Saturday, February 27, 2010

#449: Missing

(Costa-Gavras, 1982)

Where has this movie been all my life?

I've long been interested in the US involvement in Latin America, and their (at best) complicity in or (at worst) orchestration of the Chilean coup that put Pinochet in charge is one of the most significant historical moments. This film takes a look at this moment in history through the eyes of a wife and a father who are trying to find their loved one, who went missing during the coup.

Costa-Gavras is famous for making "political films," his film Z, which is also in the Collection, is a masterpiece of procedural thrills. This film might be even better than that. I don't think I've ever seen a film that gives the viewer a better idea of what it must be like to be a bystander in a country that is being torn apart. The characters sit in cafés as men come and take patrons away in military vehicles as women scream and cry. They sip water and barely flinch as the gunshots ring out around them. They huddle in corners when they get trapped out late after curfew to avoid being shot in the streets. For the lucky Americans, they desperately struggle to reach their embassy or someone in charge to get them safely out of the country. It's a riveting depiction, one that is a stark reminder of what stable government affords its citizens.

But the real treat of Missing is maybe the best performance I've ever seen by Jack Lemmon as the father. Sissy Spacek is wonderful, too, as the wife, but it's Lemmon's film. He is responsible for taking the viewer's journey into this unknown world. The film is his political awakening, just as it is meant to be ours, so he has to be stubborn and proud as the American who believes his government can do no wrong. He has to balance his slow realization that the embassy is not looking out for him with the heartbreak of a father losing his only child, while still making the transition seem believable and powerful. He does not disappoint. It's hard to imagine seeing a more tragic character out of Lemmon than the one he plays so beautifully in Glengary Glen Ross, but his performance here is so heartbreaking and natural that it's almost like America itself loses its glow during the course of the film.

This is another truly great film, one that shouldn't be overlooked by people who think Z is the only essential film in the director's catalog.

Friday, February 26, 2010

376: The 49th Parallel

(Michael Powell, 1941)

49th Parallel is part propaganda, part adventure thriller, yet it has one very unique twist. The movie is essentially The Great Escape, only you aren't supposed to want to root for the protagonists. In fact, the protagonists are Nazis, stranded in Canada, struggling to make it back to the (at the time neutral) United States.

This makes the movie a far more interesting one, in my opinion, than the movie Powell and Pressburger made two films later in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The film is essentially episodic, as the Nazis meet different people along the way and slowly lose members of their group to death (at the hands of Canadians or, in one moving moment, their own hands) or capture. So the only through line in the film are the Nazis themselves, and yet you never root for them, as they are basically propaganda in the form of characters, quick to betray the people who they meet and even each other, devoted only to the Fuhrer, destined to be defeated. How many movies can you think of where the main characters are unlikable and unsympathetic? Now how many of those were made before 1970? 1950?

This would make the movie seem very revolutionary, if it wasn't for the fact that the Nazis speak the Queen's English - even to each other, alone - and are perfectly inconspicuous among Canadian crowds. This basically makes the entire concept of the movie unrealistic, since the language barrier is never addressed. I'm not sure how the conversation went where they thought, "Okay, let's just fucking do this whole thing in English." I doubt they even thought about it, of course. But I definitely think this movie could easily be updated for the modern war, involving terrorists being stuck in America away from central command... but now I'm getting ahead of Hollywood. I'm sure it's already in the works.

#173: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

(Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a funny kind of movie. Filmed in the middle of World War II, the movie is essentially about the changing times and the need to "fight fire with fire," as the saying goes. The Colonel Blimp of the title is not a character in the movie, but rather a British political cartoon character that was a parody of the old guard of the British military. This was something I found out after watching the movie that I wish I had known before spending nearly three hours wondering why the main character's name was Candy, and why he quickly rose to the position of general.

The basic thesis of the film is that World War II is the modern war, and when fighting someone as evil as Hitler there is no room to be a gentleman. They go about making this argument in a the conventional biographical style that was typical of a certain kind of movie of the era - perhaps the movie I was reminded most of was Zanuck's overblown, anti-isolationist biopic Wilson - complete with bookends that take place in the modern day. One of the more unique elements is that Deborah Kerr plays three different roles, the three most important women in Candy's life.

Still, it is the argument that makes me uneasy about the movie. This argument is far more complicated
today than it was then, not only because Hitler and the Nazis are still the enemy by which all others are measured, but because things we took for granted in that time are no longer assumed. We might have thrown down the gentleman's code to defeat the Germans, but we persecuted the Japanese for waterboarding our soldiers. Powell and Pressburger clearly advocate doing what it takes to win here, but do they know what line still should not be crossed, and do they even believe that line exists?

Even without this question, the movie didn't really work for me. It was well-made and enjoyable, and it kept my interest. But the conventional story and structure left me wondering if there was enough to differentiate it from similar films. An impeccably made film like this needs a bit more, whether it is technical or emotional, to make it stand out. Instead, the movie feels more like the kind of movie you get once or twice a year: an excellent but forgettable prestige picture.

Monday, February 22, 2010

#5: The 400 Blows

(Francois Truffaut, 1959)

Like Catcher in the Rye, The 400 Blows doesn't do that much for me. I'm not sure why, though, because it really is an excellent movie, full of truth and imbued with a modern sensibility and style of filmmaking that would be copied in the next generation countless times. I had watched it years ago, and it failed to resonate with me, despite the fact that to this day I think Jules and Jim, Truffaut's third feature, is one of the best movies ever made. Over the past few months I had convinced myself that a fresh viewing would change my opinion.

This second viewing definitely improved my view of the movie, but I wouldn't go so far as to say this is a five-star classic. Still, some elements were much stronger this time around: the interweaving of the cinema into the movie, the impeccably edited amusement park scene, a performance by the lead actor that could be easily overlooked because it is so natural.

One thing I thought about when I was done with the film was the question of whether or not you have to feel some auto-biographical connection to a movie in order to appreciate it. Certainly, most people choose films based on their ability to recognize their culture and upbringing in the film. In my work, I often come across people who are white or black complaining that a movie is not for them because there are no people of their own race in the film. Because white films are the "generic" choice in America, white people often believe the conscious decision to make a movie about black people means that the film is not directed at them. Part of this is subtle societal racism, but most of it is the natural inclination of people (and in particular Americans) to be afraid of leaving their comfort zone. Just like a foreign film, a movie about black Americans, they believe, will include cultural references that they will not understand, and therefore cannot connect with, which will leave them either alienated or bored.

While childhood is a slightly but distinctly different matter, I couldn't help but feel that I didn't love the film because I didn't sympathize with the main character. His concerns have never been mine, his problems were not the ones I struggled with as a child. Moreover, unlike a film like Ratcatcher, which seems similarly foreign to me, I had no impression that The 400 Blows was taking me into a different world. In this way, the realism of the film might be held against it, even as I would unquestionably praise the depiction of childhood in the film for its lack of nostalgia and idealism.

I could probably name many movies that I felt less of an auto-biographical connection to than The 400 Blows. But because the movie seems so real and so personal, it is even more difficult to put myself in the shoes of Antoine Doinel. So even as the last image persists in my memory, and many of the film's characters seem vivid hours after viewing the film, I still feel distant from the movie in a way that my favorite films do not make me feel.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

#31: Great Expectations

(David Lean, 1946)

The year before he made Great Expectations, his first of two Dickens adaptations, David Lean made Brief Encounter, my favorite film (and reportedly his) by the director most famous for his widescreen epics Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago. That film had been based on a play by Noel Coward, who also wrote the screenplay. The two films are strongly representative of the impression of British post-war cinema: refined and repressed melodrama and proper, impeccably produced adaptations of historic novels.

I happen to prefer the former, which is not to say that I didn't enjoy watching Great Expectations, but more that I don't tend to lend such conventional (and "respectable") adaptations much weight. After all, how different is a Merchant Ivory film from a Michael Bay film? Are they both not perfectly crafted entertainments with the perfect Pavlovian additives for their respective audiences?

That's basically how I felt about Great Expectations, a film that does little to add to its source material, but gets by on the charm of its performers and the talents of its production team, most notably David Lean. The director is often unfairly dismissed and overlooked, in my opinion - even Lawrence of Arabia has not aged as well as it should in film circles, possibly owing to the essential need to see the film on the big screen. Here he manages to bring the material to life extremely effectively, although the narration can be a bit clunky, and the now cliché opening pan away from the first page of the novel is a bit terrifying when settling in to a two-hour movie.

Still, the film brings up the eternal question of what makes a worthy adaptation. Some people enjoy the visual realization of their favorite novels enough to warrant a film production, but I tend to feel that a film should bring something new to the material. Great Expectations fails in this respect, which prevents me from saying the film is any type of great, but if you don't want to take the time to read the book, this two hour condensation is a great way to know the story, albeit with the cinematic requisite (spoiler alert?), the happy ending.

Friday, February 19, 2010

#213: Richard III

(Lawrence Olivier, 1955)

Shakespeare. Yawn.

Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of Shakespeare's comedies, and I dig Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. But the vast majority of the historical plays bore me to death. This production is fine, although the Technicolor is a bit distracting. And Olivier gives a predictably good performance. But, really, who cares? (If you care, don't answer that.)

I only made it through this one by watching it in pieces. I had already seen Olivier's Hamlet years ago, needless to say I am not looking forward to Henry V.

#375: Green For Danger

(Sidney Gilliat, 1946)

Green for Danger is a ludicrous but entertaining film directed by the co-writer of The Lady Vanishes, another unlikely (though less so) thriller. Like that film, Green for Danger represents the essence of studio productions before the auteur theory took over post-1960s. It's populated wall to wall with charming men, beautiful women, and a deep secret that each hides, all lorded over by a wry inspector intent on cracking the case (and having a good time doing it).

However, the film didn't pull me in with the same immediacy as that earlier Hitchcock film. Part of that was the insanely unbelievable plot, but a lot of it came from the difficulty in following the characters, their various machinations, and just where the story was going. The basic whodunit was easy enough to discern, but much of the appeal of the characters was lost along the way. The film doesn't sizzle like The Lady Vanishes, partly because the relationships between the characters don't seem to change, partly because I didn't care enough about the people who eventually ended up being involved in the crime.

Green for Danger is the kind of film it would be a pleasure to find on TCM one night, and it is an interesting twist on the drawing room mystery so common in England. But beyond that, it doesn't have much to distinguish itself from the common mystery films of the era, highly enjoyable entertainment that is ultimately forgotten.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

#417: This Sporting Life

(Lindsay Anderson, 1963)

Most people consider this Lindsay Anderson's best film, a character portrait that reminds me more of a Cassavetes film than the average sports film. So if you haven't guessed it yet, that cover over there might be a bit misleading, unless I guess you take it metaphorically. See, the main character is only able to express himself through violence, something which often ends up hurting himself more than others.

Like Cassavetes, Anderson is an auteur in the truest sense of the word. His films are deeply personal, powerful in their vision, and expertly realized. But auteur directors can be extremely polarizing, and I didn't particularly connect with this film, just as I didn't connect with If.... Perhaps, just like that film, This Sporting Life is inherently British, seeped in class just as much as masculinity. But I think also the deep melodrama here fails to impact me on a personal level, and the movie reminds me more of other films I've seen (most notably the far superior Raging Bull) than of moments in my life.

Anderson's films have impressed me enough that at another point in my life I might be more inclined to return to them, but for now, I'll leave them be.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

#93: Black Narcissus

(Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947)

Netflix just put up a bunch of Powell and Pressburger films, and this is the first one I watched. The duo has made a few of the best films ever made, most notably The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom (though the latter was Powell alone), so I'm looking forward to getting through them, despite my disinterest with The Thief of Baghdad.

What made me watch this one first? The guarantee of strong visuals, and I wasn't disappointed. The best scenes involve the crazy nun (played completely over the top by some British lady) running through a bamboo forest lit in green, as she slices through it in her deep red dress. When she faints, the camera takes on her POV and then red seeps in before the whole screen goes blue, as if the DVD feed had been cut off from the television (probably not their original intention, but it has a remarkable effect nevertheless).

It is uses of color like this that make the film so successful, one of the best representations of the Technicolor era that I've seen. The tones used throughout the movie evoke the mood of the people, they seem alive and ever-changing, deep in way that seems impossible in reality. While the movie's story has its faults, which might prevent me from saying I really loved the film, it's the visual impact of the movie that will be difficult to forget.

#158: The Importance of Being Earnest

(Anthony Asquith, 1952)

Oscar Wilde is funny beyond the limits of his social world's boundaries, and his most famous play is transformed here into the perfect adaptation. Asquith's film doesn't feel too stagey or overplayed, like so many stage-to-screen adaptations, and the movie is as light and sophisticated as a glass of champagne. It's not surprising that fifteen years earlier Asquith had made an equally successful adaptation of Shaw's Pygmalion, also a Criterion film.

There isn't much to say about The Importance of Being Earnest, other than that if you aren't put off by the decorum of the time, I can't possibly imagine not enjoying this film. All the performances are excellent, and at a brief 90 minutes the film feels like it's over before you have a chance to reflect. A lovely way to pass the time.

The movie also has my new favorite quote. After offering to do a favor for his friend in order to secure a dinner invitation, to which his friend agrees, Algernon replies "You must be serious about it. I hate people who are not serious about meals." Indeed.

#497: Rome, Open City

(Roberto Rossellini, 1945)

I had seen the first half of Rossellini's masterpiece in Italy while studying abroad (the film is literally divided up, with title cards and everything), and viewing the whole film now was an interesting experience because the first half is so different from the second half. The first is a deeply moving portrait of the struggles of the Italian people under Fascist rule, and it features one of the most famously intense scenes in movie history as one of the characters is gunned down in the street. The second half, on the other hand, becomes a philosophical exploration of the plight of the resistance in Italy, and it features graphic depictions of torture and tragic fates for the characters of the first half. It is clear Army of Shadows took a great deal from this film, even perhaps referencing its opening shot with its own march of Nazi soldiers down the streets of a beloved city, in this case Rome, in that case Paris.

But there is, of course one major difference between the two films. France was being occupied at the time, while Italy was a willing participant in the axis's fight. This is a vital issue that has been largely paved over in Italy's history: while Germany has taken great pains to examine its national identity after the fall of Hitler, Italy continues to live in denial of the crimes it committed in the name of making the trains run on time. A very interesting thing about this film is that it demonstrates how quickly Italy established this national myth. In fact, Rossellini himself made films under the Fascist regime.

Okay, maybe it is more complicated than that. After all, the French had the Vichy government, so they weren't all resisting. And Clouzot, one of my favorite directors ever, made films for the Nazis (although Le Corbeau could certainly be seen as anti-Nazi). There was always a strong resistance in Italy, and in fact the memorable priest character in this film was loosely based on an actual priest that was heavily involved in the anti-fascist movement. But the film takes advantage of this fact (and the natural inclination to set up Nazis as the ultimate evil) in order to create a Rome that is united against the threat from abroad, desperate for America to come rescue them, just as one character turns on the radio to hear the jazz played for the US troops. Because the movie is so good - and this really is a classic - and it's so well-intentioned, particularly for the commonly left-minded film critic, I think the political choices here have largely been overlooked, just as they have in Italy to this day.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

#114: My Man Godfrey

(Gregory La Cava, 1936)

I obviously do not share the common view among people my age that any movie before The Godfather is an "old movie" and therefore uninteresting. However, one line of complaint that I have a hard time arguing is the negative depiction of women in films made before 1960. Women in these films are often shrill, highly emotional, and unreasonable, prone to crying and fainting at the slightest conflict (a notable exception to this rule, among many, is Rosalind Russel in the incomparable His Girl Friday; ironically, this role was written for a man in the original play).

I mention this after watching My Man Godfrey because the film features one of the all-time great hysterical female performances by Carole Lombard. One of the best female stars of the 30s, Lombard has seldom been matched by any of the screwball heroines that followed her (she died in a plane crash in 1942, while still very much in demand), and here she flops and stomps gracefully through scene after scene. This is the second time I've seen the film, and while I had always remembered it as a strong entry in the screwball category (and a film that flirts with the social commentary that would blossom in Criterion selection Sullivan's Travels), Lombard's performance was an extremely pleasant surprise. Instead of playing her character as the common flighty woman, the actress makes her seem real and unique, a character who has created her fits and tantrums not through the feminine stereotypes of manipulation and emotional immaturity, but through her own spoiled life experience, combined with a powerful personality that is at once off-putting and strangely appealing (something with which Powell's Godfrey obviously agrees).

The movie manages to delight in numerous other ways, from the smart-ass maid to the grumbling father, played by Eugene Pallette, one of my all-time favorite character actors. La Cava would never be mistaken for Sturges, or Lubitsch or Hawks, but sometimes a common Hollywood product like this comes off as effortlessly as the work by those masters (it happens less often now, of course). The fact that he has Powell and, especially, Lombard along for the ride only makes it that much more fun.

Side note: Any chance the horse in the library was an influence on the tiger in the bathroom in The Hangover?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

#501: Paris, Texas

(Wim Wenders, 1984)

My friend Thomas let me borrow Paris, Texas on DVD four years ago, but I never got around to watching it (Thomas, if you're reading this, I have your DVD). Despite a mixed opinion of Sam Shepard and Wim Wenders (though a great deal of respect for their talents) I always knew I would love it, but I just kept putting it off.

I've heard people say that Paris, Texas is the best movie about America ever made, some even say it's the best movie period. Now that I've watched the film, I can see where all the praise comes from. This is a masterpiece in both small and ambitious ways, depicting a simple interpersonal story as the complementary setting for a love letter to the American landscape, urban and desolate. It's no surprise that more than one critic references The Searchers in essays about the film; I thought of the John Ford movie more than once while watching this film, mostly because to see the American desert and not think of Ford's vistas would seem impossible.

But the movie is also so tied to that Western classic because of its anti-hero, its insistence on the possibility of redemption, and the ability of the American open range to start every life anew. Paris, Texas is about America, but just as America can represent the best and worst of humanity, this film is about the hope for something better, the fight against loneliness borne of individuality, and the unlikely journey towards a better life.

Friday, February 12, 2010

#98: L'Avventura

(Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)

This is the third time I've seen L'Avventura, but I think it's really the first time it sunk in. The first two times I was watching it mostly for the technical beauty of the film. Its compositions and editing are unlike any other movie, and Antonioni's work here is literally awesome. I always knew it was a great film. Today, I think it may be the greatest of all Italian movies, the purest representation of the struggles of Modernism ever put onto film.

Released the year after Fellini's similar La Dolce Vita, the film follows a group of wealthy modern men and women struggling with their own ennui, generally giving in to their whims and urges, and searching for anything other than the person they were looking for, the woman who disappeared off an island in the Mediterranean. She was supposed to be their friend, their lover, their daughter, but they seem more concerned with, well, what concerns them at the moment. The difference between these cold, lost souls and the middle-class subjects of Fellini's film is that those people were indeed searching for the sweet life, trying at every moment to live it. Here, Antonioni's characters seem stuck in a rut they have no interest in staying in, but make no effort to get out of.

I can't help but wonder if Antonioni didn't intend so much when he named the film "The Adventure" and created a plot that involved a missing beautiful girl on an exotic island, and then proceeded to make a movie about how nothing is there. The experience of viewing L'Avventura can be just as existential as the experiences these characters go through. Why do we watch movies, anyway? To be entertained, or to search for a deeper meaning in life? Did we expect the woman to be found, did we hope for some mysterious revelation that wrapped it all up? Both or neither, I couldn't help but feel like Antonioni was mocking the very idea of getting answers from film, or even of being exposed to another world, the "adventure" of the title, in making this movie. As the sun comes up at the end of the film and the two protagonists commiserate, we are left with the profound emptiness of their lives, the deep disappointment of a journey that does not breed satisfaction.

If I really believe that is what the movie is about, and I also believe what I said about the film struggling with Modernism, then maybe L'Avventura is just another movie about how microwaves give us hot food fast but don't really make us happy. But the film isn't rejecting the modern life. It's asking for the new within us, so we can reconcile our vision of ourselves with the new world around us. All this, and I haven't even mentioned the filmmaking. And, oh, the filmmaking. It's amazing to think Antonioni had previously made little-known pictures before producing this dynamic and poetic masterpiece. Honestly, I am at a loss to think of any movie made before this that is like it. I think this may be the first truly novel use of the widescreen, and everything here, from the framing to the blocking to the lighting, couldn't be more impressive (this needs to be on Blu-Ray, right now).

What I'm saying is that I enjoyed this movie.

Actually though, the only bad thing about this movie is that Lea Massari, who plays the missing Anna, doesn't get enough screen time. Probably one of the most beautiful women ever put on screen, I'll see more of her when I get around to Malle's Murmur of the Heart. For now, please see this movie if you haven't yet. And if you have, watch it again.

#202: Indiscretion of an American Wife/Terminal Station

(Vittorio De Sica, 1953)

Okay, I kind of cheated with this one. The whole point of this release is to be able to compare to versions of the same movie: the 90-minute original version that De Sica previewed (to mostly negative reviews) and the severely reedited 60-minute version completed by producer David Selznick, which didn't fare much better. But after having watched the Selznick version, I'm going to find it near impossible to legitimize slogging through the same film, only 50% more, even if most do say that the De Sica version is far superior.

This is baaaaaaad. I mean really near the point of unwatchable, an experiment in contemporary trends that just doesn't work, period. Think a strange mix of De Sica's earlier neo-realist work with Douglas Sirk-style melodrama, minus the authenticity of the former and the self-aware flourishes of the latter. Then add laughable performances by Montgomery Clift (honey) and Jennifer Jones.

Soooo yeah. I think I'm done with this one.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

#221: Ikiru

(Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

Ikiru is a Kurosawa film far separated from "the films of Kurosawa." Set in modern times, drenched in sadness and struggle (though ultimately defined by personal redemption), the film could hardly be compared to the director's better-known films, mostly samurai tales that intermingle epic storytelling and ancient traditions. Instead, here is a personal epic, an existentialist treatise from a man who, while a near contemporary of Camus and Sartre, could hardly be called an existentialist.

What most surprised me about the movie (which I had put off watching for a few months during this project, a few years during my life) was the narrative rug pull midway through. The film intrigued me through an hour and a half, which mainly consisted of the main character being diagnosed with cancer and struggling to come to terms with the empty life he had led. But it really comes to life only after this character dies, and the next hour consists of his coworkers and his family coming to terms with his life. It's a story about democracy (or I suppose bureaucracy, but what's the difference?) and politics, but it is also about our mortal fears, our cowardice and our laziness. The question of what we would do if we had six months to live is a common one, but the full weight of this notion can only be felt once it is truly thrown in one's face. Seeing the men sitting in front of the main character's casket, quesitoning his motives just as they question their own, is a deeply moving, perhaps even spiritual experience. It elevates a film that may have wallowed in melodrama for its duration to a higher purpose. Roger Ebert, in his great movies essay on the film, said this might be one of the few films in history that could change the way a person lived. It may sound naïve to assume any movie could achieve such an ambitious accomplishment, but I know exactly what he means.

One more thing: I'm not the first one to notice this (as I discovered with a quick Google search of "ikiru parks and recreation"), but this film's plot of a neighborhood wanting to replace a dangerous zone with a park but facing bureaucratic red tape is the exact premise of the sitcom Parks and Recreation. Weird, huh?

#309: Ugetsu

(Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

With the exception of Tokyo Story and Seven Samurai (or perhaps the even better Rashomon), Ugetsu is the most praised of all Japanese films, and represents the pinnacle of its director's career. Mizoguchi - along with Ozu - is often held in higher esteem than Kurosawa by critics who are quick to dismiss the more Western-friendly director's style as out of step with traditional Japanese aesthetics. Considering the fact that I have never been to Japan I am not one to argue, but I nevertheless find such arguments dull, and I think they miss the point in the worst sense.

Still, it is undeniable that Ugetsu is essentially Japanese, not necessarily in its theme - which is at its most basic the timeless idea that the evils and sins of man are most often visited upon the powerless, in this and most cases the woman - but in its presentation of that theme and its attitude towards this universal truth. The film is that most pleasing of all story traditions from the culture, a Japanese ghost story, but it is also a deeply poetic and (dare I say?) Zen meditation on its topic. The movie makes no judgments on its characters, even the two brothers who are consumed by greed and ambition, but instead accepts their choices as part of life.

Perhaps I play into the hands of the critics when I say that, while Ugetsu moved me, I don't think I would consider it a great film on the level of many of the Kurosawa movies I have already seen. Certainly many of the crane shots, the artful lighting, and the memorable performances could easily rank with the best of cinema. But movies need that undefinable characteristic in order to really have an impact, and I guess this one just didn't have that for me.

Monday, February 8, 2010

#432: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

(Paul Schrader, 1985)

The Last Temptation of Christ is one of my favorite films ever made, and it's one of the twenty or so Criterion DVDs I actually own. Obviously, Taxi Driver is a great movie as well, and I love both of these scripts. But something about Paul Schrader's work as a director doesn't give me the same pull that I experience with his collaborations with Scorsese. So I put off watching this one perhaps more than I otherwise would have if the same film had been made by someone else.

The first part of the film takes a while to get going, but once it does, the film really opens up, and it's clear what Schrader's intention was with the movie. Here is an unconventional biopic that nevertheless achieves what most biopics never even consider: Mishima gives the viewer a sense of what its subject believed in, what his life was like, and what his work and death were about.

I feel like I know some things about Mishima after viewing the film, but most of the finer points of his life are not here. This isn't Ray or Gandhi, it isn't even really Che or Walk the Line. It's an interweaving of art and reality, life and death, and, as is so often highlighted in the film, action and words. The sets and cinematography are amazing, and the film's subtle technical flourishes (matched with some brief over-the-top ones) are beautiful and occasionally astonishing. Perhaps the best part of the film is the score by Philip Glass, probably my favorite by the much-heralded, much-ridiculed composer. Without being distracting, his hypnotic work is so woven into the fabric of the film that it becomes essential to the themes of Mishima's life. It's impossible to envision this film without it.

Still - and this should already be clear - the movie isn't going to be for everyone. The interwoven narratives are off-putting at times, and the theatrical sets that recreate his works could come across as distracting and articifical (precisely what Schrader no doubt intended). But for people who are interested in Schrader's work, I think the film says just as much about its maker as it does about its subject.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

#391: If....

(Lindsay Anderson, 1968)

Intellectually, I dug this movie, but the payoff wasn't enough to reward the work put in. And most of this movie does feel like work: the build up to the orgasmic violent outburst is mostly very British societal repression of the kind that only a British person can really appreciate.

In fact, this movie really was made for British people in the 60s struggling with the new world order. The movie dances between fantasy and reality effortlessly, fighting to merge the two in an anarchic dance. Malcolm McDowell is naturally excellent in his lead role, and certainly any fan of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange needs to see this movie like Kubrick clearly saw it and found everything he was looking for to fill his own shocking vision.

But the movie didn't thrill me anything like that later film did, and feels much less timeless than that film, despite obvious efforts to the contrary (avoiding pop music, any seriously dated clothes, etc.). Despite these issues, I am certainly looking forward to watching This Sporting Life, as Anderson is clearly a challenging and engaging filmmaker.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

#275: Tout Va Bien

(Jean-Luc Godard, 1972)

Another thing about Godard movies: it's very hard to truly appreciate one of his films without knowing how it was made. Tout Va Bien is a perfect example of this. Made with Jane Fonda and Yves Montand, the film would mean virtually nothing without viewers recognizing these two stars, as the film largely centers around the idea of them at the center of a radically political film. Much less likely to be noticed is the fact that the workers at the striking salumi plant were played by unemployed actors (interacting, of course, with these world-famous stars). An interesting point, made totally irrelevant in the actual viewing of the film.

Tout Va Bien has other flaws (or strengths depending on what your perspective is on process as art), and it is like other Godard films in that it is inherently contemporary, unable to be separated from its time. But the film is much more frequently entertaining and challenging than some of his lesser films, and does not deserve its negative reputation (or Godard's own scorn). It's an interesting film, if far from a truly great one.