Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Cinema Paradiso (Director's Cut)

1990 Oscar Best Foreign Langauge Film

Dir: Giuseppe Tornatore

Sentimental tribute to moviemaking and nostalgia. There is so much to like in the movie. Any movie buff will relish the celebration of the medium and the cultural importance of the movie watching experience. And the move is technically wonderful, with a great depth of narrative, wonderful set design, and a truly moving score. It is perfect for the movie, both flourishingly emotional and evocative of the very time period is cinema that this movie celebrates.

But on first viewing, it the is the love story that stands out over everything else. The movie's third and final act, where a middle aged Toto returns home to confront his pain and lost love is one of the most resonant last hours to a movie I have seen in quite a while. The conversation between Toto and his mother is so honest, and so well supported by the preceeding acts of the film, that it is genuinely moving. The resolution of the love story, as well, has an honesty and nuance that tells us something about our own complicated experiences. Very well written stuff, right in the moments that separate good movies from great ones.

Classic cinema is the subject, and this movie is a very worthy entry into that genre.

Now a question for my faithful reader: I had never seen the movie. I chose the director's cut on the first go round. Now, for lots of movies this is a slam dunk (Touch of Evil, say) where the director's cut corrects obvious studio errors. But the theatrical release of this one won the Oscar. Should I have gone with the original first?


Monday, August 29, 2005

Toy Story


Dir: John Lasseter (Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life)

In a blog that boasts reviews of some of the best movies ever made, from canonical documentaries to fabulous foreign fare, I believe it is time to appreciate the artistic contributions of computer animation.

Like many of you once did as children, I often wondered if my toys came to life when I left the room. It is this simple observation of what inhabits a child's imagination that makes Toy Story a wonderfully gentle and rewarding cinematic experience. I have nothing inventive or insightful to say about a film so many have already seen, but I just wanted to give it "mad ups." ...Plus it looks great in HD.

Au Hasard Balthazar

Dir: Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest) 1966

According to Jean -Luc Godard, Au Hasard Balthazar is the truth of the world in an hour and a half. And since this movie is much smarter than me, I can only assume he is correct. Bresson, a devout Catholic and a canonical director of the French New Wave, spins a simplistic and ambiguous yarn about a donkey named Balthasar, a true beast of burden that moves from cruel owner to cruel owner.

Balthasar's plight echoes that of his original owner, a young child named Marie who is continually subjected to the tortures, be they physical, emotional, or mental, from the various men in her life. The genius of the film is not only in its cinematogrphy and score (Bresson loves to film feet, hands, hooves), but that the "story" is metaphorically told from a donkey's point of view. The narrative is so minimalistic and backstories so slight, that the motives and the reasons that guide human behavior seem distant, abstract, and largely non-sensical. We only appreciate the cruelty and occasional kindness directed toward Balthazar (and Marie).

As you can imagine, the Christ imagery is rather self-evident. However, it is definitely more complex than a simple martyr narrative...I just hope I can figure it out through multiple vieiwings. It is considered one of the best films ever made, by one of the best directors to ever live (this is my first and only Bresson film so far). So, if the collective wisdom of the ages recommend it, so shall I. If anything, it is visually interesting and emotionally stirring.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Nanook of the North


Dir: Robert J. Flaherty (Man of Aran; Louisiana Story)

Reputedly the first documentary, this silent feature follows the life of Eskimo Nanook for one year. I watched the film for two reasons. One, to understand references to the title in popular culture. Two, because of its importance in film history. I watched it like I read Aristotle; I know I should, but I can't say it is the most enjoyable thing in the world.

First, praise. I can only imagine the hardships endured by Flaherty in filming. Of course, those are the hardships of Nanook's every day experience, but he did not have to lug a giant camera around with him. Flaherty spent years living among the Eskimos before filming, so the man gets kudos for walking the walk. And there are many scenes that are very interesting, especially the igloo building and some hunting scenes. I can only imagine how this must have blown people's minds in 1922. And, of course, the idea of making a feature film out of ordinary daily activities was revolutionary and essential.

Then, blame. The films view of Nanook is mixed in my 21st century eyes. It is clearly filmed with love and compassion and an awe of the survival skills of this family. But it is a product of the times, and pushes heavy on the "simple savages" angle, probably more so that should be be excused even then. This is a much more complicated case than "Birth of a Nation," though. There do not appear to be outright distortions in this one. Nanook really did smack his lips over raw seal meat. But the way it is portrayed embodies in a thought provoking way how even erstwhile benefactors can easily embody negative cultural attitudes in their depictions of others. I don't often ride this pony, but it is impossible to view the film without thinking about these things. Plus, even the first documentary stages scenes, a tactic I have never cared for in this type of move making. Oh, a storm is coming, there is immediate danger! (of course the film crew had an hour to set up a wide shot of the family coming over the horizon to get out of the way of that storm).

Criterion, of course, has made the movie pretty. For serious students of film history only.


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Glengarry Glen Ross


Dir: James Foley (Who's That Girl?; Confidence)

When I put the Beatles on the stereo, I always ask myself "Why is it again that I listen to anything but this music?" The cinematic equivalent is Glengarry Glen Ross. The story of crooked real estate salesmen is low on plot, but stratospheric in acting and writing.

Pacino, Harris, Lemmon, Spacey, Arkin, Pryce, uh OK, I'm there. Even Baldwin is great. And Mamet, oh, glorious Mamet, with words that put adrenalin through me like a car chase scene in a movie. Literally, like some incredibly tense chase scene, but just with words!

This may be my favorite movie of all time. I mean it.


Sunday, August 21, 2005

Suddenly, Last Summer


Dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Ghost and Mrs. Muir; All About Eve; Guys and Dolls; Cleopatra)

Very silly melodrama about a wealthy mother protecting the memory of her departed son by sacrificing her niece to the perils of 50's mental medicine. But look at the talent in this film! Liz Taylor, Kate Hepburn, Monty Clift. Gore Vidal teams with Tennessee Williams to adapt his play. The leading ladies get lots of room to overact with a very metaphorical and theatrical script, and Mank provides lots of cariacatured, gibbering lunatics to add horror to the asylum. Eary violins pierce through all of Taylor and Hepburn's solliloquies about turtles and cymbals and all manner of stuff.

The movie is bad, but well worth watching as an artifact of psychoanalyis during the time. Every cliche of mental health is here. Repressed memory, Oedipus complexes, homosexuality as disease, hypnotism, and the crown jewel, lobotomies of completely lucid patients who show a little hysteria now and then after witnessing a death. The poorly kept state institution, the struggle between medicine and talk therpay, the magical quality of neural surgery, all are on display in this fun window of the times.

Watch the movie as a lesson in how far we have come in the cultural understanding of the social aspects of the unconscious. On TCM ON Demand now, for you Comcast folks.


Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Hustler


Dir: Robert Rossen (All the King's Men)

Paul Newman is a pool shark who learns a lesson or two from life in this powerful drama. Another movie genre that I am a sucker for, down on their luck vagabonds trying to eek out a life and face their internal demons in seedy bars and cheap motel rooms. The performances are universally outstanding and the direction top notch. The script may suffer from a trifle too much cliche, but the film is no doubt hurt in my mind by the hundreds of derivative rip offs that sprung from it. Even Kingpin lifts half of its plot from the Hustler.

The revelation in the film is Piper Laurie. Her role is so cold that the few moments of true warmth are understated and heartbreaking. She is truly one of the most underrated actresses, having done lots of television work.

Look, this is yet another must see before you die films. But bump it to the front of the cue if you go in for these down and stories like I do.


Friday, August 19, 2005

The Story of the Weeping Camel


Dirs: Byambasuren Davaa; Luigi Falorni

Mongolian and Italian collaboration on a docudrama following a steppe family in the Gobi desert and their attempts to save a camel colt rejected by its mother. The film is quite sparse and contemplative, lingering over shots and translating the bare minimum of dialogue.

The story is interesting, and the camel drama is rather riveting. The family must cope with the clashes of new and old culture, and the husbandry provides one metaphor to look at the current status of these people. I was most interested in the creeping in of new culture into these nomadic lives. The kid, for example, wants a television; the family owns one plastic hand broom to help sweep up their tent after a sandstorm. The traces of industrialization make for a unique existence on the plain.

I still would prefer less drama and more docu (see my Winged Migration post), but the window into the lives of these people and the well done nature footage makes the film beautiful to look at and thought provoking as well.

I win the bet. You all (meaning no one, apparently) own me a dollar.


A Streetcar Named Desire


Dir: Elia Kazan

Acting Oscars went to Vivian Leigh, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden in Kazan's masterpiece about sex and insanity in the French Quarter. Oh yeah, and Brando is pretty good too.

Obviously it is a film I am revisiting. What stuck out in my mind this time through were some of the artistic elements that got overshadowed by the actors themselves. Sometimes lighting and symbols are the star of a good film. But nothing could outshine Blanche Du Bois. Yet, the lighting of the film (as Michelle was keen enough to point out) was impeccable. Lighting itself is a metaphor in the script, and the camera never misses a chance to reinforce that convention. Leigh always in soft focus and light. Brando in harsh, bright focus. And always eating, consuming, sweating, yelling.

This film stands up to hundreds of viewings which, fortune willing, I will accomplish in my years on the earth.


Friday, August 12, 2005

Dangerous Moves

1985 Oscar Winner Best Foreign Language Film

Dir: Richard Dembo

Engaging but not brilliant Swiss film about a world chess championship as metaphor for the Cold War. Nothing special in the acting or writing (although fine in both), the chess scenes carry this movie. It is entertaining and reflects its period well.

The geoplitical mindgames and psychology of the soviet era are played out between these two grandmasters in episodes that rival any sports movie I have seen. The movie is not distracted by subplots, almost to a fault since the presence of Leslie Caron and any other female character is totally superfluous. But the film does not need subplots; I found the chess more than enough to make the experience highly entertaining.

It's like watching the WS of Poker, but intellectual. Not too shabby.

One more to the record. One dollar to anyone not named Ron who stops me.


Thursday, August 11, 2005

Pelle the Conqueror

1989 Oscar Best Foreign Language Film

Dir: Billie August

Max von Sydow and son Pelle emigrate from Sweden to Denmark at the end of the 19th century. Forced into indentured servitude, the family encouters poverty and prejudice, a bleak life to match the stark environs. Both the immigrant workers and the landowners must wrestle with issues of freedom, sexual repression, and class.

The movie is quite good. von Sydow is, as always, great, a commanding presence even as a frail old man. The film deals with grand themes, and weaves in many different characters and episodes to address the immigrant experience from several angles. Not all resound with equal force, but none are bad. Even if the film does not always reach the mark, as I have said before, we never punish a movie for being too ambitious. But the resultion is very satisfying, nuanced, and is completely in character all around.

I am sucker for this kind of movie. Philosophical, epic, almost melodramatic. A novel on the screen (literally), a grand project that invites one to think about the human condition. In particular, I enjoyed reading the immigrant narrative through Scandavian eyes and drawing parallels to the American mythos of the same subject.

Minor note: The subtitles were designed for those hard of hearing, apparently, as I also got sound cues among the translations, such as [dogs barking] or [bells tolling]. Annoying, but it did force me to focus on the use of sound (almost no score in the whole film).

Worth your time. Always watch Max von Sydow movies. Two more posts from me without anyone else on here and I break my own record! Movies, good. You all, weak.


Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Babette's Feast

1988 Ocasr Best Foreign Language Film

Dir: Gabriel Axel

Sensuality trumps austerity in this Dutch film celebrating food and love. Cloistered and pious nothern Sweden is enlightened by Babette's exiled Revolutionary French cuisine. The story is well worn, but I wager most of that triteness is ripping off this movie. Like Water for Chocolate, Chocolat, etc. are taking cues from this fun and entertaining 1987 flick.

Of course, the narrative is right in Marcus' wheelhouse. Food liberates the repressed masses?!? OK, I'm there. The cooking and ingredient scenes are abolsutely pornographic in this movie (Quail stuffed with Truffles!) and the wine is sublime. God love this movie for celebrating the sensual of French cuisine like this. God love the French. Politics aside, the French are my favorite.

A recent trend in our culinary world is to be celebrated. Adkins is dead. But chefs like Batali and Emeril (I know, shudder) tout flavor. Hate Emeril's bravado, but love the fact that his audience applauds pork fat and butter in food. Food is liberatory; sensuality makes our lives worth living. Luxury and indulgence are good. This movie embodies that.

Uplifing film. Watch when hungry.


Winged Migration


Dirs: Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats

Another of the spellbinding nature documentaries out of France in recent years, this one follows birds on their transcontinential migrations. In the process, the movie weaves a subtle narrative about the immenisty of the earth and the footprint of humans upon it.

The camera work is breathtaking. Time and time again I found myself wondering "How did they get that shot?" The filmakers follow the birds over all imaginable landscapes, and the vistas are just as beautiful as the magnificent creatures. The scenes are at their best when following gliding birds close-up over tundra or canyons or skylines.

There were, though, some things about the movie that soured me. Many of the scenes are clearly staged (there are several camera angles at certain pivotal moments which must have taken hours to set up). Rather than let the magesty of the migration be the story, the directors create conflicts and triumphs artificially. The film acknowledges that it lies somewhere between documentary and fiction, but I felt manipluated and cheated. Why go through all of the technical challenges to capture the birds naturally just to set up contrived scenes for them?

Watching the featurette afterwards opened my eyes to what an undertaking this was. The crew of 500 spent four years filming the birds. They used ultra lightweight aircraft (essentially a chair with a big fan on the back) to fly in formation with the birds. But the most ambitious undertaking was in the birds themselves. The crew raised them from chicks using a technique called "imprinting" where they performed the mothering tasks and convinced the birds to follow them everywhere. That was how the birds allowed the crew to fly along side them.

While I would have preferred a more documentary style narrative, the movie's camera work is revolutionary. And such an involved project always makes me want to see it because, if for no other reason, so many people put so much love into it.


Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Natural


Dir: Barry Levinson

One of the greatest sports movies of all time. The history and passion of baseball are on full display here. Sure, it is sentimental. But it is genuinely beautiful as well, and captures the sport, especially its connection with boyhood, in a way few if any other movies have.

Michelle and I marvelled througout at the lighting. The obvious halo around Robert Redford does its narrative job, but it is the use of shadow that stands out most to my eyes. Levinson has put tremendous care into every frame, and there are hardly any shots that don't use lighting to acheive a memorable image. One of the most visually resonant movies I have seen.

A must see.


Friday, August 05, 2005

House of Games


Dir: David Mamet

Absolutley one of the best con movies ever made. I won't divulge the plot becuase con movies should be approached with no spoilers. But the movie is not to be missed, in my mind.

My second time through this one, which allows me to pay attention to it in ways that one cannot on the first time. The movie is very well put together, as well as having an intricate story. Mamet's script is, of course, brilliant. His direction is also very nice, a decidedly noirish style, lots of long shadows and neon lights. The acting is good too, especially Joe Mantegna. Mamet cast his wife in the lead, and her performance in adequete (her character calls for coldness and distance, so she has no opportunity to flourish chops, I will admit). Watch for a very young William H. Macy in a bit part.

I love con movies, when done well. They are clever and keep the audience engaged intellectually. This one is very, very clever. And the entire Mamet corpus is essential viewing.


Tuesday, August 02, 2005



Dir: Terry Gilliam

Dark study of a bureaucratic state and various attempts to circumvent it. While the movie is certaintly visionary, and beautiful, and provocative, it is a bit of a mess. And too long. Its faults lie in its ambition, though, and for that we always applaud a movie.

The best part of the movie watching experience was the expert and cogent discussion that followed. Enlightening and entertaining.


Monday, August 01, 2005

Duck Soup


Dir: Leo McCarey (Going My Way; The Bells of St. Mary's; An Affair to Remember)

I actually saw this two days ago and procrastinated on the blog. But, I am still ahead of some around here. I have been anxioulsy awaiting that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory post.

I was going to be more philosophical on one of my favorite movies, but leave it at this. The Marx Brothers made the funniest movies ever. No debate. Their craft is the most precise, their timing is the most perfect, their rebelliousness is the most groundbreaking. See all of their movies, even the bad ones. And Duck Soup is one of the best ones, so see it first.