Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Illusionist (2010)

aka L'illusioniste
Sylvain Chomet, 2010, UK-France (8.0*)
#873 on our 2011 update of Top Ranked 1000 Films (all polls)
This is not to be confused with the real action film about a magician played by Edward Norton - this Illusionist is another hand-animated feature from Chomet, creator of the wonderful Triplets of Belleville, which emulated 50's Disney animated features in Chomet's own wonderfully warped style. In a documentary on the dvd, Chomet talks about the influence of those films on his early development as an animation artist, so he still renders these without computer animation, so these are made up of about 129,000 individual drawings for a 90 minute film, or 1440 per minute (24 p/sec x 60 sec), and of course, usually only the characters themselves move over a fixed background, which allow for much more detail in the animated 'set' since it won't be moving.

This film is actually a touching and poignant story from an unfilmed screenplay of French filmmaker and mime comic Jacques Tati. Like Triplets of Belleville and a Tati film, it has almost no dialog. Chomet has created a lead character that resembles Tati, so he's obviously animated this film to look like a film of Tati's. In this, Tati's character is a run-of-the-mill magician who plays near empty vaudeville venues.

Performing in Edinburgh, Scotland, he meets a young woman who is entralled by his tricks, and the two become close platonic friends; they explore the city together, and she eventually moves in with him.

Without giving anything away, I'll say that this is an adult story, with very little that would appeal to children, so right away that limits the market severely for animated features. This one doesn't even have the hilarity of Triplets of Belleville, which, though admittedly adult, still had Bruno the dog and a bicycle racer and other characters all ages could appreciate.

This is a valid effort by Chomet to give homage to Tati, and especially to his unfilmed story. I was quite touched by this story, and found it to be almost as unexpected and unpredictable as Triplets (but not quite, it's missing the same sparkle). For fans of Tati and Chomet, all will enjoy this, but it won't be one for the masses, only for the more discerning cinephiles.


Friday, June 17, 2011

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Carl Theodor Dreyer, France, 1928, bw-silent (8.0*)
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer of Denmark has given us a gem of a silent film by extracting and properly filming one of the great performances in cinema history by Renee Maria Falconetti as the teenage warrior Jeanne d'Arc, who led French soldiers of Orleans against the British invaders in the early 15th century. Jeanne claims she was spoken to by God, and told to kill British soldiers. For this she was tried by the Catholic Church, who tried to get her to recant her 'visions', and burned as a heretic at the age of nineteen. Later, as often happens, she was then sainted by the church as a martyr for her faith.

This film only covers her trial and death. Dreyer extracts every nuance and ounce of emotion that Falconetti can likely muster, and he gives us many gut-wrenching closeups of her anguish. In all honesty, I was worried about the actress herself after first seeing this, and later found out that she never acted again.

On rare occasions, someone transcends the medium of their art and creates a timeless work that will stand forever, and Falconetti has done that here. If you want the full story of Jeanne, or you like historical war films, you will likely want to watch the modern, violent, special effects driven film from French director Luc Besson, The Messenger, with Milla Jovovich as Joan. Fans of classic cinema will still prefer Dreyer's silent masterpiece, but both offer different views of this historical heroine.

Ranked No. 34 on our compendium of film polls, the #1 film from France (here is our list of the top ranked films from France), and is now No. 211 on the IMDB top 250, so it's a more popular film on the critics polls than the popular ones, yet it's still recognized by all groups of cinephiles.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Richard Pryor Live in Concert

Jeff Margolis, 1979 (9.6*)
This is stand up comedy at it's best. Richard Pryor in his prime is as funny as anyone in history. No props, just a mic and an audience, and comic genius flowed forth like a fountain from the subconscious.

You simply have to get Pryor uncensored as well, the language is part of the humor, it all fits the syntax, the rhythm of the language adds to the humor, which at times moves into the hilarious stage. He will talk about anything, too - some topics here include his pet monkeys, a Chinese stutterer, people at funerals, good sex, his heart attack, whippings from his granny, and dudes lying.

This was a very successful lp, then CD, but you really need to see Pryor act out his humor, as much of it is facial expressions and hand gestures, and even body language, especially when he delves into the sexual realm.

Pryor has influenced comedy forever, it's too bad that he didn't really translate to films, largely because the dumb humor written for him was never as funny as his own stuff, much of it penned by writer Paul Mooney, who is still doing his own standup today. Mooney says that the way to attack racism is to get people to laugh at it first, and at this, Pryor succeeded like no one else. He does perfect imitations of caucasians (even a little John Wayne) and asians both, and has several black voices and characters as well.

This is rare ground, and I doubt there will ever be anyone this funny again in the arena of standup comedy. For what it is, this should really be rated a 10.0, but when I compare it to films that are emotionally moving that's the one thing this lacks.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Tony Scott, 2010 (8.2*)
This is another non-stop action film with very little else to offer, but it does what it intends very well, with expert editing and Oscar®-nominated sound. Based on a true story, a half mile long train in northern Pennsylvania carrying 8 cars of a deadly flammable glue chemical becomes a runaway thanks to some boneheaded railyard employees who violate two or three major safety rules within a couple of minutes. It manages to escape the railyard unmanned with the throttle open, and is suddenly an unscheduled train on the main track barreling towards Scranton and a dangerously slow elevated curve.

Denzel Washington is a veteran train engineer and Chris Pine is a conductor in training who have just brought a load from a zinc plant onto the same main line. After narrowly avoiding the runaway head on, they decide to help rein in the runaway train. Probably the only lulls in the steamrolling narrative are when they try to allow these two to get to know each other with banal chatter about each others personal lives while they're chasing down the train from behind.

The story's realism is heightened by the constant jumping back and forth, via phones and radios, with railyard operation head Connie, played by Rosario Dawson (Sin City, Clerks II), and the corporate VP of operations, Mr. Galvin, perfectly played by Kevin Dunn. Connie is trying to weigh all options, while Galvin and the other corporate suits are always weighing their potential actions vs. the overall cost to the corporation in millions and the potential ramifications on the stock's price and market cap.

In a way, the editing and venue shifts done in almost real time reminded me of Paul Greengrass's excellent narrative of 9/11, United 93, which concentrated on the jet brought down by passengers in western Pennsylvania, but which also jumped around from air traffic controllers to NORAD to the hijackers to give the viewers a great sense of all the activity involved in a major crisis of this nature, as various officials in different locations all respond to the public threat. (NORAD was trying to get permission from the President on 9/11 to SHOOT DOWN all other airliners suspected of being hijacked, but couldn't reach him as he was in the air and incommunicado for over half an hour)

Nominated for Best Action Film by the Broadcast Film Critics, which is where it belonged, it lost to Inception, which is a better film, albeit not a realistic one like this is. This story was documented live on tv from several helicopters so it was filmed pretty accurately. Don't expect a lot but action entertainment and you won't be disappointed.

Tony Scott (photo left), brother of director Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down, Blade Runner), is known this type of film, his others being Top Gun, True Romance, Man on Fire, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, and the remake of Taking of Pelham 1-2-3.


Monday, June 13, 2011

True Love

Nancy Savoca, 1989 (8.0*)
Grand Jury Prize, Sundance
This is a small story with no pretensions, and not really any action either, just a story of two Italian Americans in the last few days leading up to their wedding. Ron Eldard plays a typical male, who'd rather go out drinking with his buddies "one last time" (that becomes again and again) than prep for the wedding. Annabella Sciorra steals the acting kudos as his fiance, who begins to suspect that he may be getting cold feet the closer the actual day gets. I really enjoyed her performance in this, she's an underrated Italian beauty in my opinion. Eldard is usually better (always later, this was early in his career), especially in the war film When Trumpets Fade; he just doesn't seem very Italian here (blond hair didn't help) - where was John Turturro I wonder?

This is likely going to be more enjoyable for women than men, the men are fairly weak characters, the women stronger ones (heck, that's kinda accurate for life, isn't it?). It also makes a few assumptions about this particular ethnic culture being a little familiar with viewers, which it really should be.

Presented as a 'comedy', that's not really accurate (that scene on the dvd is staged, it's not even in the film!) - it's a drama about love, marriage, and personal commitment, filmed with affection and humor, but the entire slant of the film is a serious look at what makes families and happy (and unhappy) couples, as there are all types around the betrothed. Personally I liked Savoca's non-judgmental approach, and how she showed relationships affected by jobs and the church as well, which felt very accurate based on my own experiences.

Some say "slice of life" is a phrase that kills movies - if it does for you, then this won't be your cup of tea, but otherwise this is another good film by a female director, and one with nothing untasteful. Imagine an Italian-American film with no bloodshed, no sex, no bathroom humor! What the heck happened here?

This small indie romance impressed the critics and festival juries more than the fans at IMDB, who only rate it 6.1, but it's much better than that. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and four awards overall) and the Grand Prize at the USA Film Festival, and a nominee for three Indie Spirit Awards: Best Feature, Nancy Savoca for best director, and Annabella Sciorra for best lead actress.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Oliver Twist

David Lean, 1948, bw (8.6*)
Before epic director David Lean turned out massive adventures like Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and The Bridge On the River Kwai, he made his mark by filming two excellent adaptations of Charles Dickens novels in classic black-and-white (like the books), albeit slightly abbreviated to fit the two-hour format. (Great Expectations is the other).

Using autobiographical information, Dickens made his third novel one of serious tragedy for an orphan boy, named Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies), who goes from an orphanage to being sold, to running away and joining a gang of street thieves. In the liveliest part of his story, the street urchins who pick pockets work for a man named Fagin, made famous here by Alec Guinness. The Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley) becomes his mentor. They actually treat young Oliver more like an equal, something he'd never had. He is befriended by Nancy (Kay Walsh), who has a domineering and vicious boyfriend in Billy Sykes (Robert Newton). That's the basic story, but there's obviously a lot more, especially in the Dickens novel, one of his best.

This was also successfully remade as a musical in 1967, as Oliver!, which won the best picture Oscar® and 4 others. If you want Hollywood entertainment, check out that version; if you want a faithful adaptation of Dickens, stick with David Lean.


Friday, June 10, 2011

The Loved One

Tony Richardson, 1965, bw (8.8*)
Screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood

British director Tony Richardson, his first since best picture Tom Jones two years earlier. For my money, this is a much better comedy, far more rewatchable, still fresh today - I can't say that about Tom Jones, awards or not. Some words used to describe this are dark, cynical, twisted, macabre - but hilarious is usually in there.

The story itself is a pseudo-serious look at the heights to which some people in Hollywood have gone to perpetuate the memory of lost loved ones, both at a super lucrative human cemetary called Whispering Glades (a take on Forest Lawn?), and a smaller pet cemetary, which is working on blasting animals into space, the brain of child scientist Paul Williams.

The film obviously takes a tongue-in-cheek at all this business of death (I guess it's a true 'black comedy', lol), and manages to poke fun at capitalism as well, as we see companies of all sizes looking at ways to save money on employees while gouging the public for the maximum possible, including features in the human cemetary like perpetually flowing fountains and music (all for only a few more dollars per month, of course).

The film is made special by an excellent cast, which features John Gielgud as a retiring Hollywood star, at an age when they can't wait to rush you out the door. Robert Morse stars as a young British poet who comes to Hollywood and gets a job at the Glades. Jonathan Winters has dual roles, as a Rev. Glenworthy and his rich brother Henry. Other stars are Dana Andrews, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Margaret Leighton, Tab Hunter, Roddy McDowell, Robert Morley, Liberace, and Anjanette Comer as Morse's romantic interest, and Rod Steiger as his romantic rival, Mr. Joyboy, an embalmer; Steiger is quite funny. Perhaps working in some many cameo performances hurts the films cohesion overall, that's probably the biggest drawback here.

You have to love the tagline for this one, "The movie with something to offend everyone". It's true that nothing is sacred, but it's all done in good taste, never too over-the-top, though with the episodic nature of some of the scenes some will find it inconsistent. But that's appropriate for it's time, the mid-60's. A lot of society was dis-jointed, pun intended.

Rod Steiger actually won 1 award for his comedy performance, a Sant Jordi for "actor in a major film".

Note: of course, at the time, director Tony Richardson (photo left) was the husband of actress Vanessa Redgrave (Morgan) who sued him for divorce in 1967, naming French actress Jeanne Moreau (Elevator to the Gallows) as co-respondent. He is the father of actresses Miranda, Joely, and Natasha Richardson, who died last year following a skiing accident in Canada. Richardson himself died of AIDS contracted from a blood transfusion.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Railway Children

Lionel Jefferies, 1970 (9.0*)
Catherine Morshead, 2000 (miniseries) (9.2*)

Edith Nesbit's wonderful 1906 novel about one English family's children thankfully has two wonderful film adaptations to recommend. They are both faithful to the novel and provide lovable cinematic tributes to her popular work, which is touching and humane without pretension or sentimentality. [see note below about Nesbit herself]

The original is the 1970 film from character actor turned director Lionel Jefferies. A happy family in Victorian London has everything change one night when some strange men come to their home, argue with the father, then leave with him. As a result these new financial hardships, the mother takes the kids and relocates in the countryside, where she barely earns enough for food by writing stories for magazines.

There's not a lot of activity in their new neighborhood, so they take daily walks down the railroad tracks, waving to the train's passengers from a nearby hillside. This somehow seems like a appropriate method of maintaining contact with the outside world, now relegated to nothing but newspaper stories.Some of the passengers always wave back, and include one important railroad man. This unique method of friendly conversation stirs his interest in the children, and the relationship proves mutually beneficial.

Jenny Agutter is wonderful as the oldest child, Bobbie, a young teen, almost a surrogate parent to the other two, Sally and Gary being pre-teens; all are surprisingly independent and risilient. Dinah Sheridan plays the mother, not onscreen nearly as much as the children.

The trains and station are as alive here as human characters, and provide a valuable literary metaphor. In fact, everyone in town gets to know the children through the railroad itself, which is a lifeline to their village. For me, this novel and film said a lot about the passage of time sadly removing our relationships to trains and a gentler, more leisurely time, one without the modern rush of autos and planes, which has removed the social interaction of the bygone era of steam, when most travel was on trains and ships.

The second version is a tv miniseries from 2000, directed by Catherine Morshead. In this version, Richard Attenborough plays the railroad man, Mr. Perk, and Jenny Agutter (Bobbie in the original), plays the childrens' mother, while Jemima Rooper has her original role. I think I may prefer the length of this longer version more, but both are excellent adaptations and make wonderful G-rated family films.

Note: Edith Nesbit's was a British socialist who wanted conditions improved for the impoverished workers of her country, and wrote over 60 books, mostly for or about children (over 40), the ultimate victims of poverty, as due to malnourishment many don't reach adulthood. She and her husband co-founded the socialst organization The Fabian Society, the precursor to the modern Labour Party.

Nesbit wrote about children without writing down to them. They are treated as intelligent, caring, and almost adult in maturity when having to deal with harsh life circumstances. This is likely why her writings are still popular today. In fact, she's considered the first author for children in dealing with the real world and it's problems rather than a fantasy world.

her page at Wikipedia


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Magnificent Ambersons

The Ambersons live a life of almost royal opulence

Orson Welles, 1942, bw (9.2*)
Welles' first film after Citizen Kane was his adaptation of the Booth Tarkington novel about the decline of an aristocratic midwestern American family, one who prized traditional values and their own social position above change, tolerance, and open-mindedness.

Joseph Cotten plays a family friend, a builder of early motor cars, often criticized by the Amberson patriarch as smoky, noisy nuisances, and something "that will never replace the horse". As a modernist, and someone from the wrong side of the tracks, he is never totally accepted as an equal to the Ambersons. Dolores Costello is an Amberson who admires Cotten and his ingenuity, and who falls in love with him, and of course has to defend him and progress in the family debates. Terrific Oscar-winning actress Anne Baxter plays his daughter, but doesn't have a lot of acting to do here (check her out in The Razor's Edge and All About Eve).

Agnes Moorehead shines as a slightly psychotic member of the Amberson clan, who keep to themselves enough that their huge Victorian mansion becomes more like a prison or asylum as they rarely mingle with the masses of their town. Tim Holt is an Ambersons' son and heir who seems to worry more about what people think than anything else.

The film is a little dark and moody, yet remains one of the enduring cinema portraits of turn-of-the-century American life and values, and a searing critique of those who perpetuate class differences to the point of prejudice. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez must be given some credit for the beautifully classic black-and-white look of the film.

Welles did not play a part in this film, preferring to remain behind the scenes. Author Tarkington was a family friend of Welles' growing up, so this is an author whose work and intent he knew personally. It's said that the studio butchered his final cut, yet it remains a classic American film, almost as revered as Citizen Kane, and certainly one of the finest adaptations from literature put on film. Nominated for four Oscars, including Cortez' cinematography, Moorehead's performance, best picture, and the terrific art direction, but it won none.

Anne Baxter and Joseph Cotten ride in his own invention


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Three Times

Hsaio-hsien Hou, Taiwan, 2005 (8.3*)
This is a film in three parts, really more like three short films. The only thing they have in common is actress Shu Qi, who stars in each story, along with Chang Chen who plays her romantic interest in each.

The first story is "Time for Love". Shu Qi plays a hostess in a poolroom, and after she leaves a young man who left to serve in the army returns and searches for her. This is a gentle story about love awakening, with tender scenes of shyness and unfamiliarity that should be in everyone's memory.

The second story is "Time for Freedom", and it's the part that stands out as not fitting the film. It's the story of a courtesan in a brothel around 1910, and it really looks like a lost section of Hou 1998 film Flowers of Shanghai, about courtesans in a Shanghai brothel in 1880, a film Shu Qi was not in; maybe Hou wishes she had been. The disconcerting part of this is that when the characters speak, there's no sound, only piano music, then we get silent era placards with their dialogue well after it's spoken. There was no reason to inflict viewers with this, as concurrent subtitles would have sufficed.

The last story is "Time for Youth". Shu Qi plays a young woman with epilepsy, who lives with her lesbian lover, but becomes interested in a male photographer, who usually photographs female models. This has some exhilirating motorcycle footage, a la Wong Kar-Wai in Fallen Angels. Once again, a Hou film has a cinematic tribute to Wong, who has mentioned Kar-Wai in interviews; I think he sees himself as the Taiwan equivalent of what Kar-Wai is for Hong Kong cinema.

I suppose it's inevitable that comparisons be made with Max Ophuls' La Plaisir, three De Maupassant short stories about French romance. In fact, when Ophuls made his, these 3 part films were in vogue in Europe and the U.S. Perhaps Wong Kar-Wai has started this modern revival, with his Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, which were intended to be one long film with three parts but was cut into two films due to length, and which inspired Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (in his words), also in three parts.

Two parts of this film warrant a rating of 9, unfortunately the center portion gets about a 6 due to the unnecessary silent film pastiche. However, that section does have a beautiful color palette (see photo below)
Winner of 4 awards, out of 14 nominations

All these films of Hou's have won either best director or best film somewhere: Flowers of Shanghai; Good Men, Good Women; A Summer at Grandpa's; Tong Nien Wang Shi; In the Hands of a Puppet Master; Millennium Mambo; Three Times; Cafe Lumiere


Le Plaisir

aka House of Pleasure (U.S.)
Max Ophüls, France, 1952, bw (8.2*)
This Ophüls' film of French romance is divided into three episodes, corresponding to three Guy De Maupassant short stories. In the two short stories that bookend the title one, we actually find the bitter sarcasm typical of Maupassant's style, though somewhat softened by Ophüls' sympathic human touch.

The first story is a man who disguises himself as a much younger man so he can still go out on the town and enjoy balls, dancing, and the company of younger women. Meanwhile, his wife waits at home, resigned to his activities and his fight to retain lost youth. It's little more than an introductory vignette into French night life, and is actually sad as "father time" gets us all in the end.

The excellent centerpiece here is "La maison Tellier", the brothel of a French province town, and is typical Ophüls, beautifully designed and filmed; in fact, the art direction was nominated for an Oscar. It's also the longest section of the film. We are shown the brothel of the title first through it's windows, as if an outsider peeking inside, and the camera moves from room to room from this outside position. The house has two parts, one for commoners, like sailors, connected to the bar. The other, for the well-to-do, is upstairs and visited by all the town's wealthiest merchants and politicians, and it's interesting that all these 'respectable' citizens have wives and children at home, and we see them making excuses (lies) to rush off the the brothel after supper.

In the film's integral section, the prostitutes take a day off to go to a First Communion celebration in the countryside, for the niece of the madame. Ophüls shows us this episode with fondness, a willingness to forgive people their faults and pettiness, adding the director's sense of humor. When the brothel is realized closed by the local men, the whole social order is upset and they become beacons of unrest. Sailors start a brawl, and even respectable citizens, such as the mayor and merchants, begin petty quarrels.  The beautiful Danielle Darrieux lends her beautiful talents to this story, as well as Jean Gabin (La Grande Illusion), who plays Joseph at the country estate they visit, and who tries to give Danielle his own personal 'thanks' in her room at one point.

The courtesans are actually moved by the Communion Mass, and are soon all weeping, perhaps realizing some lost innocence of their own. But as soon as it's over, they rush off to the train because "the house can be closed for one night, but not two" (heck, the town would likely be in flames!) In spite of their hurry, it's a gorgeous day so they stop and all pick flowers. The day makes a poetic, pastoral contrast to their typical night life of drinking, dancing, and partying til dawn.

The last story features Simone Simon as a woman seen by an artist on the street, who is infatuated with her beauty. She becomes his model, then lover, as they move in together after his paintings of her start to sell. However, passions based on beauty don't always last, and this story is no different. Perhaps the most cynical response to love of the three stories, it's also the most realistic, showing how many people simply settle for their lives.

Fans of this film (in 1957, Kubrick said it was 'his favorite') and Ophüls should also watch La Ronde, similar in style in that it's a series of stories about romance revolving around common friends who party in the same circle. Perhaps his finest film, however, is The Earrings of Madame D., click for our review (#268 on our top 1000 films compendium).

This is among the most visually beautiful of all the works of Ophüls, who himself is one of the best in French cinema; ironic, since he emigrated there from Germany (born Max Oppenheimer). Ophüls said, "everyone has two fatherlands, his own and Paris". From Germany, he emigrated there because he liked "breakfast with cognac in your glass, gigolos and prostitutes at night".

Note: this style has been copied often, especially from the 90's on.. see our upcoming review of Hsien-hsiang Hou's Three Times for a similar recent film about Taiwan.


Monday, June 6, 2011

Nights of Cabiria

Federico Fellini, Italy, 1957, bw (8.5*)
Cabiria is a wide-eyed, waifish street walker from a poor section of Rome, wonderfully played by Guilietta Masina. We can pretty much surmise her life from the few scenes shown to us by Fellini.

She only seeks true love, but is instead nearly drowned by her boyfriend, who also steals money from her. A movie star takes her home. An accountant says he saw her on the stage once, fate brought them together again. and so on.. In spite of all this, she still inhabits a sad and lonely world - after all, this is Italian realism. No "pretty woman", this is more like real life - the hookers in Hollywood (Klute, Pretty Woman, L.A. Confidential, with Oscars for those 3 actresses by the way) all seem to be only the high-class escort variety, not real streetwalkers.

This is a simple film, carried totally by the performance of Masina, who snares the audience early and then you're caught. To me, this is the best performance in all of Fellini's films. She seems resigned to her life, yet is also childishly hopeful. She still possesses a vitality that life should have drained by now. The fact that Fellini is her husband makes this perhaps the finest collaboration of spouses in Italian cinema. Thankfully, Fellini didn't fill this story with surrealism, it's more like La Strada than 8 ½.

Oscar winner for foreign language film, and a total of 15 awards, 4 for Giulietta Masina for best actress. No. 223 on the IMDB 250, No. 136 on our compendium of all net polls.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Bird People in China

Takashi Miike, Japan, 1998 (8.3*)
A young Japanese salaryman, played by Masahiro Mitoki (Departures) is sent by his company to China to evaluate a local find of a natural jade vein. Little does he know that he is shadowed by a yakuza who loaned his company money and is out to protect his interests.

The two are taken by train, bus, auto, then on foot, past the last road, to a really remote Chinese village. Along the way they meet another Japanese man there looking for mysterious "bird people", who are said to be the tribal ancestors of the Japanese from the Chinese mainland; he has a prehistoric rock with a bird symbol that he shows them, found in Japan, and he's hunting for similar stones in China.

When the men finally arrive their mission runs into various obstacles, not the least of which is their guide's amnesia, caused by a blow to the head. They are also more interested to discover a mysterious young village girl and a school she has for teaching flying, her haunting English language song and other mysteries that border on folk tales.

Winner of 4 awards, including two acting awards for Mitoki, who won several for Departures.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Millennium Mambo

Hsiao-hsien Hou, Taiwan, 2001 (7.7*)
If you're a fan of the films of Hou or Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, (best of which are Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love) or like me, you just like watching Taiwanese beauty Shu Qi (Hsu Chi, photo below) just walk around, you'll enjoy this film of Hou's.

Hou gives us a snapshot of the life of aimless Vicky, who does little more than hang around night clubs. She reflects back in the beginning of this on her relationship ten years earlier with Hau-Hau, a jealous house rock dj, who generally mistreats or ignores her and wants her to account for her time away from him or phone calls to others. Whenever they break up, he starts following her around again. We also see Vicky later in Japan, with a different man.

This is a not like a typical western film romance: boy meets girl, they have a relationship, then they (a) get married, or (b) part ways, end of film.. This is a segment of Vicky's life that covers roughly a decade, and we see scenes from each portion to give us a picture of her overall lifestyle. Much of the film is linked or propelled by electronic trance music, and it all fits together to create a very modern style, to me, reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai.

Director Hou said in an interview that he wanted to show Taiwan night life and incorporate the trance music of Lim Giong (who co-wrote the music), so he used all Taiwanese actors. On the dvd, I like the longer, deleted "In Japan" segment that gives Shu some leeway as an actress to show more emotion than in the rest of the film, where she seems mostly just angered by life circumstances. She is certainly worth watching, as are all the films of Hou. He's definitely an artist, usually bringing visual poetry to the simplest of stories.

Winner of 6 awards, including a technical prize at Cannes


Flowers of Shanghai

Hsiao-hsien Hou, Taiwan, 1998 (7.8*)
Without a lot of action, Hou paints a picture of life in upper-class brothels in Shanghai in the 1880's. The courtesans were known as "flower girls", hence the title. They were often bought as little girls, and kept in the house as servants until of age to go into the trade. Many never rose above servitude to become successful courtesans. In this tale, we see all types, but the stories center on several courtesans in their prime, and reveal to us all their gossip, conniving, and scheming.

Meanwhile, the clientele basically does little more than play drinking games and remain noncommital regarding taking better care of their mistresses. Many characters pass through the houses, yet Hou focuses on just key moments and conversations. Tony Leung is the best known of these actors.

The movie never leaves the internal rooms of the flower houses, and you feel a sense of the social circumstances that ensnares all the characters, whether they're patrons or the purchased. The cinematography is beautiful, as are the women, shot in the low-lighting of the interiorr spaces, very reminiscent of that in Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, shot in candlelight, with the same color palette as Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love.

Probably not the most involving of Hou's films, but one worth seeing nonetheless. It is ranked #898 on our compendium of all film polls


Friday, June 3, 2011

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

Roy Rowland, 1953 (8.2*)
Totally fantastic story by Dr. Seuss, who also provided the set design and some song lyrics. This wonderful spoof of childhood music lessons features Hans Conreid as diabolical Dr. Terwilliker, who is writing the world's first piano concerto for 500 boys on a monstrous serpentine piano of his own creation, hence the film's title - his concerto takes 5,000 fingers.

Tommy Rettig plays one of the music students, who are basically held prisoner, and forced to play rehearse nearly all the time, staying in cells, and with the music school surrounded by an electrified fence. His help comes in the form of a surrogate dad, played by Peter Lind Hayes, who is an amateur inventor with a planned surprise invention for Dr. Terwilliker.

This is a fun movie all-around, it's surprising that it's not better known, given it's Dr. Seuss connection. It's just crazy enough to be an unforgettable children's fantasy.
Just one of the goofy set designs of
Dr. Seuss in 5,000 Fingers

The piano that seats 500 boys
I want one of these hand beanies


Thursday, June 2, 2011

Bicycle Thieves

Ladri di biciclette
Vittorio De Sica, Italy, (1949) bw (9.2*)
Best Foreign Film (AA, GG)
Best Film (BAA)

In this hallmark film of Italian post-war realism, former actor Vittorio De Sica used all amateur actors and a street realism style with stunning results. De Sica presents probably the most uncompromising and least hopeful of film stories, the film is so depressing that I've had a hard time recommending it here.

The story is a simple one, a poor Italian man, played by factory worker Lamberto Maggiorani, with a young boy gets a job posting film signs only because he has a bicycle. But like most material objects in harsh economic conditions, it gets stolen. Now the man has no bicycle to get to his job, therefore it threatens his job as well. This bicycle becomes the holy grail of this man's life and of this film.

De Sica and the other post-war realists didn't believe in the make-believe world presented by films prior to the war. Rather than escape from reality, they sought to bring the harsh reality of everyday life to the filmgoing public, perhaps with the hope that by raising awareness of the plight of some, people will be angered enough to work to make those conditions more dignified.

It's hard not to be moved by this film. Considered by many one of the finest films ever made, it certainly should be near the top of most polls. No. 85 on the IMDB 250, No. 16 on our compendium of all film polls so it's apparent that critics rank this film a much higher than the general public.

Winner of 16 awards (out of 17 nominations), including an Oscar® and Golden Globe for best foreign language film, and a British academy award (BAFTA) for best overall film.

Note: growing up, this film was always "The Bicycle Thief" - I'm not sure when or why it became plural, but I'm using the title used at IMDB


Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Abel Gance, France, 1927, bw-silent (8.8*)
Gance's massive six-hour film was the first part of an intended six part film on the life of the emperor, but he never got the financing to complete the project. This begins with the early part of his life and early conquests. This innovative film used many techniques that would become standards for years. One 20-minutes section features a triptych sequence with three projections side-by-side that pre-date extreme widescreen films.

If the 36-hr work had been completed, that would have been longer than any modern mini-series, and the epic of all epics. Ranked #230 on our compendium of all film polls

One of our first World Film Awards, as we started with 15 silent films.


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Artist, photographer, composer, author, blogger, metaphysician, herbalist

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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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