Wednesday, March 31, 2010

#447: Le Doulos

(Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962)

Like Veronika Voss, Melville's Le Doulos does not feel of its time, but instead seems stuck in the 1940s, maybe even in Los Angeles if the characters didn't insist on speaking French. The film isn't Melville's first noir, but it is the first film that he made that touches on the themes and elements that would be present in most of his future films (and masterpieces). It's an extremely entertaining film, first and foremost, and it's an easier viewing than Bob Le Flambeur, which is more of a moody character piece.

The movie is also deliberately misleading in its plot, and brings up the question of whether or not a director should lie to his audience. Even ignoring the subjective POV that is required to make the film's twist work, the plot developments here are impossibly convoluted, and would stretch believability if you stopped thinking for a minute that the movie was trying to resemble The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon more than reality. But, of course, no one would.

Over the course of this project, I have found renewed love in the films of Melville and Clouzot. While their films are similar, the difference lies in their attitude towards both their material and their audience. Clouzot was constantly focused on making his work entertaining and intriguing, like a puzzle. Neither director had much concern for reality, but Clouzot turned to cinema as a technique rather than a medium. Melville, on the other hand, was one of those first masters that drew on his love of film inherent to the artform, turning his films back on themselves until the only thing left was cinema itself. Both have their appeal (and their disciples) but Clouzot's work seems to stand on its own, defiant, while Melville's greatest films (with the clear exception of Army of Shadows) would have no meaning outside of the context of the gangster pictures that came before and after them. For this reason, they seem more fulfilling, even if (as in this case) they don't always measure up to Clouzot's best.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

#28: Blood For Dracula

(Paul Morrissey, 1974)

I shouldn't have put off watching this for so long, but something about it made me think it was going to be more boring than anything else. Maybe it was the films actually made by Andy Warhol, such as New York and Blow Job, which are art pieces meant to be viewed in context rather than focused on for their entire running lengths. Regardless, when viewed with the goals of the film in mind, Blood for Dracula is a complete triumph, from the awkward pacing of the dialogue to the clumsy socialist rhetoric that is tossed around by the mysteriously American-sounding Italian villa worker/hero, whose most heroic moment comes in the form of a rape.

I have mixed feelings about cult films, and on the whole, I think there are as many cult films of value, proportionally speaking, as there are films of value in general. But unlike, say, Reefer Madness, Blood for Dracula is a movie that was obviously made with this designation in mind, yet it never collapses under the weight of self-parody. Fronting De Sica and Polanski as he tramples on both director's respective genres, Morrissey is nothing if he isn't tongue in cheek, consistently reaching for both entertainment and a vicious sense of satire. The film ends up being wicked fun, and deserves a higher profile than it has.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

#422: The Last Emperor

(Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987)

The most obvious flaw in The Last Emperor is that everyone seems to not only speak English, but communicate exclusively in it. There aren't many other flaws. The winner of best picture in 1987, The Last Emperor is a minor epic in scope (David Thompson calls it Lean-meets-Ozu, and I get that) but a major work in 1980s cinema. Watching it again, I was struck by just how luscious the cinematography is, how personal the depiction of the emperor is, and how understated just about everything in this movie is. It's delicate and focused where many historical epics of its time were weighty and overserious (Reds comes to mind). And the performances are all really excellent. A fine film.

A note on the Criterion controversy: The current blu-ray version of the film is in a 2:1 ratio, while the movie was traditionally shown in the wider and more traditional 2.35:1 ratio. Criterion claims that this was because the filmmakers (the cinematographer and the director specifically) claim that this was their original intention for the film. I have to agree with the masses who are disappointed in this decision. I believe movies should be seen in their original release version, and I highly doubt that, had Bertolucci wanted the film to be shown in this narrower ratio originally, it wouldn't have been shown that way. If they must, it would be acceptable to release both versions, but this would of course mean another disc to avoid sacrificing quality, which means more price. But in general, I believe once a film is released, that version belongs to the public, and should not be altered.

Friday, March 26, 2010

#150: Bob Le Flambeur

(Jean-Pierre Melville, 1950)

Despite Breathless and its obvious debt to noir, it's hard to imagine a film that seems to have simultaneously influenced the New Wave and inspired both versions of Ocean's Eleven. But Bob Le Flambeur is such a movie. Melville's first real heist pic, the movie's characters exist in filmworld, that place that is hot and sweaty and oozes saxophone.

Bob is addicted to gambling, to the point where he forgets about the massive casino robbery he planned once he gets into the room and sits down at a roulette table. But he's also a suave, struggling anti-hero, the kind of guy who will refuse to help a pimp but doesn't hesitate to slap a woman who lets slip his heist plot. He's Bogart but Frenched up, basically, and it's really fun to watch.

Melville hadn't perfected his craft yet when he made Bob Le Flambeur, and one of the reasons is that the film is in black and white. Part of the reason his later masterpieces Le Samurai and Army of Shadows are so memorable is the way Melville using color to evoke moods in the films. In fact, color is the first thing I think of when I think of these two movies - one hot and red, one faded blue and penetratingly sad. I enjoyed Bob Le Flambeur, but I get the sense that the three Melville films to come will have more to offer me.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

#398: Les Enfants Terribles

(Jean-Pierre Melville, 1950)

Melville's second film is based on a Jean Cocteau novel, and it feels a lot more like a Cocteau film than a Melville film. Obviously, Melville had yet to find his calling as a crime filmmaker, and he was no doubt intimidated by Cocteau's presence on the film.

My biggest problem with the movie is simply how unlikable the two main characters of brother and sister are. This is simply just 100 minutes of two rotten, selfish young adults bickering back and forth until it's quite unbearable to take.

I'm still excited to watch this other Melville films on the list, and will chalk this one up to an early-career experiment in finding his voice, too often torn between his own instincts and those of the more established (yet much less up my alley) Cocteau.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

#259: Fat Girl

(Catherine Briellat, 2001)

I said when I saw A Nos Amours that I wondered what it would have been like if a woman had directed it. Well, Fat Girl might not be the exact result of this experiment, but it's pretty damn close.

Of course, calling Catherine Briellat a woman is like calling Gaspar Noe a man. She has a very specific point of view, and she uses it to provoke almost incessantly. Like Noe, she's an expert filmmaker, but unlike her contemporary, she has a respect for her characters which makes her films transcend their use as an intellectual exercise in abusive cinema.

Fat Girl was both less disturbing and better than I thought it would be. Considering how significant the movement to which it belongs has been in French filmmaking in the past few decades, it should certainly be represented in the Collection, and I think Fat Girl is the best of the genre I have seen, not only because Breillat pulls off the shocking ending with such technical mastery (the scenes on the highway before the women park are almost more terrifying than their subsequent end), but because she infuses her main character with such empathy that it leaves a film like Irreversible in the dust. But I wouldn't call Fat Girl a great movie, or even a film that is necessarily worth watching. It is merely relevant filmmaking, and for that I am glad I saw it, but don't plan on ever seeing it again.

#267: Kagemusha

(Akira Kurosawa, 1980)

Kagemusha is another Kurosawa masterpiece, this one - like Ran and Dreams after it - in color that straddles the line between the vivid and the surreal. At three hours, the movie's epic nature doesn't seem as essential, perhaps, as earlier films like Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress. The battle scenes here don't compare to the later spectacles of Ran, and the scenes of horses squirming on the ground go on too long and feel a little heartless.

Still, the film is an emotionally engaging look at some of the most interesting Kurosawa and Japanese themes, such as the gulf between social standings, loyalty, and the line between reality and fantasy, life and death. The differences between Kurosawa's earlier films and this modern-era epic are obvious: apart from color, the movie breathes more than his earlier movies, with looser editing and a focus on auteur-side thematic emphasis over storytelling. These elements may be different, but they feel so natural that it is clear Kurosawa did not have the same difficulties that many directors of his generation had translating their style into the modern cinematic era.

Interestingly, it took Kurosawa many years to find the funding for Kagemusha, and when it finally arrived it came from George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, who became executive producers. They would also executive produce another masterpiece about Japan a few years later, Paul Schrader's Mishima.

Friday, March 19, 2010

#41: Henry V

(Laurence Olivier, 1944)

The first of the three major Olivier Shakespeare adaptations, Henry V is still relevant in its historical context (the film was made while World War II was still raging, and was meant to inspire with rousing patriotism), and the structure is perhaps the most unique of any Shakespeare film to date. Of the Shakespeare adaptations that preserve the original dialog, Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet is probably the only film that can compete with this for most original production (sorry, Orson).

This is because the movie starts out on stage, in a performance of the play circa 1600 in Shakespeare's Globe theater, before moving to a more surreal, almost two-dimensional setting, which transitions into the more realistic depiction of the battle at Agincourt. This structure makes the film far more interesting conceptually than Olivier's later Richard III, but it doesn't particularly make the play's events any more compelling.

It remains amazing to me that this film and Olivier's subsequent adaptations were successful not just in their native land but in the US, with general audiences. I like to think that we are not, in fact, growing dumber as a country, but the short attention spans of today's audiences would be no match for this movie's lumbering pace. It is often amazing how poorly the most popular films of a time can age - and in fact many of the most successful movies of the era were miserable. But Henry V doesn't seem bad, it just seems dry. Why would a play written four hundred years ago still have resonance fifty years ago, but not today?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

#193: Quai des Orfèvres

(Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1947)

This is the last of the Clouzot Criterion films for me, having seen Le Corbeau during this project and both Diabolique and Wages of Fear a number of times. While I would say it is my least favorite of the four, I would also say it is a masterpiece of French noir, a winding and smoothly unlikely plot that comes off as revolutionary as it does entertaining. The steps taken to set up the prime suspense - the idea that the husband and wife must keep their involvement in a murder secret from each other, while trying to evade the police - would seem ridiculous if they weren't so masterfully presented. Clouzot is often called the French Hitchcock, and certainly the complexity here calls to mind the seamless yet implausible scheming of Vertigo.

But it also, like Clouzot's other classics, dwells on the taboo, plots that would have a hard time working their way into current films. Just as Le Corbeau dealt with abortion, this film features a lesbian character as one of the main characters, and not in a sideways development like in Hitchcock's Rebecca, but in an open way that couldn't leave anyone doubting it. Yet Clouzot does not punish the character or even judge her, but merely treats her like everyone else in his world.

Still, the real pleasures of Quai des Orfèvres are the same things that make the other three Clouzot masterpieces worth watching: those tense moments when the complexities of plot and character come together and the viewer is rewarded with edge-of-the-seat suspense. In those moments, master and average filmmakers alike have complete control over their viewers. The difference between the two is their ability to deliver on this promise and leave the viewer not only satisfied, but desperate for another fix. Clouzot is one of the most addictive filmmakers there is, which is to say he is one of the great filmmakers of all time.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

#42: Fishing with John

(John Lurie, 1992)

This is one of the more bizarre entries in the Criterion Collection, and not because it isn't a movie at all, but a television series that lasted six episodes. Lurie is a musician and artist who decided to film his fishing trips with some of his favorite guest stars. The real appeal, though, is in the narration, which consists of lies and meaningless observations that become more and more surreal as the series progresses.

The interesting thing about the series is that it lulls you into a false sense of calm with fishing sequences and then shocks you back into the realization that you are not in fact watching an actual fishing show. Like when the Willem Dafoe episode ends with the narrator explaining that Lurie and Dafoe have died while ice fishing (the next episode begins with the camera finding Lurie, which prompts the narrator to exclaim with surprise: "I was wrong! John is alive!").

I highly doubt Fishing with John would be selected for the collection today, but in the early years of DVD adoption, this was the kind of thing that would seem lost to history had Criterion not selected it for release. For some, this will be the funniest thing they've ever seen, but for most, it won't surpass its status as a unique curiosity.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

#185: The Adventures of Antoine Doinel

(Francois Truffaut, 1959-79)

Despite the fact that The 400 Blows is one of the most acclaimed films of all time, the casual film watcher (if you'll allow me to use the term to describe people who watch fifty-year-old French films) is most likely unaware of the series it spawned. Part of that is the due to the lower profile of the rest of the films in the series. None of them would be described as classics by a generic film critic discussing the canon, and often films like that get overlooked in the discussion of film history, or even the French New Wave.

All of this is a shame, because even if the films aren't as immediate and ambitious as the opening chapter in the series, they are all beyond worthy films, and the series as a whole represents one of the great experiments of film. Seeing the same actor grow into adulthood and struggling with love and family is a thoroughly pleasurable journey, and what Criterion has done with this collection emphasizes the unified (though improvised) journey of not only Doinel but the women around him.

Overall, Stolen Kisses was my favorite, the lightest film of the bunch, and a breeze to watch. But it's the short, Antoine and Colette, which blew my mind, with its confident but loving direction, experimental use of framing, and perfect transitional tone. Like any series, it eventually lost much of the steam that had propelled it forward, but you never stop caring about the characters, and even if Love on the Run wasn't as strong as the other films, I still would have loved to see five more films about Antoine Doinel. This is a series that shouldn't be ignored any more.

You can read my thoughts on each feature in the series here:

The 400 Blows
Stolen Kisses
Bed and Board
Love on the Run

#188: Love on the Run

(Francois Truffaut, 1979)

I'm falling in love with Francois Truffaut. It really started years ago, with Jules and Jim, but my lukewarm reaction to The 400 Blows put it off for a few years. I also like Day for Night a lot, though I think I need to see it again. The Doinel series has renewed that love affair, though, and Love on the Run was where I really knew it. After all, this isn't that good of a movie. It relies a little too much on flashbacks, like a later edition of the 7 Up series, and the relationship between Doinel and his latest love interest doesn't seem as realistic and charming as his earlier relationships. In fact, a series that started out with one of the grittiest looks at childhood is now a romantic fantasy that almost certainly influenced Amelie.

But what really made me realize how much I need Truffaut in my life were the little things. The moment when Colette is thumbing through Doinel's book and there are images of characters from previous films superimposed on the pages. The incredible scene between Colette and Christine, the two loves of Antoine's life. Finally, and most importantly, the credit sequence at the end of the movie, where the film flashes back and forth between the two couples embracing.

Truffaut has said he didn't like this movie, and the reputation of the film indicates that most people agree with him. Yet Love on the Run is still a very rewarding watch, and not just because you have to see the story come to its conclusion. It's still extremely depressing to see Christine and Doinel divorced, but it's essential to the continued notion that Antoine is unable to change, which is both infuriating and the only reason why Truffaut would continue to make the films. And the other pieces - the reunion of Antoine and Colette, Antoine's encounter with an old lover of his mother, Alphonse as a child - are all extremely satisfying. I'll have more thoughts on the whole series later.

Friday, March 12, 2010

#187: Bed and Board

(Francois Truffaut, 1970)

The fourth installment in the Antoine Doinel series, Bed and Board is not as immediately satisfying as Stolen Kisses, but it's by no means disappointing. Part of the problem is that the movie contains a lot more conflict than its predecessor, but it's still an overall light and entertaining experience. Some characters are even around exclusively for comedic effect, like the friend who keeps borrowing money from Doinel, or the waitress who is constantly trying to hit on him (which, oddly enough, reminded me of the maid in Billy Madison). The most obvious, however, is M. Hulot, who randomly appears on a train platform towards the end of the movie, and then disappears equally fast. Truffaut apparently wanted to pay tribute to Tati and devised this cameo as a way of doing so.

Bed and Board is really just about young married life, though. The experience of growing familiar with someone and how that familiarity is tied into your love and affection for them. While I somewhat relate to this moment in life, having just tied the knot myself, I can happily say that the conflict that occurs in the film is something I plan on avoiding. It is interesting, however, how Antoine tells Christine when he is caught having an affair with a Japanese woman that he could understand her being upset if it was another woman, but this woman represents "another world." Of course, Antoine soon grows tired of that world and longs for the familiarity of Christine, confirming the thesis at the core of the film that moments of newness and excitement cannot compare to the pleasures of everyday happy life, like throwing your wife's coat and hat down the stairs of your apartment building to convince her to get out the door faster. That's when you know you're really married, and, depending on your point of view, really happy.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

#186: Stolen Kisses

(Francois Truffaut, 1968)

The funny thing about Stolen Kisses is not that this third installment in the Antoine Doinel series (and second full-length since The 400 Blows) is as light and enjoyable as a perfectly made eclair. It's that the film's tone is exactly the opposite of The 400 Blows, and yet feels like the natural follow-up anyway. For if childhood is viewed as a deeply emotional journey towards freedom from the hand you were dealt, the supremely awkward moments of youth that straddle adolescence and adulthood must inevitably be farce.

Stolen Kisses isn't uproariously funny - and it isn't reality heightened to an unrealistic level - but it's life as you experience it in those moments when you are struggling to find your identity. It's funny, for sure, but only in the way that the choices you seem to make for yourself don't end up being the ones that matter after all.

Like The 400 Blows, I can't immediately identify with Doinel's life path. I didn't jump from job to job, I know how to tail someone, and I certainly never had the boss's hot older wife propose a sexual encounter. Yet I felt an emotional connection with the character here that I didn't feel in that earlier, much more highly regarded film. Part of that was the brilliant short that came in between the two features, Antoine and Colette (which I recommend to everyone and can be viewed here). But I think there is also something to be said for an emerging maturity and confidence in Truffaut's filmmaking. The 400 Blows was a bit of a "fuck you" to Truffaut's detractors, but unlike Godard, who became ever more defiant, Truffaut found what he wanted to do with his life when he began to make movies. He began to search for truth within the medium, whereas Godard became sick of the language of film and desperate to break it out of its mold. A movie like Day for Night, balanced in particular against a movie like Tout Va Bien, is a perfect example of this. Truffaut found truth in cinema. He believes in the art form's ability to express this truth. I think that faith is all over Stolen Kisses, just as it was ever-present in what I consider to be Truffaut's masterpiece, the beautiful and melancholy Jules and Jim. It allows you to fall deeply in love with Doinel, to give yourself over to him.

I'm extremely excited to watch the final two films in this series.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

#35: Diabolique

(Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1954)

Diabolique is one of my favorite thrillers, but I haven't seen in it in a decade. So when I saw it was on watch instantly, and having just seen Clouzot's earlier Le Corbeau, I decided to watch it again and see how it holds up. Unsurprisingly, it's just as intriguing, creepy, and ultimately just plain fun.

As Criterion mentions on their site, Diabolique had an enormous impact on Hitchcock. He actually tried to make the film in English, but instead chose to adapt another of the source material's authors' books D'Entre les mort, as Vertigo, Hitchcock's greatest film and, incidentally, my favorite film of all time. Diabolique was also acknowledged by Hitchcock as a direct influence on Psycho, though I much prefer the former film.

Despite its somewhat far-fetched ending, Diabolique should be required viewing for anyone interested in writing or directing a thriller or horror film. The establishing first half hour is essential to the sense of emotional claustrophobia the characters feel. Each moment of revelation is done in an effortless and understated way, like the amazing scene of the inspector looking over the dead man's clothes, and closing the door behind him to reveal the suit the man had been wearing when he disappeared. The ending doubles back on itself and refuses to let the audience off easy. It's a beautiful lesson in suspense and terror.

Similar to The Vanishing, which had its perfect ending destroyed by a shoddy Hollywood remake (in that case by the very same director who had made the original), Diabolique was remade in the mid-90s by the director of National Lampoon's A Christmas Vacation (and the abysmal Avengers feature) and starred Sharon Stone. Needless to say, the film was doomed from the beginning, but it was made even worse by the extension of the film's plot beyond comprehension let alone satisfaction. Like the atrocious Breathless remake, it should only be viewed by masochists or viewers interested in learning how not to adapt earlier films.

#490: Wings of Desire

(Wim Wenders, 1987)

When people who have seen very few European films think of European films, they usually think, in a generic sense, of Wings of Desire. Poetic, meditative, and - yes - existential, the movie Wim Wenders made after Paris, Texas is one of the great philosophical explorations of cinema. It's also a beautiful movie that, if your mood is right, can burrow its way into your inner-most thoughts.

This was the second time I've seen Wings of Desire, and I barely remembered anything from my first viewing until I started to watch the film, whereupon moments can rushing back as they appeared on screen. I was a bit surprised now at how strongly I had reacted to this movie when I first saw it, at a time in my life when I wasn't nearly as receptive to slower films that focused more on the environment than on any specific plot. But I think that says a lot about the movie. Wings of Desire is certainly unconventional in the tradition narrative sense, which means it has some of the conventional characteristics that define "art-house" movies (mostly for people who do not watch "art-house" movies). But it also has a strangely reassuring tone that allows moments to pass with such ease and beauty that you might be halfway into the film before you realize it has begun.

There has been plenty written about Wings of Desire, and the best of it is about the technical process of the film. This is because, for me, the film is not something that should be deconstructed. It is impossible to imagine describing this film to someone in a way that makes them understand not just what happens in the movie, but what is meant by those moments. So much of what defines the film is separate from its core plot. A movie that you have to watch in order to understand it seem to me to be the most compelling of all films, and by extension all works of art. Experience, after all, is what the angels in the film are so desperate to attain. As Peter Falk tells the newly fallen angel, "That you have to find out for yourself. That's the fun of it."

#217: Tokyo Story

(Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

The first time I watched Tokyo Story, I wasn't in the mood. When it finally made it to the top of my Netflix queue, it arrived at my doorstep, only to languish on the top of my television for a month or two, its two-hour fifteen-minute running time and notorious slow pace silently taunting me. When I finally watched it, I did it more to send it back with something to show for the time it had sat there than because I actually felt ready for the film. Unsurprisingly, it did absolutely nothing for me. The simplicity of the story, the basic (some would say restrained) camera work, and the understated performances all worked against my dwindling interest, and I ended the film still mystified by the film's status as one of the ten greatest movies ever according to the Sight and Sound poll. So, of course, I had to give it another shot.

This second viewing was a much more rewarding one. Ozu is often regarded as the quintessential Japanese director, for the very reasons I had dismissed the film intially. The director cuts minimally, and he places his camera on the ground where characters sit and relate, bow to their elders and crowd around tables to eat meals. Characters speak directly to the camera, and he rarely cuts away from them to a reaction shot before they are finished. The plot is the most basic you could imagine, but you believe in the characters and put your faith in the story because you hope you will be emotionally rewarded.

But, for me, that's where Tokyo Story falls short of many of the movies that are placed in its company. I simply wasn't emotionally impacted by the story in the way other movies have impacted me. Ozu called the film his most melodramatic, and while the movie is by no means over the top or designed entirely as a tearjerker, I would agree with him. Melodramas can be classic films (the Hollywood masterpiece Dodsworth and the nearly perfect A Brief Encounter come to mind), but without that emotional response they are designed to elicit, they often seem less successful, even if the film is impeccably made like this one is.

So I don't yet understand the universal appeal of Tokyo Story. I think I need to go back and watch earlier Ozu films first (and there are a few I have yet to watch for this project) before I can view this one in the proper context. But I can safely say this film will come far short of any list of my favorite films ever made. Of course, that doesn't make it a bad movie by any means, but it's probably my least favorite film that consistently shows up on the Sight and Sound list. Ironically, Tokyo Story is exactly the kind of film that shies away from such grandiose discussions, something that I feel is both a powerful asset for the film and the major barrier between me and a better understanding of the film.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

#502: Revanche

(Götz Spielmann, 2008)

Thirty minutes into this film, I thought to myself, "I have no idea where this film is going to go." What I most loved about Revanche was the fact that I was right, and I think anyone who sees it would agree with me. Yet the movie never seems gimmicky or lost. It is so deliberately constructed that it almost seems as if the people associated with the film were born to make this one movie. In this way, the film is strongly reminiscent of one of my favorite movies of all time, The Vanishing. That film also used a fluke crime (against someone's girlfriend) to delve into deeper philosophical issues that surround the victims and perpetrators of violence. And like Revanche, that movie was made by a seasoned filmmaker who had yet to gain international attention when the film was made.

This film might not be quite as good as that masterpiece, but Revanche might be even more impeccably made. The pacing here might be frustrating for the average viewer expecting a thriller, but it's perfect for the subject matter. And the way Spielmann dwells on certain locations and then doubles back to them at critical moments to underscore the way these characters have been tied together through fate (and their surroundings) is understated and beautiful.

I did have a few problems with the film. One character's decision to sleep with another character didn't seem earned to me, and the final plot twist was much more predictable than the previous two hours. But considering how invested I was in the characters by then - and how much of a ride the film had taken me on - I still had my mouth dropped open in the aftermath of that twist. Revanche is a peaceful thriller, a film that takes all of the conventions and puts them underneath the motivations of these sympathetic characters. The result is the same emotional journey you would get watching a first rate thriller, but it seems all the more intense because you believe in this world, and you care about it. Revanche is an exceptional film.

#86-88: Eisenstein: The Sound Years

(Sergei Eisenstein, 1938-1958)

Eisenstein is probably best known for his silent film The Battleship Potemkin, thus the title of this box set, The Sound Years, which includes three films: Alexander Nevsky, and Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II. I watched the first of these about six years ago, and was pretty disappointed in it. Yes, it was technically accomplished, the score by Prokofiev was great, and the scope was impressive. But it lacked any emotional impact, and I barely got through it.

Which is why it took me this long to watch the follow-up, Ivan the Terrible. Too bad, because these are pretty fucking spectacular, especially the first one. Originally planned as a three part series before Eisenstein, um, died making the third one, the series begins with Ivan rising to the throne and ends in the second part with his rule being solidified after a failed assassination attempt. But the plot doesn't really matter, because it's the visual spectacle that makes these films really memorable. The second is noteworthy for switching to color halfway through its running time, but it's the first film that really establishes itself as an impressive visual statement. Every shot is a work of art, with each character defined by their faces and the framing of their costumes. There are probably four or five shots here that I'll never forget, despite the fact that the pacing of the film seems primitive and the plot moves glacially.

Overall, I don't think the two films are something I'll ever watch again, but I am extremely happy to have seen them.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

#319: The Bad Sleep Well

(Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

One thing first: if you haven't seen this movie and are thinking of watching it, DO NOT READ CRITERION'S DESCRIPTION OF THE MOVIE ON THE DVD. I think it rather pointlessly gives away a key plot point that isn't revealed until halfway into the movie.

A film somewhere between the bureaucratic stalemate of Ikiru and the thrilling social warfare of High and Low, The Bad Sleep Well does not reach the heights of either film. However, it's still a good movie with a unique and fascinating structure. The film's perspective shifts countless times throughout the movie, from a gaggle of pressmen that calls to mind other Greek choruses in Kurosawa's oeuvre to a careless playboy up through a guilty mid-level bagman, driven crazy at the expense of those above and below him. The indirect way in which we meet the main character, played again by Toshiro Mifune (quickly becoming one of my favorite actors ever), is matched only by the way in which we learn of his fate.

In fact, the movie treats all of its characters as if they are already lost, and their only purpose is to expose the hypocrisy of the system they depict. It's a cynical movie, one that rejects many of the most famous principles of Japanese culture. It's also probably the darkest Kurosawa film I've seen, which is saying quite a lot after High and Low and The Lower Depths. Still, I wasn't as invested in the plot as I was watching High and Low. That movie's divided halves were both fascinating and suspenseful in their own ways, while this film's multiple segments were more hit and miss. Still, I would highly recommend the film to anyone who likes Kurosawa's modern films.

Also, this has to be one of the all-time great Criterion covers. So evocative, so memorable, and perfect for the film.