Thursday, August 27, 2009

The 400 Blows

François Truffaut, 1959, France, bw (9.0*)
Excellent first film of François Truffaut that deservedly put him on the map, where he caused quite a stir at Cannes, winning best director. The film was shot in a documentary style about a troubled youth, Antoine, played very naturally and realistically by Jean-Pierre Léaud at only age thirteen; the film succeeds because of his performance, and much of that was improvised by Trauffaut, a former film critic making his debut film at age 25. This is a realistic story about being an alienated teenager in a big city, and it still rings true today, five decades later.

The story is actually partially autobiographical, and Antoine and his best friend Rene would cut school to go to the cinema, just as Trauffaut himself did, then would get in trouble with the school authorities, who would of course notify the parents. Antoine senses that his parents don’t really want him around, so he spends as much time running away as he does in their cramped apartment. This film has some of the more memorable scenes in movies: kids spinning around in a roundabout amusement ride, shot from their vantage point and that of the spectators watching them from above, glued by centrifugal force to the ride's walls; another of kids faces while watching a puppet show, some with open-mouth astonishment, the same looks you’d see from a cinema audience as well, especially in a children’s film. Perhaps my favorite: Antoine's face staring out from the back of a police bus, at the city lights of Paris rolling by.

I just watched this for the third time, and it actually gets better each time, as I notice new things on each viewing. This is a bona fide cinema masterpiece (ranked #60 on our survey, the 5th French film, just after his own Jules and Jim), with terrific camerawork, a very natural style, with a total lack of pretension or self-awareness. Winner of several international awards, with one Oscar nomination for screenplay. The awards page at IMDB

[Note: don't be deterred by the title, he's not a victim of abuse, he only gets slapped a couple of times, once by the police. Be sure to watch the interviews on the Criterion dvd if possible. Most will recognize Truffaut as the actor playing the scientist in Close Encounters who invented the musical method of communication with the aliens.]


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Le Samourai

aka The Godson (US)
Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967, France (8.0*)

This is a very stylish film noir (in color) from French master director Jean-Pierre Melville, about a modern 'samourai', a hit man for hire, used by gangsters in Paris. Glamour boy Alain Delon fits this part perfectly, playing trench-coated Jef Costello with his cold blue-eyed stare and seeming indifference to everything, beautiful women as well as killing. This is all done very quietly, with meticulous care, thankfully with no symphonic or rock music score for distraction, just some occasional tasteful jazz, played live at a nightclub.

The film is almost as much a police procedural, with Francois Perier perfectly cast as the police superintendant investigating the murder committed by Costello near the film's beginning. Delon's wife Nathalie becomes his gorgeous alibi, and Cathy Rosier is the jazz singer at the club where the contract is completed. Even the art direction is perfect, notice how each apartment is furnished perfectly for each of the characters, from tasteful elegance to bare essentials only. After Army of Shadows, #291 on our survey, the highest rated of Melville's films at #358; both scored 8.1 at IMDB, as did his Le Circle Rouge.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Johnny Guitar

Nicholas Ray, 1954 (7.6*)
This is an absolutely bizarre western, featuring gun-toting women and music loving gunmen. The title character is a guitar-toting, peaceful outsider, played by Sterling Hayden, in his "glamour boy" days, with curly blond hair. He drifts into a dusty town where saloon-keeper Joan Crawford has a feud going with local rancher Mercedes McCambridge and the locals, including sheriff Ward Bond, all seem to do her bidding, which can be pretty vindictive. There are also hints of romantic jealousy between the two over Dancing Boy (Scott Brady), who has a gang of illiterates led by perfectly cast tough guy Ernest Borgnine.

There are few western cliches here, as if Ray intentionally set about to break traditions. Little in the plot is "black and white", it's all intense hues of color - literally. By way of introduction to the town, Sterling Hayden's fingers fly over the guitar, while Dancing Boy illustrates his nickname as well, wheeling McCambridge around he room. Even the settings are bizarre: Crawford's saloon, which stands by itself outside of the town proper, has a desert rock wall and resembles a cave, the outlaw hideout is on a hilltop approached by going through a waterfall. Written by blacklisted author Ben Maddow (credited to Philip Yourdon) from a Roy Chanslor novel. Oddly listed by IMDB as "film noir" - a western?


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Sam Mendes, 2008 (8.7*)
Finally, an adult drama that is thoroughly engrossing and powerful. Richard Yates novel about alienation is brilliantly filtered through the directing eyes of Sam Mendes (American Beauty), concidentally, star Kate Winslet's husband in real life. Here Winslet is reunited with Leonardo DiCaprio as suburban married couple Frank and April Wheeler. By outward appearance they are typically normal and happy, but inside neither is fulfilled, and the story is about marital and emotional desperation, the lack of personal identity that each feels, and their ideas for escape from their suburban prison.

There are some of the most emotionally gripping scenes in recent films between DiCaprio and Winslet, in some ways the best acting each has acheived; Winslet won a Golden Globe for her performance (and four others, see below), but won her Oscar® for The Reader, which wasn't nearly as involved or emotional a role as this one, which I think elevates her to the level of the elite group of best all-time actresses (Davis, Hepburn, Streep, Glenda Jackson). Kathy Bates is spot on as usual as their unsuspecting real estate agent, one of those positive and polite people who are everywhere. Oscar® nominee Michael Shannon steals his scenes as Bates' mentally unstable son, who is very perceptive but also undiplomatic about his observations, like we all want to be.

This is an exhausting but remarkably real story, all perfectly balanced by Mendes and a terrific screenplay adaptation by Justin Haythe from the Richard Yates novel, yet the Oscar nominations were art direction, costume design, and Shannon's performance for supporting actor. Both Haythe and DiCaprio should have each been nominated as well as director Mendes, as for me this was a more rewarding film than American Beauty, which won best picture and director.

Kate Winslet won five international acting awards for this role - click here for the awards page at IMDB


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Come and See

Elim Klimov, 1985, Russia (8.4*)
This is one of the more harrowing WW2 films, as it takes place in rural Belorussia as the Nazis invade, turning idyllic, pastoral farmland into a living hell. We see life through the eyes of a teenage boy, named Florya, brilliantly played by Alexei Kravencho, who begins the film digging in the sand for discarded weapons, which he and his friends use for playing war. Soon after, the Nazi invasion comes, and he flees with some armed partisans into the woods. Gradually through the film, his face becomes etched by horror, and his his eyes mirror his internal shock at the atrocities he witnesses.

This has some of the more memorable war scenes in memory. Director Klimov has made the film more immediate and realistic by using high contrast, grainy film and hand-held cameras. You often feel the trees whipping past you as you hike through the forest with partisans to escape the invading army, which is leaving a path of destruction. There’s a particularly frightening one of machine gun fire in the dark on a moonlit night, tracers skimming by just over the head of a prone Florya in the grass.

A warning that this depicts war brutality at its worst, and is not a family film nor one for the squeamish, but for everyone else, a must-see war film that brings the ultimate reality of mankind’s atrocities back to our consciousness once again. One of the best Russian films, #559 on our top ranked films on the net survey.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Band of Outsiders

aka Bande à part
Jean-Luc Godard, 1964, France, bw (7.6*)
This small crime film is, for me, Godard's most appealing film that I've seen. It's an unassuming and simple movie, and maintains a freshness throughout he's usually lacking. The story involves vivacious and attractive student Anna Karina, who perhaps has too big a mouth to be involved in crime. Living at her aunt's house she lets out the info that a roomer has some embezzled cash on hand. This intrigues two of her male friends, played by Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur, as much as she herself does, so they hastily hatch out an amateurish plot to steal the money and head for some more exotic locale. Some of the plot is perhaps a bit stretched, but its all in good fun, especially when the three dance The Madison together in a small club, a scene that the actors rehearsed for two weeks in their spare time. Don't expect anything deep here, but a well photographed black and white crime caper. Ranked #374 on our film survey.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Meet Me in St. Louis

Vincente Minnelli, 1944 (8.4*)
This is one of the best of the Judy Garland musicals, and it involves a family that enjoys life in hometown St. Louis, around the time of the world's fair in 1903. There's not a lot of story here, but it's also not the old "let's put on a show, let's make a musical" plot either. It's primarily about the family enjoying each others company on holidays, and the girls entertaining beaux, all the noise driving father Tom Drake 'to distraction'.

Margaret O'Brien plays Garland's scene-stealing little sister, especially during one Halloween sequence that involves some pretty delinquent behavoir: bonfires in the streets, dusting residents with wet flour, and later even trying to derail a streetcar with a fake body. These kids were middle-class hoodlums, but all in good fun, like the Our Gang comedies.

The musical numbers include "The Trolley Song", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", and the title song. Garland was in her prime here, a young woman of 22 who could really belt out a song. The technicolor is absolutely mouth-watering, perhaps a little too intense, but this is a good, fun family film for all ages. In fact, many think it's director Vincente Minnelli's best, along with An American in Paris. #293 on our top ranked films on the net survey.

Garland didn't want to star in this, as a teenager, but Minnelli not only convinced her to, but also to marry him later.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Edge of the World

Michael Powell, 1937, bw (8.0*)
Filmed on one of Scotland's Shetland Islands, in a location so remote that the Roman Empire named one of the these islands the Latin for "edge of the world". This is a stark, beautifully shot black and white film whose style mirrors the harsh, simple, ascetic lifestyle of the people who inhabit the westernmost islands of the British Isles, beyond whose open sea lies "only America". Life is becoming increasingly harsh and unliveable for the fisherman of the island, due to overfishing from the bigger commercial fleets, and some nearby islands have had to be evacuated. The only current means of livelihood are wool and peat and there is little future for the island's youth, who are deserting for the towns and cities of the big islands.

Powell is perhaps less polished without his famous screenwriting partner Emeric Pressburger, (see The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) but this remains a very interesting early Powell effort. In fact, one might say the stark island landscapes only broken by people foreshadowed Antonioni's L'avventura over 20 years later. The dvd features a documentary by Powell shot when cast and crew revisited the island of Foula, location of the film's shooting, and revisited original inhabitants who were also in the film 25 years previously.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Rains Came

Clarence Brown, 1939, bw (8.2*)
Very good early film about India, with some very expensive special effects for the time, which won an Oscar over Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind for those; they are of King Kong quality. Tyrone Power is an Indian doctor, trained in England naturally, doing his best to maintain dignity and help the poor citizens of Ranchipur. Myrna Loy is Lady Esketh, a woman of the world with too much time given her boring husband's negligence, so she sets her sights on the Indian doctor. H.B Warner and Maria Ouspenskaya play the local rulers, and Maria really shines here in another unforgettable performance. She seems to have been in nearly every film in those days; she was also in 39's Intermezzo.

The story really heats up during an earthquake sequence that leads a dam to collapse, then we see the special effects at work as thousands flee amid walls of water. This changes the lives of all involved, and Loy goes from her comedic sarcasm to a woman with a serious purpose in life, in perhaps her finest dramatic performance. There are other subplots of romance here but they take a backseat to the major disaster unfolding. This is a surprisingly good drama considering it gets lost among the other 1939 films, but perhaps after Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it's up there with the other dramas of that year to me.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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