and the idea that there is possibly a superior race of intergalactic slave owners exploiting inferior species for their profits. But even this can be taken as a poignant and realistic metaphor that applies today right here on earth. As a side note, the aliens' spacecraft are TERRIFYING, the way they dart about unnaturally in jerky motions like coked up dragonflies. This is something I've never seen in any scifi flick since, and I think future filmmakers should really revisit this frightening approach.
Ultimately I agree with Criterion that this is a film that deserves the royal treatment, or at the very least it deserves to be recognized as the first of its kind: the grandfather of all survival-in-space flicks.
Downhill Racer (1969)
The greatest film you never had any interest in watching
Even before it was made, this concept was a hard sell: a movie about a sport where people crouch down and go in 1 direction, downhill. Seriously, you might be more interested in a film about shepherding buffaloes ("Buffalo Boy" which I actually recommend). But wait... "Downhill Racer" is a surprisingly deep, dramatic and poignant experience that shouldn't be missed by any cinephile.
Plot summary: a guy crouches down and goes in 1 direction, downhill.
Now put that in your pocket and forget about it. The real juice of the story is, as actor & producer Robert Redford said, about crashing the common platitude that we're all told "It isn't about winning or losing; it's how you play the game."
Redford plays a character named "Chapellet" who is a very skilled, dashingly handsome, all-American athlete who happens to be a totally uneducated, self-absorbed egotist. But he becomes the darling of the slopes and the media favourite because he wins and looks good. This film was remarkably prescient back in 1969, long before the respected field of athletics was crashed by sensational bad boys like the long haired Andre Agassi who usurped Wimbledon in the 90s, or even the foul-mouthed Jimmy Conners who preceded him (foul mouthed by 80s standards which is kindergarten stuff today). My point is that beginning around 1970 there's been a fascinating split between the respectable Wheaties-box athletic archetype vs the punk who happens to be better. And if you focus on this theme, you'll see that it applies to areas far outside the ski slopes. How many of us have worked our bodies & minds to the bone for that big promotion, only to be passed over for the flashy young whippersnapper who--counfound it--is just BETTER.
Augmented with fantastic camera realism which gives a lot of scenes a documentary or reality show vibe, "Downhill Racer" gets under your skin from the opening scene where a skier gets his legs shattered, then continues to hold our attention as we eavesdrop on conversations between the ski team and the coach (brilliantly played by Gene Hackman) as well as Redford himself whose character is sort of dumb lunk who can't communicate in complete sentences and who manages to express his romantic feelings to a graceful European socialite by honking a car horn. The film is full of great moments like that, driving the point home that, no it isn't about how you play the game, it's whether you win or lose.
I'm about to slam the snot out of this movie, but also praise it
Let's start with the bad because that's the fun part. This movie will make you feel filthy. You know like when you have a mild stroke and can't change the channel and the tv is stuck on Fox News all night? Yeah that.
More on that later, let's continue bashing. There are a couple gaping holes which might bother you to the point of hurling popcorn at the screen (if your stroke hasn't paralyzed your pitching arm), such as how did that 250 lb body conveniently disappear? Or why didn't anyone notice all the blood in a public bathroom (must be a rough neighborhood). These holes seem a bit incongruous with the slow, methodical approach to the film which addresses each infinitesimal detail such as moving a flower pot to get a better camera angle. But a 250 lb body we don't care about. Ok.
Let's switch gears abruptly.
Jeremy Sisto is effing INCREDIBLE. All the acting, for that matter, is excellent from Jeremy all the way down to the 2 kids whose fight scene was so convincing I had to check if they were real life brother & sister (they are). The premise is that this film is a voyeuristic exposé of a normal American family, and major kudos to each & every actor for conveying this flawlessly. Of course that means it's not histrionic, not dramatic, there are no Oscar worthy monologues and tear jerking shows of emotion that make us clutch our pillow and reach for the kleenex. This is reality. Conversations are choppy, sometimes a bit awkward, emotions are muted, and interactions are, in a word: boring. And this is probably what your life is like.
"Hangman" is a found-footage slasher flick which on the surface seems like nothing new, but actually it has the most satsifying found-footage premise I've ever seen. The premise is this: The serial killer is an amateur filmmaker who meticulously sets up cameras, stages the action, films the killings, and most importantly EDITS everything together for us to see. So, unlike all the other found-footage flicks where either (a) it is left deliberately un-edited and raw, or (b) some mysterious person cobbles it all together and releases it as a movie, this film has an explanation for every shot. And since our editor is the serial killer, that gives the film a free pass to be cryptic, oddly-paced and at times inexplicable. (Inexplicable enough to hide a 250 lb body, you be the judge)
If you're an amateur filmmaker yourself, or a professional filmmaker for that matter, this angle will captivate you instantly and lead you to a deeper appreciation. Even if, like me, you're just a film buff who enjoys unusual ways of breaking that 4th wall, this is one of the best.
But now let's switch gears back to Reverse. Dear lord this movie will make you feel filthy. I don't mean that in a sexually perverse way (there are some disturbing sexual implications, but interestingly, our serial killer filmmaker chooses not to show anything explicit). I mean this film just disturbs you to the core. I suppose that's the intent of all horror films, but wow man. Even the most rabid splatter fan will say 'dude.'
It's the film's realistic voyeuristic approach, combined with an utterly detestable 'protagonist' (the serial killer), combined with the artistic approach of subtly declaring that the killer CONTROLS EVERYTHING YOU SEE that makes this such a nasty experience.
And on that note, even though I sound like I'm slamming the snot out of this flick, it is a complete artistic success. The feel bad movie of the decade. I'm reminded of the mid-1900s cinematic master Georges Franju (known for "Eyes Without a Face") who in 1949 filmed "Blood of the Beasts", a coldly methodical exposé of what goes on inside an actual slaughterhouse. The intent was to disturb the crap out of us, and it certainly does. Here we have a modern parallel, thankfully fictional and staged, but disturbing on a similar level in its reality and slow, unrelenting hopelessness.
I'm not being sarcastic when I say the filmmakers here achieved a rare pinnacle of success, much like Franju did with "Blood of the Beasts", but dude. My soul needs a shower. Time to watch a 90s Hugh Grant romcom and hug my pillow.
Great use of 90s music bridges all cultures
There are tons of movies with 80s music. Tons with 70s, 60s & 50s music. Alas, what about the poor 90s? Apparently the 90s was such a musically unidentifiable decade that imdb doesn't even have a soundtrack listing for this movie. But to anyone who remembers the 90s, the music is the key to this great flick. More on that in a sec, first let's talk about the plot.
In this 3rd film of writer/director Ricardo Trogi's epic autobiographical saga, we plant ourselves in the year 1991 at age of 21 as our hero "Trogi", a socially maladjusted college kid from Quebec, impulsively runs off to Italy chasing the (3rd) girl of his dreams. The story unravels in a quirky, comedic way as he deals with the pains of lone travel in foreign countries, a swiftly evaporating budget, a premature bald patch, and of course a girl of his dreams who seems far more interested in shady Spanish men than him.
I probably just named a bunch of things that don't apply to your life (unless you happen to be a prematurely balding 21 year old wandering around European train stations), so you might be wondering why you'd want to watch this flick. Well, back to my original point about the music, that's what bridges the cultural/age gap and pulls us into this great nostalgic trip even if we've never been there. With its opening scene of a girl annoyingly lip-synching Technotronic's "Move This" ("Shake that body"), to the ironically sexy use of Enigma, to heartbreak à la Roxette ("Must Have Been Love But It's Over Now"), the music is what connects us to this story. Songs are given to us in generous doses, not just a 10 second clips here & there like in most throwback films but in a way that really pulls us into the experience as if it's our own; we all remember where we were when we first heard these songs, and this film uses that device to powerful effect.
As the story unfolds we realize that, despite its specific time and setting, this tale is timeless and universal. It's about the awkwardness of young adulthood, the awkwardness of being a fish out of water, whether you're a French-Canadian stuck in Italy or whatever/wherever you may be. Like the 2 films that preceded this one, this is a story with a lot of heart even though it's presented as a quirky fast-paced comedy. The themes aren't limited to laughs, love & growing up, but here they begin to develop into questions of one's purpose in life. "We're going to change the world!!" one character shouts in a memorable scene as a crowd looks on silently and dismissively. The subtle message being, I'm guessing, that before you can change the world you have to figure out who you are.
I highly recommend the entire Trogi-logy ("1981", "1987" and "1991") which by the way you can watch in any order and still enjoy. Looking at my watch I'm thinking it's about time for "1997" to be released, in which case I'll be in the front row waiting to hear some Nirvana, Ace of Base, and *cringe* Oasis "Wonderwall".
One of the most creative re-imaginings of Wonderland since Tom Petty's "Don't Come Around Here"
If, like me, you are mildly-to-neurotically obsessed with hunting down and ingesting every version of Alice in Wonderland ever created, don't pass this by. "Alice" (2009) is a very creative spin on the classic storybook setting it in modern day, now 150 years after the original tale, but in Wonderland terms--since evidently their scientists are smarter than ours--the technology is more like something you'd expect 150 years from now. Hover cars (er... hover "flamingoes") zip through the sky over urban cityscapes built so high you can't see the ground. People are hooked on "tea" which is a spectrum of synthetic drugs harvested by... (I won't ruin it), and the Red Queen's palace is a bizarre neon-adorned casino where the extravagance of the reigning class contrasts sharply against the post-apocalyptic world of subjects in the cities. I know right? Lewis Carroll not only got modernized, he got a botox face lift and bionic limbs in this original spin.
Another notable difference between this and other tellings is that the character "Alice" is pretty badass, introduced in the beginning as a martial arts black belt instructor, so she carries an air of physical authority throughout the story. There aren't a whole lot of fight scenes, but it's understood that she doesn't need anyone to defend her. And that subtle twist is what alters the tone of this fairytale significantly. Here the story isn't so much about Alice in distress as it is about Alice on a mission. And, Wonderland fans help me out here, that hasn't really been done before has it?
What follows is a roller coaster ride full of colorful characters, satisfying nods to the book, quirky humor, action, a creative original plot, and a scifi spin that truly bridges the gap between the 1800s, the 1900s and the century of the near future.
Gotta say, I Hatter really fun time watching this. But I'll quit my Jabber. Wocky self down to your nearest video store and grab a copy. Duchess sit there, go watch the movie already.
One of the rare films that makes the world a better place
Some films make you feel good, some shed light on social issues, some are technical masterpieces. But regardless of all that, how many films directly make the world a better place? This is one of them. "Revanche" ("Revenge" or "Rematch") is broadly a crime thriller but it doesn't pander to our junk-food cravings for violence and cheap thrills. Instead it uses the guise of a crime thriller to tell a deeply human story which will, if you catch the message, make you a better person. And I don't mean that in a "remember to floss after every meal" kind of way. I mean it in a "you just learned something about your soul's redemption" kind of way.
I won't say diddly squat about the plot except to say it revolves around 4 characters: an amateur criminal in Vienna, his prostitute girlfriend, a young good-natured woman who lives in the country, and her husband who is a policeman. A brutal event impacts the lives of these 4 people, leading one of them on a mission of, you guessed it, "revanche".
Nothing is predictable, even though the story is perfectly composed in a way that will make you think it couldn't have happened any other way. The camera style is picturesque and slow, with many stationary, lingering shots as opposed to quick disorienting edits common in most crime thrillers. There is no music aside from an old man occasionally squeezing out a tune on an accordion. But it's incredibly suspenseful up to the very end.
A famous film figure (whom I forgot) once commented that all revenge flicks are nothing more than a 90 minute justification for 1 extreme act of violence. That's certainly true about every Steven Seagal flick I've ever seen, where it's expected that the audience will cheer rapturously at the end when a guy gets his eyeballs thumbed out before he's thrown down an elevator shaft only to land on a giant iron spike. "Revanche" is the antidote to those kinds of flicks. So if you ever feel like thumbing someone's eyeballs out, take a deep breath and watch this film instead.
3 Women (1977)
Mind blown. Gotta watch it again.
For the 1st half of the film I was alternately confused, underwhelmed, and distracted by my dog who seemed to be having one of those dreams like she was running from Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. We aren't given any clear plot to grasp, other than the routine day-to-day of 2 mismatched roommates who seem to be coldly despised by everyone they meet, But then suddenly around the half way point, a sudden shocking event occurs which changes the entire tone of the film and reels us into a powerful psychological thriller. By the end of the film I was on the edge of my seat and my dog was like "dude what are you watching, looks intense."
I'm tempted to leave it at that because this film is best experienced knowing nothing about it. I'll just say that it's a perception-bending masterpiece which I don't doubt was heavily inspired by Kurosawa's "Rashomon". Director Robert Altman has talked about how he loves the way Rashomon broke cinematic boundaries by messing with our concept of visual truth. If Rashomon broke the truth, then 3 Women took the pieces and stepped on them and threw them in a blender and glued them back together in the wrong order. Then challenged us to figure it out. Plan on watching this movie twice. You'll need to.
Ugetsu monogatari (1953)
All is (un)fair in love & war
In one unforgettable scene, a man enters through the front door of a dark, abandoned shack. The camera follows him to the right, then to the left, then to a back door which he exits to walk around the outside while the camera, still inside, traces his steps back to the front door which he again enters. Only this time the shack isn't empty; it has changed dramatically. All this is done in 1 graceful camera shot, no edits.
This scene sums up everything that this subtle yet powerful film is about. "Ugetsu monogatari" ("Tales of Moon and Rain") is a landmark in cinematic storytelling, every bit as important as Kurosawa's truth-bending "Rashomon" (1950) except that here in 1953 perhaps even in response to his 'rival' Kurosawa, director Mizoguchi gives us a mind-bending interweaving of reality and fantasy. Presented at first as a film rooted in neorealism (much like the Italian classics that defined the postwar 1940s "Bicycle Thieves" and "Germany Year Zero"), this film centers around the hardships of a peasant family alternately surviving and profiting from a war, some time around the 1500s. This part is realistic and almost mundane though shot on an epic level with sweeping landscapes and graceful cinematography. But as the story deepens, we are slowly, almost imperceptibly (as with the opening example I gave you) pulled into a shadowy fantasy world where surreal, supernatural things happen. Reality and fantasy exist alongside each other, often in the same camera shot.
This film was inspired by 3 different short stories but brought together by Mizoguchi and his writers in a way that's unrecognizable and completely original. The 3 short stories are "The House in the Thicket" and "Lust of the Serpent" written by Ueda Akinari in 1776 and, hopping over to 19th century French literature, "How He Got the Legion of Honor" by Maupassant. The 3 stories are blended together and spread between 4 main protagonists (2 husbands and 2 wives) in one epic cautionary tale about the temptations of money, prestige and lust of the flesh during turbulent (war) times. At first the characters are struggling but mostly content, but as they are slowly seduced by the idea of profiteering from the war, they enter into deep moral and emotional conflicts--as well as the prominent conflict of reality vs the supernatural.
But ultimately what makes this film a masterpiece is Mizoguchi's lucid and even-handed approach. This isn't a simple morality play with good vs evil (although it's clearly implied which path is right vs wrong), but even the malevolent forces are shown somewhat sympathetically. Comparing the film to the original written stories, we see that this was Mizoguchi's touch. For example in the "Lust of the Serpent" segment, the original story presented a vindictive, terrifying snake-demon as the antagonist, but in this cinematic telling we are led to feel pity and sympathy for the spirit who, like any of the other characters, is also suffering a tragedy due to the madness of men.
The power of this film is in its imperceptible blending of opposing ideas: reality vs fantasy, death vs desire, and "moon vs rain". All of this is presented in seamless, graceful shots (the camera is constantly moving and flowing along with the action and landscapes), bringing to mind what Mizoguchi said he wanted his films to be: like picture scrolls that tell a continuous rolling story.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
When Steven met Stanley (or E.T. meets HAL9000?!)
The short review: if you're in the mood for E. T. then you will LOVE this flick. If you're in the mood for 2001: A Space Odyssey then you'll HATE it.
Steven Spielberg, the director who brought us family-friendly scifi/fantasy hits like "E. T.", Amazing Stories, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, inherited a project that was originally headed by chillingly cold scifi master Stanley Kubrick (2001 A Space Odyssey, Clockwork Orange). Spielberg delivered, 2 years after Kubrick's death, "A. I." The familiar two-letter acronym title ought to spell out for us the direction Spielberg chose to take with Kubrick's material. The result, as you might guess, is a very mixed bag of creepy disturbing brilliance and groan worthy Disney type stuff all jumbled together. Much like putting m&ms on a pizza, some elements should never be mixed.
Plot: An artificially created robot child navigates the gauntlet of human cruelty while slipping into a Disney-esque subplot (literally Disney) of trying to find the Blue Fairy from the fable Pinocchio so she'll turn him into a real boy. You can practically skip the first half hour of this 2 1/2 hour movie because it amounts to a very predictable and irritating parade of scenes where the robot child is bullied for being a robot, despised by his apathetic 'father' and erratically loved/hated by his weak willed 'mother'. You can literally skip the whole string of clichés and you won't be missing anything. The movie starts to pick up after the 30 min mark when the child finds himself on the run.
It picks up due to the excellent performance of Jude Law as "Gigolo Joe" a suave, charming, not-too-bright but very loveable cyborg prostitute. Jude plays the character with a very interesting spin: not a soulless hunk of lumbering metal like we've seen in all of our Hollywood robots but as an animated, cat-like, Gene-Kelley-Singin-In-The-Rain street dancer with a ton of personality and some great dance moves. I don't know if Jude won any awards for this performance but he really should have.
Accompanying Jude's entry into the film, the story becomes considerably darker but not in a predictably melodramatic way like the first part of the film. Rather, we are immersed into a wonderfully nightmarish, satirical portrayal of human cruelty as we witness the renegade robots being subjected to a sickening carnival show in which they are mutilated in horrific ways to the rapturous applause of human crowds. Yes, it's disturbing but it's done with an air of dark comedy like in Terry Gilliam's masterpiece "Brazil" or in Veerhoven's "Robocop" or even Kubrick's own "Clockwork Orange".
Unfortunately for the final 2 acts of the film we return to Disney territory as the robot child becomes obsessively (and quite stupidly, for an advanced computerized intelligence) rapt in chasing down the imaginary character from a Disney fable, that Blue Fairy. Complicating our enjoyment, there are at least 3 false endings where you feel like the story could've wrapped up on a poetic note, but it keeps going. By the time the real ending happens we're too emotionally exhausted to feel it.
While being a failure on these levels, "A. I." is an absolute triumph in terms of special effects. The visuals were way ahead of their time in 2001, and they still hold up better than most big budget scifi films today, 20 years later. Unfortunately the delivery screams 1980s Spielberg (E. T.) and might leave you feeling very skeptical about the whole experience. Unless, like I said up front, you're in the mood for E. T. - in that case you'll have a wonderful time. But in either case we can only imagine how Stanley Kubrick had intended to approach his story as originally planned: an evolution of the deeply philosophical & abstract theme presented in "2001" about the newborn lifeform finding its footing in a dark and hostile human world.
La vérité (1960)
The heart's take on Rashomon
If "Rashomon" blew your mind, "La vérité" will blow your heart. In 1950, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa blew our minds with his unforgettable "Rashomon", a murder mystery that exposed the chimerical nature of truth as it is perverted by the flawed perception of each observer. We visualized the events surrounding a murder, via the conflicting testimonies of witnesses in court, never being told what's truth and what is not. Here in 1960 French director Henri-Georges Clouzot hits us with "La vérité", a murder mystery similarly visualized via testimonies in a courtroom drama, but in this case the facts are not disputed. In this case what's being subjectively perverted is the emotion behind the crime.
Brigitte Bardot is a young girl on trial for the murder of her lover. The prosecution perceives her as a cold-hearted, calculating killer. The defense sees her as a heartbroken, confused young girl pushed to a desperate act. What we get is a suspenseful peeling of the truth, but not the truth in terms of facts. We get to the root of the truth in terms of feelings. I imagine if you were to hook electrodes to your brain and study which areas light up when watching these films, "Rashomon" would light up your frontal lobe (logic center) while "La vérité" would light up that tiny peanut at the core of your head, the amygdala (emotional center).
The point being made, and unforgettably expressed in a passionate monologue by Ms. Bardot, is that hard facts aren't the only component of truth. She roars: "You sit up there, in your ridiculous robes, and you want to judge but you have never lived! Never loved! You hate me because you are dead! Dead!"
I challenge anyone to watch that scene and tell me that Brigitte Bardot isn't one of the finest actors. Even at the young age of 25, thrust into an intimidating arena alongside theatrically trained, veterand actors and one of the most notoriously perfectionist directors of cinema, she really carries the show. The role had originally been written for respected actor Sophia Loren, but Clouzot rewrote the entire story for Bardot after she was cast. Indeed she seemed to be made for this role and vice versa; the role was written for her (literally). In interviews Bardot stated that with no formal acting training she had to rely on convincing herself that she actually was the character Dominique. And this itself leads to a bizarre case of life imitating art (or the other way around?) where, feeling judged and persecuted by the press, Brigitte had a severe breakdown and shocking incident on her birthday in 1960 just weeks before the film's release. Google it after you watch the movie. Funny how even the press's & haters' reaction to the incident mirrored the prosecution's reaction to similar incidents in the tale of Dominique.
This film is a landmark with regard to emotional storytelling. And it's a landmark with regard to our human experience, attempting to understand this misshapen thing called reality. If you learned something from "Rashomon" then don't consider your education complete until you watch this essential companion film.
Silent Running (1972)
If a tree falls in space, does it make a sound?
My title might sound like a joke, but the philosophy is provocative, puzzling and profoundly poignant. It's this Zen question that we explore in "Silent Running", a film that was way ahead of its time and still is, on many levels. Or as lead actor Bruce Dern said in a recent interview: "It'll continue to be relevant until somebody cleans this place up, and no one has done that yet."
Plot summary: Some time in the "next millennium" (i.e. THIS millennium for those keeping time), humans have ruined the planet to the point that all of earth's forests, wildlife and cute bunnies are reduced to a handful of habitats kept alive in orbital biodomes, more of a curiosity--or as we learn, a nuisance--than anything else. Our hero "Lowell" (Bruce Dern) is among a team of glorified warehouse workers keeping the domes operational. Then one day the management announces without explanation that it's time to close shop, jettison Earth's last forests, nuke them, and terminate the mission. Everyone is selfishly overjoyed at ending their long shift in space, but Lowell decides to... shall we say... resist.
It's a fabulous premise which is very lucidly and realistically presented, even though cynics may have dismissed it as a fantasy "eco-thriller" alongside other great 70s films like "The China Syndrome", "The Andromeda Strain", "Logan's Run" and even "Planet of the Apes". But for my money, "Silent Running" hits closest to home because the story is chillingly practical. It's a very minimalistic film, forsaking the heart pounding action of the aforementioned films for a quieter, more claustrophobic & personal story of 1 human engaged in silent running (the submarine practice of playing dead in order to throw pursuers off the trail). Here we get basically 90 minutes of Bruce Dern talking to himself and to inanimate objects in essentially 1 long, passionate monologue that will burn itself into your brain.
32 DAYS, A SHOESTRING BUDGET & AN ABANDONED AIRCRAFT CARRIER
is all it took. Well, that plus a load of creativity and a labor of love. Directed by Douglas Trumbull who did the special effects for "2001 A Space Odyssey", "Close Encounters" and "Blade Runner" but no film directing prior to this, this movie was part of a financial experiment by Universal Studios: give 5 young filmmakers a tiny amount of money each ($1 million - not even 1/10th the budget of Star Wars) and let them do whatever they wanted, without studio interference or oversight, as long as they stayed under budget. The 4 other films in this experimental group were George Lucas's "American Graffiti", Peter Fonda's "The Hired Hand", Dennis Hopper's "Last Movie", and Milos Forman's "Taking Off". Personally I think "Silent Running" was the best of the crop, certainly the most ambitious, and alongside the others it proved the experiment an artistic success (though a commercial meh).
As you're watching this movie you'll be blown away by the enormous sets and staging, undoubtedly the most authentic spaceship interiors we've ever seen because guess what, it wasn't fake. The space station "Valley Forge" shown in the movie was actually the abandoned aircraft carrier "Valley Forge" which Trumbull rented for a paltry $2000/week. (Seriously! Imagine for the cost of renting a nice beach house you can vacation on a freakin aircraft carrier). And the whole thing was shot with just 1 or 2 takes for each scene to save on film, processing & time. That meant Bruce Dern had to get his acting right, the camera had to capture all the action, and the cinematography had to work like a charm which it apparently did because I couldn't find a single flaw. 32 days of shooting, with virtually zero post production is all it took. And last but not least we have the incredible "robotics" which you will never forget...
Actually wait. I don't want to ruin it for you, so I won't tell you how they did the adorable robots Huey, Dewey and Louie. I'll just say the whole time I was watching the movie, I was bouncing between the powerfully sentimental charm of these characters vs utter confoundment at how they created such realistic mechanical lifeforms that look like television sets propped up on penguin flippers. Trumbull's vision of technology was not supposed to be sterile and lifeless, as with every robot in scifi history up to that point, but he wanted to create something instantly personable without looking anything like a human. He succeeded brilliantly, and the robots in this film directly inspired a new face of robotics in cinema such as R2D2 in Star Wars. I leave you with the mystery of how Trumbull & his crew pulled it off. Google the answer after the movie ends.
Innovative designs and cinematic creativity aside, this story is just plan powerful. If you have kids, please show this to them immediately. Or if you're a grownup who still has the idealism of a child, then pop yourself a huge bowl of organic popcorn (avoid that synthetic butter sludge) and settle in for a life altering experience. This is the kind of film that keeps dreamers alive in our increasingly terrifying technological swamp. Whether you're a tree hugger or just someone who can appreciate the beauty of things that most people disregard, as well as the importance of fighting to preserve these things, "Silent Running" will leave you speechless.
It took me decades to appreciate this film, so I hope this review might save you a few years
We open on a warm, orange sunrise over the colossal radio dishes in New Mexico where our hero, the American scientist George Floyd, is high up on a dish scaffold. A jovial but mysterious Russian scientist appears below shouting a few words of mocking admiration. Floyd responds from his perch, "Who the hell are you?" The Russian continues chatting as he slowly lumbers up the steps, and the two strangers trade witty jabs at each other, carefully maneuvering around the subject of the original Jupiter Mission which ended in tragic failure 9 years earlier. The Russian pauses barely halfway up the first flight of steps and says, "This is very bad for my asthma. You think you could meet me halfway?" Floyd utters a noncommittal "Maybe" but doesn't budge. The conversation turns political as they chat about some "very bad" events happening between America and Russia. Then abruptly the Russian says "Let's play a game called The Truth. For two minutes, I will tell only the truth. And so will you." Floyd counters with: "Make it a minute and a half". The Russian offers: "A minute and three quarters." The whole time as we're witnessing this bizarre, comical New Mexican standoff, the camera periodically cuts to a wide shot showing exactly how far apart the two are (physically as well as politically), and how each adversary bargains his way closer to the other on the stairs of this enormous white satellite dish in the middle of the desert.
"We are scientists, you and I, Dr. Floyd. Our governments are enemies. We are not."
This is the greatest "cold war" opening of any film I've ever seen. And make no mistake, "2010" is a film about the Cold War even though it may have spaceships and extraterrestrials and possibly a psycho killer robot or two. In 1984 master director Peter Hyams ("Capricorn One", "Outland") teamed up with the iconic scifi author Arthur C. Clarke ("Childhood's End", "Fountains of Paradise" and the original "2001: A Space Odyssey") to bring to the screen a companion film to the amazing "2001". If you're a fan of Hyams' style, then don't even bother reading the rest of my review; just go watch the movie. Much like "Capricorn One" this movie is a really cool blend of scifi and political thriller. But you shouldn't expect "Star Wars" nor should you expect "The Manchurian Candidate" because it's not that sort of scifi or political thriller. Like all Hyams films it focuses on individuals, and on that level it succeeds brilliantly. More about that in a sec, first here's the basic plot.
The derelict ship The USS Discovery has been spinning wildly around Jupiter's moon Io for 9 years since its mission was abruptly terminated in the 1st movie. There's also this business about a creepy 6-mile high monolith in the general vicinity. Both America & Russia want to get there first and unlock the secrets of what happened, but guess what, the only way anyone can reach it is if the 2 antagonistic countries form a joint mission. And they gotta do it fast because The Discovery's orbit is decaying and it'll burn up with all its secrets.
Back to the theme of individuals which Hyams is great at presenting. "2010" is a very human film. In that respect it presents a great contrast against the original "2001" which Kubrick presented as a very sterile, inhuman experience. In the 1st film nobody showed any emotion, none of the characters really had a soul except, ironically, the ship's computer. Here we get a wonderful array of very human, very warm and interesting characters. The script is full of comedic banter, full of genuine connections between people--whether friendly or adversarial or both, like in that powerful 1st scene. And that's the real magic of this story.
Sure, you can watch it for the story alone because that's really intelligent as well as suspensefully presented (tell me your heart doesn't go through the roof during the Europa probe scene. Or the aero-braking scene. Or HAL's "I think we should abort the countdown" scene. Double-check the batteries in your pacemakers, folks!). But for my money, I love this film for way it fleshes out each quirky character in this tight, claustrophobic mission to reach the derelict ship. Everyone will pick their own favorite, but my money goes to Bob Balaban who plays Dr Chandra, the socially awkward genius who built--and is responsible for resurrecting--the psycho robot HAL9000. But there's also John Lithgow playing the "everyman" engineer Curnow who can't take 2 steps in space without puking but who, along with his Russian counterpart Max, gives us some great human moments and comedic spice. Again, this movie is all about humanity against the coldness of space.
First time I saw this movie I thought it was good but "boring" (hey I was like 9 years old). I watched it a few years later and liked it a lot. Then I bought the book and read it. Then watched the movie again and loved it. Now, a decade or 2 after my initial introduction to this film, a decade or 2 since I've been exploring cinema and not just Hollywood stuff but obscure gems from all over the world and every decade, I keep coming back to "2010" as one of the greatest scifi flicks out there. Here's hoping your odyssey doesn't take as long. There's so much more to this film than meets the eye. Like that opening scene, you can practically write an entire essay on that alone. Egads I think I just did.
Hiroshima mon amour (1959)
"An entire city will be lifted off the earth and will fall back in ashes."
Following Alain Resnais' stunning film "Night and Fog" (1956) about the Holocaust, he was commissioned to do a 45 min documentary on the atomic bomb. After a few months of reviewing existing Japanese documentaries on the subject (such as the work of Hideo Sekigawa: "Hiroshima" and "Children of Hiroshima"), Resnais quit the project, saying that a new documentary couldn't add anything to what has already been said and shown. That's when the producers floated the idea of hiring a screenwriter and turning the documentary into a feature length drama. Resnais accepted, and the result is far better than the sum of documentary + drama. "Hiroshima mon amour" is a powerful film on the subject of tragedy, the persistence of memory, and the hope--if there is any--of recovering from something so horrible that your mind does everything in its power to block it out.
The story follows 2 lovers, a nameless French woman and a nameless Japanese man, over the course of 24 hours. We open on them parting on the morning after their casual but passionate affair, and the film takes us through the day, evening and night to the following morning as they each wrestle with the inability to say goodbye because they realize they are hopelessly bound together by the same haunting demons. The man was a Japanese soldier who had returned to find his home incinerated, while the woman has her own wartime trauma to reckon with, something she refuses to confront at first but slowly reveals piece by piece to this strange man who is oddly the most kindred soul she has met in the 14 years since the war.
Although there's no real "action" here, the storytelling is suspenseful and gripping as the woman's story foams to the surface, and the man becomes a surrogate for the voice of her past, gently leading her deeper into her own suppressed memories with an almost hypnotic tone. It should be noted that the man (Eiji Okada whom you might recognize from the Brando flick "The Ugly American" or the Teshigahara masterpiece "Woman in the Dunes") didn't speak a word of French before filming, so his dialogue is wonderfully slow, careful and childlike. It reminded me of Ron Perlman's charming monosyllabic French in "City of Lost Children".
The woman is fantastically played by Emmanuelle Riva in her first (of many) starring roles. Her slowly evolving performance gives us one of the most realistic, most intimate portraits of a person who is repressing a painful secret, on the surface completely normal and happy-go-lucky but, as we soon realize, deeply tormented and empty inside.
Relating all of this back to the original intent of this "atom bomb documentary", it gives us a subject far more deeply personal than any historical recounting of facts and images. If we're paying attention, we realize that this nameless French woman's story is the story of every victim of war. More than that, it's the story of the human race struggling to recover from its own foolish penchant for self-destruction.
Les yeux sans visage (1960)
You'll never listen to Billy Idol the same way again
Yes, in case you were wondering, Billy Idol's iconic 80s creepy-ballad "Eyes Without a Face" was directly influenced by this film (the haunting female vocals in the chorus are singing "les yeux sans visage", something I never noticed until I googled the lyrics just now). And this isn't just a passing association I'm mentioning for the sake of getting the attention of any 80s music fans out there; it actually relates to why this is such a great creepy-ballad of a film.
"Les yeux sans visage" is only the 2nd feature film of director Georges Franju, but already he showed an absolute mastery of the craft, if not the creation of a whole new genre. This is broadly a horror story, but it's a horror story in the same sense that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a scifi flick. That is, it uses a certain fantasy genre but only as a backdrop to tell a deeper, universal, timeless story about the human condition. In particular, here we focus on the striking contrast between beauty and cruelty. And when I say "cruelty" I don't mean some cartoonish villain with a handlebar mustache cackling as he ties women to railroad tracks. No, here the "cruelty" is scientific, emotionless and in the literal sense of the word: amoral.
Our villain "The Professor" (who doesn't have a handlebar mustache but is sporting a very Satanic goatee) is excellently played by Pierre Brasseur as a man who has no emotions. He has neither malice nor benevolence, even though on the surface we want to interpret his actions as such. We assume there's malice because he abducts and does nasty things to pretty young women for his medical experiments. We assume an ironic wisp of benevolence because these experiments are presumably to save the person closest to him, his daughter. But neither assumption is correct. The Professor is pure, unemotional science ("intellect"). He is intelligence without a heart. Balancing this character wonderfully is his daughter who is at first equally amoral--literally without morals like a newborn child--but with a strong, tender, emotional side ("soul") and an inclination to learn and evolve. What we get is a painful and beautiful contrast between the intellect and the soul.
Which brings me to the soul half of the equation, and this is what elevates this far above and beyond any horror flick I've ever seen. The daughter is played by newcomer Edith Scob who spends half the film hiding behind a mask but whose graceful charms transcend facial expressions. Almost like a ballet dancer, she uses her body gracefully to convey every feeling we need to know. In fact it's her lack of facial expression that forces us to focus on her body language: movement and form instead. Further highlighting this expression of the human form, we get excellent cinematography, lighting, wardrobe (notice how she is dressed like a human doll) and ESPECIALLY the magical soundtrack giving her a themesong that sounds almost like a music box playing a lullaby.
This brings me back to Billy Idol. You thought I forgot. Billy Idol's 1983 "Eyes Without a Face" was a soft, melodic lullaby ballad but with a very menacing edge to the lyrics and instrumentation when the guitars kick in. Just like this film does, it contrasted cruelty against beauty, something which hadn't been explored much in 80s pop music--as well as 50s/60s horror flicks.
I have to admit, the first time I watched this movie I didn't really appreciate it the way I should have, much like the first time I heard Billy Idol's tune on the radio. But maybe this review has given you a head start; if you watch this film, keep this stuff in mind and maybe you'll appreciate it right away. "Les yeux sans visage" is not a horror story nor is it a battle between good vs evil. It's a study of beauty vs cruelty, both presented in the vacuum of amorality. This film defies all genres. I guess you could say you can't quite put a face to it. Ha. Seriously folks, you'll never forget it. (Get it? Never forget a FACE). Ok enough lame puns. I'll just close by mentioning that Edith Scob is gorgeous. Her face is really easy on the eyes.
Welp. Good thing humans aren't really like this (chokes on sarcasm)
Quick note for context: I'm writing this review in 2021, a full 75 years since this film was made. On this morning the news headlines scream of lynchings & mob violence in Israel/Palestine as well as pandemic-fueled hate crimes in the USA and gawd knows what else because I really need to shut off the news and go back to watching the Teletubbies.
"Panique" is a magnificently shot, suspensefully told, expertly acted, and powerfully poignant tale about the absolute folly of the human race. Brought to us by master director Julien Duvivier, France's favorite cynic, it's a merciless caricature of humankind which was doubtlessly inspired by the postwar paranoia and righteous rage of the time--itself a vigilante backlash to the insanity of fascism that had dunked Europe into its darkest decade.
That's a mouthful, but if you're going to watch this movie, it's pretty important to realize that the story isn't so much a straightforward crime thriller as much as it's a dark fable, a grotesque portrait of humanity at its worst. Almost every character is detestable, with the fascinating exception of our protagonist "Hire" whom we initially dislike for his coldness but who gradually becomes one of the most endearing & charming characters since Quasimodo. Major props to lead actor Michel Simon for his nuanced performance which leads us through this transformation in our own minds.
Plot overview: Hire is an outsider in his own world. Nobody likes him because he's so distant, unapproachable and worst of all, intelligent. Then one day a beautiful woman rolls into town, the mistress of a criminal who's hiding out there. Hire falls for this dark haired beauty, and as you might guess, this gets him into deep bouillabaisse.
What we get next is a slow, relentless buildup of the plight of the lone individual vs the entire human race. One can't help but feel as if this film is Duvivier's greatest autobiographical work, expressing in no uncertain terms how disappointed he was at society for its less-than-kind reception of his works and himself (Duviver was at one point accused of being a traitor for escaping to the USA during the Nazi occupation). This film begins innocently enough but slowly reels us into one of the most cynical portrayals of human society since Night of the Living Dead. But what keeps this flick entertaining rather than outright depressing is the darkly humorous way in which it's presented. For example:
One scene shows a carnival attraction in a cramped tent: a bunch of female wrestlers preparing to pummel each other for a packed audience's thrill. Over the din of the crowd, someone yells to someone else, "They found the murderer!" to which someone else shouts "What? There's a murderer in here?!" to which someone else shouts "A fire! There's a fire!" to which the whole crowd erupts in "FIRE! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!"
This is just one example of Duvivier's many satirical skewerings of society's idiocy and mob mentality. Images, faces and lighting are wonderfully exaggerated. As you're watching this film, the name Hitchcock will cross your mind dozens of times, but make note that this film was made in 1946 predating many of Hitchcock's masterpieces. You can't help but wonder if the master Hitch himself lifted a few tools from Duvivier's toolbox which he would use in films like "Strangers on a Train" (the carnival scenes), "Rear Window" (the impotent voyeur), and "Vertigo" (a stunning climactic scene which I won't spoil).
"Panique" is sure to burn an imprint on your mind. You definitely don't need to be following this with cable news. Now if I can only find my nephew's Teletubbies DVDs all will be well in the world.
Io la conoscevo bene (1965)
Alas, poor Yorick!
"She's always happy. She desires nothing, envies no one, is curious about nothing. You can't surprise her. She doesn't notice the humiliations, though they happen to her every day. It all rolls off her back like some waterproof material. Yesterday and tomorrow don't exist for her. Even living for today would mean too much planning, so she lives for the moment."
ADRIANA: "Is that what I'm like? Some sort of dimwit?"
"On the contrary, you may be the wisest of all."
The irony of this pivotal scene is that even this seemingly accurate observation of the character Andrianna barely scratches the surface. Ultimately nobody knows her well, not even the audience, until the final few minutes of the film when we realize we missed something all along. Then we go back and watch the film again and really get to know her.
"I knew her well" is a film from Italy's powerful cinematic renaissance of the 1960s alongside landmarks like Antonioni's "L'Avventura" ("The Adventure"), Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" ("The Easy Life"), and Risi's "Il Sorpasso" (coincidentally, "The Easy Life"). Of those 3 comparisons it's most similar to "Il Sorpasso" in the way it takes the form of a breezy, episodic comedy. In fact "I knew her well" is almost like a road movie itself, except that everything happens in the vicinity of Rome, and instead of the typical windblown convertible used in all road movies Adriana drives a comically tiny clown car. As with the other films, here we get the backdrop of Italy's postwar economic prosperity to immerse us in an almost surreal fantasy world where people seem to have no obligations other than having a good time. But as with all these great films, there's a haunting spectre of what may lie outside, or in this case, behind the carefree façade.
Adriana (played by the wonderfully expressive and cute as a button Stefania Sandrelli) is an aspiring actress with a cheerful disposition like a 1960s Italian Amélie. She's unstoppable and nothing seems to get her down. Even when she is jilted by a lover and left with a large hotel bill, she admires him for his ingenuity and ultimately laughs as she hopes he'll elude the police. As my opening quote implies, she doesn't seem to notice the humiliations though they happen to her every day. And in that respect, we the audience are lulled into an entertaining romp about the catastrophe of life even though in a parallel universe a Neorealist director like De Sica ("Bicycle Thieves") would make us feel the stab of each humiliation. But no, here we become Adriana. We quickly adopt the attitude that life is too short to dwell on the past, or the future, or anything. Right?
Don't expect a plot because this is mostly a series of vignettes over the course of a few days (? We can't be sure as events are deliberately fragmented) in Adriana's life. Around 20 vignettes in total--ok, 19, but I didn't want to seem like a nerd for counting--are presented to us, each full of its own magic. My favorite is a wonderful scene where she befriends a slow-witted but humorous boxer who has just suffered a humiliating defeat in the ring and jokes about his opponent being smart to pick a weak opponent. (See the parallel between him and Andrianna?)
Music plays significantly in this film as Adrianna spends most of her free time dancing, singing and listening to an old record player which she has to kick to make it work. As the music becomes more prominent, we realize that, if anything, the music is the key to "knowing her well". Don't miss the unforgettable final 10 min sequence featuring Gilbert Becaud's "Toi".
A perfectly written, perfectly shot, and perfectly titled film, "I knew her well" rings of the famous line in Hamlet where the prince finds the bones of his childhood pal, the court jester Yorick "of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy ... Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick..."
Stand by Me + Amélie = success
"1981" is director Ricardo Trogi's 1st installment of an autobiographical trilogy "1981, 1987, 1991" ambitiously filmed over a 10-year span using the same actors. That alone makes the trilogy monumental, as we see him and his family literally growing up across a decade. Here we have Trogi (narrating the story himself) depicted as an 11-year old boy who has just moved to a new town and seizes upon the opportunity as the mysterious newcomer to fabricate a lie-laden identity for himself. As you might guess, this frequently gets him into deep trouble.
But what's really interesting about this presentation is that our protagonist is so oddly amoral, even though he's a cute kid who's mostly harmless. When he gets caught in a lie, instead of coming clean and atoning for his sins he digs a deeper lie, as if that's what you're supposed to do. Thus this becomes a really funny, quirky sort of dark comedy that explores the origins of an innocently "criminal mind" (check out the follow up film "1987" to see where he is 6 years later).
There's also a strong yet subtle current of deep sentimentality that we witness mostly in the interaction between the boy and his father. The father, like his son, is very intelligent but not necessarily educated. So there's almost a peer-to-peer relationship in their banter, although the father always manages to outwit the kid.
The presentation is snappy, vivid and quirky, a lot like the style & pace of "Amélie" with frequent dives into fantasy sequences, such as the boy imagining a strange Nazi commander whom he must outwit. Other scenes become lucid, poetic & nostalgic, as in the interactions he has with other kids at school that feel like something out of "Stand By Me". But this flick is a true original. Along with its follow ups 1987 & 1991, this work presents one of the best portraits of Gen X growing pains ever put to film.
The movie that broke my brain
Watching "Blowup" is like inhaling a mentholyptus cough drop up your nose and directly into your skull. Visually it's exhilerating. And it will leave a lasting, if not slightly painful, imprint on your medulla oblongata.
The plot is very suspenseful, but that's not the primary focus here. The plot is about a hip fashion photographer of the trendy London elite who one day, purely by chance, snaps a picture of a possible murder. He investigates the crime by--as the title suggests--blowing up the photo. But this seemingly simple act leads him into a labyrinthine tangle of reality, illusion and perception. As director Michelangelo Antonioni commented:
"He wants to see something more closely. But when he enlarges the object it breaks up and disappears. So there's a moment when one grasps reality, but the next moment it eludes us. This is roughly the meaning of Blow-Up."
That quote is the real story. And even if you don't fully grasp what he meant, if you keep it in mind as you're watching the film then certain cryptic things will fall into place. The mysterious obnoxious mimes running through the city are deeply symbolic of an alternate fantasy that carves its way right through the middle of regular urban life. The very cool concert scene featuring the Yarbirds (Jeff Beck and a young Jimmy Page in his pre-Led Zeppelin days) is confounding but again deeply symbolic with the audience lulled into a bizarre mob reality bordering on a zombie apocalypse. And of course there is our protagonist's entire career of molding and manipulating human dolls (fashion models) to suit his own artistic reality. But the murder mystery throws a severe psychological wrench into things, because suddenly he loses control of his own perception, instead being led deeper and deeper into the abstract grainy forms of the blown up picture. Whose reality is he in now?
This movie is Antonioni's 2nd color film following the excellent "Red Desert". He tells the story through vivid colors, often physically manipulated by painting streets, houses and even trees to bring out a palette that fits his own artistic narrative. He did this in "Red Desert" also, but while that film presented almost an otherworldy scifi look, here in "Blowup" he manipulates colors in order to recreate a vivid but believable reality. So if you see what's going on here, you realize that this movie itself--as well as YOU the viewer--is all part of the story. We're watching a movie that manipulates reality in order to tell the story of an artist who manipulates reality but ultimately loses control of what he is seeing.
Did I just lose you? Good because I think I just lost myself. "Blowup" is the kind of flick you can watch over & over, each time seeing, feeling and imagining something different. Like the main character in the story unraveling the mystery of images. And when that happens you'll know that Antonioni's little magic trick was a stunning success.
Adult Life Skills (2016)
Ya gotta love movies about living in your parents' shed
I can think of 2 fun comedies that involve characters who live in a shed: "Almost Sharkproof" (2014) and this one "Adult Life Skills". Well then there's also Silence of the Lambs but that's something uh different.
As you might guess from the premise, "Adult Life Skills" is about a 30 year old woman who doesn't know what to do with her life. Socially and emotionally stunted for reasons you will learn early in the flick, "Anna" (Jodie Whitaker) is an overgrown adolescent who spends her days talking to her thumbs and who can't manage to put on a bra without severely embarrassing herself. With her 30th birthday looming, her mom gives her an ultimatum which is basically the entire plot of the film: move out of the shed. Get a life. And she has about 1 week to do it.
What we get is a cute, quirky, at times tragic, at times magical story about her reluctant attempted transformation into an adult. The film is very minimal, consisting of a shed, the bottom floor of a house, a childrens camp where she works, and the landscape of a tiny rural town where nothing seems to happen except that people occasionally die off. The whole production is marvelously carried by a witty script and some rapid fire banter in funny accents (I dunno, are they "accents"? Being from America I figure everything outside of Connecticut is an accent). The film's narrow scope works tremendously to its advantage as we are forced to scrutinize small details of everyday life rather than epic dramas of wars and romance. Although there are tragic themes, it's handled off camera so we see only how it affects the characters in an unspoken way. And although there is a slight romance angle here, it's done in a hilariously awkward way (the snogging scene had me in stitches).
There aren't too many films like this, but I might compare it to the excellent 2017 indie film "Izzy Gets the F* Across Town" which is entirely about a young woman trying to ...get the f* across town. Here we have a story that could've had the alternate title "Anna Moves the F* Out Of Her Shed". You've probably never seen a movie quite like this, so don't miss it.
Eddie rollerskates o_0
I think my title sums up everything that's awesome and everything that's horrible with this movie. Yes in one memorably-wtf scene Eddie Wilson, the dirty Jersey rock n roller who in the 1st movie was a mix of James Dean, Sid Vicious and Batman, in this movie straps on a pair of rollerskates and gets lateral. If you're an obsessed fan of the 1st movie, then just the thought is enough to make you change your name to Toby Tyler and run off to join Cirque du Soleil.
But if you're ok with the image of Eddie on rollerskates (pause to stare blankly in space for 2 mins), and if you're ok with the thought of a home grown Jersey rocker turning Canadian and using synthesizers on his music, and if you're ok with the idea that Wordman was conspicuously edited out of history (replacing him with a bizarre cross cut of Sal instead, on the sacred "words & music" speech from the original film), then "Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!" can be a fun flick. Consider it as sorta the Robocop 2 of cult movies.
Enough slamming. I actually loved this flick in a nostalgic I-love-the-80s way. It has every 80s cliché in the book. Lots of random freakout arguments that are resolved 20 seconds later. Lots of music montages with incongruous editing, like random crying clips to snowball fights to sax players playing on a mountaintop. Lots of big hair. But seriously folks, there are at least 2 or 3 scenes that are worth the price of admission, full of poetry and artistic wisdom, such as the scene where Eddie shows the young shredder guitarist how to play a real solo, or another short but profound talk about how each musician's playing style is like a fingerprint that he can't escape from (awesome metaphor for a person's identity). Those scenes are the real takeaway of this film, not the plot.
The plot itself goes something like this: We learn in the opening scene that Eddie has been hiding out in Montreal piddling around with some song ideas but too pissed off at the world to make a serious attempt at music. By chance he crosses paths with a young hotshot guitarist who irritates Eddie enough that Eddie decides to teach the kid a thing or two. Will this lead to a comeback? Or will Eddie--self destructive as always--torpedo the whole effort and sink the band even as their big break is looming? Meanwhile another(!) set of lost studio tapes surfaces, and it turns into an international mystery as to when they were recorded and who played on the tapes (and the answer comes to us with a surprise cameo from none other than...).
It's actually a pretty great setup, and it flirts with some really deep themes. Unfortunately the director Jean-Claude Lord, who's better known for directing Canadian soap operas, didn't seem to give this effort the royal treatment it required to stack up to the original. I wonder if the director even bothered watching the 1st. As such, you can expect a lot of unnecessary filler scenes such as music montages. If you can ignore this fluff, or perhaps even see it as part of the film's nostalgic 80s wtf charm, then you'll have a blast.
If not... well you may find yourself driving your chevy toward the Raritan bridge at unsafe speeds.
Ultimately, this flick is a guilty pleasure of mine. I rate it "NOT BAD". To borrow a great line from this film: "Not bad means not bad. If I was in a bar and I watched this, it'd be nice being in there. Then I'd go home and I'd forget all about it. That's what not bad means."
Just kidding. Love it or hate it, you will not forget this movie.
Film noir meets "Face/Off" ...and the result is incredible
The story is deliberately preposterous. In fact, it *must* be preposterous in order for the metaphor to work. A disfigured concentration camp survivor "Nelly" undergoes facial reconstruction which makes her so unrecognizable that her own husband doesn't recognize her; instead he insists that his wife is dead. But he wants to use Nelly as an imposter so he can collect her inheritance.
If this brings to mind the idea of Nicolas Cage and John Travolta swapping faces in the awesomely bad "Face/Off", then you're not far off the mark. But listen up, here's why it works perfectly.
The theme of "Phoenix" involves how people face an unacceptable past. There are 3 main characters who each personify a particular, extreme response. It has to be extreme, it has to be preposterous, and most importantly we have to accept it. Either that or just walk out of the theater after 5 minutes and watch Monday night football instead. Our 3 characers are: 1) Nelly - she cannot let go of her traumatic past, and at the same time she has no past because she has no identity, figuratively and literally. 2) The husband "Johnny" - he utterly rejects the past, for reasons you'll figure out soon enough, and so he refuses to recognize his wife. In fact, we get the feeling that even if she were the spitting image of herself, he would still refuse truth. Such is the nature of psychological denial. And 3) We have Nelly's only friend "Lena" who has become a tireless political activist, saving survivors and trying to keep the past "alive" even though she is confronted with a society that has already moved on.
So you see how this story isn't supposed to be taken as a literal drama but rather as a very creative metaphor to illustrate how psychology works in 3 vastly different personality types. Further driving the surreal nature home, we have gorgeously shot, vividly composed visuals. If you ever wondered how Film Noir would look in color, then look no further. There have been a few contemporary classics which sought to bring Film Noir into the modern age, such as 2005's "Sin City" with its introduction of red to the crisp b&w palette, or before that was 1994's "The Crow" with its use of extreme darkness and "dead" colors. Here in 2014's is the next decade's evolution. In this case there is bold use of colors, but they are distinctly and "impossibly" presented: a dark alley is illuminated with a ghostly red light even though there are no red light sources to be seen, or a dark scene of bombed out ruins has unrealistic islands of light illuminating patches of rubble, all in vivid color but with stark contrast against the black spaces. The cinematography and lighting is as purposely unrealistic as the plot.
Ultimately if you grasp all of this, or if you just decide to go along with it for the sake of seeing how everything turns out, your suspension of disbelief will be amply rewarded. As nearly every other reviewer has noted, the ending is fantastic. Beyond fantastic, it's the whole point of the movie. In an interview, director Christian Petzold says the entire story comes down to the last 3 minutes, and that's where it will either come together or utterly fall apart. For my money, it's a total winner. "Phoenix" definitely does NOT crash & burn.
La peau douce (1964)
Truffaut's biggest flop is one of the greatest achievements in cinema
Imagine how director François Truffaut felt at the Cannes premiere of this film as more than half the audience walked out. In terms of audience approval, "La peau douce" was Truffaut's big disaster. Why did audiences hate it so much? For the exact reasons that it is a landmark film.
1. The main character is not very likeable; he's almost completely expressionless even though this is a love story. 2. Certain events happen in a way that isn't exactly realistic: an elevator takes nearly 2 minutes to travel up 5 floors but only 15 seconds on the way down. 3. Certain events happen without any dialogue or explanation, just a succession of close ups showing objects and activity. But these 3 points are very deliberate, and they are what make "La peau douce" such a tremendous work of art.
1. Why is the main character not likeable? As Truffaut said, this film is "an autopsy of adultery". The story is about a respectable man with a meticulously perfect life who engages in a very imperfect affair. Truffaut wanted to present everything as objectively as possible so that we can analyze all the elements without the prejudice of sentimentality. So he made the lead actor Jean Desailly play the role of "Lachenay" with neutrality; we sense deep emotion, but there are no melodramatic scenes of outward expression as we've come to expect in love stories. If you think about it, isn't that how most people's love lives are? We don't usually get dramatic closeups with soft lighting and complimentary filters. An objective observer woudn't necessarily sympathize with what we're feeling but rather would scrutinize our actions & choices. And as far as that goes. Lachenay makes some pretty bad ones.
2. How realistic is the storytelling? At times, not very. But this style is one of the greatest examples of "hyper realism" which is something Truffaut learned from his mentor and idol Alfred Hitchcock. For example in the elevator scene, time is stretched on the way up, intensifying the first meeting between Lachenay and Nicole (excellently played by Françoise Dorléac, the carefree, outgoing sister of Catherine Deneuve). Only a handful of words are said, but in true Hitchcockian form it's a very suspenseful and portentous scene that deserves its full 2 minutes. The same elevator ride down, with Lachenay alone, is designed to give us contrast and return us to the realistic world as the 5-floor descent is shown in real time, only 15 seconds.
3. Dude where's the dialogue? It's there, but sometimes it's conspicuously absent like in the entire seduction scene which consists of a wordless walk down a hotel hallway, a fumbling for some keys, a lingering stare, hands touching as a door is opened, one hand turning on the light while another hand turns it off, and finally a magnificent dark silhouette of 2 people facing each other. Fade to black. Did we really need any dialogue to understand exactly what was going on in their heads? No, we didn't even need any facial expressions. Again drawing an idea from his hero Hitchcock, even taking the idea into new territory, Truffaut fully embraced the idea of image based storytelling. (In his letter of introduction to Hitch, Truffaut closed by saying that if all movies were suddenly silent again, then Hitchcock would prove himself the greatest storyteller of all time.)
A quick note about the ending (NO SPOILERS) because half a dozen other reviewers seem to have a problem with it: Um you guys realize that the ending was taken from an event that actually happened in real life, right? Look it up (AFTER the film)!
There are so many other gems in this film worth mentioning, but my review would drag on for hours, and that time is better spent with you experiencing this flick firsthand. Audiences of 1964 hated it, but now looking back some 70 years, we realize that "La peau douce" is a masterpiece.
Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Best time travel movie that doesn't have a time machine
No, this isn't scifi and there aren't any time machines in this movie (although there may be a spaceship and 1 or 2 laser guns...), but "Clouds of Sils Maria" gives us one of the most complex and striking themes of time travel ever put to film.
Juliet Binoche plays "Maria", a middle-aged acting legend who reluctantly accepts a part in the revival of a play she did twenty years prior when she was 18. The catch is that now she's playing a different character: the older, tragic role in the story opposite the young character that had originally made her famous. So immediately you can see how this explores the idea of revisiting specific feelings and events--literally playing them out again--but this time from the perspective of the older you. Time travel, right?
Further challenging us is the whole inter-dimensional parallel universe thing (stick with me, this is going somewhere). Just as the play's script explores her volatile relationship with a younger actor, Maria herself is exploring a volatile relationship with her young assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart). As we get the complex intersection of fiction vs reality, as well as the clashing of different generations (young actress vs old actress), we realize that this is perhaps the most mindbending, inter-dimensional time travel story since "12 Monkeys".
"Clouds of Sils Maria" takes its title and underlying theme from a strange phenomenon in the Swiss Alps where a thick "snake" of clouds weaves its way through the valley. And yes, we get gorgeous shots of this phenomenon from both today's perspective as well as an archival film from 1924, shown in a short scene. As writer/director Olivier Assayas explains in a commentary: the landscape of Sils Maria is the same as it was 100 years ago, but the archival film, with its b&w grainy look, adds the distance of time. (The character of Maria echos this thought in that scene.)
Acting is fantastic all around and perfectly cast. Juliet Binoche brings to life the frustrated actress who is witnessing her career's slow fade as the younger, flamboyant stars hijack the screen and the tabloid hype. Kristen Stewart almost steals the show in her role as the frustrated voice of youth trying to compete with a slightly arrogant older generation. And Chloë Grace Moretz plays a 3rd major character: a saucy, shameless antagonist who is ironically a representation of who Maria was 20 years earlier.
This film can be really tricky, much like the perspective-warping "Synecdoche NY" (2000) or some of the Antonioni classics which explore the painful confrontation between old ways and new, like "Red Desert" (1964). So don't be afraid to watch it twice, like I had to do, before it really sinks in. Just strap on your flux capacitor and get set for a powerful experience.