Saturday, July 30, 2011

Café Lumière

Hsiao-hsien Hou, Japan, 2003 (8.6*)

I can't explain why, but for some reason I found this movie to be poignantly moving, more so than other films of Taiwan master Hsiao-hsien Hou. Made for the centernary of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu (the 100th anniversary of his birth), Hou has made a film of similar pace, but one which is decidely Hou's.

Personally, I grew up loving trains, especially trips on them that lasted overnight. In one regard, this film is an homage to Tokyo's trains, as one character, a used bookstore manager (charismatic Tadanobu Asano), does artwork about them, and even records the sounds of each when he has time. Lead character Yoko (played by Yo Hitoto) spends much time in aimless train rides without a real destination, which becomes a metaphor of her own personal relationships.

There's a certain honesty in the human relationships portrayed here, especially how people are cordial but rarely connect on a deep interpersonal level, something the main character seems to avoid. Most of these scenes appear improvised, but with pleasant results; in one scene a dog keeps peeking in from the background and literally steals the scene away from the human actors by not doing much but acting like a natural dog.

For me, the final shot of multiple trains crisscrossing each other in a silent ballet of city life in action is one of the more poetic and lyrical closing shots in all of cinema. [See photo below]. The film won a Golden Tulip award in Istanbul, while actress Hitoto won a Japanese Academy Award for Newcomer of the Year.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Way Back

Peter Weir, 2010 (8.2*)
This incredible story begins with "In 1945, three men came out of the wilderness after a 4,000 mile walk from Siberia - this film is dedicated to the memory of these men."

Based on a memoir by Slavomir Rawicz called "The Long Walk", which depicted his escape from a Siberian gulag and subsequent 4000-mile walk to freedom in India. This popular adventure became a bestseller, selling over 500,000 copies. Credited with inspiring explorers, one survival expert recreated the same hike himself and served as a technical advisor on this film. However, the BBC unearthed records in 2006 (including some written by Rawicz himself) that showed he had been released by the USSR in 1942, while another former Polish soldier, Witold Glinski, claimed in 2009 that the book was really an account of his own escape. ("I walked 4000 miles!" - "No, I did!")

Whatever the facts, the film depicts a tribute to the survival instinct of man, a harrowing wilderness adventure trek across Siberia, Lake Baikal, Mongolia, Tibet, and finally emerging in the Indian Himilayas.

The story follows seven men who escape from a Siberian gulag consisting of foreign workers who were jailed by Stalin while working in Russia, and the typical assortment of lifetime criminals, led by Colin Farrell, who carries a knife, and a tattoo of Lenin and Stalin on his chest. He escapes with an international group led by American Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), Pole Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Swede, Russian, and a Hungarian (or was it Romanian?) They are followed by a young Polish teen, who eventually joins the group, played by Saorise Ronan (who celebrated her 16th birthday on the set). Of her talents, Weir said "She was born with a particular acting talent that can't be learned".

The film perhaps loses it's emotional intensity along the way and becomes a slow walk to inevitability, so in that regard it's not as artistic as most of Weir's better efforts, such as Fearless, Witness, and Picnic at Hanging Rock. In spite of that, it's an adventure that needs to be told, and if true, one of the most amazing feats in human history. Similar stories have been documented as many prisoners spend years returning home after wars, many walking as far at 8-10,000 miles, so this story is not that unbelievable.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Black Rain

Shôhei Imamura, Japan, 1989 (9.0*)
This film begins with a harrowing recreation of the Hiroshima atomic blast to those nearby but separated enough from ground zero to escape immediate annihilation. This film follows a Mr. and Mrs. Shizuma and their niece Yasuko (wonderfully played by Yoshiko Tanaka), who wander through the devastation of Hiroshima just minutes after the blast. The three survive this harrowing apocalypse, and the film picks up their lives five years later, when they are now living in a secluded mountain village, along with other survivors of what they call "picabon" or the Japanese equivalent of the 'nuclear flash'.

The basic story follows the lives of survivors five years later to show the lingering aftereffects on the Japanese civilian population. This is not a pleasant story, but in Imamura's hands becomes an elegaic homage to all the victims who managed to survive for years longer, but whose lives were forever touched in some way. Many seem resigned to the inevitable problems and thus never really continue normal lives, while others are content to spend their time fishing or enjoying the simple pleasures of slow mountain life.

Director Shôhei Imamura adds to the journalistic look of this film by choosing to shoot in classic black and white, in fact, the film resembles the style of Japanese films circa 1950. The story ends to remain faithful to the original novel by Masuji Ibuse, but the dvd includes an alternate ending in the form of a 17-minute color epilogue added by Imamura, who decided to not add his ending to the original film.

Actress Yoshiko Tanaka adds a lot to this film with her subtle yet emotionally moving performance as a young woman who walked through Hiroshima immediately after the blast, yet appears physically immune to any aftereffects.

One of Imamura's assistant directors was famed director Takashi Miike, who said in an interview that his job on this film was "hired dog", yet it gave him an inner strength that he's used in his own works, such as Ichi the Killer and 13 Assassins, which have been criticized for featuring 'over the top' violence.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Xavier Beauvois, France, 2010 (9.4*)
Grand Jury Prize, Cannes
Beautifully filmed, gripping story of a small group of French Trappist monks who run a local hospital in the mountains of Algeria, who treat hundreds of poor local villagers a week, mostly children. Suddenly, Islamic fundamentalists start executing foreigners in the region, including one Algerian teen not wearing a veil in public.

The government wants to send the military to guard the small monastery, but their leader, Brother Christian, well protrayed by Lambert Wilson, who displays an even temperament and firm resolve fueled by inner faith, refuses to sanction the proximity of weapons to their sanctuary. My favorite actor in the cast is the veteran Michael Lonsdale (the French patriarch who helped the Isaelis find terrorists in Munich), who is the real doctor for the clinic, and who lived much of his life in the secular world, so he can see events unfolding without a clouded perspective.

In the face of increasing threat from extremists, the brothers must decide to follow their calling and service to their faith, or face the reality of the modern world and continue their mission elsewhere, either back in France or a safer country in Africa.

This is a recounting of real events, which adds more weight to all decisions involved, the characters are all real people. Beautifully filmed in a dramatic mountain setting with awe-inspiring vistas; you can understand why they chose to build a monastery at this location. It's rare that a film about faith and religion can also successfully deal with real issues like this film. This one of the best films about faith ever made, and is a work of rare cinematic art.

Winner of five awards out of 11 nominations, including the Grand Jury Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes.


Monday, July 4, 2011

127 Hours

Danny Boyle, 2010 (8.8*)
This is a true story of hiker-climber-biker-canyoneer Aron Ralston's solo trek into the Blue John Canyon section of Canyonlands in southeastern Utah, some of the most remote canyon terrain in the U.S., not made a national park until 1964, when re-discovered in modern times by Secretary of State Stu Udall during a helicopter flight.

Ralston is excellently played by Oscar-nominee James Franco, who captures the youthful exhuberance of a child at heart, mixed with an older man's previous wilderness experience - he was actually a volunteer wilderness rescue expert and part-time canyon guide and knows this area well.

I've been in this exact part of the country (and Joshua Tree outside L.A.), and we did a lot of what we called bouldering, or climbing rocks without any equipment, but we never took the chances that Ralston did. About half an hour into the film, Ralston meets some lost ladies (one of whom is one of film goddess Kate Mara, Transsiberian) and shows them both their intended trail, and a hidden underground pool by dropping about 30 feet through a crevice from above (which is shot with some excellent cinematography).

After saying goodbye to his new friends, Ralston is climbing alone when he dislodges a loose boulder at the top of a crevice, which causes him to fall into it and the boulder lands just the right way to pin his right hand and arm to the side of the narrow crevice.

He's now trapped in the bottom, about fifty feet below sky, but he does have his video camera, and his daypack with water and a little food. Of course, the title of the films implies how many hours he remains trapped, you should know that much. But since he has a video recorder, we would know his story whether he survived or not. He certainly thinks he's doomed, and records final goodbyes for his mom and friends.

I went into this with some trepidation about the film's pace and creativity, but the on location terrain in southeast Utah that I've been in myself (Arches Nat Park and Canyonlands are two of my favorite in the U.S.) was the hook for me. I've been there many times, at various ages - it's a desert paradise on earth, one all climbers and hikers should visit, and re-visit.

Boyle has a way to make any film engrossing - I enjoyed Shallow Grave, Millions, Trainspotting, and Slumdog Millionaire, the latter a best picture winner and all definitely worth seeing. I thought Shallow Grave was a perfect parody of Hitchcock suspense thrillers, with three robbers trying to both hide the unspent loot and live together, two guys and a girl, a formula that you know spells disaster.


Friday, July 1, 2011

High and Low

Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1963, bw (9.0*)
Excellent crime thriller from the Japanese master director Kurosawa, in the tradition of his excellent police procedural Stray Dog (1949). A millionaire factory manager, played by Tashiro Mifune, has mortgaged everything to buy just enough stock to take control of his shoe company in order to maintain his high quality standards while other greedy board members insist on putting out a flimsy cheap shoe that will not last a year and forcing their customers to rebuy shoes more often.

That very day, the executive's son is playing with his chauffeur's son and they change cowboy and outlaw outfits, and a kidnapper abducts the wrong child by accident, but still demands a hefty ransom or he'll kill the child. So now Mifune must weigh the dilemna of losing his company by paying the money he needs to save the child, or sacrificing a child, who's not his own anyway, to save his career.

This film also becomes a police procedural as they try to narrow down the kidnappers location in a race against time, as they feel the child is likely to be killed in either case. Other than his classic masterpiece Seven Samurai, my favorite films of Kurosawa's are these gorgeous crime films in black and white, which are detective stories filmed like 40's film noir. His film Stray Dog caused a huge wave of popularity for these films in Japan in the 50's.

This is now # 449 on our 2011 Edition of Top Ranked 1000 Films on the Net (all polls)


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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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