Istvan Szabo, 1999 (8.2*)
This is an overlooked and underrated historical epic, a multi-generational family history from master Hungarian director, Istvan Szabo (Mephisto, 1981; Being Julia, 2004). Even though three hours long, it seems appropriate, like the Godfather films, and never really feels too long, but the necessary length to tell its story properly.
This is a realistic yet captivating drama about one Jewish-Hungarian family that begins in the country, ends up in the city, and seems to experience the political ebb and flow of the changes in history during the 20th century. Ralph Fiennes, in his most demanding role, is perfect as the grandfather (a brewer who made the family herbal tonic, called "Sunshine" after the family name of Sonnenschein), the father (who became a judge), and the grandson. All three are complex, human, kind, thoughtful, and ultimately tragic characters as they are victims of their bigoted times, and living in the wrong part of the world to be Jewish, during two world wars and a great depression, and numerous political regimes: a monarchy, socialism, democracy, military autocracy, and Soviet communism.
This ranks up there with great holocaust family stories, such as De Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (anti-semitism), and Bertolucci's The Conformist (anti-intellectual, anti-liberalism), as well as Szabo's own masterpiece, Mephisto, about a German actor conforming to the Nazi regime in order to continue his stage acting in his own language.
Friday, July 31, 2009
Istvan Szabo, 1999 (8.2*)
Thursday, July 30, 2009
This film is purely about action entertainment, and a work of art, and not about a history lesson. Zack Snyder's artistic battle film is based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller (author of Sin City) from 1998, and is inspired by the battle at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. The attempt is to make the comic book come to life in a style that pays homage to the original artwork of Miller's. Sparta was a male-dominated military system that basically died out due to their philosophies (most female and small male babies were left to die in fields), but they also created the strongest armies for their size in that era.
Gerard Butler works as King Leonidas, who takes the best 300 warriors from Sparta to defend Greece from the pass at Thermopylae from the invading Persian army led by King Xerxes, who demands acquiesence "from all of Europa". The action is the key here, not the inane injections of humor or the gratuitious addition of attempted romantic sentiment with the queen, played by the gorgeous Lena Headey.
For History buffs: here is a link to the Film's FAQ at IMDB which has historical information about this battle and era in Greek history, which actually led to the rise of nationalism as a unifying philosophy.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Robert Bresson, France, 1966, bw (8.3*)
This is a very tough film to review, as it has high marks for artistic merit, yet it's a very hard film to watch, as it involves the cruelty of man toward beasts of burden, in this case a cute little donkey named Balthazar. We follow the story of a donkey from its infancy, from good owners to completely despicable ones who have this tiny donkey pulling wagon loads of hay and people, or pulling on a water wheel, being forced with a whip to move at all. One girl in particular, played by Anne Wiazemsky, who is shunned by people as the town's local 'painted lady', is very kind to Balthazar, yet her boyfriend and his scooter gang constantly play pranks on the hapless donkey and even beat him needlessly at one point.
Semi-Spoiler Alert: This film has one of the most poignant and poetic endings on film; only the most heartless of people will not be touched or even outraged by this story. Some say it's a faith-rooted religious parable, but taken simply as the story of one animal's lifetime, it carries great weight as a moral fable. Psychologists now know that serial killers are usually cruel to animals growing up, and I can only extrapolate that people who could treat a small donkey this way could never make good parents if unfortunate enough to have kids, or even passable citizens; they'll most likely be criminals, soldiers, or prison guards, each with a streak of cruelty. Highly recommended as one of the best films from France, but with major reservations: not for kids, not for the squeamish, not for those extremely sensitive to animal treatment. #50 (2011 update) on our top ranked films on the net survey.
The GOOD news: the remastered colors will blow you away, all fans should see this new dvd version. Toto and the creepy flying monkeys were terrific, having a seemingly gay lion (Bert Lahr's only memorable role) was a stroke of comic genius, Margaret Hamilton was the perfect evil witch, Frank Morgan the perfect wizard, and I hope everyone got the reference to poppies putting them to sleep and snow waking them back up.
All that aside: This is great fun for kids, with lame humor (unless you're under 10) and very slow scenes, but with the "Yellow Brick Road" refrain to seemingly link it all together and keep it moving. In fact when the film came out, Harvard's awards dubbed it "the worst film of all time". Of course, that was 1939 and they didn't have many films to choose from. For kids and fans only, you know who you are, or if you just need something entertaining!
Monday, July 27, 2009
Dir: Tom Tykwer, 1998, Germany (9.4*)
An exciting, music video driven film, a crime film on adrenaline. Franka Potente’s boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) has just lost a huge sack of money from a drug deal, and she has 20 minutes to get the money to him to give to the boss or he’s history. The action starts very quickly, from his frantic phone call in the beginning, which comes as she's watching a music video on tv and which starts her running, and never lets up - there are more visual ideas here per minute than any film other film I've seen. When she passes people on the street, you briefly see their life in cinematic flashes.
Brilliant camerawork and editing, with some split screen shots that must be seen in widescreen (earlier dvd's were only available in full-screen, but thankfully that's now been corrected). Much of the action occurs in 'real time', with a countdown mechanism but which is uniquely employed here in a manner never seen before. The film is structured around a plot twist I won't reveal but one that makes this film truly unique. And, yes, she sure could run!
This visual style, and showing alternate realities for characters inspired Jaco Van Dormeal's 2009 science fiction masterpiece, Mr. Nobody - a great film, all fans of Lola should definitely check that one out.
The perfect film for an inauguration and new era of optimism, Mr. Smith is Frank Capra’s idealistic tribute to the spirit of democracy. Jimmy Stewart is a populist Senate candidate, one who vows to bring government back to the citizens and fight for what’s right, even standing up to his own party in Congress. He is appointed to office, and his political naivity is tested by the corruption he uncovers.
Note: according to Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies, the US Congress saw an advanced showing of this film and tried to ban it by offering Columbia 30% over the cost for the movie so they could destroy it, as it attacks political corruption in the Senate. Capra talked Columbia into showing it, that this was exactly the type of corruption the film was about, politicians who answer to special interests for money and not to the welfare of the citizens. Ironically, the movie was banned after release in Nazi Germany and communist USSR, so the US Congress was trying to side with those fascist governments re censorship! Live and learn people, our 'enemies' ideas are alive and well in the minds of those easily bought out for money, the same type of fascism prevails in all those that would censor individual expression and call it 'national security' or 'treason' or some such nonsense. They forget we were founded by 'treasonous revolutionaries' who risked death for our version of liberty, seven million laws and all, regulating everything we eat, drink, think, take as medicine, see in the media, or are allowed to say at work, school, or in public. Did I miss anything? Oh yeah: all travel is controlled by 'papers' (visas, passports, etc), and enforced by armed guards at all borders, and then inside those borders as well. It's a giant prison planet - where does freedom exist nowdays?
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Rod Lurie, 2000 (7.8*)This is one of those rare political dramas that can hold your interest until the end, like Advise and Consent and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It came out in 2000, yet somehow seemed to ancitipate the campaign of Hillary Clinton, as it's a movie about the first female nominee for vice-president, played by Joan Allen with her usual professional and on-target performance. Jeff Bridges is perhaps the most amiable President put on film, young and with enough charisma that even his politics sound like homespun wisdom.
Allen's candidate is a Senator, Laine Hanson, and she's opposed by right-wing Republican senator played by Gary Oldman, who comes across as a neo-McCarthyite whose agenda is keeping women out of the White House; apparently it may be a personal feud with the President, a campaign holdover. Even though this film has attracted debate as being "too liberal", the opponents end up sounding a lot like Oldman's character, who was willing to stoop to just about any means, reminiscent of Nixon's "dirty tricks" campaign tactics. Funny how the patriotic films like The Right Stuff and Saving Private Ryan don't get attacked as "too right wing", but if you favor equal rights for women and minorities in life, somehow that's a "liberal agenda" instead of just basic human rights and part of the Constitution.
If people can watch this movie without their politics interfering, they might enjoy a finely crafted adult political thriller with top-notch performances all around.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Micheal Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944, bw (8.4*)
This newly restored high definition version of this British wartime film should remind everyone what a classic film it remains. Absolutely beautiful to look at, the films closing sequence contains some of the most beautiful black and white images in popular films.
The story uses Chaucer's classic Canterbury Tales as inspiration, updating it to wartime England; The three travelers to Canterbury are a local girl whose husband is missing in action, who's come here to work; an American GI sergeant interested in the local scenery; and a British sergeant stationed nearby for pre-invasion training. The three become involved in the "glue bandit" crime when the girl becomes a victim of what has to be the most bizarre crime in cinema mysteries. Along the pilgrim road to Canterbury we see the British countryside around Kent, where Powell was born. We are also shown perhaps the most jubilant and whimsical children's mock battle ever captured on film. It's more than a road film, or a local travelogue, though parts are obviously in "Major Exposition" style, to all Powell to relate the history of the area to the audience, a history of a road that goes back 1000 years.
Powell chose two real soldiers for the army sergeant roles, and this was filmed without any major stars at all. Perhaps the soldiers are a little amateurish as actors, but there's no doubt they are real soldiers. On the dvd from Criterion, they've included scenes added to the American release of the film, a perplexing new opening with Kim Hunter on a rooftop in New York discussing this area of England with Sgt. John Sweet, the American soldier in the film. This was her only scene, yet she shared star-billing with all the film's real actors! This is ranked #537 on our Top Ranked survey, #334 on the critics consensus 1000, and deserves the higher ranking in my opinion. It's a small and unassuming film, yet has the Powell/Pressburger magic working.
The film's page at Criterion
Friday, July 17, 2009
Luchino Visconti, 1964, Italy, bw (8.2*)
This epic length Italian film seems to have had a major influence on a whole wave of American films, notably Coppola's Godfather films, and especially Scorsese's Raging Bull. It's a complex, three hour film with many stories, my favorite so far by master director Luchino Visconti.
The film is in five sections, one for Rocco and one for each of his four brothers, yet the story is woven throughout each without gaps. The entire family, along with a domineering mama (Katina Paxinou), a fretful widow, move from southern Italy to Milano in the north for one son's marriage, and apparantly that's worse than north vs. south in the U.S.; they face immediate prejudice and scorn from all the locals. After only finding work at first by shoveling snow, we follow two brothers into small-time boxing, Simone (Renato Salvatore) and Rocco (Alain Delon, in his best dramatic performance). These boxing scenes are very prescient of Raging Bull, the actors do their own boxing in a gritty, realistic, documentary style; Scorsese filmed it the same way, albeit more dynamically.
We see these characters change: some grow, some degenerate, but all feel real. This is the #3 film for 1964 in our top ranked survey, and #237 overall. For me personally, it's one of the classic representative films of Italian post-war cinema, and one gets the feeling that several U.S. directors have already paid homage to this within their own art.
Other Italian bw classics: Umberto D and The Bicycle Thief (De Sica), L'avventura / L'eclisse / La Notte (Antonioni's bw trilogy with wife Monica Vitti), The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini). I've yet to see the Rossellini films, as most are not available on dvd. (they certainly didn't come to central Georgia when I was a kid either!) Woody Allen apparently paid his own tribute in his title: Hannah and Her Sisters, also a great film, a complex weaving of the stories of several families into a giant unified quilt of a family story.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
This is one of the most visually stunning films ever made. At the time, it broke new ground in the use of Technicolor, and won Oscars® for cinematographer Jack Cardiff and art director Alfred Junge. The story is a simple one: a group of nuns, led by new a new Mother Superior played by Deborah Kerr, are sent to a remote Himilayan village in India because a local general has donated a large house to them for use as a school and medical clinic.
The location is a daunting castle-like stone building halfway up some steep mountains, overlooking the valley and road below. It was built by a king to house his wives in an isolated locale where they couldn't run away or otherwise misbehave. The nuns are at first excited by the response of the locals, whom they truly desire to help. Soon however, hardships, the spiritual setting, and other temptations begin to erode the faith of some and raise questions of their ultimate survivability. This film is more about locale affecting people than any other picture in memory.
To make this an even more amazing work of art, the entire picture was shot at Pinewood Studios, England using sets, and matte or background paintings! The restoration to dvd has brought back the brilliant lighting and color, copied by Cardiff, a painter, from the art of Vermeer and Rembrandt; "clean light" was one element he mentioned in an interview on the dvd. Being an early trained Technicolor expert actually got Cardiff this job, as this was Powell's first film in color. Kerr is excellent as usual, but the film acting laurels are stolen by Kathleen Byron, who slowly disintegrates under the strain in an unforgettable performance. Two Oscars®.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
Dziga Vertov, USSR, 1928, bw/silent (9.5*)
This is a very lively, fast-moving documentary that attempts to show to the world one day in the life of people within the Soviet Union. Most of the footage appears to be around Odessa, and the film begins showing sleeping people in a quiet city, some outside on benches or sidewalks, then as the sun rises, the city comes alive. What could have been just a boring travelogue has been instead raised to the level of art by some innovative cinematic techniques that even some of today's boring directors would be well advised to watch.
Director Dziga Vertov often shows his cameraman Kaufman (or did Kaufman film Vertov?) carrying the movie camera around on its tripod, or superimposed as a giant on top of a building, or as a window reflection. He even films Kaufman while he films a scene, such as a galloping horse and carriage which they're racing alongside in a convertible automobile. The resulting shot of the horse is simply breathtaking, as exciting as the chariot race in Wyler's Ben-Hur 31 years later, and it's likely that Wyler had seen this himself.
We are shown some mundane images, such as coal miners, shopkeepers, sunbathers, street cleaners, crowds entering buses; but we also see the unusual: women cleaning and greasing the tracks for electric streetcars, athletes clearing bars in slow motion, a woman shooting a rifle at a target with a hat bearing a swastika, a topless pair of women at the beach spreading mud over each other!
This is a short film at 70 minutes, but it moves very quickly for a silent film as none of the images are onscreen for long, so the result is perfect for the short attention span century, and the film editing is at genius level for just about any year. At times the modern soundtrack detracts somewhat, but there is a nice correlation between the music's rhythms and the visuals onscreen.
Vertov also shows the film being projected in a cinema in front of an audience; it start with them filing into the theater and taking seats, closes with the curtain being drawn and the crows exiting - so he shows the creative process during and after the film's completion. This is a bona fide cinema classic that ranks highly on all serious lists, it's #78 on our Top Ranked 1000 Films survey, and its the highest-ranked documentary.
[Note: I would have given this a 10 if it had a compelling story]
One of the first recipients of our World Film Awards, as we started with 15 silent classics
Friday, July 10, 2009
Nicholas Ray, 1950, bw (8.8*)
This excellent and surprising drama shows a side of Humphrey Bogart's acting skills never seen before. He plays a three-dimensional character with internal angst, loneliness, and a touching vulnerability. Bogart stars as a once-in-demand screenwriter, Dixon Steele, now trying to make a comeback. He has a girl come to his apartment to summarize a novel he has to adapt for the screen, and he ends up being the last to see her alive before she is murdered, so he's the obvious suspect.
That is, until neighbor Gloria Grahame clears him, in my favorite performances of this underrated actress (It's a Wonderful Life, Oscar® for supporting in The Bad and the Beautiful). She really gets to show her range here as she and Bogart begin both a professional and personal relationship, and establish a wonderful chemistry together onscreen. Grahame has both the beauty of an actress, yet somehow also seems accessible like the girl next door, which she literally is in this film. The film is really not about the crime as much as its effect on all the people who become involved, including a detective friend of Steele's, well played by Frank Lovejoy, but who naturally suspects his friend here. All the relationships become strained by the crime investigation, and the actors make you believe they are falling apart emotionally.
One of the best films ever made about Hollywood, for me this is the most rewarding film of director Nicholas Ray, better known for Rebel Without a Cause; this one is thankfully missing the over-acted melodrama of that film, and offers a much more honest portrayal of real characters. An oft-overlooked classic, it's #361 on our Top Ranked 1000 Films.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Jacques Becker, 1952, France, bw (7.9*)
This is a beautifully shot black and white crime film, with some terrific and innovative direction by Jacques Becker, and which was to have much influence on later French directors. The story is almost secondary to the style and look of this film. Based on police records in Paris in the 1890s, Casque D'or is a rich film, with beautiful art direction and camera movement which often follows characters as they pass, which should excite film buffs who like unique camerawork and gorgeous lighting. You may say the design is based on impressionist art, as even the opening scene of the gang arriving in boats is reminiscent of a Monet painting. There's very little violence here, only one major incident upon which the plot pivots.
A former convict going straight, Georges Manda (Serge Reggiani), becomes a carpenter, but remains friends with a former cellmate. Seeing his buddy at a dance, he meets gang moll Marie, played by a young and beautiful Simone Signoret; love soon begins to disrupt his new life, as his story now becomes entertwined with the gang's. Signoret is very classy and elegant here, and usually wears an irresistable Mona Lisa smile; she is the epitome of the long-haired screen goddess in this early role. Ironically considered a failure at first, this received critical acclaim in the U.S. and is now considered a classic worldwide. #543 on our top ranked films survey.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
This documentary on master director Stanley Kubrick was appropriately released in 2001, by his brother-in-law Jan Harlan. Using home movies, interviews with his exwife, other relatives, film stars, other directors, collaborators, writers, composers, and clips from his movies, we get a look at one of the few directors that could equally be labeled genius and artist. For me, this was a real treat, as I’ve always thought Kubrick was among the absolute best of directors, at least his best five films anyway, all legitimate all-time top 100 contenders:
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), ranked #2 on the all-time top ranked 1000 list; about the next step in evolution from a material to a spiritual being, illustrated by one astronaut but in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End, it happens to an entire generation at once
- Dr. Strangelove (1964) bw (#17), perhaps the best comedy ever; brilliant satire, perfect acting from Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens
- A Clockwork Orange (1971) (#63), a spellbinding trip into a violent future; Malcolm McDowell was never again to approach such greatness; from Anthony Burgess' brilliant autobiographical novel (he was the author, victim of the home invasion)
- Paths of Glory (#83), a powerful anti-war film shot in black and white, Kirk Douglas’ best role, as a heroic officer fighting for the underdogs
- Spartacus (#177), an underrated epic and homage to freedom, Kirk Douglas again
Other Kubrick films also make the all-time polls:
- Barry Lyndon (#101), shot in natural candlelight on old cameras fitted with Leica lenses made for the low light of space by NASA; perhaps a better choice than American Ryan O'Neal would have made this British novel more authentic
- The Shining (#109), a lengthy excursion into the madness of the Stephen King horror novel and the over-acting of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall
- The Killing (#324), his first serious feature, his only film noir/pulp fiction film
- Lolita (#652), an early bw filming of the controversial Nabakov novel, with James Mason
- Full Metal Jacket (#206), a war film in two parts, one half covers boot camp, the other the same infantry squad now fighting in Vietnam, with some great war action in a city
- Eyes Wide Shut (#806 on the critics poll only, 1058th on ours), his final film which took years to film. This last film was a slow and disappointing excursion into infidelity to most, but Kubrick thought it his finest film. Its star Tom Cruise narrates this documentary, and Nicole Kidman is also interviewed. Some say the lengthy filming broke apart their marriage.
Stanley Kubrick at IMDB
Friday, July 3, 2009
For me, this is de Sica’s masterpiece, a poignant and touching tale of an elderly man with no family, and he dedicated the movie to his own father. The brilliance of this film is that the two main stars are both non-professional actors. De Sica chose professor Carlo Battisti to play a retired pensioner who can barely feed his dog. The defeated pathos flows from Battisti’s expressions and one can see the wars and depression etched in everything he does. This is perhaps the best performance ever by an amateur actor.
In Umberto’s rooming house is a young maid of simple beauty, who sparkles with life, kindness, and optimism; De Sica cast 15 year old student Maria Pia Casilio from an audience that showed up to watch his auditions. She is literally in the same boat as Umberto, trapped in the house, working for a cutthroat, unsympathetic landlady who rents Umberto’s room by the hour for liaisons if she thinks he’s not around, and who wants to evict him altogether for being a little behind in rent. She is perfectly natural in the part, and often acts with just her body language, such a silent scene in the kitchen where she prepares coffee. Her character extends Umberto the only real kindness he finds, other friends can’t wait to escape his conversation, while she is his only visitor once when he's sick.
The star of the film for me is Flike, Umberto’s little Jack Russell terrier and his only loyal friend in the world. Umberto’s own actions center around the dog, and the audience’s emotions as well. Rarely has an animal been used so effectively in a film, doing tricks when asked, skulking away when hurt; in general, stealing hearts and scenes both. I would give this a 10 but, like most early neorealism, it’s just a little too depressing witnessing an elderly person who has lost all hope – this is still easier to take than The Bicycle Thief, however. #53 on our Top Ranked 1000, higher than the critics only poll. Cesare Zavattini’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar®.
[Note: some commenter at IMDB said 'he should just go get a job'! People's ignorance of history, wars, depressions, economics, poverty, and in this case the harsh reality of growing old never ceases to amaze me. There will always be poor, unemployed, the elderly, and hungry people; they are not out of work or poor because they want to be or haven't made an effort, but because of society's failure to provide for everyone. Umberto was a retired government worker who spent a lifetime in service and is now broke as a result, that is his story and the story of millions: he was never paid enough to live comfortably in retirement. This is why De Sica and others made films like this, so we can try to work together to become more humane. A government that can't take care of the elderly has failed, in my opinion. The neorealist movement in cinema was, as De Sica said, "about getting out of the stuido and filming real life in the streets".]
Thursday, July 2, 2009
Beautifully filmed and touching story about an elderly Japanese couple who make a major trip for their age to visit as many of their grown-up children as possible on a train trip to Tokyo. This story slowly reveals a well-known one, of how the elderly are often treated with a lack of respect befitting their experience and lifetime of sacrifice for their children. These children can’t seem to set aside time in their self-important daily affairs to treat their parents with even the normal attention one would show out-of-town guests, and often do spend time on idle gossip or even having routine card games with the regulars, or scheming up places to send the parents.
Master director Yasujiro Ozu’s camera may seem a little stilted to western filmgoers but not when taken in its own cultural context of a society with a tradition of asceticism, meditation, austere furnishings, ritualistic ceremony, and for us, rigid social manners. He both touches and angers us in this film that many rate as a timeless masterpiece; it’s #57 on the Top Ranked 1000 list I compiled, #10 on the critics consensus 1000 – so it’s more liked by critics than the general public. For me, it’s perhaps overrated: a little slow with too much silence for my top 100 (I'd trim 20 minutes), but definitely a masterpiece of Japanese cinema with a universal story that should be seen.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Walter Salles, 1998, Brazil (9.1*)
This is another minor masterpiece from director Salles, a Brazilian from Rio who directed the award-winning film of Che’s continental bike trip The Motorcycle Diaries. The film begins at the title location, with a letter writer, brilliantly portrayed by Fernanda Montenegro who garnered an Oscar nomination for best actress, writing letters for the illiterate people who couldn’t do it for themselves. She is twice visited by a woman and her son, who is trying to let her ex-husband know that the boy would like to visit his estanged dad and get to know him. Eventually we find that retired teacher Montenegro is so poor that she censors out the ‘hopeless’ letters and only mails those with some hope of a better life. Unfortunately, the boy’s mother is killed by a bus just outside the train station on their second visit, and the real story begins. Seeing that the boy has no one else, she takes it on herself to take him to his father in Bom Jesus, thousands of kilometers away.
Salles has crafted another beautifully inspiring road film, in this case we witness gradual tranformations in both major characters. We also see an isolated part of Brazil where religion has reached a near mystical, fanatical, and transcendental level, preoccupying the lives of rural peasants. Montenegro’s performance is close to astonishing, rarely has any actress successfully portrayed the range of emotion and character change so subtly or effectively. This film, along with other Salles films, won a host of awards internationally and deserved even more. Oscar-nominated for best foreign film, lost to Benigni's Life Is Beautiful. Winner of the Golden Globe and the BAFTA for Best Foreign Language film, I second their votes.
Overall, 31 international nominations and 9 awards, the awards page at IMDB: Central Station awards page