Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Day 286 - The Rules of the Game

The Rules of the Game (1939) directed by Jean Renoir




For some reason I am having the most difficult time thinking of something to write. I've been typing paragraphs and deleting them over and over for ninety minutes now with no headway so I'll just have to make this a quick and dirty one which is kind of a shame since apparently I have a lot to say; I just can't seem to get the words out.

Apparently this movie is a really big deal and is often listed as one of the greatest films of all time right alongside the likes of Citizen Kane and Battleship Potemkin. I've basically never even heard of the film so I had no idea what to expect going in. The film description sounds kind of dull; it is basically a domestic comedy drama where rich socialites and servants gather in a country chateau. There are a lot of things going on but the primary story centers around the love lives of the central characters. See if you can follow. Andre is in love with Christine who is married to Robert who is having an affair with Genevieve. Christine sort of loves both Andre and Robert but deep down inside loves Octave who secretly loves her. All these characters come together in a social gathering at Robert's country chateau. There is still a separate subplot involving the servants who are also in a lover's quarrel. It's all kind of a ridiculous farce and the film even plays around with that idea. At some point in the film, the fight for love becomes violent and two separate fights break out. As all hell breaks loose, Robert tells his servant, "Stop this farce!" The servant replies, "Which one, m'sieur?" without a hint of irony. The film is well written, both funny and dramatic. It is interesting to watch all the characters interact with each other and simply listen to them speak.

The film is also visually appealing. Citizen Kane is famous for its deep focus shots, but The Rules of the Game was already doing it before CK. In the house there are a lot of grand hallways where we can see everything all the way down. We can see other parts of the story unfolding in the background as characters sneak around doing this or that while the action is happening up front. The camera moves its way around the house effortlessly as it sort of just flows with the story, if that makes any sense.

What does the title The Rules of the Game refer to? The game in question refers to society itself which is dictated by certain rules. The society the film paints is a dark one that is populated by adulterous bourgeois socialites. The rules that they play by involve lying, cheating, pandering and so forth and those that do not abide by the rules end up punished. The one character who does not play by the rules and is honest with his feelings almost to a fault winds up being the loser.

Grade: B+

Monday, January 30, 2012

Day 285 - The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) directed by Robert Wiene




The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the very first horror films  and can be said to be the artistic predecessor of films like Nosferatu, Metropolis and M with its startling German Expressionist style, which in itself is the artistic ancestor of film noir and all the great films from that genre. It is also one of the very first films to incorporate a frame story narrative, that is a story told within a story, and the idea of a twist ending. So obviously this is a historically significant film but above all it is still a fine movie some 90 years later and a pretty sweet work of art.

The story begins with Francis telling a story to his friend setting up a flashback narrative. We are transported to the town of Holstenwall where Francis and his friend Allan attend a traveling carnival. One of the attractions features a Dr. Caligari who is in command of a somnambulist, or sleepwalker, named Cesare who's been asleep for 23 years. Cesare is a zombie-like being that draws inspiration from Frankenstein's monster and Dracula. I could not help but think of Nosferatu when Cesare is presented in his coffin. Dr. Caligari says that Cesare can answer any question so Allan boldly asks when he will die. Cesare ominously replies, "Before dawn." In a great scene of classic horror shortly after we see a dark shadowy figure approach Allan at his bed and kill him. We see the murder in frightening fashion in silhouettes where the figure chokes and stabs the victim to death. This is just one of a series of bizarre murders that have occurred since the arrival of the carnival. Immediately Francis suspects Dr. Caligari and Cesare of foul play.

It is revealed that Caligari is a madman who uses the sleepwalking Cesare to do his evil biddings. An even more startling discovery is that this doctor is the head of a mental asylum. In another classic horror scene Cesare is sent to kill Francis's fiance Jane. Struck by her beauty he instead kidnaps her and in a race against time Francis must uncover Caligari's secret and get back Jane. There is a twist in the end that I will not give away except that Shutter Island was probably influenced by this film in some way or another. Overall the plot is an intriguing horror suspense thriller. As an hour long silent film it may not have the depth or complexities of a more modern thriller but it is every bit as atmospheric and moody.

One of the lasting impressions of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is its strange German Expressionist visual style. The world it presents is a strange place with crazy exaggerated angles, jagged edges, and warped dimensions. The set pieces are like strange abstract paintings which gives the film a twisted sense of reality where everything is out of joint and nothing is what it seems. Dark elongated shadows dominate this world adding to the sense of doubt, mystery and intrigue. It is an unsettling world of fantasy dreams that could instantaneously turn into a nightmare at any moment.

Several days ago I watched The Passion of Joan of Arc and commented (okay... complained) about its lack of a musical score. The musical score composed for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is fantastically eerie and ominous and sets the mood just right.

Seen today, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari might seem a little tepid in the thrills department but I think it offers so much more in terms of atmosphere. I wouldn't say there are any really scary scenes or images but rather unsettling ones that linger with you. Speaking on a purely artistic and historical sense I give this film plenty of props. But would I really care to see this film or Nosferatu over Silence of the Lambs or Se7en? No (and I don't think it would be a particularly difficult decision), but I still appreciate these old classics a lot.

Grade: B+

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Day 284 - Au Revoir Les Enfants

Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) directed by Louis Malle




Au Revoir Les Enfants, or Goodbye Children, is a touching film about growing up in a world that is difficult to understand. Actually, better phrased would simply be "growing up" because there are always things that children do not know or understand. This is never more fully realized in this tragic tale of a youth not quite understanding the dangerous world of prejudice and persecution.

Set in a Catholic boarding school in Nazi occupied France, Au Revoir Les Enfants follows the lives of the children there, in particular Julian and Jean. Julian is an established student while Jean is new. At first they are cold to each other but eventually warm up and become good friends but there is always something about Jean that seems different to Julian. Julian slowly uncovers pieces of information about something that we already know, that Jean is a Jew. But Julian is too young to understand what that even means. He has to ask his older brother "What is a Jew?" and "Why do people hate them?" He does not understand that they are being rounded up by the millions and being executed, or does he? The extent of what Julian does and doesn't know isn't quite clear; he can only grasp things with a child's understanding. He knows that people do not like Jews, but he also knows that likes his friend Jean.

There are no real dramatic moments or big emotional cues like in other Holocaust films. Instead the film focuses on the daily lives of the characters. We get to know each one personally as we see their daily routines, their lessons, their games. There are only brief moments of anti-Semitism, a snide comment here or there, with just one confrontation in a restaurant involving an older gentlemen being asked to leave by a soldier. The protectors of the school do their best to shield the kids away from their cruel surroundings.

SPOILER:
The entire heart of the film lies in one single moment, an unconscious decision by Julian that accidentally outs Jean. When the Gestapo comes into the classroom asking for a boy named Kippelstein, Jean's real last name, the kids remain mum. Only Julian knows that name and he involuntarily looks back at Jean and in that split instant betrays his secret. It is such a heartbreaking moment of guilt for Julian who must live with that glance for the rest of his life. That Jean would have likely been figured out eventually anyways is besides the point. Julian let him down in the moment he needed him the most, a child's honest mistake, but one with adult consequences. The film was written and directed by Louis Malle, who based the story from his own childhood. That he felt he needed to tell this story forty years later is evidence of the heart wrenching moments that still lingers.
END SPOILER


Grade: A

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Day 283 - Shame

Shame (2011) directed by Steve McQueen





I think a common misconception about why people are addicts is that they enjoy the thing they are addicted to too much to stop. Perhaps, but I'd venture to guess that for the majority of addicts it is because they hate their lives so much they need to find an escape from it.

On the surface Brandon looks completely normal. He is handsome, charming and successful but he holds a dark secret; he is addicted to sex. It is important to differentiate the difference between sex and companionship because he seeks the first but shuns the latter. For as much time that he spends thinking of women he cannot have a normal relationship with one. In fact it is not clear that he thinks of women at all actually, they are merely objects to satisfy his needs.

He is alone in the world, living a solitary life of silent suffering. Yes, he is suffering because clearly it is not the sex that excites him. I'd guess if it were up to him he would never have sex at all, but he needs that escape or release from his everyday existence. There are several key sex scenes that tells all you need to know about Brandon. One is with a girl he is genuinely interested in. He wants to passionately make love to her except that his penis fails him, the intimacy of the moment, and his life, gone. In the very next scene he pounds away at a prostitute. He has his climax but you can tell he is not satisfied. These encounters are empty to him. In the film's climatic sex scene, he is having wild uninhibited sex with two women, but it is not the naked bodies that catch the eye of the viewer. As Brandon is climaxing the shot focuses on his face. It is not one of pleasure, but of pain, suffering and shame. If there is one enduring image to take home from Shame it would be this one as it captures the deep despair of Brandon's life.

Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself here, but that is the nature of Brandon's condition. One day his sister Sissy shows up out of the blue needing a place to stay. He reluctantly agrees, not out of love but out of obligation. Sissy soon cramps Brandon's style and he feels his life is about to unravel. The two fight with each other; Sissy needs his love for support, something Brandon cannot give to her. It is something he cannot give to anyone, not even himself. There is an unspoken sadness between the two, something from their past, perhaps a childhood of shared grief and suffering. Their pain is what links them together but is also what separates them.

Shame is a superbly directed film by Steve McQueen, but the real heart of the matter is in Michael Fassbender's performance as Brandon. He shows such vulnerability and pain it is almost aching to watch. It is a truly masterful performance and probably the best one I've seen in the past year. It is a shame (pun intended) that he wasn't nominated for Best Actor.

Grade: A

Friday, January 27, 2012

Day 282 - The Grey

The Grey (2012) directed by Joe Carnahan




The Grey is a surprisingly introspective survival thriller that is more about character than fighting off ravenous wolves. It is a movie where people die in the worst ways imaginable but not before contemplating their lives. Thus The Grey is not the typical survival film you would expect. There is a delicate balance between the thoughtful breaks where we get to know the characters and the impending doom that awaits them and for the most part it works. It is hurt a little by its self importance (read pretentiousness) but at the same time it is elevated beyond the mindless popcorn drivel you were probably expecting.

The film begins with Ottway (Liam Neeson) narrating a somber passage of loneliness, isolation and despair. He works for an oil company in the wilderness of Alaska with a bunch of men like himself who he describes as "not fit for humanity." There are flashbacks of a woman he lost some time ago, hence his dour mood and a scene where he contemplates suicide. This movie doesn't just go for moody, it goes for downright depressing.

Ottway boards a plane with a bunch of his misfit friends and co-workers and needless to say the plane goes down. There are just a handful of survivors. One man dies early on with Ottway holding his hand telling him to think of the person he loves. The film takes each character into careful consideration as if to say that these are real people we should care about, not victims.

Victims of what, you may ask? Blood thirsty wolves who like nothing more than to viscously attack people. I don't think anybody would claim that wolves aren't dangerous animals, but I seriously doubt they resemble anything like the man eating mutants we see on screen. It should be noted that there have only been like two confirmed wolf related deaths in the US in the past 100 years. I don't think I am ruining anything when I say more than two people get killed by wolves in this movie. Yeah I know what you're thinking. They make the shark in Jaws a monster even though sharks don't really kill that many people either, but for some reason I just found the whole killer wolf thing a little preposterous. It would also help if they didn't look as fake as the werewolves from Twilight.

Nonetheless, the film shifts its tone into a harsh survival film where our survivors must battle the Alaskan winter and killer wolves. Yes, it is suspenseful and scary. If the film stuck with this premise it would be totally fine as a standard popcorn flick you can watch with a date. However as soon as the film digs deeper and tries to get all existential, it automatically labels itself as "that type of movie." There's nothing wrong with a film trying to transcend its genre, but it better be damn sure it doesn't teeter on pretentiousness on the way up.

Among the things the characters discuss is the existence of God, life and death, figuring out what to fight for, loved ones, and Irish poetry. Some of it is genuinely thoughtful and introspective, while other parts border on being cliche. There is one eye rolling bit of dialogue when one character talks about the look he saw in Ottway's eyes before as a man who has given up on life. How many times have you heard that one before?

However I must commend The Grey for trying to be different, for trying to make us care for the characters and giving us something to think about. It winds up being a thoughtful movie with a great sense of atmosphere to it. It has an eerily somber mood highlighted by the bleak cinematography, Liam Neeson's strong performance and a generally strong script.

Grade: B

VAGUE NON-DESCRIPT SPOILER :
The film spends so much time being bleak, we can accept its non traditional ending as one with hope. He has made his peace so what happens afterwards is almost irrelevant; it is how he lives these last few moments that matter the most. (By the way, apparently there is a brief scene after the credits. I left the theatre before that but if it is what I am reading, I am glad it is not part of the regular movie as it sort of negates what I thought about how it ended.)
END SPOILER

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Day 281 - The Passion of Joan of Arc

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer




I just finished watching The Passion of Joan of Arc and I'm not really sure how I feel about it. In some ways I kind of hated the film and in other ways I was totally fascinated by it. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a great piece of film making and  that Renee Maria Falconetti as Joan is one of the great performances of all time, but I do have lingering feelings of the film that really bothered me.

This was a weird movie to watch in more ways than one. For starters, this is the first truly silent film I've watched in that there is no accompanying musical score at all. With no audio cues to listen to you are forced to focus on only what you see. I had the distinct feeling that I was watching old footage from a documentary rather than a movie and I suppose this was the whole idea. The entirety of the film is based off the court transcripts of Joan of Arc's trial. It is an effective way to make viewers think that they are watching something in real life and not a movie. The decision to not include a musical score is ingenious in that it gives the film its desired effect but to be perfectly honest, the lack of any sound whatsoever really bothered me. Audio, even in silent films, plays such a huge role in movies and to have it just completely missing makes it feel almost incomplete.

As I mentioned before, The Passion of Joan of Arc is based from the transcripts of the trial of Joan. The film plays out like a courtroom drama where the inquisitors drill Joan with questions. I found this a really weird format for a silent film in that we don't catch everything that is being said (obviously) so how are we supposed to get a firm grasp on the drama? The title cards come rather infrequently for the amount of lip movement on screen so I got the uneasy feeling I was missing something. And I didn't feel like the title cards themselves offered much more than basic Q&A. I actually felt like the story was really weak and honestly kind of boring and didn't really convey the kind of emotion and power it could have.

I will say though that this is one of the most interesting looking films I've ever seen. The cinematography and camera work is just so startling and if you are the type who really appreciates such things then you can almost ignore everything else and just watch the film for that. One of things that you'll immediately notice is the extensive use of close-ups. There is a visual storytelling in the film that is entirely in the faces. At the center of attention is Falconetti whose facial expressions convey such emotional distress and suffering. If there is an shining example of the saying "the eyes are the window to the soul" it would be in her eyes which have a look of such harrowing pain. Everybody mentions Falconetti's great performance, and deservingly so, but how many times do we have to see essentially the same shot of her suffering face over and over? I actually found the faces of her tormentors more interesting. The faces are so distinct and shot at such weird angles and extreme close-ups. I loved the close-ups of the mouths spewing whatever sort of vitriol that is being said. You don't need to know what is being said, you just need to see the anger of the lips to get the idea. Interestingly nobody in the film wore any make up at all, which is why the faces look so natural and unique. Another thing to pay attention to is all the weird angles and cuts used in the film. The best way I can describe it is German expressionism where its almost as if spatial reality has been warped. It's pretty cool to look at.

The Passion of Joan of Arc isn't a film for everyone. In fact, I think most people nowadays would hate it and that you have to be really interested in film history or appreciative of the art itself to really enjoy it. As it were, I still don't really know what to make of the film. On one hand I can see where it is truly great, on the other I can see these glaring weaknesses that lessens the overall package. I suppose it is all depends on how affecting Falconetti's performance is in your eyes because if it is as moving for you as many have said it was for them, then you can just ignore everything else and take that performance with you. Unfortunately, I could not.

Grade: B

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Day 280 - Notorious

Notorious (1946) directed by Alfred Hitchcock




Notorious isn't just a spy movie; it is one of the very best spy movies. Combined with the fact that it isn't also just a romance, but one of the very best romances, makes Notorious one of the all time great classics. It's really amazing to think of all the great movies Hitchcock has made and for me this easily ranks as one of his best.

Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) has the reputation of being a promiscuous heavy drinker and is also the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) is an American agent who recruits her on a mission to Brazil to spy on some Nazis. She is the ideal candidate because of who her father is, her reputation and that the targeted man Alexander Sebastian was once in love with her. Alicia must literally get into bed with the enemy.

This causes a strain between Alicia and Devlin who have fallen for each other. Throughout the film they love each other yet misjudge each other badly. Devlin doesn't like the idea but can't tell Alicia not to do it; Alicia doesn't like the idea either but needs Devlin to tell her he doesn't want her to. It is one of those "if you really love me, you wouldn't do it and if you really love me, you'd tell me not to do it" situations and all the time you're yelling at the screen for them to stop being such stubborn fools and passionately kiss each other already! So Alicia agrees to the mission and manages to get Sebastian to fall in love and propose to her. She carries on her mission so successfully to spite Devlin and in turn he wounds her by making it clear he is only using her for the mission when it is so obvious they both love each other. The love-hate romance angle is fantastic and it helps that the chemistry between Grant and Bergman is spot on.

All the while Alicia is thrown into the lion's den and must tread carefully. Sebastian and his Nazi cohorts are working on something big and she must find out what without being discovered. There is a constant sense of danger and suspense throughout the film that is just fantastic. This is where Hitchcock really shines as there are several scenes that are just oozing with suspense.

Alicia must find out what lies in the wine cellar that is locked by a key only Sebastian has. First there is the issue of obtaining the key that she barely gets. Then later at a party Alicia and Devlin must go into the wine cellar to investigate. The caveat is that the wine is quickly running out and eventually someone must come down to get more. We can see the bottles of wine slowly disappearing like a timer on a bomb counting down to zero. And finally there is the finale where everything comes together. Devlin realizes that Alicia is in great danger and must rescue her and he is able to do so in plain sight of everybody. All Sebastian has to do is say the word, but to do so would expose his role into marrying an American double agent so we anxiously see what he will do.

The film also has great visual elements. There is the scene after Alicia has stolen the key and is at the party waiting for Devlin to show up. The camera oversees the entire room and slowly makes its way down and zooms into Alicia's nervous hand fidgeting with the key. I love these kind of shots. It's kind of like Where's Waldo where you get one really big room with a bunch of stuff going on but the only thing that matters for the viewer is this one tiny key. It is a classic Hitchcock type moment that he does in other films.

I didn't catch this in the movie, but after reading about it I felt like it had to be mentioned. In the scene where Devlin tries to recruit Alicia to go on the mission she initially refuses saying she doesn't care about patriotism. Devlin plays a recorded conversation where she denounces her father and declares that she does indeed love her country. In the beginning of the recording we can see Alicia in the background in the shadows but as the recording picks up she is slowly revealed in the light and by the end of the recording where she is at her proudest she is fully illuminated like a beacon of light. Obviously this isn't done by accident. It is a meticulously planned shot that goes to show how much work and care goes into making movies. It is a masterful touch that that goes beyond simply entertaining an audience, it is a matter of pure art. Notorious is simply fantastic.

Grade: A

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Day 279 - Rebecca

Rebecca (1940) directed by Alfred Hitchcock




Surprisingly for as many great movies that he's directed, Hitchcock has been more or less shut out by the Academy Awards. He's never won Best Director and only one performance has won an Oscar for acting in his films. He does however have a Best Picture in his catalogue and interestingly it may be one of his lesser known works to the casual fan. It wasn't Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest or Vertigo, but Rebecca, the psychological romantic drama that I'm a little embarrassed to admit I've never even heard of until recently.

Maxim de Winter, a wealthy high society man, meets and falls in love with a simple girl and the two marry in a whirlwind romance. It is interesting to note that we actually never know the girl's name; after she is married she is simply referred to as Mrs. de Winter. This is significant because it shows how little power she has in this film. It is dominated by the memory of Maxim's late wife Rebecca whose presence is felt every moment of the film. It doesn't help that the new Mrs. de Winter is terribly insecure and must live in the shadow of her predecessor and the watchful eye of Mrs. Danvers, the head maid who instantly takes a disliking to the new lady of the house. Rebecca is a terrific psychological thriller that revels in its mystery and moody atmosphere. We can see Mrs. de Winter's life in the ominous house slowly crumble as the weight of Rebecca's memory crushes her.

There are a couple key points to the film. First is whether or not Mrs. de Winter can fully adapt to her new life, second is the intentions of the creepy Mrs. Danvers who seems to have a secret agenda of her own and finally the nature of Rebecca's untimely death. They all come together like pieces of a puzzle until the fiery end. Nothing is quite what it seems as the film plays with our expectations of what a proper suspense thriller should be in classic Hitchcock fashion.

SPOILER:
Consider a key scene where Mrs. Danvers sabotages Mrs. de Winter's costume party by suggesting she wear the same dress that Rebecca wore. Mrs. de Winter confronts Mrs. Danvers who manipulates her into an emotional breakdown by saying she will never live up to Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers slyly opens the window and suggests she commit suicide. Did anyone at this point think that Mrs. Danvers might have had something to do with Rebecca's death? I like how the film explores the different possibilities by setting up Mrs. Danvers to be a real villain. Speaking of which, her character is genuinely scary because of how cold and as it turns out crazy she is. The final scene when she burns down the house is spectacular film making and a pretty much a perfect ending.
END SPOILER


If I had one complaint it might be that Rebecca starts off a tad bit too slowly. True, we must establish the romantic connection but it really isn't until 40 or so minutes in that we really get into the meat of the story. It isn't necessarily a bad thing though, it just takes some patience. Don't expect immediate thrills or suspense but rather a slow building story with an explosive payoff. Overall, Rebecca is a strong psychological drama that deserves mention with Hitchcock's other great works.

Grade: A-

Monday, January 23, 2012

Day 278 - Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin (1925) directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein




At one point in time Battleship Potemkin was considered the greatest film ever made. Time has not been kind to the 87 year old film as it is more of a curiosity now than a movie. Today the film's call for revolution feels outdated, speaking to an audience that no longer exists. It is a glimpse into such a specific moment in time, we can only observe from a distance as if reading from a history book. I can see the film's importance, I can understand its message, but I cannot feel the power and emotion of a film considered so incendiary that it was banned by entire countries.

The plot is pretty basic. The sailors of the battleship Potemkin refuse to eat rotten meat and revolt Mutiny on the Bounty style. Citizens from the city of Odessa hear about the revolt and sympathize with the sailors much to the ire of the authorities who send in troops to crush the revolt leading to the film's climax and one of cinema's most famous scenes, the massacre on the Odessa Stairs. And that is pretty much the extent of the film. It is pure propaganda meant to stir up revolution, which seems sort of silly viewed by today's eyes, but back then it was quite the fire starter.

I will give credit where credit is due though and say Battleship Potemkin is a fine piece of film making. It is one of the first films to explore the idea of montage theory, the idea of cutting images together and juxtaposing them to create a greater response. This is very pronounced in the film's key scene on the Odessa stairs. There is a shot of the citizens' frightened faces followed by a cut to the faceless soldiers advancing upon them. There is a close-up of a soldiers' boots literally stepping on a child. Shots are fired, then we see a close-up of a woman's bloodied hands. A woman wearing glasses in one scene suddenly has a bullet through one eye in the next. A baby in stroller goes down the steps out of control surrounded by dead bodies. It is a very jarring scene that is effectively edited piecing together some powerful images. It is one of those rare scenes that actually lives up to its enormous hype. In the film's finale when the two ships are about to fire upon each other, the film is once again edited and shot superbly. We see cuts between the frantic sailors and the close-ups of the massive cannons building enormous tension. Say what you want about the film's story or content but you cannot deny the technical brilliance of it.

Grade: B+

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Day 277 - Sansho the Bailiff

Sansho the Bailiff (1954) directed by Kenji Mizoguchi




A couple days ago I watched Le Havre, a feel good movie that celebrates the human spirit. Today I watched Sansho the Bailiff which can almost be described in opposite, a depressing movie about human suffering and cruelty. Yet there is a certain beauty in the tragedy of the film. It is bitter, sweet, harrowing and beautiful at the same time.

The film begins with a local governor being removed from his position and exiled after standing up for peasants' rights. He takes his exile in stride, believing his stance is honorable and right. For this he is beloved and admired by his subjects and held in the highest regard by his family that he must leave behind. He tells his son Zushio to remember these words, "Without mercy a man is not a human being," and "Even if you hard on yourself, be merciful to others." Fast forward to sometime later where Zushio, his sister Anju, and mother Tamaki are wandering the countryside alone, their days as a noble family long behind them.

In a jarring scene, the mother and children are separated by slave traders. The scene is exceptionally shot on the shore of a lake capturing all of the emotions of a family ripped apart as the boat that separates them slowly drifts away, a truly tragic and heartbreaking moment. The kids are then sold off to a slave camp run by the ruthless Sansho who is so heartless that he brands any slave that tries to runaway on the forehead. The labor camp is harsh and unforgiving and tests the children's strength and belief in their father's words. Ten years pass and Zushio and Anju have grown into young adults. Zushio's heart has hardened accepting the cruelty of the world around him while Anju still clings on to her humanity. I don't want to just do a plot summary, so I'll just say Zushio eventually remembers his father's words, but not before encountering more tragedy and hardship along the way.

SPOILER ALERT:
In the film's most famous scene, in order to ensure Zushio can escape, Anju commits suicide by drowning herself in a lake. (This family seems to have bad luck when it comes to bodies of water.) Normally I wouldn't even bother giving away such an important plot point, but the scene is very elegantly shot, almost dreamlike, which makes the tragedy all the more poignant. It is interesting that we don't actually see Anju dip under the water. She walks into the water slowly building up the tension and the heartache, then the camera ever so briefly cuts away to the old woman watching her and when it cuts back Anju is gone, leaving only ripples in the water behind. One moment you're here and the next you're gone, pretty much a perfectly executed scene.
END SPOILER


In reading critics' thoughts on the film, they all talk about the cinematography of the film which looked quite good, the two scenes I mentioned as prime examples. However there are some things I found really interesting that seems almost impossible for a casual viewer like myself to catch. In Ebert's essay on the film, he points out the visual poetry of some shots. He writes, "Throughout the film, Mizoguchi closely observes the rules of classic cinema. Movements to the left suggests backward in time, to the right, forward. Diagonals move in the direction of their sharpest angle. Upward movement is hopeful, downward ominous. By moving from upper left to lower right, they are descending into an unpromising future." Maybe this is standard in "classic cinema" but I found this to be very impressive. I had no idea of the level of detail that goes into how shots are composed.

The film is a hard watch because there are simply no light moments to look forward to. Even the ending which is bittersweet is hard to take in because of all the suffering that the characters endured to get to that point. It's a little strange and perhaps hypocritical that I talked about how I didn't really connect with The Grapes of Wrath in my main argument against its greatness because I didn't necessarily connect with Sansho the Bailiff either (in that I wasn't crying my eyes out) but I seemed to appreciate and understand its message more. I wouldn't go as far as to say it is an emotionally devastating experience as some critics have written but it is definitely a powerful one that leaves a lasting impression.

Grade: A-

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Day 276 - Haywire

Haywire (2012) directed by Steven Soderbergh




Some of my favorite movies in recent years have involved girls kicking ass. There is something insanely cool about seeing a girl duke it out with the guys and this isn't just a recent phenomenon; it dates all the way back to the myth of the Amazon. Haywire is just a variation of the female revenge story that has the heroine defeating foe after foe in a series of extended fight sequences and she takes down a mighty impressive list of guys including Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor.

The film starts off with the heroine Mallory sitting alone at a diner waiting for someone. Aaron (Tatum) walks in and sits down with her and the two exchange a cryptic conversation that we don't know the details to. Before you know it he suddenly attacks her and the two engage in an all out brawl. The way this scene is set up, you can tell that it belongs somewhere in the middle of the film and we must figure out all the events that led to a man suddenly trying to kill a woman in a MMA style fight. Much of the story is told in flashback and we learn that Mallory is a professional soldier/secret agent contracted by the government and suddenly all the people she thought she could trust are trying to kill her after a mission in Barcelona.

I've never even heard of Gina Carano before (I don't follow MMA) but I was immediately struck by her strong features. She is clearly an athlete (she doesn't have a model's body) but she also has a natural beauty to her. I guess I'd categorize her as the cute tomboy type. This is her first major role and she seems like a natural on screen, at least when it comes to the fighting. No, she's not a great actress, she has a sort of uptight delivery in her voice, but she's not horrible either and is comfortable in the range given to her. But you didn't come to watch he win an Oscar, you came to see her kick ass.

In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have a kind of no holds barred fist fight in their house that quite frankly is a little unbelievable because we've seen Brad Pitt's rippling body in Fight Club and Troy and we can see how rail thin Angelina Jolie is. Despite how much furniture they break, the scene itself isn't all that physical, partly because neither are really trained fighters but more importantly you know there's no way she would stand a chance against him in real life.

In Haywire, Gina Carano goes at it hard. These are brutal and physically demanding fight scenes that don't pussyfoot around. The fight scenes she has with Tatum and Fassbender are both long and shot without any sense of drama or pretense; they look like real fights where they are trying to kill each other.

At its heart, Haywire is a kind of shallow action flick but it is actually quite sharply directed by Steven Soderbergh who adds a sense of style to the film. The screenplay has more intricacies to it than the plot description would have you to believe and the film features an all-star cast. And if this film is any indication, we may have a genuine female action star in Gina Carano.

Grade: B

Friday, January 20, 2012

Day 275 - Contraband

Contraband (2012) directed by Baltasar Kormakur




Here marks the first 2012 release I've seen and the new year is off to a so-so start. Of course I wasn't expecting Contraband to be anything special but I was kind of hoping for something with a little more kick to it. It is a run of the mill action caper film, except that it is a little light on the action and the capering. Mark Wahlberg does his standard tough cool guy routine where quite honestly sometimes it feels like he's just playing himself. But if you were as cool as Marky Mark, why would you ever need to change yourself?

The problem with this film is that it all feels kind of generic and bland. The pacing is a little slow, the action isn't hard hitting or inventive (See Mission Impossible if you haven't already!) and the story isn't quite all there. I am pretty easy to please though so I'd be lying if I didn't say I didn't enjoy it on some level. It is a passable action film if you are in the mood for one, but not much more.

Grade: C+

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Day 274 - The Spirit of the Beehive

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) directed by Victor Erice




This film has the reputation of being the greatest film Spain has ever produced. That is some pretty high praise even though I can't really think of any movies Spain has produced. Pan's Labyrinth maybe? It's funny that I mention that film because it actually shares a lot in common with The Spirit of the Beehive. Both are told from the perspective of a child during the Franco dictatorship and blends fantasy with reality.

In the beginning of the film, eight year old Ana and her older sister Isabel go see Frankenstein. Ana is more interested than terrified, asking her sister why does Frankenstein kill the girl and why do the villagers in turn kill him? Isabel tells her that the movie is fake and that nobody actually gets killed. But to play upon her younger sister's naivety, she tells her that the monster is like a spirit and that Ana can talk to him if she closes her eyes and calls out to him.

Naturally Ana tries to summon Frankenstein but to no avail. One day Isabel takes her to an old barn and tells her that it is where the monster lives. Throughout the film Ana will repeatedly visit the barn in hopes of catching him there, but perhaps also to escape the oppressive isolation of the world around her. One day she finds a fugitive soldier hiding there and befriends him. Does she think this is Frankenstein or is she just glad to have an actual friend of her own? Eventually the soldier is found and executed and the next time Ana visits the barn he is no longer there and once again she is all alone in the world. However, Isabel's words still resonate with her; he is like a spirit that you can call upon.

The Spirit of the Beehive may not be for everyone as it is a slow burner without much of a plot, but for there is actually a lot of interesting little things going on. Thinking about the film some more the more beautiful and somber it becomes in my mind. At the time of the film's release it was seen as an allegory of Spain under Franco's rule, but I can only really comment on how I see the film now outside the context of its history and what I see is a film about a lonely child and the pain of growing up. The cinematography of the film reminded me a lot of Days of Heaven. The screen is saturated with this dreamy golden hue, a combination of the yellow fields and the setting sun. Combined with the story, this makes the film have a sort of nostalgic tone that is both beautiful and sad at the same time.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Day 273 - Clerks

Clerks (1994) directed by Kevin Smith




"Wait, what is that anyway, something like 36? Does that include me?!"
"Um... 37."


Despite its cult status, Clerks is not a good movie in the traditional sense. It is crude and vulgar, has low production value, terrible acting and obviously scripted and unnatural dialogue. That does not mean, however, that it is a bad movie. On the contrary, despite how rough it is around the edges, Clerks comes out as very funny, surprisingly thoughtful and a testament to the slacker generation.

The film follows Dante who comes into work at the convenience store on his day off. It is a soul sucking dead end job that is too depressing to even think about. There he encounters a wide variety of characters that come into the store, none more frequent than his best friend Randal who works at the video store next door. The video store that he works at is so bad that he has to go to another store to rent his videos. The two slackers engage in endless banter and philosophical musings, my favorite being Randal's thoughts on Return of the Jedi. He correctly points out that the yet completed Death Star must have had a bunch of innocent workers working on it when the rebels blow it up. It is the type of random observations me and my roommates would often get into in college.

The dialogue of the film, while witty and often funny, is also obviously written. Nothing the characters say flow naturally and sound like, well, something you would write down and say. It is not helped by the very amateurish acting. Brian O'Halloran as Dante is actually quite passable. He plays the beat down loser pretty well. Jeff Anderson as Randal is pretty awful. I don't know if it his delivery (which sounds like he is reading) or the words that come out of the character's mouth because there is no way this guy would really say these things or sound the way he sounds in real life.

Despite all that, I can't help but laugh because the film is really funny and like I said, it reminds me of the conversations I used to have at 3:00 am at Jack in the Box with my friends. Everything about the film is crude and seems put together on a shoestring budget, but most directors/writers would be lucky to have a film like Clerks in their catalogue. There is a rawness and energy to it that is palpable and makes you admire the film despite its flaws.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Day 272 - Foreign Correspondent

Foreign Correspondent (1940) directed by Alfred Hitchcock






Foreign Correspondent is an early Hitchcock spy thriller about an American reporter sent to Europe on the eve of WWII. The reporter, Hunter Haverstock (his professional pseudonym), witnesses the assassination of an important diplomat which leads him to uncover a conspiracy with big implications to the upcoming war. It is the classic accidental spy formula where an ordinary individual uncovers something big, complete with thrilling action sequences and cat and mouse chases with the hero rising up to the challenge. Part of the reason why this formula is successful is because the viewers can imagine that they are the ones up there. At any given moment an ordinary person could be the star of his or her own adventure.

I'll be honest; the exact nature of the conspiracy was a little lost on me. I didn't quite get how the nefarious activities going on were going to affect the upcoming war, but it doesn't really matter if you fully understand as long as the feeling of intrigue is there. And it feels and plays out like a spy thriller should, mysterious, exciting and suspenseful.

There is of course the obligatory romance angle between the protagonist and the girl of interest. I didn't really get much from this as the sparks didn't really fly for me. Plus it seems a little far fetched that the girl would so quickly fall for him. I would just love to bother a girl so much that she suddenly couldn't live without me. I am still working on that part of my game.


But what I really want to talk about are some of the more memorable scenes. It's kind of amazing that this film was made over 70 years ago because it contains some seriously impressive set pieces that look good even by our standards. There is the assassination in the rain on the steps of the church. It is a truly thrilling and good looking scene. I loved the overhead shot of the villain escaping under all the umbrellas. There is a chase that leads to the bad guys' hideout in an abandoned windmill. Here Haverstock must sneak his way around inside to avoid getting caught. There is a nerve wracking moment where we think he may get his arm crushed in a giant gear. There is a scene where the hired goon tries to push Haverstock off the top of a roof shot in typical Hitchcock fashion. In the most impressive scene, a plane crashes into the ocean in frightening fashion. Without the use of any CGI, this may be the best plane crash scene I've ever seen.

Foreign Correspondent, like Chaplin's The Great Dictator, was released as a propaganda film and both share the same type of ending with an impassioned speech. In The Great Dictator, Chaplin breaks out of character to send his message of tolerance and the follies of fascism and so forth. In this film, Haverstock makes a radio broadcast imploring America to join the war effort against Germany as London is getting bombed. What is interesting about these moments is that they arguably do not belong in the context of the films and may even make them objectively worse. Nowhere in Foreign Correspondent until the last 30 seconds does Haverstock ever voice his opinion on war, but his very last words in the film is pure propaganda. Films are made for art and entertainment, but can also be made to send a message, whether subtly or completely out in the open.

Grade: B+

Monday, January 16, 2012

Day 271 - Le Havre

Le Havre (2011) directed by Aki Kaurismaki




Le Havre is a feel good movie that celebrates compassion and rewards good deeds. It is a simple film with a simple message, though I suspect it's the type of film that will get derided by cynics and nihilists. Let the haters hate, let us lovers love.

The hero of the film is Marcel, a hard working fifty-something year old shoeshine man who hustles and bustles for his daily keep. He lives a simple and modest life with his loving wife who one day suddenly goes ill with little hope for recovery. At the same time, a container full of African immigrants is discovered at the port. A young boy, Idrissa, escapes from the scene where he crosses paths with Marcel.

Their first encounter is a strange one. Marcel is eating alone in a secluded spot by the water where he suddenly sees the young black boy staring back at him from the water. It is an almost absurd scene but it makes you wonder. What would you do in this situation? The first few seconds are crucial. They do not move, they do not speak, they only exchange glances. There is no protocol for encountering a strange boy in the water staring at you, but without much thought or deliberation Marcel offers Idrissa some of his food and with this gesture suddenly becomes his protector.

Eventually Marcel hides the boy at his place while the authorities look for him. It is interesting to note that Marcel never reveals why he is helping him, nor does the boy ask him. The film doesn't need to give reasons as if kindness and compassion are the natural order of things. It goes without saying. And this is the theme of the film, people helping out others. The grocer offers Marcel his extra food, the baker gives him some extra bread, the bar owner agrees to look after the boy while Marcel is away. Even the inspector on the case may not be trying his hardest to catch the boy. It is a community in the truest sense. Perhaps the most telling scene is when Idressa meets Marcel's wife in the hospital. She has never laid eyes on this strange black boy, yet she is not the least bit surprised or affected when he says that Marcel has sent him. She simply accepts him there on the spot no questions asked.

We know something that Marcel does not, that his wife does not have long to live and we suspect something tragic may happen somewhere along the way. When Marcel sends Idrissa to meet his wife instead of himself (who is out trying to raise money to help Idrissa escape), would this be the last time we see her? Would Marcel miss his last chance to be with his wife while helping out this complete stranger? The potential for tragedy and drama is there yet thankfully the film does not explore this route. The relationship between Marcel and Idrissa remains pure and unaffected. Marcel is determined as ever to help the boy out.

The ending is a pleasant surprise that rewards Marcel and the viewer for his good deeds. Perhaps it is unrealistically sentimental, but I will glady be manipulated to feel this glad. Sometimes our faith in each other deserves to be rewarded.

Grade: A-

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Day 270 - Ip Man

Ip Man (2008) directed by Wilson Yip






Ip Man is the best martial arts film I've seen in years. Not only do the fighting scenes kick major ass, but the story is on some legendary hero shit. And to top that all off, the film has slick production value with cinematography that's as crisp as this morning's bacon.

Ip Man is loosely based on the life of Yip Man, the legendary grandmaster of the martial art Wing Chun and teacher of Bruce Lee. It chronicles his life during the Japanese occupation of China during WW2 where Ip Man becomes a local hero by standing up to the Japanese through his kung fu. This isn't merely a martial arts action film though; it is a character study of a reluctant hero who stands up for an entire nation. It is dramatic, moving and epic in scope and it is great.

The fight sequences are are like beautifully choreographed dance routines. There is a majestic rhythm to their movements that are both graceful and powerful. The force of the kicks and punches look brutal and hard hitting yet performed with such ease by Donnie Yen. In a particularly powerful moment, an angry Ip Man takes on ten Japanese fighters at once and just crushes.

Donnie Yen is great in the lead role, not just for his fighting ability but the qualities that he brings to the character, charm, humility, quiet anger and resolve. The supporting characters are also solid and given several wrinkles. The Japanese general who Ip Man must face off with in the end is interesting in that he isn't an obscenely cruel villain. Of course he is bad, but even bad guys have morals too. He admires Ip Man's talents and wants a fair fight with him for honor's sake when the sensible thing would be to just execute him.


Ip Man is a fantastic martial arts drama that has it all, great fighting sequences, heroism, and drama and it looks really good too.

Grade: A-

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Day 269 - Jules and Jim

Jules and Jim (1962) directed by Francois Truffaut




This film should actually be called Jules, Jim and Catherine as it tells the story of a decades long love triangle involving two best friends and the woman that they both love yet neither can have. It is a a roller coaster of a film that has moments of pure joy and passion mixed with restless dissatisfaction and tragedy.

Jules is an Austrian visiting Paris in 1912 where he meets a fellow kindred spirit in Jim, a native Parisian. They instantly hit it off and become inseparable best friends. This is told in a rapid fire narration and accompanying montage that sets the tone and story for the rest of the film which spans over two decades seamlessly in under two hours. They soon meet the enigmatic free spirited woman Catherine and are both immediately drawn to her. They spend much time together and these early scenes together are filled with unbridled beauty and joy. My favorite scene is from the picture above where they race across a bridge. There is a certain joy one senses not just from the characters but by Truffaut as well. Throughout the film we are treated to the director's cinematic flair and style. This is what the French New Wave was all about.

It is eventually Jules that wins over Catherine and the two marry. However, almost immediately Jules and Jim must go off to fight in WWI on opposing sides. Their greatest fear is having to kill each other in battle, but luckily this does not happen. Years pass and we discover Jules and Catherine living in the countryside with a five year old daughter. Jules invites Jim to visit and the two friends are reunited and all seems like it once was. However, Jules confesses to Jim that the marriage is crumbling with Catherine becoming increasingly harder to keep happy. She has had several lovers and even disappeared for six months before eventually returning.

The central figure in this story is of course Catherine who is impossible to please or to figure out. It would seem what she desires most is her freedom, yet demands the undivided attention of the men (in this case Jules) that she cannot herself reciprocate. As Mumford and Sons sing in Blank White Pages: "You desire my attention, but deny me my affections." In a revealing scene, Catherine poignantly tells Jim, "I don't want to be understood." To understand her is to own a piece of her which she clearly cannot stand. We spend the majority of the film trying to figure out what's going in her head and we sort of get the idea, but most importantly we can sense the unrest growing inside of her.

Jim is even more enamored by Catherine than ever and the two start an affair with Jules's blessing. Jules is so desperate to keep Catherine in his life that he encourages the two to marry. At least this way he knows she will be in good hands with his best friend. At this point, I'm thinking, "Oh poor Jules," and also how incredibly messed up this whole situation is! But such is the nature of a love triangle I suppose. The three live together seemingly happy until once again Catherine goes off her rocker.

Years pass as we circle the on and off again relationships between Jules and Catherine and Jim and Catherine. These are rather somber moments as we realized none of these characters can truly be happy. They all seek to recapture the joy they once shared in their youths, but are only hanging on to fading memories. But what made me happy was that despite the looming presence of a psychotic woman in their lives, Jules's and Jim's friendship remains pure and unadulterated. Of course the film doesn't end with this happy sentiment but it is the lasting impression I wish to take from this strangely wonderful film.

Grade: A-

Friday, January 13, 2012

Day 268 - The Odd Couple

The Odd Couple (1968) directed by Gene Saks




Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau make the perfect comedic duo. They have this wonderful chemistry where they play off of each other's personalities so well. In The Odd Couple, like Grumpy Old Men decades later, they play two diametrically opposed figures that are stuck together for better or worse. Each character has his own quirk that makes him appealing, but it is when they are together that they are truly special. We watch them bicker and banter throughout the film followed by the inevitable realization they actually need each other.

Jack Lemmon plays Felix who is in the process of getting a divorce and is depressed out of his mind. When we first see him, he would like to commit suicide except that he throws out his back trying to open the window to jump out of. His friends fear for Felix's sanity. He is taken in by his friend Oscar, played by Walter Matthau, who allows Felix to stay with him until he gets back on his feet. As it turns out Felix is a little more than Oscar bargained for. I am reminded of that Friends episode where Ross needs a place to stay and Joey and Chandler take him in, only to find out they can't stand living with him.

The Odd Couple is a fun light hearted comedy about a difficult but worthwhile friendship. For as much as they annoy and bother each other, where would they be without each other? I thought the film was quite funny and well acted with the memorable paring of Lemmon and Matthau, who rank right up there with peanut butter and jelly.

Grade: A-

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Day 267 - Pickpocket

Pickpocket (1959) directed Robert Bresson






The life of crime is dangerous and short lived, not to mention immoral and illegal, and it makes you wonder the mindset of a criminal. What compels them to steal? What makes them think they can get away with it? Do they ever feel bad? One thing I never considered is that criminals think they are better than normal people and thus are entitled to do what they want.

That is the mindset of Michel who pickpockets his way through Paris. He argues that it is okay for an extraordinary man to commit a crime. Of course he is just justifying his actions, but does he truly think he is better than everyone else? His friend asks rhetorically, "What man doesn't think he is special?" Apparently Pickpocket draws comparisons to Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment which is also about a criminal with the same mindset. Unfortunately I haven't read it so much of the literary analysis of the film is lost upon me. For such a short and simple film you can probably write a book on its themes and morality.

My favorite parts of the film were the pickpocketing scenes. It almost plays like an instructional video. There is a certain art to it and the scenes are presented as gracefully as a ballet; the nimble fingers and delicate touch contrasted with the tension and the thrill of the moment. When Michel is working with a team on a crowded train it is like watching magic as they relieve victim after victim of their belongings.

There is also a certain level of intimacy involved in pickpocketing. You have to stand right next to the target but not quite touch as if teasing a lover, delicately maneuver your fingers across the body and reach in. This is the type of intimacy that Michel cannot achieve in his own life with Jeanne, the virtuous woman, another archetype from Crime and Punishment. It is only when Michel is stripped of everything, his freedom, his ego, and ultimately his life of crime that she can redeem him.

Overall I enjoyed the film, particularly the scenes of thievery. However it is difficult to say that I had any type of attachment to it. I think it is meant to be more thought provoking than to be a powerful or moving experience.

Grade: B

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Day 266 - My Man Godfrey

My Man Godfrey (1936) directed by Gregory La Cava





They don't really make movies like My Man Godfrey anymore. It's a kind of zany and absurd situational comedy (hire a homeless man off the street to be your butler) yet it is smartly written with whimsical charm. The beginning of the film sort of reminds me of the recent Dinner With Schmucks where rich socialites host a dinner to make fun of rather unfortunate people. Here they begin with a scavenger hunt to find a "forgotten man." The whole point of course is to show that these rich snobs are out of touch by contrasting them with the humanity of their "entertainment." This film was made in the middle of the Great Depression where the difference between the rich and the poor could not have been more pronounced.

Godfrey is a proud and noble bum who is hired off the street by Irene Bullock to become the family's butler. The potential romance between the two is obvious from the outset but how it develops is as much of a surprise to the viewer as it is to Godfrey. Irene seems like a genuine kind hearted person (and she is) who just wants to help Godfrey, but in an instant she surprises him with a kiss declaring her love for him. What might have been a budding romance turns into a zany girl chases boy comedy. It doesn't take long for Godfrey to realize that Irene (and her family) is a little crazy.

I really enjoyed this film for its light hearted comedy and wickedly funny dialogue. In one scene, the love stricken Irene says, "I'd like to sew his buttons on sometimes, when they come off." In another, she laments, "Some people do just as they like with other people's lives, and it doesn't seem to make any difference... to some people," as she casts a mournful look towards Godfrey. Godfrey, for his part, cannot help but gulp uncomfortably. The interplay between William Powell and Carole Lombard as Godfrey and Irene is wonderful. It is no surprise they have great chemistry as they were once married.

It always baffles me when people say they don't like older movies; to me finding a really good one is like finding buried treasure. As the years go by these titles will become more and more obscure. Ironically in some ways this will actually make these movies new again as fewer people will have ever seen these movies. What's the difference what year the movie was made in if it's all new to you?

Grade: A-

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Day 265 - The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath (1940) directed by John Ford





Harrison Ford once famously said to George Lucas when reading the script of Star Wars, "This looks nice on paper, but you can't say this shit out loud." And this is the hardest part of adapting a book into a movie. Some things sound good when you read it, but nobody talks like that in real life. One of my minor complaints of The Grapes of Wrath is the unnatural dialogue that makes it feel like a book rather than a movie. This is something that I've noticed in a lot of older films, a lot of monologues and preachy moments to get points across rather than letting the dialogue and story flow naturally.

For instance, Tom Joad's conversation with his mother before he leaves is filled with eloquent lines not befitting a simple Okie. He closes with this line: "I'll be around in the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Whenever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too." Just because you say the lines with an accent, it doesn't make it any more believable. Does he realize he's saying his last words to his dear mother and not making a rally speech?

The Grapes of Wrath is a sweeping melodrama about the hardships of the Great Depression, the plight of the little man, and union organizing. I think it gets caught up too much in its message rather than trying to tell a story and if you're not up for getting preached to, it can grow a little tiring. However I cannot deny this is a well put together film and a faithful adaptation of one of the most heralded novels of all time. I could understand why this is considered a great and important film but I just couldn't connect with it. I think the expression is "falling on deaf ears." One of the tests I use to determine the greatness of a movie is to see how I feel immediately after it is over and to be honest, I didn't feel anything other than I just finished a movie and now I have to write about it. I know it seems like I'm hating on the film, but I'm really not. I'm glad I watched it and already admitted that it is a solid film, but that's where it stops.

Grade: B

Monday, January 9, 2012

Day 264 - Young and Innocent

Young and Innocent (1938) directed by Alfred Hitchcock




Young and Innocent is an early and pleasing entry into Alfred Hitchcock's filmography. It tells the story of a man who stumbles upon a dead woman and is accused of murdering her. Determined to prove his innocence, he flees from custody to find the real murderer with the help of a woman he meets. It is part chase thriller and part romance and mostly entertaining showcasing some of the promise of Hitchcock's later works.

The beginning parts of the movie are a little slow as I found the romance angle a little formulaic, but I understand why it is there. The thriller element starts off a little slow too but picks up steam nicely. There are a couple sequences that I really liked. In one scene there is a an impressive set piece inside of a mine that looks like a scene straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. In the most Hitchcockian moment, the protagonists enter a ballroom looking for the killer. It begins with a wide shot overseeing the entire room and zooms into a close-up of the killer who is the drummer of the band. It zooms all the way to his twitching eyes, the only clue to identifying him. A really well done shot that is classic Hitchcock.

Overall Young and Innocent is a solid thriller with some really nice moments. It isn't Hitchcock's best work but I'll gladly take one of Hitchcock's middling works over most people's bests.

Grade: B

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Day 263 - My Left Foot

My Left Foot (1989) directed by Jim Sheridan






Christy Brown struggled his entire life to be taken seriously as a human being and to not be looked upon as a helpless cripple. Born with cerebral palsy, he had no control over his body except for his left foot which he used to paint and write his way into prominence. It would be easy to assume that My Left Foot is a feel good inspirational movie and for the most part it is. But it is also a look at a troubled man who struggled with alcoholism, depression and rejection, themes common in many people's lives, except that he does it in a wheelchair. The film does not try to paint him as a saint, but simply a man. Somewhere in the middle of the film, the curator of an art gallery tells the crowd, "Some people say Christy Brown is a great crippled artist, but that would be an insult to him. Christy Brown is a great artist, period." It would also be insulting to him then to look at him with pity because of his condition. I don't think any crippled person really desires that kind of attention; they only wish to be treated as real people.

The film chronicles Christy's life from childhood into adulthood and does the standard biopic stuff you would expect. It is inspiring to see his story unfold but the scenes that were most interesting to me weren't the highs but rather the lows. He longed for love and affection, which is tough for any adolescent let alone for someone with cerebral palsy. He is rejected and it breaks his heart. You can see the growing frustration and loneliness build up inside until it spills over in violent fashion. As with any great artist or genius, he was not an easy man to be around.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Christy Brown in this award winning role. What makes this a good performance isn't merely his imitation of someone with cerebral palsy but in showing the internal struggle that builds up inside of the character. While we are on the subject, I love Daniel Day-Lewis. I think he's one of the best actors of my lifetime. If only he would make more films!

I thought this was a pretty good film that was realistic and honest. It would have been so easy to paint Christy as a saintly archetype rather than a complicated individual and I appreciated that it wasn't pandering as so many of these kind of films can be. While we are allowed to feel sorry for him because of his condition, we are also allowed to dislike him for being an ass sometimes, just like any other fully functional normal person.

Grade: B+

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Day 262 - Witness for the Prosecution

Witness for the Prosecution (1957) directed by Billy Wilder




I've been randomly watching reruns of Law & Order lately and they never fail to entertain me though once you've seen one episode you've pretty much seen them all since they all follow the same formula. If you're at all familiar with how this formula works Witness for the Prosecution should come to no surprise to you, but that doesn't make it any less compelling.

Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty) plays Sir Wilfred Robarts, a defense lawyer who takes on a murder case. The defendant is Leonard Vole, accused of murdering an elderly woman for her money. Naturally he insists he didn't do it. His only alibi is his wife who seems to have motivations of her own but agrees to testify on her husband's behalf. Then it comes as a surprise when she winds up being the star witness for the prosecution!

We've all seen movies like this before but Witness for the Prosecution does it particularly well. It is well acted with Laughton as the star though watching him reminds me that I should start going to the gym as his body has not aged well (see Orson Welles in Touch of Evil and Marlon Brando in his later years). I know I've been pretty vague but I don't really want to reveal too much of the film. Just know that it is well acted and smartly written with unexpected twists and a decidedly satisfying climax. One of the better courtroom dramas.

Grade: A-

Friday, January 6, 2012

Day 261 - Floating Weeds

Floating Weeds (1959) directed by Yasujiro Ozu




In the very opening moments we see a lighthouse. Through multiple cuts we see the same lighthouse but from different positions and angles. Each shot could be framed and hung on your living room wall. On a purely artistic level, Floating Weeds deserves an A+. It is one of the most visually compelling movies I've ever seen. The camera never moves once, not a single pan or tracking shot, just fixed shots pieced together with simple cuts. Each composition is carefully thought out and precisely shot. Pause the movie on any one frame and you'll have a perfectly composed picture. While watching any particular scene consider how many times Ozu had to cut, reposition his camera, cut again, and reposition again and you'll realize the amount of thought that goes into each shot let alone each scene. There is always something interesting, if not beautiful, to look at. And I haven't even begun to talk about the story yet.

Ganjiro Nakamura and his traveling theatre troupe go into a small seaside village to perform during the summer. But there is another reason why the troupe is in town; Ganjiro performed here once many years ago and has a son there. Ashamed of his status as a lowly actor, Ganjiro has always told his son Kiyoshi that he is his uncle. Kiyoshi's mother and Ganjiro's former mistress, Oyoshi, has gone along with the plan all these years content that he is at least part of their lives. When Sumiko, Ganjiro's current mistress, finds out that he has this secret life that he lies about she grows angry and jealous and sets out to cause problems for him.

Sumiko confronts Ganjiro at Oyoshi's house where she is rebuked rather coldly by him. In a great scene, the two argue on opposite sides of a street in the rain. They pace back and forth on their ends spitting vitriol towards each other. The rainy street that divides them is representative of the emotion in the scene.

Ganjiro's well laid plans begin to crumble and we realize that he is kind of a bastard. I couldn't believe his ego and stubbornness. How can he be so callous and dismissive to the women in his life? (He loves to use the words slut and whore and slap women around.) How can he just show up out of the blue and try to be a father to Kiyoshi and expect him to accept him? Ganjiro is no saint and actually kind of deserves what he gets. While there is some sugarcoating and somewhat unrealistic sentiment, I like how Ganjiro does not get off so easy and that things don't magically fall into place for him just because he suddenly realizes he was wrong. It is sentimental but also realistic.

Floating Weeds is a masterfully crafted and moving film.

Grade: A

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Day 260 - The Lower Depths

The Lower Depths (1957) directed by Akira Kurosawa





Some of my favorite movies are adaptations of plays. Some can be super simple like 12 Angry Men which takes place in one tiny room or can be grand productions like Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. What makes these films great are 1) the excellent stories and 2) the director's vision that bring these stories to life on screen. The Lower Depths struggles in both departments as I didn't feel like the drama was particularly compelling nor did I feel like I was watching a movie per say. It felt like I was watching a play and an uneven and dragging one at that.

But all is not lost as there are some highlights, or perhaps more fitting, lowlights. The story is rather bleak and the film does a good job in capturing this mood. It takes place in a rundown inn where we are introduced to beggars, thieves, drunkards, prostitutes and gamblers. It is an ensemble of outcasts at the bottom of the society. The one person I felt genuinely sorry for was the prostitute who is always picked on and longs for love. An elderly sick woman is afraid of dying and wants to hold on just a little longer despite her extreme pain. All these characters seek escape from their lowly existences but seem to be stuck here forever. There isn't really much room for optimism in this film, it is drab and dreary all the way through. Because of this fact, it's hard to say that it is enjoyable, but conversely it's not really a film where you are deeply moved or learn something. The main problem I suppose is that the film lacks any real sense of cinematic drama. It all feels so flat which is surprising from Kurosawa.

Grade: C

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Day 259 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) directed by Tomas Alfredson




When you think of spy movies you invariably think of James Bond going on secret missions, using fancy gadgets and seducing women, but I suspect the real world of spies is more like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a largely cerebral and action-light film about trying to uncover a mole in the upper ranks of British intelligence.

I'll just get this out of the way first; this is not an easy film to digest. When I say the film is cerebral I mean to say that it requires a great deal of paying close attention, keeping track of pertinent information, knowing characters and linking ideas and clues together without being told. It requires you to actively think rather than passively watch and I'll admit that I was a little lost at times trying to figure out what was what and who was who. For better or worse the film is purposely meant to be a little mystifying. It is the world of hiding secrets and uncovering them after all.

The film is set in 1970's London where Control, the head of British intelligence, is convinced there is a mole in his inner circle. One of the five men at his table is a double agent working for the Russians but he does not know which one. Control dies of a heart attack before making anymore headway and it is up to George Smiley, his right hand man recently forced into retirement, to pick up the investigation. The investigation is slow and methodical and at times unclear. Smiley plays it pretty close to the vest never revealing too much of what he is thinking or planning. The first thirty to forty minutes are a sort of feeling out process as we sort through all the facts and characters and clues. It can be a little overwhelming, but by the end it will all make sense.

The pacing of the movie is sure to test some viewers' patience but I actually liked it this way. This film is all about feel and setting. I appreciated how the film took its time even when I thought it was getting a little tedious. Director Tomas Alfredson knows what he's doing. The slow pace adds weight to the mystery as it builds up. Each time a new wrinkle pops up, it is exciting and thrilling. I thought the film captured this world of spies perfectly, the smoke filled rooms, the dark shadows, the tired faces. The art direction of the film is also superb. The set designs and costumes look exactly like how I'd picture 1970's London to look like. I love how sharply everyone dressed back then!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a well made spy drama whose biggest strength may also be a weakness as well. I felt like the ambiguity of the story was allowed to linger on a little too long as there were too many question marks going on at the same time and even the answers didn't feel clear enough. Yet at the same time it is this shroud of mystery and trying to uncover it that makes the film work the way it does.

Grade: B

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Day 258 - Wings of Desire

Wings of Desire (1987) directed by Wim Wenders




Today my grandmother passed away in her sleep. She was 90 years old. I would like to think she is in a better place and if anybody deserves heaven it would be her. She was the sweetest, most gentle person I've ever known. Hearing her laugh always brought a smile to my face. She lived a good life and was loved and admired by everyone who knew her. She was also bed ridden for months with little hope for recovery and I knew this day would inevitably come. It pained me every time I visited her to see her in that state. I last visited her on Christmas. My last image of her was her waving goodbye as I left. I cannot remember our last words together, but I do remember what she said to me all those months ago after her stroke. She told me not to worry about her and that she would always be with me. I cried. But such is the circle of life.

I watched Wings of Desire under the pretense that I could somehow link the story of my grandmother with the notion of angels and the questions of mortality and whatnot but the film is so esoteric and difficult that I'm not even going to try. I'll just say that this is unlike any film I've ever seen before (well aside from City of Angels for obvious reasons, but even then they are nothing alike in look and feel). Slow moving, artsy and pretentious would be understatements, but so would beautiful, inquiring and reflective.

I think this film is a good test of one's tastes and tolerance for certain movies. The key is in their response. It is easy to see the glowing reviews and go along with them to be safe. Ask them exactly what it is they liked about the film (aside from the admittedly wonderful cinematography). Almost everything I have read talks about the emotional response the viewer gets from the film, on how poignant and affecting it is. But if you do not get this response from it is it because you missed it or the film missed you? In this case, I would say the film missed me. I simply wasn't moved by it nor did I care for endless poetic pondering that passes as dialogue.

Perhaps I needed more structure in the film, more of a plot to grasp on to, because once you miss the emotional connection there is little left to hold on to. But if there is one thing that the film does get right it is the simple joy in living. In the film the angel Damiel wishes to become human to experience life rather than to observe it. It is curious that the film is shot in black and white when dealing with the angels' perspectives but suddenly shifts to vibrant color when dealing with human perspective. I am reminded of the scene in Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps into the land of Oz. In that movie, the wonderful fantasy land is rich in color; in this film it is the simple world of the living rather than the spiritual world of the angels that provide the greatest experiences. I think there is much to be said about enjoying life while we still have it. Even the most mundane things should be cherished.

Grade: C+